~ from FCI Elkton, Prison Reflections – “Wars for Freedom and Other Lies”, by Patrick O’Neill

Wars for Freedom and Other Lies

Patrick O’Neill’s Prison Reflections (transcribed and edited by J. Mark Davidson)                                        

June 17, 2021

Fully Vaccinated

I just received my second and final COVID-19 vaccination shot after being here for five months. So far…no pain…will keep you posted. The lockdown here at Elkton is far beyond medical necessity, and it seems like keeping us indoors 23-plus hours a day is likely more unhealthy than letting us get fresh air every day. The warden is the king of this dungeon, so here we are waiting to enjoy springtime. Update: The second Moderna shot was like going the distance with Muhammad Ali. I spent all of Friday in bed with a low-grade fever. This morning, I am fine, except for the left arm where I took the shot. 


I hope I do not have to be quarantined at the Raleigh Halfway House, which is the case with Martha in her Halfway House in New Hampshire. I am trying to get my interviews done before I leave. I now have fewer weeks to serve than many of the men have years. So many with draconian sentences. It’s tragic. As I have said before, there isn’t a man here I would not have to my home for supper. It’s far past time to dismantle this horrible prison industrial complex. I will be quarantined here for three weeks before I leave, but not in the SHU, just another block, but no outdoor Rec at all, and all meals in unit. No fresh air at all for three weeks or more. 

Sweet Sixteen

Today (May 2) is Mary Evelyn’s 16th Birthday.  I called her during her Sweet 16 party at Nora Torres Chemali’s house. Nora and her husband Mike host wonderful parties for all the children. Nora, now a nurse at Rex Hospital in Raleigh, came to live with us at the Catholic Worker (with her sister Erica, Mom, and brothers Omar and Freddy) when she was 13. The Torres family and our family are “one family” now. The lives of Mary and I and our 8 children have been blessed and enriched by the Torres clan. Nora’s 4 children go to the Exploris School in Raleigh, where 7 of our children went; our legacy at the fine charter school goes on after more than 2 decades! Nora took time off work to come to the Kings Bay Plowshares trial in Brunswick, Georgia. Update: Just got the big news that Mary Evelyn graduated middle school! She drew the loudest cheers from her classmates, and gave a speech (like father, like daughter). Only Moira and I missed the parties. Her gifts included a kitten.

Misery Index

This morning around 8 the PA system announced “Fox Bravo – Rec,” which was my block’s call to go outside for recreation. One problem was that on a schedule posted on a unit bulletin board it says FB-Rec is supposed to be at 1:30-2:30 on Sunday. Instead, Rec was called less than 10 minutes after breakfast was called. Unfortunately, this is not unusual. Schedules are not adhered to and inmates are never told. 

The “surprise” resulted in two big problems. On Sunday, many guys sleep in and/or wear headphones, so only 7 guys went to Rec, and none of us had time to eat breakfast (grits) that were cold (with no means of heating them) after Rec. Had Rec been at the scheduled time (and because it’s a beautiful, warm, sunny day), as many as 50 people would have gone to Rec, which is very important to the physical and emotional well-being of all of us, especially when we are only allowed 3-4 hours of outdoor time per week because of the lockdown! There have been many days when I’m expecting “Rec”, so I eat light and stay on alert to be called to “Rec” the entire day and Fox Bravo never gets the call. 

This kind of maltreatment and lack of consideration is just part of being at Elkton, where the dignity of the captive is irrelevant. We have no power because we’re kept locked in a large, noisy room, and the staff doesn’t bother to notify us of changes that would make our lives more manageable. Some of the guys who missed “Rec” said they were going to notify the Bureau of Prisons higher-ups about what happened, but I doubt it will make any difference. 

I have spoken before about the “Misery Index” of Elkton. Under “normal” circumstances, just being held captive in Elkton Prison would be miserable; throw in a lockdown, hundreds of men getting COVID, and a staff that doesn’t recognize the basic dignity of the men here, and it all adds up to high anxiety, simmering anger, and a “misery index” registering much higher than it needs to be.

Sad News

Jeremy Culver, a man at Elkton (not in my building) hung himself and died. When I picked up my breakfast tray and clean laundry this morning, I saw a woman from medical running while pushing a gurney toward the building where this happened. I prayed at that time, but later heard that the man died. I think there is a direct correlation between the long-term lockdown and the despair in this place for people who cannot get fresh air or sunshine for prolonged periods of time. 

There are also a lot of people with very poor diets because they buy a lot of junk food at commissary, and get no exercise, and eat as “comfort: in the midst of their despair. Please pray for the family of this man who died; one person who knew him said he was a United States Marine Corps veteran. 

One-time Oasis

When I got to the running track (a walking track to most of the guys), the bright sun was still low in the eastern sky, the temperature was mild, and the air was fresh and invigorating. Elkton was built into a large land basin that’s surrounded by rolling hills, lush greens, copses of pines. The guys tell me that we’re at altitude (on a “mountain”), but I can’t tell for sure. The sad part is this “one-time oasis” is corrupted by the intrusion of the steel and cement prison, completely surrounded by double fencing topped by haunting concertina wire. 

