I've been going to places recently that I'd normally avoid. Hard, clinical and brightly lit places for humans who are widely viewed as "less-than." One is for men without documents whose detention results in massive profits for the corporation that controls them. The other is for women who have simply run afoul of the justice system. Both are in rural areas, the former in poverty-stricken Stewart County, Georgia, the latter in fast-growing Lee County, Alabama, home of Auburn University.
I first saw the for-profit Stewart Detention Center last November during a rally, march and vigil that coincides with the annual School of the Americas Watch protest. Taking advantage of the huge influx of SOAW activists into SW Georgia, religious and civil liberties groups have steadily built awareness of this insulting facility and the moral implications of supplying humans to a profit-driven enterprise. As a result, this crowd was more than double (270+) last year's turnout.
We rallied at the gates of Stewart, owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private jailer in the world, and were greeted by scores of Georgia State troopers, County Sheriff's deputies and a sketchy-looking group wearing the colors of CCA. Speakers included Emily Guzman whose husband, Pedro, was locked up (improperly) last year. He described conditions "made to break your soul." By now, civil disobedience has become a tradition at these gates, and veteran prisoner of conscience,Chris Spicer, crossed the line to be arrested. After almost everyone had left to walk back into Lumpkin, Anton Flores, the organizer of the day's events, was arrested in a cheesy effort at intimidation after he reached across the gate to retrieve Chris' jacket. He was later released because of the clear video evidence gathered by the media. The local Police Department, by contrast, maintained a professional and neutral posture.
Theresa Cusimano made the decision to offer herself up to the state when she realized that 2011 would be the first time in 21 years that no one became a prisoner of concience in protest of our training a never-ending supply of thugs to kill and tyrannize humans in Latin America. Theresa kept the tradition of exemplary sacrifice alive by scaling a ladder to cross over into Federal land.
As a resident of Columbus, GA, it's hard to imagine being sentenced to 6 months for going into what is normally an open Army post that employs thousands of civilians and hosts thousands of proud parents for various graduations and ceremonies every year. But when SOAW comes to town, nothing is normal, including everyones' civil liberties. The senseless roadblocks around town have been discontinued, and the city's insistence (affirmed by the local Federal Judge Clay Land) on "wanding" every single one of tens of thousands of pacifists for dangerous metal weapons was overturned on appeal. Still, in order for these deeply devout and dissident Christians (who are heavily Catholic) to carry the preeminent symbol of their faith to the Solemn Processional, the Cross must (by order of the CPD) conform to miniature dimensions to prevent their use as weapons in one of the many street battles we've never had. No U.S. flags (on poles) for the same reason. The irony is that Columbus is a lavishly religious and patriotic town with a church on every other corner. However, most of the flags fly over car lots as a testament to the owners' love of country/customers. And the churches remain a safe harbor for war-mongering, gay-hating, misogynistic bigots who are confident of redemption and "prosperity." Our local Federal Magistrates have a tradition of handing down the maximum six-month sentence for misdemenor trespassing on Federal land. This is in keeping with the community's overwhelming belief in the near sanctity of the military. The protestors are aware of this, so it takes a high level of committment to proceed with surrendering to their conscience. This is how Theresa Cusimano found herself in the unheated confines of the W.S. "Buck" Jones Detention Center among those struggling with meth addiction, mental illness and other women who may fairly be described as being 'poor in spirit'.
Anton Flores-Maisonet, a former professor at LaGrange (Ga) College, founded the intentional communty Alterna to "incarnate the Gospel" in daily life. To my non-theistic ears this sounds a bit like "walking the walk" as well as "walking the talk." Instead of hell-fire to come it seems more about facing up to, taking responsibilty for, and confronting the hell we're creating here and now. He's also committed to non-violence to the degree that he is unafraid to deal personally with the fear and hatred of rednecks confused by his work, indeed, he seems to welcome the opportunity to inform and soothe these troubled folks. One of the central metaphors of his ministry is that of Jesus riding a donkey on a borrowed blanket into Jerusalem (some say in mockery of authority). Sometimes, Anton says, Christ visits us in the guise of the stranger, the poor and cast out.
The work of Alterna includes operating a guesthouse,'El Refugio', in Lumpkin for the visiting families of detainees. Meals and lodging are free. These families are struggling with the loss of a provider and the cost of gas and food can be a huge strain on a stressed budget.Their loved ones are rounded up from several southeastern states, with a large number from the Carolinas. They are then processed into the arms of CCA, which, according to the posters in its waiting room, saves taxpayers $11 a day per human. On my last visit, I met a pair of Assembly of God ministers originally from Guatemala, the country of origin for a plurality of detainees. Over lunch at El Refugio they explained that the detained congregant they were visiting "knew it was against the law to be here, but they have no choice, they must feed their family."
