by Nancy Gwin
I. In January I was found guilty in Federal Court in Columbus, Georgia of “Illegal Reentry onto a United States Military Reservation.” I have been incarcerated here at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution since March 8. The illegal reentry occurred last November when Fr. Louis Vitale, Ken Hayes, Michael Walli and I walked onto Fort Benning, a US Army base. On our way in we prayed and sang to close the taxpayer-funded School of the Americas housed there.
Before arriving here, I hoped I’d be able to keep the faces of my Latin American and Caribbean brothers and sisters before my eyes. Would I be able to set aside my own loss of freedom and physical comfort, and my attachment to loved ones and community, to stay focused on outreach, organizing and prayer to close the SOA?
Finding those faces at Danbury FCI hasn’t been hard. According to one staff person, of the 1100+ women incarcerated in the “Big House,” at least 500 are here for immigration issues. They refer to Danbury as an “immigration station.” Most will serve their sentences and then be deported. Some, because of treaty arrangements, will finish their sentence in the country to which they are deported.
I hear Spanish everywhere here – at meals, in the dorms, on the commissary line, on work assignments, over dominos or a jigsaw puzzle. The staff translates at faith services, at Admission and Orientation sessions, but never over the loudspeaker. There is little opportunity to learn English as a Second Language – although there are some GED classes in Spanish. Resources are limited.
I share my crime of “reentry” with many of the women. “Reentry” – once removed, once warned, once deported, you must not reenter. Even if your youngest child is eight, a US citizen, living in California without you. Even if you have never lived in the country to which you are being deported.
II. Are any of these women from countries whose military officers trained at the SOA/WHINSEC? Yes. Referring only to women whose personal stories I’ve heard, I count Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Colombia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala.
Mercedes, stopped while driving, was charged with reentry in Arizona. Serving 30 months, she’ll then be deported to Mexico. Her husband is a US citizen living in Los Angeles. They have five children, all US citizens. Mercedes wept as she told me that her husband has had her phone calls blocked because her eight-year old is so distraught when she hears her voice.
LaSandra and I reminisced about Nicaragua and sang “Nicaraguita” together. Her sentence is 12 months and then deportation. She has ten children, ages 15 to 27, living in Texas. The youngest six are US citizens; the oldest four are documented with working papers.
Andrea, in her early 20s, came to the US from Mexico with her parents when she was three. Her parents, documented permanent residents, never became US citizens and she isn’t one. Her younger siblings, born in the US, are citizens. Andrea has committed a drug crime and faces deportation upon release (although her sentence may be markedly reduced by a new disparity-in-sentencing law). At Danbury, she has completed her GED and now teaches other women. She has no family in Mexico.
Norma came to this country with her husband 25 years ago to escape genocide in Guatemala. She worked for 20 years cleaning houses. But recently her Green Card wasn’t renewed. After 11 months’ incarceration, she’ll be deported to Guatemala. Her two children are both high school students and US citizens, as is her former husband.
So many children without their mothers and grandmothers. So many mothers yearning to parent their children. So much effort to call, to design cards, to crochet gifts, to write letters of advice and love.
III. Daily I’m reminded of the consequences of the US government’s “War Against Drugs.” Women whose drug offenses are nonviolent crimes of poverty and insecurity languish with painfully long sentences. My six-month sentence, now five, seems short as I wait with these women to embrace a daughter, to reconcile with a son, to hold a grandchild. We wait and work with others on the outside to move a cautious Congress. We wait to hear that the new law correcting disparity in sentencing for crack and cocaine use will retroactively reduce sentences. We wait for cruel three-strikes laws to be tossed out, for immigration reform to include family reunification and reasonable paths to citizenship. We wait for HR 2567 – the law to close the SOA – to pass.
[Reprinted from the Syracuse Peace Council‘s May, 2010 Peace Newsletter. Nancy Gwin served a four-month sentence for trespass at Ft. Benning, Georgia.]