Sorry this is soooo long--internet issues on my end. So here are some letters and Tina's last letter from prison is on its way. She got out on Thursday, June 14 and flew home the next day, so now comes transition time for everyone!
May 28, 2007
Texas Humidity has hit. I’m sure St. Louis humidity has hit as
well…Actually given how freezing cold they keep our unit (they say it keeps
the germs down) the humidity feels good…at least outside I don’t need the
long underwear I wear inside.
The days are ticking down to freedom. I am READY. It will be hard
leaving the women I have met. Someone I think once said, “No one is really
free until we all are free.” I don’t know who said it but I now understand
that in a way I never understood before. Yes in 16 days and one overnight I
will go home or at least begin the journey home. And I will go where I want
to go and do what I want to do (which is hold me kids and kiss my husband)
but deep down inside I know too much and that knowledge keeps places in my
heart yearning for everyone’s freedom or at least just sentences and humane
treatment. How can I hope for less. I guess again it is a consequence of
loving and living.
It is Memorial Day and the schedule is a bit more laid back. I am now so
used to getting up at 4:00, that waking at 6:00 to do laundry seemed like a
luxury. I was outside early when it is cool and ran a mile and walked two.
After lunch I walked another mile. Everyone is outside so it is getting
crowded. I went inside and the only place to sit and write is in the Spanish
TV room. A Novela is playing…It helps my Spanish, I guess. At least every
other word is not F—K. I am getting tired of everything being a F—King
thing. The English language gets a work out here…I am tired of the fights,
the cursing, the yelling. I am not a person with virgin ears or a virgin
mouth for that matter. I am not one who needs to be kept with kid gloves
either. But the harshness and anger is the norm rather than the exception.
I find myself saying less and less. It is this introverted part of me now
just rebelling totally…there is no more placating it with an extra long
shower or miles of walking o nthe HAMSTER wheel (the track). I dream about
working in my garden and digging my little pond!
I took a walk today with Ms. BB. She spent 7 days in an outside hospital.
She told me that inmates were segregated from the general population. She
described trash overflowing on the floor, 8 beds in a room, with beds packed
into the room so tight she could reach out and touch the next bed. She said
the first night she woke up with a used bloody syringe on her bedside table
along with bloody dressings from the lady prisoner in the next bed. She was
shackled to the bed and if you had to use the bathroom both feet are
shackled. She told of dirty bathrooms and guards who talked about and
laughed at the people they (were) sent to “guard.” She said it was hurtful
and humiliating. She is facing 34 years on a conspiracy charge. She would
not take the plea agreement because she knew she is innocent so she took it
to trial. People she asked to testify for her were threatened with
conspiracy charges if they took the stand for her. No polygraph tests were
allowed. I know there are lots of jailhouse stories but her story I believe.
She was building a home for kids in need of a meal and a place to stay. She
is a Native American woman. One of many for whom a large part of their
family is in prison. They are on Federal land and have a “U”-number (I am
not sure what this is). Conspiracy charges usually carry 10-15 years with a
plea agreement and 25-45 if you take the charges to trial to try to fight
them. Funny thing….you try to prove your innocence: you presume you are seen
as innocent until proven guilty but it is not really how the system runs…here
you are guilty and often times strong armed into filling up the jails and
prisons. I now understand the “prison industry economy” a little better.
Here at Carswell inmates run the prison (I make $5.25 a month to work in the
kitchen 8 hrs. day) but the main money maker is Unicor. All federal prisons
have Unicor units. Here inmates answer directory assistance calls for
between 23 cents to up to a dollar twenty five an hour. Now think of how
much directory assistance operators make in the “free” world…maybe 8 to 10
dollars an hour + benefits. Here they pay no benefits and there are no
unions…So you can imagine the money phone companies save and the money the
BOP makes…Someone said some new men’s prisons are being built and factories
are being built for inmates to make cars!!! I have not read this for myself
but if it is true…Some car company has a SWEET deal…No automakers’ unions, no
pay raises, no benefits…Talk about the “perfect” storm…this seems perfect.
