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Processing Into the Prison World

A short, heavyset woman with close-cropped brown hair answers my knock at the prison door. She is wearing the same style of gray uniform as the guard who picked me up at the gate.

“Come on in,” she says. “I’ll be right with you.”

The room is cluttered, the furnishings functional — a few old computers on metal desks and a row of gray file cabinets. In the corner is a fingerprint and mug-shot station.

“Did you bring anything with you?” she asks as she steps behind one of the desks.

“Not much,” I answer. “I just have my reading glasses and this Bible and some money to put in my Commissary account.” Still standing, she fans the pages of the Bible, examines my glasses, and puts both down on the desk.

“You can keep these,” she says. She gives me a receipt or the $200 money order. Your funds should be posted to your Commissary account in a few days.”

Then she steps from behind the desk and motions that I follow her into an adjacent room. “Let’s get this over with,” she says. The room is small. There is a single, freestanding shower stall with no curtain just outside a small cell with a barred door. In a corner there are shelves of folded prison clothing.

“I need you to take off all your clothes,” she orders. “Put them there.” She points to a metal folding chair beside the shower stall. She makes no move to leave.

I have been warned about this prison entry ritual, but now that the time has arrived I recoil at this order to remove my clothes. I take a deep breath and try to envision a shimmering shield of light draped about me as I unbutton and step out of the simple brown linen dress I borrowed for the occasion. I hesitate again before I remove my underwear to stand naked and vulnerable before this uniformed stranger.

Over the Line Again
Fort Benning, November 1997

My decision to return to Fort Benning in 1997 was bolstered by the 1996 Pentagon release of seven Spanish-language training manuals that had been used at the SOA until 1991. According to Defense Department summary of the manuals reported in The Washington Post and The New York Times, the SOA manuals instruct counterintelligence agents to use ‘fear, payment of counties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions and the use of truth serum” to recruit and control informants. The existence of these manuals was revealed through a Washington Post Freedom of Information Act request. Here was further documentation that Latin American officers and soldiers, trained at the SOA, were schooled in terrorist tactics used against civilians.

In 1997, instead of a mere eighty people gathered at the gates, there were more than two thousand. As the names of the murdered were called out, 601 people stepped forward. Two by two, women, men and children from five to 87 years old, crossed the line. We walked solemnly along the curving, tree-graced Fort Benning as golden leaves, bright in the afternoon sun, fell like a gentle blessing on our procession.

Inside Fort Benning we were fingerprinted and photographed. Soldiers in camouflage arrived to serve a hot meal to the first several hundred arrestees while we were kept waiting for processing within a fenced area of the military reservation. Was this Southern hospitality a public relations strategy, or just another calculated experiment of the SOA’s Psychological Operations component — an attempt to win “the hearts and minds” of the resistance? All of the 601 people arrested were issued a memorandum” signed by Thomas J. Cain, Colonel, Military Police, Command Provost Marshal, and valid through November 15, 1998:

By the authority of the Commanding General, I hereby order you to be ejected from the Fort Benning Military Reservation because of conduct detrimental to the performance of the military mission of this installation.

Only twenty-five people of the 601 who crossed the line were prosecuted. District Judge Robert “Maximum Bob” Elliot, an eighty-nine year old relic of civil rights-era repression, sentenced each defendant to six months prison and a $3,000 fine.

Inmate No. 90285-020
“Take off all your clothes.” The prison guard repeats the order. After inhaling deeply to calm my agitation, I obey.

“Now squat, spread your cheeks, and cough three times.”

What? My resistance rises again with a familiar visceral reaction. But I keep my silence as I surrender to the indignity.

“You can get dressed now,” the guard says flatly. I stand and she hands me my first prison uniform — a khaki jumpsuit a few sizes too large with cuffs that drag over purple canvas slip-on shoes, a pair of white panties and a polyester bra.

“That was not as bad as I thought it would be,” I venture after I have dressed in my prison attire. Her brusque manner seems to soften slightly.

“If you’ve got to be in prison, Alderson is the best place to be,” she says. “You girls don’t much like me when you first get here. But I see you coming, and I see you going,” she adds, meeting
my gaze. “You’ll be smiling at me when you leave.”

I collect my reading glasses and the Bible from the desk and then sit for my prison photo. At the fingerprint station I allow the guard to take my hand. One at a time she rolls my fingers into an ink pad and then presses each finger onto a sheet of paper as part of my prison file. She then gives me a clipboard with more papers.

“Fill these out,” she says flatly, handing me a ballpoint pen. As she leaves the room she turns to explain, “We need to know who to
contact in case of your injury or death.”

Injury? Death? I hadn’t even considered those possibilities. I shudder at the thought.

I open the paperback Bible — a gift from my sister Eileen. She has carefully inscribed the phone numbers and addresses of family and many of my friends in small print along the inside margins. I picked up this tip from Mary Trotochaud, a previous SOA prisoner of conscience who spent nearly a year at Alderson. My memory for phone numbers and addresses would have been quite unreliable in these stressful circumstances. When I complete the forms, and with no thought of the possible consequences, I slip the governmentissue ballpoint pen into the breast pocket of my jumpsuit. I return the clipboard and forms to the guard. She doesn’t ask for the pen, I don’t offer it to her.

She then gives me a red plastic ID card. It’s printed with “US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons” above the number 90285-020 in large type beside my photo. I look like a hardened prisoner already, with a hint of a sneer on my face. The word INMATE and a barcode are printed below my misspelled name (they added an 'i' to Clare). I point out the error to the guard.

“That is what your paperwork shows,” she answers. “I can’t change that.” Then she warns, “All your mail must be addressed with your ‘commit’ name, or you may not get it.” The error has become official.




©Clare Hanrahan
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