I've always liked the restful quiet of an empty
classroom. Maybe this is why the large room where we wait to start mealtime
duties, here at Pekin Federal Prison, feels comfortably familiar. During breaks,
in the dining area, I've spent many hours reading, writing, studying Arabic,
and staring out the window.
Today, looking out the window, I watched Kim LaGore crossing the compound, flanked by Ruth and Malika.
Yesterday, when I left the dish room, I sensed something was radically wrong. Clusters of women were gathered, many already puffy-eyed and tearful. "It's Kim," I was told. "Her other son just died."
On March 21, 2004, Kim Lagore's younger son, Dustin, was killed in Iraq. He was a 19-year-old U.S. soldier who had tried his best to stay out of combat. 72 days later, Sean, Kim's older son, age 29, died from complications following back surgery. Ruth and Malika, who also lost children while in prison, have been like guardian angels for Kim, holding and helping her through this wretched grief.
Every person in the prison camp yearns to spin a protective cocoon around her. The authorities couldn't do much. The system traps their compassion too. They allowed Kim extra phone calls and submitted a furlough request. I feel sure that they each wished for swift procedures to re-sentence Kim to home confinement during the remaining three months of her sentence. Who wouldn't want to respond humanely to a woman who has lost both of her children within three months time while forcibly separated from her relatives and her community? But the system's wheels turn slowly, very slowly.
"I know many of you don't know what to say," Kim wrote on a card posted in the laundry room of our dorm. Thanking us for surrounding her with kindness, she added, "To be honest, I don't know what to say either, except that we'll make it through …"
I remember my first conversation with Kim, about three weeks after Dustin was killed. Having learned that I had been in Iraq many times and lived there during the "Shock and Awe" campaign, she came to me with his picture and an article she'd written reflecting her pain and confusion. She still has not been able to learn any details about Dustin's death other than that, after two weeks in Samarra, a city north of Baghdad, he was killed in a training accident. "I want to go with you to Iraq," said Kim. "I want to tell Iraqi parents that my son Dustin never wanted to hurt anyone. He never wanted to kill."
Kim is here for a "paper crime" – a first time offender, she was convicted of a nonviolent and victimless crime. In her former job as a bail bondswoman, she had been anxious that a particular client might not return for a court date, and she insisted that he pay her in cash if she posted bond for him. A prosecutor then accused her of accepting drug money, and Kim was convicted of money laundering. Kim believed she wasn't responsible for determining how her client had raised the money.
Enron, Halliburton, Boeing and Dow Chemical CEOs adeptly cover and shield themselves from harm when accused of shady dealings. I haven't kept informed about their most recent appearances in courts, but I don't want any of them to go to jail. I do want the court of public opinion to regard peddling weapons, designing massive machines for destruction, ravaging the world's ecosystems, and poisoning our environment as criminal behavior. Would these CEOs ever refuse clients who declare foreign wars to exploit other people's resources? Would they ever insist that their clients stop making war against the biodiversity of Mother Earth? What would their thoughts be if they heard Kim's story?
June 26, 2004 is Prisoner Awareness Day in the U.S. We've thought of inviting our network of friends outside of prison to observe the day by agreeing to completely suspend all communications with loved ones for just one day. No phone calls, emails, visits, or conversations. At the end of the day, participants could write about the experience to elected representatives or local media, voicing concern over the long, isolating sentences imposed on U.S. prisoners. The action could give a brief glimpse into the dark frustrations felt by women and men whose contact with loved ones hangs on the most fragile of threads. Our society desperately needs the imagination to envision alternatives.
But for now, Kim's own words and the wordless comfort brought to her by her fellow "criminals" hold their own lesson. Who are the criminals? What are the most serious crimes? And what happens when compassion dies?