Fr. Bill Bichsel’s ordeal: Cruel and inhuman punishment

John Dear SJ: Fr. Bill Bichsel’s ordeal: Cruel and inhuman punishment
June 1st, 2011

…since Obama’s inauguration, over 2,600 people have been arrested for similar acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against war and injustice, a stunning number given the total lack of media coverage on peace and justice movements. (Bill Quigley, in Common Dreams)

Last week’s Supreme Court ruling against California’s prison system as “cruel and inhuman punishment” was not a surprise — except in the sense that it was said publicly. Many of us who have experienced our criminal injustice system first hand know well how horrific it is. The court ruled that 35,000 California prisoners would have to be transferred or released because the system is so unjust.

The case sparked new discussion on overcrowded prisons (156,000 prisoners suffer in California prisons built for half that number), but it started years ago because of the atrocious lack of health care in California’s prisons. Many prisoners died needlessly over the years, usually because they were not given their medicine.

It’s not surprising either that our violent, imperial nation has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world. The most recent figure says we have over 2,292,000 people in prison. The so-called “war on drugs” and mandatory sentencing laws against nonviolent offenders are partly to blame for this huge prison population.

Prison is bad for one’s health, to put it mildly. During my last stint in the Las Vegas Jail for the Creech 14 action, I was stunned as the woman in charge of the main admitting area where a hundred of us sat in chains or handcuffs, yelled at us and threatened us. Then, she ordered an officer to beat up one prisoner, and he threw him against the wall. Nobody blinked.
NCR – June 10, 2011

Certainly one of the worst places I’ve ever been is the Robeson County Jail in North Carolina near the South Carolina border. Built for 75 people, it held 400 people when I was there for a few weeks in 1993 for our Plowshares action. One human rights report claimed that over 25 people had died in the five years previous to my stay. Most of them had been denied medicine, and were simply found dead the next morning.

I remember an elderly man serving a year for a nonviolent offense that Philip Berrigan and I had befriended. He was in the cell across the hall from us. We occasionally talked. He told us of his heart condition. We saw pills delivered to him every day. About a month after our transfer to another jail, we received word that he had died. He had argued with a jailer, so the jailer did not give him his medicine, and he died that night.

This week, many of us will gather in San Francisco to celebrate the release of Franciscan Fr. Louie Vitale after his six months in prison for protesting the “School of Americas,” our U.S. assassination and terrorism school at Fort Benning, Ga. Louie’s in fine fettle, as determined as ever to do what he can to resist our wars and weapons. We go to honor his indomitable spirit (See: www.paceebene.org).

Last week the Nuke Resister [added updated link, but it comes from Common Dreams here – LaLa] reported that since Obama’s inauguration, over 2,600 people have been arrested for similar acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against war and injustice, a stunning number given the total lack of media coverage on peace and justice movements. As our prisons continue to worsen, it’s amazing that activists are willing to risk imprisonment for social change.

At the moment, some friends are currently languishing in Tennessee and Georgia jails for civil disobedience at the Y-12 nuclear complex at Oak Ridge, Tenn. (See: www.jonahhouse.org). This past weekend, one friend suffered severe chest pains and was refused medical help. We are hoping and praying for her healing, and mobilizing folks to work on her behalf.

Read the rest here.

Also follow this blog for updates on those in prison because of their actions for peace and humanity.

Prison for Peacemakers in Tacoma, Washington

From Common Dreams, please also follow the blog http://disarmnowplowshares.wordpress.com/ for updates!

Two Grandmothers, Two Priests and a Nun Go onto a Nuclear Base

by Bill Quigley

Two grandmothers, two priests and a nun were sentenced in federal court in Tacoma, WA Monday March 28, 2011, for confronting hundreds of US nuclear weapons stockpiled for use by the deadly Trident submarines.

Sentenced were: Sr. Anne Montgomery, 83, a Sacred Heart sister from New York, who was ordered to serve 2 months in federal prison and 4 months electronic home confinement; Fr. Bill Bischel, 81, a Jesuit priest from Tacoma Washington, ordered to serve 3 months in prison and 6 months electronic home confinement; Susan Crane, 67, a member of the Jonah House community in Baltimore, Maryland, ordered to serve 15 months in federal prison; Lynne Greenwald, 60, a nurse from Bremerton Washington, ordered to serve 6 months in federal prison; and Fr. Steve Kelly, 60, a Jesuit priest from Oakland California, ordered to serve 15 months in federal prison. They were also ordered to pay $5300 each and serve an additional year in supervised probation. Bischel and Greenwald are active members of the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, a community resisting Trident nuclear weapons since 1977.

