Former SLA member Sara Jane Olson describes life in prison

Sara Jane Olson
Sara Jane Olson, in an undated photo from the Sacramento County Sheriffs Department.
Photo courtesy of Sacramento County Sheriffs Department/Getty Images

(AP) - Sara Jane Olson, a former Symbionese Liberation Army member serving a 13-year sentence for the attempted bombings of Los Angeles police cars, says she survives time behind bars by writing letters, working on the prison yard and hiding her past from other inmates.

In letters and interviews with the Los Angeles Times, Olson said living in what she called "enforced idleness" at the Central California Women's Facility has altered her in many ways.

"I'm older -- oh, who am I kidding, I'm old -- and I've become really paranoid," said Olson, 59. "I've also become very good at masking my emotions. It scares my daughters, when they see my face, but in here, it's just what you do to survive."

While awaiting her release in 2009, Olson said she also does not discuss her past, and few inmates are aware of it.

I've become very good at masking my emotions. It scares my daughters, when they see my face, but in here, it's just what you do to survive.

"For me to come forward with some kind of spiel about what I did in those times, and what was happening from a political perspective, it's just not a discussion for public consumption right now. That's the old life," Olson said.

Olson was a one-time member of the SLA, a radical group best known for kidnapping Patricia Hearst. Known then as Kathleen Soliah, she vanished from California in 1975 after she was charged for the attempted bombings, and reinvented herself as a housewife.

She was caught in 1999 when her minivan was pulled over by police near her St. Paul, Minnesota home. After she was returned to Los Angeles for trial, Olson pleaded guilty for the attempted bombings. She is also serving a separate six-year sentence for a Sacramento-area bank robbery that left a customer dead.

In prison, Olson is among the most intensely supervised inmates, has limited privileges and no chance of transferring closer to home.

Each weekday morning, she works on the prison yard earning 24 cents an hour emptying trash cans and tidying up. She says she watches more TV than she ever has before, and walks obsessively - hour after hour, loop after loop - around the prison yard.

About 10 times a year, her husband Fred Peterson comes to visit from Minnesota and tries to bring at least one of the couple's three daughters each time.

"We make the most of it," Peterson said. "Visits are what keep everything going, so we consider ourselves exceedingly fortunate to be able to go."

Before she arrived in prison, Olson thought the experience would be educational. She recalled that Father Philip Berrigan, an activist priest from Baltimore, once suggested that all middle-class people should spend time in jail to "know what goes on."

Today, Olson said, "I can still see his point, but I wouldn't wish this experience on anyone."

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)