In Palmasola Prision with Yanky Ostreicher.
Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter | Wednesday, February 01, 2012

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One of the more notorious murder convictions in recent memory was that of 21 year old American student Amanda Knox. After Meredith Kercher, a 21 year old British university exchange student from Coulsdon, South London,who shared an apartment with Knox, was found dead on the floor of her bedroom in their rented flat in Perugia, Italy, Knox was found guilty by an Italian court of being involved in the killing.

 

On November 1, 2007, Kercher's throat was slashed and some of her belongings were missing, including cash, two credit cards, two mobile phones, and her house keys. Rudy Guede, an Ivory Coast native raised in Perugia, was convicted in October 2008 of murdering Kercher, and ultimately received a 16 year prison sentence. Also initially charged with involvement in Kercher’s murder were Amanda Knox and her friend, Raffaele Sollecito, an Italian student. Knox and Sollecito were convicted in December 2009, and sentenced to 26 and 25 years respectively.

The murder and subsequent events,especially Knox's arrest and trial, received worldwide press coverage.The media coverage included salacious tabloid reporting, particularly in Italy and England. After spending three years in an Italian jail, a panel of six lay jurors and two judges overturned the convictions of Knox and Sollecito, on appeal, in October 2011. In an official statement of their grounds for overturning the convictions, the Italian appeal judges wrote there was a "material non-existence" of evidence to support the guilty verdicts at the trial. The appeal judges further stated that the prosecution's theory of an association between Sollecito, Knox, and Guede was "not corroborated by any evidence" and "far from probable.

One of the most outspoken and passionate defenders of Amanda Knox, when the world still believed that she was guilty as charged, was retired FBI Special Agent Steve Moore. He had independently researched and analyzed her case while Knox waited for her appeal in an Italian prison. Moore, a 25 year FBI veteran who investigated murders around the world before retiring three yearsago,unhesitatingly told reporters: "When Amanda Knox gets out, if she needs a roommate, I'll send my daughter over.The evidence is completely conclusive [that she is innocent]."

Moore, a 25 year FBI veteran who investigated murders around the world before retiring three yearsago,unhesitatingly told reporters: "When Amanda Knox gets out, if she needs a roommate, I'll send my daughter over.The evidence is completely conclusive [that she is innocent]."

His opinion quickly changed. "I couldn't figure out why Amanda and Raffaele weren't eliminated on day one as suspects,"he said."I kept thinking the smoking gun would pop up—and it didn't appear."

When Amanda Knox's conviction was overturned, Steve Moore, who had insisted publicly and loudly that there wasn't a shred of evidence implicating Knox in Kercher's murder, was vindicated. Today, retired Special Agent Steve Moore is fighting for the freedom of a different prisoner on a different continent: Yanky Ostreicher. Fifty-three-year-old Yanky Ostreicher is a Boro Park resident who has been confined for 11 months in one of Bolivia's most unruly prisons—Palmasola, in Santa Cruz—without ever being charged.

A Rice Misadventure

"This is the scam of the century," Ostreicher said, after the presiding judge in his case quit, meaning more delay in a case in which prosecutors have failed to present any evidence to support their charge that he was laundering drug money. "I feel like I've been hijacked and kidnapped by people who are hiding behind the law." Ostreicher has now been through five lawyers and two judges. His legal fees have reached a half million dollars. Ostreicher's problems began four years ago when he and a group of Swiss partners invested $25 million in a rice venture in Bolivia's eastern lowlands. Andre Zolty, one of the Swiss investors, said the idea came from a Colombian lawyer, Claudia Liliana Rodriguez, who had done some work for him in Geneva while a student. Some of the land that Rodriguez bought for the venture turned out to belong to the brother of a drug trafficker who had escaped from a Brazilian prison and who, the investors say, became involved with her. When the investors suspected they were being swindled, they dispatched Ostreicher to investigate. He wound up firing and suing Rodriguez. The drug trafficker, Maximiliano Dorado, was deported in early 2011 to Brazil, where he is once again in prison. Rodriguez was subsequently jailed in Bolivia, accused of money laundering. The authorities then went after Ostreicher. During a June 4 hearing at which he was ordered jailed, Bolivian prosecutor Jeanette Velarde said Ostreicher had made investments with "capital of dubious origin."

