May 252011

Radical daughters, this could be you

By Beth Connors-Manke

This is part two of Beth’s “Rebelly Bitch” series on incarceration. In March, she reported on the imprisonment of nineteenth-century political prisoner Anne Devlin in Ireland’s Kilmainham Gaol. Devlin’s captor-torturer, the prison official “Dr.” Trevor, is reputed to have said: “Bad luck to you Anne Devlin, bad luck to you, you rebelly bitch; I hope you may be hanged.” Beth’s tour of the gaol reminded her of Lexington’s own history of political imprisonment at the Lexington High Security Unit.

When I first started researching and writing on imprisonment, I was asked: “Why write on prison?” This query came at a public forum — I was being measured up — so I had to give intellectual, rather than personal, reasons. Now, I don’t remember exactly what I said; it was probably something about theories of surveillance and the ontological experience of confinement.

However, I do remember what I wanted to say: I write about imprisonment because it terrifies me.

Imprisonment terrifies me for the most basic of reasons: how I understand myself and the world is premised on freedom. This, of course, partially has to do with my personality (don’t tell me what to do, I won’t do it), but freedom is also the gold standard in American culture. We’re bred on it. We may sometimes, stupidly, fool ourselves into thinking freedom is the ability to choose between two types of SUV or twelve styles of jeans; however, deep down, Americans’ psyches are fundamentally grounded in the idea of self-determination. Paradoxically, this is true even when we sanction the stripping of others’ freedom through bad education, racism, enforced poverty, or incarceration.

Magdalene Sisters

Around the same time, I had seen The Magdalene Sisters (2002), written and directed by Peter Mullan. The movie takes place in a convent also functioning as an asylum for “loose” women. ‘Asylum’ turns out to be a euphemism for a prison run by nuns; each woman there had been locked up against her will.

Beautifully shot, remarkably quiet, and composed primarily of medium shots and close-ups, The Magdalene Sisters is a difficult movie to watch. Difficult because it tells the story of three young Irish women — one raped, one beautiful, and one who gives birth out of wedlock — who are stripped of their freedom because they are young women and because men around them have sinned sexually. Difficult because the claustrophobia and the frustration the young women feel is painfully present in every shot. Difficult because women — the girls’ mothers, the nuns, the women of the community — are complicit in the incarceration.

Difficult because it’s based on true events that happened as recently as the 1960s and 70s in Ireland. The last laundry closed in 1996. While the women’s movement was at a fever pitch, especially in the United States, in the Magdalene asylums women were being imprisoned for their sexuality by the Church and their families.

But this confinement wasn’t simply about zealous morality taken out on the young; convents like the one depicted in the film relied on the women’s forced labor for financial viability. In a time before the wonder of personal washers and dryers, these asylums also functioned as laundries. As the film quietly but unmistakably suggests, the laundry/asylums were driven by economics as much as, if not more than, religious fervor for the reformation of “wayward” girls.

For some, it might be tempting to distance oneself from the violence and the horror of illegal confinement of the Magdalene asylums by dismissing it as having happened in another country, in another time.

I wasn’t tempted to distance myself, though. Having grown up in an Irish-American Catholic family, the film hit close to home. These girls were like me in many ways. I could imagine how, with a twist in circumstances, this could have been my fate; I could have been sent off, swallowed up by a system larger than me, for reasons having little to do with me.

To put it another way: I imagined that if it happened to other women, it could happen to me.

Fallen Women

While the U.S., like Ireland, has a history of incarcerating women for sexual license, by the 1960s and 70s, the “fallen” women considered most dangerous to the American status quo were those involved in radical political action.

Lexington made history for punishing women when the Lexington High Security Unit (HSU) broke new ground in political imprisonment and psychological torture. Opened in 1986, the notorious HSU had a short life, closing in 1988 after inmates and human rights organizations took the institution to court for prison conditions and treatment of inmates.

Designed to hold 16 women, the Lexington HSU was a renovated basement of what was then called the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) on Leestown Road. The expensive project was a prison within a prison geared toward complete surveillance and psychological control of prisoners who had been placed there because of their political activity.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Richard Korn reported to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that the purpose of the prison was “to reduce prisoners to a state of submission essential for their ideological conversion. That failing, the next objective is to reduce them to a state of psychological incompetence sufficient to neutralize them as efficient, self-directing antagonists. That failing, the only alternative is to destroy them, preferably by making them desperate enough to destroy themselves.”

Korn, a specialist in the effects of coercion and isolation, interpreted the message of the HSU in this way:

“The most miserable and dangerous of violent criminals get a better shake than these women. These are the fallen women. These are the daughters who went astray, and we [the state] must make an example to the daughters we have in our homes: You must never be like this; if you are, we will put you in a place like this, and then you will look like these women, you will be faceless.”

