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Letters from prison

From Gwen Hennessey

July l8, 200l

After our tearful goodbyes to friends and family, we spent the entire day at admissions -- processing, TB test, prison-issue clothing.

We filled out lots of papers and met counselors. The inmates are so welcoming and tended to our needs.

We were invited to a prayer group at 8:30 p.m. on the huge double basketball court -- 70 women of the 200 showed up.

The night was long and cold with a snore orchestra out of tune.

Rising was at 5:30 a.m., breakfast at 6 and inspection at 7:30. (Our alley got demerits for things on windowsills.)

Our SOA group plans to meet from 7 to 8 a.m. to discuss keeping in contact with the total SOA 26.

Some of our new vocabulary -- all loud and clear over the speaker:

“Last call for main line” (cafeteria).

“Count” at 10 p.m., 12 a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m. and 4 p.m. (very serious).

“Stand-up count” (very serious).

None of the officers wears guns. The inmates take over many areas -- laundry, library, kitchen, etc. Now I understand why one of the ex-offenders visiting the Sacred Heart convent in Dubuque said, “I can’t take this, the largeness and the spit-shine on the floors -- it takes me back to prison.”

From Dorothy Hennessey

July 18

Gwen tells me that I fell asleep with my glasses on last night. The daylong media calls, the glorious candlelight ceremony, the caravan to Pekin, the flashing cameras and the hugs of the final “sending-in” -- all these had been inspiring and exhausting.

We just came back from the nightly circle of prayer, marveling at how the group of women carries on the spontaneous praying each night.

From Gwen

July l9

The early morning “count” with flashlight awakened me. We need to be at breakfast at 6 a.m. if we want coffee and milk for the day. The only other time milk is offered is when the next-door “max for men” is in lockdown. The milk is ours at that time so it doesn’t go to waste.

I think of [Diarmuid] O’Murchu’s Religion in Exile. He says we were not meant to live alone. Togetherness is what we have here. We planned a 20th birthday party for one of our group. The women even want to make a cake.

Just got a loud-blast page to go to Receiving and Discharge, where I was met by two officers. They had a letter addressed to the Hennessey sisters. The letter had to be returned to a family member to open and return under only one name. So one must write directly to Dorothy or me.

I felt like I was back in the novitiate again, with all the rules.

From Dorothy

July 22

After dinner today we’re going to Russian Orthodox service, followed by a Communion service led by Sr. Pat. Yesterday it was a part of the Torah for Sabbath, directed by Rebecca. The American Indians are happy that a sweat lodge is in the future. And we do have a Catholic Mass on Thursdays (Peoria, Ill., diocese). Don’t think I’m in danger of losing my faith; I’m just getting more ecumenical.

If you want to do something to relieve suffering, try to get that cruel minimum sentence law changed. Anybody who touched drugs has to stay here at least 10 years, even though they are soon rehabilitated. And their babies grow up without them. The people here are generally good. The guards and administration have to watch their jobs, which are hard to get in this place. “It’s the dirty rotten system that needs to be changed,” as Dorothy Day said.

There’s a suspicion that some of us SOA 9 might be planning to start some kind of “riot.” But after a while, when they get convinced of our nonviolence, we think they’ll find us just boring!

From Gwen

July 26

I met several of the seven new prisoners this morning. One woman told us she is pregnant. Her consideration is a sack with cheese sandwich and fruit for the evening, but milk with every meal.

We just got news that one more of the SOA 26, Sr. Miriam Spencer, will start serving her time here Aug. 10. She is from Washington state. We will now become the SOA 10.

Last night at the library I heard a woman’s story. Her second husband was out of a job as a mechanic. They have three kids, so they started selling methamphetamine and after four months sold to an undercover federal agent. They both got four years. Their parents took the three kids. She gets out in three and a half years.

From Dorothy

Aug. 8

To answer a few questions first:

Yes, if you really plan to come, ask for a visitor’s permit. Send it back to show you are not a felon and to get approval.

No, do not bring anything. You’d only have to carry it back again.

No, don’t send stamps. There might be drugs on the back of them.

Yes, we greatly appreciate your love and your prayers slipping heavenward and buoying us up! Josh, one of the younger of the SOA 26, has asked that people write a letter to a congressman or senator instead of to him.

I now have a job, Monday through Friday, lining up napkins for meals. “Eat breakfast here at 6 and then start the napkins.” Far better than welding or maintaining the prison cars. Gwen has longer hours in the kitchen and dining room, but it looks as if nobody’s killed with work.

The 10-year mandated sentence for first-time drug offenders is intolerable. Women suffer for years from separation from their little ones growing up. The conspiracy law is bringing so many here -- if you know your husband or boyfriend is doing drugs and don’t report him. Fear of drugs has replaced fear of communism. The wrong people are punished, not the drug kingpins making the money!

From Gwen

Aug. 9

Callouts: 920088-020 Hennessey UNASSG FPC FS PM OOO2 FO2-212L. The above code says to go to the food services, eat at 11 a.m. and work from 11:30 to 6:30. We make 14 cents an hour and get two days a week off. Our sustainable income comes to less than a $1 a day (84 cents).

