By Jan Susler of People’s Law Office
“The U.S. government categorically denies it has political prisoners in its gulags. It does it primarily to cover up the nefarious, barbaric and even criminal acts and practices it carries out against us and other regular prisoners, and to do it with impunity. It uses the denial as its license to violate our most basic human rights by subjecting us to isolation and sensory deprivation regimens that are nothing less than cruel and unusual punishment. It uses it to hoodwink its own citizens to believe that it doesn’t criminalize dissenters or opponents of its wars and other imperialistic practices. It does it to perpetuate the lie that it is the ultimate defender of freedom, justice, democracy and human rights in the world. And it uses it at times to further criminalize the political prisoners and/or our families and to disconnect us from our families, communities, supporters and the just and noble causes we served and try to continue serving.” -Oscar López Rivera
In the 1960′s and 70′s, the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, like so many other communities in the United States, was resisting the violence and brutality of colonialism, racism, and exploitation. It was a time when anti-colonial, national liberation movements had prevailed throughout the world and anti-imperialist movements were fighting for independence and self-determination. It was a time when young men and women — including Oscar – founded institutions which continue to serve the community today. In Puerto Rico, several armed political organizations formed to protest the presence of United States repressive forces. In 1974 and 1980 the FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation) began. The FALN claimed responsibility for bombings in Chicago and New York to call attention to the colonial case of Puerto Rico and to demand the freedom of the Nationalist prisoners serving long sentences in U.S. prisons for their pro-independence actions in the 1950′s.
Arrest and its aftermath
In 1980, eleven men and women were arrested and later charged with the overtly political charge of seditious conspiracy and were sentenced to terms in prison ranging between 55 and 90 years. In 1981, Oscar was arrested and sentenced by the same judge to a prison term of 55 years, later receiving another 15 year term for conspiracy to escape, a total sentence of 70 years. The U.S. government refused to recognize not having jurisdiction to try him as a criminal, and knowing that he should be remanded to an impartial international tribunal to have his status judged, still proceeded to try him for criminal offenses. As his co-defendants had done, he presented no defense and pursued no appeal.
Oscar, like all Puerto Rican independentistas in U.S. custody, was punished for his beliefs and affiliations, for who he is, not for any act he committed. Oscar was sentenced for seditious conspiracy, he was not accused or convicted of hurting or killing anyone and his sentence was more than five times the average sentence for murder. Conspiracy to escape is a 15 year sentence, apparently so rare that the government doesn’t even maintain statistics on its use, so we are left to compare his sentence to those for actual escape: Oscar’s sentence is more than 8 times longer than the average sentence for escape. Oscar’s imprisonment for more than 31 years has been the longest held Puerto Rican political prisoner in the history of the nation’s independence movement.
Politically punitive treatment
The U.S. was not satisfied with merely incapacitating Oscar all those years, he was labeled as a “notorious and incorrigible criminal”. They transferred Oscar to a maximum security prison and for more then 12 years subjected him to isolation and sensory deprivation, labeling him as a predator and “the worst of the worst.” Held for more than 12 years at the notorious high security U.S. Penitentiary at Marion, Illinois, and its successor. In the Administrative Maximum Unit [ADX] at Florence, Colorado, Oscar writes, some of them ,were subjected to a sleep for 58 days deprivation regimen torture. His sleeping patterns were so badly damaged, he still has serious problems sleeping.”
He was the target of constant harassment, such as cell searches, confiscation of reading and art materials, and placement into “hot cells” where there was purposely placed contraband in order to issue infractions. Extreme, prolonged isolation, is widely condemned as violating international human rights standards. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has declared that isolation or solitary confinement, should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” “indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should also be subject to an absolute prohibition.”
In spite of prison policy permitting bedside visits and attendance at funerals, and ignoring letters of support from ministers and elected officials, prison authorities refused to let Oscar attend the bedsides of his ailing mother, father or older sister, and refused to let him attend any of their funerals. Authorities have refused to let him purchase extra telephone time, limiting contact with his family. Since 1999, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has denied all media requests to interview Oscar, in spite of policy allowing for media interviews of other prisoners. This ban, preventing his voice from reaching his people and his community of supporters, harkens to bans imposed by other governments and regimes once regarded as anti-democratic.
[[[[[Oscar was never formally accused or convicted, related to the people who died in the 1975 explosion, in New York this testimony formed a significant basis for the parole commission’s order denying parole and ordering a reconsideration hearing 15 years hence. The decision to deny parole was immediately denounced by the leaders of Puerto Rico’s political and civil society. Puerto Rico’s non-voting U.S. congressional representative — a supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico In January 2026, when Oscar will be 83 years old.]]]]] — I have no idea what you’re trying to say here, Papi.
Although on the eve of his 70th birthday Oscar admits, “the calendar is not my friend,” his resilience, his commitment, and his love are unflagging: “The last 14 years I have spent in this gulag, Terre Haute. And the harassment continue, Several times my art materials have been confiscated or lost, art work destroyed, family visits stopped, and I still having to report to the jailers every two hours. In those 14 years, in spite of all the provocations and harassment, the jailers haven’t been able to accuse me of committing any infractions. But that doesn’t stop them from doing what they’ve been doing to me for the past 31 years. And I’m fairly certain the other political prisoners continue experiencing the same treatment and conditions. It could be argued that government’s denial of our existence has worked. But our wills and spirits are strong enough to continue resisting and struggling.”