by Mike Pasquale
Editor's Note: A massive movement has been working for over a decade to close the School of the Americas. Located at Ft. Benning, GA, the school has a long history of training Latin American military personnel who have later been found responsible for human rights atrocities in their own countries. For more information, visit www.soaw.org.
On November 18, 2001 I trespassed on to the property of the US Military Reservation at Fort Benning, Columbus, GA as part of a political protest calling for the closure of the School of the Americas (SOA), which now uses the alias Western Hemisphere School for Security Cooperation (WHISC). I was among eighty people who "crossed the line" that day. Eventually 36 of us were prosecuted and found guilty for our "crime," by the US District Court in Columbus, GA. Twenty-eight of us, including myself and friends Rae Kramer and Laura MacDonald, were sentenced to prison. The following are excerpts of my writings while a guest of the US Bureau of Prisons (BOP) at the Federal Prison Camp Allenwood from September 10, 2002 - March 7, 2003. My hope is that these excerpts will give you a small taste of what it's like to be in prison.
September 18, 2002
I've been here at Allenwood Federal Prison Camp for just over one week now. I had originally reported to the low-security Allenwood facility as I was instructed to do (this is a higher security level than a camp). When my brother and I arrived there just before 1 pm on 9/10, we were informed that I was to report to the minimum security prison camp about 4 miles down the road. I have to admit I was relieved to finally know I'd be at the camp--the same facility that former SOA POC's (prisoners of conscience) Jack Gilroy, Ed Kinane, Dan Sage, and Nick Cardell served at. The camp is a facility without walls or barbed-wire--unlike the low security facility. Of course the low security facility is where Congressman Trafficant is serving his time--so now that I'm at the camp I won't get to meet him. Shucks.
October 7, 2002
For the past four weeks I've been trying to get acclimated to prison life - learning the do's and don'ts, the personalities, the written and unwritten rules, the general ebbs and flows of daily living.
In a lot of ways prison, I think, is like living in the Twilight Zone: a strange alternate universe that mimics reality but is just a bit off kilter. From the start life here has been a bit of an adjustment. The administrative structure here is really set up to make life as difficult as possible for inmates and is not at all supportive in any substantial way. There's a pervasive attitude of disdain directed at the inmates, (intentionally or unintentionally). One would think a prison should focus, at least part of the time, on rehabilitation. Nope. It's all about punishment here. There have been instances where staff, when confronted with an inmate's need, have refused to meet the need but suggested that the inmate should use the means outside the established norms to meet his need. So much for showing inmates an alternative to "extra-legal behavior."
The important thing here is to keep yourself as busy as possible or else life would become the equivalent of having a full time job watching water boil. Most of the men have one kind of a job or another. The job I've got is called "visiting room orderly." There are seven of us (soon to be cut back to four) who are charged with cleaning the visiting room after visiting hours are complete. We basically work for an hour or so 3 days a week and a couple of hours during the week. So most of my time is pretty much my own.
I've gotten into the routine of walking about 5 miles a day outside, and this week I start the 10-week exercise classes which should help me keep up my pace during the winter months. I've also been participating in a Rosary group which meets nightly and have been attending Mass every Saturday night.
October 20, 2003
(From an article for the Le Moyne College Dolphin)
Those of us who risked prison time did so because we felt that the SOA, run by the government of the US bastardizes what democracy is all about. Many of us had visited or lived in Latin America and saw the results firsthand of the "democracy training" that our own government had given graduates of the SOA: massacres, assassinations, families torn apart, death squads, mass graves, freely-elected governments overthrown. We had all met Latin Americans who told us the stories of their lives - of family members who had been "disappeared," soldiers preventing them from voting, villages and whole communities whisked from the face of the earth. These were people who experienced the ravages of terrorism not just for one day, but day after bloody day for years. Official and well-documented reports came from the Catholic Church in Guatemala, the United Nations, Amnesty International and others. All told the same story- that a disproportionate number of those guilty of these atrocities were trained by the United States at the SOA. We knew that this was not what democracy looks like. We crossed the line so that we could provide a vision of what democracy should look like.