No wonder we need more prisoners and more prisons. The economy depends on
it! Sorry to say…
I am reading a Philip Gulley novel called Home to Harmony. It is a sweet,
innocent novel. The author has little stories about a place kind of like the
town I grew up in. I read it and most of the time, I laugh because it
transports me back to growing up in Smithton…small town where everyone knew
everyone…including your business…my parents have lived there all their
married life and my mom grew up there as well. Harmony, IN and Smithton, IL
are the same…The story is told from the point of view of a Quaker minister.
Her is a part that struck me today…I felt it describes something about
prison. In this chapter the “Friendly Women’s Circle” decided, in addition
to their chicken noodle dinner fundraiser for Brother Norman’s shoe ministry
to the Choctaw Indians, they would stitch a quilt. On the 25th anniversary
of quilt making, they wanted to make a special quilt…One of the women during
Sunday worship thought she saw Jesus’ face in the quilt which drew crowds
from all over the Midwest to the Harmony Friends’ meetinghouse. Finally one
woman confessed she had taken the quilt home to finish it and had spilled
coffee right where people thought they saw Jesus’ face. So Sam, the Quaker
minister, offered these thoughts for his Easter message: “I don’t think we
ought to look for Christ in a quilt. I think we ought to look for Christ in
the poor, in the common, in the lady who rings up our groceries, in the man
who mops the grocery floor, in the kid who delivers our pizza.
I told (in my Easter message) how we always look for Christ amid
magnificence. But that Christ has a history of showing up amid the unlovely.
Born in a dirty stall. Crowned with thorns. Died gasping on a shameful
cross atop a jagged rise. We don’t need to be beautiful for Christ (or the
Divine in us for that matter) to take us in. He is equally at home when
we’re broken-down and dirty. It’s like George Herbert wrote:
“And here in dust and dirt, O here,
The lilies of God’s love appear.”
We think magnificence is in short supply, that dust and dirt choke out the
lilies. But that’s not true and never was. Lilies (I actually love irises)
may root in dirt, but they reach for heaven—and in the reaching, reveal their
Now that is a wonderful stopping place for this letter. But just now the
fire alarm went off and guess what…we are LOCKED in! Being different, I went
to the guard’s station and asked Mr. C if maybe we should leave the building.
Amid the deafening noise, he scowls at me and says, “Hell no!” For a second
I forgot Mr. Barnes first instructions to me when I came to Carswell: “All
questions are stupid!” (His exact words) So Mr. C leaves and LOCKS US IN! I
stood there thinking how dangerously ridiculous this is. I made up a plan in
my mind. I would break the window in the officer’s station and use the phone
to call 911 as our inmate phones would not accept 911, not an approved number
on any of our lists. This is the idiotic part of prison. Hell we’d all
perish because of BOP red tape and I am not kidding. Besides the noise is
beyond deafening now.
And so life goes on…I never could make up this experience…NEVER! From
tornadoes (in locked second story prion alleys) to fire alarms in locked
second story prison alleys and beyond….it all continues.
Jesus or the Higher Beings within us all reside here as they do in the free
world. I guess maybe it’s a little easier to recognize this here because
there are fewer “things” and less busy-nesses to distract us…and then there
are the women themselves who find God walking around in khaki brown or
bright orange jumpsuits from the SHU.
Anyhow, Now I will obey this stop sign and will write again soon. Please
look up HR261 and read about it. If you can support it, please call your
representatives and please call Obama’s office and thank them and encourage
them to look into Carswell’s record. Tell them to look DEEP. Women’s lives
depend on them looking deeply into Carswell’s practices. And call your
Senators and ask them to look as well.
I wanted to give an update. Remember the 23 yr. old with cancer in her sinus
cavity which has spread to her brain due to delays in the BOP…well she ended
up in the hospital b/c she started losing her sight in one eye. Please pray
for her, hold her to the light, please…It is so hard to watch her suffer. I
put myself in her place and it takes my breath away…Honestly, it does. She
is being so courageous and brave. But she needs surgery badly…How do you
push a clogged enormously slow machine like the BOP who could care less about
inmates..the only way I know is Congressional investigation.
