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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

From behind bars: Rev Luis Barrios

Many of you who are not from the NY area, or the Puerto Rican activist community,  may not be familiar with the name of Luis Barrios.  

Father Barrios is currrently “doing time” in the Federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in NYC for “trespassing” at a military base last fall.

Luis Barrios

The Village Voice blog covered the story early in March.

The Lost Art of Going to Jail

There are those cynics in this generation who believe that public protest is more or less a dead art — long discredited, a relic of the sixties. But don’t tell that to Luis Barrios.

Barrios, a professor of forensic psychology and Latin American Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is slated to report to a federal jail in lower Manhattan this afternoon to serve a two month sentence for trespassing onto a military base last year.

The fiery 56-year-old professor and Episcopal priest from the Bronx was arrested in November for pushing a wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran about one mile past the gates of the sprawling Fort Benning military base in Georgia. Think about that: six civilians, including a guy in a wheelchair, breached one of the biggest army bases in the world, and got about a mile inside before anyone stopped them.

Barrios, who has co-written a book on street gangs and has also been a newspaper columnist, and five others were protesting the continued operation there of the School of the Americas, a controversial institution which trains police and soldiers from Latin American countries in counter-revolutionary tactics.

I received an email from a mailing list I am on with an update on how Luis is faring.  It is quite long but will paste in relevant portions:

Monday, March 23, 2009

Dear Friends and Comrades,

I want to share the good news that yesterday, Amber Ramanauskas, one of the associate lawyers, who together with Mr. William Conwell and Mr. Robert Phares, work in cooperation with School of The Americas Watch, was allowed to visit Luis in prison and informed me that he is in a very good spirit and that his health is good, but still taking medications.   She also said he is going to a religious service today.  Amber also explained that the reason Luis was unable to make telephone calls was because he needed to submit a list of the people he wants to call and the list needs to be approved by the prison honchos.  She will be dealing with that situation tomorrow.

I received a letter from Luis, Saturday, stating that he had been moved to the general population unit of the Metropolitan Correctional Center since March 18, at 8:00pm.

This unit is a much better place; the cells are open at 7:00am and close at 10:30pm. With the general population, he has access to TV and radio; they can make calls, exercise, play cards, dominos and chess.  He has been reading his bible because he still has not received his books due to special restriction that books have to be shipped by book stores or editorial houses. This time he was able to take a bath and shave; previously, he was only allowed to bath three times a week.

Luis new cell mate is a Dominican man, who upon his arrival welcomed him with honors, offering food, fruits, and even a tooth brush. The next day he was introduced to the other Dominican and Puerto Rican contingency. Luis says that everybody has been very nice to him, and that he is in a very good emotional state. He also met a Chinese man with whom he has enjoyed interesting conversations about politics and the economy. This person is in charge of recruiting volunteers to become teachers, so Luis thinks he will be invited to teach.

One thing I will like to put emphasis on is the fact that in all the correspondence I’ve received from Luis, he expresses the fact that he is very strong about his struggle and the fact that, no matter the circumstances, his sprit will no be broken and that he is not afraid to conspire or transgress with what he considers to be an injustice. According to him, this is a learning experience challenging the system from the inside…

As most of you know from previous correspondence, I share with you that upon his arrival at the MCC, on March 9, 2009 at 2:00pm, and after preliminary intake procedures, Luis was placed in the Special Housing Unit, also known as the metal box, the hole, the SHU. This cell is 6x10ft in dimension; he was sharing this cell with another man, spending 23 hours a day, and one hour on the roof of the facility, eating and doing his physiological needs all inside the cell.  All conversations with officers were conducted through a glass, in order to protect the officer. The place was very cold and when he was taken to the roof, it was also cold outside, so he started to feel sick. Early the morning of March 12, at 2:00am, Luis woke up with nausea, acute pains, vomiting, and a fever; he called for help and the official response was that it was not an emergency, so Luis continued to put pressure and around 12:00 noon, the doctor saw him and around 3:00pm, he was taken to the emergency unit at the hospital by three heavily armed guards.  The process to move him to the hospital was also an ordeal for him: changing clothes from the jump-suit to another piece of inmate cloth; a chain was placed on his waist and legs and the shackles were attached to the chain so he couldn’t move his arms.  After lab results, scans, and medical examinations, the diagnosis was that Luis had a stone in his right kidney and that he also caught an infection in his cell. Antibiotics were given and a medication to dilute the stone.  Back in prison, the search was more rigorous, mouth and even his genital; he was also asked to bend over to show his anus to make sure he was not hiding anything. As described in his letter, it was very humiliating and an inhumane experience.  He was also sent back to the SHU even with the diagnosis from the hospital.

