Polly Mann: Betty McKenzie, a Prisoner of Conscience

Betty’s Pekin home housed about 300 inmates, all nonviolent offenders—a few were bank robbers, one had been an embezzler, but most had been convicted of drug-related charges. Some were there because they could not afford first-rate legal aid. The majority were African American and Latina and young.

By Polly Mann  WomenAgainstMilitaryMadness.org  Summer I  July 2015

Betty McKenzie is a most unlikely ex-con and, no doubt, when imprisoned in 2001, was a most unlikely prisoner—a white-haired, bright-eyed nun of some 71 years. For six months she lived at the Federal Women’s Minimal Security Prison in Pekin, Illinois. The facility has no surrounding walls or barbed wire fences, but anyone who tries to escape and is caught receives an automatic felony conviction with five years added to the original sentence and a transfer to a more secure prison.


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Betty grew up in Rochester, Minnesota. Her father was a chemist for the Mayo Clinic, and her mother was a teacher. As a young woman, Betty entered the order of the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet (CSJ) and became a teacher herself, until she retired and devoted her life to justice and peace issues. Today, Betty volunteers once a week at Peace House, a Minneapolis center where unemployed or homeless people can spend the day.

Betty McKenzie
Betty McKenzie in 2002, the year she was released from prison, protesting against the impending war on Iraq at the vigil on the Lake Street/Marshall Avenue  Peace Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River between
Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Photo: Michael Bayly, “Faces of Resistance: Images & Stories of Progressive Activism”

What brought Betty to prison years ago? She spoke with me about her prison experience. It was a deliberate choice. She had been a member of an annual protest demonstration at the School of the Americas (SOA)––now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC)––located at Fort Benning, Georgia. This is where the United States military trained Latin American military personnel. The training included techniques of torture, assassination, infiltration, and mass murder of those who got in the way of powerful business and political interests. The graduates of the SOA, with U.S. backing, have been responsible for the deaths and disappearances of thousands of Latin American people—civilians and church people. The purpose of the demon-strations, which continue each year, is to stand in solidarity with the people of Latin America and the Caribbean, to close the SOA/WHINSEC and to change the oppressive U.S. foreign policy that it represents. SOA Watch now also protests incarceration of immigrants and militarization in the U.S.

At the demonstration each year thousands of college students, peace activists, and visionaries peacefully walk onto the base, where military personnel eventually ask them to leave. Those who refuse risk arrest. On this particular November day, in the year 2001, 200 second-offenders were arrested, and among them 26 were chosen to appear in a trial before a civil magistrate near the base. All of the trespassers were found guilty and almost all were sentenced to the maximum six months for trespassing. Four of the 14 women were nuns and among them was Betty.

Betty’s Pekin home housed about 300 inmates, all nonviolent offenders—a few were bank robbers, one had been an embezzler, but most had been convicted of drug-related charges. Some were there because they could not afford first-rate legal aid. The majority were African American and Latina and young.

Betty slept on a cot in a nine- by eleven-foot cubicle which she shared with another inmate. It had no ceiling, no door, and only a five-foot wall around it.

Life in prison was severely restricted. Rules demanded that all be up from bed from 6:00 to 7:30 a.m., during which time inmates needed to get ready for the day, showering and dressing in a bathroom without locks and doors (there were both male and female guards in the facility), and be in the dining room to line up and eat breakfast. The food was not good. Betty’s daily assignment was to clean the dining room after lunch and supper, for which she was paid 12 cents an hour. Throughout the day Count was held for all prisoners. If a prisoner was missing for the Count, it could result in her transfer to a more secure facility.

The prison system and administration, though not all of the prison employees, seemed heartless. When one of the other prisoners of conscience, a nun, had a severe heart attack and was hospitalized, Betty and other inmates asked, “Have you notified her family?” “No,” was the response of prison officials, who added: “Of course, if she died we would.” (However, a community of Franciscan nuns lived in Dubuque, Iowa, 175 miles away, and word of the woman’s hospitalization was relayed to them from incarcerated nuns. The Franciscans protested. The woman’s family received notification of her condition.)