What did they do?

In the darkness of All Souls night, November 2, 2009, the five quietly cut through a chain link perimeter fence topped with barbed wire.

Carefully stepping through the hole in the fence, they entered into the Kitsap-Bangor Navy Base outside of Tacoma Washington – home to hundreds of nuclear warheads used in the eight Trident submarines based there.

Walking undetected through the heavily guarded base for hours, they covered nearly four miles before they came to where the nuclear missiles are stored.

The storage area was lit up by floodlights. Dozens of small gray bunkers – about the size of double car garages – were ringed by two more chain link fences topped with taut barbed wire.

USE OF DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED one sign boldly proclaimed. Another said WARNING RESTRICTED AREA and was decorated with skull and crossbones.

This was it – the heart of the US Trident Pacific nuclear weapon program. Nuclear weapons were stored in the bunkers inside the double fence line.

Wire cutters cut through these fences as well. There they unfurled hand painted banners which said “Disarm Now Plowshares: Trident Illegal and Immoral”, knelt to pray and waited to be arrested as dawn broke.

What were they protesting against?

Each of the eight Trident submarines has 24 nuclear missiles on it. The Ground Zero community explains that each of the 24 missiles on one submarine have multiple warheads in it and each warhead has thirty times the destructive power of the weapon used on Hiroshima. One fully loaded Trident submarine carries 192 warheads, each designed to explode with the power of 475 kilotons of TNT force. If detonated at ground level each would blow out a crater nearly half a mile wide and several hundred feet deep.

The bunker area where they were arrested is where the extra missiles are stored.

In December 2010, the five went on trial before a jury in federal court in Tacoma charged with felony damage to government property, conspiracy and trespass.

But before the trial began the court told the defendants what they could and could not do in court. Evidence of the medical consequences of nuclear weapons? Not allowed. Evidence that first strike nuclear weapons are illegal under US and international law? Not allowed. Evidence that there were massive international nonviolent action campaigns against Trident missiles where juries acquitted protestors? Not allowed. The defense of necessity where violating a small law, like breaking down a door, is allowed where the actions are taken to prevent a greater harm, like saving a child trapped in a burning building? Not allowed.

Most of the jurors appeared baffled when defendants admitted what they did in their opening statements. They remained baffled when questions about nuclear weapons were objected to by the prosecutor and excluded by the court. The court and the prosecutor repeatedly focused the jury on their position that this was a trial about a fence. Defendants tried valiantly to point to the elephant in the room – the hundreds of nuclear weapons.

Each defendant gave an opening and closing statement explaining, as much as they were allowed, why they risked deadly force to expose the US nuclear arsenal.

Sojourner Truth was discussed as were Rosa Parks, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

The resistance of the defendants was in the spirit of the civil rights movement, the labor movement, the suffragist movement, the abolition of slavery movement.

Crowds packed the courtroom each of the five days of trial. Each night there was a potluck and a discussion of nuclear weapons by medical, legal and international experts who came for the trial but who were largely muted by the prosecution and the court.

While the jury held out over the weekend, ultimately, the activists were convicted.

Hundreds packed the courthouse today supporting the defendants. The judge acknowledged the good work of each defendant, admitted that prison was unlikely to deter them from further actions, but said he was bound to uphold the law otherwise anarchy would break out and take down society.

The prosecutors asked the judge to send all the defendants to federal prison plus three years supervised probation plus pay over five thousand dollars. The specific jail time asked for ranged from 3 years for Fr. Kelly, 30 months for Susan Crane, Lynne Greenwald, 7 months in jail plus 7 months home confinement, Sr. Anne Montgomery and Fr. Bill Bichsel, 6 months jail plus 6 months home confinement.

Each of the defendants went right into prison from the courtroom as the spectators sang to them. Outside the courthouse, other activists pledged to confront the Trident in whatever way is necessary to stop the illegal and immoral weapons of mass destruction.

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Bill Quigley is part of the legal team supporting the defendants and was in Tacoma for the sentencing. You can learn more about the defendants at disarmnowplowshares.wordpress.com.


Bill Quigley is Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights and a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a Katrina survivor and has been active in human rights in Haiti for years with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. Contact Bill at quigley77 @ gmail.com