Incarceration in a Rural Georgia County Jail
by Martha Hennessey
In southeastern Georgia, it is near the end of May, and the seven of us who participated in the Kings Bay Plowshares action of April 4th are in our eighth week of incarceration at Camden and Glynn County Jail. We chose the day of Dr. King’s murder because of his linking of racism, militarism, and materialism that now dictates our domestic and foreign policies and the very structures of our society.
I am reading Thomas Merton’s introduction to Alfred Delp’s book Prison Writings written in 1963, eighteen years after the Nazis executed Delp, a Jesuit priest. Merton speaks of “the urgent need for courage to face the truth of untruth, the cataclysmic presence of an apocalyptic lie that is at work not only in this or that nation, this or that party, this or that race, but in all of us everywhere.” Merton goes on to quote Delp: “These are not matters that can be postponed to suit our convenience. They call for immediate action because untruth is both dangerous and destructive. It has already rent our souls, destroyed our people, laid waste our land and our cities; it has already caused our generation to bleed to death.” Delp wrote these words 73 years ago in a Berlin prison as Germany was losing WWII. The country was decimated.
Now, how much further have we trod down this path of violent passion for an ever-increasing diabolical capacity for the use of science and technology in the service of war? The trauma of both world wars remains with us to this day, and we add to it.
After Germany’s defeat, the United States recruited many of Hitler’s scientists and doctors, war criminals among them. This allowed us to continue building an insane vision of racist world dominance. The lynchpin of this vision is the nuclear bomb, used in Japan in 1945 on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and now as a threat to the other countries of the world to comply with the business and market demands of the US.
I sit in this tomb-like concrete cell following our nonviolent, symbolic disarmament while large numbers of nuclear warheads rest in concrete bunkers 30 minutes away at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. I wonder if I have been sent here by God’s grace, essentially buried alive for the time being, despite my limitations and helplessness.
Delp died for his Church, and the judge who condemned him hated the Jesuits. Further, Merton commented on the concerns of South African Bishop Hurley of Durban over a failure on the part of the clergy to speak out against war, and of their inability to assist the laity while in desperate need during times of modern warfare.
Pope Francis has declared the making and possessing of nuclear bombs to be immoral. Where is this voice being heard in our pulpits today? Now, in the 21st century, we continue to possess a deadly nuclear arsenal while our political leadership calls for nuclear war on smaller countries such as North Korea and Iran rather than diplomacy.
The Trump administration’s recent Nuclear Posture Review is an attempt to make it easier to launch these weapons of complete omnicide. I see our suffering younger generation, as they lay bleeding or dying on our streets and in our prisons. I see them suffering within or after serving in our military. Those unfortunate enough to be drawn into these so-called institutions struggle to live, raise families, complete their educations, obtain health care, and envision a future that is held hostage by climate disruption, drug addiction, and a permanent war economy.
Yet in the face of all this, we as Christians are called to comfort each other. Here in jail, the drug epidemic, our war at home, leaves young mothers weeping in despair, their lives shattered, their souls desolate. And yet, living in community and extremity as we do in this prison, there still remains humor and a spirit of defying the overwhelming forces that destroy lives through addiction, racism, and violence.
The white Southern Baptist tradition (like all too many of us Christians) avoids any meaningful scrutiny of systemic evil, readily laying blame on individual victims of our idolatrous culture. The religious ministry to the inmates here is minimal and superficial at moments in people’s lives when they feel God’s presence in their pain, and yearn for change and salvation.
The stories of military families suffering similar fates of trauma are prevalent here as well. In the end, none of us are spared. I hear stories of veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan coming home with head injuries and post-traumatic stress, struggling to find medical care while being placed on heavy-duty medications. Approximately twenty soldiers a day are ending their own lives. What an utter failure on our part.
It is a curious thing, locking people up with very little to do and without restorative justice. The women adapt as best they can, performing self-care tasks, cleaning, socializing, and engaging in many normal aspects of life despite the deprivation. It is a gift to watch them braid each other’s hair, or simply sit and share stories. When we played sock volleyball during our one-hour a week recreational time in a small, outside pen, the laughter was contagious.
The sheriff put an end to this self-directed, cooperative activity. The institution is designed to disempower and dehumanize the inmates in every aspect of their daily lives. The judicial system is in the throes of advanced capitalism: freedom and justice are available only through paying off the courts, jails, attorneys, and all components of the profiteering system.
