Notes from Camp Allenwood
by Nick Cardell
Convicted of criminal trespass for protesting against the School of the Americas (SOA), a US Army program that has trained Latin American dictators and death-squad members, the Rev. Nick Cardell, minister emeritus of the May Memorial UU Society in Syracuse, New York, and a veteran of World War II, served six months at the Allenwood, Pennsylvania, federal prison camp beginning in March 1998. The following excerpts from a series of letters Cardell wrote to the Syracuse Post Standard newspaper recount his thoughts and experiences there.
The James Brothers
Fellow protester Dan Sage and I are driven to the prison camp by our friend Sara Lucas and my wife, Cathy, who wait in the visitors' room during the first part of our initiation. The two fun-loving camp staff members in charge of this process take Dan and me, one at a time, to a private room, where they order us to remove all our clothing until we're standing there stark naked. Then comes the search embarrassing, to say the least. Having found nothing, the staff members give us heavy boots, socks, underwear, ill-fitting uniforms Cathy says mine looks five times my size and warm jackets. Once dressed, we return to the visitors' room, where our clothing and possessions, from combs and handkerchiefs to the medicine for my pulmonary dysfunction, are handed to Cathy and Sarah to take home. The only things we get to keep are our glasses. Later, thanks to a letter from my physician, the camp pharmacy issues me substitute medicine, which seems to be doing what it should.
After saying good-bye to Cathy and Sara, we are escorted to the Receiving and Departure Offices for mug shots, fingerprinting, and interviews. When our humorous duo learn why we're here for six months, they have a big laugh and nickname us Frank and Jesse James.
There are no cells here, just cubicles. Each cubicle, home to two inmates, measures seven-by-seven. Along one side is a pressed wood module, six feet high, containing two closets with storage shelves above and hanger space below. There's also a small writing shelf with room underneath for our knees. On the opposite side are double-decker bunks. This leaves about a seven-by-three-foot strip of open floor space. Seven-foot-tall partitions divide most cubes from their neighbors; you can talk to the man in the adjacent cube without raising your voice. Privacy is scarce.
A large cafeteria feeds us in three shifts. The meals are generally adequate, but beefing about food is de rigeur, whether in the army or in prison. I understand that things could be a lot worse.
The good news is that this is a minimum security prison what the Bureau of Prisons calls a camp. Our cubicles have no bars or doors, and there are no outside walls, no razor wire or even a chain-link fence, no guns (that we can see), and no inmates with a violent crime on their record. Allenwood is one of the better prisons to be in, if prison is where you have to be.
But Dan and I, with our six-month sentences, will never really know what prison is like for our fellow inmates, most of them serving three-, five-, or ten-year sentences. Even though we're treated like everyone else I've been called in twice already to take Breathalyzer tests I can't imagine what it would feel like to be looking at a year or more.
Dan learned, from the prison's public relations officer, that Allenwood was built to house the hundreds of Communists in government that Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were going ferret out in the 1950s. At the time, the Bureau of Prisons tended to build better prisons for nonviolent, white collar criminals (who were probably all white). This may explain our exercise and weight rooms, which probably were nicely equipped at one time. Maybe because we've now heard so much noise about "coddling" criminals, and because the people who use the equipment now are mostly black and Hispanic, the equipment is no longer replaced when it wears out. Allenwood also has outdoor courts for tennis, basketball, handball, bocci, and horseshoe pitching, as well as a running track and an indoor gym. These facilities allow the many whose interests or abilities are not served by the quite good library of books, newspapers, and videotapes to drain off energy and frustration resulting from eight- or nine-hour days taken up with census counts and work that is unrewarding (12 cents an hour/no usable skills learned) and often meaningless, e.g., raking pebbles from a dusty softball field.
My electrical maintenance job was getting increasingly hard on my pulmonary problem, and eventually, I found myself ignoring the admonition I'd heard from experienced inmates: "Don't get sick, and don't get hurt." In other words, don't have any dealings with the prison doctor. They tell me one inmate almost died because of the doctor's misdiagnosis. But climbing many times a day from the cafeteria and job area at the bottom of a hill to my unit at the top became increasingly difficult, and I found myself waking up mornings gasping for breath. So I went on sick call. Luckily, I wound up with a competent and caring physician's assistant who treated me and recommended some time off. But that required approval from the M.D., who said, "Everybody works. We'll have no loafers here."
Eventually, I finagled a slightly better job. As tool disburser/receiver I often get to sit and rest in the tool room. Best of all, my chair is padded.
Prisons are based on rules and routines. Some inmates call prison time "Groundhog Day." If you've seen the movie, you'll recall that the main character, caught in a time warp, has to live one day of his life over and over. In May we had Groundhog Day with a vengeance: thirteen uninterrupted days of rain. At times like that, when everyone is stuck indoors during free time, we get on each other's nerves, and racism and ethnocentrism come out although most inmates try to avoid confrontations by making racist remarks only out of the targets' hearing. Sexist remarks, though, are ubiquitous. Allenwood's population is about a third black, a third white, a third Hispanic, with a few Asians. The staff is similarly diverse and includes several women as well. We are a microcosm of the foibles, prejudices, and bigotry that humans exhibit everywhere.
And the contradictions. For all the racism, anti-Semitism, etc., there are also many expressions of caring and generosity without regard to race, ethnicity, or religion. For example, every time a new inmate arrives, the men help get him settled, show him the ropes, and offer loans or gifts of extra clothing or commissary items until his weekly turn for commissary comes up. Maybe this kindness has something to do with the fact that we share a situation more fundamental, for now at least, than race or anything else.