All of us in our diversity came together with one voice to demand that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people stop killing in the people's name. Democracy had many faces during our trial but only one voice. And we even heard a voice speak back to us - "3 months," "6 months." It was the judge's voice, "There'll be no democracy here today!" Nonetheless our struggle for justice continues.
The movement to close the SOA is not just about the SOA. It is also a crash course in what democracy can be. Our government, for better or for worse, will only be as just, humane, and fair as we allow it to be. The well being and security of the people of the United States does not depend on the subjugation of the people of Latin America or Iraq or Afghanistan. If our government wishes to spread democracy around the world, it should use olive branches, real dialogue, policies that empower grassroots people and not bombs, structural adjustment policies, counter-insurgency warfare, and pre-emptive strikes. The SOA is a symbol of much that is wrong with so-called American democracy; closing the SOA would be a symbolic and significant repudiation of US foreign policy since the end of World War II.
October 29, 2002
Well it's snowing here at lovely Allenwood this fine October evening! It almost
makes me feel like I'm back home in Syracuse (almost). The leaves on the trees
here on our tiny "compound" and on the surrounding mountains seem
to be at their peak. We've been
treated to truly vibrant colors - reds, yellows, browns - for a few days now. The fall leaves, and the deer that are constantly on the compound, bring a touch of warmth and humanity to the place that it otherwise sorely lacks.
Word about my reason for being here has spread around. One guy who just arrived
about ten days ago came up to me last week and said to me, "Mike, I heard
about your story and I respect what you did. I think you're crazy but I respect
what you did!" I assured him I'd
gone off the deep end years ago and appreciated his comment.
I'm finishing this note on Wednesday, 10/30. I just got paid for the first
time this morning - $12.60 for 105 hours of work over seven weeks. That's 12
cents an hour. Of course I didn't work anywhere near 105 hours so I guess I
got the better end of that deal. That'll
be the BOP's contribution towards my fine. Either that, or since today's my 34th birthday, it must be their birthday present to me! Dream on...
December 11, 2003
At 9:30 this morning an ice storm descended on this part of Pennsylvania, essentially covering the area (and our compound) with a sheet of ice. All activities have been cancelled tonight (except dinner, of course!), and we're all confined to our units until tomorrow (this simply means we cannot go outside. We have full mobility within the unit to watch TV, use the phones, and microwaves, etc.). I overheard one inmate lamenting to another that he was frustrated that we were "locked-up" for the night; I'm not quite sure if he realized the irony in his choice of words, but I got a chuckle out of it anyway.
At the beginning of November I was switched to a new job--quite randomly
and without any kind of notice. I'm now an orderly (janitor) at a place called the "Training Center." It's a small building about 5 miles from the compound that houses the adminsitrative staff who coordinate training and wellness programs for Allenwood employees. So while I have to travel to work, I'm not going outside what's called the Federal Correctional Complex-Allenwood. From the Training Center I have an
unobstructed view of Route 15, so I get a daily glimpse of the hustle and bustle of the outside world.
The work is basically light cleaning: two bathrooms, sweeping, cleaning the windows (yes, I do windows), buffing the floors weekly, setting up rooms for meetings, etc. There's enough down time to get some reading in during the shift, and my cleaning partner, an Hasidic Jewish inmate, is fun to talk and joke with.
I must admit, though, now that I'm more than halfway through my sentence, my
thoughts and plans are turning more and more to the logistics of leaving here
and getting back to my day-to-day life and responsibilities. Part of it is just
plain excitement about going
home and being with friends and family again. But probably the larger part is "tiredness" at so much of what goes on around here. I'm told one SOA POC has put it this way: "This has been a valuable, enlightening experience," adding in the same breath, "and I'm ready to go home tomorrow." I feel similarly.