My own faith journey expands under these conditions even as I feel so homesick, knowing that we will be standing in two courts, both in heaven and on earth. It is a fearsome thing as we will await trial, which will be a process only and have little to do with justice or reality. Our actions are taken to protect life, not to condone death. We wish that expert testimony regarding the legality of nuclear bombs be brought to the courts.
Would our military withstand the test of the rule of law? While pondering that question, I realize that there is a critical necessity to avoid causing or taking hardened positions as we walk through this Plowshares experience. Exposing the sin and crime of holding the world as a nuclear hostage and our mad participation in it is what we pray to change while seeking the disarming of our own hearts.
A $5000 bail payment allowed me to leave Glynn County Jail despite the reality of our either being a flight risk or a violent danger to the community. My husband signed a $50,000 bond against our family home in Vermont. Our daughter and her husband and three children live on the property as well.
I wear an ankle monitor that uses radio frequency and a dedicated phone line ($30 monthly) to track my location out here on the small farm where I grew up. I must be in the house from 8:00 PM until 7:00 AM. I am allowed to walk to the mailbox to pick up mail from 3:00 to 3:15 PM, six days a week. The monitor is set to a range that allows me access to the hen house, greenhouse, gardens, and my daughter’s apartment as I babysit my grandkids.
Between my in-house detention and drought conditions the gardens look fairly weed-free. I returned home at the end of May, just in time to plant odds and ends of vegetables that my husband had not yet finished. I love to plant, thin, weed, water, and mulch the fruits and vegetables.
I spend my days caring for the gardens, sheep, chickens, and my grandsons, ages six and three and my nine month-old granddaughter when my daughter and son-in-law are working. I go out three times a week for appointments and, with permission, to attend Mass. Any other outings must be planned ahead with permission obtained from my “service officer,” the language of capitalist consumerism used to describe my parole officer. I am not yet convicted of any crime.
I think of the women in prison and my co-defendants whom I left behind in southern Georgia and how much work there is waiting for all of them when they arrive home with their families. I pray every day for them, three of whom are still in jail at the Glynn County Detention Center. Each of them holds such a strong spirit of faith and truth. Stephen Kelly, SJ remains steadfast in his insight into the vision of Phil Berrigan for a nuclear-free world. He has already served significant prison time for his work on nuclear abolition.
Liz McAlister, Phil’s widow, is absolutely clear in her understanding of the biblical call to cleanse the world of these diabolical weapons. Her family continues to sacrifice for a better world for children. Mark Colville has labored for 25 years in a Catholic Worker house of hospitality caring for his disenfranchised neighbors. He continues a beautiful ministry in jail where the spiritual needs are great.
Clare Grady, Carmen Trotta, and Patrick O’Neill are out on the same conditions as mine, now caring for their families, and working to spread the word on nuclear resistance. I can’t express enough the deep gratitude I feel for the beloved community and our families who allow us to be on this journey, holding and loving us, knowing that there is always hope for a world free of war and oppression. “Look toward Him and be radiant, let your faces not be abashed.” (Psalm 34:6).
Martha lives part-time at the New York Catholic Worker and in Vermont. All at Agape pray for our friends in the Kings Bay Plowshares. A hearing is scheduled for August 3rd.
Liz McAlister, friend of 40 years, wrote to Agape from jail conveyed her decision not to “consider conditions of release.” Liz expressed gratitude for the grace of her refusal and asks for prayers that she may “continue to listen to the spirit.”
Carrying hammers and baby bottles of their own blood, the Plowshare family hoped to call attention weapons of mass destruction at Kings Bay Naval Base opened in 1979 as the Navy’s Atlantic Ocean Trident port. The largest submarine base in the world, it houses six ballistic missile subs and two guided missiles.
The activists went to three sites using crime scene tape, hanging banners reading: “The ultimate logic of racism is genocide.” MLK/”The ultimate logic of Trident is omnicide.”
Members of Kings Bay Plowshares: Clare Grady, 59, Ithaca Catholic Worker; Martha Hennessy, 62, of the New York Catholic Worker; Mark Colville, 55, of the Amistad Catholic Worker, New Haven, Connecticut; Patrick O’Neill, 61, of the Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker, Garner, North Carolina; Elizabeth McAlister, 78, Jonah House, Baltimore, MD; Fr. Steve Kelly SJ, 69, of the Bay Area, California; Carmen Trotta, 55, of the New York Catholic Worker.This is the latest of 100 similar actions around the world beginning in 1980 in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Contact: Plowshares, PO Box 3087 Washington DC 20010 www.kingsbayplowshares7.org 207-266-0919