Steve Clemens: Going to Jail as Solidarity, Doing Time in Des Moines

 Drone Protest Trial

By Steve Clemens  Mennonista   June 27, 2014

I spent 20 hours on the boundary between discomfort and pain. I thought of Martin Luther King writing about redemptive suffering and offered my time in the noisy, cold, boring void of the Polk County Jail on behalf of my despondent and discouraged friends in Afghanistan.

I had watched a nearly four-minute video Hakim had made of my friends Abdulhai, Faiz, and Zekerullah in Kabul before I left for the second day of our drone protest trial. I wept as I heard the despair they experienced in the wake of the recent election run-off and the continued violence and terror in their occupied nation. Listening to and watching them helped me make the decision to take the road less traveled –well, less traveled by most, except the Catholic Workers. Who else would choose 48 hours in jail over paying a $100 fine?

I had a premonition of what was to come well before the jury returned with its verdict when the Judge ruled he would not allow a Jury Instruction to include the words “without justification” in the charge of Criminal Trespass, despite the wording of the law as passed by the legislature, before the lunch break on the second day of trial. I took off my wedding band and placed it on the key ring with my car’s remote and my house key. As soon as I was found guilty, I gave Frank Cordaro, my friend from the Des Moines Catholic Worker, my iPad, cell phone, keys, wallet, comb, notebook and pens I had used during the trial so I wouldn’t have to book them into “property” at the jail – after quickly texting my wife that I was headed to jail.


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I must admit this wasn’t the first time I’ve chosen jail over paying a fine or doing community service without talking to Christine first. I had at least told her it was a possibility – if the sentence was fewer than 72 hours -because I wanted to be able to continue donating blood platelets every two weeks. Jail time for more than 72 hours would mean I couldn’t donate blood again for a year.

At the last moment before being hustled out of the courtroom I remembered I still was wearing my hearing aids so I handed them to fellow defendant Elliott Adams (who had agreed to pay the fine) to give them to Frank. It is a good thing I kept my Driver’s License since the paperwork generated from the court on my sentencing listed my name as “Douglas Clemens Stephen.” Might be good to have my proper ID to get out of jail on Thursday late afternoon!

We were escorted out of the courtroom by Polk County Sheriff deputies, taken to the lower level of the courthouse, were padded down, surrendered our belts, everything from our pockets (including my “Get out of jail Free” card from the Monopoly Game), handcuffed us, attached a waist chain to the cuffs and added leg shackles on our ankles. We shuffled off to a waiting police transport van with two opposite benches in the rear compartment. The three women had been separated from us in the courtroom so Eddie Bloomer and I ducked and shuffled up and into the van to join two other male inmates who were returning to the jail after court appearances. Noticing my dressier clothes (I had already removed my necktie and given it to Frank), they asked me if I was in for a DWI (Driving while intoxicated).

When I told the men I was headed for jail for protesting Drones, the first reaction was “You must be one of the Illuminati!” When I laughed as said I wasn’t sure what that was, the guy said, “Of course you would deny it if you were one of them!” As the conversation continued with what military drones were and that the protest was organized by the Catholic Worker, his face lit up and he told us his brother used to go over to that place. He, too, had eaten meals there. And when Eddie told them he had been living and working at the Des Moines Catholic Worker for more than 20 years, I knew we had just made two allies on the inside.

However, when we arrived at the jail, they had us separated from the other two. They had already received either the two-toned green or the orange-and-white outfits with “Polk County Jail” prominently stenciled on both the pants and shirt. They shuffled into one area while Eddie and I, still in our street clothes –minus our belts – were placed into what felt like a refrigerated holding area after our leg irons were removed. We remained handcuffed to our waist chains for this first stop into the bowels of the belly of the beast. It was a room about 12’ x 20’ with concrete benches attached to the two outside walls which were deep enough to lay down. In the corner was the requisite stainless steel sink/toilet combo.

Cement floors, cement block walls on three sides with a large glass window on the fourth, brightly lit – this was where we remained over the next 2 ½ hours as others came and joined us. They removed one handcuff so we could eat our supper of 2 hot dogs with rolls, cooked peas, coffee cake, and milk. We each told a guard if we had any medical issues (and that we weren’t suicidal) and then just waited and waited. Eddie and I made a good team together – he told me what to expect as he’d been locked up here for civil resistance many times – and I helped him pull up his way-oversized jeans that he wore from the Catholic Worker donation box. Without a belt and with such baggy pants, the guard had placed the waist chain through a back belt loop and they constantly made his pants sag in such a way that he’d be welcomed at a hip-hop convention. This for a Veteran in his late 60s!

Next, we were herded into a large area where our cuffs and chains were finally removed, we surrender our street clothes and got orange jumpsuits, brown boxers and a T-shirt, socks, and a 3” toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, and a comb. We had already received bright orange plastic shower shoes at the jail section of the courthouse so at least we were fashionably coordinated!

