A Reflection on Coming Out of Prison: On Contradictions and Responsibility
From the Disarm Now Plowshares website
After the Disarm Now Plowshares action, trial and sentencing, I was in prison with a fifteen month sentence: an eye-blink in comparison to the sentences of most of the women I was with in FDC SeaTac and FCI Dublin. FCI Dublin is a federal woman’s prison in California that is behind two fences and rolls and rolls of razor wire. There are about 1000 women there; 85% were foreign nationals, mostly Hispanic, who would be deported by ICE when their sentences were over. I have no regrets about going onto the US Naval Base in Washington, where the largest stockpile of nuclear warheads are stored, and where 8 of the trident submarines that deploy the nuclear warheads, are homeported.
The time in prison was full of contradictions and bookended by two passages: a quote from George Bernard Shaw about prisons, and a story from the gospel of Matthew about the judgement of the nations. Both bring up the question of how we as individuals and as a collective are responsible for what is happening in the culture we live in.
We tend to only think of individual crimes, not of crimes that we as a collective are committing. This is true in regard to prisons, torture, war, environmental degradation… any section of the death-dealing culture that we are in.
Everyday I saw women held in what I would call deliberate neglect, oppression, victims of corruption and physical torture. There was no chance for redemption, forgiveness or reconciliation with the community. The prison is an institution of revenge and punishment.
The laws that are a prelude to imprisonment are unjust. Some are racist, others concern individuals but not corporations. Many actions are not considered crimes if they are committed by a nation or corporation, whereas the same action is considered a crime if done by an individual.
Who gets arrested? The poor and people of color get arrested at a higher rate than those who are rich and/or white. In some instances, the whistle-blowers get arrested, not the people who are doing the actual crime. (e.g. Bradley Manning, Tim DeChristopher) Many of us have tried, without success, to hold politicians or, for example, the Commander of US Naval Base Kitsap/Bangor, to the same rules to which ordinary people are held.
Despite the difficulties and contradictions of prison, there were opportunities to be kind to others and to receive kindness from others. I felt the goodness of the other women every day, and despite difficult home situations, toothaches and chronic pain, despite the difficulties of trying to stay close to children, the women were generous and compassionate with each other. Perhaps it was the shared suffering that brought out our compassion and brought us closer to each other.
One of the contradictions that I experienced was the amazing compassion from the staff and guards toward me and the other women. In the midst of a huge bureaucracy, budget cuts, union struggles, and a power system that makes it hard to be an “inmate lover”, there were people who kept their humanity and tried to be responsive to the needs of the women. I was thankful for their kindness, although I thought to myself: at the end of the day, if I climb the fence, they are willing to shoot me. Nevertheless, many of the staff went home with a clear conscience, knowing that their kindness had helped people out that day–an amazing situation, especially considering the Philip Zimbardo’s work and the prison experiment at Stanford.
The story of the judgement of the nations in Matthew (Mt 25: 31-46) stayed in my mind while I was inside. It’s the story of people being reminded that when they help the “least”, they are helping Jesus. The examples of acts of mercy that are cited: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, take care of the sick, visit those in prison. The women around me in the prison ministered to each other’s needs–women who had very little shared what they had. Against all the prison rules, women coming in were gifted with hygiene articles and warm clothing. These acts of mercy are clear even to us in prison that society says are the worst and least likely to be moral and do good. But what about as a collective? How is our country doing on these actions? Although we are all individually responsible for our actions, we are also responsible for our collective actions. We all make individual mistakes, but what about our collective mistakes? We repent our sins as individuals, but do we even recognize our collective sins?
When did we see you hungry, naked, a stranger, sick or in prison? When does our nation see groups of people as strangers, hungry, sick or in prison? What are the structures that allow poverty, hunger, sickness, incarceration, to be entrenched in the web of our society?
As a society we have decided that it’s OK to bomb other countries, to use drones to kill other leaders, to kill children in schools and at play. Yet individually we know that it’s wrong to get a gun or a knife and murder our neighbors.
As a society we can spend more than half of every federal discretionary income tax dollar on war making and killing others, and yet if a family spent half of their money on weapons, while their children were hungry and without proper education or medical care, people would question the decision making of that family.
The US spends 1.3 trillion dollars a year on warmaking, and 52 billion dollars on nuclear weapons. That’s over $100,000,000 every day on nuclear weapons: reseach, developing, building, testing, and deploying these weapons of mass destruction. The nuclear weapons have no use but to threaten to kill or kill people. And yet we tolerate these weapons of mass destruction on high alert all the time, hauled around in submarines, ready to be fired and destroy whole cities. We accept them as needed to defend our way of life–well, so it seems. Polls that have been taken show that the people of the US want nuclear disarmament. But somehow the will of the people doesn’t get translated into action.
As individuals, we know it is illegal and immoral to assault or torture other people, yet as a nation we allow the torture of others and consider it good and necessary for the greater good. I had many good conversations about violence/non-violence with the women around me, and the staff in the prison. One of the staff who had been in the Marines told me that I was stupid to think that nonviolence could possibly work. The underlying fact is that violence has never worked, and that we don’t have to look at the world through the lens of friends and enemies. We are all part of the same, struggling, broken community.
Prison Labor: The question of whether to work in prison, or to refuse to work, as any work is cooperation that makes the prison run.
The Laogai, as the Chinese prison labor camps are called, hold over 5 million people. The prison camps are built next to corporate factories, and the prisoners make the products that the factories sell. The people in these camps probably made some of the products that are around your home or business. (Christmas tree lights, tea bags, plastic flowers, Bert Simpson slippers, tools, diesel engines, and so on)
At FCI Dublin, the prison labor that competed with the private sector was UNICOR, which at the time I was there had a contract with California Marketing. The women called individuals and businesses and in exchange for updated addresses, phone numbers and email addresses, gave them a subscription to a trade magazine. The women learned how to be good phone solicitors, not pausing to let the person say no, not telling them they were calling from a prison, and practicing rebuttals and hard sell. Truth was not important.
The prison runs on prisoner labor. Women cook, clean, do electrical, plumbing and carpentry work, paint, repair machines, and landscape. Women teach, type, drive a forklift, and do all manner of things that need to be done. The prison is clean, neatness and cleanliness are valued, and I’m thankful for that. I made a decision that I would not work at UNICOR–many of the UNICOR contracts are directly with the military. But I did decide to work in a way that helps others: life if full of contradictions. I was able to stay occupied by teaching ESL, teaching clay sculpture and running the kiln, and participating in the music skills program. Also, I was part of the suicide prevention cadre, a group of women who accompanied women who were at risk of harming themselves. Working in the prison is a compromise that some of us don’t make.
The prison separates women from their children, mothers from fathers; the prison keeps families apart during times of grief when a family member dies. The suffering of the prisoners tended to bond us together, to humanize us to each other and at the same time, dehumanizes those who inflict it. We prisoners, who suffer, are one with the people around the world who struggle for justice and for the common good of humanity. And yet ther e is no “us and them”, we are all in this human condition together. We, bureaucrats, guards and prisoners, are all in the 99%
I am with the woman with a broken arm and no treatment, one who has an earache month after month or an untreated kidney stone, those unjustly held, and the porn videographer and bank robber. I am with the laughter, prayer, study, smiles and wonderful acts of compassion.
The prison is a place of contradictions. We prisoners all have a bed, clothing, and some sort of food. Then we hear that 5 children around the world die each minute from malnutrition. We hear that there are more than 100 million people homeless in the world each night. Right here in the US there are over 50 million without medical insurance, and not all of those who have medical insurance actually get proper medical care. Yet, whatever our conditions are, they are better than the conditions in the Laogai, run by the Chinese, or Guantanamo, run by the US.
The question for all of us is this: are we responsible for what our country is doing in our name? As individuals, are we allowed to murder other people? As individuals, are we allowed to build weapons of mass destruction and plan to kill our neighbors? And, what stops us from acting to end these death dealing actions of our nation? Family and financial obligations? Fear of losing our jobs, our good name, our economic situations, separation from family… and fear of the conditions in prison, fear of being sick in prison? Are these fears to determine our actions? Do we want to be making decisions based on fear or based on our conscience and faith? We aren’t going to have peace until we are willing to risk as much for peace as the warmakers are willing to risk for war.
At the moment I’m finished with part of the sentence: the 15 months in prison. The other part, a year of supervised release, was, according to the government, to begin on April 26th. However, I told the court that I was not inclined to live under the constraints of a probation officer. It’s unclear what will eventually happen. I expect I’ll have a chance to talk to Judge Settle who will revoke the supervised release and who could release me completely.