My “Conversation” in Jail with Thoreau
Joe Mulligan, S.J.
The following is a chapter of a journal I wrote while I was in two county jails from late January to late April, 2004, serving a 90-day sentence for “crossing the line” onto Ft. Benning, Ga., in a November 2003 protest against the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA). The School, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), has trained thousands of Latin American soldiers, some of whom have returned to their countries to be notorious torturers, assassins, and other human-rights violators.
For more information: www.soaw.org
Today I am re-reading Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Civil Disobedience” (Civil Disobedience and Other Essays, Dover Publications, 1993), and reflecting on his observations about and experiences in jail, beginning with the well-known sentence: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
I would add: “if that is a necessary consequence of struggling in the most effective way possible to free those unjustly imprisoned and to right other wrongs.” Is that not what the victims of injustice would ask of us, rather than simply to accompany them in jail? I believe Thoreau would accept my little friendly amendment to his famous line.
FREEDOM AND HOPE BEHIND BARS
He continues: “The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles.” I agree that principled dissidents are the state’s “freer and less desponding spirits.” Even though behind bars, they are freer than many other citizens because their minds have been liberated from the tunnel-vision imposed by schools, churches, media, and government and because their hearts have been freed from indifference and apathy and from the fear of persecution.
Prisoners of conscience are also “less desponding” than many of their neighbors. Their vision of a possible future beckoned them to take action, and that deed itself nourishes their hope.
In church parlance it is said that one “excommunicates oneself” by any act which ipso facto results in exclusion from the community. Similarly, Thoreau is saying that resisters, by their principled action, remove themselves from society as it exists under state control; incarceration ratifies that removal and gives physical expression to it, even though the resister is locked up by the state government.
SOLIDARITY WITH THE OPPRESSED
“It is there [in jail] that the fugitive slave, and the Mexican prisoner on parole, and the Indian come to plead the wrongs of his race, should find them.” Once again, I would say that these and other victims may prefer to find their sympathizers and allies in a house where they can safely hide the fugitive, or in the U.S. Congress opposing the Mexican War, or demonstrating in front of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. If such solidarity with the oppressed lands one in jail, then she would feel that she is in a proper place to meet the people whose cause she has championed as effectively as possible on the outside.
This, indeed, is how I would have felt here in jail if I had met any “illegals” who had fled from U.S.-sponsored repression in Latin America, or Iraqis seeking refuge from the terror inflicted on their country by the occupation forces, or American soldiers being detained for their conscientious refusal to fight in Iraq.
Jailed dissenters occupy, according to Thoreau, “that separate, but more free and honorable ground, where the State places those who are not with her but against her, -- the only house in a slave-state in which a free man can abide with honor.” Honorable? Yes. More honorable? It depends on whether good alternatives have been evaluated in serious strategizing. A free woman in a slave state could abide with honor in a church, school, legislature, or editorial office where she could vigorously promote abolition; if in these arenas or in violating the Fugitive Slave Act, for instance, she was arrested, then the jail too would be an honorable abode.
EFFECTIVENESS IN JAIL
Indeed, Thoreau saw possibilities for ongoing effectiveness there: “If any think that their influence would be lost there, and their voices no longer afflict the ear of the State, that they would not be as an enemy within its walls, they do not know by how much truth is stronger than error, nor how much more eloquently and effectively he can combat injustice who has experienced a little in his own person. Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”
A prisoner can “afflict the state” (usually to a limited degree, to be sure) by raising the political consciousness of fellow inmates, by participating in or getting coverage for some protest within the institution, or by writing: letters to friends and relatives, letters to the editor and articles (where these are not prohibited or otherwise effectively discouraged), and books (if manuscripts can be safeguarded and carried out upon release -- or sent out piecemeal with letters to friends).
Even where these forms of expression are precluded, or where the inmate chooses not to use them as tools of protest and affliction, it is true that she is in jail “as an enemy” within the state’s walls. I became aware of this as I was discerning about the SOA/WHINSEC action: I began to feel that just being a federal prisoner constituted a 24/7 statement of resistance against the violence of the federal government.
The degree to which that resistance is felt by the government and by society depends on (1) who the prisoner is and (2) how loudly she can raise her voice. Obviously, prisoners like Thoreau, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and King can afflict their opponents more sharply than the average John Doe inmate.
Nevertheless, as Thoreau stresses, we usually cannot predict “by how much truth is stronger than error” and how effective may be the satyagraha (truth-force) of Jane Doe among her particular public, small in size though it may be, like the mustard seed and the yeast.
