Conscience & Consequence
On The Road to Prison
But prison is prison, as Alderson proves, even if
there are no walls and few bars.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, The Alderson Story: My Life as a Political Prisoner
Crossing the Threshold
I am singing for courage as I walk toward the entrance gate to
Alderson Federal Prison. My friends Charlie, Kathleen, and Willie
are singing with me. “We’re gonna keep on walking forward, never
turning back.” The familiar refrain bolsters my courage to pick up
the phone at the gate, dial 313, and announce myself:
“I’m Clare Hanrahan — I’m here to surrender.”
It’s just a few minutes before 2 p.m., my deadline to report, as ordered by the Bureau of Prisons. A curt male voice on the other end of the phone replies, “Wait there. I’ll send an officer to pick you up.” A long ten minutes pass before a young guard arrives in a small white pickup truck. He motions to me to hop in beside him. I’m surprised that he does not get out of the truck to handcuff me. I turn toward the parking lot and wave goodbye to my friends before I climb into the front seat. The guard says little or nothing as he drives through the open gate of the prison camp. There is no razor wire, not even a perimeter fence.
I feel a wave of relief as we pass beside a park-like green graced with ancient trees. Colorful zinnias and other summer flowers brighten small gardens outside brick dormitories flanking a wide lawn. This doesn’t even look like a prison, I think.
“The flowers are really beautiful,” I say to the guard.
“Yeah, they are nice. The girls on landscape crew plant them.” He speaks slowly with what seems to be a local accent. He pulls up and stops in a parking space at the concrete dock in back of the Administration building. The door is marked “Receiving and Discharge” (R&D).
“This is your first stop,” he says.
Fort Benning, November 17, 1990
The first time I stepped over the line into the U.S. Army infantry center at Fort Benning, Georgia, I felt a strong sense of foreboding. Inside the boundary line I fell to the ground in symbolic death. An arresting officer pulled me to my feet. I recoiled from his touch as he pressed me to the hood of the police car and began to pat-search my body.
“Spread your arms and legs,” he ordered as he pushed me back down over the hood and secured the plastic handcuffs.
An almost instinctive fury arose in me, surprising me with its strength. Breathing slowly to calm myself, I remained limp as several uniformed men carried me to the waiting police van. I was singing the old Civil Rights anthem, We Shall Overcome.
My neighbor Kathleen McLoughlin and I were two among seven persons who were arrested that day for crossing the white line painted across the entrance road at Fort Benning, the site of the US Army School of the Americas (SOA). The 1990 vigil, called by the Atlanta Committee on Latin America, drew about eighty activists from throughout the southeastern U.S. We planted a rose bush at the gate in memory of the six Jesuit priests, their coworker and her teenage daughter who were dragged from their beds at the University of Central America in San Salvador in 1989 and murdered. The soldiers were from the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion, and many were graduates of the SOA.
Inside Fort Benning I was interrogated by camouflage-clad soldiers and men in civilian clothes. Within a few hours of our filmed arrests the military authorities released us with an “order of exclusion” valid until November 18, 1993:
You are hereby excluded from the Fort Benning
Military Reservation and all lands under the jurisdiction of Fort Benning, effective immediately,
because of conduct detrimental to the performance
of the military mission of this installation on November 17, 1990.
U.S. Army Major General Carmen J. Cavezza