Love to all and more gratitude in my heart than I can write about,
May 31, 2007
Tonight I wanted to just write and go to bed. So instead of going to “chow” I
ate tuna from a pouch and a packet of instant oatmeal. I am an unimaginative
microwave cook! You can’t begin to imagine what they cook here in a small
little microwave. Such creativity: tamales made from crushed corn chips and
reconstituted beans…cheesecakes of pudding, cookie crusts, and candy
bars…jail house suckers made of Now and Laters melted down and swirled around
a Tootsie Pop…I can go down the list. I have eaten great pasta salad and
wonderful Mexican rice and beans. But I am so uncreative. I just open a
pouch of tuna and a fork…simple! The other day I tried to make a creative
snack. I have some powdered milk, a little honey and some coffee (I ALWAYS
have coffee. I even now enjoy instant coffee…wonders never cease nor do
miracles). Well I got some hot water and made a paste of milk, honey, and
coffee…It was as awful as it sounds. Take my word for it. But you know I
was hungry so, I ate it…every bit. I had an awful stomach ache afterward.
So instead of wasting my efforts on creative microwave cooking, I write and
eat RTE (Ready to Eat). I am happy with that.
The noise is considerably less now that most folks are at dinner. I can
write in peace. I wanted to share a few things about some women here. One
woman on my unit is a prime example of getting sent very, very far from her
children. She lives in Washington state. She has a 7 yr. sentence. I don’t
know for what but it really doesn’t matter her crime. She was sent to a camp
in Florida. There she wrote “cop-outs” (the way inmates communicate with
staff) asking to get transferred closer to home. It would cost around $5,000
to fly her mom and kids from Washington state to Florida! She kept on asking
her “team” for a transfer. She started plumbing school and made it to grade
one (the highest pay grade which is maybe at tops $1.50 an hour). She did
nothing wrong, only asked for her rights. They transferred her to Carswell
behind a fence, took away her camp status, and said she was “Harassing the
staff!” She said she was ALWAYS polite but persistent. Now she has to stay
at Carswell for at LEAST 18 months before they review her request. She must
work to get her “camp status” back. She found out there IS a camp in
Montana, four hours away from her home. She is 1000’s of miles away all b/c
of retaliation and asking the staff to do their job. My heart breaks for
her. I could not honestly imagine being away from my beloved children and
husband w/o seeing them for 2 years. She is NOW on Prozac due to depression.
She said she was never on drugs before in her life.
Retaliation is a way of life in prison. I am sure I have not made myself
popular here with the staff…I know they are pissed off about OBAMA’s
investigation (Thanks, Mom and I mean that positively). They don’t know what
to expect with the cranes and they are aggravated that I will NOT sign the
papers for a half-way house…which by the way, comes down to MONEY!!! I did
some digging in the Law Library. One woman who has done 7 yrs. of an 8 yr.
sentence ( ALL conspiracy of which she knew nothing by the way) is a legal
expert. She taught me how to look up legal documents, how to cite law and
what books are important. I found out some interesting stuff…You know that
“half way” house would charge me 25% of my gross income to stay there for 3
nights but I don’t pay for 3 nights, I would pay for the month. They would
put another inmate released to a half-way house in my paid for but vacated
bed and guess what, charge them for the whole month…Now they are making
double on the bed! I am not sure if the BOP gets a kick back or not…the
half-way house is double, triple, or even quadruple billing so something is
in it for the BOP. Ms. B told me that guards here clamor for out trips where
prisoners need to be chained (shackled and cuffed) b/c they get “extra” pay.
Now Ms. B is camp eligible so when she goes out (which is never now) b/c she
refused to be chained due to her camp security status!!! So they do not take
her to her outside doctor appointments or tests b/c she said “No”. Pure
retaliation and why can they get by with it? B/c they hold all the power and
Another small example…one officer named Limon (his last name, we never get to
know their first name!) was handing out the mail. There were many cards and
letters for me. He said, “Nema, you are running a business (which is illegal
here) a political card business, aren’t you? I think I’m going to shake you
down!” This means he could go through my stuff and take whatever he wanted.
Now I have nothing “illegal” but he could cite anything and even make up
stuff. I have women here willing to take up for me should he do anything.
One woman said, “BP 9 him, Tina. What he did is humiliating.” (A BP 9 is a
way inmates write up staff members when an inmate feels they were treated
unfairly. I will do what I need to do but I will not antagonize him. Still
it is just b/c he doesn’t want to “DO HIS JOB!” It happens all the time.
