SAN DIEGO -- Former Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive Sara Jane Olson criticized U.S. prisons for the poor treatment of inmates and called for a stronger grassroots movement to slow the growth of the prison industry.
Olson, who delivered a brief speech Friday night at a meeting of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, recalled hearing stories of women being sexually assaulted by guards and others who are forced to strip in front of male guards in order to receive toiletries.
"The prison conditions for women are horrendous," she said. "Conditions for women in U.S. prisons are condemned by Amnesty International who cited sex abuse, lack of proper medication treatment."
Olson visited San Diego after a hearing in front of a Los Angeles judge who rejected the prosecution's request to increase her bail from $1 million to $2 million. Los Angeles prosecutors had asked the judge to find Olson and her lawyers in contempt of court because the addresses of a policeman and a retired officer were posted on her Internet site.
The Minnesota housewife and mother of three daughters is scheduled to go on trial Jan. 8 for alleged conspiracy to commit murder in a failed plot in 1975 to kill Los Angeles police officers by planting pipe bombs under patrol cars. The bombs did not explode.
Olson, formerly known as Kathleen Soliah, was arrested in St. Paul last year and claims she was never a member of the SLA, a 1970s revolutionary group that became famous for kidnapping newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. Olson says she merely helped friends hide from authorities after a shootout.
On Friday, Olson declined to answer specific questions about her case on the advice of her lawyers. "I won't because I'm on trial for my life."
But she said she believes there are personal and political reasons behind her being prosecuted 25 years after the bombs were found.
"I think it's a chance to try cases that were never indicted because people who could have been indicted are dead," she said of SLA members who have died over the years or were killed in a shootout with police shortly before the bombs were found.
Olson also criticized the U.S. prison system for the way it treats inmates.
"A new civil rights movement is needed in this state and country ... to halt and roll back the high imprisonment rates. Perhaps we can inject some humanity in the prison system where rehabilitation and redemption and not recidivism are our goals," she said.
Olson has lived for years as the wife of Dr. Fred Peterson, as an actress and community volunteer. She worked to help end apartheid in South Africa and says she sees a similar form of government oppression in the United States with racial profiling and the growth of the prison industry while funding for education lags behind.
She doesn't know who called authorities after the SLA bombing case was aired on the television show "America's Most Wanted." "I quit worrying about that because it doesn't really matter any more," she said.
Freed on $1 million bail raised by friends and family, Olson said fleeing isn't an option.
"I'm here for the duration," she said. "I have hope. You have to have hope."
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