Wednesday, January 20, 2010



Ellen Barfield

Here is my jail report for those of you who knew I WAS in jail, and word from me for those of you who are wondering why you didn't hear from me over the holidays!

The anti-war action which eventually landed me in jail from 14 December to 5 January was interrupting a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on the Afghan war/occupation last May, with Senator John Kerry chairing and Admiral Mullen, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifying. Four of us had agreed to do an action against the Afghan war, and settled on this specific hearing just a day or 2 before we did it.

My colleagues were Eve Tetaz, Steve Mihalis, and Pete Perry, who I know through years of activism and the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance. Eve and I threw dollar bills stained with our own blood into the aisle of the hearing room (not AT anyone as was later assumed by the prosecutor and judge) and cried out to stop spending blood money. Pete recited to Senator Kerry his own words from the Viet Nam era about telling the last soldier he is dying for a lie, and Steve added his condemnation of the war. We were whisked out of the hearing room in seconds. Senator Kerry had only said to remove, not arrest, us, but the police chose to arrest.

The formal charge was "unlawful conduct on Capitol grounds", serious enough to get a jury trial in October. Eve and I were mildly surprised we were not charged with more serious assault charges for the bloody money, even though the blood was long dry and we are old women with no communicable diseases. I represented myself at trial, as I have often done, with advice from Attorney Advisor Ann Wilcox. Eve and Pete had other attorneys. Steve's charges were dropped because the government used a C-span video as their evidence, and you could not hear Steve well on the video. We were bemused that the government did not trust their own Capitol police to testify as to what they saw us do.

Sadly this jury did not have the courage to do a jury nullification, where a jury simply refuses to convict because they appreciate what the defendants did, or don't agree with punishing them. DC is particularly firm in preventing mention of jury nullification in court, so the jury has to figure it out on its own, and this one couldn't.

Having never been convicted by a jury in DC before, I was unaware of how slow the pre- sentencing investigation (PSI) process is to collect one's record of arrests and to examine one's standing in society regarding education, employment, housing, etc. Our sentencing date was pushed back to December 14th, which was frustrating because we knew this judge was a hard sentencer and I was signed up to go on the Gaza Freedom March in late December. I would have waived the PSI had I known at the time that I could, because I was ready in October to do the jail time this judge seemed likely to give me.

Judge Lynn Liebovitz is quite the scolding lecturer, and she went on at great length justifying the pretty harsh sentences she handed out. Pete Perry, with a fairly short record and not intending any more civil resistance for the time being, got 45 days in jail, all but 4 suspended to be served over the next weekend, a $500 fine (the maximum allowed for the charge), and 9 months supervised probation. With quite a long record of civil resistance arrests in DC, I have never before gotten any jail time, fines, or supervised probation. This time I was sentenced to 75 days suspended to 25, the $500 fine, and a year supervised probation. We are prohibited from entering the entire Capitol Hill area for the duration of our probation. Eve has not been sentenced yet as she has health issues and the Judge wanted a medical report first.

I was "stepped back", or taken immediately to the courthouse holding cells through the door in the back of the courtroom. That was a little after noon. It was about 7pm before 9 of us were transported to the DC Jail, where the processing took until about 4am the next morning before we saw our beds, such as they were. Part of that was an impressively thorough medical examination.

Instead of the large bays with many bunks of other jails I have served in, the DC jail is arranged in pods containing 2-person cells, 8 cells to a tier, or hallway, another tier above and 2 more at a right angle, with a large dayroom and several smaller rooms with TV and microwave. Each tier has 2 toilets, 2 sinks, and one shower. The cells are about 6 feet by 10, with 2 narrow bunks, one small locker, one 1 1/2 by 3 foot desk and one chair. Inmates are only locked in the cells during the count times for about an hour, at 6am, 10:30, 2, 7, 10:30, and several times overnight, so frequently that we often joked about the guards not being able to count.

Since my cell already had one occupant in the lower bunk I was assigned to the top one. Getting into and out of the bunk was difficult because there were no bars. The inmates said the bars had been removed because male inmates had torn them off for weapons. I had bruises on my lap and my shin the whole time I was in due to having to roll across the steel edge of the bed to get in and out. And it was fortunate I don't roll around in my sleep, as the beds are less than 3 feet wide with only a 2 inch lip at the edge. And of course the "mattresses" were very thin. I had bruises on my hip bones at first because I cannot sleep on my back, but I seemed to get used to it over time.

We were clothed in short-sleeved t-shirts, scrub pants and tops, and only issued one blanket. Most inmates complained of the cold, but I was warm on the top bunk-one advantage of it. Also, and my middle-aged women friends will appreciate this, being peri-menopausal my hormones keep me warm, not with hot flashes but just warm all the time. The cell I was in was right beside the shower, which had dangerously nearly-scalding water, and that provided heat too. The cells on the other end of the tier had 2 outside walls and must have been quite cold.

