Jail is a trip.
I recommend it to all judges, lawyers, and cops.
There's nothing like being able to touch and smell an experience.
So it should be a LENGTHY trip. One that gives the judges, lawyers, and police time to be bored. It's then you dive inside and start finding a few questions.
Like, why do guards beat people up?
Like, why did Lexington Prison have only 750 chicken parts for 1,500 inmates Easter morning, 1988? Surely they knew chicken was the prisoners' favorite meal?
Why was little Georgina slammed against the wall, then on the floor, then dragged away in a trail of blood to be held in solitary confinement for several months, in front of 200 witnesses in the meal line? What happened to the the women who insisted on telling the jailhouse lawyers what they knew?
And why did the government spend $75,000 in taxpayers' money to send me to four prisons over three months, my sentence for wrapping in a blanket next to my anti-nuclear signs outside the White House, in December, at 2 o'clock in the morning?
Sure, the National Park Service doesn't like people who dare to lie down at the President's gate. But is that any excuse?
On January 28, 1988, Judge Charles Richey held a trial and sentencing of four demonstrators, sending them to immediate lockup and sentences from 50 to 60 days. Two of the five were then marched into Judge Thomas Flannery's courtroom, and were found guilty of a second "camping" charge, and told to return for sentencing in February. Those two were William Thomas, founder of the vigil (who received a total of 90 days) and me (I received a total of 80 days). At least part of our incarceration had to be in the federal penitentiary, since we were convicted under a federal regulation ("camping" outside the White House, i.e., tending our vigil signs). It began at D.C. Jail. I kept notes as a first-timer; the following is a very personal account. Please forgive any offensive language or images, and try to accept this as an offering from the most open part of my heart.
"The meek shall also increase their joy ... and the poor among men shall rejoice ... for the terrible one is brought to nought, and the scorner is consumed, and all that watch for iniquity are cut off: that make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought.... But ... they also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding." Isaiah 29:19-24
First Saturday, January 31, 1988
Roberto came to visit. His hair was rumpled, face tired, but his eyes were serene. He's stayed at our signs. "How's Midnight?" I asked him. He smiled sweetly, and blinked. We sat on opposite sides of a scratched plexiglass window, not quite knowing what to say to each other. Acie appeared behind him. They asked what should they do with your sign, "Wanted, Wisdom and Honesty." Roberto had been tending the sign since we went to court. I told them they should think about putting the signs away until you're out of prison. Otherwise people will think that everything's okay. And it's not.
They wake us at 4 a.m.; if we don't get up, we don't get breakfast, or coffee. Coffee is rolled in on a cart, an urn, poured into emptied waxed cardboard milk cartons. Got to move fast to get any coffee, and supposed to drink it right away. Inspectors find hoarded coffee, big trouble, I'm told. Nevertheless, I take my coffee back to the cell, sweetened, two milk cartons full, hide it, go back to sleep, wake up to it later and all is well. Other meals, I swap meat for veggies, makes me popular, and I get all the overcooked, oversalted greens and carrots I could want.
Saw Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, celebrity prisoner who refused to tell her ex-husband where their daughter is, claiming he molested the child. Slim, dark-haired, blue jumpsuit (I'm still in orange), sat by herself on a bench, reading a fat medical textbook. I introduced myself to her; she was polite, but not interested in talking. Soon I was moved to a different wing of the several-tiered D.C. Jail.
I feel like I'm buried, no light, no air, library once a week, only one book at a time, constant noise.
Saturday, 2/6/88 D.C. Jail
How easy it is, when things look bleak, to find the poetry of despair in every book you read, every shadow crawling across these echoing walls. You turn to the Bible, and Isaiah rants, Job moans, Paul growls, and John promises death and destruction. And even the praises of Psalms are scant comfort next to the death of Jesus and his friends. Oh, so many friends since then suffering....