An update on Lisa, the 23 yr. old with sinus and now brain cancer. She began
to lose sight in her eye so they took her to the hospital. Have I written
this already? Ms BB the Native American looking at a 34 yr. conspiracy
charge b/c she tried to fight the charge instead of taking a plea
agreement…she finally got out of the hospital but she told me of some scary
stuff. Imagine you are in a “ward” of like I believe she said 6 to 8 beds.
You wake up to find a used syringe and bloody gauze on your bedside table you
eat off of and that your water pitcher and cup sit on. And worst of all the
bloody gauze belongs to your neighbor and was left by the nurse. You are
shackled to your bed. The guards are constantly with you, watching you use
the bathroom, cracking jokes about patients, being LOUD and in the middle of
the night with laughter and jokes, the floors have overflowing trash on them
and the bathroom is filthy. This is what she found. She said one night the
woman next to her fell out of bed! Ms BB hollered and hollered till someone
came. Ms BB had an abscess at site of her colostomy. She had pneumonia and
other health problems I have forgotten. She is back now at Carswell. She was
collecting sticks to make a teepee out of paper. She wanted to use a sheet
(a piece of a sheet) but would get into trouble for “destroying gov’t
property). She struggles to have her culture survive. She told me her story
as well. I bet we walked a good mile and a half as she poured out the pain.
It was as if she only needed someone to know the TRUTH, to listen to her
story and know the truth. She has in effect a life sentence b/c she will
only get out on appeal and she is poor so she can not afford a good lawyer.
There are some good public defenders but not a whole lot is what I am
learning. So I listened and listened and listened as we walked around and
around. What can I say to her? How do I comfort her? She tries to be
self-sufficient and strong but she is scared, sick and alone. I just pray
and ask her everyday how she is and listen.
There is a woman here who is a doctor. Stella is here also on totally bogus
charges. She has 6 children at home ranging from 20 to 9 in age. Most of
the time she is this bulwark of positive energy. Tonight as we walked what I
think I will now call the “path of tears” or the track, Stella just started
crying. She misses her children so much. She has sole custody…her brother
helps but she misses her kids and they her. I know from the absolute depths
of my soul what she means. I know her tears and despair. I prayed so hard
b/c I had no words of comfort. All I could say is “I know and understand.”
I thought “God please help her. Please give her hope, give her peace.”
Another woman heard her and tried to comfort her. We talked and named the
evil of GREED that trumps up charges and how power, misused by, in her case,
a judge, can rip up families. Then she shared about this nanny her brother
hired who she’s never met…how this woman told her over the phone what
absolutely wonderful children she has…how they care for each other, how they
carry Stella’s spirit. Then I remembered how one of you had written these
beautiful cards with compassionate quotes for the ladies at Carswell and so I
gave them to Stella, Theresa, and by this time two other women had joined us.
We sat there reading and passing around these cards. It was a prayer. I
began to weep b/c it was so obvious to me how God was holding us in these
loving tender arms and had given us comfort of words I had lacked. In the
end, another woman joined us. Stella went to check her messages and was
laughing. They are taking one each and passing the cards with the beautiful
messages to other women. There was healing and peace. We cried together
tears of joy. What had been tears of pain were transformed all by God using a
few cards. You see, cranes, small squares of paper, cards written by a
stranger, a hug….a chance meeting, God uses all these ways, I KNOW this so
surely. There are times when I despair, when I am scared, when I just want
to hold my kids and i think what I have done and where I am…. then some small
miracle, some small seemingly insignificant chance meeting, some “accident,”
some small window opens and whoosh God sweeps in and light dispels this
darkness which just a few minutes ago seemed so dark, so black, so heavy.
“Nothing is impossible with God.” My how the starkness of Carswell proves
this point. It may not be on our time or in our way but the light comes and
pushes back just a little of the suffering, the pain. It is like opening
Christmas presents as a kid…the sense of wonderment, surprise, the
anticipation knowing God will be there…God’s love holds us and is displayed
in such wonderful ways. And so maybe everyday is Christmas her at Carswell.
God continuously being “born” in the women and (maybe even the staff?) and
God using people to “gift” each other? What a miraculous gift God gives. I
mean even for me when I thought and sometimes still think, my God why have
you forsaken me? How in the hell did I get here? And then I look back at all
I have seen, what I have learned, what I have been given and have given…It is
an ABSOLUTE, honest miracle…so I just praise God.