When Luis told the guards that took him to the hospital why he was serving time, they couldn’t believe it; they were even more surprised after he explained to them that it was his decision to be arrested in order to denounce the School of the Americas’ actions, and the nature of their curriculum and instructions. The guard’s attitude and treatment towards Luis changed.  

My first encounter with Father Barrios was many years ago, when he was the Priest at an Episcopal Church in the South Bronx, an epicenter for the AIDS epidemic in the Puerto Rican community.  

He had invited a group of Santeria practitioners into the Church to conduct a healing ceremony for those persons infected and the families affected by HIV/AIDS – at a time when churches were shunning those members of their congregations.  

Father Barrios distributed communion wafers made of bread which had been kneaded and baked by people with AIDS to the congregation and then an Afro-Latino drumming/healing ceremony  was held in the church.  

This was a radical event,  for which he later lost his pastorship, but community members followed him to his next post.  

My next opportunity to spend time with Luis was in conjunction with youth outreach I was doing with the women of a large, predominantly Puerto Rican  street organization, called a “gang”; known as the Latin Kings.

Luis is the co-author of The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, with David Brotherton,

The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation and Gangs and Society, with Louis Kontos, & David B

Gangs and Society, as well as numerous articles on the lack of justice in the Criminal Justice system.

Luis considers himself to be a “prisioner of conscience”.

(You can read his full statement on his blog):

Statement by Luis Barrios concerning sentencing for protest to Close the School of the Americas My Transgression Turns Me Into a Prisoner of Conscience Father Luis Barrios

A prisoner of conscience (POC) is any person that has been imprisoned because of his race, religion, color of skin, language, sexual orientation, or creed, as long as the person has not committed or practiced violence. The term was created by the Association for the Defense of Human Rights Amnesty International, at the beginning of the 1960’s (

On this occasion, the action for which I am going to be imprisoned is of a social, political, moral, and spiritual character. This action was very well planned, within the context of non-violent, civil disobedience and resistance. I am not guilty of committing any crime against humanity. However, I recognize that I am guilty of being a transgressor of any “law” that pretends to justify oppression, exclusion, or assassination! I do it because these are not laws!

The Living Church News Service also covered his conviction and incarceration:

Priest Calls Social Activism ‘Duty to Our Goddess’

The Rev. Luis Barrios, an Episcopal priest canonically resident in the Diocese of New York, was sentenced to serve two months in a federal prison after he and five others were found guilty in January of entering the Fort Benning military base in Georgia as part of a protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. He is scheduled to begin serving his sentence on March 9. Fr. Barrios and others opponents claim that graduates of the institute, formerly known as the U.S. Army School of the Americas, “have been implicated in some of the worst human rights violations in the Western Hemisphere.” They want the government to order the school closed permanently.

“I will not try to escape the consequences of my actions,” said Fr. Barrios in a statement he submitted to the court as part of his sentencing. “This would do nothing but diminish the validity inherent in these actions of civil disobedience.”

Fr. Barrios is associate priest at St. Mary’s Church, New York City and chairman of the Latin American studies department at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He received written assurance earlier this month from the Rt. Rev. Mark S. Sisk, Bishop of New York, that his federal conviction would not be considered conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy. “Though I may disagree with elements of your actions, I consider those actions to be a living out of your vows as a priest rather than a violation of them,” Bishop Sisk said.

In an open letter to supporters after his conviction, Fr. Barrios said that the ultimate goal of his social activism is “being able to organize the religiosity of the people, so they can reach their liberation.” He said it is his “duty to our Goddess to build a better world.”

I wholeheartedly agree.  


  1. you continue to enrich my life, this site and the world with your cogent, relevant and urgently needed dialogue.

    you are one of the ‘good guys’ (sexist label of affection notwithstanding)

    – gadfly

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