This week marks my tenth at the Danbury Federal Prison Camp for women in Western Connecticut, where I’ve been sentenced for my part in the King’s Bay Plowshares disarmament action.
A group of five, including my husband and two co-defendants dropped me off at the door on December 14th. I spent the next nine days in a small cell sleeping on a cot and having to call the corrections officers if I wanted to use the toilet which is outside the cell. A three-week quarantine is mandatory for all incoming prisoners, as well as outgoing.
Days nine to twenty-one were spent at the education center where classrooms have been converted into cells for one to two people. Temporary shower stalls were put up in the bathrooms. All programs and routines are disrupted because of COVID.
Getting to the women’s camp finally—a collection of ugly buildings on top of a beautiful hill—was a great relief. There are no locked doors, and we have total freedom to walk outside. Plus, a library and a chapel. The facility usually holds two hundred women, but these days the numbers are down to forty-five.
Three months ago, more than half the women contracted COVID. The Segregated Housing Unit was turned into quarantine space. The regular two bed cubicles now hold one inmate each. We all wear masks all the time (or are supposed to). Frequent hand washing and six feet social distancing are encouraged. “Main line”—the name of the line for dinner—has yellow-taped Xs where we are stand. We take our meals in Styrofoam clamshells back to our cubicles to eat alone. I often stand to eat with my food nesting at waist height on the metal locker in my cubicle.
Having the cubicle to oneself is a blessing. I am in a corner and the space is about eight feet by ten feet, with a bunk bed and two lockers, each two feet by two feet. Nothing is allowed on the walls or on top of the lockers, Belongings are stored inside. Pictures can be hung on the inside of the locker doors. Plastic bins and shoes are kept under the bunk. Beds must be made properly. Cubicles can be searched randomly. If belongings are not in the lockers, they will be thrown away.
Today we had breakfast at 8:50 a.m. Yesterday it was 6:50 a.m. Toast, milk, muffins and apples were served today. Sometimes there is cold cereal or hot oatmeal or a hard-boiled egg. Other meals rely heavily on rice, potatoes and pasta, with chicken, pork and beef sauces. Apples, oranges and bananas are available two to three times a week. The great shortage is vegetables. When they do come, they are over cooked.
Our kitchen remains shut down but there is hope if might open soon and that the inmates might return to cooking. Coffee, tea and juice powders are available through the commissary, as well as some good proteins like tuna, peanut butter, and refried beans. There are meals for vegetarians that include more beans and vegetables. The portions are adequate but the high carbohydrates, salt, and oil content, combined with what feels like forced bed rest, makes for an increase in people’s weight and blood pressure.
One inmate came in with her medical history and a list of her medications. It was sent home on her arrival. My daughter described receiving my clothes in a box a week after I came here. She said she was grateful to know that I was still alive. The wellness center for the staff is open for exercises. However, the women’s gym, in a separate building by a quarter mile track, is not open at this time. Apparently, some of the weight lifting equipment is missing. We are always threatened with a “shakedown” when the place gets turned upside down in search of something as the inmates stand out to wait.
The TV remote disappeared as well and the consistent response is collective punishment. The door to the recreation room is locked until the remote turns up. It is difficult to find consistency in schedules, rules and daily procedures.
The noise level here is bearable, and space is reasonable.
Danbury FCI faced a lawsuit early in the pandemic due to the slow response in efforts to contain the spread. Inmates are being released to home confinement because of this lawsuit, along with efforts through the CARES act. The vaccine is being offered to higher risk inmates, and that will change the situation along with the early releases.
I expect to serve my time until May 16th, when I could be released due to my age, 65, when I will have served two thirds of my sentence. Many women here have five-to-ten-year sentences, most as a result of the “war on drugs” harsh guidelines. Most of them have young children whom they’ve left with grandparents, or if they are lucky, spouses.
The prison has a factory/warehouse run by Unicorp which is currently off line due to the pandemic. The wages are extremely low. Most earnings are spent on commissary. This system resembles the conditions of sharecroppers a century ago.
The physical plant is maintained with prison labor. Construction, landscape and electrical crews are sent out daily Constant repairs and maintenance are required, and federal contracts seem to encourage shoddy workmanship. One of three shower rooms are functioning to serve the forty women here. It holds five stalls. We share four phones, using disinfectants between calls if we choose to.
On arrival, we are issued two sheets, two blankets, four underwear, five shirts and pants, and two pairs of socks. Small size toiletries can get you through the first weeks, but eventually you have to rely on commissary for all basic items, including stamps and envelopes. The quality of the textiles is very poor. Towels fray after a few months, work shoes fit poorly, and radios (which are needed to hear the TV) last only a few months.
But the women are wonderful and quickly share their items with one another, especially with new arrivals.
The amount of water, electricity and plastics consumed by the prison is staggering. Doors and windows leak cold air. Two-foot icicles form on the eaves of the building. We seem to fill a dumpster nearly every day or every other day. Some inmates run all four showers simultaneously while using just one “to keep the water hot,” they say. At least a third of the food served is thrown into the trash.
All in all, this prison industry is a sketchy business from every perspective—socially, economically, ecologically and morally. It’s just another fossil fuel dependent enterprise that produces little benefit in the long run, and could be easily retooled to save money, energy and lives in a much more positive way. Reform is desperately needed, along with a big dose of common sense and a measure of basic humanity. But the same could be said for life on the outside too.
Martha Hennessy is currently serving her prison sentence at the Danbury Women’s Federal Correctional Institution for her part in the King’s Bay Plowshares. She is a member of the New York Catholic Worker and the granddaughter of its founder, Dorothy Day.