Continuing Work in Solidarity With Puerto Rico

People’s Law Office’s work with Chicago’s Puerto Rican community continued throughout the 1990s. In 1993, the office worked with the community to defend its right to express its political and cultural views by installing a statue of Nationalist icon Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos in a local park. After a lengthy political and legal struggle against political discrimination, the statue was erected on private property close to the park. In 1997-1998, the Puerto Rican community organized to encourage the local public high school to become more responsive to the needs of the community by creating a progressive educational environment which was socially and culturally relevant. These efforts were attacked by a right-wing conspiracy, led by pro-statehood proponents and their gentrifying benefactors, who used an FBI informant-provocateur and waged a campaign of lies, innuendos and distortion and falsely alleging misuse of funds. The office represented the community in defending against this highly political and baseless investigation that ultimately did not find a single violation of any financial or academic standard.

In 1994-1995, we represented Donna Willmott and Claude Marks who had been accused of participating in a 1986 conspiracy to free Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera. Oscar had been convicted of seditious conspiracy – “attempting to overthrow the government of the United States in Puerto Rico by force” – in 1981, at a trial in which he refused to participate, asserting prisoner of war status. We were able to negotiate the case, eventually obtaining sentences of three and five years, over the U.S. Attorney’s argument for the maximum ten year prison terms.

In 1997, the FBI continued its attempts to destroy the campaign for the release of the Puerto Rican political prisoners, subpoenaing activists in relation to baseless allegations of misappropriation of funds, encouraging collaborators to defame local independence leaders, and using an informant provocateur to recruit a university professor into a botched bombing at a military recruitment center. We joined in the political and legal fight against these efforts, and were able to expose the relentless and blatantly political attacks on the campaign.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the office, primarily through Jan, was intensively involved in monitoring the prison conditions of the Puerto Rican political prisoners, speaking and writing about the violations of their human rights, participating in delegations and meetings with the Department of Justice and the White House advocating for their release, and coordinating with the campaign for their release. By 1999, the prisoners, who had been convicted of seditious conspiracy and being members of clandestine organizations fighting for Puerto Rican independence, had spent 16 and 20 years behind bars, serving wildly disproportionate sentences ranging from 35 to 98 years. Support for their release came from the U.S., Puerto Rico, and internationally, and included elected officials, churches, Nobel laureates, bar associations, academics and Puerto Rican civil society.

In response to this movement, in August 1999 President Clinton declared that their sentences were indeed disproportionate, and offered to release most of them. For the next month, as the political prisoners discussed whether to accept the offer, the right wing in the U.S. viciously attacked the president for this exercise of his constitutional power, while the office helped mobilize a political and legal counter-offensive and coordinated with the prisoners. On September 10, Edwin Cortés, Elizam Escobar, Ricardo Jiménez, Adolfo Matos, Dylcia Pagán, Alberto Rodríguez, Alicia Rodríguez, Lucy Rodríguez, Luis Rosa, Alejandrina Torres and Carmen Valentín walked out of U.S. prisons and into the welcoming arms of the Puerto Rican people. PLO was fortunate that one of the prisoners who was released, Alberto Rodríguez, came to work at the office as a paralegal and intake specialist. In 2005, the office was successful in obtaining early termination of the prisoners’ conditions of release.

One of the prisoners, Oscar López Rivera, did not accept the offer to him, which involved him serving an additional ten years. The offer did not include all of the political prisoners, and, given the hostility towards him from the guards in prison, he believed that his jailers would not allow him to successfully complete the conditions. Had he accepted the offer, he would have been released in 2009. While those not included in the president’s offer were released on parole in 2009 and 2010, Oscar was not, and is now the only one of the 1980s Puerto Rican political prisoners remaining in prison, while all of those released –  whether by presidential commutation or parole – are living productive, exemplary, law-abiding lives. Oscar has now served 31 years in prison, the longest of any Puerto Rican political prisoner since the U.S. invasion in 1898. The office continues to work in the ongoing campaign for his release.

From 1999 to 2007, Jan, while continuing to be a member of PLO, lived in Puerto Rico where she worked with the independence movement, filing Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain FBI records on independence activists, monitoring the U.S. government’s interception of activists who traveled internationally, defending activists under FBI attack, and working with the campaign for the release of the remaining political prisoners. In 2005, when an FBI commando squad assassinated clandestine independence fighter Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, she worked with the team of lawyers representing his widow, to expose the human rights violations committed by the FBI. In 2006, as the FBI, in full military regalia, executed a search warrant at the home of an independence activist the FBI alleged to be a leader of Ojeda Ríos’ clandestine organization, she worked with Puerto Rican lawyers to defend the activist, and later appeared at a U.S. Congressional hearing to expose the FBI’s human rights violations.

In 2008, in an attempt to intimidate independence movement activists and distract attention from its murder of Ojeda Ríos, the FBI served grand jury subpoenas on several young Puerto Rican activists in New York City. The office worked with Guild lawyers in New York who filed motions to quash the subpoenas, thus representing yet another generation of independentistas who understood the grand jury as a tool of repression against their movement. No one was ever jailed, and the government never pursued the subpoenas.

Jan continues to be one of the stalwarts of the National Lawyers Guild’s Puerto Rico Subcommittee, and in this capacity testifies annually at the United Nations Decolonization Committee hearings on Puerto Rico. The Guild Puerto Rico work has resulted in a relationship of solidarity between the Guild and the Puerto Rico Bar Association, of which she is an honorary member.



Early Days
The Murder of Fred Hampton
Government Surveillance
Representing the Panthers in Downstate Illinois
Attica New York Prison Riots
The Fred Hampton Murder Trial
Prisoner Rights Work
Puerto Rican Independence Movement and the Puerto Rican Community
Fred Hampton Appeal
George Jones Street Files and False Imprisonment
Representing Demonstrators, Protestors, and Activists
Puerto Rico Work Continues
Police Brutality and Torture
Continuing to Represent Demonstrators and Activists
The Attica Prison Civil Case
Continuing Work in Solidarity With Puerto Rico
Fighting the Death Penalty
Sexual Abuse Litigation and Illegal Strip Search
Back to the Supreme Court
The 1996 Democratic Convention
Policy and Practice Cases
False Arrests and Convictions
Continuing to Defend Dissent
Continuing the Fight for Justice in the Chicago Police Torture Cases
Criminal Defense for Civil Rights Abuses
Jail Suicide
Opposing the Criminalization of the LGBTQ Community
People’s Law Office and The National Lawyers Guild