Prison Reflections from Patrick O’Neill (transcribed and edited by J. Mark Davidson)
May 3, 2021
A couple of nights ago, two of my friends, Sean and Tippy, surprised me with two steaming hot pizzas they made me for my birthday! They had planned to do it back in March, but I was in the SHU (Special Housing Unit – Solitary). They were very good, excellent, in fact. They spent about $30 on the ingredients! Lots of toppings.
What Would Peter Maurin Say About Headphones?
In the “multi-purpose room” in the Fox Bravo unit where I live, there are 5 televisions. In order to have 5 TVs in one room the volume is shut off so the TV s can only be heard if you tune in to a FM radio channel on a battery-operated radio or an MP3 player and use headphones. The radios can pick up local stations, including NPR. The MP3 players can include songs that you can download. The radio costs $52 (plus batteries) from the prison commissary. The MP3 player, which has a re-chargeable battery, costs $88.40. So far, after 3 months of being at Elkton, I have opted out of the radio/MP3 options. I have hemmed and hawed in my own mind a bit – and many of my friends have offered to buy me the items (thank you), and I sure would love to listen to NPR or the TV news. But I have never been a fan of “earbuds” or headphones because they have really served to cut us off from each other. I have always been a fan of Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin’s practice of “Personalism” – the importance of being present to each other, face-to-face, maintaining eye contact, listening. To be listened to and to listen to another is one of life’s great gifts. Yet, so often (especially when I am exercising – walking or running) I have spoken to someone not realizing they have headphones on, and they don’t hear me. Sometimes I use a hand gesture and they pull out the earbud or turn down their volume and other times I miss them altogether. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to speak to strangers; I am, and have always been, drawn to know someone in my midst. (I have often imagined what I would say to people if I was a toll collector and saw thousands of people for only a flash of a few seconds.) So, here at Elkton (where lots of people do wear headphones), I am trying hard to get to know these 100 or so men I will live with for part of a year. (I have already interviewed some of them for articles I will write about their lives.) Most of these guys don’t have anyone who cares to listen to them all that much, and of course they’re mostly cut off from the women in their lives (who are most often the best, most respectful listeners) – mothers, wives, daughters and sisters.
Support Federal Prison Reform with Compassion
I am enjoying most of my conversations with my neighbors (although in prison, many men are on a mission to get out by filing pro-se appeals in the hopes of getting a judge to overturn their convictions, which is not impossible, but rare.) Another problem is almost 98% of federal cases are plea-bargained, which is essentially the defendant admitting his or her guilt, which makes it harder to get a case back into court. Many of these guys talk at great length about the legal nuances of their cases, which can be tedious to listen to (but you have to because they are usually so passionate and persistent that you have to listen.) Of course, most of the men in here have been screwed by the federal judiciary that stacks the deck against ALL of us, so I understand the fervor of these guys to seek justice, which is elusive. In addition, most of the men in Elkton have extraordinarily long sentences, which is why the U.S. leads the world in incarceration rates. In the federal system, Joe Biden is the biggest reason for the harshness of the federal penal system. As a senator, Biden introduced legislation that completely removed any mercy out of the federal system, did away with parole, and increased sentencing guidelines to obscene levels. The hope of the men here at Elkton – and in all federal prisons – is that the Black Lives Matter movement will successfully pressure Biden to reverse the damage done by his 1994 crime bill, which he created with the late segregationist South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond. For example, when I was in federal prison in 1982 and again in 1984, if a person stayed out of trouble, they only had to serve two-thirds of the sentence. (Biden did away with that as every prisoner had to serve his or her entire sentence – no incentive to be “good”.) The hope of these guys with long sentences is for Biden to bring back two-thirds and make it retroactive, which would knock huge chunks of time off peoples’ cases and result in many people being released right away – severely reducing the number of federal prisoners. So, let your congressional representatives know that you support federal prison reform with compassion!
Last night C.O.s found 6 guys in the TV (all-purpose) room who were not wearing masks, so as “punishment,” the guards locked the TV room all day today. This is causing major crowding in the living area because so many of the guys hang out in the TV room. Of course, it’s very unfair to punish 110 guys for the actions of six. Needless to say, some of the men are upset over this. I’m not sure when they will reopen the room.
