[Pnews] “This Draconian System of Punishment and Abuse”: Former Political Prisoner Ray Luc Levasseur
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Nov 27 14:54:26 EST 2013
“This Draconian System of Punishment and Abuse”: An Interview with
Former Political Prisoner Ray Luc Levasseur
November 27, 2013 By Aviva Stahl
/The following is a partial transcript of an interview with Ray Luc
Levasseur, a former political prisoner who spent over fifteen years in
solitary confinement, primarily at USP Marion and ADX Florence.
//Levasseur was raised in Maine, born to a working-class family of
Quebecois origin. He became politically radicalized about race and class
at a young age, first after serving a term of duty in Vietnam, and again
after he spent two years in a Tennessee prison. After his release in
1971, Levasseur worked with Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), as
well as a prisoners’ rights group Statewide Correctional Alliance for
Reform (SCAR). In 1975, Levasseur and several others founded the United
Freedom Front (UFF), a revolutionary Marxist organization aimed at
challenging racism, imperialism and corporate greed, primarily by
targeting institutions complicit in South African Apartheid and regime
brutality in Central America. Levasseur and his comrades conducted a
series of robberies and bombings against military facilities, military
contractors and corporations, always forewarning the selected sites in
an effort to avoid casualties. UFF members lived underground for nearly
a decade before eventually facing arrest. /
/After his 1986 conviction for the bombing offenses, Levasseur was sent
into solitary at the Control Unit at USP Marion. In 1994 he was
transferred to the newly built ADX Florence, most likely for refusing to
work for the Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) since it produced
military equipment for the Department of Defense. Levasseur was released
from prison in 2004 and now lives in Maine. He continues to organize
against solitary confinement and support political prisoners on the inside./
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
*AS*: First, I’d like to hear a little bit about the
work SCAR did, because I found it really fascinating and inspiring.
Maybe for people who don’t know as much about working from a prisoner
abolitionist or a prison justice perspective, could we here a little
more about the political perspective you worked from in SCAR?
*RL:* This was back in the early 1970s, where there was
a surge of anti-prison activism in the US at the time, because this was
still in the years of the Attica Rebellion, and George Jackson, there
was a lot of revolts and rebellions throughout the US prison system,
culminating in the massacre of prisoners in Attica. But this set the
stage for people being more interested in alternatives to this draconian
system of punishment and abuse. And there was more about it in the media
– there was an opportunity there to do community organizing that had
some roots in prison work, jail work, working with former prisoners, and
generally criminal justice issues.
And our program with SCAR was based on the early Black Panther Party
programs, what they called “survival programs”. So that instead of just
going into a neighbourhood or a community and spouting a bunch of
radical rhetoric – or rhetoric of any kind – it was like we felt we had
to have some programs that addressed some needs in the community.
For example… there was a problem in poor communities. They have a bail
program in the United States, where if you were accused of an offense,
there was supposed to be a monetary bail placed on you, so that can be
secured and you can be released before your trial. A lot of youngsters
were being held in jail because they couldn’t afford the bail money. If
bail is 50 or 100 dollars and you don’t have it, it might as well be
100,000 dollars, so we started a community bail fund, and we would
screen people that were arrested and put into country jail to try to get
them out trough this bail fund, and then work to see that they had
proper legal representation and get them employment if they needed it,
or other basic needs, and try to work it from that angle, in terms of
keeping them from falling any deeper into the system.
*AS*: Something that really struck me while I was
reading your trial statement
<http://home.earthlink.net/%7Eneoludd/statement.html> from ’89, where
you talked about being inside and fighting the KKK and the prison
administration, and not even being able to tell the difference between
the two at times. I wondering if you could speak about how your time in
prison shaped you as an anti-racist activist.
*RL:*. …[T]here’s a convergence of class and race in the
American prison and it was extraordinarily clear to me when I was in
this Southern prison that first of all – almost everyone that’s in there
is from a working class background, and second, there’s a large
disproportionate number of Black prisoners in there. And to see the
abuses and the awful conditions under which we were kept… Prisons in
this country are like concentration camps for the poor. We are the
surplus value of the capitalist system. They don’t have any need for
us. We’re expendable. You spent too much time hanging on street
corners, and they think you’re potentially a threat to them. They need
the prisons, and the prison gulag in this country has exploded in
population since the prison experience you were referring to back in 1971.
Concurrently, with this direct experience inside, I was doing a
tremendous amount of reading on my own, and talking to other prisoners.
