~ from Pekin, Illinois, by Kristin Holm

(From the Nuclear Resister #153, May 1, 2009, via lettersfromprison.com)

March 22, 2009 (in the afternoon)

I got my first visit yesterday – mom and dad. When I found out they were coming I was pleased, but markedly unemotional. It would be good to see them – I like my parents. But it was to be no different than stopping by for an afternoon visit passing through town, or even an extended phone call. Though I had been here for almost 2 weeks already, I hadn’t developed any sort of desperate need for visits – time here seemed to be passing alright, and while I was anxious to get back to my life “outside” I honestly didn’t think about it that much.

The girls in my alley balked when they realized I was getting a visit after just a few weeks. “I haven’t gotten a visit in the whole 6 months I’ve been here,” said A-.
“That sucks,” was all I could think to say.

“It’s because I told them not to come,” she explained with a half smile. “I don’t wanna see nobody while I’m here – why do I need to see my babies cry when mommy can’t come home with them? Nope, it’s better this way.”

I thought she must be an anomaly – surely most women wanted their loved ones to visit them. But the camp seemed to be split about fifty-fifty, some desperately craving visits and others refusing them altogether.

“If my family comes to visit, I told them I wouldn’t even come out of my room to see them,” said S-. She’s an older woman in my room whom everyone adores and thinks of as their own grandma. It’s hard to imagine that she doesn’t have plenty of people trying to visit her, but she’s emphatic. She won’t even take phone calls.

Another roommate, K-, didn’t even tell anyone other than her immediate family that she was going to prison. “I just told everyone ‘I’ve gotta get away for awhile.’ I don’t know what I’ll tell them when I get out.”

So when my parents arrived and the visiting room (not large to begin with) was only half full, it came as much more a shock to my mom than to me. “These are all the visitors that came? And there are 300 women here?” she asked incredulously. “That’s sad…,” she sighed.

The few hours I had with my parents were really good. They caught me up on events on the outside, everything from friends’ weddings and funerals to the election in El Salvador. I rambled on about a book I’d been reading and told them about how bad the food is and how generous the inmates are. My dad kept looking at the clock and lamenting how little time we had left. The urgency was lost on me – we had several hours together, and they would be back to visit soon – what was the big deal?

When the time came for them to leave, we prayed together. My mom cried and I smiled and we all exchanged hugs. They walked out one door, and I walked to another. Mine was locked.

“We have to wait for the guard,” muttered a nearby woman wearing the same green uniform and steel toed boots I had on. That’s when it hit me like a steam truck – my parents were walking freely out the doors toward their jobs, family, friends, errands, pets, decisions, Chinese takeout, Saturday matinees, laundry, grocery shopping – their lives. I, on the other hand, was returning to my bunk, the track, stand-up count and the occasional 15 minute phone call home. I understood instantly why the women around me refused visits – visits are painful.

Time passes as faithfully here as anywhere else, and the smart inmates learn to busy themselves with classes and work and projects and exercise. But a visit allows you to step out for a moment, to see the flesh and blood evidence that you were somebody, ARE somebody, HAVE somebody outside the compound. That is, until that flesh and blood turns to leave and you find yourself being patted down by an armed guard. Then all you can think about is the time you have left in prison, and how it seems it will never pass.

“Did your mom cry?” I was asked the minute I walked into my bus stop after my visit.

“Yeah,” I smiled.

“Did you cry?”

“No,” I said, staring at my shoes.

“Yeah,” said S-, “you don’t seem like a crier. You’re strong.”

I smiled weakly. I’m not a crier. It seemed like now I should cry. But I couldn’t and I felt almost as though I didn’t have the right. I’m here for a few months. What of the women who are here for 14, 24, even 30 years?

“Prison is stupid,” I said, before slinking off to my bunk.

As hard as visits are, I still want them. And short as they may be, I will use all the phone minutes I am granted. And as for mail, I absolutely CRAVE it. Because though the next few months would be less painful without all that, it would lose its meaning. I WILL NOT succumb to the dimness, the less-ness, just because living fully, abundantly, is costly. I am here because of the enormity of passion I have been granted for God’s creation – I’m not about to stifle that passion just because it hurts to be separated from that for which I’ve sacrificed so much.

What this pain causes me to do, instead, is curse the lunacy of retributive “justice”, and the prison system in general. How does it benefit anyone to exile women and men, to sever their supports, to cage them, to rob them of the ability to renew or transform themselves using the tools God gave them – loving community, dignity, and self worth. You can’t treat people like animals and expect them to come out acting human.

And most of these women have a long road ahead of them as they struggle to honor each other’s humanity and their own in the face of daily degradation.

“I don’t need five years to figure out that I f**ked up,” said D- the other day, frustrated just a week into her sentence. She has already voiced what all the women here know – the biggest punishment here is the loss of relationships. And as I see picture after picture of young children pouring in through the mail, I wonder how our society can possibly benefit from tearing mothers and children apart for decades at a time.

All this and not a single woman is here for a violent crime.

[Kristin Holm is a 21-year-old Lutheran seminary student who was one of six activists arrested in November, 2008 at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) at Ft. Benning, Georgia. She was released from a two month prison sentence on May 6, 2009.]