Message in a bottle

“I could live for probably two years on what they spent just to coax some words out of my mouth.”

— Asheville activist Clare Hanrahan

Local activist and writer Clare Hanrahan was out mowing her lawn in late September when ABC called, asking her to be a guest on Good Morning America the next day. “I think I had an hour or two before the limousine showed up in the front yard and took me to the airport,” notes Hanrahan. “From there on, things in my life just started speeding up.”

The call from ABC was just the first of what turned out to be a full-blown media barrage. Lifestyle magnate Martha Stewart was about to begin a five-month prison term at Alderson Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, W. Va., and the news media needed an “expert” to interview.

Two years before, Hanrahan had served six months at Alderson for trespassing on the grounds of Fort Benning, Ga., home of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (since renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), which provides “education and training for civilian, military and law-enforcement students from nations throughout the Western Hemisphere” according to its Web site. Her sentencing came after she’d repeatedly “crossed the line” as part of organized, peaceful protests calling for the closure of the school because of “the human-rights abuses traced to SOA graduates,” which, maintains Hanrahan, “are well-documented and ongoing and have resulted in the torture and death of hundreds of thousands … in Latin America.”

On her release, Hanrahan wrote a book, Jailed for Justice: A Woman’s Guide to Federal Prison Camp (Celtic Wordcraft, 2002), as well as an essay on the history of Alderson. She has just published her second book, Conscience and Consequence: A Prison Memoir (Celtic Wordcraft, 2004) (see “Living Through the Shadowland” elsewhere in this issue).

The two weeks following that first phone call soon morphed into what Hanrahan calls a “media feeding” that included guest spots on CBS, MSNBC, FOX and CNN, as well as interviews in such major print media as New York City’s Newsday, The Christian Science Monitor and People magazine. She was also interviewed live on assorted radio stations, including WRMF in West Palm Beach, KNX Newsradio in Los Angeles, KALC-FM in Denver and KSTP in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Glitz notwithstanding, it took some persuading to induce Hanrahan to just drop everything and go, she notes. But even though she knew that the media’s primary interest was “whether Martha Stewart is going to have an easy time or not,” in the end Hanrahan chose to play along because, as she puts it: “I’m part of a movement, with more than 200 of us who have spent time in prison for … speaking out against the School of the Americas. … So now there are a lot of voices out there that will take every opportunity to speak about prison conditions.”

Women behind bars

Hanrahan prefaced every interview, she says, by proclaiming, “I am doing this on behalf of the women we left inside.”

A lot of those women — and the children they are parted from — are what Hanrahan calls “the collateral damage” of a “failed war on drugs.”

“The fastest-growing and least violent [segment] of all America’s prisoners are women,” she points out. “We have to ask why we are imprisoning so many women. … Mostly they’re women of color from urban poor environments. And statistically, most imprisoned women — well over 50 percent — have experienced some form of abuse before going to prison, [whether] sexual, physical or emotional abuse.”

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, the total number of female prisoners more than doubled between 1990 and 2000. And between 1986 and 1991 — when funding for the war on drugs skyrocketed and the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created mandatory minimum penalties — the number of females doing time for drug offenses rose from about 12.5 percent to 33.3 percent of all women prisoners. Nearly 60 percent reported having been physically or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. And 70 percent of these women inmates had children under the age of 18, according to Justice Department figures.

Against this background, says Hanrahan, prison “is one more layer of abuse. It’s not a place to heal … and to help [these women] find new ways of being in the world that might help them become productive and contributing citizens.” Instead, she continues, “It … just adds another layer of punishment — punishment for nonviolent transgressions.”

She quotes jazz singer Billie Holiday, a heroin addict and 1947 Alderson inmate, whom Hanrahan says “said it best in her book, Lady Sings the Blues: People on drugs are sick people. So now we end up with the government chasing sick people like they were criminals. … The jails are full, and the problem is getting worse every day.”

In 2001, notes Hanrahan, “The average federal drug-trafficking conviction was 72.7 months,” according to figures cited in the proposed federal Justice in Sentencing Act, now in committee in the House of Representatives. “Compare this to the average manslaughter sentence of 34.3 months, assault (37.7 months), and sexual abuse (65.2 months).”

Through a glass darkly

Since her release from prison in January of 2002, Hanrahan has dedicated herself to speaking out about the lives of the women inside Alderson as well as her concerns about U.S. military activity and the consequences of dissent. But when she suddenly found herself in the media spotlight, the requests for interviews were coming so thick and fast that she enlisted several other women activists — and fellow Alderson alumni — to help field them all.

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