Out of Control: Chapter 18–On the Road, 1990
In early 1990, while we were engaged in the water campaign, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) announced its decision to open a new prison in Florence, Colorado. In July the BOP broke ground on the $150 million project. It would be a giant prison complex, 600 acres in a small town 60 miles west of Colorado Springs, with four different levels of security units. The minimum and medium security units of a thousand beds would open in 1992. The high security facility and the even higher security “administrative maximum” prison—Marion’s replacement—would open in 1993, each with 550 beds.
The BOP’s alleged motivation for creating this “Ad Max” within a multi-million dollar complex in the middle of nowhere was that Marion was imperfect because it had not been built as a control unit prison. In contrast, we saw the new prison as an even greater opportunity for evil, a high-tech version of Marion. Many skeptics thought this was an effort to move the BOP’s flagship torture chamber further away from Chicago, the center of its greatest opposition.
CEML decided to co-sponsor, along with the National Committee, an organizer’s conference, to develop a national campaign to prevent the new and more perfectly evil Marion from opening in Florence. Preparation for the conference included mailings, several presentations at Chicago events, and the publication of a pamphlet, “Resistance Won’t Stop,” a collection of comments by Marion prisoners about the proposed prison at Florence. We also felt it was important to have a pre-conference fact-finding and coalition-building trip to Colorado.
In late October, Steve, Mariel, and Tim drove the 20 or so hours each way to Colorado. Before their leaving, we sent letters and information packages to all reporters in Colorado who had written articles about the planned prison, told them about the trip, and asked to meet with them. The response was substantial. Some reporters even called Chicago and conducted interviews before the three people hit the road.
After driving through the night, the three arrived in Colorado Springs mid-Thursday and met with a small group of friends and a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. CBS then conducted an interview which aired in Denver as the lead story that evening.
The evening was spent with the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild where the 20/20 segment about Marion was shown, and discussion ensued about the conditions at Marion and what that might mean for a new prison in Florence.
The following morning the trio set off for Florence and the adjacent Cañon City. It was a startling place, home to at least six state prisons, including a state control unit prison. After meeting with kind and helpful friends, the reporter from the Cañon City Daily Record interviewed the three and the headline would be: “Group vows to stop FBP (Federal Bureau of Prisons) penitentiary.”
Next stop was a trip to look over the prison site itself. The three reported: We were staggered by what we saw. One follows directions and signs towards the prison and then makes a turn onto an unmarked road. After that, there is nothing; the area is literally barren. The three of us imagined that this must be what the surface of the moon is like. After driving a couple of miles more we located the site and watched, in pain, as the bulldozers cleared the land for what might become the prison that will house those the Bureau of Prisons wishes to destroy. (Walkin’ Steel, v. 1, no. 1, p. 3.
The following day were press conferences and community meetings in both Pueblo and Denver, and then time for a quick drive up into the spectacular mountains, a real treat for the Illinois “flatlanders.” After an exciting Saturday community meeting, they packed up and drove through the night, arriving in Chicago early Sunday evening. Monday morning they’d be back at their day jobs.
Upon their return, they reported on the difficulties involved in building support to challenge the prison. The political climate in Cañon City and Florence seemed overwhelmingly in favor of this institution that we saw as a torture chamber. According to an article in a Denver area publication, Westword, the county had raised $160,000 to purchase the 600-acre site. Four hundred locals had gathered for the ground-breaking. T-shirts with a map of the site were sold out at $7.99.
In July the BOP hosted a housewarming barbecue and 1,000 local residents attended. A job fair at Florence High School drew hundreds more. Ten years ago when new prisons were proposed, the general climate was often to run prison authorities out of town. Now, due to increasing economic hardship, new prisons were welcomed with open arms. With unemployment in the area at 17%, it was estimated that this new prison complex would generate 1,000 temporary jobs and 750 to 900 permanent jobs, with an annual payroll totaling $44 million.
A former inmate of Marion was quoted in Westword as saying, “Yes, the people of Florence have problems with jobs, but what they should do is pressure the government for another kind of industry, one that is less willing to make money from people’s suffering. The government is sneaky. They’re buying Florence’s loyalty.” Steve was quoted in the same article: “It’s equivalent to working on a slave ship. I would say to the people of Florence that I understand your economic dilemma, but you’ve made a wrong moral choice. How different are they from the people who worked on the slave ships?”
In November we held our annual conference in Chicago, this time on the 7th anniversary of the lockdown. Billed as an organizer’s conference, the focus would be to try to stop the new proposed federal prison in Colorado. Attendees came from as far away as New York, Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri, and Canada.
The afternoon workshops were primarily working strategy sessions. Erica Thompson of CEML moderated the first workshop, entitled “Organizing in Opposition to Control Unit Prisons.” The first two speakers were Michael Deutsch and Jan Susler, lawyers with the People’s Law Office in Chicago. Michael was one of the first non-prisoners to join the fight against Marion in the 1970s and spoke about the history of control units and of organizing around Marion. He emphasized the need to work in a broad number of sectors, to develop a cadre of dedicated workers, and to rely on prisoners and their families for leadership, ideas, and guidance.
