Letters From Prison 2006 #8- Walking and Talking

Walking and Talking
By Steve Clemens. FPC Duluth. April 30,2006

As Yogi Berra said, “It was deja vu all over again.” When I saw in the chapel bulletin that the prison chaplain was bringing the sermon this morning, I had the same sinking feeling I had back in the mid 80s when I discovered Jimmy Carter was slated to preach at Koinonia’s worship.

Actually, as sermons go, both were good and, at times, inspiring. It wasn’t the proclamation but rather the practice that caused my consternation. It was difficult to hear President Carter talk about Jesus when what went through my mind was a Commander-in-Chief who threatened the Soviets with nuclear weapons and an administration which proposed a neutron bomb which would kill people but spare buildings.

When I hear the chaplain’s name (or title), I immediately think “police” rather than “pastor.” When one’s role involves the continual caging of other humans, it is hard to set that fact aside to hear anything else. When one has threatened an action which could precipitate the end of the world as we know it, it makes it difficult to suppress that awareness to honor such a man with the Nobel Peace Prize.

Incarnation—the words becoming flesh and blood must also be coupled with consistency for the message to be heard. There must be a correlation between one’s proclamation and one’s profession. When Carter puts on his bib overalls and grabs his Habitat hammer I can hear what he says about the son of the carpenter of Nazareth. But when he acts in his role as commander-in-Chief, the words about the Prince of Peace are without effect. The chaplain’s sermon, “Did Easter Make a Difference?” talked about God’s presence, the peace Jesus gives, the new purpose we are called to, and the power of the Holy Spirit to get the job done. But when he talked about “the peace that frees us” while wearing the name tag in the pulpit that is inscribed Federal Bureau of Prisons, FPC Duluth, Chaplain, the “freedom” he is talking about is not the same as the gospel that calls us to tear down the prison walls, release to the captives. When the chaplain included in our “new purpose” being “advocates for the poor and seeking social justice,” somehow I don’t think his critique applied to this “compound.” When the benediction at the close of the service included “render no one evil for evil” I could think of nothing but the real nature of the prison system. All of us have blind spots in our faith journeys. It is my prayer that all of us help each other strive for consistency between our walk and our talk.
- Steve

PS I highly recommend Lee Griffith’s The Fall of the Prison to understand the scriptural perspective on the prison.

Letters From Prison 2006 #7- Revenge or a Balm?

Revenge or a Balm?
By Steve Clemens. FPC Duluth. April 30, 2006

Delusions of grandeur? Or desperately clinging to hope... or revenge? At breakfast this morning I overheard the guy at the end of our 6 person table talking about his case to the inmate across from him. “I’m gonna nail that SOB...I’m gonna take his house, his wife, his wedding ring... I’m gonna file racketeering charges on his ass....” Yada, yada, yada. Some guys can never let go of their cases because they’ve let them stew and fester inside this fence. This inmate claims he’s getting out next week (May 5) and will have the FBI agent who hounded and arrested him “arrested and throw his butt into jail.” The likelihood of a convicted felon being able to turn the tables on a federal officer is the stuff of pipe dreams in here but it is a strange way to hold on to hope by plotting revenge.

I’m noticing a pattern that some guys will talk to anyone who’ll listen with even a modicum of empathy in order to vent some of the pain that has been bottled-up for years and eats like a cancer within. I can imagine some of these guys spending all their waking hours (and even their dreams?) plotting their revenge and thus destroying any possibility of normalcy upon their release. Maybe one of the saddest products of this “corrections” or “justice” system is knowing that more than 80% of all convicts will eventually be released to our streets and the system has only kept picking at the scabs—never letting old wounds heal.