My cell-mate was, predictably, a black woman. There were only 4 or five white women among the 45 or so in the pod. She was in for a probation drug violation on a mild assault charge, and when she gets out at the end of January she will finally be totally finished with the case she has been in and out on several times. Most of the women were in for drug charges, some of them being painfully weaned off whatever drug they took with lessening doses of alternate drugs. Many of them individually came up to me and said I didn't look like a druggie and asked what was I doing there. They were loud and rowdy, but mostly very nice. My cell-mate and I discussed everything under the sun during the frequent count times, and I came to really like her. 

When I went in I was issued a small piece of soap and small bottle of shampoo of a brand no one ever heard of. I was never able to buy any from the commissary because my money was not credited in time. I had cash in my pocket going in which I was told would go into my account, but it was not credited until over 2 weeks later. Because of the holidays the money my husband put in for me was credited slowly too and the once-a-week ordering cycle never allowed me to order anything. Fortunately for my cleanliness, we got Salvation Army gift bags for Christmas with some more soap and shampoo, and the treat of a York Peppermint Patty!

I did not know I could request a vegetarian diet when I went in, as other jails I've been in just laughed when I asked. But I did fine trading my cell-mate my meat for her veggies. I seldom bothered with the breakfast of an occasional boiled egg, potatoes, and lots of farina because it was served at 5 or 6am and I am not an early riser, and because it was hard to get out of the bunk. For lunch and dinner even the non-vegetarians got a lot of pinto or navy beans, which I like, and a fair amount of brown bread with at least a little whole wheat in it, as opposed to white, which I gave away. We often got cornbread, sweeter than I like but OK, green beans, carrots or peas, coleslaw or iceberg lettuce. And often real potatoes, as opposed to occasional instant potatoes which taste like cardboard. To drink, a small cup of highly sweetened tea or koolaid, or skim milk and funny tasting apple juice for breakfast. Fortunately there was a water cooler so I drank lots of cold water. Dessert was a lot of cheap duplex vanilla-chocolate sandwich cookies which I often gave away, or pretty good sheet cakes, only frosted once for Christmas. The food was not generous and boringly repetitive, and I never accessed the junk food from the commissary that people pigged out on once a week, so I lost 6 or 7 pounds. The very best food was the good juicy oranges we got more than half the time. I have never gotten fresh fruit in jail before.

The worst thing about being in for me was the lack of info about the rules. I heard from people I went in with that a rules booklet is supposedly being rewritten, but has been for ages. So not infrequently I broke a rule because I didn't know any better, like going in someone else's cell. Fortunately incurring no punishment, but fear of that occasionally. And the next worst was the lack of regular access to books. There was no library that I could ascertain. Books were circulating among the cells (a seeming foolish security risk) so I more often than not had reading material, but a lot of them were gangster/sex junk, with only a few good books. And I watched more TV than I probably have in the last 10 years, with, by choice, no TV at home. Which confirmed my aversion to the electronic garbage!

A day or two after I went in I had to fill out a form with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of whoever I wanted to be able to telephone or have visit me. Since I had not known that was how it worked, I only had my husband Larry's info in my head. Any paper with contact info would have been confiscated by then. Friends wanted to visit me but I could not put them on my list, which can only be changed every 6 months. Processing the list and checking the people on it was of course slow, and those first 8 or 10 days before I could call Larry were hard. Attorneys can visit anytime so Ann came often, and Eve's attorney kindly visited too, and a friend who is a minister got in. Women can only get family visits on Mondays, so I had just 2 visits with Larry, along with the joy of the strip searches afterward. (Not!)

Larry and I don't pay much attention to the holidays because they are so awfully commercialized so I didn't much mind being in jail then except for missing the Gaza trip, but I felt for the many women who were really missing their children at that time. We could only spy from the windows the unusual 20 inch snowstorm DC got while I was in, and talk about how we wished we could be playing in it. Recreation was rare, with only 3 or 4 gym visits happening while I was there, and that only consisting of a pickup basketball game by the few good players and a weight room with no weights.

The very best thing about my time in was the many cards and letters I got, beginning on the third day, from friends and strangers, nearly 100 pieces total, as many as 25 in a day. All my organizations had put my jail address on their websites, and many people kindly wrote. A tremendous THANK YOU to all of you! The guards and my sister inmates were amazed, and several expressed admiration for the support peace movement members give each other.

I ended up getting out 2 or 3 days early, a nice surprise as no one had told me. They woke me up about 3am on my 23rd day, and I walked out at 7:30, in an enormous size 3X pair of sweat pants I had to hold to keep from falling off me, since the clothes I wore in had been sent home. That was all they had to issue me, where most of the inmates are men and women are an afterthought. I figured it was one last kick from the system as I rode the Metro subway during morning rush hour with the fare card they had given me, getting eyed by many commuters.






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