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A ‘hopeful, humanizing’ day in prison

NCR Staff

The wedding took place Feb. 25 in the visiting room of a federal prison. The bride is serving 14 months for her actions at School of the Americas protests. The groom left two days after his wedding to defy sanctions against Iraq, traveling with Voices in the Wilderness.

Two days before his wedding, Rick McDowell said that although his fiancée, Mary Trotochaud, is in prison, “we’ve chosen to go ahead with our lives. They can take away Mary’s physical freedom, but they can’t take away the freedom of her spirit and her soul. We’ve chosen to say that we will go ahead with our lives and this expression of love and commitment.” It is the first marriage for each of them.

Trotochaud, 48, and McDowell, 43, met in November 1996, when Trotochaud, then living in Atlanta, Ga., picked up a group of protesters arriving at the airport to join a vigil at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. McDowell, from Akron, Ohio, was among them. The two met again the following spring at an SOA demonstration on the steps of the U.S. capitol in Washington.

By the time of the November 1997 SOA protest, the two were dating. “I guess you could say that the people of El Salvador and Guatemala brought us together,” McDowell told NCR.

At the Nov. 16, 1997, demonstration, both Trotochaud and McDowell were arrested for trespassing at Fort Benning. Trotochaud faced charges for defacing the sign at the entrance of Fort Benning Sept. 29 of that year. While the charges against McDowell were dropped on a technicality, Trotochaud in early 1998 received sentences of six months for trespassing and eight months for destruction of property, followed by two years of supervised probation.

“It’s been an intense year,” McDowell said. “Our relationship has been surrounded by the inevitability of trials and sentencing and prisons.”

Their decision to marry five months into Trotochaud’s prison time at Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia was necessary if she wished to be with McDowell during her probation period. The two are planning to live near Amherst, Mass., Trotochaud told NCR in a telephone interview from the prison. “But the prison doesn’t allow you to relocate with anyone but a relative. They’ve taken away a certain amount of time from us as it is. We weren’t willing to allow them to take away any more time.”

They were allotted 15 minutes for the wedding ceremony, held in the visiting room of the prison, but in the end were allowed an hour. Trotochaud had to wear her prison issue khaki -- “kind of a reminder of the military,” she said. A local retired judge performed the ceremony, and Trotochaud’s mother and sister were present. There were no flowers, photos or music.

“Something like a marriage is hopeful and humanizing,” McDowell said. “It’s my belief that [prison officials] made it difficult because they don’t want prison to seem humanizing. It’s about crushing hope, not building hope, about crushing relationships, not building relationships.”

Both said that Trotochaud’s experience over the past five months has opened their eyes to the injustices of the U.S. prison system.

“I am constantly amazed these women have survived the lives they’ve had,” Trotochaud said. They have faced poverty, poor education, addiction and abuse, she said, and prison does nothing but make these conditions worse.

“What does taking them out of the community for five to 10 years serve?” she said. “It destroys the bond with the community and family. If you cannot deal with addiction living in the community, all the problems still exist.”

After her own release Oct. 2, which will probably be preceded by a few months at a halfway house, both she and McDowell plan to include prison issues in their activism work, she said.

The pair said they look forward to simply being together, alone and uninterrupted. “I think being together, embracing, sharing a meal, maybe a glass of wine, with a little bit of candlelight, will be a tremendous honeymoon,” McDowell said.

The couple also hope to have a wedding celebration with their families, who are Catholic, and have their marriage blessed by a priest.

Right now, though, Trotochaud said it’s hard to talk about the future, to “shift from prison thought to outside thought.”

“It really takes all your energies to live here,” she said. “Plus I don’t want to miss being here and being with these women.

“It’s a little bit surreal and schizophrenic to be getting married here for that reason,” she added. “All the women are excited about me getting married, congratulating me and asking me if I’m excited. I’m very happy to be marrying Rick, but I’m not going to be walking away into that life. I’ll still be here.”

The day after his wedding, McDowell noted that the search for justice and peace doesn’t come without sacrifice. “Our sacrifice pales in comparison to what the people of El Salvador and Guatemala have gone through as a result of the School of the Americas,” he said. “But it’s no doubt a sacrifice all the same.

“We’re happy to be married,” he added. “And though we’ll be sleeping in different states, we’ll be sleeping better.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999