Atlanta Penitentiary

Life At Atlanta Penitentiary

Don Pedro and the seven other nationalists — Juan Antonio Corretjer, Clemente Soto Vélez, Luis F. Velázquez, Juan Gallardo Santiago, Julio H. Santiago, Pablo Rosado, and Erasmo Velázquez — were transferred to Atlanta Penitentiary on June 7, 1937. Once there, they received a number that guards and prison officials used to refer to them — Don Pedro was ‘51298.’ At the time, the prison had around 3,000 inmates and was located on an area made up of three hundred acres.

An agent performing an investigation at the request of prosecutor Cecil Snyder had initially recommended that 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 separated black inmates from the rest of the population, he 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 at 6am, with a small breakfast served an hour and a half later. By 7:45am the prisoners had to be ready to perform their job duties, with each prisoner being mandated to have and maintain a job. Finishing work at 11am, they had some time to rest before lunch was given to them. At 1pm they would resume work for two hours, after which they were given an hour for recreation. 4:30pm was dinner time. During the summer, recreation was extended until 6:30pm, the time when prisoners were locked into their cells for the night. Lights out was at 9pm. Prisoners 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.

Prisoners 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 of his mail was opened and inspected by officials in order to approve of the contents. As far as visits, Don Pedro was allowed one visit per month, though sometimes, as in the case of 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. The other nationalists, who were all separated from each other, for the most part had the same conditions. If one of the nationalists did not know English, they were allowed to receive letters in Spanish but Don Pedro first had to translate them for prison officials.

Don Pedro’s Activities

As a prisoner, Don Pedro initially worked as a janitor but was transferred to the prison library due to his level of education. At some point, he worked as a proofreader that corrected all of the work other inmates completed in the prison’s educational program, which was mandated for each prisoner. Don Pedro also led classes in Catholicism for other inmates and, due to the positive reputation he had, influenced many of them 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.”

Beyond the letters he wrote to family and other authorized persons, and although faced with a number of restrictions, Don Pedro was able to write articles that were published in Mexico and Buenos Aires under the pseudonym Pedro Gringoire. In Mexico his article ‘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.’

Don Pedro wrote on 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 an 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 need guns, rifles, machine guns…” He also wrote about the liberation struggle in relation to the American people: “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 his exile, the Nationalist Party continued to elect Don Pedro as their president but also elected an Interim President each year. Still — and once again despite prison restrictions — Don Pedro was able to play a role in Party politics. Most notably, he declined an offer given in September 1939 by a spokesman of the U.S. State Department, Pedro Capó Rodríguez, who said the U.S. government would guarantee the Nationalist Party a victory in the 1940 elections if he agreed to drop the use of armed struggle to obtain Puerto Rico’s independence. Just before the United States’ entry into World War 2, Don Pedro also put out a directive, eventually approved, that called on all Party members to refuse enlistment into the U.S. Armed Forces. This decision resulted in the jailing of about 50 nationalists between 1940 and 1944.

Don Pedro’s Health

According to an interview with Rafael Raldiris, an inmate in Atlanta Penitentiary who returned to Puerto Rico after completing his sentence, Don Pedro arrived to the prison sick and was put under treatment for anemia. It is clear that his medical needs were not at all appropriately tended to. 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 prisoner 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 minimal, only came as a result of the complaints of Congressman Vito Marcantonio. Writing to 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, but his request was denied. Following a visit to the prison by Andrew Newhoff of the Committee for Political Prisoners, an article in the Diario La Correspondencia de Puerto Rico repeated Newhoff’s urging to provide Don Pedro medical attention for his “unfortunate state of health” that he qualified as “serious.” According to Clemente Soto Vélez, “Albizu’s precarious health was another constant torture to his conscience.”


References:

  • 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).

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