Observations from the Workhouse

Observations from the Workhouse, May 19-25, 2002
Steve Clemens

[After being convicted by a 6 person jury of criminal trespass for a nonviolent protest at Alliant TechSystems, manufacturer of cluster bombs, landmines, depleted uranium weapons, and other weapons which are indiscriminate, 15 defendants were sentenced to 10 days of community service or 10 days of jail. 6 of us chose the latter and this is my personal account of that experience]

Sunday, May 19.
My sons, Micah and Zach drop me off at the Hennepin County Adult Correctional Facility, aka the “Workhouse” at 12:30 PM. I’m pleased that both wanted to come and see where I’d be the next week. Paperwork is filled out and I enter behind the bars. After emptying all my pockets and was patted down & photographed (“Give me a big smile!”), the guard told me what I could keep- pencils, notepad, Bible, toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, and my Martin Luther King Jr. prayer icon, I was moved into a room to get my “uniform”. There is a 4 letter epithet scratched into the painted, but peeling, brick wall, a wooden bench along another wall, and a rusting radiator below a barred window with frosted glass on the second wall. A stainless steel toilet with no seat (they get cold in the wintertime!) and a stainless wall-hung sink grace the third wall with the base molding peeling away from the wall. Toilet paper and bars of soap hang from the ceiling, propelled there by those not happy about their new residence.

The trustee in the next room reads his paperback novel in the next room with his feet propped up on the desk. The window in the door allows me see him get up and put together my “welcome” pack. He sizes me up visually to decide what size “uniform” I need and rolls my blue scrubs, socks, underwear briefs into a roll with my blanket, sheets, & pillow case. The blue scrubs are similar to what Christine wears for work at the hospital- somehow I don’t anticipate taking newborn babies to their moms for breastfeeding or helping new parents adapt to their new realities as she does. My scrubs are more likely to be put to work “scrubbing”.

I overhear the booking officer from the first room talking to another guard, “We got a genuine war protestor in here”. When I first entered the barred entrance, he asked if I was carrying any weapons. I replied that I was in here because of protesting weapons. When I told him five others would be arriving next door tomorrow at the other unit, he asked if any of the others were nuns. That is a good sign that someone understands what a nun’s real calling might be when our nation is at war!

I think they took away my watch so I have no idea how long the wait is between functions in here. I’m told that because the jail is “full”, I will be placed in the A cellblock for today- lucky for me because the guard says its quieter on that side because that’s where the workers are housed.

Almost everything the caseworker from this jail told me over the phone several weeks ago is wrong. I will be released in 7 days, not 8. I can bring in a Bible, a notepad, wooden pencils, and a toothbrush- all of which he said I could not. I decided to enter on a Sunday rather than with the 5 others on Monday because he led me to believe I’d have to buy a pen and notebook and a toothbrush from the canteen and if I checked in on Monday, I might miss it for the entire week. (It turns out that canteen day is Wednesday and coming in on Monday would have been fine.)

While waiting for the uniform room to open, I remember rule #1 from previous stays in jail- always use the toilet when one is available. You never know when you’ll have another one available. You get locked in rooms or corridors waiting for someone or something with no guard or toilet in sight.

I suspect the country music playing in the clothing supply room was chosen by a guard rather than the African American trustee. Given the racial make-up of the visiting room waiting area at the entrance, I suspect most inmates here are men of color. It is heartening to see children in the waiting room- hoping to get a glimpse of “Daddy”. Hopefully they will be able to keep coming back to lend hope to these men who still have folk on the outside who care.

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord”- so says the Book of Job. “One guard giveth and another taketh away” is the application at the Adult Correctional Unit. When told to remove all my clothing for the obligatory strip search, the “senior officer” (or so his badge read) said, “What is this?” and held up the ML King icon given to me by the Community of St. Martin at my Sunday evening “blessing before going to prison” service. It depicts Dr. King being booked into jail, posing with his mug shot with an ID #. The inscription on the bottom reads: “How long will truth be crucified and justice be denied?” I’m told ‘you can’t have this as he tosses it into my street clothes bag. That’s OK, it is still here with me behind these prison walls!