Eddie and I briefly saw co-defendant Michele Naar Obed across the room in her two-toned green outfit; no sight of the other two women she left the courtroom with. After our photos were taken, Eddie and I were separated for the duration. He told me to try to get a roll of toilet paper to use as a pillow and I was grateful for his advice.

I was placed in a 9×11 cell with a stainless toilet/sink, a 3’ high partial block wall along its side for minimal privacy, and an 8” raised  cement “bench” that was 2’x5’ where another inmate was trying to sleep in a fetal position with his blanket. (Each of us was told to grab one blanket as we entered this cell.) Throughout the next 17 ½ hours up to 7 other men came and went with most of the time leaving 4 of us in this cell with no mattresses, a bright florescent light overhead, and our blanket. I claimed the white painted “bench” after the first guy got bonded out and tried to make do with the roll of toilet paper he had been using.

It was cold, noisy, and the bright light was constantly on. One inmate was singing loudly next door; another screaming curses and obscenities at the guard because he claimed he hadn’t gotten his phone call. All night long the heavy metal doors opened and slammed shut, people coming and going, and you could hear the guards chatting away loudly outside the cell door. I was miserable. I was cold, I ached. It was impossible for me to sleep but some of the others were soon snoring loudly.

But I kept thinking of the privations and challenges of my friends in Afghanistan to put my plight into perspective. I had selfishly hogged the toilet paper “pillow” for the night hours. About midnight I was told to see the nurse about my medical history and then back again to my cell. I was disappointed that it was only midnight after seeing a clock en route – I assumed at least several more hours had elapsed. I couldn’t read the clock from the cell as the time crawled on slowly.

While struggling to remain warm, trying to nap on the hard concrete with my aching muscles and bones, I thought of my toilet paper pillow as not much better than the rock the Biblical Jacob used during his vision of the ladder rising to heaven. I didn’t have a dream as vivid or insightful but what went through my mind, over-and-over-again, was the song “By Breath” by the perceptive and passionate Sara Thomsen. “By breath, by blood, by body, by spirit – we are all one …” It connected me to the Afghan Peace Volunteers and my co-defendants – now in other cells. Ruth Cole had so insightfully answered the Prosecutor when asked if she felt in “imminent danger” while standing outside the gate at the Iowa National Guard base. She boldly stated she couldn’t separate her “body” from the bodies of all others around the world who were being threatened by drones.

Breakfast came about 5:30 AM as the cell door opened and we were handed a molded plastic tray with Froot Loops, milk, OJ, two pieces of bread and two tubes of peanut butter. Finally, after lunch, 20 hours after being taken into custody, I was cuffed and chained again and told I was to be taken to “BarneyLand”, my next stop in the belly of the beast we call the Prison-Industrial-Complex.

Posted by Steve Clemens at 1:05 PM

Jail, Part 2

Doing Time in Des Moines, Part 2 by Steve Clemens. June 28, 2014

Judge William Price bragged about the new, “at least 3 star”, jail that Polk County, Iowa runs. He smiles and exchanges pleasantries with us and our lawyers as the deputies are collecting the paperwork to haul us off to his self-described plush accommodations. Obviously he has never entered as a “paying customer”! I’d love to see if he has the cojones to spend 2 to 3 days inside, incognito, before he sends anyone else to that jail. Same for the Prosecutor (although, in fairness, he only recommended a fine for our conviction on trespass) as well as all the COs (Corrections Officers) and staff at Polk County’s “finest”.

I write about my jail experience to demystify it, hoping to embolden others to consider civil disobedience and jail witness as another tool in their repertoire of working for peace and justice.

After 20 hours in the “cooler” (I understand more clearly the street slang for prison/jail after my first frigid stops within the jail), I was handcuffed and chained again to be moved to “BarneyLand”, the euphemism given to another holding way-station in the jail before entering general population (referred to as a “pod”). The name came from its early days when the TV there only played PBS and because of the prevalence of cartoon character shows like the purple dinosaur, Barney, the name stuck; even the guards use it. It has 2-person cells on the upper level and more on the lower level which also includes 3-4 single person cells. My cell had a rolled steel bunk with mattresses on each bed with a built-in pillow device – a great improvement from laying directly on cement! Don’t get too excited – its not a posturepedic or any other chiropractic-approved bedding! The toilet and sink are separate and porcelain. A stainless steel 18”x18” shelf serves as a desk/table with a stool bolted in front. A stainless steel “mirror” completes the ensemble. The cell door has a clear window so I can see the clock outside the COs station, located between two identical “BarneyLand” units.

I am assigned a lower bunk (hallelujah!) and after unpacking the “bedroll” I received before entering the unit, I begin to arrange my new residence by placing my nearly threadbare sheets and blanket on the mattress. I also now possess a towel, washcloth, a plastic cup and a spork. I had asked the night before and again for a Bible but I am told “you have to wait until you get to a pod before you can have one.” After being told by others that you could be in BarneyLand for up to 24 hours, I figured I’d probably remain there to finish my sentence. Of course not. After getting close to 2 hours of needed rest on my bunk (since we were locked in the cells), the CO yells to us, calling us by last name to “come down and get your uniforms – you are going to a pod tonight after dinner.”