But I’ve also witness another approach. At the Catholic Scripture discussion group meeting this past week, a guy who used to be involved in organized crime [I guess a lot of the crime that brought people here was disorganized!] said that “since coming to Christ, I’ve forgiven the guys I ran with, I’ve forgiven the judge, the prosecutor....” “I just want to be able to make things right.” Another inmate in our small gathering of five, including the visiting nun in her 80s, said he keeps going over and over and over again some of the things he’s done (or left undone) and “although I know God has forgiven me, I can’t quite forgive myself yet.”

I’ve seen my share of “jailhouse religion” and, at times, all the God-talk makes me want to retch—especially all the “Father-God” language in prayers that cries out for an anthropomorphic God to fix the father-wound many of these men have. Yet here were two men, both in their fifties I’d guess, struggling with what forgiveness might look like instead of revenge. The good Sister (I can say that because she comes highly recommended to me by my fellow Pax Christi board members in the Twin Cities) listens with empathy and love, not rushing in too quickly with the pat assurances I’ve heard so often when I’ve been “inside” the cages and confines of jail and prison life.

There is always the risk that any jailhouse religion is an opiate of the masses. But opiates or the myriad of other narcotics many have been sent here for using, possessing, selling, and/or “conspiracy to sell,” often only mask the hurts, pains, and wounds society has inflicted (or which have been self-inflicted). I do believe, I have also experience the “Balm in Gilead” that Martin Luther King often talked about. How can we help to spread that healing balm, the “healing river” of the gospel song, upon this parched, dry ground?

Letters From Prison 2006 #6- "Be Not Afraid"

"Be Not Afraid"
By Steve Clemens. FPC Duluth. April 28, 2006

Last night at Catholic Mass we sang "Be Not Afraid." I haven't sung that song in a while but as soon as I started, I was immediately transported back 25 years ago when Larry, Kathy, LaDon, Vince, Mary and I sang it on the cold February 10, 1981, morning in Amarillo, TX as security guards from the Pantex plant stood pointing their automatic weapons at us, telling us not to move--waiting to be arrested. "Be not afraid, I go before you always; Come follow me, and I will give you rest." Somehow, those words were meant to be sung in the jails prisons and paddy wagons as people of faith choose to resist the powers of death and domination.

The three months in Potter County jail followed by three months at the Federal Prison at Texarkana were a time of profound spiritual growth and renewal--a "mountaintop" experience is the term often used in Evangelical circles. I think that phrase must be analogous to the transfiguration story of the gospels where the disciples experience Jesus in a new way. In prison one experiences the crucifixion every day, yet there are also glimpses of resurrection and transfiguration as well. As my friends at the Open Door so often proclaim: "Christ comes in the guise of the stranger, the homeless, the prisoner."

Acts of kindness and generosity abound--even in the midst of the daily grind, the hassles of the guards or even worse, the "counselors." I think of my wonderful friend, Mardi, and I cringe at the bastardization of what the "corrections system" identifies as counseling. Just yesterday, my "cellie" Beetle had his long-awaited meeting with the Unit Team--the Unit Manager, the Case Manager, and the "counselor." He's been waiting for weeks for this meeting in hopes of getting word that he would be going to a halfway house soon since his 18 month sentence expires in August. Often inmates get a 6 month transition into a halfway house at the end of a longer sentence and a somewhat shorter period for Beetle's relatively short incarceration period.

If this wasn't a men's prison, I think he would have returned in tears but that expression of emotion isn't in evidence very often. (The place I'd look for it is at 2:45 pm in the visiting center when it is time to say one's goodbyes). Beetle was told that due to his medical "issues" (he's been on SSI disability for the past 12 years since he was run over by a combine and has tried to resist being assigned to a work placement here because prolonged standing causes his ankles to swell), he would not be sent to a halfway house nor be released with an ankle bracelet for electrical home monitoring. This came the day after he was called to the chaplain's office and given a call because his mother had just been taken by ambulance from Mason City to Rochester's St. Mary's Hospital because her cancer had spread to her bowel.