I agree with Thoreau that a personal experience of even a little injustice in the form of imprisonment can help the ex-prisoner to combat a variety of injustices more eloquently and more effectively. More eloquently, because his protest stems from his personal experience of being oppressed; more effectively, for the same reason, and also because as an ex-prisoner he may have a wider and more attentive audience.
Thanks to my own experience of two years in prison for resistance to the Vietnam war, I was able to feel a deeper solidarity with people who had suffered under U.S. policies and particularly with those who had experienced severe restrictions on their rights and freedoms; and I felt that I could speak more authentically of injustices affecting me and others.
Thoreau urges us to express our commitment not merely by “a strip of paper” in occasional elections but also by weighing in with the influence of our whole life and work. We can do this in many ways other than prison, ready to include incarceration when necessary.
Those of us whose personal circumstances and interior lights have led us on the path of civil disobedience must be on guard against our particular occupational hazard or temptation, namely, to consider our way the only or the best one for all.
CLOGGING THE MACHINERY OF GOVERNMENT
As a civil disobedience movement grows, it can “clog” the state machinery: “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose.” Gandhi and King mobilized sufficient numbers to clog the courts and jails, thus afflicting, inconveniencing, and pressuring the state, which then chose to yield, at least partly, to some of their demands.
Significant numbers, sufficient to exert pressure, do not alter the non-violent nature of the movement: “If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood.” With our current military budget hovering over $400 billion, plus more than $100 billion for our military occupation of Iraq and dangerous increments for research on new varieties of nuclear weapons, the blood on our income-tax returns is quite visible.
“This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution,” Thoreau continued, “if any such is possible. If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, ‘But what shall I do?’ my answer is, ‘If you really wish to do any thing, resign your office.’” If I want to help the person dying on the roadside, I must first get my boot off his neck.
“When the subject has refused allegiance, and the officer has resigned his office, then the revolution is accomplished.” Thoreau had an acute awareness that the innocent blood shed by the state stains the hands of taxpayers. When the subject and the official refuse to continue in their respective violent roles, “the revolution is accomplished” -- a very profound, life-changing, and costly revolution in those two lives which can be the seed of the larger “peaceable revolution” with broad social impact.
Thoreau foresees the possibility of bloodshed in some instances -- evidently referring to the wounds which may be inflicted on the non-violent resister: “But even suppose blood should flow. Is there not a sort of blood shed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds to an everlasting death. I see this blood flowing now.” Revolutionary non-cooperation prevents the bloody wounding of the person’s conscience.
JAIL AS WAREHOUSE
Thoreau describes his jail experience: “I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up.” (Someone paid his tax the next day.)
Jails simply lock up the body, without further pretense. They are, theoretically, holding stations for relatively short-term detention -- until the defendant is released on bond or goes to trial. If convicted, she may serve a short sentence in the jail or be sent to a prison for a longer term.
In jail there is no rhetoric about “rehabilitation,” except perhaps in the preachers’ sermons if these are permitted.
But the injustice and waste are evident in the fact that, contrary to theory, many inmates spend inordinately long periods of time in jail if they cannot afford to be released on bond before trial or if, as is common here, they are awaiting disposition of their alleged probation or parole violation. While their jail time counts toward the eventual sentence they will receive if convicted, the time itself is slow and unproductive. Inmates in jails as distinct from prisons usually have no work assignments or educational or recreational opportunities (except perhaps forty minutes or so on sunny days in a small well-enclosed yard).
It is a maximum-security institution for all its inmates, whereas prisons are of various security gradations. “Cabin fever,” with the tension it builds up, is an inherent problem. Jail food usually reflects the fact that, again theoretically, it is meant to be for temporary sustenance. Thus it is not surprising that Thoreau found himself handled like a sack of merchandise in jail.
Prisons, on the other hand, where inmates serve their sentences, are much larger, have more facilities and activities, and generally have at least a stated intention of “rehabilitating” their residents. The word penitentiary refers to a place where a convict is supposed to repent and do penance as a step toward conversion and leading a new life in the future.
I can hear the guffaws and colorful language already! With over two million people behind bars, the U.S. has an enormous problem in the failure of the criminal-justice system to achieve its proclaimed goals. Sentences are long, recidivism high.
The mystery of true repentance and conversion can occur at any point in the prisoneŕs experience, but if she is facing many more years behind bars and away from family, and if she sees no possibilities for training while in prison for a decent job upon release, then the conversion seems to be crushed by the weight and meaninglessness of her remaining years in the penitentiary.
Neither one night in jail nor ninety can provide any approximation of this devastating experience of looking down such a long, dark, and cold tunnel with only uncertainty and more self-doubt at the other end.