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But the Bolivian government has never produced enough evidence to justify formal charges—and has nonetheless refused to release him.

Since Ostreicher's imprisonment, nearly 40 million pounds (18,000 metric tons) of his venture's rice was seized by Dircabi, the governmental agency that manages assets seized in criminal investigations.

Arrest warrants were issued in January for three men accused of falsifying documents in the case. They include a former Dircabi employee who reportedly forged a letter allowing the investors' rice to be taken. The agency's regional director has been suspended and is under investigation. Bribes and case fixing are common in Bolivia's corrupt legal system.

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In September, a judge ordered Ostreicher freed, only to retract his order a week later, saying he had erred. That judge was later promoted and a new judge was named to the case.

Then, two weeks ago, the second judge removed himself from the case, saying Rodriguez had accused him in court papers of favoring Ostreicher at her expense.

The US government has tried to help Ostreicher, but not having an ambassador in the country since its last one was expelled in 2008—for supposedly inciting opponents of leftist President Evo Morales—it doesn't have much influence.

Ostreicher's wife Miriam described Yanky's state of mind in dire terms. "The injustice that was done to him here is consuming him. He cannot sit still. He paces back and forth in a five-foot space in his cell all day. He doesn't sleep nights."

He reportedly chain smokes and often stares blankly at a single page for several hours when he tries to read. He is the only US citizen in Palmasola and is the prison's only Jew. When Pesach ended, Yanky went on a hunger strike. "He is slowly losing his mind," his wife says.

Dante's Inferno In an article, Moore described his three-day visit last week to Palmasola Prison to see Yanky as "three days in hell."

"It is a modern-day Dante's Inferno," Moore wrote. "But instead of the Roman poet Virgil guiding visitors through this modern-day underworld, my passage was shepherded by a good man named Jacob [Yanky], a grandfather from Brooklyn who made the mistake of trying to start a rice farm in Bolivia. There are many Americans in foreign jails who have earned their way there. Jacob is not one of them. And few human beings, even those guilty of crimes, have 'earned' Palmasola.

"When one thinks 'Bolivian Prison,' one might think 'barbarian.' But really, that word is so inadequate in this case."

Moore depicted the prison as follows: "Palmasola itself is a series of concentric rings of walls and barbed wire. In the center ring is a squalid slum where the prisoners—and their children—live, and into which guards venture only a few times a day when all of the prisoners stand for roll call. (Unless, of course, you are one of the hundreds who have enough money to bribe your way out of appearing for roll call.) In actual fact, the prison is completely run by a mafia of powerful prisoners. They charge the others for their cells, demand taxes on 'imported' items and privileges, and extortion money. Those who cannot afford to pay for a cell sleep in the gutter. Food is a gulag-style gruel served once a day for those who lack the dinero to have their food brought in.

"Open sewers run through the streets [yes, streets], and the prison garbage dump shares a plot of land with the prison kitchen.

"That the prison is run by prisoners is not a figure of speech implicitly condemning an inefficient or corrupt system; it is a fact of which the Bolivian government is proud. They have intentionally and officially ceded control of the interior of the prison to the prisoners. All the Bolivian guards do is essentially form a blockade around Palmasola so that no one escapes and only those things that the guards are paid to allow in are imported. Oh, and they drag out the bodies of the prisoners who are killed, usually on the average of one a month, and usually at the hands of the security prisoners.

"Members of the Disciplina Interna ['Internal Discipline,' an appropriately chilling name] patrol the prison and enforce regulations, social convention, and the power of the ruling prisoners. To be a member of the Disciplina Interna you must, of course, be a prisoner, and you must be sentenced to 30 years or more, which ensures that the very people who enforce 'order' in the prison are those who committed the most heinous crimes. The huge person I paid to protect me, 'Moso,' is at least nominally one of the least violent ones; he only killed one woman. In reality, the Disciplina Interna are uniformed thugs who demand protection money from prisoners and visitors alike. Al Capone would be proud.

