Prison memoirs

Sept. 21-27,2006
Prison memoirs
By Frank Woolever/ SUN contributing writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Frank Woolever connects Ghandi with his time spent in prison for civil disobedience

One of the books that impressed me as a youngster was Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with a Circus. It came to mind more than once as I walked the two-fifths of a mile loop around the Canaan Satellite Federal Prison Camp in northeast Pennsylvania some 20 miles from Scranton. Here I was spending three months away from my home in Syracuse, sent to this place by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. This camp, located in the shadow of a much larger medium-security United States Penitentiary with towers and barbed wire, was less than two-years old. I was here of my own free will!

In the book, the author has Toby, an orphan, running away from his uncle’s home to accept an invitation to work in a traveling circus. With some misgivings, his adventure begins. In the same vein, the previous November, 2005, I had made the conscious choice to cross the line onto the property of the military base at Fort Benning, Georgia along with 39 other protesters. I did so with the understanding that like hundreds of men and women before me, including a dozen or so from Central New York, I would have to spend time in a Federal correctional facility to “pay” for my non-violent behavior of entering the grounds of a military installation. My purpose, as one of 19,000 people of all ages who gathered outside of the gates on that morning, was to protest the teaching at the “School” located on the Ft. Benning property.

This facility, originally called the School of the Americas, trained military and civilian personnel in tactics of control. Funded by our federal tax dollars, it became notorious and infamous as graduates returned to their respective countries and displayed tactics of abuse, torture and murder at the behest of dictators and other politicians often friendly to U.S. commercial interests. After a manual of torture techniques was uncovered and made public in 1996 through the Freedom of Information Act, the voices of protest became so loud that Congress came close to eliminating the S.O.A. funding. The school’s name was changed to Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). New name but the same shame, and the same results in Latin America!

As I walked the path around the prison camp, careful to stay within the marked boundaries, I mused that Toby Tyler helped prepare me for this experience. How to make the best use of this three month period? One way was to tell the story of what was happening inside this prison camp, sharing my insights on the prison system from within. Although I could not send out email, I could send letters to a friend who would relay them to others. Another was to send letters to the Catholic Sun or Syracuse Post-Standard.

I decided to build upon some existing model to shape a coherent story about the larger tragedy of abuse, neglect and waste in our prison system in general, and in our government policies. The framework that came to mind was Mahatma Gandhi’s construction of seven social “blunders” or sins. He perceived them as the fundamental causes of violence among individuals and nations.

Thus began this three-month “retreat” period, as Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois, the guiding spirit of the effort to close down the S.O.A., referred to it in a letter he sent me in prison. At the top of his letter was a quote from Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador, who was fatally shot while celebrating Mass. This quote had special meaning for me, since that assassination a quarter of a century ago was one of the reasons I decided to go “over the line” last November. “We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between ‘master’ builder and the worker. We are the workers, not the master builder; the ministers, not the messiah. We are prophets of a future that is not our own.”
During the next several editions, these reflections will focus on each of Gandhi’s seven blockages to a peaceful world: wealth without work; pleasure without conscience, commerce without morality; science without humanity, knowledge without character; worship without sacrifice; politics without principles.

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