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Armed and Dangerous

By Raymond Luc Levasseur

When I was transferred to the U.S. penitentiary in Marion, Illinois in December, 1989, Panama was being invaded by U.S. forces. Amidst the wholesale destruction, mass graves, and lies by U.S. politicians and military leaders was an awesome display of American firepower designed to impose its will on yet another Central American nation. Weapons systems from land, sea, and air were utilized, along with the basic M-16 to kill whoever stood in the line of fire. Whether technologically advanced or as simple as a grenade, this war material is made in the U.S.A.--some of it by federal prisoners.

The Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (UNICOR) is one of the manufacturers that supplies military equipment to the bloated U.S. war machine. UNICOR has served this function since 1934 under contract to the War Department, now known euphemistically as the Department of Defense. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) boasts that the slave labor of prisoners, under hazardous conditions, and at an entry level wage of $.23 an hour has and continues to make significant contributions towards supplying the military's needs. It also boasts of using UNICOR to control prisoners within its vastly overcrowded system.

UNICOR's military production ranges from TOW and other missile cables, munitions components, communications equipment, bomb parts, engine overhauls, uniform sewing, etc. In its brochures, the BOP proudly displays photographs of prisoners working hard producing this material. As a Viet Nam veteran, I was particularly struck by a photo of Federal prisoners producing equipment destined for Viet Nam. Unlike most prisoners, I got to see with my own eyes the lethal effect of the end product.

It is the priority of UNICOR to provide for the military's needs, whether it was during the Korean War when 80% of UNICOR sales went to the military, or the Gulf War when prisoners were pressed into overtime. In fact, the military has its own representative on UNICOR's Board of Directors to advise how to better harness prison labor for military purposes.

Being contracted to the War Department means supplying more than just U.S. forces. It means that this military equipment is rerouted by the U.S. to its client states--from Israel to Indonesia--and into the hands of the worlds most degenerate and bloodthirsty regimes. In cases like El Salvador, the supplies were used to kill their own people.

USP-Marion is a control unit prison where abuse of prisoners is well documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Congressional committee hearings, and other sources. In the never ending lockdown there is little to engage the intellect, an abysmal lack of stimulation and recreation, and no work with which to labor. With one exception. The prison administration has designed a scheme whereby prisoners deemed suitable must enter a period of involuntary servitude in the "pre-transfer" unit before approval is granted for transfer to a less brutal prison. It is a scheme the administration exploits to the hilt because they understand that Marion prisoners are desperate to leave its punishment cells, isolation, and tomb-like conditions.

While all federal prisoners are required to work, they are not required to work UNICOR, though 26% do. Most prisoners opt to work in other areas such as food service or maintenance, or pursue the very limited educational or vocational programs available. USP-Marion is the single exception in the Federal prison system because it mandates that prisoners work UNICOR as a condition of transfer. The only work at Marion's UNICOR is military production.

The Bureau of Prisons has parried Freedom of Information Act requests to disclose detailed information about war production at Marion. However, this much is known. UNICOR Marion produces electronics communication cables which it sells to the War Department. These cables are used in various ground vehicles, such as tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers, and production line supervisors have bragged that the cables are used in helicopters. During the Gulf War, the prisoners working UNICOR Marion were compelled to do overtime production. Whatever its finite specifics, the military applications of the electronics cables is essential to many weapons systems and platforms.

Marion's operation is an extension of a larger operation at the federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky, so it's production and profit figures are not individually computed. In a typical year, Lexington fills 800-1200 orders for the military, totaling $12 million.

In modern warfare, the term "military hardware" encompasses advanced weapons systems in which electronics often provide a more destructive function than the soldier's rifle. During the U.S. war on Iraq, for example, bombardment by electronically-enhanced munitions on water treatment plants spread a bacteriological assault on all those people whose lives depended on that water. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, 46,900 Iraqi children died in the first seven months of 1991 as a result of U.S. attacks on the country's infrastructure. Besides pilot and gunners who never see their victims, what's used to coordinate and propel mass destruction are the essential components of war, right down to the vital electronics and communications cables.

Military equipment is not produced in a vacuum. Those prisoners who produced material during the Viet Nam War certainly knew there was a war raging. U.S. military conquests, past and present, are well documented. Perhaps less well known, though equally significant and well documented, is the Government's diversion of weapons and military equipment to the serial killers disguised as heads of state. UNICOR's military production is part of an extensive pipeline that feeds the world's largest weapon exporter.

