Better than a firing squad
Back in Chico, Dorothy Parker says prison was difficult but eye-opening
Chico resident Dorothy Parker has learned what it’s like to have blood drawn for a routine test while her arms are shackled behind her back. And what it’s like when a prison lab tech fails twice to strike a vein.
She’s learned about “courtesy flushing"—how to use the toilet in a 7-by-10-foot prison cell without offending your two cellmates. There are no bathroom doors in the Secure Housing Unit, known as the “SHU,” at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin in the Bay Area.
And she’s learned about conspiracy charges that land in prison thousands of women who had a relationship to drug users or traffickers even though they themselves were not directly involved. She saw the war on drugs up close—a war that in recent years has fueled a massive increase in the number of imprisoned women, she says, and helped make prisons a burgeoning industry.
But 77-year-old Parker still hasn’t had to face a firing squad. And that might best explain why this Chico woman—a registered Republican—agreed to spend 57 days in federal prison for an act of civil disobedience.
Parker says many of the friends she’s made in recent years on house-building projects in Central America have faced firing squads—literally or figuratively. They’ve lived in countries run by repressive military regimes supported or propped up by the U.S. government. So she protested last fall at an Army base in Fort Benning, Ga., where a school is accused of training Latin American military officers in the use of torture and other repressive tactics.
The Army school, formerly known as the School of the Americas, is infamous in Latin America and among peace groups in this country.
Parker was one of 19,000 at the November protest demanding the school be closed, but one of only 37 who “crossed the line,” or trespassed in order to subject themselves to arrest.
It was a small gesture, she said before going to prison. “My friends down in El Salvador and Nicaragua, they have to put up with terror,” Parker told the News & Review last spring.
Parker, released June 7, said the prison experience was “much worse” than what she expected. She was surprised by the coldness of the SHU guards, the humiliation prisoners suffer. But she doesn’t regret her civil disobedience and says it helped bring pressure to bear on Congress, and in particular on Rep. Wally Herger.
Herger, however, voted June 9 with a House majority against legislation that would have cut off financing to the Army school that has been renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The House voted 218-188 against the measure, a Foreign Operations Appropriations bill amendment introduced by two Democratic congressmen.
Herger, in a December e-mail to the News & Review, admitted he had concerns about the school but insisted it has implemented reforms, including the offering of courses that stress human rights.
“I, too, am concerned by human rights violations committed by a small number of graduates…,” the statement says. “…I do not believe the Institute should be suspended because of the isolated actions of previous graduates, and I believe it plays an important role in advancing respect for democratic values….”
Graduates of the school were in the past linked to massacres, death squads and executions in Colombia, El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America. The organization leading the annual Fort Benning demonstration, School of the Americas (SOA) Watch, says that graduates implicated in repressive measures have returned to teach in recent years.
Locally, Parker’s husband, Louis, says his wife has become a “pain” for Congressman Herger because she keeps “popping up.”
“I think he wishes she would just go away,” said a chuckling Lou Parker.
Parker, a retired Butte County mental-health counselor, expected to be housed in a minimum-security facility at the prison, where she would have a bit of freedom of movement. But when she arrived for check-in, she learned that one minimum-security section had been closed because of water damage and other minimum-security units were packed.
She was placed for 17days in the SHU, which houses prisoners being disciplined for rules infractions, and was denied prescription medications, making the stay quite “uncomfortable.”
During her SHU stay, Parker herself was “rolled up,” or accused of rule-breaking.
Parker had sketched a picture of her cell, and of herself performing a leg exercise, to send to church friends in Chico. But guards confiscated the sketch and accused her of hatching an escape plan, she said. She lost phone and commissary privileges as a result.
Parker says she’ll protest the Fort Benning school, returning for the annual demonstration in November, though she probably won’t subject herself to arrest again. The argument that the school’s curriculum has been revamped is a public-relations ploy, she says.
“If Herger is so right, why are four South American countries refusing to send more officers for training?” she asks.
Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela and Bolivia have announced they will no longer enroll their officers at the school, according to press reports. And it looks like the school will continue to be a contentious bone even in Chico.
The Peace & Justice Center says board member Cathy Webster is attempting to rally 1,000 grandmothers willing to climb over or under the fence at the November demonstration and risk arrest.
And the Congregational Church that Parker attends will hold a SOA Watch fundraiser dinner June 25 catered by La Familia restaurant.