On the Road to Jericho '98

The Tortures of Lexington 1986-88

Revolutionary Worker #947, March 8, 1998

In 1986, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) opened a special new "high security unit" for women within the federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. Officially it was designed for "high security"--to successfully control the "most dangerous" prisoners. But in fact it was an experiment coordinated from the highest level of the BOP to develop techniques to break the prisoners. The history of this Lexington Unit is a story of deliberate torture. It reveals that the U.S. government is lying when it denies that it holds and punishes people for their political beliefs. And it is a story of intense resistance, as the women held there refused to renounce their political beliefs or become government informants--despite all the pressures of this sinister unit.

To Isolate and Break Women Political Prisoners

"What put us in jail in the first place is that we made a commitment to say it's possible to resist the strongest state in the world."

Susan Rosenberg, political prisoner

Three of the five women moved into the Lexington Unit were political prisoners.

Alejandrina Torres--a longtime fighter for Puerto Rican liberation and a teacher at a Puerto Rican alternative high school in Chicago--was arrested in 1983 and sentenced to 35 years for "seditious conspiracy" and other charges. Seditious conspiracy means plotting to wage armed struggle against the U.S. government. Alejandrina was accused of being a member of FALN which was waging a campaign of armed attacks on symbols of U.S. domination in Puerto Rico. She is one of several Puerto Rican prisoners of war held within the U.S. prison system. (See RW No. 940 for the story of "The Puerto Rican Independentistas.")

Silvia Baraldini is an Italian citizen who became a militant supporter of the Black Liberation struggle while attending college in the U.S. She was arrested in 1982 walking down the street and accused of helping Black revolutionary Assata Shakur after Assata escaped from prison. Silvia received a 40-year sentence under the federal RICO "anti-racketeering" law for allegedly belonging to "corrupt organizations" (by which they meant underground radical movements). Three years were added to her sentence when she refused to testify at a grand jury investigation of the Puerto Rican independence movement.

Susan Rosenberg was arrested in 1984 and sentenced to 58 years for possession of false identification papers, explosives and other weapons. She was accused of being part of the Revolutionary Action Task Force (RATF) that was attempting armed struggle against the U.S. government. Her sentence is the longest the U.S. has ever given for a weapons charge.

J. Michael Quinlan, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, openly argued that revolutionary political prisoners should be considered for special punishment: "A prisoner's past or present affiliation, association, or membership in an organization which has been documented as being involved with acts of violence, attempts to disrupt or overthrow the government of the United States, or whose published ideology includes advocating law violations in order to `free' prisoners is a factor considered by our staff in assessing the security needs of any inmate."

And this is exactly what happened: The three political prisoners were moved into a special isolated dungeon. They were officially labeled "high risk," though none of them had been convicted of injuring anyone or ever accused of hurting anyone inside prison. Lexington was clearly and openly a special experiment for political prisoners--a plan to isolate, control and break them.

An Experiment in Living Death

"Imagine a world without color; any color. Only bright, high gloss white/beige--on the walls, floors, ceilings, everywhere one looks. Even the uniforms (ludicrous culottes selected for their `feminine' look) are bleached-out beige. No personal clothing or jewelry are permitted. Next, imagine a world without daylight, without fresh air. Only artificial fluorescent lights--often on all of the time; the windows are grilled over with metal grillwork, designed to preclude any vision of what it reveals of the outside world. Artificial air, either too hot or too cold, but never real."

W. Reuben and C. Norman,
Nation magazine #244, 1987

"The high-security unit is living death."

Susan Rosenberg, political prisoner
at Lexington

Observers of Lexington were instantly hit by the starkness of this special unit of 16 isolation cells, sealed off in a basement from the other prisoners of Lexington. Private decorations were forbidden in the cells. Prisoners were forced to dress and look alike. The unit had uniform stark colorless walls and constant glaring artificial lights 24 hours a day. It was maddening and deliberately so. Never a blade of grass, never a sense of what time of day it was, or season of the year, never a breath of the outside. It was deliberate "sensory deprivation"--designed to create physical depression and a sense of isolation.

Contact with the outside world was sharply restricted: Visitations were limited. The definition of "immediate family" was so narrow that one woman was forbidden to see her grandchildren. Attorneys and families were harassed and humiliated. The location of the prison was so far from the homes of the prisoners that only two were able to have family visit on any regular basis. Two women in the unit never had any visits at all.

Reading material was tightly controlled and limited. Guards were instructed not to talk casually with prisoners, and every remark was logged by guards in a journal.

Silvia Baraldini pointed out, "Small group isolation is a form of torture anywhere else in the world." Extreme isolation was intended to develop hostilities between the prisoners. One woman said "They're trying to kill us. But they'd rather we kill ourselves."