So my political ideas were being further formulated, based on that
experience. And the reading and studying that I was doing – I read
Marx, I read Lenin, I read Ho Chi Minh, I read Che Guevara, I read
anthologies of labour history, feminist history. And I was trying to
come up with an alternative vision of society based on historically what
had happened after that point, and this was in the wake of major
anti-colonial struggle around the world.
You don’t see this a lot today. I find that in a lot of activists
there’s a lack of vision of what’s possible. But back then, a lot more
seemed possible to more people…
*AS*: I wanted to talk to you a bit about your time in
prison in the 80s and the 90s. First, could you talk a bit about your
time in Marion – your most vivid memories, or anything else you’d like
*RL:* Well, I was in Marion almost five years, and at
the time that I was there, it was the government’s most extremely
punitive prison that kept you in your cell 22 ½ hour a day, basically
solitary confinement. Marion was never designed with that in mind, but
that’s ultimately what it was used for. The physical structure – it was
not initially built for extreme isolation.
So after I’d been in there for almost five years, they built a new
scheme, the federal government. They build a new prison from the ground
up that, from the time the first brick was put down, it was physically
designed for extreme isolation. That was ADX, that’s what they’re using
as supermax today. And so when ADX was completed, those of us in
Marion were the very first prisoners sent to ADX.
*AS*: And what were your first impressions of Florence
were when you were transferred there, after being at Marion?
*RL: *Would you like me to read you something I just wrote? I’ll just
read an excerpt — as part of my writing a section on Marion and ADX, and
I just finished, this is my second draft….
So the section I’m going to read to you starts up from the day I arrived
at ADX…/[Levasseur’s description of life inside ADX Florence has been
posted separately as a Voices from Solitary, and is available here
*AS*: And when you were in Marion or ADX, around all of
that, what tactics did you use to stay as safe or as sane as you could?
*RL:* First of all, solitary confinement does not
respect any ideology, or any idealism, religion. It doesn’t respect any
of that because it doesn’t respect a person’s basic humanity. It’s
designed to basically erode a person’s sense of worth as a human being.
And to be a healthy functioning human being. So whoever’s in that
situation, there is no immunity. It’s going to affect different people
in different ways. My position is that nobody should be subjected to
long-term solitary confinement – its anti-human. But, there are certain
people that are more vulnerable than others to its effects….
…The first thing [that helped me stay sane] is knowing why I was in
prison. I think if I had gone to prison for stealing or slinging drugs,
I think it would have had even more of negative impact on me. If I had
been in that situation for doing something strictly for my own benefit
or profit. But I had come off a commitment and a sacrifice where I was
part of a group that was challenging, trying to expose the criminal
activity of the United States government, and to bring that to the
public’s attention, and to try to be part of a larger movement to bring
an end to these crimes…
I always kept in mind why I was there, I felt like people had questioned
my tactics, but they can’t question our hearts, that we felt we were on
the right side of history, no matter if we lost this battle, we were
fighting for the people that mattered most…
… So, I think that was a big factor right there. When I got to Marion a
good friend of mine wrote to me and he said, “alright, now you no longer
have access to all the militant tools in your political toolkit you have
to write”. I did a lot of writing when I was on the inside. I stayed as
politically engaged as I could.
I think that my political identity and my political life – that was a
big part. It’s a political identity, not a criminal identity. And the
more I wrote, the more I got published, mainly essays and some
collections, the more those circulated, the more people wrote to me, the
more they wrote to me the more correspondence I had, I was dialoguing
with activists all over the country, essentially. They couldn’t visit
me, but at least I could write…
*AS*: When you heard the ECHR [European Court of Human
Rights] ruling about Florence
tell me how you felt about the ruling itself. Whether you were
surprised, and also in the judgement, how they talked about the
“step-down” program meaning that isolation wasn’t indefinite, or that
isolation wasn’t complete because prisoners were able to shout through
the rafters, all of that.
*RL:* ADX opened in 1984 and there were people there
like me, who arrived at the beginning of it. Those people are still
there. Not all of them, no, but I know individuals who have never gotten
out of it, from the time it opened up. ’94 is… 18 years ago. And they
did the same thing at Marion. The program in terms of how you can get
out of there is so arbitrarily instituted that for any and no reason
they can just keep you there…
And as far as the ruling goes, was I surprised? I wasn’t surprised by
the ruling. I mean, it’s the Europeans. They’re not noted for their
humanity. Obviously the prison policies in a number of European states
are much better than in the American prison system, there’s no doubt
about that. But it didn’t surprise me because I think the US, the power
of the United States government reaches into every other country on this
globe, and extrapolate that into their institutions, their influence is
What I took away from [the ruling] was essentially that the European
Court [the ECHR] took every affidavit submitted by the Federal Bureau of
Prisons in this country saying, “there’s nothing wrong with ADX or the
way we implement long-term solitary confinement”. They took every one of
those affidavits and credited them, completely, without question… Which
is what you see the courts in this country do. And [the ECHR]
discredited, basically, anything that came from a prisoner or a critic
or a human rights organization about the policies and practices at ADX.
