The Circle Game

Oscar Lopez Rivera knew what he had to do to get out of the toughest penitentiary in the entire federal system. He had to endure 22-hour-a-day solitary confinement, demonstrate "positive adjustment," follow the rules--in short, get with the "carrot-and-stick" program. If he behaved, he was told, he could earn his way out of the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum--better known as ADX, located two miles outside of Florence--and receive a transfer to a less restrictive prison.

Lopez Rivera did what was expected of him, and last month he became one of the first graduates of ADX, having completed what was supposed to be a three-year program in a mere 23 months. But his carrot turned out to be another stick, and Lopez Rivera got the short end of it. While other graduates were sent elsewhere, he was shipped to the notorious federal penitentiary at Marion, Illinois--a prison that's been in a state of lockdown since 1983.

Bureau of Prisons officials decline to discuss the reasons for Lopez Rivera's transfer to Marion, which replaced Alcatraz as the BOP's highest-security pen in the 1960s. Lopez Rivera spent eight years there before the high-tech ADX, which was supposed to assume Marion's mission of housing the federal system's most dangerous felons, opened in 1994. His return to Marion--and to a routine that offers even fewer privileges than he had at ADX--raises questions about the mission of both institutions and the feds' use of control-unit prisons to deal with their most politically charged cases.

A Puerto Rican nationalist serving 55 years for seditious conspiracy, Lopez Rivera has been on a downward journey through the BOP since his 1981 arrest. The government considers him to be one of the leaders of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN), a group linked to more than a hundred bombings and five deaths in the Seventies. Although he has denied any personal involvement in the bombing fatalities, Lopez Rivera describes himself as a "colonial subject" and a prisoner of war. Two alleged escape attempts landed him at Marion and eventually at ADX, but his outside supporters insist the escape charges were fabricated to keep him isolated in the bowels of the federal prison system ("End of the Line," July 12, 1995).

"It's worse now [at Marion] than when I was here before," Lopez Rivera says. In the final months of his stay at ADX, he notes, he was allowed to leave his cell for meals and work or visits to the commissary. In his Marion "general population unit," he's locked down 22 hours a day, is allowed only a few hours of recreation a week in "a small cage with a cement floor," and never leaves his cell except in handcuffs--even for medical treatment.

"It's definitely a punitive move," he says of the transfer. "Basically, what they're trying to do is to rob the prisoner of his dignity through absolute control and sensory deprivation. Ever since I arrived in the system, I've been labeled a notorious and incorrigible criminal, and that is enough for them to do whatever they feel like doing."

When he arrived at the new federal supermax in Florence, Lopez Rivera was told he'd have an opportunity to earn his way out of solitary confinement and into a series of less restrictive "stepdown units." He says he followed the program, had no disciplinary infractions and worked in a clerical position at the complex's prison industry until he was approved for transfer.

"I was told that I could ask to be sent to any prison that met the requirements of the program," Lopez Rivera explains, "and I chose Lewisburg," a high-security prison in Pennsylvania. Told by an associate warden that his transfer to Lewisburg had been approved, he didn't learn that he was actually being sent back to Marion until he was in transit. He was the only one of thirteen ADX graduates, he adds, to be assigned to Marion.

A spokeswoman for Marion says she has no information on why Lopez Rivera was sent there. ADX spokesman Louis Winn says the decision would have been made at the BOP's regional office. "The inmate can definitely request to go to a particular institution, but a number of factors are taken into consideration," Winn says. "Marion's mission has changed. It's actually a less secure facility than the ADX, so conceivably he should have more privileges."

BOP regional spokeswoman Carol Holinka declines to provide specifics on Lopez Rivera's case but notes that "security needs" are a factor in all BOP placement decisions. "We look at safety and security for all involved," she says.

But Chicago attorney Jan Susler says the BOP is diverging from its own policies--first by accelerating the program for a select few, then by denying Lopez Rivera the same reward promised to other ADX graduates. Sending him back to Marion, she says, is a way of further punishing him for his long-held political beliefs and presents little incentive for similarly situated prisoners to earn their way out.

"What they're doing with Oscar is vicious and intentional," says Susler, who represents Lopez Rivera and other imprisoned Puerto Rican independientistas. "They perceive him as a leader of one of the clandestine organizations for the independence of Puerto Rico. I think the Bureau of Prisons feels it hasn't done its job; they were supposed to mess these people up more than they've been able to. If they can break Oscar, it would set an example."

The federal government has consistently denied trying to isolate inmates on the basis of their political beliefs--but Lopez Rivera, Susler believes, is one of a handful of prisoners whose top-security status owes more to the nature of their crimes than it does to their behavior within the system. "You can't say there are no political prisoners in the United States and then single him out and treat him like this," she contends. "If they really think their program works, then he shouldn't be an exception."

Technically, Marion is no longer the most restrictive prison in the federal system. But prison activists claim that conditions there have changed little since the murder of two guards thirteen years ago resulted in a lockdown of the entire penitentiary and ongoing complaints about the alleged brutal treatment of inmates. Lopez Rivera says his freedom of movement is even more limited than it was during his previous stay and that he prefers ADX overall. "It's hard to understand the adversarial relationship between prisoner and staff that exists here," he says.

Marion spokeswoman Tereser Banks says the prison has revised its program and that inmates can now earn their way out in two years rather than three. But the situation poses a special Catch-22 for Lopez Rivera; one reason his previous trip to Marion lasted eight years was his refusal to work for the federal UNICOR operation at the prison, which assembles coaxial cables for the military.

"I will not work in Marion," Lopez Rivera vows. "Everything made here is for the military. I guess I won't be leaving anytime soon."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast