prison, turn left after "Hooters" Sign
April 12, 2012
Highway 15 connects California’s
Inland Empire with Las Vegas – accounting for the
relative thickness of Saturday morning traffic. So
we don’t stare too long at signs advertising
Gentleman’s Clubs – showing no gentlemen, but rather
attractive young women. Did you get it? If not you
will. A few miles ahead the road ascends into the
high desert. A billboard descends to Super Hooters (appropriately
clad females presenting their gifts).
We drive past cactus littered with
plastic bags and empty tract houses. Then another
desert eyesore confronts us: the US Penitentiary. We
calculate it has enough barbed wire to fence the US-Mexico
border, with three brooding towers sheltering unseen
guards with rifles. We park outside the maximum
We fill out and sign forms, wait,
get called, then, remove our belts and shoes, and
empty our pockets into a tray. We place coins – to
buy junk food sold in the visiting room vending
machines – and get our bodies X-rayed.
Saul asks a guard if he gets lonely
doing "tower duty." He shrugs. "You learn to cope.
We’re in prison just like the inmates here," he
says. "Difference is we get to go home at night.
Welcome to Paradise."
A guard stamps our wrists with an
invisible imprint, and we sit and wait, staring at
wall photographs of President Obama, Attorney
General Holder, the prison chief of California and
the Victorville Warden, all men of color. Beneath
the portraits sits a hand drawn sign with a bunny
advertising an Easter egg hunt for prison staff.
Another poster advertises National Women’s Week.
A guard escorts visitors into the
fluorescent-lit visiting room laden with miniature
grey plastic chairs. We wait for Gerardo Hernandez,
sentenced in 2001 to two consecutive life terms for
conspiracy to commit espionage and murder.
He was controller of Cuban
intelligence agents who infiltrated Miami-based
Cuban exile groups that plotted violence against
Cuban targets. In 1997, these groups planted bombs
at heavily populated tourist sites in Havana. A
tourist died in one bombing.
The agents also infiltrated Brothers
to the Rescue, originally formed in the early 1990’s
to help rescue rafters leaving Cuba. After
Washington and Havana signed an immigration accord,
the rafter epidemic stopped. The Brothers designed
new task: drop provocative leaflets over Havana. The
Cuban intelligence agents discovered that the
Brothers’ leader also planned to drop serious
weapons from subsequent flights.
On February 24, 1996, after the Cuba
had delivered in vain numerous warnings to
Washington to control these unauthorized flights,
Cuban MIGs shot down two planes. The pilots and
co-pilots died. Cuba maintains the incident took
place over its airspace, meaning the alleged crime
for which Gerardo is serving time didn’t occur.
In September 1998, the FBI Bureau
Chief ignored activities of certain Saudis training
for their mission in the Miami area, which they
realized on 9/11. Instead, Hector Pesquera, closely
allied with right wing Cuban exiles, arrested the
men now known as the Cuban 5. Havana had recycled
their information to the FBI who had then seized
illegal arms and explosives caches.
In 2001, at Gerardo’s trial, the
federal prosecutor summoned as an expert witness,
General James R. Clapper, Jr., (Now Director of
National Intelligence). Clapper had read the
material the government had seized from Hernandez.
On cross examination, Paul McKenna, Gerardo’s
attorney, asked if Clapper had "come across any
secret national defense information that was
transmitted (to Cuba)?"
"Not that I recognized, no."
Agreeing with other expert witnesses
like retired Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, and Army
Major General Edwards Breed Atkinson, Clapper could
not testify to any material seized that demonstrated
McKenna: "Would you agree on saying
that having access to public information is not an
act of espionage?"
McKenna: "Would you, with your
experience in intelligence matters, describe Cuba as
a military threat for the United States?"
Clapper: "Absolutely not. Cuba does
not represent a threat."
McKenna: "Did you find any evidence
Gerardo Hernandez was trying to
obtain secret information?"
Clapper: "No, not that I remember."
Without evidence an intimidated
Miami jury convicted the Cuban Five.
Almost eleven years later, we see
Gerardo bouncing across the room to hug us. His
smile conveyed spiritual energy we found hard to
imagine living in Victorville’s "Paradise."
"I’m serving two consecutive life
sentences for conspiracy to commit espionage and
murder, a longer sentence than those real spies who
transmitted highly secret information to foreign
powers. We didn’t deal with anything even remotely
resembling classified material," he explained.
Gerardo spoke of the recent Israeli
exchange — one sergeant for 1,027 Palestinian
prisoners – and how the Israeli public supported the
move. Two plus years ago, Cuba arrested and
convicted Alan Gross for having illegally imported
prohibited technology to create impenetrable
satellite communication systems. Gross received
almost $600,000 as an AID subcontractor to establish
a secret communication network as part of a plan for
regime change. (Desmond Butler AP, February 13,
Gross has served two plus years of a
fifteen-year sentence in Cuba, Gerardo, thirteen
plus. Diplomatic sources indicated – not confirmed —
that Cuba had offered to free Gross if President
Obama releases the Cuban Five. With pressure from
Gross’ family and the Jewish community these
reciprocal humanitarian gestures could become
reality – after November, of course.
We hugged goodbye, Gerardo smiled
and fisted a salute. Having imbibed another dose of
the American experience, we reversed our journey
without looking back at the Hooters sign. (Taken