Oscar Lopez Rivera arrived at ADX in January. He says his first two months there were the hardest time he's ever done.
At first he was aware of only three other prisoners on his tier; two of them he recognized from Marion. Both had histories of mental problems. One sang and shouted obscenities for hours every morning. The other soon disappeared into segregation.
The dry air gave Lopez Rivera nosebleeds. Seemingly small grievances--the guards' refusal to allow him small scissors to trim his nosehairs or a brush to clean the toilet--loomed large in his mind. But the worst was the nightly routine of being awakened repeatedly, relentlessly, by the guards making their rounds.
"I haven't experienced anything like that since I was in Vietnam," he says. "There were counts every half hour, people knocking on the door and putting a flashlight in your eyes. You could hear the doors sliding back and forth, guys talking on their radios, all sorts of noise."
After weeks of scant sleep, it became difficult to concentrate. He'd try to read only to find himself drifting, unable to absorb a thing. He felt flushed, or so chilled that he'd wrap himself in blankets in the middle of the day.
In February a network of prison activists, including a support group for Puerto Rican independentistas like Lopez Rivera, launched a phone-in campaign to protest the rousting of unconscious prisoners. The nightly counts have since slacked off. Vanyur says the problem wasn't the frequent rounds--which were conducted hourly, not every half hour, he insists--but the overall noise level, and he says that guards have since learned to operate the doors more quietly.
"When we opened, we took a very hard stance in terms of security measures," he says. "Once we realized it was having an impact on the quality of life of the inmates, we made substantial changes."
Because of his record of more than five years of good behavior within BOP, Lopez Rivera was recently moved to ADX's intermediate unit--the first of three "step-down units" that inmates must go through before they're allowed to transfer to another prison. He spends more time outside of his cell now and even eats with other prisoners on the range. "It's a big difference," he admits. "We're social beings, and the need for conversation is crucial."
At the same time, the 52-year-old activist is guarded about his prospects for completing the program. He's been up and down the federal system for years--along with fourteen other independentistas, men and women whose cause has largely been buried inside prison walls.
The government describes Lopez Rivera as one of the leaders of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN), a Puerto Rican group linked to more than a hundred bombings and five deaths in the Seventies. Lopez Rivera will neither confirm nor deny his affiliation with FALN and disowns any personal involvement in the bombing deaths. At the same time, he admits that his experiences in Vietnam and as a community organizer in Chicago drew him to the Puerto Rican independence movement, and he defends his right, "as a colonial subject," to attempt to overthrow United States rule over his native island.
"By international law, a colonized people has the right to fight against colonialism by any means necessary, including the use of force," he says.
Like most of the FALN defendants, Lopez Rivera considers himself a prisoner of war--a stance that has had drastic consequences for his journey through the federal prison system. "When we go to trial, we don't defend ourselves," he explains, "so, automatically, we get the maximum sentence on every charge we face."
Arrested in 1981 and sentenced to 55 years for seditious conspiracy, Lopez Rivera was shipped to Leavenworth. He'd been there only a couple of weeks, he says, when prison officials told him he was "Marion material." "They were looking for an excuse to send me to Marion," he says, "and they found it."
The "excuse," as he puts it, turned out to be an alleged escape plot involving guns, explosives and a helicopter. Lopez Rivera insists there was no helicopter and no plot, only an informer's fabrications. "I was more naive than I should have been," he says. "No informer can say I told him, `Let's escape,' but if the government wants to make a conspiracy, they can do it. You can't shake informers loose."
The incident tacked another fifteen years onto his sentence and landed him at Marion. If he had any hopes of avoiding the trip to ADX, they disappeared in 1990, when a guard shook down his cell and emerged with a handcuff key. At the time, Lopez Rivera was in a "transitional unit," within months of being moved to a lower-security prison; his supporters consider the entire affair to be another setup. "After working his way through the system, that would have been the stupidest thing Oscar could have done," says Boulder activist Corinne.