Two Weeks in the SHU (Special Housing Unit) by Patrick O’Neill, Feb. 13, 2021

As compiled by Rev. J. Mark Davidson, Kings Bay Plowshares 7 Support Group for Patrick O’Neill and Family
February 13, 2021

Patrick O’Neill, Kings Bay Plowshares 7 anti-nuclear peace activist, began serving his 14-month sentence in the Elkton federal prison, Lisbon, Ohio, on January 14, 2021. This being a time of pandemic, upon entering the prison, Patrick was placed in quarantine in the SHU (Special Housing Unit – “The Hole”). What follows is a compilation of the few letters we have had from him which provide a glimpse of what his imprisonment is like, and what has been germinating in his spirit.

C-224 is Patrick’s cell. SHU inmates are not allowed outside for exercise or fresh air, so Patrick, a runner, devised a makeshift “figure 8” track in his cramped cell. Sore calves are the price of walking/jogging on the concrete floor. The reading cart comes by occasionally – Dick Francis novels, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, The Basic Writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. He has a Bible, and after a few days one of the guards brought him a pad of lined paper and a very small pen.

To say Patrick misses Mary’s cooking is a vast understatement: “worst meal yet: fish breaded (not hot), one bun, stale chips. Another Fudge Drizzle Yellow Cake roll, no fruit or veggies. No napkins or condiments. Breaking news! Packet of ketchup discovered under chips! A veggie after all!”

One of the things that stands out from Patrick’s letters from the SHU is the almost complete absence of kindness and ordinary human courtesy. The common experience is for Patrick to say, “Thank you” to the guards who bring the meal trays to his cell and come back to pick them up. Most of the time, there is no response at all. “Have a great day” is met with silence. “Thanks a lot” SLAM. “What I do miss in solitary is kind interaction with other humans. Guards here are in prison with us and they seem more miserable than the inmates. I’m sure most of the guys hate their jobs, loathe the prisoners, or both. They seem like such a bunch of cold, miserable people.”

Still, Patrick persists in making human connections with the guards and fellow prisoners when he can: “Today I made a small Black Lives Matter sign on an envelope and held it up to my fellow inmate in C-211 straight across from my cell. He smiled and gave me a thumbs up.” When, finally, one of the guards responded to Patrick saying, “Thank you” with “You’re welcome,” Patrick wrote, “God is good!” Another time, he said, “Have a great day” to the guard who had just collected his breakfast tray, and the guard said something nice to Patrick: “I was so taken aback, I didn’t listen carefully to what he said, but I’m grateful.”

For me, the most striking realization of Patrick’s time in the SHU has been how it has affected him spiritually. He wrote, “I pray all day, like a never-ending rosary.” Thrown back on his own internal resources, physically cut off from his family and community, his spiritual life has blossomed in amazing ways: “Making C-224 my monastery has been my salvation. It is here where I have learned to pray unceasingly for the first time.”

Patrick has been nourished by Scripture: “Do not fear those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw you in prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulations…Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life (Revelation 2:10).”

The presence and companionship of “that great cloud of witnesses” comforts and strengthens him every day and through the watches of the night. He remembered that Phil Berrigan was at one time in this same federal prison: “Phil Berrigan was in this prison on 9-11, and was immediately placed in the SHU for ‘security reasons.’ Liz and the kids talk about how Phil was held incommunicado also. So I am tracing the steps of a prophet. Could it be that we were in the same Hell Cell?”

On January 17th, his fourth day in solitary confinement, the Spirit served up a memory that connected him to the broader community of peacemakers. Patrick remembered that that day was the 34th anniversary of the “Cancel the Countdown” action at Cape Canaveral – a 5,000 person-strong protest of the first flight tests of the Trident II D-5 missile, the brainchild of Bruce Gagnon, then the director of the Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice: “It was an amazing action, which I and many other anti-war and anti-nuclear activists organized. We even leased an AMTRAK car to bring folks from places north. 250 people, including Dr. Spock, were arrested for crossing the line at the Cape Canaveral Air Force station. A great “back country action” included serious attempts to occupy the launch site area in hopes of delaying the test flights. Willa Elam was able to get to a launch pad and climb a tower and call by phone to let folks know she had breached security. She received a 6-month jail sentence in the Brevard County jail. I visited her and a few others who spent 6 months in the slammer.”

There were more gifts of “connective tissue” in his isolation. He thought of his co-defendant Father Steve Kelly: “My short time in the SHU makes me think of Steve Kelly’s perseverance. Unlike my co-defendant Fr. Steve, my time in the SHU is like the Monopoly board “Just Visiting”, while Steve goes in the SHU, he does not pass Go or collect $200. He signs a lease and moves in. It’s all so amazing, the depth of that man.”

Patrick has found that his time in solitary confinement in C-224 has deepened his capacity for empathy and compassion: “I pray in gratitude each morning for redemptive suffering and humility. The unpleasantness of solitary is also a gift as I experience a small taste of the suffering that most human beings face every day all over the world. I hope to feel a little more empathy for my sisters and brothers who barely survive in the world.”

Let us continue to hold Patrick and his family, and his fellow prisoners, indeed all those who are incarcerated, in our prayers. As Patrick has written, “It’s been a rich experience in redemptive suffering – man’s inhumanity to man. Still, there are beams of light flickering through the darkness.” And the darkness has not overcome the Light!

As of this writing, Patrick is now housed in the higher security prison at Elkton, rather than the minimum security camp. Future writing will be forthcoming.

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