"The prison is full of thieves and people more corrupt than you have likely experienced. And now I'm speaking, of course, of the uniformed Bolivian guards who grant visitors access to the village of the damned. I have spent three days in this 'prison,' and each day I have been robbed by guards who look me in the eye with a shameless 'What are you going to do about it?' smirk, as they take my money. Using a note written in Spanish that says that I do not speak their language (which I actually do) allowed me to hear the guards ridiculing me, Americans, and our culture. Entering the prison, visitors are branded with permanent ink stamps and 'Sharpie'-applied numbers. When I entered the first day, the guard told the line of Bolivians (in Spanish), 'Instead of black ink, I'll use green for the gringo.' Hilarity ensued.

"Jacob Ostreicher has been condemned to this hell; he endures the beatings, the abuse, and the extortion. Each night I left the prison promptly at 6:30 P.M. (the penalty for being late is spending the night in prison), suffering from a type of survivor's guilt. My guilt is from knowing that Jacob cannot leave, and that he is no more guilty of a crime than am I.

"Every time I left the prison I wondered why the United States has a State Department. And I wondered where they are—and if they suffer from survivor's guilt too."

Via Skype It is the third day of Chol Hamoed Pesach when I meet Steve Moore via Skype. He has just returned from his trip to Bolivia and is back home in California. I am in my office in Brooklyn. His image is a bit grainy on my computer screen. "I'm in a spot with poor Internet connection," he tells me after saying hello. But his voice is coming through quite loud and clear, though at times his words seem not to be completely synchronized with his lip movements.

When I ask Steve what got him involved in Yanky Ostreicher's case, he startlingly tells me that he didn't choose this case because Jacob is Jewish, as if I thought that was the reason.

"I was in the FBI for 25 years. I retired in 2008. Some of my first assignments, within five months of becoming an agent, were covert surveillance and undercover work against the Aryan Nation in Idaho. I worked with white supremacist groups throughout the bulk of my investigating career, until I was transferred to international terrorism in 2001. That's just incidental. I didn't choose this case because of Jacob's religion."

"Does the name T.J. Lyden mean anything to you?" I interject. T.J. was once a leading recruiter, organizer, and propagandist for the white supremacist movement. After spending more than 15 years as a leader of the neo-Nazi movement, T.J. left the movement and has worked as an informant for the FBI. T.J. and I have become friendly.

"Yes, we have met several times," Steve shares with me. "He was helpful to me on a couple of cases. In 1998, I ran a case where I interviewed the man who went into a Jewish community center and machine gunned a group of five-year-old boys. He was the one who said that it was a wake up call to kill Jews."

Steve explains to me that his kinship for Jewish people is more than just his professional involvement in going after anti-Semites. "I was brought up in a Jewish neighborhood and I have a strong affinity towards Jewish groups. I am an Evangelical Christian, but I am not a right wing Christian. For instance, I believe that the Jews are G-d's chosen people and I very much admire the Jewish faith. But that was not why I got involved with Jacob's case," he tells me again.

"This is hard for me to explain myself," he says with a contemplative look. "I got involved in the Amanda Knox case simply because I found out about it, saw the evidence and realized that she was innocent. I felt compelled to do something about what I knew. I strongly believe that when you know something, you have a moral obligation to share it with others. How could I look myself in the

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mirror if I knew someone needed help and I didn't help them? I get a lot of emails from people saying that they have relatives who are wrongly incarcerated. I evaluate the cases as to whether or not I think that they are completely innocent. I was contacted by Jacob's family and asked them to send the documents. The more I read, the more I believed that there is an innocent man sitting in jail in Bolivia for extortion purposes. So, I felt compelled to get involved."

When I ask him how long ago he became involved he tells me about two or three months ago, and proffers another reason for his involvement. "I was very compelled by his children's love for him. They seemed to have very little other recourse, and I felt like I couldn't just walk away from this and sleep at night."

"As an investigator, how can you help with something in a foreign country, in Bolivia, and not necessarily under US influence?" I want to know.

"That's an excellent question. The short answer is that there is nothing officially that I can do. I have no power or authority over the Bolivian court system. However, the American people and the Italian and Bolivian people are generally fair people. If you present them with evidence that a person is innocent they will make an evaluation in their own minds. Americans are fair enough that if they know that an American committed a crime and is in prison overseas for that crime, they might feel compassion for that person, but they won't feel a need to do anything for him since he made his own bed. If you can prove to Americans that an American is in jail and is completely innocent, they will wake up and demand from their politicians, State Department, and press to do something for that person. The one thing I can do is look at the evidence. If I believe that the person is innocent I can say something. With my experience and investigative background, people tend to take me seriously. They know that I don't do this unless I'm absolutely convinced of innocence."