So you call a friend on the pay phone in the echoing chamber where 70 women seek ways to pass the inching time, and over the shouts and clatter you can barely hear her words: "... and if you don't change your ways, I have no choice but to withdraw," and your womb cramps still further, and the day's starches curdle on your stomach, and you crawl back to the cell and the ragged sheets you call your home now and seek relief in sleep ... where despair lurks in mythic forms and chases you silently screaming back into wakefulness ... and you pray for enlightenment, and joy, and visions of contentment to oust the pain of loneliness, and wish you could hold your own sweet love, who's as far away as the moon, and more, because at least if he were on the moon you'd probably hear his voice on every news show on TV ... and you think of Mamma, and raking leaves on the edge of a lake, and roaring fires that smell like Minnesota woods, and boy and girl children in your arms, and yearn, wondering if you're insane to choose a life of pain when solace is an aging lap away ... and you cry until your throat and forehead join, aching, and think, "God, I'll be glad when my period is over."
For two days now I've asked to go to the Infirmary for cramps. Red tape is carried to absurdity here. Yesterday, though, the guard who took me back to change my clothes -- and "squat, spread your cheeks, and cough" -- was heartening. When I told her our story, she said, "God, what's wrong with this system? I've been thinking for a long time I was going to have to quit this job, now I'm gonna think harder." If she goes, who will be her replacement? Still, I hope she goes.
Better if I didn't share my aching times with you.
I've been moved to a new cell -- SWl, #14 -- which is on the end of the-cell block, upper level, north side, where the sun shines in and I can almost imagine I can see outdoors -- in fact, I can see vague shapes of autos and through a less opaque shard, sun glinting off chrome and houses, and - yes! - trees! The cell has a door on it (privacy!), and I'm tucked away from the sound of TV and radio and Pam of the magnificent lungs shouting through the night. I'm at the moment forgotten here, and I guess that may prove to be a problem -- but rather more acceptable than the aching head and ringing ears and total lack of privacy in cell 28, since I cherish solitude anyway.
Sgt. Robinson, a decent woman of middle years, is responsible for the move. Last week I asked another officer, who snapped at me for asking. Bless Sgt. Robinson.
I have several blank walls in this cell, and a pencil may find its way to me. I'm designing what I want to leave here for those who come after....
They say the Jews in Auschwitz survived by becoming acclimated. I'm becoming quite institutionalized -- counting the days by tools acquired ("Tuesday a pencil, Wednesday clean socks, Thursday clean jumpsuit" etc.), weeks by visits. I've begun turning my walls into signs: "God is Love" was first, covering the east wall; presently in the middle of "Seek Peace" on north abutment over window; "Wanted: Wisdom and Honesty" across the ceiling next. I gnaw on the pencil like a beaver to renew the lead.
Are you getting my letters? I've sent three this week.
Did I tell you I'm now in Cell 14? There's so little news. I hear you're writing songs? Did you get your canteen money yet? Honest to God, I don't know how people can go for years like this.... Well maybe I can. I can hear them singing, dancing, and snapping their fingers down the hall. And the fellow in the cell above's a darn good percussionist on the ventilation pipes. They must have figured something out....
I'm sitting on Third Floor, waiting to see the dentist about a chipped tooth, copying and recopying a message to the judges and cops who put us away for wrapping in a blanket when it was 32 degrees outside:
TO THE ENFORCERS
I forgive you your part in placing us here.
You never would, if your vision were clear.
If you understood karma, you'd relinquish force
rather than cage us for living our choice.
Sages worldwide have cautioned their flocks,
"Karma's the power that no one should mock."
"Do unto others as you would have done."
"Wear the shoes of your brother -- or if he has none
go shoeless a mile -- before you condemn."
(Before caging someone, lock yourself in the pen!)
If I had known how cruel is the Cage,
yet still I'd have written the very same page
that brought me here. This hell I endure
to convince you, and others, our witness is pure:
unless we choose God's laws, o imperfect Men,
we'll soon end this game the way it began --
the board swept of players -- when greed, ego, strife
radiate poisons ... extinguish ALL life.
So yes, I'll return to the sidewalk again,
though you jail us, and twist our deeds before men.
And when you GRASP karma, your Bench will be bare.
You never will cage us for daring to care.
For God pledged: who judges, judged one day shall be,
but those who love life are eternally free.
