Prison Reflections from Patrick O’Neill (transcribed and edited by J. Mark Davidson)
April 19, 2021
Excerpts from letters: “The testament of your imprisonment and continued service to God is a source of encouragement to me”; “My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t mean I’m innocent” – Sherman Lee Dillon. ”I pray for you daily and thank God for bringing you and your family into my life”; ”I thank you for this work you are doing to help myself and others more fully understand God’s love” – Mary Fosnaught.
Being in the SHU (Special Housing Unit) has similarities to jail. When the young guys come into the SHU, they like to talk back and forth to each other. But, because of the cells being all steel and block, sounds are muzzled, but not if you yell. So, what we have in the SHU right now is several young guys who spend a lot of time yelling to each other very loudly. Because of the din, I can’t really make out many of the words they’re saying, but the screaming can be unpleasantly loud (this also happens most nights in my regular cell block.) As someone with 8 kids who also worked in a newsroom on deadline and at many media venues, I am good at blocking out background noise. But in here, the noise of voices bounces off the walls and can be intolerable…just another hard part of jail and prison life.
I had a letter ready to go out tonight – you stick them in your door so the C.O.s can see them. I even asked a guard to please take them and he said he would, but never did, so now the letters will not actually leave the prison till Monday morning. If one kind guard had taken them tonight, they would have been postmarked tomorrow. The guards are often not attentive in any meaningful way to the hopes and desires of their captives. But, ahhh…it’s Lent and it’s going to be Good Friday when I wake up in the morning…so thank God for the reminder of who’s in charge in my life. I asked a guard making his rounds, “Hey, does the mail go out?” He said, “Yes”, did not take my mail and kept walking. I hear a bunch of guards talking and laughing. I don’t know what time it is. A guard walked by, snatched my letters out of the door on the go. “Thanks. Thanks a lot,” I cried. No response, which is the response of most C.O.s. Their response to my spoken words of appreciation is no response. I hope he doesn’t throw my mail in the trash. I wrote an article about Julie Shocksnider and sent it to her asking her to type it up for me, and write an essay of reply if she wants to, and email it to Mary so I can find a Catholic Worker paper to take it. I sent a letter to Mary with four pages of journal entries and a letter to Ted Vaden thanking him for the blog post column about me.
So, Good Friday started at 6:00 a.m. I went to the door to tell the guard I didn’t want breakfast so he didn’t have to open the door slot. C.O. Hohn said, “How you doin’? You Ok?” I said, “Yes.” Oh, the little works we do. Just paced and said my prayers, which is basically a long list of people I’m praying for that starts out with those who are very sick and moves on to everyone I know, which is really a never-ending litany of names throughout the day. I get a post card from Timmy this week (Oh joy! Oh Rapture!) wishing me happy birthday. He wrote: “I started my job at Dominoes this week delivering pizza on a bike. Pretty good money considering I just have to ride a bike around Chapel Hill, which I would probably be doing anyways.” He asked, “what was your Lenten discipline this season? I’m trying to get more exercise.”
“You’re not hungry?” C.O. Badger asked me when I turned down my lunch trays. “I fast on Fridays during Lent,” I told him. My Friday fasts are actually wimpier than the ones I used to do. Now I fast starting after supper on Thursday and break the fast 23 or 24 hours later with Friday’s supper. When I was in my unit and not the SHU, I would give my trays away, but in here the guards won’t let other inmates eat the extra food. I’m guessing it gets thrown away.
The white-haired nurse just blamed Good Friday for the fact that they aren’t doing swabs today, so now no Covid swab til Monday at the earliest. So much for Nurse Kennedy looking after me. No one looks after me at Elkton; nobody cares. This means I stay in solitary for as long as 3 weeks.
Jesus is gone. It’s a day of doom and gloom and tomb. Jesus is dead. People are mourning, waiting, hoping, hiding. Jesus is in the tomb, descended into hell. Awaiting the promise “I will rebuild it in three days.” He’s been the prophet, healer, raiser of the dead. Now will he rise? I feel the Holy Saturday fear in my 5×9 cell. I waver. My faith is put to the test: will He rise? Will He rise? Will He rise? Thomas wasn’t the only one with doubts on that first Holy Saturday. “I am who I am,” Jesus said. I still cling to that promise.