"So your role is getting American people to realize that an injustice is going on. They will, in turn, put pressure on politicians, and that pressure will be exerted on the Bolivians?" I ask, trying to get to what he seeks to accomplish.

"Yes. As I said in the Amanda Knox case, which ended about six months ago, innocence is not enough in these kinds of cases. Pressure has to be applied. The other countries generally do not want to be embarrassed by the big old Americans. Americans have rights like everybody else. One of those rights is to be treated fairly. If they are being taken advantage of, it behooves the US government to get involved. It behooves the US people not to forget them."

I ask him whether he thinks the present administration and prior ones have not done enough for American citizens who are falsely incarcerated overseas.

His answer is direct. "No, I think they have not. I've worked in a US embassy as a legal attaché. I worked dozens of times in embassies doing terror cases overseas. I've gotten to know how the State Department works. The embassies are judged by their relationship with the host country. This means that they get a good performance evaluation if they are on good terms with the host country. If they go to bat for an American in trouble, the host country gets angry and that's bad for the diplomat. Unless something is done in the background that I don't know about, the State Department's conduct has been simply criminal. They are abandoning US citizens to their fate. They are sacrificing them on the altar of the greater good. They see Jacob as an impediment to establishing relations with Bolivia, which the State Department wants. He is being ignored."

"Has this attitude always been American policy?" I want to know.

"Honestly, I have only been involved with embassies since 2002 and can't speak for before that. When I worked in the embassy, my marching orders were not to go to bat for the Americans. I don't know how far back this policy goes but I can speak about this administration and this Secretary of State. They have shown the greatest ambivalence to Americans overseas that I could possibly imagine."

I wonder whether American policy towards Bolivia may be even more complicated since the relationship between the two countries is strained.

"They both, I think, recalled their ambassadors," he says. "So they're basically at loggerheads."

"Why did they recall their ambassadors?" I ask.

"Bolivian President Evo Morales is a socialist in the mold of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. He is a member of the indigenous Bolivian population as opposed to the more European element. This side has been a victim of massive prejudice for many years. He was elected to change that. He came in as a socialist and is trying to turn the country in that direction. He needed a capitalist country to blame all evils on, and that's the US. He has accused the Americans of spying and other things. He then removed his ambassador, and we in turn removed ours."

I return to the topic of Jacob and share with him that Rusty Young, an Australian who wrote a book about Thomas McFadden, an Englishman who spent five years in a Bolivian prison, told me that he believes Jacob is probably only being held for money.

"He is absolutely right. Rusty is right that it's all about money. I would add, though, that there is one other way to get someone released. Money talks. If we were to attach a provision to the next Bolivian foreign aid bill that we'll hold back money—say, a million dollars—until Jacob is released, that would speak very loudly. I am involved to pressure the American people to put legitimate populist pressure on their own government to do things like that for him. What is New York Senator Charles Schumer doing about this? Does Charles Schumer know his name? Does he know that he has a constituent in jail in Bolivia being blackmailed?"

"Does the fact that Jacob is an American add to his problems?" I ask.

"Jacob has two major problems. The first problem is that he is an American, which makes him hated. Number two, he's Jewish. Believe it or not, that's a problem even in Bolivia. He is the symbol of everything they don't like. They also believe he has money. If they would ask him for, say, $10,000, and he pays it the next day in cash, they'll immediately say, 'Whoa! We settled for too little!' and they won't let him out and they'll keep raising their demands. They'll keep going until they get the most they think they can get. I believe there is an amount they are asking for now, but if he pays that he has no guarantee that they will follow through and let him go."

"Jacob must stand out with his looks. Is that an additional problem?" I wonder aloud.

"Yes. It's quite a bit of a problem. He looks like a Westerner. He speaks like an American. Those things work against him. His Jewish observance separates him and has put him in danger. He has to refuse food offered him by the prisoners. He tried to explain, but that is considered an insult and that put him in danger."

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I share with him that Jacob's children told me that, notwithstanding the fact that Palmasola is not a maximum security prison, there are many hardcore prisoners there.

