Living through the shadowland

Alderson Women’s Prison in West Virginia was not a well-known institution prior to Martha Stewart’s recent commitment there. But, at one time or another, Alderson has housed Billie Holiday, Squeaky Fromme and generations of political activists convicted of federal offenses.

In 2001, one of these was Clare Hanrahan, who served six months there for trespassing on Fort Benning, Ga., during an annual School of the Americas (SOA) protest action.

What goes on in the gray shadows behind jail and prison walls, where polite eyes seldom stray and where suffering is not acknowledged, only expected? Legendary champions of social justice have been tested in such places. But, as Hanrahan hastens to tell us in Conscience and Consequence: A Prison Memoir (Celtic Wordcraft, 2004), the torments of incarceration are overwhelmingly plain and dull, not in the least romantic.

In this, her follow-up to Jailed For Justice: A Woman’s Guide To Federal Prison Camp, she offers a gritty and highly readable personal account of captivity at the so-called Camp Cupcake. Hers is a tale of prison-issue men’s thermal underwear, often used, and shoes so poorly made that inmates use sanitary pads as a defense against blisters.

Alderson, once a progressive institution run and staffed by women who believed in rehabilitation, is now a cinderblock wonderland of rancid peanut butter, prowling male guards and price gouging at the Commissary. To her keepers, inmate 90285-020 is frequently “Hanerun” or “Hanran.” Strip searches are commonplace, decent medical care almost nonexistent. Displays of human feeling among the captives and the cautious kindnesses of some prison staff are risky. The letter of regulation has literally trumped the spirit.

In fact, Clare Hanrahan doesn’t even exist here. She is Claire with an “i” — because the paperwork says so.

“All your mail must be addressed to your ‘commit’ name, or you may not get it,” warns the Reception & Discharge officer. Against this backdrop of grinding humiliations and disrespect, Hanrahan focuses on the web of connectedness that protects her from spiritual collapse. Conscience and Consequence makes the toughness, resilience and warmth of this network palpable for readers. We feel the strength she draws from the letters of well-wishers, news of her 25 SOA co-defendants, visits from family and friends, and the fortitude of inmate sisters at Alderson, past and present.

We walk with her where accused Communist organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn walked, contemplating the Greenbrier River and listening for the train whistle’s promise of freedom. Billie Holiday, imprisoned for charges stemming from her heroin addiction, also felt numb here: “I didn’t sing a note the whole time I was in Alderson,” she once said. Wild herbs grow on the prison grounds. They provide earthy, if illicit, physical support. And always there is connection through writing, answering letters, taking notes, remembering.

Hanrahan is not describing a gossamer New Age fantasy. It is a rock-ribbed, Earth-centered survival system that allows her the perspective to ask herself:

“What is the deeper truth here in this place? I am so unclear today –irritated with the noise, the crude language, crowded quarters, and bad food — the lot of the poor. I feel illness trying to overtake my body — sneezes, coughs. Yet such luxuries I have: clean showers, glorious views, and letters and visits from friends. I breathe into this intensity and trust, with gratitude for the sweet breeze. Here I am. What more can I do?”

The author does not find easy answers to that question. She suffers on visiting days hearing the screams of children pulled yet again from their mothers, and feels something of the desperation of women who will not be free for years, not just months. What are they doing here? she wonders. A better way must be found to deal with nonviolent and typically poor offenders, most convicted on drug or drug-conspiracy charges.

Writing as an activist, Hanrahan is no fool who underestimates the rigors of exposing herself to incarceration. She shares her self doubts, the difficulty she experiences in locating the humanity of guards who see none in their captives, the nervousness that accompanies her challenges to prison officials used to managing defiance by summarily swatting it down — and the misery of sometimes deciding that the risk is too great.

Political considerations aside, Conscience and Consequence shines a light in dark places and lets us listen to the voices there. It is a sobering but life-affirming experience. For this alone, Hanrahan’s work would have earned its place on my shelf.

For more, see Lisa Watters’ interview with Clare Hanrahan in this issue.

[Michael Hopping is a freelance writer and activist who lives in Asheville. He was formerly a practicing physician and Medical Director at Blue Ridge Center.]

Clare Hanrahan will have a reading and book signing at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 13 at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.; 254-6734). Free.


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