Experience and Reflections in Hennepin County Jail
June 26-28, 2012
By David Harris
Editor’s Note: David was arrested at Alliant Tech Systems—a manufacturer of weapons of mass destruction—before they moved their corporate headquarters from Eden Prairie MN to Arlington VA to be closer to Washington DC. David is part of the Alliant Action, a group that protested weekly at Alliant Tech Systems for many years. More information about Alliant Action is included below.
I write this on the day I’m released, while the memories are still fresh. It’s the soonest I’m able, because I was not allowed to bring pencil or paper into the jail. Since I spent the first 24 hours in a locked cell and had already assured the admitting medical officer, a physician’s assistant or nurse, that I was no suicide risk, there was no clear reason for the prohibition as far as I could tell except for the common impersonal regulations of a bureaucratic system or a meaner intent to establish total control of the prisoner. My guess is that it stems from some official’s belief that any injuries due to physical violence pose a greater legal risk to the institution than trauma to the mind. Sadly, that is probably true.
In any event, I was made to turn in all my clothes, shoes, personal items (toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, soap), wallet containing money and driver’s license with photo-identification but no credit cards (left home deliberately). I was casually patted down and given a one-piece blue-gray jumpsuit, socks, and canvas sneakers to wear plus two light blankets, one sheet, and one pillowcase, but no pillow.
I then received a sheet of paper itemizing my surrendered possessions. I had also brought my personal Bible, which I had to turn in as well, and was then allowed to take literature from the prison collection, which consisted of a few paperback novels, some magazines, and several Bibles from the Gideon’s Society, some of which were in Spanish. I chose a Gideon’s Bible, although I didn’t appreciate the included recommendations for appropriate reading, plus the June issue of the Atlantic magazine. No newspapers are available and prisoners are not allowed to bring in radios or other electronic gear.
Of the 12 ATK Vigil protesters, Steve Clemens and I had chosen jail time rather than community service and a small fine as a sentence. As a recidivist, Steve received a 10-day sentence (probably shortened to 7 or 8 days if he behaves himself). The verdict of “guilty” by a jury of 6 at our trial last November, was mitigated somewhat by Judge Abrams’ sentence, as he clearly would have preferred that we all accepted community service.Before pronouncing my sentence, he actually stated he wished I would accept community service, making me think he regretted the jury’s verdict. On the other hand, he sent the jury out before making this “offer”, which I thought was unfortunate, as they should, in my opinion, be made to face the reality of the effects of their verdict.
For me, the remaining teaching value of this trial, not published widely by the press, will lie in writing a final review for my local newspaper, speaking out wherever possible, and asking Judge Abrams for a chance to meet privately with him to discuss the stultifying effect of not allowing more than a narrow interpretation of this case as only one involving Minnesota property law, of refusing admission of violations of international treaty law as applicable to this case under Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.
My prison experience lends further weight to my distaste for this narrow way of interpreting law. In the Hennepin County jail, inappropriately nicknamed “workhouse” by many, the process of specialization of duties brings about failures and mistakes in communication exemplified by the failure to provide me with the daily prostate and inhalation medications which I need to avoid urinary and nasal obstructive symptoms.
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The medical officer, at the time of discharge, was dismayed to discover this omission and apologized. I believe he is conscientiously trying to carry out his responsibilities, but somehow others overlooked the message. More broadly, I think the underfunded and under-coordinated Minnesota prison system, probably worse in other states, guarantees that the prison will never be more than a holding pen, which promotes indifference to the needs of prisoners and, even worse, a complete loss of the concepts of rehabilitation and restorative justice.
As a retired MD and general surgeon, I am particularly aware of the downsides to the health profession when overspecialization, where as has been said doctors know more and more about less and less, has led to a distancing from the primary subject of all health care, the patient. Any improved communication by electronic record keeping has been more-than outweighed by the ever-growing separation of the care giver from the patient. Human contact – touch, listening, seeing, smelling, once considered fundamental to good diagnosis and treatment is being replaced by machines which monitor and picture and treat and record. When we treat images and numbers, rather than the human being, inevitably the process dehumanizes both the therapist and the patient, to the detriment of both.
The same loss of esteem for the whole human being seems to me to be progressing all across American society. Overspecialization in the legal profession leads to juries who do not know the consequences of their verdicts and judges who do not know the results of their sentencing, until the failure of rehabilitation leads to the inevitable return of the perpetrator. It produces lawyers who value victory over justice and rationalize their victory as evidence of their rectitude. It produces police and sheriffs, feared rather than admired, who measure their success by arrests and imprisonments, rather than by promotion of safety and prevention of violence, and who engage in an endless and ultimately fruitless arms race against the criminals they engender, much like the so-called terrorists in foreign lands who multiply while we kill them indiscriminately, soldiers and civilians alike.
This last reflection leads naturally back to the reason for our nonviolent protests against the war makers, be they public or private, whose specialties are producing, selling and using weapons which wound and kill other human beings. The national suicide which we are committing by using the violence of war abroad or of law enforcement at home can only be understood as a broad cultural psychopathology which promotes short term “victories” for the wealthy few over long term defeat for all of us.
The same kinds of schizophrenic separation of functions in education leads to a system that measures success by test scores without paying attention to what kinds of citizens we are producing. Children grow up in an uncaring world and are taught quantity without quality. Beauty, music and the arts, are devalued and winning without regard for means is stressed early in athletic and academic achievement as a prelude to winning after graduation in the highly competitive “real world,” so defined.
