Monday, April 13, 2009
When My Academic Colleague Went To Prison on a B Misdemeanor
When my university colleague Luis Barrios went to federal prison five weeks ago after being convicted for “trespassing” (a B misdemeanor usually met with a fine, community service or short term imprisonment not in a penitentiary) during a protest at the infamous School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia I said to him, “at least you’ll be in Manhattan, at least you’ll be near your family and friends.” “Yes,” he said, “but you never know what will happen. You can go in there for a month and come out in a year.” I smiled uneasily, fully aware of such cases but thinking, “He’s a well known Episcopalian priest, a full professor and academic chair at the largest school of criminal justice in the country (John Jay College of Criminal Justice). He’ll be held for 60 days at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in the heart of downtown Manhattan, two blocks from city hall. How risky can it be?” A lot can happen in five weeks.
Today, April 12th, his wife Minerva will get to see her husband for the first time since Monday March 9th when Luis entered the facility at 150 Park Row, escorted by a smiling member of the prison administration while sixty of his friends, family and supporters shouted their support for his courageous stand on behalf of international human rights. We saluted his efforts to expose the workings of an establishment founded by the U.S. Department of Defense more than a half-century ago that has turned out so many murderous members of the Central and South American military and police to fight subversion in the name of democracy. Little did we know that the torturous activities Luis was protesting would befall him in that highly organized, rationally managed facility just twenty minutes from his office in the city’s Mid-Town.
On Friday March 20th, after Luis had been held for eleven days without receiving a letter or a phone call from him I began to worry. As a long time student of inmates and prisons I was used to hearing from the incarcerated within a few days of their internment. During the course of the day my colleagues and I began to piece together a disturbing pattern of abuse by the authorities that has become the norm rather than the exception in many of our “correctional facilities.”
We learned in a series of letters just received from his wife that from his first day Luis was placed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) in the maximum security section normally reserved for the most dangerous and unruly of inmates and kept there for the following ten days. Held in solitary in a cell measuring ten foot by six foot for twenty three hours a day with a small plexi glass window, he had been caged like an animal. At times Luis was given a cell mate with whom to share his dungeon-like experience, a place where you eat the inedible, sleep, sit, stand and emit your human waste while covering yourself with a sheet to attain a modicum of privacy. We learned that one of his cell mates had already been incarcerated for five years and had become, according to Luis (a trained psychologist), a “walking time bomb.” On the fourth day of his stay in the SHU Luis became very ill, vomiting and feverish he complained of pains in his back and stomach but for twelve hours was refused treatment. Finally, the resident doctor agreed to examine him and decided to send him to a local hospital emergency room where he was diagnosed with an infection in one kidney and stones in the other. On his way to and from the hospital he was strip searched, his cavities meticulously examined while his hands and feet were placed in manacles and chained to each other. Luis felt this was the ultimate humiliation, a form of dehumanization used repeatedly across the “system.”
Almost two weeks into his stay Luis received the first visit from his lawyer followed by a visit from his fellow priest at St. Mary’s church in Harlem. After almost three weeks Luis was allowed to make his first five-minute phone call to his wife. After almost four weeks Luis was visited in his cell in the general population wing by an assistant to the warden and told that he had a “bad attitude.” The emissary informed Luis that the warden had received a letter from the president of Luis’s college protesting the mistreatment of one of his faculty members. The emissary asked Luis to sign a letter denying that he had received such treatment. Luis replied that the accusations were true and could not oblige. A couple of days ago Luis received another visit from another emissary and Luis gave him the same answer.
On May 6th, providing Luis’s prison term is not extended due to his “bad attitude,” my colleague will emerge from this institution in the center of what many like to think is the world’s most cosmopolitan and civilized of cultural capitals. In one of Luis’s most recent prison letters he writes, “Under these circumstances with my dear brother inmates I remain highly motivated. My spirit is still looking for peace with justice. Sometimes I think this system has but one goal: to dehumanize and break you. Believe me, this is not going to happen. I’m a person of faith, vision, and action. I came in here with my dignity and although I’ll be going out differently my commitment to social justice remains intact.”
Remember, this is what can happen to you as a prisoner of conscience on a B misdemeanor. Imagine if you committed a felony or god forbid robbed a bank that you didn’t own?
David C. Brotherton
Professor and Chair
Department of Sociology
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
The City University of New York
(On January 26, 2009, in a federal courthouse in Georgia, Luis Barrios, along with four others, Kristin Holm; Sr. Diane Pinchot, OSU; Al Simmons; and Theresa Cusimano received sentences of 60 days in a federal penitentiary while a sixth, Louis Wolf, was sentenced to six months of house arrest. The six were found "guilty" of carrying their protest against the School of the Americas (it was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001) onto the Fort Benning military base. They were among thousands who gathered on November 22 and 23, 2008 outside the gates of Fort Benning to demand the closure of the school)