Cell A259 will be my new “home” at least until tomorrow. It is about 5’ x 8’ with a fixed steel bunk with a storage drawer underneath. The sink and toilet are porcelain, and, of course, no toilet seat. The plastic mattress cover is well worn and the mattress is some very unforgiving material. I wonder if I’ll be able to sleep. Although I use 7 pillows on my bed at home, I’ll go without one here since there is none in my cell. My cell is not without decoration though. There is a metal ‘mirror” affixed to the wall above the sink and as I look into it, I see the reflection of 30 women, most in various stages of undress or in bikinis. Apparently a previous tenant had a fantasy life in here. All are pictures or ads ripped from magazines. So much for the concept of the jail cell as the monastery motif that some activists allude to! This would be a very noisy monastery – and this is reputed to be the quieter of the two cellblocks. It is quite ironic that these pictures are allowed while Martin Luther King is banned.

If A Block is the quieter one, it must be at night on weekdays. Guys are talking through the bars even though they can’t see each other. It seems that some on the third tier are trying to “converse” with friends on the first level. When you hear 3 loud tones on the loudspeaker, it lets you know an announcement is forth-coming. A Block can now go to supper. Stand back and keep your hands away from the cell bars as the doors open. After finishing supper (sloppy joes, cream of chicken noodle soup, 2 celery and 1 carrot stick, and 2% milk, there is a Prison Fellowship meeting scheduled- but only for the men who signed up in advance. Apparently this info is divulged during “orientation” which doesn’t seem to be offered to inmates checking in on the weekends. One of the other inmates tells me I have to fill out a “kite”, a term I haven’t run across in the 6 other jails I’ve been in over the past 26 years.

Also, I discover that I should have a pillow in my cell but apparently someone had taken it so I can request one at “shower-time”, whenever that is. It will be tomorrow at the earliest. At least at medical call I was given 2 ibuprofen even though the nurse who said I’d get them failed to mark it on my chart. I know I have no hope of getting any more at the 9:30 PM medicine time since it is not a prescription. Hopefully she will follow through and call my physician tomorrow.

Besides the constant noise, the view from my cell is disappointing given that this facility is located next to scenic Parker Lake. My cell overlooks the walkway for the tier. I am on the second floor of a 3-tiered cellblock, divided into 12 sections of about 16 cells each. Beyond the walkway is an iron railing, opening into the rest of my side of the cellblock. Beyond the rail another 6’-8’ are frosted glass windows that allow you to know if it is daylight or nighttime. Every 8’ or so is an operable, clear glass window, giving me a view of the mid-section of a spruce tree and another section of this prison. It appears that bananas are served at breakfast as there are several banana peels strewn in the walkway on the first level and another hangs down from a heating unit just outside my cell.

Supper went without a hitch. I sat at a table but not directly beside or opposite anyone else. There were 2 white guys from my tier of the cellblock already at the table. It quickly filled with other white guys except for the two seats opposite me. I was relieved to see a young black man sit down after I nodded to him to acknowledge his presence and to welcome him, non-verbally. Apparently he didn’t feel as welcome after another white guy sat next to him and he got up and moved to another table. It appeared he was hoping the additional seat could be saved for one of his friends so he wouldn’t feel outnumbered. After he left, several racial epithets were muttered at the table. I felt somewhat out of place, not having visible tattoos on my forearms like 4 of the other 7 men at the table. Given the company I was keeping, I decided to forgo my story of having attended a KKK rally in Plains, GA in 1976 and being called as a defense witness after a drunken local man drove his car through the crowd, injuring numerous press people there to record the event.

The steel bunk is unforgiving and somehow staring at half-dressed women isn’t quite as spiritually uplifting as the Dr. King icon. It is interesting to note what is contraband and what is tolerated. It seems every jail has its own definition of what is allowed; another way to keep you guessing and to let you know you are not in control of your choices. It has been more than 10 years since I was last locked up and this is a first-time experience for me in “progressive” MN. While intellectually I know that the large majority of inmates in MN jails and prisons are people of color, it is still shocking to see almost the reverse of the state population in here. While it is not the 88% to 12% split found state-wide, in here it appears that 70-75% of the inmates in here are men of color. It is surprising to see about ¼ of the guards in this men’s unit are female and so far only 2 guards are people of color of the 20 or so I’ve encountered.

I was able to go to the library after my medical visit because it was “recreation” time and the cellblock was locked down. I was able to find Jimmy Carter’s biographical account of growing up in Plains, An Hour before Daybreak as well as John Keegan’s account of the wars for North America – certainly a better find than the pickings of old Readers Digest condensed books found in the Potter County Jail in Amarillo, TX in 1981!