In a healthy society such news might prompt a visit from the chaplain, a counselor, or even a member of the Psychology Services here. But Beetle is left to fend for himself and at least he was able to share some of the pain, hurt, and fear with me.

The powers of death and domination are strong in here --yet Wednesday evening the drumbeat and the voices of the "Gospel Choir" came spilling out of the chapel so loudly that the Catholic Scripture discussion group in the room down the hall had to close the door to be able to hear each other as Sister Timothy, a blessed nun in her 80s, encouraged us to focus on the resurrection appearances of the Christ. So, the battle continues between the forces of darkness and the forces of liberation--and, at times, we can remind one another, "Be not afraid...come, follow me."
- Steve

PS: I'm reading The Word on the Street by Stan Saunders and Charles Campbell about doing theology in the context of the city streets with the homeless. A perfect book to be reading “in the belly of the beast.”

Letters From Prison 2006 #5- “Get a Job”

“Get a Job”
by Steve Clemens, FPC Duluth. April 24, 2006

Occasionally, while vigiling for peace at the Lake Street/Marshall Ave bridge between St. Paul and Minneapolis or at the headquarters of Alliant TechSystems in Edina, makers of cluster bombs, land mines, depleted uranium
munitions and other weapons of mass indiscriminate destruction, someone will drive by and yell "Get a job!" The assumption is one that "working for peace" is not a "productive endeavor." Peacemaking should only be a
secondary activity because it doesn't help boost the GNP, provide more consumables, or produce a paycheck.

Some of my friends have found a good middle ground: they work for nonprofits building homes for needy families, provide social services for immigrants, teach peace studies or conflict resolution, help children with increasing communication skills... All of these "jobs" bring in income (often lower than typical "market economy" jobs) and simultaneously make our world a better place.

I took a less conventional path to "get a job"--federal prison. But now I'm "gainfully employed" at a whopping 12 cents an hour. I have both great "job security" (these prisons can't afford to "outsource" my job) and good
co-workers. Most of my fellow inmates have been friendly, helpful, and generous. There are always the exceptions to this, like in any work place.

The biggest downside is 'the boss.' While some prison guards and other 'staff members' try to maintain their humanity, the caging of humans, coupled with legalized slavery is bound to take a toll on the oppressor as
well as the oppressed. (I say legalized slavery because the 13th Amendment, which prohibited slavery in the U.S. made one exception: local, state and federal prisons).

I have been assigned to the 'dish pit' in the Food Service at FPC Duluth. All meals are served through a food line on stainless steel trays divided into 6 compartments. We have plastic 'silverware,' plastic drinking
'glasses' (for both hot and cold beverages), and plastic bowls. Inmates are encouraged to eat quickly, as there are seats at tables in the food service for only about 250, with a prison population of 902. When finished eating, you take your tray to a window-opening into the dish pit. Glasses are placed in a rack, silverware is tossed in a separate tray, and the stainless food tray, with any paper or food left on it, is dumped into a trough with
running water, to carry the debris away to a machine that pulverizes it for disposal. The now empty, soiled trays are racked in plastic racks designed for our Hobart dish washer. At the next station, an inmate hoses off the
soiled trays to remove as much remaining debris as possible. Then the rack is pushed into the automatic dish washer. Other racks of glasses, silverware, and other kitchen utensils follow. We also washed the plastic
compartments that are used to send food to those inmates locked in the SHU--the hole.

We re-supply the serving line with glasses and silverware as needed. Clean serving trays and bowls are brought to the serving line as well. The work area is cleaned up and sanitized when we finish all the dishes for the meal.
The officer on duty allows us to brink a book to read during the 'down time' between breakfast and lunch following the count at approximately 7:30 am. Food service inmates in the morning can eat their breakfast at the beginning of the shift and we can eat lunch before the other inmates start to arrive at 10:45 for lunch. After the noon count is completed, usually by 12:30, my shift is free to go. Because we have so many inmates here, there is a completely different pm shift for the dish pit.