Despite the benefits of what is essentially a very simple lifestyle, there
is a drudgery here, an oppressive atmosphere that can be challenging to deal
with. Imagine, for example, being woken up at 8 am on Thanksgiving morning,
as I was, by your name and the
names of your whole work detail being called over the compound-wide loudspeaker to report to the "Control Center." It turns out we were all given breathalyzer tests. Why? Who knows. I cannot imagine why this had to be done on Thanksgiving morning. I wonder what they have in store for Christmas morning. Or imagine being reprimanded by a staff member as you're going into the chow hall for lunch because you're wearing your sweatshirt over your khaki shirt instead of underneath it (this staff member is notorious for harassing inmates for how they're dressed). This is the same staff member who is a unit manager in the other living unit where some of the dorms have not had heat for several weeks. You have to wonder what someone like that is thinking and where their priorities are.
January 7, 2003
From an article for Pax Christi USA's Catholic Peace Voice
It's almost midnight. I'm sitting in my cube nestled within the bowels of inmate
residential unit A here at Allenwood Federal Prison Camp. The desk light is
humming softly as an inmate a few cubes down the row is snoring. These are the
only sounds that break the late-night quiet. I know that soon I will be engaged
in what I'm told is
a nightly quartet of musical slumber with my nieghbor down the row and a couple of others nearby. For the moment, however, I'm enjoying the mostly-quiet of the night, letting my thoughts run through my head and seeing what sense I can make of them, if any. I've been here at FPC Allenwood for only four months now, but I already feel like an old-timer. Some new inmates arrived yesterday with that deer-in-the-headlights look about them. I wonder if I had that look when I arrived here back in September. I know, in any case, that it's a look that only time can reshape---and time is the one thing we have here in great abundance. One never gets comfortable here; one simply adjusts. So I guess I've adjusted. Or maybe simply adapted, I don't know. Lately I find myself saying goodbye to friends as they transfer to other prisons or head home after many years in the system. (My "bit" is only six months long, most have much longer sentences.) I'll miss those new-to-me faces, especially those that helped me to adapt or adjust or whatever.
Society calls them---all of us in here---criminals, people meant to be disregarded and ignored and perpetually marked. I have learned to call many so-called criminals "friends" these past few months.
For the past two months I have been teaching a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adult "class," helping one inmate to prepare for baptism in the Catholic Church. During one of our weekly sessions he told me about the Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony that he's participated in regularly during his time in prison. The Sweat Lodge Ceremony is deisgned to incorporate all aspects of creation in prayer. The interconnectedness of all creation is emphasized, from the design of the sweat lodge itself to the symbols and prayers used. Indeed, the lodge is meant to represent a womb and the ceremony a re-birthing process focusing on gratitude, sacrifice, and purification. This ceremony is not seen, as I understand it, as some distinct event that one particpates in periodically but rather as a natural and integral part of life which informs and sustains everyday living. The sweatlodge to me is a challenge, I think, to take God out of the tabernacle, if you will, and into our struggling and imperfect world in a deliberate and conscious way. That's how I'll look at peacemaking from now on---I guess you could call it sweat lodge peacemaking.
The dorm is quiet now, seemingly at peace. Only the whispers of some late night conversations are now in earshot. Sometimes prison, I've learned, can be a place filled with new insights and deep gratitude, if you work at it. That's how you get beyond the atmosphere of punishment.
January 19, 2003
In early December, I was informed that I was approved for a halfway house placement and would be allowed to leave FPC Allenwood a month early to report to the halfway house (I had known this might be a possibility since early October.) On New Year's Eve many Allenwood inmates, including me, learned that their halfway house date had been changed due to a revision in BOP policy.
