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Barbie parties and blessings in jail


When St. Paul writes his letters from prison, he often seems so casual about his time spent there. For me, my first time in jail is anything but routine.

I am watching a TV from hell, one that never stops playing and offers only a single channel. Because of these circumstances, at 3 a.m. I find myself watching Martha Stewart.

Her theme is how to throw a Barbie doll birthday party for little girls. Martha describes merrily how to carefully fold pink napkins and adorn the table with large, festive bows and, finally, how to create the pièce de résistance: a Barbie doll cake. She painstakingly explains how to transform that symbol of girlhood and womanhood -- a white-faced, blond-haired, hourglass-shaped doll -- into something edible.

Watching this never-ending show with me are women who have probably never heard of Martha Stewart and who certainly don’t look like Barbie. The audience is composed primarily of black- and brown-skinned women speaking a language I cannot begin to utter, inhabiting a world of which I know almost nothing, all of them branded criminals by our society.

A litany of their names now runs continuously through my heart: Tracey, a 19-year-old, delighted to be seven months pregnant, brought in on some 2-year-old warrant; Francine, a quiet woman with short red braids sticking out at angles that defy gravity, arrested because when she was finally able to renew her driver’s license she forgot to inform the authorities of her record; Sandra, a large, vivacious woman who gave up prostitution years ago and now has a husband and children to whom she can’t wait to return.

I also can’t forget Crystal, who sells and does drugs, is completely schizophrenic, yet at the same time filled with energy and a wisdom way beyond her years; Olivia, a beautiful Jamaican woman who was dragged out of a phone booth, beaten up by the police and, she says, planted with crack. Perhaps most heartbreaking is Latisha, a feisty 18-year-old girl whose initiation into jail landed her in a tiny, freezing security cell, where she was given only a skimpy hospital gown to wear because she refused to be strip-searched.

I am with these women, watching this TV show, because I participated in a nonviolent protest against the subcritical nuclear weapons tests, which continue to take place at the Nevada Test Site. My friend and I decided that we wanted our action to be taken seriously, so we refused to sign our citations in the hope of actually appearing before a judge the next morning. Unlike the women crammed into this room with me, we had a choice. We chose to spend the night in the San Francisco County Jail.

The next morning we were not brought to court. Our case was dismissed. Do I regret my time spent behind bars, even though my friend and I did not achieve our stated goal? Definitely not. I was educated by these women who shared their stories with me, made so much more real because I, too, was locked down. I, too, was denied medication I needed.

I was able to educate others as well. After the women I met recovered from their initial shock upon hearing that we refused to cite out, they understood what we were doing. They understood well that money spent on bombs is needed for housing, health care and child care. Several of the police officers said they agreed with us and asked me to pray for them.

One inmate, a man, asked me to pray for him, too. I replied: “I’ll pray for you if you pray for me.” How blessed I was by that courageous prayer and by the women who shared their lives with me in a room filled with Martha Stewart’s voice instructing us all how to frost a cake -- and permeated by the presence of a God whose love knows no bounds or obstacles, not even the locked doors of a holding cell in a county jail in a city named after Francis.

Cindy Pile is the education director for the Nevada Desert Experience, a group that opposes nuclear testing.

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999