This morning the officers in the bubble asked me if I wanted to be interviewed by a Washington Post reporter. Of course I said yes. I'm waiting. I wish I'd known it was that easy. I would have had Ernest White make arrangements from the outside for his radio talk show, because when I got on the phone with him today the noise was so bad I couldn't hear his questions.
I'd kept the call a secret from all but two other inmates, both of them (I thought) discreet, but I had a foul moment of suspicion when the guards decided to throw a noisy going away party for one of the old-timers who left PRECISELY at the moment I was being interviewed on live radio. I hadn't been on more than a couple of minutes before he had to cut the connection. Dreadfully frustrating. I did manage to get a few bare facts in -- that you three guys are at Lorton prison, that we're facing another sentencing February 26, that we're in jail for keeping warm while demonstrating, that it's ironic, because our best witness was the writer of the camping regulation whom the judge refused to allow as an expert, that we filed a civil suit in '84 challenging the regulation, that we were issued tickets a year ago and that's why we're here. But no good, juicy stuff. Sigh. Maybe we can do an after-the-fact interview but that won't get us out of jail now. Any more than an after-the-fact appeal will.
Saturday 2/13/88 - dusk (I think)
Well, the cattle are being fattened with carbohydrates and TV, newcomers wide-eyed. I'm an old-timer now. I'm learning pinochle, reading an 800-page sci-fi novel. Saturday. No visits, trying not to feel lonesome.
Last night I pencilled on the wall at the foot of my bunk "Wanted: Wisdom and Honesty." Each time I see it I think of your sign. You.
I've discovered a project that's crying out to be done. I wrote to the Administrator volunteering to help do it: Write a "Rules and Rights" sheet for all newcomers (heavy on the rights). They'll probably ignore this note as they have all others. Well, maybe one got through: They're no longer playing the radio top volume till 2:30 a.m.
Today's triumph: an orange jumpsuit in my size.
"And there is nowhere to go except inward for a solution to the outer dilemmas.... We must choose, with a globe-circling intensity, between construction and total destruction...." Quote from the introduction of "The Choice is Always Ours"
You heard, perhaps, that two street people died of exposure last week. So. Valentine's Day is nearly upon us, we've been issued our little sugar hearts, I'm going back to my cell to read, sleep, pray, and think of you....
An aged 8-1/2 x 11" sheet of paper curls brownly on the wall of "The Bubble" - a 7-paned glass control cage for guards, with letters in purple, pink, green, red and yellow, veined and tracked by millions? of roaches scuttling furtively in the midnight fadeout. Dust balls collect in corners; edges of walls and bolted-down table legs are encrusted; paint in the cells on the "unsentenced" side is flaking.
Rhythm. - WKYS radio plays all day and most of the night. Whenever strong percussion pounds the narrow, steep walls, women pour out of their cells or off their stools, fingers, bodies and legs snapping; a shout of pleasure swells from dozens of throats, an atavistic African communion.
One afternoon, after several hours of extraordinary, absolute quiet, I was lying on my top bunk reading. Suddenly, inmates in all stages of dress rushed into a small open space visible through the door, where one short, plump woman in yellow jumpsuit had begun pounding in syncopation on the milk-white windowpane. Two began to dance and clap, then all, as another woman belted out a rap song.
Sometimes I hear fingers snapping and I suffer an urge to scream "Stop that!" I react as if to nails down a blackboard. Does this makes sense? It takes concentrated detachment to overcome the urge.
Tuesday 2/16, 2:00 a.m.
I was just awakened -- I'm being carted off to Lexington, Kentucky! I'll write you as soon as I know what's what. I hope they'll let me keep my pens, paper, stamps. At last a breath of fresh air, even in chains....
Lexington KY, Thursday, 2-17-88
Dear U -
How bizarre life is. Here I am in Lexington, Kentucky, where my cousin ran a sorority house at U.K. twenty years ago. Always wanted to visit her here. I wonder if she knew about the prison.