"Yes. Santa Cruz has a more maximum security prison. But they don't put the most violent people in there, only those who won't play by the rules. The person who Jacob is paying to secure him is a murderer. I hired a prisoner to take some photos (which wasn't permitted by prison law). He had murdered five times. A man down the hall from Jacob who gave me some Coca Colas when I was there is a hardened criminal. The irony is that the longer you're sentenced for, meaning the more heinous your crime, the more it qualifies you to be part of the Internal Discipline team, which is basically in charge of the prison for the prisoners. You pay them. They pay their bosses, they get privileges. If they don't like you they can do anything to you with impunity."

"Has Jacob been abused or beaten in any way?"

"Absolutely. He has been severely beaten at least once. I think maybe twice."

"Was there any reason for the beating?" I ask.

"It was for infractions of prison etiquette, which would include being truthful about a matter."

"Were there any repercussions for his beaters?"

"No. There are no more repercussions for them than there are for policemen writing you a parking ticket. That's the Internal Discipline system in Bolivian prison. There is even a place in the prison where people are beaten. It looks like a large porcelain shower—probably to wash the blood down. I've seen them line people up to be beaten there."

"Does the discipline committee have weapons?" I ask.

"I would be naïve to think that they didn't have some weapons on them, but there was nothing visible. They wear special hats that identify them and they have different colored polo shirts that identify how high up they are in the ranks."

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"Do you think that the Bolivian

government would want to see an American get killed in a Bolivian prison?"

"I actually think that the Bolivian government would enjoy it if an American were killed in that prison. It would be more popular than killing a Bolivian."

"So, when Jacob goes to sleep in his cell, he doesn't know if he'll see the morning?"

"Technically, no."

"Do they kill people in their sleep?" I inquire.

"I think that it varies, but I suspect it's usually done at night. They don't want to do it during the day, when there are visitors and witnesses around."

"Can you describe his psychological and emotional state at the moment?" I solicit.

"Let me use an analogy: Have you ever had to hold up a heavy weight for a long, long, long time? Your muscles start to shake and you're in agony. In the beginning it's hard, but after a while you get used to it. I think that emotionally he is in agony because he didn't know that he'd have to hold this weight for this long. I think that it's getting to him. Loud noises are frightening him. He is scared of someone coming to get him in the middle of the night. His life is in danger. He realizes it. After living almost a year that way, it's wearing him down emotionally. He is a strong man, but nobody can do this forever."

"Does he have any friends in prison?"

"Nobody gets really close because you don't know whom you can trust. People are very careful with whom they make friends. I think he has one or two people he can converse with, but no one that he can empty his heart to."

"How did you get into the prison?" I want to know.

"I said that I was visiting Jacob Ostreicher. The uniformed guards let me in. I didn't see any uniformed guards in the prison. It's basically run by the prisoners. They let you in to visit. They just want to know who you are and what you're doing."

"How long were you in there?"

"Three consecutive days, between three and four hours a day. This was last week, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday [the first days of Pesach]."

"Did you feel threatened when you were in there?"

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"When you go in, you cannot dismiss the possibility that they don't want you there. Within five minutes of arriving, I was made aware that my safety depended upon the decision of the discipline committee to protect me. That protection came at a financial price. By Saturday, they were concerned because I kept coming back. First thing on Saturday when I came in, I was shaken down for money by the guy who was supposed to guard me. He pretty much harassed me for payment all day until he threw me out of the prison. I had given him 10 Bolivianos (about 60 cents), which I told him was all I had on me."

I ask him to sum up what the prison is like.

"There is horrible squalor," he says. "It reeks of urine and feces. Some of the dregs of humanity are walking around. There are very old men. There are children of five, six, seven years of age running around. It is like you've fallen down the rabbit hole with Alice. It is the most incredibly bizarre thing I have ever seen."

"Is Jacob in with the regular population or is he a VIP there?"

"That's like saying, 'Are you in the VIP section of hell?' He is in a place where he has a better level of squalor than other prisoners. His cell block, which they call a pavilion, has slightly better amenities than other ones. For that, he pays a huge premium. It's about a five-foot by five-foot cell. His bed pretty much takes up the entire floor space. That is his only personal area but he can't lock the door. Anyone can walk in at any time. He does have a little kitchenette but I didn't see it. He has to use a shared bathroom with many other prisoners."