Aug. 12

One cannot imagine what loads some women have to carry. Today we heard that M.L.’s daughter, six months pregnant, was murdered. M.L.’s wailing helped her deal with the agony. She was put in a wheelchair, and many of us inmates spent time with her. Last night in our prayer circle, from her wheelchair she belted out a spiritual in praise of God. Going home for a funeral is whole other agony. The family of the inmate pays double for an accompanying officer.

From Dorothy

Aug. 14

Yesterday I walked across campus with a young woman whose 18-month-old baby is brought to visit her once a month. But it’s so sad for her because the little girl is frightened and wiggles out of her arms, knowing it’s her mother but not comprehending what “mom” means.

From Gwen

Aug. 15

I got the wind knocked out of my sails at the Assumption liturgy when the young priest got upset when all of those present did not use the proper, exact words, like [we said] “God” instead of “Him.” I was waiting for another comment, for the singing wasn’t perfect. Later in the Mass he said maybe he didn’t make himself clear and asked that no one try to discuss it with him today. He was too upset.

Aug. 20

Eight women from the Nebraska Unit were hauled off to county jail this a.m. for fighting. Quite traumatic! One inmate had just arrived last week (older woman). Sounded like a racial war of words.

Aug. 31

Dorothy and I were called to Ms. C’s office yesterday. The regional office and the central office had denied Dorothy’s compassionate release, but arranged for her to go to the Community Correction Center in Dubuque. It was effective right now. I packed her things.

Sept. 6

All of us SOA 9 received a letter from the Mayan Catholic lay pastor-educators in rural Guatemala. Part of the letter was “to thank you one and all for risking imprisonment by your protest to close down the SOA at Fort Benning in November 2000.”

“There is no need to remind us how U.S. foreign policy toward Central America has caused so much sorrow for this parish in the past and continues in the present -- if the charges being brought against other SOA graduates for their participation in the death of our former bishop, the beloved Juan Gerardi [Conedera], prove true. And just as the sacrifice made by our beloved Oscar Romero resisting ‘military solutions’ has borne fruit for his people, your choosing to do penance for the sins of your Congress and government will surely be accepted by the Lord for the redemption of all. May the merciful Lord bless those who seek a better world with justice.”

It was signed by many, from Izabala Tux, age 18, to Eng. F., age 57. So touching.

Sept. 11

This morning was wonderful -- full sunshine and cool on the track. I couldn’t believe I had the space to myself (wondered if I forgot to go to something.) After a mile and a quarter, a woman joined me. She mentioned just hearing about the World Trade Center. When I got back to the Unit, I was shocked to hear of the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and who knows what else. How many lives have been violently snuffed out! The camp is closed to outsiders due to the national crisis.

Sept. 13

We have felt added security due to the terrorist violence. There was not a dry eye in the TV room when the little boy was talking about his dad, a window washer at the Trade Center. We had a surprise recall and stand-up count at our cubicles when some of the men next door cheered at the picture of the crumbling tower.

It feels like George W’s words that we’ll “whip the terrorists” will mean an increase in the military budget, and SOA funding may be included.

Sept. 23

Why are we SOA 26 and other prisoners of conscience here in prison camps? We walk hand-in-hand with the mothers of the disappeared of Latin America -- people who have suffered at the hands of the terrorists trained at SOA at Fort Benning, Ga., people whose suffering includes the wiping out of entire families, villages of noncombatants.

From Dorothy

Oct. 13

“We’re leaving for Dubuque in a few minutes,” they told me at Administration early Aug. 30. “Could I run over and get some of my stuff to take along?” I asked. That wasn’t federal policy, but Gwen was summoned to get my things. “Could I say goodbye to some of my dearest friends?” I asked. OK, if I would list them, they said. But I was afraid I’d leave somebody out and cause hurt. When we went to the other building, somebody tipped off Mary B. and there she was, crying behind me. We hugged, and I told her to tell the others.

Soon we were off, Ms. M., our counselor, and I for a three-hour ride to Dubuque. No handcuffs or chains!

I was on the Criminal Justice Board when we built the Elm Street Community Corrections here in Dubuque (and now I’m incarcerated here). I was glad to find later that the same cook is still there. Inmates usually stay less than a year here at Elm Street, and they are mostly young men. I figured the men would be shy around an elderly nun in the dining room, but as I entered the first time, one guy broke the ice with a loud “Sister, you are a good friend of my mom and dad!” as he got a chair for me at his table.

By day inmates go out looking for pay jobs (that don’t really pay much), from which they pay room and board. Instead of a pay job for this 88-year-old, staffers and convent personnel arranged eight hours of “community service” work for me, including visiting elderly and ill at Holy Family Hall.

Once at work, I was surprised by an Elm Street staffer. He is required to check weekly to be sure none of us at work run away. But I had no inclination to plan a disappearance!

Because of my bad-sounding cough after a cold, the staffers at Elm Street and the leadership at Mount St. Francis decided on a “furlough” for me at Holy Family Hall infirmary. I had to sign a paper that I wouldn’t use drugs or alcohol or get married while on furlough. No special hardship!

