I got up early the next morning to go visit a friend who is decidedly not from the camp of the newly-activated. Marie Mason, convicted “ecoterrorist,” two years in to a twenty-two-and-a-half-year sentence for doing four million dollars worth of damage to corporate property in Michigan many years before. No prior criminal record aside from trespassing, a vegan who never hurt a fly, let alone a human, she’s being held in a supermax, the only supermax for women that is also a Communications Management Unit, where those within it have severely restricted lives and ability to interact with the outside world, much more so than in “normal” super-maximum-security prisons.
This was my second visit to FMC Carswell, so I knew the drill. The hardest part last time was finding the entrance, but this time I had it saved in my GPS. The penitentiary is a massive complex adjacent to an even more sprawling military base on the outskirts of the vast city of Ft. Worth. It was January in Texas, the morning air was crisp but not cold, just the sort of winter weather that could convince me to spend some time there one day. Visitors of inmates were lined up along the badly-maintained road beside the prison complex. Most of the vehicles in the line were the older, more worn cars and minivans of the working class, and about half of them were from Oklahoma, just to the north. As Leonard Peltier and others have pointed out, the US prison system is the country’s biggest Indian reservation, and evidence of that was there in the line of cars with me.
Directly across from the strangely unmarked entrance to the prison is a woodsy little piece of property that has an obviously hand-made sign advertising that people can camp there, and there was a little farm stand of some kind. I never checked it out, but I’m curious what reality is like in that little homestead.
The entrance to the prison consists of a ramshackle little guard house with a small, middle-aged Latino man its sole occupant. During visiting hours – which are designed to be confusing, it seems; you have to show up either at 8:30 am or at 11:30 am, something like that, but in between those times he stops processing people for a long while – he’s standing just outside the shack, in front of a little portable lectern which is uncomfortably perched on the gravel-covered road. He’s got a little tattered notepad, and he’s already got information on each of the people coming in to visit their imprisoned friends and relatives. He clearly doesn’t think winter in Texas is anything too exciting, since he’s standing there with an electric heater, much like a big hair dryer, and just as loud, that’s sitting on the ground by his lectern and warming his feet.
From the time I enter to the time I leave I get the feeling that the whole place functions with very few actual staff. I drive through the deserted streets within the prison complex, and the little wooden homes that presumably house prison employees of some kind. Then the lower-security prisoner housing, where some of the women often seem to be outside, carrying around laundry and stuff. Then the parking lot, which you can find easily by following the over-sized American flag blowing in the wind in front of the building through which visitors enter.
Altogether it’s a two-hour-long process from entering the prison to seeing Marie. In the visitor entrance building an impatient, apparently overworked employee repeatedly tells me and other visitors to back away from his section of the room. There are dozens of us, and we’re all supposed to squeeze into one part of the room, which isn’t big enough for us all to fit in. The man behind the counter tells people to wait outside if they don’t fit in the little section of the room we’re supposed to wait in. One young male visitor tests positive for cocaine and has to leave. An elderly woman sets off the metal detector because of a hip replacement, and he tells her she has to have a note from a doctor explaining that she has a hip replacement or she can’t come in. He doesn’t like my Oregon driver’s license because some information on it has faded out. I go to the car and get my passport, and that works for him.
Last time I visited, the two guards who brought me through the myriad of impossibly thick steel doors within the maze of windowless corridors were two white guys, of Italian and Norwegian descent, judging from their appearances and last names. I don’t remember their names, but the Norwegian-looking guy seemed very nice, and I nicknamed him Thor. Anyone else would have, too – he had blond hair hanging down most of the way to his shoulders, arms about the size of my legs, completely muscle-bound, with a neck almost as thick as a Cardassian (if you watch Star Trek and know what one is). This time my guides through the prison were both women of Latin American descent. Word was that Thor was out with an injury, which he actually got from throwing hammers in some kind of Viking competition.
As with my last visit, I was brought into the visiting room before Marie got there. It was a barren room, but unlike the corridors we were walking through, it had windows, plate glass, bulletproof I’m sure, through which you could see a field, other buildings, and lots of barbed wire. The room was slightly less barren than the last time. I guess you could call it an improvement, though such a minor one that it’s barely worth mentioning: in addition to the large, ratty poster of the Statue of Liberty, there was now a plant. A fairly sizable bush of some kind, it sat beside the plastic card table and two plastic chairs in the middle of the room. I was instructed to sit at the table and wait for Marie. I had set up the chairs so they were too close to each other, and one of the guards moved them so they were on either end of the table. She informed me that the chairs had to stay that way, and that after briefly greeting Marie I was not allowed to touch her.