Night is upon me here in Ohio. The stone has been rolled away. The Easter Vigil is upon us. The women (the men are in hiding, full of fear) are running to the tomb. The Word has been revealed to them only. The Temple that is Jesus was crucified, but today it is rebuilt as promised. Easter Sunday begins at midnight. So far, none of the guards I spoke to have any plans for Easter. I’ll read the accounts in the Gospel as I sit in my solitary cell. Easter is always cause for celebration.
I slept like a baby in my jail cell. Jesus is Risen and I am comforted! My mother Ann Cecilia O’Neill died 23 years ago today. C.O. Cavalier just collected the breakfast trays. Each time the trays were passed out to him through the cell door slot he said, “Thank you,” the only guard who does that. I listen to his chorus of “Thank you”s as he moves down the row of cells. Each time he says, “Thank you”, it is a Divine Easter Greeting/ My case manager stopped by to tell me Julie Shocksnider had been approved as the first person on my visiting list. I have not even submitted my “family” list yet, but I guess I will. We never know. Burton (case manager) also said that his recommendation of 90 days of halfway house is “usually accepted,” and that I will also be given some time at the end of my sentence for “compassionate home confinement,” which would mean I would leave the halfway house to live at home (under some restrictions, I imagine – maybe the ankle monitor again). Good information, but I will always take all things said from the feds with a grain of salt…until I pass through the Elkton gates. But, Good News on Easter nonetheless. Sunday is cleaning supplies day. Bottle of cleanser, toilet brush, small broom, dust bin, two small rags made from old orange washcloths (orange is the color of SHU). I did a bit of cleaning just to have a change of routine. (I think of the Alexander County prison inmate Timothy Helms about eight years ago, who was in solitary so long that he clogged the toilets intentionally flooding his cell so he could experience “a change of routine.” The guards beat him into a coma. After a time of weeks or months he died. His brother was never notified of the coma, only his death. No guards were ever held accountable.
C.O. Culp is a father of eleven children, including Braxton, a 3-month-old. Culp seems to understand that he’s employed by an evil institution, but like most people on the “inside” are not able to be prophetic, because their first allegiance is to their job. Well, God, I suppose they’re not going to do anything that would jeopardize their job – certainly not if you have eleven kids. He mentioned that a lot of the C.O.s are people who hate their jobs and are trained to not treat inmates unkindly, but that training seems to have very little impact on those who hate their jobs. He’s a nice man who works for an evil institution.
The nurse just handed me the giant Q-tip to swab my nostrils to check for Covid. “One or two days,” she replied when I asked her when the test results will come back, so I could be out of here for Mary’s birthday! And I can call her with a surprise that I’m out of the SHU. Yay! “Come tomorrow, if you’re negative, we’ll let you come out.” I better be negative! It’s my 18th day in the SHU following 4 days in the hospital, and NOT ONCE have my vitals been checked or my blood pressure checked. A stethoscope has not touched my chest; so much for follow-up care at FCI Elkton. C.O. Cavalier just collected my breakfast tray. He’s saying “Thank you” to each slot. The only guard who always maintains his manners. A guy is making a plea of some kind to Cavalier. “I can’t do sh.., “ he replied. I’m surprised he said “sh..” C.O. Bender is making his rounds, looking in each window. He asks, “You all right?” He doesn’t look friendly, but he may know something about me. He said to another guy, “You’re being transferred,” which might be a joke “Because you’re a piece of sh..,” Bender says, and all the other
Black guys crack up laughing, so I guess it was a joke. “Are you related to the other Bender?” I ask. He said, “No,” but the other Bender said “Yes” to the same question. The other Bender, I’m guessing his son, is softer and kinder than his father. I just finished The Shipping News, a fine book with a great ending. Someone wrote this week, “Be calm. God is present.” I hope all the very sick people I’m praying for stay alive. I just don’t want any more bad news in prison.
