11 years in prison: A Catholic priest serves time for crimes of conscience

photo by Joyce Donovan

from Religion News Service

by Patrick O’Neill

September 24, 2020

(RNS) — For more than 850 days, the Rev. Stephen Kelly, a Jesuit priest, has hunkered down in a south Georgia jail in relative obscurity.

On April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination, Kelly and I cut a padlock on a perimeter fence gate at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, the Atlantic home port of the Trident submarine, located in St. Marys, Georgia.

Five other Catholic peace activists passed through that gate with us that evening as we made our way to three different parts of the nuclear base to, in the words of the biblical prophet Isaiah, “beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.”

The U.S. fleet of Trident subs, each armed with D-5 nuclear missiles, carry enough firepower to essentially end the human experiment.

The seven of us, who call ourselves the Kings Bay Plowshares (Elizabeth McAlister, Clare Grady, Mark Colville, Martha Hennessy and Carmen Trotta), were arrested and convicted in federal court of three felonies and misdemeanor trespassing, for what the U.S. attorney referred to as “vandalism” during our October 2019 trial.

Because Kelly was on probation for a 2017 misdemeanor conviction, in which he protested at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, Washington, the Pacific home port of Trident submarines, he has been denied bail and remains in the Glynn County Detention Center in Brunswick, Georgia, for two nonviolent “crimes” of conscience.

Meanwhile, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been awaiting sentencing to federal prison for 11 months. While the other six of us have been released on bond, the 71-year-old Kelly has stayed behind in a windowless jail where he rarely sees sunlight.

Prisoners are allowed “outside” occasionally when they are taken to a cement cryptlike box with high walls and a grate-like fence as a roof. If the sun is not directly overhead, the prisoners never see it.

Thankfully, despite being trapped in an environment where safe distancing is impossible, Kelly has managed to avoid illness.

This almost 30-month stint in jail has pushed the amount of time to beyond 11 years* that Kelly has spent behind bars, all for nonviolent direct action in the cause of peace.

Once in prison, Kelly continues to live by his own set of stringent principles. Because all penal institutions rely on prisoner labor to function, Kelly opts out, refusing to do work that would support the racist prison industrial complex.

His noncooperation has had severe consequences. Kelly has spent more than six years of his life* in what he calls “the SHU” (segregated housing unit), better known as solitary confinement.

According to Amnesty International, solitary confinement is a human rights violation and often constitutes a breach of international law. How he manages such intense suffering is a mystery. I can only conclude the Holy Spirit takes over for Kelly, helping him treat solitary confinement in a small one-person cell as his monastery.

A man of great discipline and a deep and abiding faith in the God of love, Kelly spends his time reading, commiserating with the 30-plus guys in his cellblock, leading a Bible study and maintaining his solitary witness for peace. He never bemoans his plight and always sounds upbeat on his frequent phone calls to his co-defendants and friends.

A brilliant man, Kelly was asked to deliver the homily in May 2016 for the funeral of his mentor and brother Jesuit priest the Rev. Daniel Berrigan at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Manhattan.

In what Kelly called “a break with funeral convention,” he directed his opening comments to the FBI.

“We may let members of the FBI assigned here today validate that it is Daniel Berrigan’s funeral Mass of the Resurrection, so they can complete and perhaps close their files.” The crowd roared its approval.

“Are we to remain in a catatonic stupor, asleep, drunk, unconscious or in flatlined existence?” Kelly said. “In these United States of Amnesia? Will we arrive at perdition, dominion of death with our freedom never used, intact? What good is it if paralyzed in fear? Liberated, but not loving.”

Kelly said Berrigan and his brother activist, the late Philip Berrigan, “risked the retaliation of those beholden to death’s sway. They touched the idol of the state. Inspired, they, and other draft board raiders, retrieved the place and preeminence of the conscientious objector as imitating the love of Christ, averred by Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, but kept a secret in local pastoral settings.”

While most Jesuits teach, author books and pastor parishes, Kelly refers to himself as itinerant. His primary purpose in life is to resist nuclear weapons and war by putting his body on the line.

What puzzles me is after more than two years of incarceration for his selfless, courageous witness, Kelly and his plight have received almost no media attention.

Even though he belongs to the same religious community as Pope Francis, I have not seen any efforts by the Jesuits to promote Kelly’s work for peace. As far as I know, Kelly has not given even one interview from jail. That is tragic.

In the many planning retreats the seven of us spent together, Kelly was our de facto spiritual shepherd. He prefers to listen, but when he did speak, we would all perk up and pay close attention to the wisdom he would impart to us.

Kelly mentioned often his motivation to be part of the Kings Bay Plowshares: “I’m in this for community and cross,” he would say.

I knew what he meant.

When I read the words of Jesus who said, “Pick up your cross and follow me,” it is basically an abstract passage. When Kelly talks about the cross, he picks it up.

* Correction: Kelly has spent more than 10 years in prison, a third of those in solitary confinement.

(Patrick O’Neill, a co-founder of the Father Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner, North Carolina, and the father of eight children, is scheduled to be sentenced with Kelly on Oct. 15. The views in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)