Rehabilitation, if it is to mean anything, must be eminently practical. Occasional platitudes by the caseworker or the chaplain’s fervent denunciation of sin and call to conversion ring hollow if the inmate cannot see himself engaging in a practical educational and job-training program in prison leading to real and adequate employment possibilities upon release.
If these fundamental needs were at least on the road to being satisfied, then an occasional conversation with the caseworker or counselor or chaplain and participation in group life-goals sessions and religious programs would be grounded in reality and might bear some fruit.
Moreover, social and political consciousness-raising through history, sociology, and literature courses or discussions can sharpen the inmate’s analysis of society and thus help to elevate her self-esteem and commitment to struggle not only for a better personal future but also for her people.
Thoreau wondered that the institution “should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way.” Perhaps today he would have been among the very few who are sentenced to community service instead of a jail term.
According to an article in our local newspaper, Georgia’s Corrections Commissioner James Donald reported that it costs $17.5 million a year to operate a 1,000-bed prison. With the prison population skyrocketing and with recidivism at an alarmingly high rate, Donald and others are looking for constructive alternatives to incarceration, such as diversion programs and day reporting centers. “For $17.5 million we can open and operate 34 day reporting centers,” said Donald’s executive assistant.
BREADTH OF PERCEPTION
As he peered out of his cell, he saw that his neighbors on the outside were also confined in some ways: “if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar.” Liberation for his fellow townspeople would require their deliverance from their tunnel-vision, irresponsible indifference, and fearful conformism.
Thoreau described how his cellmate “occupied one window, and I the other; and I saw that, if one stayed there long, his principal business would be to look out the window.” Here it has not been a priority interest for me to look out our very narrow window, although I have enjoyed an occasional glance. The scene -- fence, field, house, trees, sky -- never changes; there is no wildlife or human life to be seen.
Our plexiglas window, sunk about five inches into the steel frame, affords a 90-degree view of the surrounding environment. But many people in “free society” also see only about one fourth of their world -- home, suburb, expressway, office -- speeding (or crawling) through corridors of the city without ever really seeing it. Similarly, even if they travel the world, they perceive only a small sector of it, the tourist realm which is kept as similar to home as possible; and they understand even less.
Others in free society, especially the elderly, are confined physically to their barred and locked homes, particularly after dark. This unit of the jail is approximately the size of a small, two-story American house -- home for 24 inmates.
Here we see no roses, no art, no birds, and we hear no beautiful music; but many on the outside, in their partly self-made and partly imposed jails of busy-ness and routine, never allow themselves to have contemplative contact with such beauty, to take time to smell the roses.
Even Thoreau had to make an effort to free himself up to be in nature with his whole self, as we can see in his essay on “Walking” (published in 1862, 13 years after “Civil Disobedience”): “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is -- I am out of my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”
His jailers “thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hinderance [sic], and they were really all that was dangerous.”
Like Thoreau, I didn’t make it my chief desire to stay out of jail, although I would have preferred it; my top desire was to struggle effectively to close the SOA/WHINSEC, to contribute a little toward changing U.S. foreign policy, to help get the U.S. out of Iraq. The means I chose led to jail.
Since jail is a maximum-security institution, the doors are always locked “industriously” on us, as on Thoreau. But our meditations too, some of which could be considered “dangerous” by the Bush administration (to the extent that they contemplate resistance to its unjust and violent policies), pass like ghosts through the steel doors, bars, plexiglas windows, and coiled razor-wire. My meditations have been fed by the “subversive” writings of Gandhi, King, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Alfred Delp, Thoreau himself, and others, as well as by articles sent in by friends from the Nation, the Progressive, National Catholic Reporter, and other critical publications.
Many “free” people are too fearful or too apathetic to allow themselves sufficient intellectual liberty to open their minds to such a breadth of theological and political thought.
I have sent out some of my written meditations in the form of articles, letters to the editor, and letters to friends through the ordinary postal procedure here. Many on the outside confine their dangerous thoughts to the vault of their own head for fear of losing job, promotion, or social “acceptability.” Who, then, is in jail?
As a Catholic priest and Jesuit, I have chosen to accept certain limitations on my individual freedom. But are we not overly confined in the Church today by the stones and doors of unnecessary restrictions and prohibitions? The concrete and iron seem too thick and heavy -- especially after the doors and windows were unlocked by Vatican II. Not only are there prohibitions against the ordination of women and married men and a persistent discrimination against gays, but even the public discussion of such issues is discouraged. Let us pray and work that the windows and doors of our Church will be opened once again to the fresh breezes of the Spirit.
