Life In Atlanta Penitentiary
Don Pedro and the seven other convicted nationalists were transferred to Atlanta Penitentiary on June 7, 1937. When they arrived, they were assigned a number that guards and prison officials used to address them from that point on. Don Pedro was ‘51298.’ At the time, the prison housed around 3,000 convicted persons and was located on an area made up of three hundred acres.
An agent performing an investigation requested by prosecutor Cecil Snyder recommended Don Pedro not be sent to Atlanta Penitentiary, “since he was the only one in the group that was not white and in those prisons he would ‘certainly’ be the victim of racism by the officers in charge of the prisoners, most of which came from ‘southern states.’”
Interestingly, while the prison did separate black people convicted of crimes from the rest of the population, Don Pedro was kept with the general population. On his in-processing papers, Don Pedro was described as “a somewhat sparsely built young white man, of middle aged, who is married and the father of three children.”
The typical day started with a 6AM wake-up. A small breakfast was served an hour and a half later. Mandated to have and maintain a job, by 7:45AM the people that were incarcerated had to be ready to perform their job duties. Stopping work at 11AM, they had some time to rest and then were served lunch. At 1PM they resumed work for two hours and then were given one hour for recreation. 4:30PM was dinner time. During the summer, recreation was extended until 6:30PM when the people incarcerated were locked into their cells for the night. Lights out was at 9PM. They were allowed to bathe only twice a week, did not work on the weekends, and had a radio in their cell that went off with the lights at night.
The people incarcerated at Atlanta Penitentiary were allowed to receive mail, but Don Pedro was given special treatment—he could not receive magazines or newspapers, was only allowed to correspond with an authorized list of people, had to have all correspondence written in English, and all his mail was opened and inspected by officials who then decided whether to deliver or keep them. The other nationalists, who were all separated from each other, for the most part had the same conditions. Since most of them did not know English, they were allowed to receive letters in Spanish, but Don Pedro first had to translate them for prison officials.
Regarding visits, Don Pedro was allowed one per month. Sometimes, as happened to Chilean poet and future Nobel Prize in Literature winner Gabriela Mistral, his visitors were turned away. East Harlem Congressman Vito Marcantonio is said to have visited him five times.
Don Pedro’s Activities
During the period when he was in Atlanta Penitentiary, Don Pedro initially worked as a janitor but was then transferred to the prison library when his level of education became apparent to prison officials. At some point, he worked as a proofreader that corrected all the work other incarcerated people completed in the prison’s educational program, which was mandated for everyone. Don Pedro also led classes in Catholicism. Due to the positive reputation he had, Don Pedro influenced many of his students to attend mass every Sunday and on holy days. A ‘Parole Progress Report’ of May 29, 1939 stated, “He is truly trying to live a good Christian life.”
In addition to the letters he wrote to family and other authorized persons, and despite the restrictions placed upon mail, Don Pedro is said to have managed to write and send out articles that were published in Mexico and Buenos Aires under the pseudonym Pedro Gringoire. The article attributed to him in Mexico, titled ‘Puerto Rico Aspires To Its Freedom,’ was published in Magazín Excelsior.
In Buenos Aires, two of his articles were published in Claridad magazine, one titled ‘El Nacionalismo Borinqueño,’ and another titled ‘The Recognition of the Independence of Puerto Rico Is An Irrevocable Imperative.’ One topic discussed in the articles was the Liberation Army and the struggle’s need for arms:
“The cadets of the Republic are today, perhaps, the most glorious army in the world. They are at least the only legitimate military organization in Puerto Rico, because their authority does not stem from a usurpation but from a right. They have marched unarmed in front of the enemy’s guns and will march armed along the enemy’s fortified line. Nationalism needs weapons, weapons, weapons. It needs guns, rifles, machine guns…”
Another topic was their struggle in relation to the people of the U.S.:
“We can say without any false sense of pride that the only one in Puerto Rico that has a true concept of friendship and understanding towards the United States is the Nationalist Party. Our complaint is not against the American people, because the American people are not to blame for what is happening in Puerto Rico.”
During Don Pedro’s exile, the Nationalist Party continued to elect him as their president. They also elected an interim president. Don Pedro’s status as the central leader of the Nationalist Party allowed him to continue influencing its direction. For example, just before the United States’ entry into World War 2, Don Pedro put out a directive, which was approved, that called on all Party members to refuse being drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces. This decision resulted in the jailing of about 50 nationalists from 1940-1944.
Don Pedro’s Health
It is clear that the conditions Don Pedro faced in prison seriously affected his health, even before he left for Atlanta Penitentiary. According to an interview with Rafael Raldiris, a formerly incarcerated person in Atlanta Penitentiary who returned to Puerto Rico after completing his sentence, Don Pedro arrived in prison already sick and was put under treatment for anemia. In August 1937 he experienced a 35% level of hemoglobin and was hospitalized in September due to a suspected case of tuberculosis, which a chest x-ray ruled out. His hemoglobin levels did not stabilize until May 1939 when their levels were measured at 82%.
Fellow nationalist in prison Clemente Soto Vélez said the following about Don Pedro’s health: “There was a time when he and I both thought that the leader would not survive the state of health that forced the administration to hospitalize him in the prison itself.”
The care eventually given to Don Pedro, which was less than adequate, came only as a result of complaints made by Congressman Vito Marcantonio. Writing the attorney general, the surgeon general, and the medical officer of Atlanta Penitentiary, Marcantonio also requested that a specific doctor be able to examine Don Pedro. His request was denied. Following a visit to the prison by Andrew Newhoff of the Committee for Political Prisoners, an article in Diario La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico repeated Newhoff’s urging to provide Don Pedro medical attention. Newhoff highlighted his “serious” and “unfortunate state of health.”
The book Albizu Campos: Preso En Atlanta, edited by Carmelo Rosario Natal, provides insight into the consistent work of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in not only advocating for the release of the nationalists in prison but for applying pressure so that Don Pedro could receive much-needed medical attention.
The book also shows how the ACLU communicated closely with Don Pedro’s wife, Doña Laura, to exchange information and coordinate efforts related to his condition. Doña Laura worked from within Latin America in their efforts to secure medical attention for Don Pedro. Speaking to the mental exhaustion induced upon him as a result of constant health battles, Clemente Soto Vélez described how “Albizu’s precarious health was another constant torture to his conscience.”
- Albizu Campos y la Independencia de Puerto Rico, by Laura de Albizu Campos (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas, 2007).
- Pedro Albizu Campos: Las Llamas de la Aurora- Acercamiento a su Biografía, by Marisa Rosado (Ediciones Puerto, 2008).
- War Against All Puerto Ricans: Revolution and Terror In America’s Colony, by Nelson A. Denis (Nation Books, 2015).