Crossing Lines

| April 1, 2004

'The bullpen was meant to be a small holding cell area, but because the jail was so overcrowded, the six bunk beds, exposed toilet, metal table and spray-mist shower with a ripped curtain became housing for women prisoners awaiting transport.' So writes activist Kathy Kelly, about her 1988 incarceration for an anti-military protest. Facing another jail term this month for a similar act, Kelly realizes that you don't need to travel to Iraq, Afghanistan or Guantanemo to see the ill effects of the United States government's global war effort -- they're obvious in the heart of the country's prison system. In her sobering, reflective piece 'Crossing Lines,' she writes: 'Entering [American] prisons offers an opportunity to better understand how the once lauded war on poverty has become a war against the poor.'

Kelly is more than willing to do time, even though her offenses are symbolic gestures defying the American war machine. She's crossed the line into the war zone in Baghdad, 'invaded' the Army school at Fort Benning, GA, formerly known as the School of the Americas, and protested the Project ELF weapon facility in northern Wisconsin, which sent Tomahawk cruise missiles down on Iraqi cities. But her most eye-opening experience happened in 1988 when she crossed the line into the Cass County jail in Harrison, Missouri, to occupy a holding cell with 12 other women who were on the inside for crimes like using or selling drugs -- which, for many, are survival tactics in a society that offers them few other decent options.

Kelly's story is rife with irony. Her cellmates called her 'Missiles' and one wonders what they must have thought of an educated, financially stable white woman intentionally committing crimes that land her in the slammer. But Kelly understands that she is doing time not only as the consequence of her protests, but as an effort at self-education 'I do feel troubled because I've been so distanced, in recent years, from some of the poorest people in our country,' she writes. 'I need to better understand what's happening to them.'
-- Jacob Wheeler

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