Ten women were awakened in our cells at D.C. Jail at 2:00, held in a holding pen till 7:00, and loaded into a four-bench white van. Six hours we rode upright, in shackles hand-to-waist, from D.C. Jail to somewhere unnamed in midstate New York. I slept fitfully, leaning my head against the metal-topped back rest, when my stomach grew queasy from watching scenery through tightly latticed windows. A male guard drove, preening for vogueish female guard who laughed at all his jokes and talked about Club Med. We felt like cattle. We were brought hamburgers at a fast food restaurant and conducted to the bathroom at a gas station, where the locals tried hard not to notice us, and we tried hard to be invisible as we were walked in chains into the toilet by the female guard. She watched us every moment. I told the guard I was a vegetarian. He reluctantly brought me a small french fry. We were taken to a military airfield, where a big, ugly, gunmetal gray troop transporter, surrounded by marshals with ouzis and rifles, swallowed us after a thorough frisk.
We had been told at D.C. Jail we'd probably be happier if we didn't take anything with us. I should have complied. As we were put on the plane, I lost my Bible, comb, pens and pencils. Everything except addresses was taken away. The marshals said my books and papers wold be sent to my home. Which home? We'll see.
As we boarded we were handed boxed lunches, which we fumbled as we rattled our chains past the gauntlet of staring male eyes, some hungry for a smile, others resentful. Some eyes stayed on the floor. We women were seated in the front. I opened my box lunch and smiled at my seat mate. Candy! M&Ms. Fruit, and fruit "juice" (10%).
I was lucky. New York to Lexington was only one hour, the last leg of a week-long hop around the country from penitentiary to penitentiary. Some of the women had been traveling for days. One marshal told us there was an entire prison population constantly in transit. "Why?" I asked.
"This is the federal government," was his reply. "Does it ever make sense?" He wore a button which read "I'd rather be killing Communists."
We flew into the Lexington airfield, which was surrounded by patches of nearly-vanished snow. Seven women were loaded onto a rattly old bus reminiscent of a 1957 high school band transport. We drove past thoroughbreds' barns and brown fields and up a sweeping drive to what looked like a private campus at the top of a rise. We were walked past glass doors, where inmates stood and waved cheerfully through the glass at us. Behind them was a plaza, sun, fresh air. This wasn't going to be so bad after all.
Another switch from D.C. Jail: orientation. We were mug-shot, fingerprinted, strip-searched and handed a thick sheaf of papers telling us who was what where. We signed away our right to privacy in a paragraph that authorized the prison to open any of our mail (or we wouldn't receive it) and listen to all our phone calls (or we couldn't make them). We were fed cheese sandwiches and milk and, after two hours' processing, taken through the plaza to our dorms.
The prison is considerably more bearable than D.C. Jail. Fresh air and sunshine. Free movement around the million square feet - sometimes. Smiles. Both men and women circulating the central building and Central Park -- a plaza with tiny trees and hundreds of titmouses and other tiny birds. There are even gazebos. But there are curfews and guards and, I've heard, absurd rules. It's puzzling how many new wardens this place has had in the last year, too.
We eat in a cafeteria - salad bar, oodles of vegetables. Mandatory work, assignments to come next week. I have the freedom to refuse to work for UNICOR prison industries, which makes cables for TOW missiles and nuclear submarines. Classes in art, ceramics, aerobics, education. The library is easily accessible. . Of course, like the rest of our society, money talks. To wash clothes or hair, to lubricate chapped lips, etc., you MUST purchase through commissary -- no "contraband" such as stamps allowed through the mails, thank you (unless you're lucky). There seems to be a thriving commissary, with virtually nothing provided free.
The first five days are spent in orientation, an all-day lecture series held in a spacious classroom off "Central Park." The room doubles as an Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouse Tuesday nights. First thing, we were handed orientation handbooks with rules and rights clearly spelled out. Then we were tested. And lectured. And marched like fourth graders from dentist to doctor to lab to X-Ray technician and on home again. I was told if I didn't submit to the AIDS test then, I'd have to do it before I left. They took my blood. They wanted to give me a tetanus shot, but I had the right to refuse, and did. They scheduled me for a mammogram. Why not? If you're gonna get busted, go federal!
