Prisoners on Purpose: A peacemakers' guide to jails and prisons. A Nukewatch book edited by Samuel H. Day, Jr., and illustrated by Bonnie Urfer. The Progressive Foundation, P.O. Box 2658, Madison, WI 53701. 160 pp, paperback, 1989, U.S. $7.50
It is possible to retain your fortitude and humanity despite being locked up in prison, especially if one is a prisoner of conscience or truly innocent of all charges. Such latter day stories as Life and Death in Shanghai and Against All Hope (both about prisoners of conscience, one in Mao's China, the other in Cuba) are not only extraordinary tales of individual physical survival but of the human spirit prevailing under extreme circumstances. One can learn much from a sympathetic reading of such accounts.
Now another book has been published about prison survival, somewhat less harrowing than the above-mentioned two, but no less instructive and inspiring. It is about people who, unlike Nien Cheng and Armando Valladares, actually planned in advance to spend time in prison.
Prisoners on Purpose is the revealing story of the Missouri Peace Planters a brave group of men and women who were imprisoned for being "missile silo trespassers." Some of the 28 writers who contributed to this book are serving sentences of up to 12 years for their earlier missile silo entries.
In August 1988, 15 peace activists
climbed over or cut their way through fences of nuclear missile launch sites in western Missouri. "There, they sang, prayed, hung banners, planted seeds, and waited for the Air Force to arrest them. By midsummer, almost all were behind bars in federal prisons scattered over the Midwest and South."
Samuel H. Day, Jr. 05121-045 (his federal prison number), a 61-year-old former editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and co-director of the U.S. peace group Nukewatch, edited Prisoners on Purpose during his six-month term, from April to September, 1989, in various U.S. prisons. Day entered missile launch site K8 near Rich Hill, Missouri, on August 15, 1988, dressed in a clown suit.
At the time of his sentencing Day read a statement to the court. It could easily serve as the testament for all Missouri peace planters (as the 15 activists are called): "I entered Site K8 to call attention to the danger posed by the missile underneath, and to register personal opposition to the governmental policy which goes by the name of nuclear deterrence but is in truth a policy of global intimidation."
The book will be of interest to a general readership, especially those who are concerned with peace issues. It is, however, directed mainly towards American activists "contemplating nonviolent missile launch site entries." Prisoners On Purpose is divided into four main sections: Challenging the lew; County Jails; Federal Prisons; and Prisoners on Purpose. The latter section begins with a chapter entitled "Personal Stories" -poignant tales of loneliness, some desperation, conviction, humor, and friendship.
Inside the local jails, federal prisons, and prison camps, and in handcuffs, leg irons, and belly chains aboard a Bureau of Prisons' 140-passenger Boeing 727, we share in the prisoner's daily life. It is an existence that can bring out the best in a person despite some strange and harsh realities: "Prison has been a journey into the deep desert of my own soul. Loneliness, isolation from loved ones, absence of physical touch, and separation from nature have broken me open like a seed spmuting in the earth's womb.... One needn't be a hero in prison; being fully human is enough. Prison has helped me become more of what I want to be -one who can fully love others."
Drawings by Bonnie Urfer (04970-045) add a sense of sprightliness and grace to the book. Prisoners on Purpose challenges, empowers, and helps to "demystify the prison experience." It deserves to be read.
Mr. Zeilig is a Winnipeg activist.