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Forrest City Federal Prison: Where Prisoners Don't Have a Prayer

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JW: Gary and the other prisoners must place their outgoing mail in a "mailbox" in the prison.  The BOPers are required to take the mail from the mailbox to the post office daily.  Gary writes to me every day.  Letters replace all "normal" family interactions, so I particularly look forward to receiving those letters, the only tangible thing I can hold that Gary has held and sent me.  Before Christmas, the letters stopped arriving.  In response to inquiries and complaints, BOPers later posted a sign on the mailbox that the lock was broken and mail could not be removed!  As for all the mail in the box?  Too bad!  It was stuck and no prison employee could get it out and free it for its journey to a recipient!  From what Gary said, the lock was just a regular lock that could have easily been removed with tools - maybe bolt cutters?  After the sign was posted, there was some show of trying to unlock the box, with a BOPer showing up and trying various keys, none of which would unlock the lock, so the outgoing mail remained in prison.  The BOPers are single-function and unionized, and undoubtedly the "right" BOPer whose job it would have been to address and resolve the lock problem was not there or was engaged in WE DON'T CARE, as the others engaged in IT'S NOT MY JOB.  Just think about this, Joan.  With hundreds of federal prison employees in place - men and women the government wants to convince the public are highly trained, competent, professional, and there to protect the public safety - not a single one was able to remove a regular lock from the mailbox and rescue the mail.  Gary and I came to refer to this as the prison version of Excalibur and King Arthur, and sure enough, Gary played a part of the King Arthur drama when, at long last, on New Year's Eve, the lock was cut off.  But the story didn't end there.  Once the lock was removed, the BOPer put the lock without a key back on and later had to return to remove it again.  Even so, I still haven't received the mail that was held hostage, and Gary still hasn't received mail and gifts from me and our family and friends.  Gary and I had also wondered whether the incident was connected with our legal efforts, and there were petitions some prisoners were trying to send to elected officials in Washington also in the outgoing mailbox.  

Also before Christmas, the BOPers initiated a new "Prayer Patrol", stopping the prisoners from praying each evening.  (They can't get the lock off the mailbox or reset the telephone system, but they devote time to seek out and stop praying prisoners.)  Everywhere - and I mean everywhere - Gary has been, the prisoners have prayed together, as it is inherent in the exercise of their religious beliefs and practices, but now for the first time ever, at Forrest City the BOPers have banned prayer and even discussions among prisoners that include the mention of God!  The prisoners have been specifically told that they may not pray together or have discussions about God other than in the prison chapel in the presence of the chaplain who must "supervise" any prayers or discussions - think government employee "prayer monitor" and "thought police".  

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Again, the complete disregard of the civil rights of the prisoners is blatant, as is the disregard for the spiritual needs and interests of the prisoners.  This ban on prayer is purely abusive.  In practice, if a prisoner or a family member become sick at any time other than when the official government-permitted religious service occurs, that's just too bad, as the prisoners are prohibited from praying for each other, and the chaplain - a highly-paid BOPer with a religious-sounding job title but no apparent concern for the spiritual or other well-being of the prisoners - does not pray or lead prayers for prisoners even in the official services.  When this new policy and prayer patrol began, Gary went to see the chaplain to seek his intervention to allow the prisoners to continue to pray for each other, but the chaplain just shrugged and said no, prisoners can't be allowed to pray.  That doesn't sound like any spiritual leader to me, but it does sound exactly like the endless abusive BOPers we have encountered during the past years.  It is also interesting that the religious practices of other prisoners have not been similarly interfered with.

Gatlinburg 2009, last Christmas before Gary was incarcerated
(Image by Judy White collection)
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JB: I very much doubt this is even legal, Judy. 

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JW: I'm sure you are right, Joan, but illegality is nothing BOPers blink at, as they just don't care.  Reference their motto:  WE DON'T CARE.

The day before Gary's 67th birthday, after not seeing my husband for two weeks including Christmas, I made the long, 300+mile journey to visit him for his birthday, his fourth birthday in prison.  His first birthday in prison we were in Edgefield, SC and immediately afterwards, I was illegally banned from visiting him for six months.  Just before his second birthday in prison, he had been illegally moved to Atlanta then, on his 65th birthday, he was put in shackles, chained and handcuffed for over 13 hours as he was flown and moved from Atlanta to Oklahoma City.  We were not allowed to even speak to each other that year.  Last year, Gary's 66th birthday and the third in prison, we were in Millington, but right after his birthday last year, he was taken and locked in solitary confinement in Memphis for 28 days with heat and prescription medications withheld, then illegally moved to a higher security prison further from home, and we were prohibited from seeing or speaking with or e-mailing each other for six months.  

