Patrick O’Neill. Final Prison Letter, August 19, 2021

August 19, 2021

At this writing I have 5 days left in FCI Elkton before my transfer to a Raleigh halfway house. While here I have interviewed more than 15 men about their lives and their cases. One man, who turned 30 since he was sentenced, has a 22.5-year sentence — that’s more than 8,000 days in prison for a nonviolent charge. Many of the men I have met here have sentences of 5,000 days or more (that’s actually common). As one British barrister, who is in here as a captive, told me when we were talking about sentencing practices in the UK, the United States is a “monstrous outlier” in terms of the draconian sentences we impose on “offenders.” And so many of the men here have mental health issues, Autism, depression and worse. They should not be in prison at all. We approach all situations with one method — Punishment.

Forty-four years ago (April 19, 1977) Fr. Charlie Mulholland, a priest in the Diocese of Raleigh, picked me up at my family home in Little Neck, Queens and brought me to St. Gabriel’s rectory in Greenville, N.C. where I worked as his pastoral assistant for a year. When Charlie was transferred to Mother of Mercy parish in Washington, N.C. I did the same work at St. Gabe’s for then-Fr. Tony Simeone. They were both fine mentors to me while I was in my early- to mid-20s. Charlie died in 2002, but Tony and I remain good friends; he lives in Raleigh with his wife, Laurel.

Today, the prison cancelled visitation for the third time since Covid-19 started. They will vigorously enforce mask wearing, which of course is a good idea, but the major problem with Covid is not related to the captives. The ONLY way it gets into Elkton is via the guards or if new captives are admitted (I was sent here in the midst of the pandemic despite requesting a delay from my judge, Lisa Wood, that she denied.)

The Bureau of Prisons should be releasing all nonviolent captives, but as I have written before, this place is full of disabled and elderly men, who should have been sent home a long time ago. There’s a parade of them with canes, walkers and wheelchairs who hobble to the chow hall to get their food; it is terrible to watch. As I have also said before: The modus operandi of federal prisons is oppressive and fully inculcated as “Normal.” And there is no one who wants to change the system. After all, the laws and sentencing guidelines come from Congress, then the judges, U.S. attorneys and probation officers work in concert to maximize the sentences, while offering literally NO ALTERNATIVES to incarceration. There’s only One Way — incarceration, and we have to find a way to expose this incredible failure and miscarriage of justice. We need to start a movement for change, and start putting pressure on Joe Biden, who is actually responsible for voting to make the system cruel and unusual when he was in the Senate. Once an operating system is entrenched like the BOP, it becomes very hard to infuse systemic change to correct a bureaucracy’s failure.

I have promised the men here that I will be working hard for changes. I plan to go to the White House and Congress to make my case for humane changes to these terrible BOP practices. Please join me in the months ahead in this massive undertaking for Justice for the 2-million plus people being held in U.S. jails and prisons.

In the cellblock I am in for quarantine I can stand by cubicle windows of unoccupied cells and look out through the five sets of steel bars at a copse of trees just beyond the Elkton double fence line. There is a break in the tree line where a road is located that goes up and down a hill on the west side of the prison. If a car or truck passes by I catch a quick one-second glimpse of its passing, which I love because I am seeing those who are not in here with me, those going about their daily lives on the “free” side of the fence. The prison is so isolated that you almost never see anyone other than those inside the compound with you. When I was in my former cellblock, a friend of mine, Julie Shocksnider, parked on that road a few times and we prayed the lectionary together and I could see her! But, the prison guards ran her off and that was the last time I saw her, although she did keep coming back to pray on Tuesdays. Julie was my first “visitor” here at Elkton.
I pray while standing at the window, wrapping my fingers around the iron bars as I count off the Hail Marys of the rosary. I also do a daily litany of prayers for individuals, a long list of many or most of you reading this post. Scripture tells us to “pray unceasingly,” which prison affords me the time to do!

I have been packing up my things as I get ready to depart Elkton. I have a very heavy box of mail from many people. The letters, postcards and books and other reading material were a delight for me. Thank You Everyone! I am really looking forward to seeing Mary and the children. Today I received an envelope from Brianna, my oldest child, that included letters from her, Mary, Annie, Veronica and Michael; what a treat!

During my time here facing the oppressive Bureau of Prisons I have also continued to seek out ways to abolish war and banish violence from the world. Since I arrived at Elkton, the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has come into full force as the Law of The World!

In order to assure a future for the human family and God’s Creation, war and nuclear weapons must be banned, and all nations have to cease and desist from the use of violence to resolve conflicts. As A.J. Muste said: “There is no way to Peace — Peace is The Way.” To reverse climate change we must abolish war. Humanity needs to devote all of its resources and brain power to Life-affirming actions. As Pope Paul VI said: “No More War. War Never Again.” More recently, Pope Francis said of nuclear weapons: “… the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.”

My Kings Bay Plowshares codefendant, Clare Grady is quoted in Thomas Lee’s new book, The Warning: A Novel for the Nuclear Age. Says Clare: “We cannot build, possess, maintain, and threaten the use of nuclear weapons and love God.”

Let us continue to follow the leadings of the Black Lives Matter Movement for social change; let us ride this momentum toward justice and peace and put an end to the “Triplets of Evil” identified by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — Racism, Militarism and Materialism. As Prof. Morrie Schwartz said: “Love is the only Rational Act.”

There’s simply no place for war and violence in our world.

Peace be with You,


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