The Tortures of Lexington 1986-88
Revolutionary Worker #947, March 8, 1998
In 1988, 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
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
W. Reuben and C. Norman,
Nation magazine #244, 1987
"The high-security unit is living death."
Susan Rosenberg, political prisoner
Observers of Lexington were instantly hit by
the starkness of this special unit of 16 isolation cells, sealed off in
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
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
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
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
This article is posted in English and Spanish
on Revolutionary Worker Online