Indeed, when Marie was brought out from a different hallway than the one I came in, the guards seemed to be timing our hug. Two seconds or so, too short to make them get antsy yet. Last time I visited, Thor and the Italian guy made a point of sitting as far away from Marie and I as possible, to give us as much privacy as they could under the bizarre circumstances. This time the guards sat about three feet from us, easily able to hear every word if they were paying attention.
In some prisons, even in some US ones, they have private monthly visits for married couples, visiting performers coming through now and then, and all sorts of other opportunities to avoid total insanity setting in too quickly. Not here. Marie’s efforts to allow us to have access to one of the two guitars that were sitting, rarely used, in a dark room nearby under lock and key, were fruitless. We sang unaccompanied a bit. But even though I’m a professional musician, and Marie’s a darn good singer herself, I don’t think either of us ever felt comfortable in that room without instruments, trying to sing a cappella with those guards so nearby, despite the fact that there was a nice, bathroom-y reverb in the empty room.
Mostly we talked. I have friends in various parts of the world who I only see once or twice a year at most, like Marie. But most of the rest of them aren’t in prison, and although we might spend four hours straight talking with each other and catching up, we’ll be doing that in the midst of other activities – walking, going to a cafe, interacting with other people we run into, etc. I once again forgot to bring a bit of money with me – I had left everything in the car, once again forgetting I was allowed to bring a little money to buy food from the vending machines in the prison. I was hungry. By now it was mid-day and I had barely eaten that morning. But the time slipped by despite the circumstances. They let us have an extra half hour for some reason. Marie was concerned if I stayed the extra half hour I might be late getting to my next gig, several hours away in Austin. She’s always saying things like that, trying to make sure nobody’s inconvenienced, which of course is impossible given her situation, but such a kind gesture, so out of step with her very unkind reality.
We spent four hours talking about politics, mutual friends, political strategies, other political prisoners, art, music… In the course of the two years Marie has been incarcerated she has been moved from a prison in the upper midwest where she had much more musical and educational opportunities, to this hellhole in Texas, where she and the rest of the women on her block spend much of their time on lockdown. The only slightly bright spot since she was transferred to Carswell was the MP3 players Marie and most other federal prisoners were eventually given the opportunity to purchase through the prison store, whatever it’s called. Although most of the artists she’d like to find among the one million or so songs they make available for purchase are not in the collection, she’s found other songs she likes well enough, and can successfully escape into the music for a bit, most days.
They wouldn’t let us have a guitar, but they did allow Marie to spend a little of her money to have a member of the prison staff come and take photographs of Marie and I posing beside the plant. I asked if we were allowed to have the photos taken with the windows behind us, and the barbed wire, but the man said that wasn’t allowed – it could compromise security somehow. The photos were taken with a cheap disposable camera. A little more physical contact was allowed while the photos were being taken. I thought the photographer might have been taking his time, perhaps knowing Marie and I wanted to be able to have our arms around each other, as we did for the photo shoot. Then it was time to go. Marie’s eyes were filled with tears, and one of the jail guards seemed to feel defensive. She said, “I gave you warning that the visit was ending soon,” as if the fact that she did this should have made Marie feel more in control of her life, and less apt to cry, under such outrageous circumstances.
I was escorted through the maze once again in the other direction, found my way to the car, and slowly drove through the grounds of FMC Carswell, and back past the little man in the guard house. Listening to BBC World Service on the satellite radio while driving through the vast, empty, scruffy expanses of east Texas landscape, the world felt like an especially small place. Dominating the news was the scene then unfolding at the gas plant on the Algeria/Libya border. Among the negotiating terms the hostage-takers were attempting to put forward included trading Americans for the blind Egyptian sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and Pakistani scientist AafiaSiddiqui – Ms. Siddiqui being one of Marie’s neighbors there in the gulag. Naturally, if folks are launching an attack against a British-owned gas plant as a result of a French invasion of a neighboring country (that being Mali), there must still be an American role in the whole thing. And if a female “terrorist” kidnapped by the CIA is one of the people in question, then FMC Carswell is where she would likely be found.