“Fog count” is a new word I heard today. Because of an early fog that descended over the prison compound, “offender” movement was restricted so I couldn’t drop off my laundry, all of which got soaked in yesterday’s rain when I was out at “Rec”. The “Fog count” is a prison precaution to prevent escape, another dog and pony show to justify the fortress security here at Elkton. Bureau of Prison staff pretend that one of us will be able to escape under the cover of fog so all the C.O.s come outside on the compound to make sure we (inmates) only walk to the Chow Hall to pick up our breakfast trays and quickly return to lockdown. There has NEVER been an escape from Elkton FCI, and the BOP also claims that this facility, which is “cruel and usual” in the BOP, is protecting the public from dangerous criminals (many of whom have dire medical conditions, and use canes, walkers, and wheelchairs). I have yet to meet a man here who I would characterize as dangerous.
Elkton Fashion Standards
For the first time, prisoners in my cellblock were allowed to eat chow in the Chow Hall. Because of the lockdown, the Chow Hall’s been closed for eating. We only walk through the line to pick up Styrofoam trays at each meal. I did not realize this was happening because I had not checked the unit bulletin board, so I rushed to grab my “uniform” shirt and dashed out the door. The compound was loaded with C.O.s and staff watching this parade of “offenders” walking to the Chow Hall. Immediately, someone yelled at me: “Tuck in that shirt, inmate!” A second later another guard said “Take off your hat!”. Seconds later, I was met by a mean-looking higher-up officer, who came face-to-face with me, and said: “Didn’t you hear what he said?” I said, “Yes, I tucked my shirt in.” Then he said, “Button that button” on my shirt. We’re not allowed to button the top button on our shirts, but dress code apparently says we have to have all the other buttons buttoned. Such high standards of fashion are the norm here at Elkton! Who knew?
It’s the male staff members here who have their “mean men” attitudes always on – talking loudly, barking commands, menacing looks, and threatening words. It’s like the male staff here are a collection of alpha males with chips on their shoulders. In the SHU, I told some guards about Jesus’ injunction in Matthew 25 that recognizes prisoners as “the least of these.” I told them – especially the ones who were kinder (but not necessarily nice) – that any act of kindness toward an inmate would mean they would receive God’s grace. (Saying it to the mean guards only seemed to make them angry.)
The Elusive Jesuit
I was happy to receive the news that Steve Kelly, SJ, my 72-yr. old co-defendant, was released after 3 yrs. 8 days in prison in about a dozen places. Fr. Kelly was reminded by the court that he had 3 days to report to his probation officer in Brunswick, GA from Washington State, where he was released. Fr. Kelly does not comply with probation, so by the time you read this, Fr. Kelly will likely be “wanted” by Judge Lisa Wood for probation non-compliance. So, please pray for Fr. Steve, who will now have to be “underground”, so to speak, until he catches up with feds with another action. I’m not sure how much effort the U.S. Marshals will put into tracking the elusive Jesuit down. “Godspeed, Steve Kelly.”
Bits and Pieces
This is the first week of a new “rec” schedule that is 4 days instead of 3, so I ran 6 miles yesterday and today. It started raining hard toward the end of “rec” today, so I was soaked by the end of my run. It was also a cool day.
Mary took Mary Evelyn to the doctor today. She was very congested (it might be allergies) so I’ll be trying to call Mary tonight to find out how Mary Evelyn is doing. (Turns out she has a sinus infection and is taking an antibiotic.)
Today has me thinking of the many times I have been part of anti-war tax actions on April 15. I know the war tax deadline has been extended this year because of Covid.
My sentence is among the shortest in this place. The guy in the cubicle next to mine was moved to a special cellblock for people being released. Rob is a quiet man, kind, but shy. He has been in prison for 15 years of a 20 yr. sentence. He has a 22-yr. old daughter. Fifteen years in prison is horrible.
I sent out a draft of something I wrote entitled “I Yield to My Black Brothers.” It will be available soon on KBP7 [kingsbayplowshares7.org}.
If Fr. Steve Kelly can remain out and about, I am hoping the 7 KBP can have a reunion early next year. It would be great to see everyone again – especially Steve. I did get to see Steve at our sentencings, which was great.
A group of C.O.s just did an “inspection” of Fox Bravo, my lockdown unit. One C.O. just walked by with a bag full of “contraband.” The bag was full of apples he had just taken away from guys. Some of the guys make fruit salad from apples and bananas and sell them with a sprinkled mixture of Kool-Aid on them. I contribute apples and bananas to this cause sometime, but I just give my fruit away rather than “sell” them for stamps. Again, thanks everyone for your prayers and support.
Peace, love, blessings,