Interview with Fernando: history of Wisconsin federal prison, 1980s

Interview with Fernando Rodriguez, conducted by an Milwaukee IWOC member on 1/8/20

When were you incarcerated? 

In Federal prison 1975-1980, parole 1980-1987. Incarcerated 1989-92, parole 1992-2001.

What were conditions like in prison?

Federal prison did more to provide physical necessities. It played with mind more than anything. It didn’t treat people physically too much as long as people applied. In the mid 70s to 80s, the federal prison was more into rehabilitation than punishment, they allowed many inmate groups to form.With federal prison system, you can be transferred from New York to California. That’s also another way to control unrest. That’s also a detriment to the federal system, gets used as a pipeline to spread information and things. I was in Texas to Indiana to Wisconsin. Each move were part of transfer move to get to Wisconsin (Oxford) the first prison.

In Oxford these groups were starting to buildup. Black groups, Jewish, Native American, Latino, Muslim Brotherhood, able to do self-help. In the second period (1989-1992) it was more punitive. They doubled and quadrupled cells, make more dormitories. You didn’t get a choice. In the 1970s they didn’t have integration in the cells, in the 1990s in didn’t work. I think both the state and federal parallel each other. Solitary is the most severe punishment that they can do without physically punishing them.

Can you tell me more about the prisoner groups in the 1970s?

I started one in Oxford, once I left it stopped. That’s when they sent me to Lampak California. (There the groups were already started) Organized prisoner group, not any kind of gang or sectatrian group. Joined Puma or Pintos Unitos Mexicano Atzlan in California. Most groups came on as self-help. We’d collaborate with other groups, but mostly we’d plan stuff for our members. To make the time go faster. Bring in college students to spend the time with us. Do lectures. We organized events like baseball games between different cell blocks. Administration even gave us the ability to print newsletter. It came out once a month, we printed 500. We elected officers from our membership. We went to the auditorium, most groups could fill it. We elected people by voice vote or hand count. The officers met weekly. Once a month the secretary and president would meet with secretary and president or other groups, make sure there weren’t conflicts in reserving auditorium. That group in itself was able to get George Lucas to bring Star Wars into the prison to do early screening. Our group and others helped get some two years courses in, from the Lampok Technical College, I got a two year degree there. 

Our group had 500 members (considered everyone who was Latino a member) at the meetings we filled the auditorium, hundreds came. We had president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, and several committee members. You had to apply for a charter at the prison. The committees were: activities, sports and newsletter. Then we had different ad hoc committees formed throughout. The newsletter included reports of things that were happening in the prison system, big issues of reform and handling different issues, and also local stuff. Cell Block C and H had a football game, that stuff. Then there were several pages put out their information, people put out their name and where they were from, like a small plaque for everyone.

 In Wisconsin we worked to start a group. Needed to do a lot of research on what was needed to start it. Then filling out applications, re-writing things. We had enough people to form the nuclear of it, but I was doing the brunt of the work, that’s probably part of why it fell apart. It was around for a year and a half before I was transferred. We had meetings to decide what to do. There weren’t that many Latinos at Oxford, but we had some contact with community groups in Wisconsin. There were a total of 25-30 people in the group, they all came to meetings unless they had a work conflict. We had the four officers that did the bulk of the work between the meeting. There’s not much you can do with organizing, you are watched. And for all the groups, even in 75, you had to have a staff sponsor. We didn’t have a newsletter.W

With the groups in California and Wisconsin, did you ever challenge DOC?

For the most part we were left alone. Staff sponsor could be in the meeting with us, at other times were nearby. The DOC could edit newsletter if they wanted to. In newsletters we did complain at times about certain local conditions. It wasn’t confrontational to the point of being disruptive confrontational, it was productive confrontational.