The U.S. has made much of China's use of prison labor for textile and other exports to the U.S. market. This is said to be a human rights abuse (i.e., that it cuts into the profits of U.S. corporations). The latest controversy revolves around christmas tree ornaments manufactured by Chinese prisoners and exported to the U.S. To my knowledge no one has ever been killed by an attack from a christmas tree ornament, yet tons of military equipment for which U.S. prisoners have provided essential components are exported to bomb, blast, and terrorize their ultimate recipients.

For me, being a revolutionary is the best way to live. Capture and imprisonment involve adjustments, but have not made me repentant for a life time of anti-imperialism and struggle for justice. I was sent to Marion because my political beliefs and associations and will likely remain here unless I repudiate them, which I will not do. For me to engage in the production of military equipment as a condition for transfer would be a repudiation of my political beliefs and principles. I will not do it.

Refusing to be an accomplice to U.S. militarism is an act rooted deep in conscience and solidarity with those fighting U.S. imperialism, and trying to survive its onslaught. It is largely a symbolic act, yet necessary in confronting the collaborative nature of the system. During the recent attack against Lebanon by U.S. supplied Israeli forces, every newspaper, magazine, and newsreel image of the subsequent atrocities--hundreds killed and wounded; hundreds of thousands made refugees--shows a steady movement of U.S. manufactured weapons and equipment.

For the political prisoner, putting principles into practice may be largely symbolic, but demonstrating who we are and what we stand for is better than accommodating the government's agenda. It's important to remember that however small the resistance, someone always steps forward. The magnitude of crimes perpetuated by the U.S. must be opposed, and this cannot be done without risk and sacrifice. The lack of an organized and wider resistance, though lamented, does not negate individual and small group action. History is replete with their examples and their corpses: from the White Rose activists who opposed fascism to the first and few guerrillas of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation; from John Brown to the Industrial Workers of the World who were sent to prison in droves; to Malcolm X and the indomitable George Jackson. For each of them there are the countless unnamed. The only reward short of victory is the sustenance obtained from the spirit of resistance.

It is not a decision made without consequences. The government and Bureau of Prison's iron fist gives no quarter to revolutionaries, rebels, and dissenters. It's part of Marion's mission to destroy an individual's identity and community ties. One warden stated that "The purpose of Marion is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and at large." Rather overstated from a bureaucratic windbag, but the fact remains that Marion is repression personified in a social experiment. Any outward indication that a prisoner does not conform to Marion's dictates and he is condemned to incessant isolation. For the transgressor there will be no relief--no step closer to personal freedom; no embrace of family and loved ones, no access to expanded work, education, or recreational opportunities; no shot at parole. Added to the burden is the public's indifference and the response of the liberal left, who view prisoners with contempt and political prisoners with hostility.

Yet, through all the years and all its evil ways, Marion has not destroyed me. All that can destroy me are guards, medical neglect, or a prisoner that doesn't have his head screwed on right. There's an axiom here which declares that all who enter these walls will eat much shit before leaving. It's inherent in Marion's mission. But eating shit is qualitatively different than producing war material that's used to put someone else in their grave. Someone else who also experiences a steady diet of oppression. Someone who does me no harm.

It's been 26 years since I moved as a soldier among the Vietnamese people, rifle in hand, desecrating their land and seeing the ill, the infirm, wounded and dying of those I was assigned to enlighten - or light up -about the virtues of U.S. imperialism. After my discharge, I joined Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, a group of conscience ridden and war weary vets who rejuvenated a lethargic anti-war movement when the U.S. bombing of Viet Nam was at its extreme. Overlapping with Viet Nam was the war in amerika's streets, fought in places like Newark, Detroit, Pine Ridge, Attica, Humbolt Park, East L.A. Within this war were internecine battles provoked by police spies and provocateurs and the rapid proliferation of snitches in a drug saturated, me first society. And beyond S.E. Asia, U.S. wars of intervention left its bloody footprints in Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola, South Africa, Cuba and Puerto Rico, to name but a few. As in Viet Nam, the victims are mostly civilians.

Always at war, the world's policeman, this omnipotent and ubiquitous United States military is charged with enforcing capitalism's code of conduct. Troops were mobilized during the rebellion in Los Angeles. Troops are deployed in Somalia where they now stand accused of human rights violations by the humanitarian relief agencies and the Somali people themselves.

Viet Nam changed my view of liberation to mean a constant and protracted struggle against those forces that impose their will on others for power and profit. Freedom is the ultimate expression and condition of a people who control their own destiny. Once before, the government put me in uniform and used me for military purposes. Being young and naive was no excuse for my complicity. They'll not do it again.

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