Role reversal

Incarcerated Sacramento organizer Leisa Barnes has taken to driving her captors crazy

Prisoner-of-conscience No. 92089-020.

Prisoner-of-conscience No. 92089-020.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Sending political organizers to prison may not be such a great idea, after all. Consider the beleaguered administrators at the 1,500-woman Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., where Leisa Barnes is causing all sorts of problems. The Sacramento mother of five is serving a three-month sentence for protesting the former School of the Americas, a controversial Fort Benning, Ga.-based training school for soldiers whose notorious graduates include Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.

“I think that they feel sorry every time they send an organizer to prison,” mused Sacramento School of the Americas Watch organizer Janice Freeman, who’s been acting as Barnes’ liaison with the outside world during her incarceration. “In the case of the prisoners of conscience for the School of the Americas, almost every time, wherever they’re sent, they tend to organize while they’re in prison. They see the injustices that are happening in prison, and they get the word out.”

Barnes’ journals (available online at describe a prison culture in which guards routinely make physical threats, often with sexual overtones. When not bonding with fellow inmates—including an environmental activist who currently is serving five years, and two female convicts whose newly born babies have just been taken away—she’s come up with all sorts of ideas that never seem to find their way into prison training manuals. In just a few weeks, Barnes has offered to organize a prison library of classic literature, to dig a dirt path around the paved one so that inmates can go running, and even to serve celery and carrot sticks to inmates who want to wean themselves off cigarettes.

Prison authorities are not amused. “My personal take on this is that they have a mindset that if you’re in prison, you’re really a bad person, and so they tend to treat everyone without much respect,” said Freeman, explaining how authorities since have prohibited Barnes from receiving any further books in the mail and no longer will allow her to receive The New York Times.

Then again, Barnes doesn’t need to view the recent wave of front-page photos to understand that human-rights abuses run rampant and sometimes begin at home. The object of her protest—which was taken over from the Army by the Pentagon and rechristened the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation—remains, in Freeman’s words, “a military combat school that trains soldiers in combat skills, commando tactics and torture techniques all at U.S. taxpayer expense.” And though the facility’s legacy is tied to controversies in Latin America, you don’t have to be an Iran-contra player like Noriega to see connections between what’s gone on there and in the Middle East.

Barnes has another month in her original sentence to serve before reuniting with family and friends back home in Sacramento. In the meantime, Freeman said, her spirits are good: “There have been times there when she has been sad, probably a little depressed, but she feels very strongly what she is doing is right, and she has absolutely not one regret.”