Working helps pass the time 'inside' for some inmates who don't wish to spend their time reading, writing, or exercising. Working side-by-side with other convicts helps one get a sense of the others as well. Working for
peace inside the federal prison means learning more about what Dorothy Day has called "this filthy, rotten system" and getting the word out to pressure our political leaders to find better, more humane ways to deal with those our society has chosen to "punish."

Letters From Prison 2006 #4- A Roller Coaster of Hope and Despair

A Roller Coaster of Hope and Despair
By Steve Clemens, FPC Duluth, MN. April 18,2006

I've seen this before in prison--getting your hopes up that something "special" has arisen in your case meaning that you'll get released sooner, have an appeal granted, or...(fill in the blank).

"Beetlejuice" (that's the nickname he prefers over his given name, Stacy) came back to the room this morning ecstatic. "I just talked to a guy in the library who used to be an attorney. He says I just have to file Form #___ and I will automatically qualify for a half-way house." I asked him where he would get such a form (from our "counselor" [sic]) and whether he'd cooperate with filing it. Beetle burst out, "I'll be out of here--two weeks max. They have to give it to you."

Talk around the compound the past few days has been about a new court decision which affects anyone sentenced to more than one year. Twenty-five years ago, back when there was credit for "good time" given if one did not have it revoked for disciplinary reasons, one could go to a half-way house early if you didn't have violence on your "jacket" (the file of your criminal history). In the rush to "get tough on crime" during the Reagan years, "good time" was done away with in Federal prisons and it was to be replaced with more realistic sentences which would remove such selective judgments from one's length of incarceration. But this new supposed court victory that everyone is talking about has given rise to all kinds of speculation.

Beetle, who only has a couple days more than two months of his relatively short 18 month sentence to serve, claimed that with his disability (he was run over by a combine 12 years ago and collects SSI) they’ll probably just give him an ankle bracelet and let him finish his sentence at home in Northern Iowa. “I just have to file this form and they must approve it—it’s a slam dunk!”

At lunch time for the past two days there has been a lineup of “dignitaries”--the chaplain, some “counselors,” Case and Unit Managers, and today—the Warden and the Associate Warden. I haven’t met them yet, so I asked some other convicts which one was the warden since I’ve only seen his/her? name on some documents or notices posted to bulletin boards. “Did you see that big guy with the sports coat and a mustache? He’s the Associate Warden. The Warden is that little black guy who is dressed like a pimp.” Now that brought a smile to my face.

Anyway, I’m told “he’s a nice guy.” Beetle comes back to the room after lunch and says, “I talked with the Warden and he says I’m too short to qualify for the early release.” (Too short means you don’t have enough time left on your sentence to “bother” with the extra paperwork). I told him he should file it anyway, because it is your right to do it. Immediately the other two of my roommates said, “No—you don’t want to piss off the Warden; he can make your life hell for the rest of your time here.”

“But,” Beetle adds, “he did say if Dr. LaSalle here keeps threatening me with having to work (thus revoking his disability status), he’ll intervene for me.” Hope and despair. Hope again and be ready to be crushed again. Novice and transient that I am in this penal system, I said that I’d file the form anyway, insisting they do their jobs. We are constantly lectured to “obey the law” yet every day this prison violates Federal law regarding minimum standards for treatment of federal prisoners. But most are vulnerable here. They are told that “camp” is a privilege and if you cause too much “trouble,” you are likely to be shipped off to a higher-security (and greater hassle) prison.

So, Beetle continues to sleep away his days and evenings. Despair doesn’t give one extra energy and hope, although it springs eternal, fades quickly in this confinement. I hope he at least can dream he is free.