The prison authorities also organized direct physical abuse of the women prisoners, intended to create a sense of powerlessness and the stress of permanently facing assault. There were frequent and arbitrary violent cavity searches which would be considered rape by any standards. To "qualify" for a brief outdoor exercise, the women had to submit to strip searches--which several found so humiliating that they refused, and so were denied any exercise. One woman said, "I feel violated every minute of the day."

There were many other rules that were deliberately arbitrary and degrading. The women prisoners faced 24-hour video surveillance by hostile male guards--including in the showers and on the toilet. They were forced to request sanitary napkins one at a time from male guards who mocked them loudly. There were periods when the guards experimented with sleep deprivation--waking the prisoners every hour on the hour all night long. When prisoners filed complaints, the guards started waking them every half hour. The women prisoners were ordered to work at tasks that were deliberately boring and insulting--like forcing the prisoners to fold army boxer shorts day after day.

In order to impose a sense of hopelessness and passivity, the prisoners of Lexington were repeatedly told there was no plan to end their imprisonment there. They were told, "You will die here." There was no way of "working your way out" through good behavior. Only one offer was made: Each prisoner was ordered to "change her associations," meaning renounce her revolutionary politics and provide information about her comrades on the outside.

Effect and Resistance

Inevitably, these brutal conditions deeply affected the women prisoners in Lexington. They suffered greatly, and their health deteriorated, in ways typical of torture victims.

Observers said that among these prisoners there were symptoms of claustrophobia, depression, dizziness, daily anxiety attacks, weight loss, and insomnia. One suffered from uncontrollable vomiting and resulting dehydration. All developed eye trouble. Because of the constant lights, they started seeing black spots and "strings" before their eyes. And because they rarely looked at anything more than six feet away, some lost the ability to focus their eyes at a distance.

Silvia developed a cancerous tumor--and because of the outrageous lack of medical attention, it was not diagnosed for over a year. Even after it was discovered and operated on, the authorities refused the follow-up medical treatment she needed. Alejandrina developed serious heart disease from the stress and mistreatment.

However, not one of these prisoners broke down politically in Lexington. They found ways to maintain their unity and consciousness under these extreme conditions. Not one "repented" or went over politically to the oppressors.

Outside resistance grew. Campaigns were launched to expose what was being done. There were court cases demanding that the unit be shut down.

Under mounting pressure, the Lexington Unit was shut down after two years, in 1988. However, on September 8, 1989, the Federal Appeals Court overturned a lower court and ruled that a prisoner's political beliefs and associations would continue to be considered a legitimate basis for placement in special federal "control units."

The System's Expansion of Control Units

"It is a time of the turning of the screw."

Silvia Baraldini, 1998

The closing of Lexington was a major victory for political prisoners and the forces working to support them. But at the same time the authorities moved to greatly expand their use of such HSU "control units."

Lexington was immediately replaced by a new larger "control unit" called Shawnee, within Marianna prison in Florida--which held nine times as many cells as the Lexington experiment. All three political prisoners in Lexington--Torres, Rosenberg and Baraldini--were transferred there--where conditions were intense, if somewhat less brutal than at Lexington.

They have since been held at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. Last December, Silvia's request for parole was turned down, and she was informed that because she has refused to provide information on her political comrades her sentence will not expire for another 10 years.

As Lexington closed, 16 new federal prisons were being built--many of which were scheduled to include new supermax control units. The federal government built a new supermax prison in Florence, Colorado to gather prisoners from throughout the federal prison system for special punishment. The isolation is so strict that prisoners are not even allowed to gather for religious services. Puerto Rican prisoner of war Oscar Lopez of the FALN was incarcerated there in recent years.

Meanwhile, the experiments and methods of Lexington and other federal "control units" have been applied in dozens of new "supermax" units within state prison systems. Political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal is held on death row under cruel conditions in a new supermax prison within the Pennsylvania prison system. Hugo Penell of the San Quentin 6 has been held within California's supermax prison called Pelican Bay SHU.

In 1996 President Clinton signed the Prison Litigation Reform Act that severely restricts the rights of prisoners to file suit in federal courts to challenge prison conditions.

The experience of the women held in Lexington reveals clearly that the U.S. government holds political prisoners and has developed extreme and cruel methods for punishing them and attempting to break their will. The fact that such methods have been spreading throughout the U.S. prison system--at a time when the overall prison population is rising far over one million--shows how the U.S. government intends to threaten and punish whole sections of the population.

But the heroism of the women who survived and defied Lexington stands as a living rebuke to the heartlessness of the enemy.

For more information: See "Through the Wire," a powerful PBS documentary on Lexington produced and directed by Nina Rosenblum, narrated by Susan Sarandon and shot by Haskell Wexler.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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