Los Angeles Times
Saturday, September 11, 1999

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
                      wrongfully imprisoned.
                      "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
                      prison groupies."
                      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
                      with Valentin.
                      "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

                      Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved