by Karl Meyer
June 14, 2001
Picture if you will this scene: I am a 64-year-old man, in navy blue pajamas, gray bearded, grizzled now from 44 years of struggle to achieve a world where people will no longer harm one another, so devoted to the practice of nonviolence that I will not harm even the 2 inch cockroaches that find their way into an airtight cell from time to time.
I'm jailed here for 22 days already, with another codger of similar age, likewise grizzled from 40 years of teaching history to doe-eyed teenagers in a public high school in upstate New York. Our other cellmate, a warm, bright-eyed lad of 24, just started on a career of service to his wounded Mother Earth, not grizzled yet, his soft brown hair braided in pigtails that hand to the center of his chest.
We are caged together in a cell of four solid brick walls, painted a dirty yellow, each 12 inches thick, the cell 9' x 12' x 10' high, a door of solid steel, a tiny window at the top of one wall, so small and clouded that we can see nothing through it, except a small amount of murky daylight and, every few days, a pigeon lighting for a few minutes on the outside sill.
We are locked down for 24 hours a day, only one and a half hours of outdoor exercise in the three weeks we have been here. We are beginning a sentence of six months; our crime, trespassing, crossing a white line on a highway into the Fort Benning military base, a memorial procession for thousands of innocents murdered in their hope of justice in Latin America.
The time has come around to sweep and mop our cell. Heavy brass keys clink together in the hallway. One key turns in the lock; the heavy steel door swings open, disclosing a semi-circle of seven men around the doorway; there are three burly guards in laced combat boots, black t-shirts, and many-pocketed field khakis; there are four trustee prisoners in blue pajama pants and red pullover shirts; with them, a yellow mop bucket.
A sturdy broom and mop are handed in to us, with the torn off flap of a cardboard carton (apparently the dust pan has been lost today). I sweep the cell and carefully ease the sweepings over the edge of the cardboard flap. Jack mops the floor quickly behind me. I stand at the doorway of the cell, proffering broom and cardboard. None of the trustee orderlies steps forward, so I step out into the corridor, dump the dirt into a rolling trash container, hand the cardboard to one prisoner, the broom to another, step back into the cell, and turn to give Jack room at the doorway.
One of the guards, the hard-assed one, catches my eye and says with a frown, "I know you don't mean no harm, but you know you're subject to being jumped on when you step outside the doorway to that cell."
We three are men so dangerous as to keep all ten in this tableaux stalemated, just for the daily sweeping of one tiny room.
One snapshot, frozen in time, from centuries of jail time being served by a million American prisoners and a million American guards of the prison-industrial complex. The prisoners work at it full time; the guards work in shifts.
[Karl Meyer is serving a six month sentence for reentry trespass at Fort Benning, Georgia last November, as part of the annual protest against the U.S. Army's School of the Americas.]