"Did he have any supplies for Passover?"

"Yes. His wife Miriam brought him matzos and the appropriate dishes. I helped her bring it. She stayed with him in the prison for the holidays."

"Was she in danger by being there?" I ask. "I think she was probably not in much danger. If they would be upset at her they would take it out on him. That's the prison code. Also, Miriam is a nice woman and I don't think even hardened criminals would want to hurt her."

"Did you find the city of Santa Cruz to be a safe place for Americans?"

"It's safe, unless the government decides that you have a lot of money and they want some of it. There are some nice areas of Santa Cruz, but it's really not a great city. It has some nice buildings. There is a very small rich quarter where you can buy a new Mercedes. The drug dealers have to have some place to live."

"How far is the prison from the city?"

"About a 45-minute drive south. It's on the outskirts, a more 'suburban' area, with concrete hovels and cattle."

"When they shook you down for money in the prison, how did you get back to your hotel?"

"I carried a credit card with me into the prison, as well as my passport and driver's license. The prisoners wouldn't take it because it's worthless to them. I never carried more than 50-100 Bolivianos, because if I paid him more he would think he could get more money out of Jacob, and it would make it harder for him. I didn't want them to think he was an easy mark."

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"What bad things did you witness going on in the prison?" I ask. "I didn't witness it," he tells me, "but the night before there had been a killing. Someone was stabbed about ten yards from Jacob's cell. I think it was a discipline killing because he violated some internal rules. I saw prisoners stuck into 'the hole'—no food or electricity, just a bare concrete cell. There were 15-20 people in the one cell. I saw the beginning of a fight that got heated right away and the discipline committee had to break it up. I saw a lot of cocaine use. I saw a lot of people lying around stoned in the garbage dump. I saw people scraping through the most putrid dump I'd ever seen for food. If you don't have money in prison, you can't buy a cell or food. It's like being homeless but in a prison."

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"Some people look at this prison as better than others because there's no lockdown. How is it worse?"

"If I was in a prison with violent murderers, I would be happy that there was lockdown for a few hours and I was safe for those hours. Jacob doesn't have a minute of safety. In American prisons there are guards. In Jacob's prison, there are no guards. There are only thugs.

"Even the freedom of movement that he has is not much more than in American prisons, where there is recreation time and sports time every day, and there are even stores and things like that in prison. American prisons also have safety for the prisoners. Jacob has no safety and no sanitation, and no guarantees of ever getting out.

"I've been in all sorts of prisons all over the world. This one is a world unto itself. Do not confuse a little freedom to walk around with being a good thing."

"Has your opinion about Jacob's innocence changed at all since your visit?"

"Now, after my visit, I am even more convinced of his innocence and the worthiness of his cause. My feelings are even stronger. As an FBI agent, I see evidence. Now that I've been there, I see that the evidence of his innocence reflects valid information.

"I believe that if things go well, his case will be put before the American people in a way that no decent person can ignore. I believe and hope that pressure will be put upon the State Department to work on his behalf. If they can't help Americans wrongly held, then what are they there for?"

"What can be expected from you in the future regarding this case? Are we going to see more press? Will it be behind the scenes?"

"I am writing some articles that you hopefully will see soon in the mainstream press. I'm on TV two or three times a week and try to bring it up. I don't know what the result will be, but I can tell you that I can't forget the man that I met down in that prison.

"Regarding Amanda Knox, I spoke on national television and it got a lot of attention. I hope to do the same for Jacob."

"The family told me that you are doing this pro bono (not charging any fee)," I share with him.

"That's correct. They covered my ticket and hotel. I paid for the Knox case in Italy myself and didn't really have the money. Now, I'm not getting paid for my time or work."

"Any final thoughts?" I finally ask.

"I was talking to a Bolivian prisoner when I was in Palmasola and he told me, 'I'm not surprised that Bolivia lets me be here. But I am surprised that America lets Jacob be here.'

"Jacob is a wonderful man and he should not suffer because America is more interested in relations with governments. He deserves our attention."

An update and an interview with Rusty Young—about his experiences inside the San Pedro prison in Bolivia—will appear in next week's magazine.


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