I am issued 2 sets of two-toned green pants and shirts, another T-shirt and boxers, and another pair of socks. We are told to change out of the orange jumpsuit and return it to the laundry workers who gave us the clothes. We are again unlocked to come to the main level for dinner to eat at the stainless steel tables and stools bolted to the floor. A ham bologna slice with bread is complemented with cooked carrots, Frito-like corn chips, canned pineapple, blueberry pie, and milk – served on the same molded plastic trays.

By 6:30 we are assembled again, re-handcuffed and chained for the march to our respective pods. I’m assigned to a lower bunk, 630, in North 6. It holds about 60 inmates in 4-man, 2-bunk bays on two levels. Each bay has 3 walls with the front completely open, facing the day room. At the end of the bays on both levels are 4 toilets and 4 sinks on each level. Opposite the bay area are showers and a TV room with hard plastic chairs designed to look like cushioned, living-room-type chairs. The CO has his desk on that wall opposite the bays directly in the middle. In the day area are both phones for expensive calls and video screens for visits. I wasn’t there long enough to see how they work but with others milling about, it didn’t seem to afford any privacy except over the handset.

After I made up my bunk, I took a stroll around to see my new digs. Four guys sitting together at one table ask if I’m in for DWI. Another laughs and said, “I recognize you” and points to a picture of the hefty banker with a mustache on the Monopoly Board Game. When I tell them about drones, only two of the four have ever heard of them and they didn’t see them as a necessary problem. As I explain about my friends in Afghanistan and my friend in Pakistan and their experiences, you can see a light go on in their imagination. When I tell them I chose to go to jail instead of paying the $100 fine (I put it, “I chose to do the time instead of paying the fine”), they each gave me a fist bump and said, “Alright!”

In traversing the pod, I see one guy open a cabinet door and start rifling through paperback books. When he is done, I quickly check to see if there is anything I’d like to read since I’m sure I won’t sleep soundly on my steel bunk – even with a mattress. I find a copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and even though I read it years ago, it is well worth and read. Christine and I had just seen a play at the History Theater based on it a month or two ago.

One guy approaches me and offers some instant coffee – a generous offer here since coffee is only available from the commissary in a cost-cutting effort by the jail. I’ve never been to a jail or prison where coffee hasn’t been a staple of the inmate diet! Other ways of taking it out on the vulnerable are evident with the posted notice that any visit to the nurse will incur a charge of $5, to the Doctor $10, Mental Health visit $10, as well as charges for any prescriptions. The big surprise awaits check-out time.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. I was pleased to see the guys had rolled one of the large Brute trash receptacles right in front of the toilet closest to the COs desk. If you need to take a dump, roll the trash can between you and anyone walking by; at least a modicum of privacy. If you want more, wait until after lights out at 10:30 PM and before 5-5:30 AM when they are back on for breakfast. At night only lights at both far ends of the pod are lit. Or, after breakfast and cleanup, most of the guys go back to sleep for several hours so there is less traffic by the toilets.

There are no windows to the outside in the entire prison except two louvered ones about 15’ high on the outside wall of an enclosed rec room. The room itself consists of cement block walls, several Plexiglas windows on the side facing the CO desk, and a cement floor. Some guys use the area for walking exercise but unless you buy some shoes at commissary, walking in the shower shoes is not the best experience. The windows in our rec room are obscured, one louver open in a way you can tell if it is daytime or night but not the weather. But Mother Nature has its own way: early in the morning a loud boom of thunder erupted and I could hear the driving rain. Later in the early afternoon, the thunderstorms returned during time for commissary and a nearby lightning strike darkened the entire prison for about 5 seconds. Several inmates yelled, “jail break!” and the two women distributing commissary got up to run out of the pod – reacting much quicker than the CO. We laughed when the lights came back on as they sighed with relief.  With only the two obscured windows at the end of the pod, it was very dark!

Although the Judge’s order stated I was to be jailed from 4 PM until 4 PM two days later, 4 o’clock came and went. I had all my stuff packed, ready to go since 3, thinking I should walk out the door in my street clothes at 4 and it would take some time to check out of this bed and breakfast. Finally, as the clock ticked on, at 4:08 the phone rang and the CO yelled out, “Clemens”. He patted me down and took me to the pod door where I was once again handcuffed and chained for the march back to the release area. We stopped en route for Eddie to join me and then had to sign to get our property and clothes back. We put on our street clothes and then Michele and Ruth arrived as well. I was asked to sign a form which acknowledged I received my invoice for room and board charges – $195! I told them there was no way I was going to pay such an absurd bill and I’d refuse to sign it. They said, “We’ll bill you anyway.” So, go figure – go to jail for two days because you won’t pay a $100 fine for reason of conscience only to be issued a bill for $95 more than that amount to undergo such indignities.

What do you expect from an empire in the throes of decline and desperation?

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