Gary's birthdays have become markers of traumatic stress and precursors of unbearable abuse, with the sense of dread at what will be done to us next by the BOPers.  We tried to get past the heaviness and celebrate Gary's birthday, toasting with apple-cranberry juice and with donut sticks from the prison vending machines substituting as Gary's birthday "cake".  Even to be able to spend a few precious hours together meant standing outside waiting and freezing.  It doesn't matter that it is winter, the BOPers will not allow visitors to wear coats or jackets, hats or scarves or gloves.  The cost of seeing my husband in prison for his 67th birthday, aside from the long trip and all that involves, was getting sick, a trip to the doctor, a shot, two prescriptions, and days missed from work, and Gary is sick at the same time, but no medical care or treatment for him.  In fact, his illness is the likely and foreseeable result of being forced to stand outside in the cold and rain for 51 minutes waiting and hoping - to no avail - for medical help.  At Forrest City, they have an inside waiting area for medical services, but the BOPers refuse to allow prisoners to wait in the designated waiting area, and, instead, force them to wait outside, no matter how bad the weather is.  How much sense does that make?  When people are sick, make them wait outside and get sicker if they dare to ask for help?  With both of us sick and trying to recover, I didn't get to see my husband this weekend.

JB: What kind of response do you get to your emails to the BOP higher-ups, Judy. I know that they've not been thrilled with the attentions of OpEdNews [our series, at 27 installments, and counting]. 

JW: The BOP has been less than thrilled and way less than responsive for the most part.  From the Arkansas prison BOPers, there has been dead silence, other than when the Washington office has forced them to respond.  They seem to have adopted the plan that if they ignore everything, it will go away.  The regional office has also ignored all the problems we have brought to their attention.  When I called them most recently about Gary's medication again being withheld, the regional medical BOPer - a woman who identified herself as Jeneenre Ratliff - refused to address the problem, callously telling me two days before Christmas to write her a letter about it while refusing to provide a fax number or e-mail address or allow me to speak with the regional medical employee the Washington office had told me to speak directly with.  With Gary without his prescription medication, she actually told me to write her a letter and mail it.  No concern at all that Gary had been without medication he needs DAILY for over a week, and no concern about the label warnings of the dangers of sudden cessation.  

The Washington office has occasionally responded by e-mail, referring the problems to the prison or regional offices and directing them to respond and copy the Washington office.  Even with the Washington office referring and directing them to respond, the prison and regional office almost never do, and when they do, it is usually a non-response and filled with false statements while completely ignoring the problems with which I am seeking help.  Take the mail, for example.  I have repeatedly sent copies of the Track-and-Confirm Delivery Confirmation for the Priority Mail the prison received for Gary on December 19th, along with photos of some of the contents of the envelope, asking WHERE IS GARY'S MAIL?  

The prison's "executive assistant" sent a non-response last week after being directed by the Washington office to respond, but there was not a single word addressing Gary's withheld mail.  Instead, the response blamed Gary for not having his medication (?) and claimed falsely that a notice had been posted immediately on the mailbox with the broken lock.  All false and clearly intended to divert attention and cover up for the prison employees' wrongdoing, but the question remains:  WHERE IS GARY'S MAIL?  Interfering with, stealing, and delaying the mail are all criminal violations, but, again, BOP employees are an elite group: they violate criminal laws and civil rights every single day, with no accountability.  And what example do they set and what do they demonstrate for people who are in prison for violating laws?  NOT that laws should not be violated, only that the law applies to SOME but not to all of us.  If you are a federal prison employee, you can break all the laws you want and there are no consequences.  

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JB: Through all our conversations, we at OpEdNews certainly are learning a lot about how our penal system works, or, should I say, does not work.   

JW: Thank you, Joan. It's clear "justice" is not part of anything we have experienced!

JB: Sadly, I cannot disagree with you, Judy. Thank you for, once again, sharing Gary's story with us. 


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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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