Monday, May 20.
There was about 15-30 minutes of very loud screaming and cursing last night about 11 PM (louder than what appears to be just normal shouting in here). Apparently, a new “resident” (as we are called here instead of inmates- “MN nice” again) was not happy with his new residence. I did not sleep well. Since my doctor didn’t sign the request that I be given ibuprofen for my back pain at night on official letterhead from Health Partners, I was not given the pain meds I wanted. Coupled with the fact I was not issued a pillow, I was never able to get comfortable enough to more than doze off occasionally. With no watch and no clock in sight, I had no idea of what hour it was until the sun came up. Prisons are more designed for indestructibility than for humanization and comfort. After all, if I’m too comfortable, I may want to come back! (As if eating with a “spork”, having no say on the meals, and putting up with men yelling obscenities and attempting to rap late into the night would attract any repeat customers.)

Eggs, toast, peanut butter, cold cereal with milk, and an orange was our breakfast. After eating, six of us waited, locked out of our cells but locked in the walkway of the first tier, waiting to go to orientation. Rather than having to unlock our cells to let us out for this meeting, it is easier to keep us corralled for 45 minutes of waiting. Mr. Johnson, the senior officer who leads the orientation used a lot of profanity but seems to connect well, especially with his returning guests. After being issued a rule book, and orientation book, and my ID badge (my new ID # is 00712398), I asked permission to attend the class on Positive Thinking led by Madonna Kerber, a Habitat volunteer who also volunteers at this prison. In the class we read a few statements, including “Attitude” by Chuck Swindoll and then viewed an Ernie Larson video on coping with our fears. After the video, we broke into 2 small groups to share how we cope with our own fears, …

Jesus, a Latino man appearing to be in his early 50’s shared about his (past) addiction to crack and other drugs. He used to live about 4 blocks from my own house – only he lived in a make-shift shelter under the Franklin Street Bridge with his wife and 3 kids while fighting his drug demons. He claims he has been drug-free for 3 years but when a friend asked him to repackage some drugs with him as a favor, he helped the friend out – only to fail a drug exam the next day at work the next day because the drugs had entered his bloodstream by handling them. His pay was cut from $28./hour (as a fuel-injection mechanic) to $14./hour and out of disgust, he quit his job and, in a downhill spiral, ended up in here. Another “resident” shared about his struggles with alcohol and is lack of self-esteem which makes him unable to stay sober for any length of time. He recognizes that he has problems with violence when he is under the influence of the alcohol. His “fear” is that he doesn’t deserve to be in a healthy relationship with a woman because of his weakness for booze.

Lunch is beef stew, rolls, coleslaw, and pudding. On the way back to my cell, one of the guys told me to ask a guard if I can get a tee-shirt and pillow from the shower room. So, now I have 2 more possessions! The “pillow”, with its thick, cracked, plastic cover is nothing to covet but is better than none at all.

At 1:30 PM, I’ve just had my first shower here. When I dropped my soap, … No, I did not drop my soap and was not gang raped. The shower was refreshing and I received new scrubs that actually fit (somewhat). What other Bed ‘n Breakfast do you know that also does your laundry? At the library, I found a novel by Morris West, Eminence. I’ve enjoyed Shoes of the Fisherman and other novels that he has written about politics and intrigue within the Roman Catholic hierarchy, so, in solidarity with the nuns checking in next door, and because it will be easier reading than Keegan, I now have 3 books in my cell, besides my Bible. I tried reading 2 Psalms this AM but they were so violent in their portrayal of God that I chose some other passages instead. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer’s book has really caused me to read scripture more critically and not take lightly again passages which portray God in a very different light than how Jesus revealed God.

Word must be getting out about the “protesters”. I mentioned to someone at breakfast today what I am in for after he was surprised that I was in for only 7 days. He asked why I didn’t request doing the time on weekends so I didn’t have to use vacation time from work. At lunch another guy asked if I was in for protesting. At supper, 3 other guys at my table asked as well. After our recreation period outside this evening (our volleyball team lost but it was sure nice to be outside in the rec yard watching others play horseshoes and basketball), we got a second hour of rec inside after an hour of lockdown. While I was gone for the medicine call (they are now giving me more pain meds), one of the TV sets in the dining room had on Channel 9 News and there was a story about nun protestors outside the Women’s unit out here so there were two more conversations with me. I’d rather be asked about it than bring it up myself because I don’t want to set myself off from the others who might be in here for less “worthy” reasons. It was great to talk to Micah on the phone tonight even if the call was only brief and it was hard to hear.