Letters From Prison 2006 #3- The “Informal” Economy

The “Informal” Economy
By Steve Clemens, FPC Duluth. April 14, 2006

"You can get anything you want--at Alice's Restaurant ('ceptin' Alice)"
(Arlo Guthrie)

It seems you can get anything here at FPC Duluth as well. Creativity abounds within the human spirit. One sign that human spirit has not been totally crushed within the prison is the barter economy. One of my cellmates (not a cell but a dorm--but to say roommates or dorm-mate implies one is still at college) works in the kitchen chopping veggies. So, the going price for a good-size green pepper is 3 stamps (2 stamps for a smaller one). Onions and tomatoes are a stamp apiece unless they’re bigger. Even though we were scheduled to have chicken with fried rice at the mess hall last night, he and another guy down the hall decided they'd make their own fried rice with chicken in the dorm microwave. Out came a cutting board and a makeshift "chef's knife"--a metal piece a little bigger than a credit card, which neatly chopped up the green pepper and the breaded chicken ingredients. He doesn't have much experience with doing fried rice in the microwave so several others dropped by to give him suggestions of how to do it. He used the olive oil--but didn't soak the rice in egg (not sure he had one). He forgot to add water to the rice the first time so the plastic bowl melted. The second time he got it right and with the chicken bouillon cube added by another, they said it was delicious. Ours wasn't bad either at the mess hall, but the creativity here is a wonder to behold.

Inmates who have access to the hobby craft room can make leather wallets--but the sign in the commissary says they are contraband and will be confiscated. So you can make them but can't "give" them to anyone here
because they assume you bartered them for something.

Because tobacco products were outlawed on January 1, the currency of this realm is stamps. A "book" of stamps (a page of 20 first class stamps) sells for $7.80 in the commissary. One of the guys in the room said, "Why did you pay that much? I can get you a book for $6.00 or if you buy four books at once, for $5 each." Of course, I don't have $6 or $20 in cash for the purchase. You just hand a commissary sheet to the "seller" and he fills out
what he wants worth the $6 or $20 or whatever agreed price and you buy the items for him and then make the swap. Of course all of this has to happen on the QT since it is strictly forbidden to exchange anything here. Wink, wink, nod, nod--until one of the officers decides what to enforce against whom.

Many of the longer-term inmates run some kind of "business" in order to earn money (or equivalents) for commissary purchases. Some buy a 12 pack of soda pop and then sell each can for a stamp or 2. Since each can costs the original buyer less than 29 cents, a profit can be made--especially at 2 stamps/can. The vending machine charges 75 cents each but you have to have the money credits on your card. You can “pay” (stamps) to have your boots shined and your “dress greens” pressed (ironed) for your visits. You can “buy” more stylish “cargo-style” pants for some stamps. Hair cuts at the barber shop are 6 stamps. Extra chicken from lunch, “betting in card games”, a pizza shell from the kitchen bakery all cost stamps. As cigarettes get scarcer, the price goes up- 5 stamps for a commercial one, 2 or 3 stamps for a roll-your-own type. A carton of “store-bought” cigs is now about $200. equivalent in stamps.

Letters From Prison 2006 #2- “The Christians”

“The Christians”
by Steve Clemens. FPC Duluth. Maundy Thursday. April 13,2006

"We're a Christian room," I've been told several times. It has always been accompanied with an offer or two. A guy dropped by my room today and asked how my 'first night' had been. When I told him it was my second night and it wasn't the best due to the vertical pipes running under the bedspring of my upper bunk to give added strength, he said, "We need to find you a better mattress. I'll keep an eye out for one when someone leaves."

When Christianity comes with a servant attitude, I'm much more open to any follow-up "message." My first night in the 211 ("Superior") dorm included a visit downstairs to see "the Christian brothers." I was escorted downstairs by the son of a friend from the Twin Cities. His mom told him to look me up and within a few minutes he inquired about what we might need. Donnie was out of his room but his roommate Mike (?) was in and he said "the Christians" wanted to help out with tennis shoes and shower shoes. "They've all been washed in bleach so they're safe." "You gotta wear shower shoes so your feet don't rot off in here." The shower shoes were new ("Praise the Lord," Mike added). "We live off donations. There is no charge. Of course, if you are a millionaire, you can pay us back--otherwise we're happy to get any donations people are able to make."

