The woman who shouted "Free Puerto Rico" before firing the first eight shots into the U.S. House of Representatives on March 1, 1954, lives out her sentence in an impeccably tidy room here at the Federal Correctional Institute for Women.
Nearly 23 years of confinement have made Lolita Lebron, if anything even more defiant that when she was convicted.
Statehood for Puerto Rico is of no interest of her. "We will settle for nothing less than the complete liberation of my country," she said. "With statehood are still under the imperialist domination of the United States of America."
She was eligible for people in 1973, but refuses to ask for it because "parole is inherently a sorriness of actions." Legal efforts to release her, however, are now being made for the first time.
Last Thanksgiving, having been refused permission to make a statement at a prison service, urging the abolition of nuclear weapons, she stood up anyway and shouted her speech after a michrophone had been taken away from her.
"The director of recreation here did not permit me at all to use the microphone," she said. "He said the girls did not want to listen at all because they wanted to eat Candies and sodas and to dance. And in the middle off all that I stand up and say I need to make a statement . . . The man took the microphone so I made this mouth of mine very loud, my voice resounded in all the corners of that building. They could not stop me."
Lolita Lebron is heavier than the "trim divorce" of old news photos, and her graying hair is tinted black.Her room, brightened with a red satin bedspread is dominated by an elaborate alter of religious status and plastic flowers. There are pictures of the four grandchildren she has never seen.
In 1954 the newspapers said it was an unprecedented event. Four Puerto Ricans - one an assistant in a butcher shop, another who worked a punch press in a shoe factory - bought one-way train tickets from New York to Washington.They had lunched at Union Station, walked over to the U.S. Capitol and in the middle of a debate on Mexican labor pulled guns from their clothing and fired a barrage of shots into the House of Representatives.
Congressmen crouched in the aisles for cover. A bullet hit the majority leader's desk.Other bullets hit five congressmen who staggered to safety, bleeding and stunned. No one had any idea what was going on.
The four were led by Lebron, who had carried her pistol in her purse along with lipsticks, two Bromo Seltzer tablets, and a letter claiming responsibility for the attack. She and the others, they said later, were prepared to die on the spot.
Instead, they were arrested, charged, tried and sentenced to prison, where they all have been for nearly 23 years.
Lolita Lebron caught the public's attention. At the time the attack was planned, she was working in a sewing machine factory, was divorced and had two young children. She was beautiful and instense, and does not recall exactly how she came to be the leader of the small group who went to Washington. When she was arrested, a note was found in her purse that read in part:
"My life I give for the freedom of my country! Before God and the world, my blood claims for the independence of Puerto Rico . . . this is a cry for victory in our struggle for independence."
After his signature was written: "I take responsible for all."
She was a woman of 22 when she came to New York from Puerto Rico seeking a better life. By 28, after living "in the ghetto" and having been discriminated against while looking for work, she said, she had been radicalized and was an officer in the Nationalist Party.
Lebron was raised in Lares, one of five children of a farm supervisor. She graduated from eighth grade, and would have been the valedictorian except that she was so timid she trembled fiercely whenever she had to speak in public. She lost the first job she sought because her hands were shaking so much she could not sign her name.
"I was so timid then. But I am not afraid of anything now," she said.
Her father sent her to San Juan to be trained as a dress designer by a "very fine professor who had graduated from Paris." But her training to make fine dresses for aristocratic turned to the rural community of Lares.
She refers obliquely to personal tragedies that affected her - a man, desperate living conditions - but will not go into details.
She has been at Alderson longer than any other prisoner, as far as the current warden, Carson W. Markley, can determine. The median age of the "ladies" there, as staff members refer to them, is 27 and the average stay is 18 months Lebron is 57 and is not scheduled to be released until Feb. 12, 1992. She hs earned more than 18 years of "good time" off her total 56-year sentence.