The psych test took all afternoon. Five hundred true/false questions, tricky or irrelevant or unanswerable. Pretty easy to see which neuroses they were rooting out.
Now, as I write this, it's 7:30 a.m. I'm surrounded by men and women eating breakfast together in the cafeteria. Last night the whole population was able to attend the Wednesday night movie - "Ragtime" - surprisingly violent - plenty of couples holding hands. That will be illegal soon, I'm told. In fact, the facility is becoming all women soon, under a new Reagan appointee at the Bureau of Prisons. The fellows, once in majority, are nearly all gone. The halls are emptying fast. The women are starting to hold hands.
I'm on a bottom bunk of a four-bunk Breezeway on the third floor. How I got this assignment I don't know -- most newcomers go to a large lightless dorm in the basement. I guess God felt my depression in D.C. and made sure I'd have little to complain about. My roommates are loud, particularly when I open the window. But after D.C. Jail, just a whiff of night air is as heady as sacrament. TV rooms are separate. Most people seem to keep their voices down in the sleeping areas. It's possible to stay away from your bed from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., then from 4:30 to 10. And there are places to go!
Looks like I'm going to be able to get a job working OUTDOORS! The orientation teacher has sent me over to Landscaping -- means I'll have fresh air and exercise if it works out.
One minor annoyance -- the phones. Have to sign up a day ahead, giving all names and numbers you're calling, with only 15 minutes allowed per day, and they make a big point that your calls will be listened to. Be sure if you write you include number AND unit or the mail will be returned.
I'll probably be dragged back to D.C. next week for sentencing. Maybe I'll get to try the two-day haul, stopover in Birmingham or Oklahoma or some such, and see some more of the penal system to write home about.
Life could be a lot worse. I could still be rotting and bloating in D.C. jail.
Spoke to the unit psychologist Friday. Took about three minutes for him to rubberstamp the paperwork, then we got down to a real conversation. Nice guy. I asked him about rehabilitation of prisoners. He said it's non-existent. Compared to D.C. Jail, it's everywhere! For example, I've signed up for the art class, based on the book "Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain." I feel like I'm in a college classroom when I walk in and see the wonderful canvases lining the walls, floor to ceiling.
It's Sunday, and I'm resting my weary muscles at a TYPEWRITER! in the library till 2 p.m., when I go take a Jazzercise class to overcome the pain of Friday's aerobics class. (Oy, what an old lady I've allowed myself to become!) And GUESS what I found in last week's Washington Post, so conveniently waiting in Lex library? Mark Venuti's February 14th letter to the editor, "Lafayette Park: We Can Stand a Little 'Visual Blight'"!
Dreams. A week of 'em. Blessed relief from the days. Oh, when will I stop being annoyed by gum-cracking, walkman-humming, "motherfk"ing roomies? By people in general? What a flaw of character. So little patience. Only lonely child.
2/26/88 -- Dear Mama
Greetings from "FCI-Lexington" - a substantially less cage-like federal prison which affords the suddenly-privileged sunlight, fresh air, and surface impression of liberty to choose activities and to roam. Actually, of course, it's still a prison, subject to lock-downs, petty rules, and arbitrary guard-egos, but I'm very grateful to be out of D.C. Jail (survivable, but still a nightmare). It's hard to understand how those poor people can spend YEARS in that place, as many of them must, and come out sane.
One wonderful plus is that another anti-nuke activist is here, Lin Romano, who's also a D.C.-based homeless advocate. Though we only knew each other casually in D.C., we know many of the same people and events, and shop-talk for hours. I think maybe I was sent here to relieve her two-year loneliness, and for us both to learn from/encourage each other. She's a bright, sparkly, fun person who is obviously, after four months, much sought after for her legal help and generosity of spirit.
Lexington is a level-one security prison, formerly for both men and women; currently there are 300 men and 1,0000 women, with plans to become completely female by August -- and also to become levels two and three, so it's likely if I ever have to do this tedious chore again I'll be sent elsewhere.