Inmates and Intimidation
Many of the literate inmates (at least those who read the library copy of the New York Times) knew about Dan and me before we arrived from a front page article that announced our sentence. As in other institutions, the prison grapevine is active, and soon many others had also heard about what we had done and how long we were in for. Even when I first got here, though, I knew enough never to ask others what they had done. I subsequently learned from observation what it is safe to ask about.
One evening, I asked a young man how long he was in for.
I responded, "Oh, I'm sorry."
I learned a lot about him when he said, "Don't be. I deserve to be here. You don't!"
Another time, I asked an inmate with whom I often sit on the bus that takes us to our work assignments what he did at his job.
"As little as possible. If I wanted to work, I wouldn't be here." After a pause and a knowing smirk, he added, "Come to think of it, if you'd been working instead of protesting, you wouldn't be here either."
Actually, while he thought Dan and I were a bit odd to have let ourselves in for a prison term, he told me he respected our actions. Others call us "a nice enough pair of nuts."
Contrary to what I had expected, very few people here claim they're innocent. Most admit they did "it" whether "it" means cheating on their income tax, dealing or using drugs, or trying to manipulate the stock market. What makes them angry is our legal system, which does things like mandate minimum sentences that don't allow judges or juries to consider special circumstances or an unblemished past. I've also heard about numerous instances of ambitious prosecutors offering reduced charges in exchange for a guilty plea and the names of accomplices. Some prisoners who couldn't or wouldn't name others wound up with long sentences. Others say prosecutors even threatened to have their spouse or parent indicted as co-conspirators whether or not the spouse or parent deserved indictment in order to coerce a guilty plea.
Intimidation is clearly the name of the game. It reminds me of the School of the Americas although psychological pressure to name names and a sentence of three, five, or 10 years falls far short of physical torture and murder. Still, the tactics are similar to those many SOA graduates used against their own people. One of the SOA's purposes that is rarely acknowledged is intimidation. Latin American military personnel learn how to quash dissent by keeping the people frightened and passive. Obviously our US Army has the same intent when it has teachers, preachers, veterans, nuns, priests, and social workers, mostly elderly, arrested on misdemeanor charges, fined $3,000, and sent to prison for the maximum sentence of six months.
The prison system dehumanizes guards as well as prisoners. The guards are taught to treat us as inmates not as human beings. We inmates respond by treating the guards as a group that's out to make our lives miserable.
Not all the guards abuse their authority, but among those who do, the assistant warden (called the AW by everyone) is the worst. One of my friends who drives a van transporting fellow prisoners to and from work recently found that out for himself. Once he drops the prisoners off, he's supposed to sit and wait until a supervisor comes to give him his next assignment, and he's not allowed to read or leave the van. One hot, humid day he fell asleep waiting. The AW happened by, woke him, ranted and raved at him, and left. An hour later, my friend fell asleep again. The AW came by again, and this time, he called a couple of guards and had my friend sent to the hole.
The worst thing about being sentenced to the hole is that while you are there, the guards empty out your cube, examine your possessions, bundle them up, and often throw them away. My friend is one of the few inmates I know here who takes aggressive, proactive responsibility for his own rehabilitation. He studies, often late at night, taking notes on his reading material as well as on his own thought processes and behavior, in order to develop positive habits. When he returned to his cube after his time in the hole, all his notes were gone. The guards told him, "Tough luck." I keep hoping they didn't treat him so shabbily simply because he is Hispanic.
Dan and I get a wealth of mail, sometimes as many as 25 or 30 letters a day, from all over the US and Canada. People we don't even know write to say they support us, and they are doing all they can to close the School of the Americas. My fellow inmates tease me about all the mail: "You ought to have your own P.O. box!"
One Saturday, while a few of us were waiting for our visitors, the teasing started up again. But then one inmate turned to me and said, "Man, you sure got a lot of folks who love you."
P.S. Back on the Street
I arrived home in time to read two letters in the local paper. Both writers, having read my "Letters from Camp Allenwood," called me (along with the other protesters) a zealot and an anarchist. They argued that because of my "unlawful and contemptuous behavior against the United States" my jail sentence hadn't been "nearly long enough." They were doubly irate because they thought my protest wasn't peaceful.
They seem to have confused my actions with those of five friends (two from Syracuse) who had spray-painted over the welcome sign at the entrance to Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the School of the Americas (SOA), so that it read "Welcome to the School of Assassins." They are still in prison on the felony charge of destruction of government property. To me, it seems tragically ironic that our government and my fellow citizens are so angered by this small act of vandalism, yet they ignore the fact that the CIA, State Department, and US embassies have aided and abetted, honored and protected rapists, torturers, murderers, and assassins. My friends are spending more than a year and a half in prison while murderous graduates of the SOA in El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, etc., have yet to spend one day in prison.
I hope the two angry correspondents and everyone else have read news of the report of the Guatemalan Truth Commission, which names and condemns SOA graduates and the SOA, confirming the April 1998 human rights report released by the Guatemala Archdiocese Human Rights Office whose head, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was murdered two days after the report's release. If that reading is too heavy, I recommend a recent book by Jennifer Harbury, Searching for Everardo: A Story about Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala.
Some causes are so vital that, when our letters to editors and Congress and lobbying of legislators fail to inform the public and change the situation, we must resort to responsible civil disobedience. Too many of us buy into the cliché that you can't fight city hall, or government authority. But that attitude leads to the abuse of power by government and a loss of true democracy. We must challenge government power on life-and-death issues. Civil disobedience and its occasional successes can keep our democratic government from becoming like those of so many Latin American countries a form without substance.
Close the SOA!
The Rev. Nick Cardell is minister emeritus of the May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in Syracuse, New York.