Jan read from the federal court decision that upheld the constitutionality of the lockdown—even though it said that the conditions are “sordid” and “horrible.” She maintained that “we don’t have to accept it because some court of white men says it is legal.”
The third speaker, Jaime Delgado, a Puerto Rican independentista and recently released political prisoner, explained that many prisons have isolation cells and control units, and that the psychological torture of sensory deprivation also occurs in these prisons. He related how he felt energized and empowered when, as a prisoner in isolation, he heard people outside demonstrating on his behalf.
Another former political prisoner, Safiya Bukhari-Alston, spoke about her experiences serving eight years in prison while suffering from serious health problems, and reminded us that we must continue to communicate with and support those inside. That was always her message. Safiya came out of prison as she went in, a powerhouse ready to do everything she possibly could for those political prisoners still inside. She organized her life so she could visit about 100 prisoners and follow up by building support for them on the outside.
The second workshop addressed what we knew about Florence and was conducted by Mariel Nanasi and Tim Lohraff, two of the CEML members who had traveled there. Mariel discussed the history and what was known about the planned maximum security prison. She related that cells would probably have solid front doors on small ranges, and each cell may have its own recreation area to further isolate prisoners.
Tim discussed possible legal strategies to stop Florence that focused primarily on environmental issues: the nearby contamination by the Cotter Mill Company which had polluted the small town of Lincoln Park (about five miles from the proposed prison site) with radioactive wastes and was on the Superfund priority cleanup list. He discussed specific federal environmental statutes on which a lawsuit might be based, stressing that coalition-building and networking with progressive environmental and legal groups was the key to any success in the legal area.
Steve moderated the third workshop to discuss the possibility of organizing a national campaign to stop Florence. What form might it take? What would be its goals and strategies? How would we coordinate? While everyone agreed that more thought needed to be given to logistical problems before starting such a coalition, phone numbers and addresses were exchanged so informal cooperation could begin.
I moderated the evening session and introduced the speakers. The evening emerged as a very energetic pep rally where we heard from Safiya Bukhari-Alston of the Black liberation movement, Bob Robideau of the American Indian Movement, and, as keynote speaker, Puerto Rican Nationalist Rafael Cancel Miranda. All three had been political prisoners.
Rafael, having served 25 years in prison, many of them at Marion, for his fight for Puerto Rican independence, personified what we had been saying all along, that a prime function of Marion was to control dissidents, as opposed to the BOP’s claim that it was to contain violent prisoners. In his speech that evening he explained:
When I went into prison, they gave me a very big honor. They didn’t like me. They sent me straight to Alcatraz, straight from court. I went to Alcatraz 24 years old. I came out when I was 30 years old.
Then I went to Leavenworth. They put me in isolation in Leavenworth for five months because they said I led a strike. By that time I was already locked up for 16 years. If after 16 years I was good enough, strong enough, to still organize a strike, then Alcatraz did nothing to me. Because of that strike they sent me as a punishment to Marion. They charged me with being the leader of the strike.
When I went to Marion they sent me straight to the hole (solitary confinement). They told me they sent me to Marion because I had too many friends. Can you imagine them punishing someone for having too many friends?
At Marion we held another strike and for some reason they charged me again for being a leader of the strike and put me in solitary. That was the time, right there and then, when they first created the Control Unit. That happened in 1972. It was just solitary confinement at first, but they transformed it into a Control Unit, the Control Unit that we know today but really not as bad as it is today. I spent 18 months in the Control Unit. Within that space of time many people killed themselves there. Many also went crazy. They used to give prolixin, thorazine and valium. Once you get hooked into that, forget it; you’re not your own man or woman any more. I was in the Control Unit where Oscar is today.
When the prolixin and the thorazine and the valium didn’t work, they beat you. They used the big stick. It was common for them to beat a prisoner in the Control Unit and then say he killed himself. Quite a few prisoners killed themselves like that… [Rafael challenged us to continue the work:] We have confidence; we are powerful. We can change anything. The only way we can’t, is to do nothing… When I’m with you, you all are my people. I feel one with you. Thank you very much and keep on.
The 150 people who were present gave Rafael a standing ovation for his fiery and moving speech that concluded the conference. The Puerto Rican newspaper, La Patria Radical (LPR), reported that “the evening rally stirred us all. It felt like coming home after a long and hard day’s work to sit by a fire that warms and fills us with light and forever engages us with its endless and boundless possibilities.” (LPR, Dec. 1990, p. 2)
After a huge expenditure of human resources, we had won a small victory in the battle around the water, but could we really prevent the opening of the new prison so far away from home? I was skeptical. By now I was a couple of years shy of 50 and had been involved in peace and justice work for about 30 years. There were, however, a number of new members of the Committee, including several young attorneys and law students, with fresh ideas and energy. We would see what could happen.