Tuesday, May 21.
Breakfast consisted of French toast swimming in syrup. It also included 2% milk and cold cereal. If you know the resident handing out the cereal, you might score the sugar-based variety of Frosted Flakes. If not, you’ll get the Quaker Brand version of corn flakes, rice krispies, or raisin bran. Back to the cell until lunch at little after 11. Lunch is roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, cooked spinach, 3 pieces of white bread, and, for some, a small cup of jello with fruit in it. It wasn’t out when I went through the line – tough luck!

After lunch, I was released at 1:30 for my “intake interview” with my case worker, Deb. She has no idea what I was convicted of other than a trespass charge. According to her paperwork, I have to complete 80 hours of community service within 120 days once I get out. I inform her that is not correct, that I chose the jail-time instead. I’m not sure she believes me and she goes on to state that I can’t get arrested for trespass, disorderly conduct, destruction of property, … and I remind her it is for the next year. She looks again at the paperwork and says, “You’re right, until March 27, 2003.” She made no attempt to connect with me nor showed any interest in who I am. As I left her office, I told her it was likely that I’d be back sometime and she looked surprised and puzzled. I just said, “As long as they keep making these weapons, I and others will be protesting.”

Fortunately the intake went quick enough so I still had time to shower and still make it to the library. When I picked up the books I had requested (2 books by Howard Zinn and Marianne Williamson’s The Healing of America), the librarian pulled me aside and apologized for the scolding I had received over the phone from her supervisor. She had been threatened by an inmate in the past and there are strict orders that no one is supposed to give out her identity to anyone. Zinn’s Failure to Quit is excellent prison reading. It is a collection of shorter articles he has written. He makes me feel proud of the choices I’ve made that landed me in here.

Supper was chicken pot pie, canned peas, canned fruit, and peach-flavored kool-aid. (I gave my 3 pieces of white bread to the guy next to me who seems to eat everything in sight.) I talked with another inmate who has been fairly friendly about his work outdoors. He’s been laying sod at a nearby golf course in Hamel. and digging up rocks and boulders on the property here. He has to attend a number of DWI classes while here and pass a written test to get his drivers license back. Another guy at the table says, “Shit, I’ve got 16 DWIs so far.” All the guys at the table are joking about this stupid behavior. I, too, wish to end the scourge of drunk drivers on our highways but it is not apparent that locking them up in here is going to significantly change that behavior.

What a pleasant surprise to see Micah and Dick Westby waiting for me. I can see them through the bars as I wait to get a booth in the visiting room for my first visit. I’m disappointed that Christine didn’t come because I haven’t seen her since last Thursday when she left to go to PA for my niece’s wedding. I find out from Micah that she went to a celebration service for the remarkable recovering of a friend and neighbor who suffered a traumatic brain injury in January. I’m sorry I couldn’t attend with her to celebrate the power and support of community and compassion. Both Dick and Micah had a lot of questions about what life is like inside here and how my stay is going. It is always hard to transition from the “high” of a visit in jail back to the realities of life here. As I waited downstairs on level 1 to be able to return to my cell, several inmates are drooling over a very explicit porno magazine and making very dehumanizing comments. So much for reality… The visits are over a phone with Plexiglas between the resident and the visitor with 16 carrels or dividers set up to delineate one’s space. There is no privacy but it seems most people are concentrating on their own visitors.

We don’t get rec time today since we got to go out yesterday. I finished Eminence, a novel about the succession of a Pope. A good read until my other books arrived. I read several more chapters of Jimmy Carter’s book as well this AM. His stories of eating possum and other animals remind me of my friends Mamie and Ludrelle when we lived at Koinonia. I spent 15 minutes after breakfast cleaning out my cell, scrubbing the toilet and sink. We are given a sponge and some Comet and some liquid soap. A quick mop job of the cell before we are locked down helps as well.

