Release Cuts Ties Forged With Supporters
Inmates: Nationalists imprisoned in California found friendships with
sympathizers on the outside. Clemency means bittersweet goodbyes.
By JOHN M. GLIONNA, Times Staff Writer
SANTA BARBARA--Every few weeks since 1995, Diane
Fujino and her husband, Matef Harmachis, drove to the
nearby federal prison to visit an inmate they had never known
outside the penitentiary's walls.
In the cramped and noisy visiting room at the Lompoc federal
penitentiary, they sat across a small table from Adolfo Matos, one of
the Puerto Rican nationalists imprisoned for conspiring to overthrow
the U.S. government.
They listened to Matos' stories of prison life and of his outside
causes, offering solace to a man considered by some to be a political
martyr and by others a ruthless terrorist.
But on Friday, they hurried to the prison to offer bittersweet
goodbyes. The 48-year-old Matos, who had served 17 years of a
70-year sentence, was one of 11 inmates released in a controversial
clemency deal with the Clinton administration.
After the endless waiting, Matos' freedom came suddenly and
without fanfare. The couple said word of the release time came just
90 minutes before Matos stepped outside the gloomy prison entrance
around 11 a.m. Then he was whisked away for a flight to Puerto
"It was great to see him on the outside," said Harmachis, a freelance
The Santa Barbara couple is part of a California support network that
for years has offered companionship to five members of the radical
group serving their sentences here. Along with Matos, four women
belonging to FALN, the Spanish acronym for the Armed Forces of
National Liberation, have been kept in the federal prison in Dublin, 30
miles east of San Francisco.
The guerrilla group, which opposes what members consider to be
American occupation of their homeland, is responsible for more than
100 bombings in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s that killed
six people. None of the imprisoned nationalists was convicted in the
bombings, but they were found guilty of seditious conspiracy and
weapon charges. All had to renounce violence as part of the deal.
Their supporters have offered their time and money for a number of
reasons--from religious convictions to a nationalistic Puerto Rican
spirit to a humanitarian desire to assist people they consider to be
"We're all educated people who believe in a political cause, said
Oakland resident Denise Alvarado, who befriended Carmen Valentin,
one of the women serving time at the Dublin prison. "We're not
For four years, the 47-year-old computer worker has divided her time
between visits to Valentin and Matos. A Puerto Rican American, she
became involved with the prisoners after hearing of the cause and
decided to reach out.
"I'm really not a political person," she said. "But in my mind I had this
image of these people alone in cells needing a human touch that I
could give." So she wrote letters to all the prisoners and heard from
all but one. She found Matos to be a delightful man with an easy
sense of humor. Still, their visits depressed her.
"For so long, there was no touching, no holding hands--just one quick
hug at arrival and departure," she recalled. "We were far apart and it
was noisy. I always left with a sore throat."
Then a year ago, the Lompoc prison eased its visitation rules and the
two friends were allowed to hold hands. "It meant so much to be with
Adolfo and not have to talk," Alvarado recalled. "We could hold
hands and have moments of silence."
As members of the Interfaith Prisoners of Conscience Project, Fujino
and Harmachis began visiting Matos regularly. Despite his bleak
surroundings, Matos invariably cheered the couple.
"Adolfo has given us far more than we could have ever given him,"
says Fujino, an Asian American studies professor at UC Santa
Barbara. "He's taught us about dedication and commitment and living
by your principles."
Added Harmachis: "We went to make Adolfo feel better. But with
each visit, it was he who made us feel better."
Alvarado says her visits have resulted in a special closeness between
Valentin and herself.
"She accepted me as a woman and as a friend and as a Puerto
Rican," she says. "I'm so sick of our image in America as thugs . . . .
I'm proud to know a woman with the principles of Carmen Valentin."
Alvarado, who is single, says she came to cherish her weekly visits
"We're girlfriends; we make each other laugh," she says. "We talk
about men and clothes and politics and gossip. We talk about the
news and the cute guards, about our hopes and dreams. We talk
about our weight and our hair, about her grandson and my son and
about my dog and my house--everything two women might talk
For the dozens of people who regularly visited the prisoners, Friday's
release brings a distinct sense of loss.
"I feel like I'm losing my best friend because Carmen is going to be
far away," Alvarado said. "I've cried a lot since news of the
clemency offer came. Our friendship will continue, but it will be
"But I've told Carmen how I feel. Friends can tell each other
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