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Life Arts    H2'ed 11/29/10

Judy White's Giving Thanks for Prison Visit: It's All Relative

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Welcome back to OpEdNews, Judy. Over the last two months, we've discussed various aspects of your husband Gary's imprisonment. For first-time readers, Gary White was a county commissioner in Jefferson County, Alabama. Good friends with Les Siegelman, he introduced Les's brother, [former] Alabama Governor Don Siegelman to Richard Scrushy, a local Republican businessman. Because of this, White became inextricably intertwined with Siegelman, who was one of the biggest targets of the Rove-directed, heavily politicized Department of Justice.

Scrushy and Siegelman were later indicted and convicted on charges stemming from that relationship. According to affidavits provided by Gary [and Judy, who was also in the room] White was asked to perjure himself before a Grand Jury in order to make the case against Siegelman and Scrushy. White refused and the very next day, the DOJ started delivering subpoenas to build a case against him. White is now serving ten years in Edgefield Federal Prison in South Carolina.

bird-hunting with Les Siegelman,
November, 2004

Thank you, Joan. I can't tell you how much I appreciate your continuing interest. I am finding that, frequently, when I visit Gary in prison, other prisoners' family members discreetly approach me (it seems the prison employees have created such an atmosphere of fear and intimidation that even the families are affected). They thank me for what we are doing - while expressing concern for our "risk factor" - thankful for both the exposure of what is going on and for the hope that somehow, someone will take notice and demand that the prison comply with the law.
I mean, how hypocritical is it that prisoners who have lost their freedom due to allegedly breaking the law are sent to prison, where there is clear, open and rampant disregard for and defiance of the law by prison employees , complete with threats and abuse of the prisoners? (And I have to say again that Gary is absolutely innocent, a political prisoner for 60 days now.) I believe in giving credit where it is due, and certainly, without your interest and commitment, public awareness of these terrible situations would be limited to our circle of family and friends. A number of family members and friends of the prisoners are, of course, keeping up through reading your work, and cheering - even if it's silently.

So much has happened since the last interview, and I have been terribly concerned about Gary's safety and survival, amid threats against him by prison employees, but you asked about Thanksgiving, so I will share my broken heart with you, and, if you are interested, we can get to the other issues as well.

Okay, Judy. Let's get started.

Thanksgiving is a federal holiday, which also makes it a "visitation" day at the prison. Thanksgiving has also always been very special to Gary and me - it was when, once we had decided to marry each other, we introduced our families, inviting the "locals" for Thanksgiving dinner, then driving to Jacksonville, where Gary introduced me to his family, including the precious lady who would become my mother-in-law and with whom I bonded instantly.

So, Thanksgiving has traditionally been an important holiday for you. But, what about this year? Things are obviously so different, with Gary incarcerated many hours away. How did you decide how and where to celebrate Thanksgiving?

Yes, Joan, things are very different with Gary imprisoned. Thanksgiving this year was almost unbearably difficult. At the same time, I have become more thankful for things I, perhaps, took for granted, and "... Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" are words that have resonated in my mind. I have been thankful every time I have heard from Gary, to know that he is still alive. I have been thankful for those liberties and freedoms that have not yet been taken from us and that I have come to fear are tenuous.
And I struggle with "the pursuit of Happiness" - solemnly and collectively (along with life and liberty) declared to be among my "unalienable Rights," but which my government seems determined to make as difficult or impossible as they can. This includes, specifically, the wrongful political prosecution of my husband, compounded by his imprisonment such a far distance from home, effectively harming our entire extended family. Not only must we suffer from Gary's absence, but for all "holidays" and "celebrations," our children and I will be torn, and our family gatherings can't be complete, or without considerable pain.

My sisters and I, along with our families, are so very blessed to have my parents still living, and all of us are within an hour's drive from their home. But no one is promised tomorrow, and we are all getting older. Time spent with family, especially during the holidays, becomes precious. "Home is where the heart is" - but with Gary imprisoned (and abused), my heart is broken, and I made the choice to go to South Carolina for Thanksgiving.
At first, Jonathan and Stephanie planned to go with me, leaving more empty places at my parents' table and in their hearts. But because one of them had to be back for work Sunday, I asked them to stay and have Thanksgiving with the family, then drive together to South Carolina on Friday to visit Gary with me, meaning I wouldn't see my children, parents, or any of our family on Thanksgiving - but I would be with Gary. I planned to do as I usually do on Gary's weekend visitation times, sleeping for a few hours after work, then getting up and leaving home by 1:30 a.m., hoping to get there around 8:00, and praying for no accidents or traffic problems.

But on Tuesday, one of the [prison] Sisterhood called and asked what I was doing for Thanksgiving. I answered that I was going to prison. She said I might want to re-think that, because, unless I was there by 5:00 a.m., I was unlikely to get in. Once the visiting room is full, there are no more visitors allowed until someone leaves, and on holidays, many families travel long distances and then are not allowed to visit. I would have to leave by 10:30 p.m. after working all day. When Gary called that night, he had heard the same thing, and we both cried, accepting the impossibility of the situation, and being apart for Thanksgiving for the first time.

So, a new plan was born Tuesday night. Except for Gary, we would have Thanksgiving mid-day at my parents' home. But I was prohibited from cooking - my family is supportive and understands that we are all doing more than humanly possible, and they asked me to just be there, which I gratefully accepted.

On Wednesday, thanks to a generous client and the kindness of the managing partner [of the law firm where Judy works], I was offered a tremendously discounted hotel room rate, and at a "pet-friendly" hotel! I reviewed the pet policy online, then called to confirm - there was no limit on the number of pets we could bring!!! (Did I mention we have "several" furry children?) I knew then that, like with Joseph, "what was meant for evil, God was using for GOOD."

You see, Gary loves our pets and he loves spending time with them and walking them, and they love him. (I still keep some of his unwashed clothes for them to smell and remember or sense him.) Most of them are also seasoned travellers. Not long before Thanksgiving, I had come home from work late (busy day, bad weather, bad traffic), and it was dark and raining, and, while I was walking the dogs, I fell. The next morning, there was an encore, it was still dark and raining, and I fell again. When I mentioned it to Gary, after making sure I was okay, he said wistfully, "I would give anything to be able to walk them for you, or even just see them." It broke my heart at the time, but, like a puzzle, all the pieces fell into place.

At my parents' house, Gary's place at the table was empty; they had been thoughtful enough to even remove his chair. Then, Gary called me while we were having dinner, so I put him on speaker-phone and everyone spoke, so he was with us - briefly and by phone - and I cried again. He told me later that the prison had prepared turkey and dressing, sweet potatoes, ham, collard greens and macaroni - a very special treat. But at the same time the prisoners had lunch, they were given a box containing chicken wings; the cafeteria was closing for the day, so there would be no dinner or left-overs, and no way to keep the chicken refrigerated or heat it. As I said, I'm thankful every day that Gary is still alive.

with Stephanie and Jonathan,
Thanksgiving, 2006

And he confirmed the visitation situation was as we had been warned. Some families were only allowed to spend one hour with their prisoner, and I believe he said by 11:30 [a.m.], no one else was allowed in.

Friday morning in the rain, Jonathan, Stephanie and I loaded up, gassed up, and headed east to South Carolina - with four dogs! But the fun part was when we arrived at the hotel and unloaded - just go ahead and think "Beverly Hillbillies." Along with "human" needs for three (including my mother's specially-packed dinner-to-go), there were crates, and each dog had a bag! We arrived just in time for kick-off of the Alabama-Auburn game (Roll Tide, anyway) and had our late lunch/early dinner-to-go while the game was going great. Just before half-time, it was time to leave for prison, so we all got back in the car. There was a long line of visitors, but we had a nice visit despite Alabama's loss, followed by Gary's strip-search.

Dixie, wearing Gary's hat, September, 2010
24 days before Gary's imprisonment

Saturday morning, we returned to prison. The kids got in line and were "processed in" and Gary was allowed to join them in the visiting room, while I was still outside, getting the dogs set up. It was 38 degrees, I think, with the predicted high of 58. There were the dog beds, and bowls and cups of water (the little ones drink from cups in the car's cup holders), toys, and chewies and busy bones - just so much to do - then I had to take each one for a stroll and secure them before going in to visit.
Gary was surprised and thrilled that the dogs were with us, and that he was able to see them through the window. We had a great visit, although slightly shortened. The kids reluctantly told Gary goodbye, then went out to walk the dogs before leaving. I visited a few minutes longer, then we said goodbye. When I left, Gary was again strip-searched. We did "Beverly Hillbillies" in reverse, and the kids returned to Alabama with the dogs. Florida State beat Florida. (Gary graduated from FSU - Go, Noles!)

I visited again on Sunday, Gary was again strip-searched, and I returned to Alabama alone. Going to South Carolina is hard, but it's the only way I can see my husband. Returning home, leaving him again in the hands of federal prison employees who abuse and threaten him, is even harder, and, based on two very long months of personal experience and discussions with other family members, terrorism is more than alive and well - it thrives in Edgefield, South Carolina, practiced freely by prison employees.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons may be the most hypocritical of all the federal agencies. They claim to "encourage" the prisoners "to maintain family and community ties," and state that BOP policy recognizes the importance of "maintaining family and community ties," which is codified in the Code of Federal Regulations, BOP Program Statements, etc. At the same time, they make it difficult or impossible on the prisoners and families through placing the prisoners far from those very families and communities. And, for Gary in particular, they seem to go to great lengths to insure that, at the end of every visit, a low point having just said goodbye, they subject him - not everyone - to being strip-searched, purely to inflict abuse and make sure he has an added cost of seeing his family.

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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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