27 November 2004
Prison can breed surprising friendships.
Take, for example, anti-nuclear activist and Dominican nun Carol Gilbert and America's most famous fallen homemaker, Martha Stewart.
Gilbert is at the Federal Corrections Camp in Alderson, W.Va., serving 33 months for her April 2003 conviction on one count each of felony sabotage and destruction of government property.
Stewart started a five-month sentence Oct. 8 at the same facility for lying to investigators about the circumstances of a now notorious 2001 stock sale.
Recently, Gilbert, 57, and Stewart, 63, ended up at the same lunch table. The pacifist, who has taken a vow of poverty, and the multimillionaire, who was chauffeured to prison by her personal security team, enjoyed their meeting - given the circumstances.
"We're not talking about a tea party," said Gilbert's Denver attorney, Sue Tyburski. "We're talking about a big cafeteria setting with the terrible food."
Gilbert wrote briefly about meeting Stewart in a recent letter to Tyburski, who had handled her case at no charge.
"She said that Martha is getting the kid-gloves treatment from all the guards and that she's in great demand for people to visit with at lunchtime," Tyburski said.
Stewart, Gilbert told her lawyer, is writing a book about her prison experience.
"Sister Carol," Tyburski said, "rather than saying, 'I hope I make it into her book' - as a lot of the prisoners are saying - says, 'I hope she writes about the plights of all these other women who have received lengthy sentence under federal mandatory drug-sentencing laws.' Rather than worrying about herself, as usual, she's thinking about everyone else there."
Three nuns, three journeys
That Gilbert has had prison face time with perhaps the federal prison system's most famous inmate is possibly the biggest surprise to arise out of a journey by Gilbert and two other Dominican nuns through the federal justice system since their arrest on Oct. 6, 2002.
That is the day that Gilbert and Sisters Ardeth Platte and Jackie Hudson went to the N-8 Minuteman III missile site in rural northeastern Weld County on a mission to nonviolently and symbolically inspect, expose and disarm what they branded an illegal and immoral weapon of mass destruction.
Clad in white jumpsuits identifying the trio as a "citizens' weapons inspector team," they cut through a security fence, smeared crosses in their own blood on the silo lid, and tapped on the rails - on which the 110-ton cover would move in the event of a missile launch - with ball-peen hammers in a symbolic attempt to beat swords into plowshares.
All three women drew longer sentences than they had expected, with Gilbert serving 33 months, 70-year-old Hudson 30 months and 68-year-old Platte 41 months. They are scattered through the federal Bureau of Prisons, housed in minimum-security facilities from Connecticut to California.
Their resolve, and their belief in the cause for which they sacrificed their freedom, is unchanged.
Hudson, in the days and weeks after the nuns' July 25, 2003, sentencing, spent jail time in Teller and El Paso counties, then was flown in shackles from Pueblo to Montana to Seattle, Oklahoma City and California, strip- searched twice and forced to sleep on at least one concrete floor.
But in her most recent letter to friends and supporters, written from the Federal Correctional Institution at Victorville, Calif., her sign-off betrayed no sense of defeat or surrender.
"There is so much to challenge our complacency these days," wrote Hudson. "May we all use energies toward achieving a more loving world.
"Always grateful, I promise my prayers and good wishes to each of you. MAY THE NONVIOLENT REVOLUTION COME!"
And Gilbert, in her November dispatch from West Virginia, after noting the recent arrival of Stewart, wrote of the leveling effect of prison life.
"Everyone here has been stripped naked," Gilbert wrote. "We have been stripped of more than just our physical clothes, but also of titles and professions. We come in all shapes and sizes, ages, classes, races and countries.
"Getting to know a woman here is a bit like peeling an onion - layer by layer."
Prison life has placed at least one of the women in the strange position of indirectly supporting the military machine whose mission they fundamentally oppose.
Through a federal program created by Congress to provide job training for inmates - and cheap labor to the government - Gilbert had reported to friends in October that the prison garment factory - which she said manufactured, among other things, the flight jacket worn by President Bush during his "Mission Accomplished" aircraft carrier landing early in the Iraq war - was about to be converted into a prison-operated telemarketing center.
The next month, however, Gilbert reported, "The women had started to dismantle the sewing machines, when they were abruptly told to reassemble the machines, as the factory would be open another three months to complete a 10,000 order for military flight jackets.
"No explanation was given."
Another insight into the alternate universe the sisters have stepped into is provided in this excerpt from Gilbert's October 2004 letter.
"This past month, I was stopped by a male guard going into the dining room because my pant legs were rolled up," wrote Gilbert, a lifetime pacifist. "He yelled, 'Stop! Put those pant legs down - that's gang dress.' "
"Meanwhile," her note continued, "some of the women wear very large pants hanging halfway down their posteriors and are never questioned. Some of the women said that if I'd dress like that in the dining room, they would give me a candy bar."
Platte wrote in her July letter about the resolution of a long- troublesome health problem.
"For those of you who have been following my yearlong need for eye surgery for the removal of a cataract, my intense pursuit for relief because of difficulty in negotiating stairs (no depth perception) and the strain in reading with the burden placed on one overworked eye, I have good news," she wrote.
The surgery was performed July 9. She subsequently noted to one supporter that she wished her "spiritual blindness" could be solved as easily as her physical blindness.
Platte - who is imprisoned in Danbury, Conn., and may not be released until shortly before Christmas 2005 - clearly sees her life as a steady striving for enlightenment.
"Waiting allows time for the spiritual growing, pondering and preparing," she wrote this month.
"These imply patience, alertness, renewal, soul-searching, being awake and attentive, spiritual regrouping, yearning and nourishing.
"Taking advantage of time, this moment, of standing with awesome wonder, of dwelling in the light, is what Advent (which begins on Nov. 28) is all about for me."
While the sisters never attempted to evade arrest or deny responsibility for the symbolic dawn mission they embarked on more than two years ago, they are appealing their sentences. That appeal was heard Oct. 1 in Denver before a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Their appeal is a three-part argument: that the sabotage charge represented an overbroad application of the definition of national defense; that the government did not prove sabotage; and that U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn erred in his jury instructions by not letting jurors consider whether the sisters had a good-faith belief that their actions were legal.
While a decision on their appeal could come at any time, the focus of each woman remains primarily on their own spiritual and political journeys, the ministries they can offer their fellow inmates - including Martha Stewart - and on the glimpses of the everyday world they can enjoy, even while they are without their freedom.
"The color of the trees on the mountains is spectacular this year," Gilbert wrote earlier this fall from West Virginia. "We are told it is because of the colder temperatures.
"The winter blue jays and woodpeckers are returning in all their grandeur, and the other morning, I heard a hooting owl.
"As we await word on the appeal (December or January), I wait patiently in hope of an unexpected release and continue to find much to keep me occupied until May 23, 2005" - her anticipated release date.
In her most recent dispatch, Platte said, "Our appeal decisions remain with the three 10th Circuit Court judges. We await their word with peace."
brennanc@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-892-2742