In organized religion, the same confusion leads to churches, synagogues, and mosques who support war and violence, some who rationalize capital punishment just as others rationalize abortion, and all too many who view the victims of poverty and racial and gender and age discrimination (against young and old) as lazy and undeserving of compassion and charity, while they say nothing about the wealthy corporations who value profit above all and whose highly specialized lobbyists work endlessly to game the political system at the expense of the ever diminishing wealth and power of the middle class and the lives and health of the poor. Priests, ministers and rabbis who entered seminary with simple ideals – love, justice, truth – soon accept a lesser role of treading water against a tide of dehumanization, and lose hope in a better world this side of heaven.
After the first 24 hours or so locked in my little cell, sleeping, reading, eating, excreting, and pacing back and forth across the 8-foot floor hundreds upon hundreds of times, time seems to slow down incredibly. I felt as if I had been there for at least 3 days. I deliberately said hello or thanks to everyone who passed by, the guards who rarely acknowledged my presence and the “trustees” who slid each tray of food under the locked gate and who usually responded with a brief greeting.
Just one, that first day, stopped to talk. He was a native American from the White Earth Reservation (Ojibweh), about 50 years old, with the improbable name of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whiteleaves. As I usually find when I meet people, we had much in common, having both lived in Arizona, and I having worked briefly at the Indian Hospital in Gallup, New Mexico, while he had received extensive surgical care for multiple injuries sustained in a fight including a partly paralyzed left arm and skull fractures. He told me of a physician who said he must choose between orthodox (my word) medicine and traditional (herbal, etc.) medicine, but who has done little to relieve his continuous pain except advise him to live with it. He is now going to see a neurosurgeon at HCMC (Hennepin Cty, Med. Ctr.), and I encouraged him that it’s a high quality place where he may yet get some help.
The second 24 hours were easier for me. The guards still passed by, but most others were more cordial. I was allowed to go out and take a shower, which was a delicious treat. Another inmate stopped by to chat, this time a young, dark skinned woman whose accent sounded Indian or Pakistani. One of the guards took mercy on me and found me a pillow. I passed a much more comfortable night, and the loud evening chatter of one young man practicing rap music while another kept yelling, “Shut the fuck up”, and a third tried to outshout both with prolonged wolf howls, failed to bother me as much as the first night.
Recognizing the night and the dawn added to the sense of reality, as the tall glazed window across the hall from my cell door faded into the dark and reappeared with the light. The slow passage of time continued to amaze me. I think Henry David Thoreau may have had a more realistic insight than the great physicist, Stephen Hawking, author of “A Brief History of Time”, when he wrote, “Time is but the stream in which I go a-fishing.” When you’re not catching many fish, it can seem awfully slow.
At any rate (speaking of time), “It was evening and it was morning, the second day.” I had read all of Genesis, the Psalms, the Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, finding particular delight in some ideas that seemed to apply to my current situation, e.g.:
Psalm 46:9&10: He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
he burns the chariots with fire!
Be still and know that I am God,
Psalm 51:10: Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
16&17: For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.
Psalm 90: 4; For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past
or as a watch in the night.
10: The years of our life are three score and ten, or even by reason of
strength four score; yet their span is but toil and trouble; and they are soon gone,
and we fly away.
Psalm 100: 1-5: Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands ….
(We used to read one psalm each morning in public school before it
became taboo. We boys used to choose this one because it is
so short. Psalm 117 was even more popular for the same reason.)
Psalm 104: O Lord, how manifold are they works! (This is a long and beautiful
hymn to nature and creation. I can imagine Spinoza enjoying it.)
Psalm 121: I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.
My help cometh from the Lord which made heaven and earth. …..
(This whole little psalm is one of my all-time favorites. I wonder if
The theme song of “The Sound of Music” wasn’t derived from this.)
Psalm 136: O give thanks unto the Lord, for his mercy endureth forever …
[This psalm is a song in Hebrew usually sung during the celebration
of Pesach (Passover)].
Psalm 137: By the waters of Babylon… (wonderful song as a Negro spiritual).
Proverbs 1:7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom …
Proverbs 3:13&15 Happy is the man who finds wisdom …
She is more precious than jewels (This proverb and the next one present
the female as Goddess of wisdom. It goes on to list some
ethical concepts much like The Golden Rule.)
Proverb 6:6 “Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways and be wise …”
(Besides this charming analogy, this proverb, like the next one, contains
some misogynistic verses that contrast badly with Proverbs 3 & 4)
Proverb 11:29 “He who troubles his household will inherit the wind.”
(This became the title of the play about the famous Scopes Trial in Tennesee with William Jennings Brian and Clarence Darrow and the brutally funny NY reporter H.L.Mencken)
Proverb 15:1 “A soft answer turneth away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
(I wish the young men screeching at each other behind bars in the Plymouth jail knew this one.)
Proverb 23:13&14 (I list these only to condemn them as the cause of violence in
a child with a brutal father) “Do not withhold discipline from a child. If
you beat him with a rod he will not die. If you beat him with the rod you
will save his life from Sheol.”
Proverb 24:17 “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be
glad when he stumbles.” Proverb 25:21 “If your enemy is hungry, give
him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”
(Did this foreshadow Jesus’ “Love your enemy?”)
Proverb 27:2 “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth.”
(bragging, like bullying, a sign of insecurity).
27:10 “Your friend … do not forsake; and do not go to your brother’s
house in the day of your calamity. Better is a neighbor who is near than a
brother who is far away.” (Did this influence Jesus when he left his family?
And what if the brother is nearby?)
From Ecclesiastes, that provocative cynic sometimes thought to be too secular to belong
with the other Biblical chapters, I had forgotten his conclusion (12:13):
“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
(Amazingly similar to the two essential commandments of Jesus, if you just
substitute “love” for “fear.”)
So I will conclude with this final essential thought from my favorite rabbi: “Love the
Lord with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your might,
and your neighbor as your self.”
And who is my neighbor? The Samaritan, the “foreigner”,
who tended to the injured Israelite, he was the neighbor.
Love to all,