I’ve been telling the guys that it’s nice to be back in prison.” HA HA. After spending the last 3 weeks of Lent, my 65th birthday, Mary’s birthday, and Easter in the hole, it’s very nice to be back in my locked-down Fox Bravo unit. I got out for rec yesterday and today and I ran 12 miles total on the track. My body’s glad for the exercise. I have not had any problems with my blood pressure or heart. Sometime in the SHU, I felt a little bad, but it did not last long. I read several good books in the SHU (5 total). My favorites were Medicus and The Shipping News. Yesterday, I got a note with my mail that a magazine someone sent me was returned because it was “determined detrimental to the security, good order, or discipline of the institution, or it might facilitate criminal activity. The above-named publication has been rejected because the magazine contains images of nude women and infants.” Therefore, my dear friend, Debbie Biesack, is guilty of sending contraband into FCI Elkton (a very virtuous place!). The offending magazine: National Geographic. Signed by the warden! I guess Debbie’s not getting approved for my visitor list!
Today, I joyfully had the chance to call my wife, Mary, when she was with three of our children – Moira, Veronica, and Michael. I got caught up on their lives – Moira got a new full-time job working in her field (Food Insecurity/Food Justice) and she was accepted at Georgia State University (in Atlanta where she lives with her partner Cody) into their MSW program. Veronica has taken up roller skating for exercise and she has lost 15 pounds! Michael just sold a piece of his art work for $1,000! I miss my eight kids and 2 grandkids and my goddess wife.
Today, my cubicle mate, Mark, got his first Covid vaccine shot, so it may be my chance soon. Because of the lockdown here, I do not have a job and I probably won’t have a job while I’m here. Truth be told there are many more inmates than there are jobs. Mark, my “cellie”, has a “job” that he does twice a week for less than an hour total and he gets paid once a month for that job. Many other guys have jobs like that (empty trash 2x a day, sweep a floor 3x a week, work on the serving line in the Chow Hall, which has longer hours, etc.). This prison practices what’s known as “controlled movement,” which means inmates move in and out of buildings at certain times when the door is unlocked. The public address system will announce: “Fox Bravo Chow, 5-minute move.” This means my unit has five minutes to get from the second floor of this building to the Chow Hall to pick up a styrofoam tray of food. If you “miss a move”, you don’t eat. Often, it’s a mad rush for men trying to make the move. Controlled movement means lines of men, watched by guards, moving from place to place. It’s the type of “control” that always reinforces who is the captor and who is the captive. (The “offenders” know who we are!) Food is not bad. Breakfast is bad and minimal, but lunch and supper keep me satiated. Meat (usually chicken or ground beef) with potatoes, a vegetable or some other carb. It’s not Mary Rider gourmet, that’s for sure, but I am spoiled. I miss my daily routine of dumpster diving. I tried to leave Mary with good quantities of meat, fish and beer and wine, before I left (all from the Dump-Store).
While I was in the SHU, I got through the New Testament, which I enjoyed (although Paul’s epistles were often redundant and gave lots of lists of things that would get you banished to the netherworld and things that would get you to Paradise.) I also have “Give Us This Day”, which I use for daily prayer and Lectio Divina. I have been exchanging letters with Robert Ellsberg (who authors the very fine “Blessed Among Us” columns). Robert is publisher of Orbis Books and the son of Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame. Robert is writing a tribute to his Dad as the 50th anniversary of the release of the Pentagon Papers approaches. My former publisher at The Chapel Hill News, Ted Vaden, (who was also the N & O’s ombudsman in those years when newspapers had such positions) wrote a column about me. It is lovely. Find it on “Last Gaffe.” I got a card from local (Raleigh) TV news anchor David Crabtree, who read it. Still looking for pen pals for the men in Elkton. Thank you all for your love, prayers, and support.
God bless you. Peace, Patrick
To write Patrick be certain to use your full name on return address/black ink. For more information visit https://kingsbayplowshares7.org/
Patrick O’Neill #14924-018
FCI Elkton, Federal Correction Institution
P.O. Box 10, Lisbon, OH 44432