(There is one more small portion to this letter that I will send out on Sat.)
The end of the last letter from May 31, 2007
I want to share a poem/ and maybe a song…at least there is a melody in my
Dusky light of orange and purple
Shimmer through ancient cottonwood with such
beauty that I almost had forgotten the prison fence
As I stand here my soul sings
Glory, Glory, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah
Yeah, I almost had forgotten
That prison wall surrounded me.
As the sky continues turning
hues of pinks and orange and purple
And the birds roost, bedding down
in the ancient cottonwood tree
It’s as close I’ve been to heaven
all these days, yearning to be free
And my soul sings, “Glory, Glory, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah”
Yeah it’s as close as I’ve been to heaven
while my soul longs to be free.
Now that lethal razor wire takes the
color of the sky, shining pinks and orange
Turning what’s meant to imprison, a thing reflecting all the beauty God can
And my soul sings, “Glory, Glory, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah…Now my soul sings
Hallelujah and my spirit is set free. Those prison walls cannot contain me.
I know it’s a work in progress but Oh! Gosh how good it felt to write it
down, to find it because I just was struggling so these past few days as
these last two weeks seem like 2 years.
Thank you so much for your prayers---please, please, please continue to pray
for us here, especially the dying and the despairing. A young woman
approached me wanting to know why I get so much mail. She said she rarely
gets mail and, with a palatable sadness and loneliness in her voice said
she’d give anything for some mail. I include her name and number if anyone
has some time. Jessica Ortega #60416-053
Last thought, it occurs to me…yes, your letters to these women are a gift but
also as they write you will continue to learn about Carswell and prison life
long after I have returned home…
With huge love,
June 2, 2007
An annoying thing happened this afternoon. I went outside after work. It
was funny that I had the energy b/c usually after work I am dog-tired and go
to bed, laying there amid the noise to try to rest. But today I had energy
to spare. I saw Stella and Betty under the roof-like shelter by the raven
tree I’ve described in an earlier letter. Stella was very sad, I asked her
if she would like to learn how to make a peace crane. Kind of reluctantly at
first, she agreed. I had two Smithsonian magazines someone gave me. I found
my scissors and went outside. I cut squares of paper and we talked about how
depressing Carswell is, the unfairness of the justice system and how much we
miss our children. Then somehow I thought “But despite all this, God is
faithful.” Really God’s faithfulness is all we have to trust in. We talked
of how we got to prison. Stella’s story is especially poignant. But despite
all the injustice, all the tremendous loss and sorrow and separation…amid all
the DARKNESS God’s faithfulness is like manna from heaven, sustaining life
and in the harshness, the nastiness of prison. And all the while we talked
we folded cranes. It was healing for both of us…As if those scraps of paper
were empowered to perform miracles. People would come up and ask about the
cranes and I would tell them the story of Sadako and the thousand cranes.
Some would make a crane, some would watch. Then a woman named Alice came by.
Alice has some psychological issues. She listened with an unusual
intensity. She asked for four cranes, one for each woman in her room. She
carefully picked four as if she was considering with great deliberation which
bird was meant for each person she lived with in this tiny, tiny cell room.
It was close to 3:00 PM when she came out again saying…”Everyone loved them,
can I take more?” I invited her to learn how to make her own and told her
about the Carswell peace crane project. Honestly, she caught on amazingly
quickly. Her enthusiasm and intensity were contagious. At 3:30 PM we were
yelled at to “Get ready for 4:00 count.” Alice asked if I could come out and
teach her more after supper. I agreed. I wanted to know more about
Alice…And her absolute, childlike joy as she made her first bird lightened
Stella and Betty in a way all the theologizing and philosophizing could never
After supper I was ready. Armed with new squares I cut after 4:00 count and
while I waited for “C-H-O-W.” I listened to one quite ill woman in a
wheelchair talk about how the ceiling in her bed caved in and six inches of
standing water, along with mold and mildew filled her room. I knew what she
said is true b/c other women on the 5th floor shared similar stories and b/c
in the dining room the ceiling tiles in one part have fallen in due to leaky
duct work…It constantly leaks. It is like it is raining indoors all week.