Wednesday, May 21
I finished the Howard Zinn book this AM after a night of fitful sleep. My back continues to keep me from resting well at night so I’m always glad to see the sun coming up. I’m grateful that the bars on my cell face slightly to the east! I’m in a dilemma about the pictures on the wall. I’ve taken down most of them and tossed them in the trash. I vacillate regarding the rest. On one hand, they objectify women and lead to dehumanization. On the other hand, they promote a fantasy life which my be the closest thing some of these guys have for hope. Lord knows, the men in here need signs of hope – but at what cost or price? I’d much rather see the walls covered with sayings of King, Gandhi, Emma Goldman, Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day. Inspiration, challenge, and hope. I wonder if any of the “counselors”/caseworkers who work here started out with a goal of inspiration for these men only to be worn down and swallowed by this institution?

Although the single cell arrangement probably diminishes the fighting in here, it also isolates us from each other. When I was locked up in the Potter County Jail in Amarillo, TX, 2 of us from our peace witness shared our cell (called a tank) with 4 other men. It gave us the opportunity for some give and take/dialog, listening. Other tanks there held as many as 24 inmates and there were clearly more tensions as the numbers living together increased. I think the ability to listen in here is one of the greatest gifts we can offer each other. Here, the only conversations come in brief snatches at meal-times or during recreation breaks but often the noise level is so high, I have difficulty comprehending what is said. I wonder if I took a job as an inmate whether it would allow more time for conversation. If I was sentenced to do more than 7 days, I’d request a work assignment if that work benefited other residents rather than the jail itself.

Today is “canteen day’ and one of the guys at breakfast asked if I had any money in my account to buy stuff. “Snickers are like money in here”, he confided. “You can barter with them to get extra food at lunch from others with it.” I witnessed this yesterday when roast beef and mashed potatoes and gravy changed hands for a Twix bar. I’ll likely order some snacks and share them with others since my time is so short. I don’t feel the need for “comfort food” in here- at least today, day 4. In a way, I am a sign of hope for other men in that my projected release on Saturday is a precursor of their own release someday. If no one was getting out, how depressing that must feel!

Even the racism in here is “MN nice”. At lunch today the guy across from me says his wife doesn’t like to visit here anymore because there are too many (and at this he points to the black resident sitting opposite him but not listening in to our conversation) of “them” here. Then he made another statement about the “f-ing Indians” because they were have a sweat lodge today and we could smell the burning sage and he was convinced they were allowed to smoke marijuana as part of their “religious” rites.

Had a great visit with Christine and Carolyn Schurr from CSM this afternoon! Visits always make me feel a little guilty- enjoying so much the support I have while others in here often feel abandoned. But just because some others don’t get visits doesn’t mean I shouldn’t enjoy mine! I think this time is much easier on Christine than my first extended stay inside when I was in Amarillo in ’81. That was my first overnight stay and being separated by over a 1,000 miles, and being in Texas, one of the most punitive states in the nation didn’t help. We could make one collect phone call a week from there if we were lucky. Here, I can call every day if you can afford the collect calls. The collect call racket is another way the prison makes money off of inmates and is a punishment added on to the lack of freedom. Dorothy Day says the lack of freedom is punishment enough- jails don’t have to pile on the additional penalties and restrictions. I still advocate for conjugal visits for people locked up more than 3 months or so. Given the national mood on prisons and the cost-cutting measures, it is only a pipe dream.

Thursday, May 23.
Two days remaining. The guy with 16 DWIs said he called home and his 8 year old daughter was sobbing on the phone, wanting her daddy home for her birthday next Sunday. He had a few, choice words for his lawyer who he “paid $2,000. a few weeks ago” to get him work release status which would allow him to spend 8 hours each Sunday with his family. Why must the whole family suffer for the mistakes of one member?

Another guy at supper last night was talking about escaping from his outside work detail. He says he was at the work release unit and had gotten “written up” by a guard which resulted in getting sent back over to the straight-time unit. He is ordered to pay restitution as part of his sentence and was making progress toward that while on work release. Now that he is back over here, he can only earn $3./day- an amount he is likely to spend in the canteen, leaving him with nothing to pay toward restitution. He says he wrote a “kite” (a complaint/request form) for the Superintendent but said it was intercepted and denied by another guard. Several other inmates complained that kites addressed to supervisors routinely got intercepted as well. Any feelings of injustice get magnified in here. Many feel they didn’t necessarily get justice in the court and that victimization continues in here. Now he has to contact his lawyer (I bet they love the collect phone calls!) and hope the Judge can intervene to get him back on work release. Who do you think a Judge will believe- a guard or a convict?

