from The Movement, July-September, 2009

By Judith Trustone

“Are you with them?” the prison guard on a bike asked as he stopped us in the prison parking lot. My friend, Bonnie Tjaden, and I had just come from an unsuccessful attempt to visit a prisoner, one of the 7,000 who can’t afford bail, awaiting a hearing or a trial out of the more than 9,000 inmates at the Philadelphia Prison. We’d put all of our jewelry in a 25 cent locker, but we were denied a visit because we were wearing flip flops! We did manage to pick up his art work which had been confiscated along with the art supplies he kept in his crowded call. His offense? Painting a portrait for a staff person at their request; another of the ridiculous and demeaning rules meant to create an atmosphere of chronic psychological torture that too often becomes the norm to those working within the system. Prison brings out the worst in everyone, the keepers and the kept. The daily humiliation and degradation of families of the incarcerated further grinds away at weary souls trying to be supportive of their locked up loved ones. These small daily humiliations and degradations constantly crush the spirits of those enduing them. Yes, some bring in contraband, but most don’t. Contraband usually comes in with staff. One administrator once told me that he had a lot more trouble with staff then he ever had with prisoners. One wonders how a prison guard can live with themselves after spending their days inspecting anuses and vaginas for contraband.

Looking across the highway at the group gathering under threatening skies to protest abuse in prisons, I lied, “No, we’re not with them.”

We hurried to the car, exited the parking lot and made a u-turn, parking near the demonstration. I’d just gotten out of the hospital with pneumonia and was feeling a bit weak, so I had brought a folding chair. I wondered where the press was, for the event had gotten a lot of good promotion, and why there were only 50 people attending after all the work done by the organizers? Does anyone realty care about the daily physical and psychological torture going on in America’s home-grown Abu Ghraibs? Are we really as mean as people in other countries perceive us to be with our focus on vengeance and punishment? Funding for effective re-entry is quickly vanishing from strapped budgets. Who cares?

I reflected back on my almost 50 years of human rights activism, the protests, marches and legislative initiatives for fair housing, civil rights, women’s rights, peace, against war and now the daily internet petitions that have changed the face of protest. I thought of my first sit-in back in the ‘60s at the Chester School Board where they had a gag rule that no one could speak unless they’d written a letter in advance of the meetings. (They got rid of it shortly afterward because white middle class people from the ‘burbs protested.) I’d marched with Dr. King and even had him to my home for dinner. I watched in horror as a crazed mob overturned a police car and set it on fire after fire bombing the home of the Backers, the first black family to move into Folcroft, PA. Yet back then, I, like so many of my fellow middle-class Americans, had paid little attention to prisons, for the thinking about prisoners was “they must have done something…” There were more important issues on my agenda, for I did not seeing how interconnected all of the human rights issues are.

It wasn’t until 15 years ago when I read an article about a lifer at Graterford that I became interested, and when I briefly taught creative writing there, I was cracked wide open by the evidence of constitutionally mandated slavery in our prisons. People often wonder what I’m doing at meetings and demonstrations. I’ve been asked, “Do I have a loved one in prison?” While white privilege has enabled my four sons and 12 grandchildren to stay out of prison, as a non-churchgoing human rights activist, I follow the teachings of Jesus that I AM my brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, and YES, I have many loved ones in prison.

At the rally, Bonnie and I gave out Kindness Cards to everyone, though two of the three prison officials watching from across refused to take one. The Kindness Cards are a joint project of prisoners of conscience, Sagewriters and the Global Kindness Revolution. To date we’ve given out 50,000 Kindness Cards around the world and are trying to get them into more US prisons which claim there’s a rule that “prisoners aren’t allowed to have blank postcards.”  By the same people that brought us banned flip flops.

I spoke out about the missing piece in any discussion about guns. When a person chooses to have a gun (or 50) they are saying to themselves and the world that they are willing to take a life and to risk being killed themselves. How is it that most NRA members (our shadow government) describe themselves as church-going, god-fearing Christians?  Why aren’t mainstream churches railing from the pulpit about our nation of killers? How do guns fit in with the Ten Commandments? Why have most of the terrorist attacks in the US been done by Christian fundamentalists? Why in 2004 did a woman whose son was killed in Iraq get arrested for protesting with a tee-shirt bearing his image at a Bush rally while NRA and militia people carrying assault weapons show up arrogant and unchallenged at anti-Obama rallies? This is not about freedom but a threat to the freedom of citizens and elected officials to live without getting shot. Our freedom rests not on arming the populace, according to conservative columnist, E.J. Dionne, but on a “moral consensus, enshrined in law, that in a democratic republic, we work out our differences through reasoned, and somewhat raucous, argument. Free elections and open debate are not rooted in violence or the threat of violence. They are precisely the alternative to violence and guns have no place in them.” Are we returning to the days of lynching and assassinations? (President Obama, who gets 30 death threats a day, “scares” some ignorant, fearful people)

How do other countries view our rabid gun lovers? Our mass incarcerations?

What we are seeing today, in town hall meetings to supposedly discuss health care, is an outraged white supremacist patriarchal system that is losing power and crumbling, dragging us all down with their toxic masculinity where there’s always money for guns and wars but little for education, affordable housing or health care for all. Or caring for children once they’re born. We have become a nation of killers, of pseudo-Christians who distort the teachings of Jesus to justify their ignorance, violence and hatred. When will voters wake up to how our national obsession with guns, war and incarceration harms us ALL spiritually? Freud would have had a ball correlating this obsession with guns and the apparent epidemic of ED, causing the need for those little blue pills.

Did our rally have an effect on others?  Most demonstrations at least get people thinking, and there were quite a number of cars driving by that tooted their horns in support. Of course some press coverage would have expanded the conversation. We’ll see who turns up next time, hopefully to protest the building of more prisons in PA.  Do people really care until someone they love is caught up in the system? Do YOU care?

Judith Trustone is a filmmaker and award-winning artist, author and activist who directs Sagewriters, which publishes books of literary and social merit by prisoners, families, victims, advocates and progressive corrections professionals and the Global Kindness Revolution as an antidote to violence. Box 215  Swarthmore, PA 19081

“No man (or woman) can put a chain around the ankles of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened around their own neck.”

Frederick Douglass  1883

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