Letters From a Kentucky Prison 

An elderly local minister, doing federal time for civil disobedience, sends his regards

An elderly local minister, doing federal time for civil disobedience, sends his regards

Edited by John Spragens

Rev. Don Beisswenger is currently serving a six-month sentence in federal prison for trespassing on the grounds of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Fort Benning, Ga. Beisswenger, a 73-year-old widowed Presbyterian minister who worked at the Vanderbilt Divinity School for much of his life, took six steps onto the military property last Nov. 23 as part of a massive annual protest against the institute that trained the notorious Latin American death squads of the 1980s. Beisswenger is serving his time at the federal correctional institution in Manchester, Ky. Below are excerpts from his journal and letters he's sent to friends and supporters.

April 6, 2004. Today I reported to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons located at Manchester, Ky. At 1:45 we drove to the maximum security [area] where I was to report. Razor wire covered every fence and door. My friends and I held hands and prayed together prior to checking in. They walked into the facility with me. The entry looked like a hotel with an atrium, bright lights and color for decoration. A pleasant receptionist asked why I was there. I turned over my paper and waited for about 20 minutes until an officer escorted me inside the maximum security prison through about five steel doors where I was fingerprinted, photographed and given prison clothes. All the clothes I came with were put into a box to be shipped home. I could take only my eyeglasses and a Bible. (I brought two Bibles, however, and they let me keep both.) Inside were the addresses and phone numbers of persons with whom I wanted to keep in touch.

I was driven by an inmate to the minimum security facility, which would now become my home for the next six months. It is called "the camp." I have a lower bunk bed—a benefit for an older person. I was taken to a 6-by-10-foot room, separated by 5-foot cement blocks with open space to the ceiling. There is a 2-by-6-foot window facing a grassy hillside. Five hundred inmates reside here in four dormitories with 125 persons in each. The facility is located on a former strip mine. Stripping coal from the mountains was the prior goal. Now it is stripping life from people to make sure they are properly punished. My [original] roommate was a 26-year-old man from Milwaukee who was here for three months for computer fraud. He was discharged 10 days after I arrived here.

May 27, 2004. My work schedule: I arise at 4:30 a.m. to shower and shave. Then the 5 a.m. count. I do my reading, reflection, centering, writing, prayer and meditation. It is my "being" time. It helps me to enter the day with some sense of joy and thanksgiving amidst the confusion and disorder. Breakfast is at 6:30. I have a diabetes check at 7:00. The first month I had a work assignment from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a break at 10:30 for lunch. Now I work in the dining room from 11:30 to 4:30. It is easy work. There is insufficient work for the number of persons here, so it becomes Mickey Mouse work. At 4 p.m. there is the major stand-up count of the day. A national count at the same precise time each day throughout the United States, so the total number of prisoners can be known each day. There are 143,000 in the federal system now, and over two million people in prisons in the United States nationally. 76 percent of the blacks and 24 percent of the whites [in prison] enter the system without a high school education.

May 24, 2004. The final meaning of communion here is linked to the reality of vulnerability. Vulnerability is an awareness that one could be harmed or injured, easily affected or hurt. The prison accents the awareness, especially as one looks critically at what is going on. I experienced what I saw as exclusionary behavior toward gay men in a worship service. I made a written response, but there will be implications. I feel uneasy. Living in a prison makes one feel vulnerable, for there are a myriad of regulations and rules. One is often confused as they are casually enforced at one point and rigorously at another.

July 10, 2004. The case worker asked me about my plans upon leaving October 1. I told him I would continue my action [to end] the war against the poor in Nashville, in Latin America and any place I felt called. He asked me why people are homeless, and I replied that lack of affordable rentals, lack of living wages and lack of jobs keep people poor. He mentioned something about my time in the hall in response to my comments. I said I learned about the rules on order and neatness.

I did not say what an abuse of power it was: to put me in the hall (the "bus stop," it was called) for over a month for having a cluttered desk and bed. There was no warning given, merely a command to move out immediately. For a month my roommate and I lived between the phone and the microwave. Noise was a constant—phone calls and shouting matches at times. Always there was a gathering, talking, arguing, cutting up around the microwave by our bunk.

A month without a desk, a light, a locker, a coat rack! All supplies and clothing had to be put on the posters of the bed or in boxes under the bed. Since I had no light, my 4:30 a.m. time for solitude was impossible unless I went to sit in the bathroom. I purchased a book light which worked until I realized it used batteries at a rapid rate. My sister laughed when she heard I was put in the hall at 73 years of age—sibling memories.

A quote by Paul is on my bulletin board and reminds me that "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor power, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Yea though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil."

Amen.

August 14, 2004. Being in prison has made me aware of how prison fits into this economic system. The close relationship of prisons and corporations has become a pot of gold. The "tough on crime" legislation, which includes long sentences, has led to mass incarceration. More and more prisons are built year after year, and yet the statistics on crime go down. Why? Why is there no major debate on the enormous increase in incarceration? Why is there no discussion on the important alternatives to prison? Let us begin the debate.

August 23, 2004. I have been incarcerated over four months now. I await October 1, when I will be released and free to roam beyond the camp where I am now confined. I cannot leave the camp without serious consequences. They keep track of me with midnight counts, stand-up counts, "give your number" counts, etc. I am confined in every sense of the word. Confinement, separation, enclosures, and withdrawal to a desert have all been disciplines in the life of faith. Confinement in prison adds another dimension.

...As I reflect upon the time here, I have paid attention to my relationships with inmates, and to finding space for others in my heart. I have paid attention to me, to dispositions, tiredness, confusion. I cherish the support and give thanks to my friends, colleagues, family, especially grateful now for the women in my life. I ponder those in the Living Room, those caring for Penuel Ridge and those working for the people in Nashville. I see how the atrocities by the U.S. military took shape in Iraq and how this investigation is avoided, rejected and ignored, and I praise the people of God who gather in praise and service in their love and hope. I consider the beauty of flowers, the sky, running water and eating peaches for breakfast.

Confinement has provided me with an unwanted isolation, but confinement has also brought me the deeper meanings that lay quietly within each of those areas already mentioned. I listen better, let events be my teacher.

And amidst it all, I have found holy presence in my life, filling the space with life and sacredness. Such a gift! Van Gogh said, "I think that everything comes from God." Even here in awareness this thought presents itself, especially in the morning and at night when I retire. I realize that I am glad—grateful to be able to reflect theologically on the incredible life given to me, even here. There is a majesty in all of this.

Paul, a prisoner, wrote to the people of God in Philippi and said, "I rejoice in the Lord greatly. I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little; I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him that strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

Thank you all as well.

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