"I am a revolutionary servant of God," she said. " . . . this circumstance is inherent to my task . . . in this atomic age. My work for my country I understand is the will of God."
At first, she said, she scrubbed floors in the prison. Later she was an assistant in the chapel and in the prison clinic. For a while she made hats for the women at Alderson, hats decorated with flowers and veils and feathers that she copied from pictures in magazines.
When she first went to prison, inmates were expected todo the heavy labor of keeping the institution going, she said.
Now "I am retired," she said. "You must remember I worked very hard from 1955. With the help of God I survived the hard work of this institution."
Her life is "profoundly fulfilling" and happy, she said, but no one could survive so many years in prison without a few scars. She said she was tortured after her arrest in 1954 with electric shocks, radiation, and other abuses.
The validity of her charges of torture appears impossible to determine after so many years.
One particularly painful episode for her to recall is the way she learned of the death of her young son. It was shortly after her arrest, while she was being held in the women's section of the D.C. jail. After being denied newspapers for months, she was presented one day with a copy of The Evening Star by a guard. In it was a story reporting the shooting death of her son. Now she says only that her son died "in the struggle for liberation," but either cannot or will not recall the circumstances of his death.
A Puerto Rican attorney who is working with the group of lawyers here to free Lebron and her three companions of 1954 said that her son died mysteriously in Puerto Rico at age 9. He was found drowned with a concussion in a river near a small mountain town where he was living, the attorney, Emilo Soler-Mari, said. "It has never been discovered how it happened. It was unusual and cruel to have (been) told of his death that way."
Soler-Mari and the others, including the American Civil Liberaties Union's National Prison Project said in the suit filed here last month that Lebron and the men convicted with her are the victims of an unlawful "conscious and systematic plan and policy to punish (them) for their political beliefs."
The lawyers bringing the suit say three years is the median sentence for persons convicted to assault with intent to kill. This is the charge for which is all but Lebron, who was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon were sentenced.
"It is very unusual for people to be in jail as long as 23 years," said Peggy Weisenberg, a lawyer with the National Prison Project here.
The catch is that the prisoners refuse to ask for parole because they don't want to seem to ask for forgiveness and because they do not feel bound by the laws of the United States. The lawsuit seeks their release under the United Nations charter and other international treaties rather than U.S. Law.
Of the five congressmen who were injured in the attack, former Reps. George H. Fallow and Kenneth A. Roberts survive. The others, who stayed in Washington after being defeated for re-election at various times, died in the early 1970s at advanced ages.
Fallon, of Baltimore, lives there in semiretirement. He was shot in the right buttock, but the bullet passed through him and left no lasting injury. He was hospitalized for 10 dys.
"I have no feeling about it (the incident). It was like dream; I kept thinking I would wake up," he said the other day in a telephone interview. "I've forgiven and forgotten. If the parole board feels they should be out it's all right with me."
Meanwhile, Lolita Lebron carries out her "task" in prison. The years of isolation and imprisonment have taken their toll. She wanders occasionally in her thoughts and cannot always remember details of things in the past. She frets about the cockroaches in her room, and has asked the warden to find her a slightly wider bed, which he is doing.
God speaks to her and give her instructions, she said. One of the most important is his direction that she should work for the abolition of nuclear weapons. She does not think about the future.
"When we attacked the government of the United States of America, we only retaliated, in the only way possible we could do it," she said. "We left for history a statement of what national emancipation is. That it is not subject to oppressors and political exploitation, manipulation and colonialism or any imperialist maneuver of power . . . The United States has committed execrable crimes against Puerto Rico.
"The same day we attacked the United States, they exploded a hydrogen bomb on the Bikini atolls of the Marshall Islands, 16 megatons of TNT atomic radiation and cancerous substances . . . And there were no courts on the earth nor judges to judge them . . . Within the context of world history (what we did) is one of the greatest, most finest things that have been done on the whole terrestrial globe.
"I would not change my life for any woman on the whole planet."