From Gwen

Oct. 17

I had breakfast with Christi, who is leaving by bus today. In her four months in prison, 11 of her friends back in Gary, Ind., have been killed. She herself was shot in the back of the head by an ex-boyfriend. She goes to Davenport, Iowa, then on to Chicago, and then to a halfway house near Gary. “Gary is worse than Afghanistan!” she said.

Oct. 23

When I arrived in the dining room, C. said, “I’m lucky to be here today.” Last night after the midnight count, she got up and went to the bathroom at 12:30. At 1:26 the guard woke her and told her to do a “drop” [give a urine specimen] and, of course, she couldn’t. After six cups of water she still couldn’t urinate. (They call this stalling.) She was threatened they would call the lieutenant and take her to the county jail. Under the tension she threw up the water and had to clean it up, drank the rest of the water and finally was able to go under the eagle eyes of the guard at 2:56 a.m. just before the 3 a.m. count. Not much sleep for C. the rest of the night. Two other women were random checked also. It could have been me.

Nov. 1

Last night’s party was a blast. I won first prize on my costume -- a cave woman draped in a skimpy white sheet. With hair ratted and a big bone in my unkempt hair -- everything smudged with shoe polish. (D. says it’s good for the complexion. She is a master at artfully improvising.) Another thing -- my hair and clothing were covered with curled-up dried leaves. We even had caramel apples rolled in nuts.

From Dorothy

Nov. 6

Today is voting day. My charge is a simple misdemeanor, not a felony. So I went down to vote, across the street.

I have moved out of the Holy Family Hall infirmary back to Elm Street Corrections. Of course, I’m still a prisoner until Jan. 14. Instead of writing to me, please write to your reps in Congress, requesting the closing of the “School of Assassins.” Thanks for all the encouragement.

From Gwen

Nov. 22

We received a letter from Prince of Peace fourth grade Christian Doctrine class, Chesapeake, Va., addressed to “Our Maryknoll Friends in Prison.” The salutation: “Dear Ladies.” Young Patrick says, “It seems like a bad reason to get arrested.” Out of the mouths of babes.

Dec. 4

Frank Cordaro [a priest and peace activist who has served five six-month prison sentences] sent a “mind picture” from his past for us: “Soon you’ll be free -- but, oh, those last days can crawl along. I remember them well. Time just seems to stretch out longer and longer as your out date gets closer and closer. Hang in there.”

Dec. 17

The guard came through around 9 p.m. and saw “Supervixen” on the locker. He said that looks like a man. I nodded from my couch-bed and quickly added, “That’s not my book!” The cover was a huge picture of a Mrs. Charles Atlas type in a skimpy red bathing suit flexing her arms. K., my roommate, had ordered this and others from a prison book resource gifts-to-prisoners.

Dec. 19

A blast for C. She served three years of her 10 and now she is innocent -- total reverse of her sentence and home free, no felon -- and with her little daughter for Christmas. It’s now 3 p.m. and C. is taking the 4 p.m. bus to Detroit.

Dec. 21

This afternoon a whole group of staff, guards and a volunteer came around passing out a huge bag of goodies. It was sort of like the governors of Tennessee and Virginia on the rails in Appalachia throwing out candies from the train. I found it demeaning, but it was a tradition folks looked forward to each year. These guys, especially Mr. S. and other men, wanted us to sing for them before we got our treats. No one responded to the performance request, but they gave us the bags anyway.

Dec. 25

Merry Christmas! During our party last night T. started contractions. This is T.’s third child but the boyfriend’s first. So the PA blasted at 6:30 a.m.: “T. had a baby boy last night.” T. had so hoped the baby would be born right after she gets out so J., the dad, would be there. (My hope was that prison birth was not something for the baby to carry for the rest of his life.)

It’s now 9:30 a.m. Many are still sleeping. S., B. and D. walked by looking impish. They sang, “Let it snow” as they threw a bag of foam-packing snowflakes on J.’s bed. Now she is shoveling out before 10 a.m. count.

Spending time with my Advent/Christmas booklets along with our spirited liturgy, I read in one booklet, “Jesus became a homeless person, a refugee, a common laborer, a death row inmate and an executed prisoner.”

Jan. 1, 2002

Most of us stayed up until midnight last night, read a Psalm, threw confetti, used noisemakers -- even pill bottles -- for sound. Some went to the gym and stayed up until 3 a.m. count. J. made 2002 hats for us all.

K.’s New Year’s resolution is to give up food after 10 p.m. and give up smoking. Think I’ll do the same! And become a supervixen!

Jan. 3

On the way back from breakfast, B. called out, “Sr. Gwen, I passed my GED after five tries! K. helped me with the math.” Talk about jubilation!

Jan. 4

I missed T.’s departure with her new baby, Juan, and boyfriend and friends. Thank God the child has a family. They are off to Kansas City.

The Hennesseys’ letters were prepared by Judy Haley Giesen and Franciscan Srs. Elvira Kelley and Rebecca Rosemeyer at the Sisters of St. Francis motherhouse in Dubuque.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002