There seem to be three types of people who work here as guards. Ninety per cent are here to make money, and behave moderately well. Five per cent are genuinely nice, hoping somehow to effect change or reduce pain. Five per cent are pure assholes, sadistic, prejudiced, or confused.
We have a guard in our unit named Hunter. He embodies all three personality flaws: sadistic, prejudiced, confused. Unfortunately, when I first encountered him I was used to the casual, friendly attitudes I'd encountered for the past week with the other guards here. I'd overheard Hunter being sweet as molasses to a crony on the phone. I didn't know much else about him, till he came on a surprise visit through my dorm.
My mouth got me into trouble two minutes after we met. He caught me reading a book in the privacy of my bunk at nine o'clock in the morning. He told me I was not to be idly sitting in my room while waiting for a mandatory outside job (I'm waiting for approval to work in the kitchen, due to begin tomorrow), and I should go get a mop and bucket and scrub down the already gleaming hallway that stretches a football field length from our unit's front door to the main corridor.
No problem. But another new woman, Mary Huddleston, who's deaf, had just received orders to get the same mop and bucket and mop the inside hallway. Mary was walking away, and Hunter told her to stop, so he could change his mind I guess. She didn't stop. He barked. I said, "She's deaf, you know."
"She may be deaf, but she can work!" Hunter snapped. I should have caught on. Instead I pressed on: "That's not what I said." "I don't CARE what you said!" he shouted. "Get out of here!" I dragged my mop and bucket through the door, and countered, "Boy you sure musta gotten out of bed on the wrong side this morning!" He came flying out of his chair, shoved his mug right up into my face, and screamed at me, spit flying. I've been doing triple duty ever since.
This morning, in expectation of a "tour" on "my" unit, Hunter ordered three of us to mop and remop that same front corridor for three hours, so we would look industrious when the tour finally came through. I embarrassed the poor man. I took the issue to the Unit Manager, who assigned me to scrape paint on the windows. Now, scraping paint isn't much better than mopping floors. But at least you know the target.
"Work" is mandatory in the federal pen. Psychologists discovered busy bodies are less likely to rebel. They also discovered that most inmates were perfectly willing to occupy themselves with slave labor, as long as there was a store where they could spend the pennies an hour they earned making cables for nuclear subs, jockey shorts for marines, tablecloths for officers' wives. Industrial psychologists set up quality control quota systems and a pay system that rewarded eager workers with promotions in 11 cent increments from 11 cents an hour to the top pay of $1.10 an hour. Only people serving long sentences achieve that exalted wage, usually paid to highly-skilled sauterers in the cable factory. Other inmates sometimes envy their position. In the waiting lines for Pall Malls and chocolate candy, hair curlers and fingernail polish, ice cream and jalapeno dip, greeting cards and Tide detergent, those with credit have clout. Those who can buy popcorn for their buddies at the Wednesday night flick feel special. Those who share their chocolate ice cream before it melts get their hair braided.
The "work" ethic is firmly entrenched.
Once again I feel like a fern among mushrooms.
2/26/88 -- Dear U
Looks like I'll be seeing you in court Wednesday, after all. The judge seems to have denied my motion to waive appearance. Back on the road again. Naturally the trip begins just as cramps begin. God knows how to test us, huh?
I talked to friends last night. The contrast between Winnie ("Oh, you poor dear, I don't know how you can stand it, I know I couldn't") and Sita ("You're doing a fine thing, don't let them discourage you, darling") reflected my own divided mind.
People at FCI-Lexington kept looking at me hard and saying "haven't I seen you on TV?" when I mentioned our work. So it's not all in vain.
I feel rested and ready for whatever comes. If we get more time from Flannery, it won't seem as devastating as it would had I not been to Lexington and connected with our old CCNV friend, Lin Romano, serving a two year sentence there for her Epiphany Plowshares action. I can endure even another six months there (much better than I could have in D.C. or Alexandria jail). It is really sad to leave Lin behind.
I had a wonderful dream the other night. Somehow we'd managed to pull the coup of convincing senators and business leaders to join us in a seminar to discuss how to convert from war economy to peace industries. Though the conference room had walls and a big board room table, it was under the open night sky.