Tom got me a soap dish and new bar of Zest soap. He also loaned me an alarm clock when he saw I had no watch. When Donnie returned, he added a toothbrush holder, a half bottle of shampoo ("it goes farther that way—you don't mind if it is in a pill bottle, do you?" John didn't mind at all!) Some writing paper, a map of the grounds, 2 stamped envelopes. "It will hold you over until you can get money on your books" (commissary account).

And after the "service," a brief message: "There is a good Bible study in the chapel almost every evening at 6. We have a black preacher (he's good) and a great choir Wednesday evening. We have videos you can watch at the chapel. We'd love to have you join us."

Personally, I'm hesitant to go around proclaiming my identity as a "Christian." There is too much cultural and civic-religion baggage attached to it. I'd prefer to quietly share with those who may ask "for what reason I have hope within."

But at least I must tip my hat to "the Christians" who have made the transition from the “outside” to the “inside” much easier than it might have been.

Letters From Prison 2006 #1- Holy Week in the Slammer

Holy Week in the Slammer
By Steve Clemens. FPC Duluth. April 13, 2006

Maundy Thursday 5 am, 2006
"Woke up this morning with my mind and it was stayed on Jesus." John [LaForge] went to the "Protestant" Wed. evening service because he was told they have a great choir. When they whipped into the great Negro Spiritual "Woke up this Morning," John was greatly disappointed that the refrain was just "stayed on Jesus" rather than the more appropriately (and originally) "stayed on Freedom."

Like American slavery, if you can divert the captives' attention to "Jesus," more than half the battle is won for the oppressor. I've had my experience before with "jailhouse religion" and it certainly is a regular coping tool
for a certain segment here.

I chose to attend the Maundy Thursday Catholic Mass (held on Wednesday). (They did indicate the Good Friday service would actually be held on Friday rather than Thursday though.) There were about 50-60 men attending the service in the chapel. One nice touch was the reading of the Scriptures (and some of the liturgical prayers) in both English and Spanish. I was told that Sister Timothy, a feisty old nun (from the St. Scholastica community) comes on Wednesdays and I wanted to meet her.

Typical of the tradition, the biblical passages read were the Passover/Exodus story followed by Paul's account of the last supper and John's account of the foot washing. With two basins on the altar area, I got my hopes up that the Priest was actually going to wash the feet of we convicts--or at least symbolically pick out the inmate with the most amount of time on his sentence and wash his feet. Wouldn't that have sent a clear Gospel message! However, alas, it was not to be. In an ironically creative twist, we were told we were welcomed to participate in a symbolic "hand washing" in which the good sister and the priest stood before two lines of
inmates and rubbed our hands in the basin water and then the inmate ahead of us dried our hands and then we took the towel and dried the following man's hands.

It wasn't until after the service that I realized the irony. Although it is almost certainly specious historically (Pontius Pilate was removed from his position by the Romans because of his excessive cruelty), the biblical
tradition has the Last Supper followed by Jesus' arrest and Pilate "washing his hands" of the whole messy matter of the kangaroo court and Jesus’ subsequent execution.

How does the church continue to "wash her hands" when Christ is re-crucified every day in the crushing of hopes and spirits within the prison walls? When we were handed the wafer--"the Body of Christ" during the Eucharist which followed the hand washing, we, those locked up for 3 months or 15 years, are the body of Jesus here today. If only that reality could creep into our cells (actually we live in dorms) and tear down these prison walls! (Actually we just have a chain-link fence here.)
From Courtroom to Prison:
The School of the Americas Witness Continues
by Steve Clemens

Trial and Sentencing.
I expected to receive the maximum sentence of six months in a Federal Prison (for nonviolent direct action at the School of the Americas facility in November). My sentence of half that amount makes me feel like I got off easy. The government prosecutors did not certify the prior arrest/conviction records of defendants, and thus could not include them for consideration at sentencing. Therefore, my life of “crime” was not in evidence, other than my “Ban and Bar Letters” for prior trips “crossing the line” at Ft. Benning, GA.