It fills up a 33 gallon trash can in 2 days. The floor there is constantly
wet no matter how much we mop it. I cringe as older, sometimes disabled
women walk past this area with the wet, slippery floors.
Alice came out and waited somewhat impatiently for me to finish listening to
the woman’s story. Her radio and headphones seemed to give her a sense of
groundedness that without them she would lack. Finally I broke away and she
asked if she could learn where “No one could watch her.” Now if you could see
this campus it is tremendously overcrowded. Everywhere people sit, stand,
walk…I suggested we sit under the cover by the raven tree to escape the sun…I
wanted to escape the crowd, too but we had to settle for escaping the
sun…Alice again dug right in with the intensity of a dog with a bone. I told
her maybe we could fold 17 new birds, one for each woman in Maximum. Helen
Woodson is here in Max. Helen is a peace activist. If you want to know more
specifics about Helen, go to the Johan House website. They tell her story
and ministry of civil disobedience. I wanted to make these cranes for these
women b/c we have absolutely no contact with them, so they could not even
find out about the Peace Crane Project going on right outside their building
b/c of the lack of contact. I am hoping Sister Ille can bring them a crane
and tell them the story.
Alice made one, then two. By the third crane she had it…she almost jumped
out of her seat, she was so proud of herself. She had amazingly caught on
very quickly. You could see her visibly grow stronger, prouder of herself.
Alice’s story…well, I’m not quite sure. Perhaps she really does have CIA
contacts and know Saddam Hussein personally. Maybe she has seen a nuclear
weapon and has electronic tracking devices in her leg. It really doesn’t
matter b/c it was as if Alice needed a task to center and ground her spirit
and God gave her the task of peace crane maker. We whipped out 17 cranes in
Alice shared with me her radio. It is the first time in almost 2 months I
have listened to the radio. Alice has all the preset stations to Christian
music. “It’s all I listen to,” she confides. I offer her headphones back.
“No, I have another one,” and she whips from her pants another radio. Now at
Carswell this is “CONTRIBAND,” the catch-all word for anything they deem on
any given day that they want to harass us with and threaten to take. Alice
says she traded it for some tennis shoes. I wonder to myself how many times
Alice has been taken advantage of in a place where getting “the Advantage” is
the main task of the day. With her fantastic story, her child-like trust and
intensity, I could only imagine the hell her life must be. I marveled at
God’s goodness…in this simple woman, in letting her “find” me and the magic
of a folded square of old magazine paper. Miracles, I believe, can not be
categorized by big or small, major or minor. EACH and every miracle is an
act of God’s faithfulness. Each a gift to us. So all are marvelous,
wondrous and joyful. Each one is special. I had my doubts that the peace
crane project would ever get off the ground. Honestly there are 1700 women
here and a new bus load will be packed in this week. But I’ve learned a few
things in the process. First, it really does not matter what the outcome is,
whether we can make enough or have a way to disperse them. It is clear that
the process is far more important, miraculous than the actual outcome. And
second, if the officials were to shut down or try to shut it down, it’s
unimportant b/c so VERY many people know how to fold squares of paper into
cranes and the DEED (the seeds of peace) is already done. The women who fold
and pass on the knowledge have a centeredness, a lightness, a purpose that is
simply a gift from God and nothing, no punishment or punitive actions can
take this away.
I know I just wrote a few days ago, but I so need to write down these
miracles I see. To me, in this place and time they seem so beautifully
poignant. The contrasts here of light and dark, of kindness and cruelty, of
tenderness and harshness make it so visible. Honestly there are so many
things I see and hear, I could NEVER, even if I had a 10 year sentence (for
which I am ETERNALLY grateful I DON’T) I could never write it all down.
Yesterday even one of the guards asked me why I am here and listened intently
as I told them about SOA and Fort Benning. I so grateful to Helen Woodson
and Kathleen Rumph who have paved the way for me here. Some (a few,
actually) are interested most aren’t…But this one listened intently.
Well, I got to get up at 4:00 AM. Must sleep.
P.S. You know as I read this I thought of the Beatitudes and I made up
another…Blessed are the simple, for they know the joy of the wonderment of
P.S.S. Here are two women who would love to get mail
Eva Brasker #20191076—from Yakima, WA misses her family, the BOP put her far
Lisa Taylor #08253003 from Mobile, AL—very nice, compassionate woman