*AS*: You were transferred out of ADX into the general
population in a prison in Georgia. What was it like to go into general
*RL:* It was challenging for a couple of reasons. One
that was when I got there, to Atlanta Georgia, which is a maximum
security prison, but it’s what you call “open population”, people have
jobs, recreation yard, some educational activities, you go to a mess
hall to eat, but it’s still maximum security.
The first was that they wouldn’t let me into [general] population, they
kept me in solitary, what you call the hole, sometimes they’re called
special management units – segregation units, essentially….[But] after
months of pressuring and lobbying from people outside, they finally
relented and let me into the regular part of the prison.
And it was clear, right away, even from the other prisoners, one look at
me and they know that I came from ADX, because I was totally wired. I
was hard wired for – I wasn’t used to being around all these other men.
I wasn’t used to being around everybody moving at one time to go to the
mess hall, and I’d get into the mess hall and the noise level… in a
place like ADX your senses start to constrict, because that’s the
purpose of a boxcar cell and the whole isolation regime, is to reduce
your senses to the absolute lowest common denominator, and between the
pressure of isolation and your own withdrawing senses… then you get
into a regular prison, and all those things – sight, smell, sound,
movement… it all grates at you. You’re not prepared for it. It’s like,
my head was on a swivel…
*AS: *And did that just take time to adjust to?
*RL: *Yeah, that takes time. All you’re doing is adjusting to a maximum
security prison! But when I got out, mind you later, I had to make
significantly more adjustments, because behind of that I had years of
being in Marion and ADX and various segregation units. The residue of
that never completely leaves you, it never does, and it never will.
I would defy anybody who spent years in supermax cell to say that it had
absolutely no effect on them. Everyone comes out scarred or burned to
some degree – it’s a question of degrees and how that meshes with the
individual, and how that individual carries it to the outside world.
*AS: *My last question – I read in Becky Thompson’s book
that the first time you got out of prison, you really saw the importance
of having prisoners be key leaders in social movements, and the
importance of engaging in solidarity with prisoners. I was hoping you
could just talk a little bit about your experiences of solidarity – your
perspective as someone who’s engaged in work both from the outside and
from the inside….
*RL: *When I first got out of prison in was in the early 1970s, and it
was a much different political climate then.* *I’m a believer in
self-determination – that communities of people that are oppressed, that
are being exploited, the leadership and direction for that [these
political struggles] – change – should come from those people.
..And that’s why I think with Muslim prisoners it’s necessary that
people from the Muslim community get more directly involved in
supporting these prisoners and around issues related to the whole
spectre of federal agents and others saturating Muslim communities and
infiltrating and spying and all of this. Like I said the leadership and
direction has to come out of those communities.
As far as supporting people on the inside, there’s a lot of things to
do… One of the ways I survived was all that people that wrote to me –
sent me cards, sent me books, sent me photographs, stayed in consistent
contact with me through letters. And I did a speaking gig in some
college in Boston about a month ago and I mentioned that when I was at
ADX, I had received a letter out of nowhere from a Vietnam vet I didn’t
know. He was in Canada at the time and he had put a maple leaf that
was changing colour into the letter. Now they don’t allow things like
that at ADX, they don’t allow – you don’t see a blade of grass in ADX.
I got a letter with a leaf in there, they’ll call it a “nuisance item”,
they’ll remove it as contraband but somehow, some way the mail room
missed this leaf, and I got it in my cell and it was red and orange and
yellow, it was changing colours. And the fact that I can talk about it
twenty years later – that’s something that no matter how lonely I got, I
know that I’m not alone. Because there’s people like that that remember
you. They found that in a cell search a few days later, they found that
leaf – I couldn’t hide it well enough, and they took it. But that was
an important strand in the web of humanity that reached out to me and
that I reached out to, that enabled me to get through those days and
weeks and months and years in there.
So I don’t think anything should be thought of as too trivial or too
small. That kind of human contact is essential to get yourself through
a dehumanizing situation. Not just to survive it, but to survive it
with your own humanity intact…
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