Authority in the Church, based on Jesus’ attitude of humble service, should never ape the way, in Thoreau’s view, it is exercised by the state, which “never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced.”
In our trial the prosecutor, never willing to engage the real issues which had to do with the intent of our action, focused narrowly on whether our bodies had crossed the property line. And with its superior physical strength the state jailed our bodies. (The judge made a slight effort to enter into dialogue with some defendants but always, of course, from his position of superior physical strength.)
In jail it seemed to Thoreau that he “never had heard the town-clock strike before, nor the evening sounds of the village; for we slept with the windows open, which were inside the grating... It was a closer view of my native town. I was fairly inside of it. I never had seen its institutions before. This is one of its peculiar institutions.”
Viewing this “peculiar institution” as a participant-observer gives one not only a truer understanding of it but also a closer and more inside view of the society which runs it. This perspective from the bottom is usually jarring and disturbing, to say the least; but soon the new explorer in these environs becomes grateful for the enriching if painful learning experience.
“In the morning, our breakfasts were put through the hole in the door, in small oblong-square tin pans, made to fit, and holding a pint of chocolate, with brown bread, and an iron spoon.” Muscogee County Jail is still putting the trays through the lower slot in the door -- not into the six-man cells but to the inmates on line in the dayroom. Instead of a pint of chocolate, however, something hardly recognizable as either chocolate or coffee is presented. Brown bread would be a real treat; the spoon is plastic.
Emerging after just one night, Thoreau naturally did not expect to perceive any great changes on the common. “And yet a change had to my eyes come over the scene -- the town, and State, and country -- greater than any that mere time could effect. I saw yet more distinctly the State in which I lived.” Released prisoners have not only a new and different perspective on the state but often a gut-level outrage over its bureaucratic inefficiency and injustice. How salvific it is, for the newly freed person and for society, when that energy can be channeled into constructive struggle.
Thoreau was disappointed that his neighbors had not rallied or protested in his defense (though he must have recognized that the one who paid his taxes so soon had allowed them little time to organize!).
He also saw more keenly, or at least felt more strongly, “that they did not greatly purpose to do right; that they were a distinct race from me by their prejudices and superstitions, as the Chinamen and Malays are; that, in their sacrifices to humanity, they ran no risks, not even to their property; that, after all, they were not so noble but they treated the thief as he had treated them, and hoped, by a certain outward observance and a few prayers, and by walking in a particular straight though useless path from time to time, to save their souls. This may be to judge my neighbors harshly; for I believe that most of them are not aware that they have such an institution as the jail in their village.”
Perhaps a good number did “greatly purpose to do right” but were unaware of certain injustices or chose means which were not his. Perhaps Thoreau’s circumstances in life allowed him to run more risks than others, and some might have considered one night in jail not comparable to the more severe consequences they would face.
He described a quaint custom in his village: “it was formerly the custom ..., when a poor debtor came out of jail, for his acquaintances to salute him, looking through their fingers, which were crossed to represent the grating of a jail window, `How do ye do?́ My neighbors did not thus salute me, but first looked at me, and then at one another, as if I had returned from a long journey.” Fortunately this graphic salute has not been revived.
It is not clear what he really wants to say about his reception or lack of it by his neighbors. In his vagueness about this aspect of his experience Thoreau is rather representative of a number of ex-prisoners who have difficulty in understanding or describing the relationships they are resuming.
Prison experiences, like “immersions” in Third World or inner-city or reservation realities, and perhaps like war experiences, are hard to describe to those who have never been near those places and perhaps do not want to get close to them, even vicariously through returning friends. (I personally have not been sharply affected in this way, but I believe that others have been.)
“I was put into jail as I was going to the shoemaker’s to get a shoe which was mended. When I was let out the next morning, I proceeded to finish my errand, and, having put on my mended shoe, joined a huckleberry party, who were impatient to put themselves under my conduct; and in half an hour... was in the midst of a huckleberry field, on one of our highest hills, two miles off; and then the State was nowhere to be seen.”
As Thoreau continued on his errand, I plan to resume mine! On April 23 Fr. Roy Bourgeois, M.M., founder of School of the Americas Watch, who will be home in nearby Columbus at the time, will take me and Mike from here right back to the main gate of Ft. Benning to continue the protest of last Nov. 23 -- this time maintaining a safe distance from “the line” and emphasizing our message to the U.S. and Latin American troops to analyze the war in Iraq and to consider applying for conscientious objector status if they cannot justify participating in combat.
Then there will be huckleberry picking, and the SOA/WHINSEC and foreign policy will recede, temporarily, from sight.