The Real Horror of being a Lifer in a US Maximum Security Penitentiary
by Bernie Dwyer
Radio Havana Cuba
May 7, 2008
Going to visit a loved one in prison is hard enough without having the horrendous experience of hearing gun shots and shouting during the allotted time in the visitation room. Everybody is told to stay where they are while all hell is breaking loose outside in the prison yard.
Media reports over the following week brought home the full horror of the nightmare that unfolded as members of white supremacist gangs taunted African –American inmates on Hitler’s birthday.
This is what happened to Antonio Guerrero’s sister and mother during their last visit to the United States penitentiary in Florence, Colorado where Antonio is serving a life sentence plus eleven years. This situation is not new and has been heralded by several US state legislators.
Maruchy wrote a letter describing the entire event from their perspective as visitors and the relief they felt that Antonio was with them and not in the prison recreation yard at the time [read the letter here in Spanish and English].
The Shocking and Heartbreaking Experience of a Prison Visit
The calm and dignified letter written by Antonio Guerrero’s sister, Maruchy after an aborted visit by her and her mother, Mirta to see Antonio in the United States Penitentiary (USP) Florence, Colorado, brings home to us the anguish and desolation mother and sister must have felt as they left the prison after the incident described in her letter.
In the letter, written to those in solidarity with the Cuban Five, Maruchy describes the horrific incident that occurred while on a routine visit to the prison which has been described by US legislators as a “tinder box waiting to explode”
Antonio’s sister gives us an account of her experience when during a long-awaited and precious visit to Antonio, which involves traveling from Cuba to the United States and staying in motels close to the prison for as long as thirty days, there was a violent incident during which two inmates were shot dead by prison guards and five more injured.
This resulted in an immediate lockdown and Maruchy and Mirta were escorted off the prison environs and had to return to Cuba on the 28th April having been able to visit Tony only nine times out of the twelve that they had planned. Their last visit to him had been a full year ago. One of the most treasured moments for visitor and prisoner in maximum security prisons in the US is the hug that the prisoner can give and receive from visitors on arrival and departure. No other physical contact is allowed during the visit. On this occasion, both mother and son were deprived of that because of the immediate lockdown that was put into place. For Mirta, who is 76 years old, every moment and every contact she has with her son keeps her going until the next visit. To be deprived of that is nearby unbearable.
Media Reports on “racial motivated riot”
The violent incident that erupted on Sunday April 13th at Florence maximum security prison was reported over the following week in media reports including the Colorado Gazette and the Denver Post. These articles give us a glimpse of the shocking reality of what prison life is like for those of the Cuban Five who are serving life sentences in United States penitentiaries, which are overcrowded and understaffed.
According to journalists Howerd Pankratz and Felisa Cardona, in a series of news reports darted 21, 22 and 23 April, on the Denver Post web page, a brawl broke out in the recreation yard that “erupted when a white supremacist prison gangs taunted African –American inmates on Hitler’s birthday”. To quell the riot, guards in the three towers at the maximum security prison fired every round of lethal and non-lethal ammunition resulting in two prisoners being fatally wounded and five others injured.
The Colorado Gazette, under the headline: “2 inmates dead in ‘racially motivated riot in Florence” gave the official prison news release Monday, in which the prison said inmates armed with homemade weapons faced off in a fight officials described as "racially motivated." The official prison press release described the incident thus: "As groups of inmates engaged one another, correctional officers activated the verbal warning system and discharged multiple tactical distraction rounds. In response to continued escalating violence, the tower officers discharged lethal munitions."
The Denver Post published an article the following day quoting Leann La Riva, spokeswoman for USP Florence, who said the fight involved about 150 to 200 of the facility's roughly 950 inmates who were in the recreation yard. She said inmates were armed with homemade weapons, including rocks, sharpened metal, plastic and wood.
La Riva said the five injured inmates were treated at area hospitals. Three remained hospitalized Monday evening. Officials did not release the nature of their injuries or their identities.
U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said policy allows guards to fire upon inmates to prevent escapes, loss of life or serious physical injury and to maintain or restore control of the institution. An investigation is underway.
State legislators and Union Official Warn about Further Incidents in Florence
State representative, Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo, was quoted in the article as saying that her sources in the federal prison system told her black prisoners became enraged Sunday as white supremacist inmates started celebrating the birthday of Adolf Hitler.
Buffie McFadyen is a frequent critic of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. She warned that similar riots could occur because of the explosive mix of dangerous criminals serving long sentences in an overcrowded prison.
Apparently the latest incident at Florence didn’t come as a surprise. McFadyen has repeatedly warned that the penitentiary, where the riot occurred, was about to explode.
McFadyen stated to the local press that although Supermax receives more publicity, the penitentiary is extremely dangerous because of the "domestic gangs" there. She said the gangs, such as the white supremacist gang, are "very organized" and many of their members are "doing life without any opportunity for parole."
Senator Ken Salazar wrote to the US Department of Justice three years ago requesting them to take action on staffing and security at the complex. Following the incident on the 13th April, he wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey renewing his request and asked for an independent report be conducted on security at the Florence campus by the Government Accountability Office. He pointed out in his letter that the incident the most recent incident demonstrates a continued pattern of violence that has been escalating over several years on the Florence campus.
Salazar toured the Florence campus in February 2007 with then-U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to discuss the issues, and he reiterated his concerns in a letter to Gonzales the following month.
Early last year, Ken Shatto, the guard union leader and McFadyen, held a news conference warning of the danger. Shatto said that in February 2007, tower guards were forced to fire lethal and nonlethal rounds to stop inmates from killing one another.
In 2006, the union filed a grievance with the Bureau of Prisons about staffing, and a federal arbitrator found that staffing at Supermax was deficient and that hazards had increased for officers.
The four prisons at the Florence facility include the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, or "Supermax"; the U.S. Penitentiary, where the riot occurred; the medium security Federal Correctional Institution and a minimum security camp.
It’s obvious that the United States government is not dealing with the increasing overcrowding and understaffing in both federal and state prisons. The violence can only get worse and more incidents in which prisoners are shot dead are bound to take place.
Enough is Enough
Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernández and Ramón Labanino are at daily risk in these maximum security prisons. These men are not violent and there is no evidence to show that they took part in any violent act or were in possession of life threatening instruments. Yet they are existing in a dangerous and life threatening environment with little hope of release in the near future. As Maruchy points out in her letter, their best hope is that the civil population of the United States demands their release through their legislature and public pressure. As they approach their tenth year of incarceration, let us redouble by twenty our efforts to bring the case to the public eye with the express aim of getting people involved in the campaign to finally bring about their release.