Prison letter

IssueDecember 2001 - February 2002
Feature by Claire Hanrahan

Dear Allies and Friends
Fourteen weeks “down”. There is a golden bronze glow to everything now. The leaves are piling up in crunchy heaps on the hillsides and lawns keeping the women on “landscape crew” busy all day.

The Geese honk as they pass in wave after determined wave, disappearing through the valley beyond the river. Only a few leaves cling to the elder trees whose branches are dramatic against the pink- and grey-streaked sunset. Darkness falls earlier and by 7pm I'm here at the library for a well-lit table and relative quiet to write until 8.45, closing time.

I spent the morning behind the greenhouse cleaning up the garden bed - and happily uncovered a nest of cherry tomatoes that escaped the frost. I nibble on parsley and enjoy mint and sage teas now.

Trading places

Several times a day the train rumbles past - nearly 100 cars long, each heaped with black and shiny coal. Now and again an AMTRAK DC-Chicago passenger train passes - close enough to almost see the travellers. We women held here would leap at the chance to trade places with the home-bound passengers.

The persistent and re-occurring inmate rumour of early release - variously explained as applicable to first-time offenders, women over 55, and all others who have completed 65% of their sentence, has electrified the compound. There are all-around denials from staff, of course, and in a few days not even the most convinced inmates speak of the possibility.

I've been reading the South African writer Nadine Gordimer. Her book, The Essential Gesture speaks to the role of a writer living in times and under circumstances of political repression. Good reading in this place for Inmate #90285-020.

Failing to manufacture consent

CNN continues its reports on “America's New War”. I occasionally join a half-dozen or so women in the cinder-block TV room designated for a “News” channel. The stationary bicycle keeps my feet moving, but the attempt to “manufacture consent” riles me. There is no unified country, and no majority approval for the US bombs and missiles that terrorise the Afghan people. Not in this jail. Not from among these hundreds of captive and disenfranchised women. The new Captain, transferred from a high-security prison, continues to tighten security here. The most recent is the requirement that all outgoing mail be inspected by the mail clerk, with only a half-hour time window after breakfast to bring the mail in for inspection. The posted memorandum indicated this was to “enhance the mail handling procedures” to protect staff and inmates from Anthrax. Despite the trickle-down repercussions from the “Attack on America”, it has taken some time for the truth of the war to penetrate the TV-induced unreality that has dulled my emotional response.

Expressing grief

Last week, after a difficult period during which the sadness weighted my every step, the grief finally washed over me with the gentle flow of quiet tears. I was settled into my upper bunk with the radio tuned to a WV public radio programme of folk classics. The noise and chaos of a Friday night in the prison barracks was somewhat muted by the headset. Then came Pete Seeger's distinctive voice lulling me with the song, “Somos el barco, Somos el mar” - We are the boat, we are the sea. I live in you, you live in me”. The hot tears rolled down my cheeks as this simply beautiful song expressed our essential unity - even as the US bombs rained hell-fire on the Afghan people. Thanks, Pete for helping me move into the grief I so needed to express.

War is good for no-one

“Our unity is a kinship of grief,” the Native American speaker declared as about 100 of we captive women gathered in the basement chapel for a “Day of Atonement” at the invitation of the prison’s Muslim community. Muslims and Jews, Buddhists and Catholics, Christians & WICCANS shared statements from each faith tradition during the “Day of Atonement” services. We crowded in the oak pews, cooling ourselves with hand-made cardboard fans.

“War is good for no one - Revenge is worse,” the Rasta sister affirmed. The strong solo voice of another captive raised in song stirred us to our feet - “What do you do when you\ve given your all and you just don't think you'll get through... Don't give up, don't fall down, don't give in - After you've gone thru the pain - Sisters - after you've gone thru the pain - Stand.”

I can't be there to stand with you, or to cry with you in a “Kinship of grief” - but with your many good letters and visits I feel connected and am grateful for your support.