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Notes from the Unrepenitentiary

They call themselves POWs because Puerto Rico has been fighting a war for independence since 1898, when the U.S. first invaded the island. Puerto Rico is one of the few colonies left in the world. The U.S. military and transnational corporations want to keep it that way. U.S. labor laws and environmental protections, for example, don't apply in Puerto Rico. U.S. companies can dump toxins, pay lousy wages, and get big tax cuts while doing business on the island. The U.S. military conducts dangerous military maneuvers and rents out the island to NATO for war games, but Puerto Ricans cannot even vote in U.S. elections.

The Puerto Rican prisoners are POWs because they were fighting for the independence and self-determination of their island, just like the American Revolution was fought to free the U.S. from British colonialism. The POWs were charged and convicted of seditious conspiracy, the same charge that kept Nelson Mandela in prison in South Africa for 27 years. We all know that history is written by those in power. Although the U.S. government once labelled Mandela a terrorist, now they must acknowledge him as a hero, because his people finally defeated the racist regime of apartheid. The Puerto Rican POWs are called terrorists by the U.S. government and media because those in power here are determined to hold on to Puerto Rico as a colony.

But on the island itself, in Puerto Rican communities across the U.S., and in free societies around the world, these men and women are heroes: Antonio Camacho-Negron, Edwin Cortes, Elizam Escobar, Ricardo Jimenez, Oscar Lopez-Rivera, Adolfo Matos, Dylcia Pagan, Alberto Rodriguez, Alicia and Ida Luz Rodriguez, Luis Rosa, Juan Segarra-Palmer, Alejandrina Torres, Carlos Alberto Torres, and Carmen Valentin. All of them had been activists within the Chicago and New York Puerto Rican communities, or on the island itself, during the 1960s and 1970s. They had been teachers, social workers, artists, and media workers. They spent nearly 20 years in prison, and now most of them are in their 50's.

When Clinton first offered clemency, 150,000 people demonstrated in San Juan, Puerto Rico (during hurricane weather!) to demand their unconditional release. For over 10 years, a campaign has grown in support of the prisoners. This included presenting a petition for Amnesty to President Clinton 2 years ago that had over 10,000 signatures. It was signed by church leaders, Nobel Prize winners including Bishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, Congressional Representatives, and former President Jimmy Carter. In 1979, Carter had granted Amnesty to the previous generation of Puerto Rican freedom fighters--members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party who had been imprisoned already for 25 years.

But Clinton's offer was conditional and non-negotiable. The clemency became a vehicle for party politics, with little relationship to the prisoners or the still-unresolved status of Puerto Rico. The POWs had to sign an anti-violence oath, allowed under international law when any government releases a prisoner who had been involved in armed struggle. They also will be subject to parole conditions, includ ing restrictions on their right to travel and to associate with each other.   Lopez-Rivera and Camacho refused to sign. Segarra-Palmer signed, but will not be released for another 5 years. A fourth, Carlos Alberto Torres, was not included by Clinton in the pardon, and will continue to serve his 70-year sentence. Another co-defendant, Haydee Beltran Torres, did not join in the Amnesty petition because she was pursuing legal remedies.

What do other prisoners have to learn from this struggle for freedom? First of all, whether Clinton acted to help his wife's campaign, or whether he simply agreed with his advisors that the Puerto Ricans had received disproportionate sentences, he would never have released them without the political pressure of a broad-based, massive campaign for their freedom. The victory belongs to the Puerto Rican nation, and to the POWs themselves; the support of the people was the crucial element. When it comes to other prison issues affecting us all -- overcrowding, guard brutality, bad medical care, sexual assault, visiting and phone restrictions -- we need to motivate our family, friends, and community groups to support prisoners' needs. We need their active, vocal support to stop the punitive sentencing laws and worsening conditions, to stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal and abolish the death penalty altogether, to free other political prisoners. The struggle for the freedom of the Puerto Rican POWs can remind us that we must be ready to keep on fighting   in order to effectively change the direction of this country's criminal injustice system. The words of former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass can serve as inspiration: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will."

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