Letter from a Drone Protester’s Jail
by Brian Terrell
Greetings from the Federal Prison Camp in Yankton, South Dakota! As of this writing, I am two months into a six month sentence imposed due to my protest of war crimes committed by remote control from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri against the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Betsy accompanied me here to Yankton on November 29, and that evening the Emmaus House Catholic Worker community, Beth Preheim, Michael Sprong and Dagmar Hoxie, hosted an evening of music, good food and good company to see me off. Activists from around the Midwest attended, including some sisters from the Benedictine monastery here.
In the morning after a great breakfast and Gospel prayer, Betsy and Dagmar and Michael, along with Renee Espeland and Elton Davis, Catholic Workers from Des Moines, and Jerry Ebner, a Catholic Worker from Omaha, walked a “last mile” with me to the gate of the prison where I expect to remain until the end of May.
An article in that morning’s Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan, “Terrell: American Drone Strikes Must Stop”, based on an interview from the previous day, was widely read by prisoners and keepers alike and made for an interesting reception. It helped to have a sympathetic introduction to the local paper with a clear explanation of the issues that led me to Whiteman and then to Yankton.
While I have been in prison camps like this on several occasions before, most of my experience of incarceration has been in county and city jails, crowded, dank, airless, filthy, windowless boxes of concrete and steel, with hideous acoustics and where weeks can go by without a breath of fresh air. Yankton is not like this.
This prison camp occupies the derelict shell of Yankton College founded in 1881. For more than a century Yankton College operated under the motto, “Christ for the world.” A federal prison since 1988, this place retains the appearance of the small, private, liberal arts college in a small Mid-American town that it once was. Most buildings are on the historical register and still bear the names of alumni and benefactors. The class of 1938 is still memorialized in a marble tablet set in the sidewalk that hundreds of convicts walk each day.
The well kept grounds are especially lovely in a snowfall and all reports are that in the spring and summer the foliage and flowers are splendid. This bucolic illusion is shattered every few minutes by the rude squawk and squeal of the public address system barking out orders and summoning inmates by name and number.
In its present incarnation, the “campus” is demographically far more diverse and colorful than the student body of even the most progressive of small institutions of higher learning. On the other hand, there is no church college so puritanical and rigid as to impose a dress code austere as this prison’s, with its uniform and unrelieved khaki, olive drab and grey. I do not know if the old Yankton College was co-ed, but it definitely is not now.
My fellow prisoners are all convicted of nonviolent federal crimes, mostly drug related and most based on the most tenuous of conspiracy allegations. Most are here for many years, many for decades. Few have been found guilty at trial by judge or jury as most plead out to avoid even harsher penalties. These are victims of the “war on drugs”, in reality merely one front in the U.S. Empire global war against the poor.
Michelle Alexander’s bestselling book, The New Jim Crow, effectively indicts America’s penchant for mass-incarceration as the successor to slavery and “separate but equal”, the latest tactic of a racist society to maintain white dominance.
Many of the other middle aged white men here are “white collar” criminals, not more guilty though than their peers who are outside and making out like bandits in business and finance. A corrupt and morally bankrupt political and economic system requires scapegoats, a ritual bleeding as it were, to maintain a façade of rectitude and self-correction.
At Christmas, especially, the cost of this senseless incarceration on these men and their loved ones was painfully apparent.
I am an anomaly here, and not only as the lone antiwar protestor. My own unlawful detention will only be for a few months compared to the years of the others. As a petty offender, I will not be followed when I leave by a felon’s record or by years more invasive supervised release. In many ways, I am a visitor in this place.
There is a lot to do though to pass the time. For the first time in years, I am on a payroll, 11 cents an hour, sweeping and mopping two flights of stairs twice a day. Three afternoons a week I take an aerobics class and in all but the worst weather, I walk for an hour or two around a quarter mile track. It is a blessing and a pleasure that I cannot take for granted, walking under the trees and the evening sky. The ubiquitous surveillance cameras cannot spoil this.
The track is where I can find something close to solitude, especially when the temperature is in the single digits and the snow is blowing. The track also offers the rare opportunity for two people to have an almost private conversation.
Since I am over 50 years old, I am privileged to occupy a lower bunk in a cinderblock warehouse with 60 some inmates to a room. Most inmates are generous and tolerant and try hard to accommodate one another in tight quarters. Still, living with 60 guys is living with 60 guys.
The library is heavy on crime novels but with a selection of classics. With books and magazines from the outside and a subscription to The New York Times, I have plenty to read.
Like the old coal miners’ company store, the commissary stocks a limited selection sold at inflated prices to a captive clientele. My biggest expense is telephone time at a predatory rate of 25 cents a minute.
Stamps are rationed to 20 per week and can’t be sent from outside, and so I cannot begin to reply to the hundreds of cards and letters I’ve received. I am deeply grateful for each message of solidarity and friendship, of each promise of prayers.
Most encouraging is the daily word that comes in the mail of growing awareness, outrage and resistance to drone warfare. Friends recount for me a movement of protest growing in numbers and creativity in communities around the country and abroad.
In the weeks before my “surrender” to authorities, I met with activists in Minnesota, Illinois, New York, Missouri and Iowa, speaking in churches, halls, and taverns and gave countless interviews to the media. This all came to an abrupt halt as the prison doors shut behind me.
With so much going on, it is hard to be caged up here on the frozen prairie, a discipline that chafes. I confess to feeling envious of those doing the work and at times feel as though I have abandoned them. I find some consolation deep in the old Catholic tradition that holds that one contributes to the good works of others through prayer and by “offering up” deprivations and humiliations for their intentions. From this penitential place, I have nothing more to give. I am involuntarily and against my nature consigned to a “little way” of contemplation for this little while.
My thanks to all who help spread the word and who give material, emotional and spiritual support for me here in prison and for the folks on the farm in Maloy. We are well provided for.
Your loving prisoner 06125-026,
Write to Brian:
BRIAN TERRELL 06125-026
FEDERAL PRISON CAMP
P.O. BOX 700
YANKTON, SD 57078