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Inmates Denied Christmas Visits

December 25, 1997

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Scores of Puerto Ricans carrying food and Christmas presents to jailed relatives were turned away at the door Thursday, despite a promise by top prison officials to end a ban on visits.

The incident at the Bayamon Regional Prison was the latest in a months-old struggle between the corrections administrator and the island’s 14,000 inmates, who have protested her efforts to take back the prisons from powerful drug gangs.

The prisons chief, Zoe Laboy, suspended visits after inmates refused to perform prison duties earlier this month and threatened to stage a violent strike. The protest met with little support, and Laboy later announced visits would resume on Christmas.

But family members who showed up at the Bayamon prison, just south of San Juan, said they were given no explanation for why they were turned away. Many carried steaming pork roasts and traditional yucca tamales for the inmates, but were told to come back Saturday.

Guards said they were told to deny visits for ``security reasons.″ They couldn’t say why the Bayamon facility was singled out among the island’s 36 prisons.

Prisoners have staged dozens of violent protests since Laboy took office in March, causing millions of dollars in damage to prison facilities in this U.S. commonwealth.

They were protesting the transfer of inmates to prisons in the U.S. mainland and Laboy’s policy of housing members of rival gangs together.

A scathing report released in July by a former federal prisons monitor concluded that the government had done nothing to improve conditions for prisons _ or reduce the grip of gangs _ and recommended the jails be put under federal receivership. The case is pending a decision in U.S. District Court.

The report stems from an 18-year-old class action lawsuit by prisoners against the corrections system, which has cost the government $130 million in noncompliance fines.

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