Alterna has teamed up with other faith communities from Atlanta 3 hours to the north to Montezuma and Americus closer in. Mennonites from both areas are regulars in Lumpkin and various "mainline" chuches and university students also volunteer. Nearby is the historic Koinonia Farm, an intentional community founded in the '50s as a biracial Christian commune by a White Baptist preacher. They survived Klan terror, constructing homes for area Blacks and inspired Habitat for Humanity. This region has a harsh history of repression and struggle and the placement of a for-profit prison here has started a new cycle of an old story.
The guards at CCA are overwhelmingly Black and start at $11.15/hour. This is badly needed employment in one of the poorest counties in Georgia. Almost none of them speak Spanish, but they seem an amiable enough bunch. Instead of employing locals in the kitchen, detainees are paid $1/day. Like most jails, the detainees and their families are ripped off for the very basic necessities, especially phone calls since kick-backs are typically involved in phone service contracts. The County Prison Farm is adjacent to the Detention Center and it appears that these operations have some overlap, the nature of which is not yet clear. In the larger community, we've heard of racial tensions that have been simmering a while and another community group, the Southern Anti-Racism Network (SARN), is preparing to make inquiries.
Alterna coordinates the volunteers who visit the center, responding to requests from families and a range of attorneys, civil and human rights groups and churches. The first visit I made was in response to an ACLU query about a Jamaican-born man who had come over at the age of five. He was due to be deported within days. Over 98% of all detainees brought before the Immigration Court at Stewart are deported. Lost or misfiled papers, incompetent bureaucrats or corrupt officials in foreign lands all contribute to supply this "resource" to a corrupting and corrosive organization. But nothing has contributed more to the bottom line of CCA than mandatory sentencing and the stupid-vicious immigration laws passed by tea-powered state legislatures. That's the way it's supposed to work, CCA contributes to those nativist candidates who promise to provide "product" to the company. CCA's gain is the agricultural sector's loss as crops rot in the field despite returning to the post-Civil War practice of jails renting out humans to plantation owners.
I first met Theresa Cusimano and her family at a reception/meeting sponsored by SARN in Columbus, the day before her appearance in Federal Court. She explained that she had not planned to become a prisoner of concience, but in November 2011 no one had made the decision to "go over" for the first time since the inception of this long running protest. So Theresa decided to give up her physical freedom to keep the 'circle unbroken'. To this date almost 300 humans have served (with distinction) a combined 101 years of their lives in opposition to our nation enabling murder and repression on a massive scale. The six-month sentence would seem mandatory because that's what everyone gets, unless frail health exempts them. Starting with the notorious segregationist Judge Robert Elliot down to the mild-mannered Steven Hyles and Marlon Faircloth, the judiciary has thoroughly reflected the absolutist and militarist sentiments of this "Army town."
The Cusimanos are a close and devout Catholic family. Theresa, like her father, is an attorney. He's now retired and he and her mother live in Florida. They were clearly relieved to know that SARN would coordinate weekly visits as long as Theresa was in this area. So far there's no reason to think she won't complete her sentence in Opelika, which is a very good thing. Between SARN and the good Sisters of St. Joseph Parish down in Ft. Mitchell (Al) the Cusimanos have an extended family in two states.
The guards I have interacted with in Lee County have been courteous and professional, even allowing me to visit when I was late for the appointed time. Theresa has lost over ten pounds since she entered the facility, and she was pretty slim to begin with. They provide Ensure to her to help maintain her weight. She's always seems in good spirits during the visits, indeed she radiates a feeling of wholeness in and out of jail.
I have a strong feeling that the women around Theresa are better off for it. Her open spirit and acceptance has to be an asset to those that may experience little in the way of compassion or understanding. Although a local Methodist church manages the library, books are in short supply, and Theresa's supporters have already made a difference in that regard. Many of the women are struggling with substance abuse, especially meth - the bane of White rural America. Two weeks ago a woman hung herself in Theresa's module, a thoroughly upsetting occurence for everyone and another reminder of the suffering endured every day in Prison Nation.
So this diary has little to nothing to do with "atheism" per se. In fact I prefer the term "non-theistic" as a Baptist-turned-Buddhist, since the "a" prefix could be construed as "against", which I ain't. And it's not about "saints" either, it's about humans expressing their humanity in religious as well as secular terms, in the present moment, without a thought of reward, and with a strong preference for the poor and downtrodden. These humans still my anger at the fanatics, restore my faith in other bipeds and give me hope that we will allow ourselves to continue on this evolutionary path. Hell, I just thought it would be a great title.
When I hear of some atrocious statement or action attributed to someone or some organization whose beliefs seem to exclude the possibility of conciliation or even coexistence, my 'lizard' brain immediately wants me to lash out at Islam, Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism. (Zoroastrians are not exempt, I just don't hear much crazy Zoroastrian shit.) In those moments, I see the perpetrators as the embodiment of whatever tradition they claim to be defending.
I have to remind myself that religion, in these atrocious manifestations, is being used, and its' followers manipulated, by some cynical and self-seeking leaders for political and/or financial purposes. However, the domesticated part of my brain is fascinated with the variety of religious traditions (and experiences), and very, very grateful for those whose faith compels them to care for "the least of these" and whose compassion extends to the "stranger" among us.