I’m appalled at all the trash that is thrown from the cells into the walk-ways. Every time I get out for a meal, I find books, magazines, newspapers, banana or orange peels, and candy and chip wrappers strewn on the floors- many having been tossed from the third tier to the first. I think it is a reminder of the frustration and alienation felt here by many.

I am so grateful I was able to get the 2 Howard Zinn books from the library here. Yesterday I read a number of the articles Zinn wrote while teaching at Spellman College in Atlanta and active in the civil rights movement in the south. His stories of the young SNCC organizers and what they went through couldn’t help but make me feel proud of the small steps I have taken to speak out for justice and peace. Zinn was once charged with “Failure to quit”- certainly a charge that is more a challenge than an accomplishment. Reading Zinn’s articles on the class struggle in the 20’s and 30’s makes me appreciate all those who have blazed a trail before us and paid a price for working to make our society more just.

For lighter reading, I got a copy of Garrison Keillor’s The Book of Guys last night. One can’t read Zinn all the time and humor is desperately needed in here.

Sue Allers-Hatlie, a friend who is in charge of the chaplains at Hennepin County’s facilities, dropped by to say hi and have a brief visit. It was good to see her and give her some of my impressions of this place. I wish she was able to stay longer to talk about this place. It would be helpful for any staff here to get an inside perspective to their work. In fact, I’d strongly recommend that people who work at the jails (guards, chaplains, and case workers) should be required to spend at least a weekend “inside” a similar jail or prison, incognito from the other inmates to get a taste of the system before they become another cog in this machinery of punishment and depersonalization. Then, every 5 years, this experience should be repeated to re-energize the dreams they may have had for the job in the first place. Actually, while I’m on this rant, every Judge should have the same experience. If they did, I don’t think many could, in good conscience, send people off to these places without at least ear plugs and better facilities for visits and communications with those on the outside. Maybe a campaign to “send your Judge to jail” could help change the incarceration rate our nation so blithely accepts. Minnesota is, by far, one of the best states as far as incarceration rates- yet meeting many of these guys inside, one has to wonder about the sanity of what we are doing to others and what the lasting impact is likely to be. This is why when I have been summoned for jury duty in the past I have informed the judge and the prosecutor that I am a “conscientious objector” when it comes to convicting someone for a crime where the possible sentence could include incarceration, at least until our jails and prisons become humane places to live. Sue reminded me that in the winter and colder months, inmates here don’t get to go outside- even for the measly hour I enjoyed on Monday. I’m hoping we get to go outside tonight or tomorrow but most guys tell me that no one gets to go outside on Fridays and Thursday nights are for the B cellblock. The weather was threatening rain or it was too windy or something is the reason we didn’t go out last night.

I saw Tom Bottolene (co-defendant) again last evening as I was leaving the library. He was in his cellblock but not yet locked down. I thought he had been approved for work release to help take care of his ailing mother during his 7 day stay but apparently caring for a sick and elderly relative doesn’t count as work release. He will do a full 7 days here, followed by 30 days of house arrest (home monitoring) for a previous arrest at Alliant Tech. It is unfortunate that we were assigned different cellblocks, making it almost impossible to have a decent conversation with him this week.

I think shower-time is the time I look forward to the most in the daily schedule. It is so refreshing to feel clean again and it is relaxing even if it is a bit rushed so others from the cellblock can have a turn.

I’m pretty concerned about a black inmate who sat at our lunch table today. I’ve seen him several times and he seems to have a permanent scowl on his face and is unusually quiet. He eats very little. Today he passed on his mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and apple pie to others and ate only a small piece of chicken. Others try to joke with him but he appears to be in a deep depression. One of the more dehumanizing aspects of this place is the pervasive feeling that no one here cares. I know my past experience in jails has convinced me of the futility of trying to intervene with staff on behalf of other inmates. Despite this, whenever you do notice someone listening to another with empathy- really listening- it is a sign of light in this place of darkness. The way the guards are verbally abused here- both directly and indirectly- it is no wonder they have developed callous souls. I think you can only keep another human prisoner for so long before it affects the captor as well.