In addition to being ominous and ugly, all this security is an unnecessary show of Brute Force. Many of the men are like me…we turned ourselves in. Clearly, the courts did not perceive us as dangerous. It’s also important to note that every man held in Elkton has a release date that they hope to live long enough to see. An escape charge can add five years to your sentence. Very few people would take that risk, even if there were no fences!

Punishing the Disabled?

The window in my cubicle (thick glass and five vertical bars keep me from escaping!) offers me a view of the Elkton “compound,” which is essentially closed down. What I can see is the men from the various cellblocks with various two-story prison buildings walking to the “Chow Hall” to pick up their lunch trays. As I watched the men go by, I saw three of them walking slowly and using walkers and another guy in a wheelchair who was being pushed by another inmate who is designated as his helper. The $64,000 question in the midst of a global pandemic is: “why are these disabled men in prison?” Certainly, they represent no threat to anyone. The only reason to keep them at Elkton is for punishment. Why not restorative justice, compassionate release, redemption and mercy instead? Is there a large percentage of our society clamoring for the incarceration of disabled people? Yesterday, I saw three men in wheelchairs and seven guys with walkers at the same time in the compound.

Treated like a Number

From my barred window in Cubicle 4 (of 64), I look out at the prison compound, which is bigger than an NFL football field with large patches of grass intersected by long, wide cement walkways that lead to all the perimeter buildings on the compound (and also the main gate that we come into when we get here). When I look out my window, the compound is almost completely devoid of life. Since the lockdown, hundreds of men are unable to utilize that compound for fresh air or exercise. The gym is empty, the chapel is empty, the workout rooms are empty, the basketball courts and handball courts are empty. While more than a thousand prisoners are trapped in “units”, all the resources go unused. 

Earlier – just before dusk – I watched a single black and white skunk walking through the grass outside my window as well as sparrows roosting in the concertina razor wire outside my window. The people who work here don’t see a problem with leaving men locked up in units for days on end. Sadly, the brutal maltreatment of the “offenders” (I’ve heard that word for prisoners used on NPR) is part of the normal course of Elkton’s oppression of we men. It seems to me the worst kind of evil is evil that becomes normal to those who experience and uphold the evil. These correction officers just go home each day at shift’s end, and they are seemingly undisturbed by what they are doing with their lives. 

This week I got out to “Rec” four times, which was great. I was able to run seven miles (twenty-three laps on the prison track) on three of those days. On the other day, our time was cut short and I only got in five miles. “How old are you?” is a question I often get from someone who has watched me run for close to an hour straight. There are about four other runners in my cellblock – all are younger than me. We often run together, but I’m always the last one left. I treasure my time to run, so I just don’t stop till a guard announces over a PA system, “Yard closed, clear the track.” 

We’re all just a number. That’s how they treat us, just like a number, not a human being. And there’s nothing you can do about it. 7:30 AM – “No inmate movement, no inmate movement until further notice” was the message just now over the PA system. It must be a joke. We’re all locked down with nowhere to go. 8:15 AM – “Assume normal inmate movement” the PA just blared. Can I go outside for a walk? 

When Things from Outside are Thrown Over the Fence

I have come to the conclusion that NE Ohio has the most unpredictable weather of anywhere I’ve lived. After temperatures close to 90 degrees and a week of hot weather, the last two days have been really cold; probably in the low 40s – today with a cold rain. I was supposed to get “Rec” today, but it was cancelled because someone threw something over a fence near the track where I run, so they shut down “Rec”. Things thrown over the prison fences include drugs, cell phones, tobacco – all contraband, and of course Elkton treats this as if it was a major security breach, so one thousand-plus men have to be locked down without “Rec” until further notice. It’s not a valid reason to deprive us of fresh air. 

Memorial Day 

Tonight, during the “White prayer group”, there was a prayer thanking God “for our freedom,” while here we are, locked down in an overcrowded cellblock – not free at all, but in here the U.S. history of war is viewed in a one-size-fits-all that wars fought by the USA were, are, and will forever be all about “our freedom.” Nothing could please the Pentagon more than a circle of unjustly incarcerated men who will today hearken to the same prayers as their also blindly “patriotic” captors. The lie claiming war is about freedom is “in the water.” Macho men must value the killings by the warriors and also honor all those poor souls and their wives, children, and mothers (and husbands now that young women get to die “for freedom” as well) who were killed for freedom. As if all war is of God, by God, and for God. No one seemed to appreciate the irony that they in fact were imprisoned by the same government that fights wars for “freedom.” If war is “not sanctioned by Jesus”, then it becomes problematic for the God and Country crowd. Because if war is not God’s will, then by whose will is it sanctioned?  No one wants to go there, so keep the narrative on “freedom” and “Jesus is American!” How do we begin to counter the brainwashing of the masses? Prayers to the Prince of Peace!

Keep Those Cards and Letters Coming

I’ve been trying hard to catch up on answering mail after I fell behind after being in the SHU (Special Housing Unit) twice and going to the hospital. I really appreciate all of you who send postcards and letters. It’s very nice to hear from folks. Peace, gratitude, and blessings, Patrick

You can write Patrick at: Patrick O’Neill #14924-018, FCI Elkton, Federal Correction Institution, P.O. Box 10, Lisbon, OH 44432. More info at kingsbayplowshares7.org.