It seemed at times that Judge G. Mallon Faircloth had the Biblical disease of “a hardened heart.” For six years he has heard testimony from principled resisters about the nature of the School and about their witness acting on behalf of the victims of torture. Hearing defendants of all ages (our group ranged from 19 to 81 years old) speak from the heart about their commitment to nonviolence, only to continue to send nuns, priests, students, and others to prison must take a toll on the one’s soul.

The Idolatry of the Law.
The focus of the prosecutors was always “Did you cross the line?” rather than “Why did you cross the line?” The Government was only interested in documenting illegal presence on the base, not whether something illegal is being taught there. The Judge made a pre-trial ruling prohibiting defendants from using an International Law and/or Necessity as a defense, despite a well-reasoned thirty page brief from defendant lawyers. What would he have said if Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony or members of the Boston Tea Party had stood before him?

The courtroom discourse of deterrence seems to go hand-in-glove with our present national preoccupation with the efficacy of terror and torture. Our empire threatens others with nuclear weapons or economic destabilization or torture, hoping they will conform to our policy demands. Yet this fails to work against those who value freedom and conscience over intimidation and bluster. So Fr. Jerry Zawada, a Franciscan priest, was sentenced to six months in prison, and yet returned not once but twice more. The defendants were not acting on a whim; they had counted the cost carefully before deciding it was their turn to speak for those who have no voice in the policies of the empire.

One defendant recalled the defensiveness of her German cousins who lived there during the Third Reich. The guilt and shame of their silence could not be mitigated by the refrain “But we didn’t know what was really going on.” Yet there was Judge Faircloth doing his Pontius Pilate imitation, insisting that it is the Legislative and the Executive Branches of government that sets policy about the SOA. I reminded him in my statement at sentencing that “German judges were also prosecuted at the Nuremberg Tribunals for their complicity in War Crimes.” When will any branch of our government stand up and say “no torture, no rape, no disappearing, no murder” by agents of our government?

When told that one of our fellow defendants was put in the “hole” for two weeks upon arriving at federal prison because the necessary paperwork was not done at the courthouse after sentencing, and that he had to remain on his bed for seven consecutive days because his basement segregation cell was flooded, the judge replied, “I don’t tell the Bureau of Prisons how to run their prisons and they don’t tell me how to run my courtroom.” Instead of being a check and balance to the misdeeds of government, our courts are more likely to practice cowardice, silent when torture is trumpeted by the present Administration in Washington, and deaf to the Sixth Article of the U.S. Constitution which requires judges to honor International Treaties signed by our government.

Our prison sentences come less than a week after a military jury in Colorado found a U.S. Army interrogator guilty of negligent homicide in the torture and killing of a detainee in Iraq, yet decided not to jail him. Two years after Christian Peacemaking Team members reported on the torture and mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi detention centers, only a handful of low-level soldiers have be prosecuted, while the architects of those policies (Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, John Ashcroft, and the President) are off the hook. I pray that our actions and willingness to go to prison sends a strong message to Iraqi citizens that there are some Americans who denounce the practice of torture and murder.

Focusing on Empire through the School of the Americas.
Our witness is profoundly connected to the occupation of Iraq. Meanwhile, out of the media spotlight, peace activists, union leaders, and others continue to be gunned down in Columbia, the nation that has the largest number of troops presently being trained at the SOA. Much of the recent destabilization in Haiti can also be traced to graduates of the SOA. The SOA is a symbol of an empire bent on world domination, whether it is by economic rewards and/or strangulation, mercenary armies, or direct military intervention.

