"It was Christmas in prison and the food was real good,
we had turkey and pistols carved out of wood."
- John Prine
I spent at least two Christmases in jail. One was in the federal prison just outside of El Paso, called La Tuna. One was in the county jail in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
La Tuna is white, at least the front facade. It used to be a monastery. It is located just this side of the Rio Grande and Juarez, Mexico. The last time I saw it, the Pottawattamie County jail was a high-rise on the south side of Broadway Avenue, just this side of Omaha.
I was at La Tuna in 1986, doing six months for trespass at Offutt Air Force Base, trying to stop the United States from destroying the world with nuclear weapons and itself by spending billions on weapons rather than the poor. I was in CB in 1988 for the same thing.
Christmas in prison in west Texas is dry and warm. For Christmas in jail in Council Bluffs there is ice on the windows in the shape of whatever it is outside you miss the most.
My window was frosted in the outline of a little boy holding a Big Bird toy.
I was crazy in prison in Texas, having come there by way of Douglas County Correctional Center in Omaha, Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago, Terre Haute Penitentiary in Indiana, Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, El Reno Penitentiary in Oklahoma and the Midland city jail in Texas, home of George W. Bush, I guess, not the jail.
At La Tuna we slept in a large open dorm. I remember having a top bunk at the time and sitting there waiting for some guards to come down the line handing out bags of candy.
But I was even more crazy in Council Bluffs in 1988 because I missed my new son. I cried and cried and the judge let a psychiatrist see me and put me on medication, Xanax, three times a day. I seemed to stop taking corners at a ninety-degree angle, my lip was no longer numb, I think I smiled, and I stopped staring into mid-air. And again a guard shoved a handful of candy into my hands on Christmas Day.
No, there's nothing wrong with the guards giving out candy on Christmas. They meant well and I think the guy in Council Bluffs might even have bought the goodies himself. But it is still very hard to describe or imagine what it is like being locked up on Christmas. Nobody on the outside thinks about prisoners much, ever, at Christmas: only the families. Let's just say, the candy does not help.
The search light in the big yard swings round with the gun,
and spotlights the snowflakes like dust in the sun.
I also remember going into the shower at Pott. County on Christmas Day, turning the spray on high and silently crying, screaming without making a sound, my fists clenched, my face red and bursting, bending, half-squatting, missing my two-year-old boy.
And so, you will excuse me if I look around me and see "Christians" marching to church past my window this morning wearing their American flags on their sleeves and wonder who is really crazy after all.
On Dec. 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, there will be another protest at Offutt AFB. Frank Cordaro of Des Moines and others will be there. Some will cross the line, trespass, be arrested and in two or three or four months be summoned to federal court in Omaha and sent to Douglas County Correctional Center, then maybe on to some other prison. They will go through this because they feel as Christians they must oppose the United States government and its people on their crusade to wipe out who knows what.
After the crucifixion of Jesus there were some who understood, who thought about, why did this happen. They became the Frank Cordaro's and Helen Woodson's of the world. And there were some who really did not get it. These people walk by my window each Sunday. Twice.
These folks, these protesters, are Christians. These people walking by my window are something else.
On Nov. 25th Helen Woodson was sentenced to fifty-one months in prison for opposing the United States government and people. This after she had already served twenty years in federal prison for various protests, one time taking a jackhammer to a nuclear missile silo in a Missouri farmer's field. This Helen Woodson, whom I have never met, is a Christian. These people walking past my window would see her at Golgatha and toss sticks at the foot of her cross for a higher fire.
In 1988 my wife and son and I were on the run from the FBI for a couple of weeks. The All-American getaway. I was supposed to be in federal court for an Offutt sentencing and instead showed up at the Cathedral in Omaha, asking the bishop to grant me sanctuary, trying to get him to take a stand against killing with nuclear weapons. The bishop said no way, he was stickin' with the USA. I slipped out of the Cathedral past the FBI and we hit the road for a short run.
I recall reading "Bumbo" to my son in a motel in Blair, Nebraska while we were deciding if we should head to Canada or back to Omaha. Just a short time later, sitting in the Douglas County holding tank, with the obscene jail cacophony echoing around, I remembered reading to him.
Later my wife sent a photo of my son at her parent's farm in South Dakota, holding the little blue and yellow Big Bird. I kept that photo in my cell. It became my icon.
At the prison where Martha Stewart recently checked in resides Carol Gilbert, a Dominican nun who is serving thirty-three months for beating on a nuclear missile silo in Colorado. Gilbert is a Christian. These people driving past my house this morning on their way to church are ants to a picnic, with roughly the same amount of knowledge about who they are and where they are headed. Thinking the feast is meant for them, when they are only pests.
I'm sorry, but sometimes it's just no use sugar-coating. And it is really no use this morning in the United States of George W. Bush. Not even a fistful of Almond Joy bars can make this go down.
The folks who cross the line at Offutt on Dec. 28th will go to prison without almost anyone knowing about it. Helen Woodson will serve her four more years, eating breakfast, lunch and supper with the poor of the land, and her name will never cross the lips of an American disc jockey. Nor will the name Carol Gilbert.
But these are the Christians. I just wanted to point that out, in case things like that are important to you.
If you are going to be a Christian, it will cost you. That's what happened to Jesus on the cross. He fought the government; he opposed the church. He got right in their face and he said you guys really, really suck. He said don't kill, give your riches to the poor, so they stripped him of his clothes and killed him.
Just in case things like that are important to us, that's also what we will need to do.
It's Christmas in prison, there'll be music tonight.
I'll prob'ly get homesick, I love you, good night.
Mike Palecek (http://www.iowapeace.com/) is an Iowa author, former federal prisoner for peace, and newspaper reporter. He was the Iowa Democratic Party nominee for the U.S. House, 5th District, 2000 election.