In some cases guys only lost a few days. In other cases they lost several months,
including some guys who were supposed to head home the following week and were told they weren't leaving here until March or later. It was an especially hard blow to guys who had made arrangements for employment which would now have to be re-negotiated, if that was even possible.
I am disappointed that I won't be able to get back to work, and my entire life in general, as soon as I had hoped. This whole halfway house process has, strangely enough, helped me have a more typical experience than I might have had otherwise. When I arrived here on September 10, I was immediately told what my release date was, so I had complete certainty about how long I was going to be here. Most inmates do not have anywhere near that kind of certainty.
Most inmates, especially those with sentences of several years or more, will
likely get some halfway house time, but the amount is usually not determined
until toward the end of their sentence for a variety of reasons. So inmates
generally can only ballpark
possible "outdates" at best, not being certain of when they are getting out of prison until they are almost literally walking out the door.
When, in October, my case manager dangled the possibility of leaving here early, I lost the certainty I had about release. It took over two months before the halfway house placement was approved, and as already mentioned, within a few weeks of approval it was cut back. So like most inmates I was better than two-thirds thorugh my sentence before I knew with full certainty when I was leaving here and under what circumstances. Granted there's a big difference between my 30-day variance and the 12 month (or more) variance that a lot of other inmates experience, but it is still a bit frustrating. Nonetheless, the experience has given me a fuller sense of the difficulties of prison life.
March 6, 2003, 11:40 pm
Well it's finally here - release. In just over 8 hours, I'll be with my parents heading down Route 15 and back to freedom. It's hard to describe how I feel right now. Certainly I'm happy that this day has finally arrived, that I'll soon be reunited with the people that I love and care for. Yet, strangely enough, I have strong feelings of loss and sadness - as strong as those feelings were the night before I left for Allenwood six (can you believe it!) months ago. I've been feeling that for a while, but they hit home hard tonight after my going-home party, as I saw many good friends for the last time before I head out in the morning. The men I have met here have become part of the fabric of my life, and I shall miss them a great deal.
The paradox is striking - the fact that I would feel as I do now on the eve of my release. It's amazing how strong the relationships that I've built here are. I suppose it's similar to the bond soldiers form in the foxhole. I guess I'm not sure I can really describe it. Perhaps the feelings of joy will come to the fore tomorrow morning - I expect that they will actually. But for the moment I need to sit with the sadness and indeed the gratefullness that I was accompanied on this journey by some truly amazing and inspiring men.
Last Saturday we had the baptism that I'd been helping one of my friends here to prepare for. In the end it turned out to be a very beautiful and meaningful ceremony for everyone, and the priest invited him to make his first communion as well.
There's a lot I could say about the prison system (it stinks big time), how this all relates to closing the SOA (trust me it does) and on the current state of the nation (Bush is nuts!) but I'll save that for another time. Before I hit the sack I plan to offer prayers of thanksgiving for the guys I have met here, for their friendship and support. I think the relationships that we've formed here are perhaps the most powerful act of resistance against the principalities and powers that I've been a part of; perhaps even more so than crossing the line.
March 7, 2003
At 8:30am this morning I was released from Allenwood. My folks were waiting in the parking lot and we immediately sped off to the NYC suburbs to spend the weekend with family.
I had had breakfast this morning with a few of my friends. Many other guys-many who I'd known and others whom I didn't- stopped by the table to wish me well. Others caught me in the hallway, or in my cube or in the rest room. When my name was called on the loudspeaker I walked slowly across the compound to Receiving and Discharge (R&D) saying a few last goodbyes and savoring the moment. The R&D staff person scolded me for taking so long to get to his office. I responded by saying, "Sorry, I got here as fast as I could." Not quite the truth but I didn't care.
One humorous note: when I checked my email this evening (I have 700 to go through!) I found a message from something called "Online Degree" inviting me to get an internet degree in criminal justice. Gee, I thought I just did a six month PhD in that!
Mike lives in Syracuse and is a member of the SOA Abolitionists.