How do we resist this march of the empire? If democracy depends on the “consent of the governed,” how do we withdraw that consent? Several defendants talked about “speaking truth to power” in our trial preparations, but I think we do more truth telling with our feet than with our tongues. Kathy Kelly reminds us that “what you see depends on where you stand.” When we sit in our new Federal Prison homes in the next couple of months, what we will see is the underbelly of the empire. When our nation spends in excess of $500 billion this year for the military (not counting Veterans Affairs or war-incurred national debt payments), there is no money left from the federal coffers for education, the environment, healthcare, housing, or other human needs. My protest against the SOA is also a cry of “nunca jamas!” to empire and domination.

Our witness as privilege.
I suspect there are very few other defendants who come before this judge with a roomful of supporters. I had four friends who traveled more than 1,000 miles from Minnesota to stand with me, and two more who came from West Virginia. As a wealthy, educated, healthy white male I expect to be listened to, given the benefit of the doubt. Even though I chose to represent myself in court (rejecting the fee imposed by the judge on each defendant for using an “out-of-state lawyer!), I had ready access to lawyers if I had a question. Still, being on trial at the “mercy” of the judge gives one a small taste of losing some of that control, and it will be further challenged when I enter the prison grounds. Still, I need to remember that even this loss of control is the result of a deliberate choice I made when I decided to cross the line.

On the airplane ride home from the trial (privilege again!), the pilot walked through the cabin to greet several soldiers dressed in desert fatigues returning from the war in Iraq. “Thank you for your sacrifice,” was the refrain I expect they will hear repeatedly as they try to re-assimilate into civilian life. Warriors around the world hear the same from their supporters: Nazi soldiers, Contras, Tamil Tigers, paramilitaries in Columbia, Mujahedeen. I also expect that we “prisoners of conscience” will be greeted with the same commendation when we walk out of prison. Is this a way we can continue to live vicariously through “the sacrifice” of others without getting our own hands dirty or giving up our comfort and security?

Yet those going to jail are not necessarily more committed – it is only one form of resistance. It will take the gifts and calling of all of us to shut down the SOA: people demanding their Representatives and Senators to pass HR 1217 to investigate the record of atrocities by the SOA; people in the streets attempting to disrupt “business as usual”; letters to editors and representatives; conversations with friends and family; delegations with Witness For Peace and Christian Peacemaker Teams; and other creative ways to add our “No!” to the Domination System.

We’ve been given a gift. Many of us will be going to prison during Holy Week. Specifically, it looks as though we’ll start our sentences the day that the church commemorates Jesus’ own civil disobedience, when he “cleaned money-changers out of the Temple.” Since Judge Faircloth is choosing not to do pre sentencing investigation reports in advance on us, we are likely to spend Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter in “the Hole”. Although our “suffering” will be insignificant in comparison with that of the original Holy Week, or with the present day victims of those trained at the SOA, it will provide us a better context for reflection during that sacred time.

Our journey into “the belly of the beast” will also coincide with the April 15 tax frenzy. We remind friends of the cost to the taxpayers for our principled protest: as some of us will likely be headed for Penitentiary instead of work camps, the per diem expense to harbor our “criminal” consciences will be even greater. Although the waiting has been difficult for some of us, hopefully we can use these next few weeks to prepare psychically for the journey ahead. To enter prison with the knowledge and support of people world-wide is a privilege few people have, so we are cognizant of our responsibility to be present to those we meet “inside” as we together struggle to recover the soul of our nation.

My report date is April 11th. My place of service for the next three months on behalf of “those who have no voice” will be prison in Duluth. My Bureau of Prisons number is 92565-020; if you wish to send me any mail after I arrive, it can be addressed as follows:
Stephen D. Clemens 92565-020
FPC Duluth Federal Prison Camp
PO Box 1000
Duluth, MN 55814