“The state has an endless amount of time [to punish the women]. So, ultimately it will kill them, and the state will be relieved of the guilt.”

In other words: beware young women, the state will do this to you if you dare try to upend the political order.

Radical Daughters

Three of the women held at the HSU had tried to effect political change. Alejandrina Torres and Susan Rosenberg were the first two political prisoners to be entombed in the HSU. A supporter of the Puerto Rican independence movement, Torres was convicted of seditious conspiracy for alleged membership in Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN). Although the FBI considers the FALN a terrorist organization, Torres was not convicted of participating in FALN bombings or in a crime that injured another person. While imprisoned, Torres considered herself a prisoner of war.

Rosenberg was also devoted to political liberation. Active as a feminist who supported Black political prisoners and national liberation movements in Africa and Latin America, Rosenberg was charged with weapons possession in 1984. She was sentenced to fifty-eight years in federal prison, which was, at the time, the longest sentence in U.S. history for the charge. According to scholar Dan Berger, “the judge cited her political ideology as the reason for the lengthy prison term.” In other words, it was Rosenberg’s politics, not the charge itself, that won her a sentence of almost six decades of confinement.

In “Reflections on Being Buried Alive,” Rosenberg describes her first experience in the HSU:

“We [Rosenberg and Torres] stood at the electronically controlled metal gate under the eye of one of eleven surveillance cameras, surrounded by unidentified men in business suits…. We were in handcuffs. An unidentified man had ordered us placed in restraints while walking from one end of the basement to the other. The lights were neon fluorescent burning and bright, and everything snow white – walls, floors, ceilings. There was no sound except the humming of the lights, and nothing stirred in the air. Being there at the gate looking down the cell block made my ears ring, and breath quicken.”

Imagine being told – as Rosenberg was — that you would spend the next fifty years in a place like this, a place white, antiseptic, with no natural light, with the incessant humming of fluorescent lights. Consider how you would respond. What would go through your mind?

I want you to take this imaginative exercise seriously. Look around you now. What does the space around you look, smell, feel like? How easily could you get up and walk outside? I’m in my office, which has red walls and brightly colored art. Plants, all sitting atop bookshelves, soak up the natural light from three windows. Down the stairs, out the front door, and I’m in sunshine. If I were consigned to the HSU, I would quickly go crazy.

In “Reflections,” Rosenberg relays Torres’s first comment about the HSU: “It’s a white tomb, a white sepulcher.” It was whitewashed death.

Silvia Baraldini, the third political prisoner to join the HSU, echoed the same thought in a later interview: “The essential part of this unit is that we’re totally isolated, and so amongst us we have taken to calling this place a living tomb.”

Convicted of conspiracy and racketeering, Baraldini was a member of the May 19th Communist Organization and supported the anti-racist work of the Black Panther Party. Like Rosenberg, Baraldini had fought the FBI’s COINTELPRO, an illegal program which targeted American political dissidents, spying on and harassing them.

Punished for Politics

It is important to note that these three women were not convicted of violent crimes. Nor were they known to be violent prisoners. Yet, they were caged in one of the most restricted prison units in the country. At the HSU, Torres, Rosenberg, and Baraldini were not being punished for the crimes for which they were convicted, but for the political reasons motivating their actions. The irony here is that the U.S. claims to have no domestic political prisoners. It claims that we do not jail people for their political beliefs.

While these radical daughters were jailed for criminal violations, their punishment was for politics.

Since these three women were not assigned to the HSU for disciplinary reasons (such as violent behavior in the prison general population), they weren’t sure how they could “work their way out” of the tomb. “When we asked if there was any way for us to get out of the HSU,” Rosenberg writes, “we were informed that if we changed our associations and affiliations a change would be considered. The staff joke was you got a ‘one-way ticket’ to the Lexington HSU.”

When Korn reported on the effects of confinement at the HSU, he noted the bind in which renouncing their “associations and affiliations” would put on the women: “[Their] ideology is an intrinsic part of their identity…. It is an attack which is in itself ideological and violative of their rights as intellectually free and mature beings.”

Imagine that situation for yourself. You have been stripped of everything considered necessary and normal in American culture: family, friends, privacy, freedom of moment, control of the small activities of daily life. And then you’re told that you have to give up more: parts of your personality, beliefs, and causes which you hold dear and structure your life. In other words, dismantle yourself in front of cold and powerful guards, prison officials, and myriad surveillance cameras.

What do you do as an American bred on freedom? Are you terrified?

Series to be continued…