Betty herself became ill at one time with an infection so severe that she could barely walk. When she appeared in the dining room in comfortable sweatpants and a T-shirt, she was forbidden her meal because she was not wearing her regulation prison uniform. Her sleeping accommodations exacerbated the pain she was in. Prison mattresses were only one or two inches thick and rested on metal. But any change within prison had to go through a “counselor” who was not actually a counselor in the usual sense of the word, but rather a prison employee in charge of regulations. Fortunately, an inmate with whom Betty was friendly kindly advocated for her with the counselor and she was allowed an extra mattress and a couple more blankets. “Let’s face it—we’re all the family we have here,” the inmate who helped her said.

A physician had to sign off on medication that a helpful nurse practitioner recommended, but he prescribed a cheaper medication that wasn’t effective. As in all departments that served the prison, he would be awarded a bonus for coming in under budget for the fiscal year. Fortunately, Betty was finally able to obtain another, more expensive medication.

Bonuses at the expense of inmates’ health were not the only part of a bad system that Betty encountered. She also learned that inmates provided cheap labor in the prison-industrial-military system. Five days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., her cubicle mate worked for $1.50 an hour in the prison making chain-link fencing for a private manufacturing company. (According to the U.S. Department of Labor, at the time in 2001 and 2002, the minimum wage in Illinois was $5.15 an hour.) (1) The woman had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for selling crack cocaine on the street. She said she knew she had done wrong, but she had already served 12 years and felt that she had paid her debt to society.

The various education and skill programs offered didn’t help all of the inmates. One woman thought that when she was released she might as well go back to selling illegal drugs because she wasn’t learning any skills in prison and at least she knew how to make a living that way.

There were some people in the prison with mental illness and anger issues who should not even have been in prison, as no help was provided for them there. Since spaces were so open within the prison, people could hear each other’s conflicts and it exacerbated the whole environment. In one incident a mentally ill person taunted another woman who, in a moment of anger, hit her with an empty plastic juice bottle. Even though inmates advocated for the woman who had retaliated in such a minor way, both the taunter and the retaliator were transferred out to a maximum security prison.

The system was “such a waste and all so stupid,” Betty said.

But life in prison was not entirely unpleasant. There was time for conversation, exercise, taking photographs, playing games. Betty had a fair amount of down time, which, depending on the officer in charge, could mean reading and writing, or hours of enforced “doing nothing.” There were even some heartwarming, delightful times, and parties and original plays devised by the inmates with costumes made from available materials.

Support for the prisoners of conscience was tremendous beyond the prison walls. The press came for interviews and they received mail from people all over the world, including those hurt by SOA graduates. Archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Harry Flynn, wrote to her several times, and she received a letter from Senator Paul Wellstone.

The community to which Betty belongs, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, was wholeheartedly supportive.

But Betty was aware that such support was rare for prisoners. Some of the inmates’ children and families lived far away and it was heartbreaking that they could not see them very often. Betty dismisses any personal discomfort and hardship she experienced in prison. She said she had food, clothing, shelter, even medical care. She compares it to what victims suffered at the hands of SOA graduates.

Unfortunately, her stand of conscience has not yet translated into a closure of the SOA/WHINSEC, but Betty and others like her believe that the struggle to do so is an obligation and must continue on behalf of the victims in Latin America and on behalf of prisoners in the U.S. (2)

Polly Mann is a co-founder of WAMM who writes a regular column and is a regular contributor to the WAMM Newsletter.

Endnotes:
1. www. dol.gov/whd/state/stateMinWageHis.htm
2. The women’s prison closed in 2011 and the Pekin facility now houses a drug-rehabilitation program for male prisoners.

For more information about SOA Watch, click here.

© 2015 Women Against Military Madness. 

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