Friday, May 24.
My last day here (at least for this witness). SOS for breakfast is a given for any stay in jail or the army. Hennepin County gives us their finest version of this old classic. At least you can see some meat in the gravy in this variety. A fried fish patty for lunch with another canned vegetable and jello. Fish on Friday, I guess, is the institutional salute to the old Catholic penance. Does anyone under 30 today even know why Fridays were to be “meatless”? This raises questions of how other “special” days are treated in a captive environment. It reminds me of July 4, 1981 when I was held in the Federal Prison at Texarkana. We were served steak for celebrating “independence” although I recon few of the inmates chose to celebrate the nation that held them captive. What is Labor Day like for inmates earning less than $5. week? (In the Texas penitentiaries, inmates worked up to 60 hours a week for no pay at all- if you refused to work, they’d send you to “the hole”.)

I finished The Zinn Reader, all 660+ pages- a real blessing to have had it the past 2 days. He writes that our society doesn’t have a problem of civil disobedience- our problem is that we have too much civil obedience. Too many people just “following orders”.

I had a wonderful visit with my friend Spencer, the new Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral here in Minneapolis. He was his usual exuberant self. It is great to have someone to laugh with in here. He gave me a devotional booklet (Forward Day by Day) written by a man serving a life sentence for murder in Oklahoma. I’ve just read the first 8 entries and want to finish it tonight so I can leave it with one of the guys here when I leave tomorrow AM. Reading something written by someone who has been (or still is) inside really resonates with me here. A wonderful intervention happened as I was waiting to get back to my cell. About 30 of us were locked in this long hallway on the first tier when one white inmate moves aggressively against another, clearly trying to provoke a fight with another white guy. A young, black inmate steps between the two and tries to to calm down the aggressor. He intervenes long enough to help defuse the situations. He states, “I don’t want to see all of us get locked down.” I’m surprised and grateful for this small, risky act of peacemaking.

I’ve started the dispossession routine. Since I leaving in the morning, I gave all my pencils and the balance of my writing tablet away at supper. The hot dogs, cole slaw, and ice cream was probably the worst dinner this week. Maybe they don’t want me to return here- at least not for the food! I passed Spencer’s devotional booklet on to Ron, a guy I met in the Positive Thinking class. I included a note that if he likes it, I’d give him a subscription if he passes his name and address to me via Madonna. That way he won’t have to spend 40 cents on a stamped envelope.

I feel that I am just starting to bond with some of these guys- but it doesn’t mean that I’m anxious to prolong my stay here. I’m unsure how open I want to be with them: do I give them my phone # and address in case they need a visit or need some help? I don’t feel I know any of them well enough so that that gesture wouldn’t be misperceived. I’ll see what happens at rec time when I pass out the snickers bars.

Saturday, May 25.
I have to finish this after my release since I am giving away my pen tonight as well. Even the tablet and the stamped envelope were greatly appreciated. Several guys couldn’t believe I was just handing out candy bars without asking for something in return.

I was awakened a little after 4 AM to get ready to leave. Actually, I was awake most of the night- I just asked a guard as he walked passed the cell on his hourly rounds what time it was and when they’d come to get me. He said it was 4 and that an officer would be by to wake me soon. I had to remove everything from my cell when I left, dropping of any trash and my linens near the guard station. We walked out to the booking station where a guard took my ID badge and sent us into the clothing room where we were once again issued our street clothes.

There were 3 African American guys in their early 20’s (or younger) and a Latino man in his 40’s who are to be released with me. After dressing in our street clothes, we wait again for about ½ hour for the booking officer to call us, one-by-one, to get our personal effects and be signed out. The 3 African American youth spend the time discussing their claims of buying pit bulls and other attack dogs and going back to the “crib” to score some “blunts” (going back to their homes to get some marijuana). I seems evident that this was not their first time here because they knew the procedure, complaining that they would be issued a check for any money remaining on their books or accounts rather than cash. Although overcast and drizzling, it was great to be outside again.

Friends from The Community of St. Martin hosted a breakfast to celebrate my release at 7. I am blessed with friends who not only understand but also share my values. I am able to recount a few stories and thank them for their support. Sunday morning, I get up before 5 AM again. This time to drive back out to welcome the four women co-defendants who are released just before 6 so we can have breakfast together and share some of our stories.

No comments: