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Bill Sanford: A prisoner of conscience ministers

Bill Sanford

Question: In a conversation the other day, I overheard you say something about a Presbyterian minister being in prison. My curiosity was piqued. I find myself wondering: What was he in for? What was the prison experience like for him?

Response: I think you must have heard me telling a friend about a book I read recently. It was titled "Locked Up," subtitled "Letters and Papers of a Prisoner of Conscience," written by Don Beisswenger, and published in 2008.

Here's the story of how he came to be "locked up." Following graduation from Yale Divinity School, Don was ordained in the Presbyterian Church in 1956. He served a number of congregations, and then in 1968 he became a professor and director of field education at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. He retired in 1996.

Familywise, Don was married to Joyce for nearly 50 years. The couple had six children. After Joyce's death and his incarceration, he married Judith Freund Pilgrim.

All across his career, he had a deep concern about social justice. One example: There was a time when friends were prevented from buying a house because they were black. Don and Joyce bought the house and then resold it to their friends, despite threats and harassment.

A special concern of Don's in his more mature years was the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia. The school gained a reputation for teaching members of the military from a number of Latin American countries how to intimidate their fellow countrymen. Indeed, graduates were thought to be guilty of disappearances, torture and murder. Don believed that such behaviors did not reflect well on the United States, and should have no support at all from followers of Christ.

In 1999 he participated in a vigil at Ft. Benning. He and many others were arrested and issued a five-year ban of such activities.

The school changed its name in 2001 to Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSWEC). Don thought the name change was like putting on fresh makeup. Underneath there was little change. He and many others worked to get the school shut down or at least get its mission substantially changed.

After his wife's death in 2002, he found himself willing to risk more. In 2003 he protested again. He and 26 others stepped six feet beyond a no trespassing sign. He was arrested for civil disobedience (criminal trespass), convicted, fined $1,000 and sentenced to six months in prison. He served his time -- April 6 to Oct. 1, 2004 -- in the federal prison in Manchester, Ky. His age at the time: 73.

Dear questioner, you asked about his prison experience. Let me pick out a number of things he mentions in his book. These should serve to give you a reasonable impression of what his life was like behind bars.

Don found himself in a prison camp with 500 inmates, 125 in each of four dormitories. He notes early on: "Many inmates, I learned, have no one to send them money, so their only funds are the meager wages they earn from prison work. My earnings will be $5.25 per month."

He observed that "Conversational banter consumes much of inmates' time. ... People also read a lot and sleep."

Meals are eaten at 6:30, 10:30 and 4:30. Most prisoners work at something from about 8 to 3. Don's first assignment was picking up cigarette butts and other trash. He tells of the importance of recreation. With regard to TV, he says there's one room for sports viewing and another for regular programs and news.

Visitation is permitted Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 8:30 to 3:30. There is a point system. Weekend visits "cost" two points, and inmates are limited to eight points per month. Don found it hard to find space to read, meditate and pray. At some point Don volunteered to teach a class. The response: "Inmates cannot teach courses."

He found inmates who helped him adapt to the prison melieu, but many seemed reluctant to form much of a relationship.

Don tells of a communion service conducted with a small package of crackers and a bottle of grape drink from a vending machine. He says communion bread and drink cannot be brought into the prison.

Don found the guards a mixed bag. Some would engage in respectful interaction. Others seemed bent on throwing their weight around and abusing their positions of power and authority. He says: "There are a million rules that can be called upon to demean or punish inmates." He cites one officer in particular who seemed to delight in meting out punishment for the smallest infractions.

Letters from family and friends, Don found, were a vital source of comfort and encouragement. In contrast to his experience, "Sixty percent of the people here never receive a letter. Even when relationships with family and friends are strong to begin with, they are hard to maintain in prison."

Don reflects on some sobering statistics. He says "We (the U.S.) make up 5 percent of the world's population, yet we comprise 20 percent of the world's prison population." We now have more than two million people locked up. He wonders: "Why is that?"

Don writes a conclusion of sorts near the end of his book: "I continue to believe that prisons are obsolete as a way to bring order to our society. Violent people, of course, need safe places to protect them and others. However, the 500 people in this camp do not need to be here. They need to be with their families, at their jobs, and within the communities that support them."

Bill Sanford, a retired United Methodist pastor in Atwater, undertakes to respond to "real questions of real people" every other Saturday. His e-mail address is