conscience behind bars: visit to a jailed war resister, long version

This is the full conversation I had with two friends from the War Resisters Support Campaign. He talked in preparation for my story at The Mark, "Conscience Behind Bars":
On Thanksgiving weekend, Michelle Robidoux, Christine Beckermann, and Janet Goodfellow packed up Michelle’s little red Hyundai and headed out of Toronto before dawn. They crossed the border at Lewiston and continued south, through the autumn colours of Pennsylvania, past the traffic snarling around Washington D.C. The three Canadian women, friends and colleagues of mine from the War Resisters Support Campaign, were on their way to Camp Lejeune, a sprawling U.S. Marine Corps complex outside Fayetteville, North Carolina. Our friend Clifford Cornell is imprisoned there.

When they crossed the border at Lewiston, the US border guard asked where they were going. They said, "Fayetteville," to which he replied, "Fayette-Nam"...

LK: Did Cliff already know you were coming?

JG: No. We were so afraid that something might happen, that we wouldn’t make it, and we didn’t want to disappoint him.

Sunday morning they leave the Day’s Inn in Virginia.

JG: It’s a few hours drive to Camp Lejeune. We were there before noon. Visiting hours started at noon.

CB: We went to the local Burger King to get a coffee and steel our nerves.

LK: Camp Lejeune is in North Carolina, right? And it’s huge?

JG: Huge. It’s actually [referring to brochure] 153,439 acres, which includes 26,000 acres of water.

LK: So you must pass through some kind of gates long before you get where you’re going.

JG: You drive through the property. Because at one point I thought I saw a lot of young men playing football in the distance. Then I thought, uh-oh, that’s not football. That’s soldiers doing their thing.

LK: It was some kind of military formations or drill.

JG: Then you begin to see stores advertising military cuts, name tapes. Everything in the stores is directed to support military. Military balls.

LK: Balls?

CB: Dances. There were spas advertising pre-military-ball specials.

LK: Ah, like going to the prom.

CB: Exactly.

JG: The other thing about Camp Lejeune is it’s been heavily polluted. The military covered that up for a couple of decades. Men began getting breast cancer. They even found a small stockpile of Strontium-90. There’s a website set up by citizens who are trying to let everybody know, to reach people who were stationed there. A woman named Laura Jones, who lives in Ohio, is suing the government. She has lymphoma.

[See: The TCE Blog and The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten]

LK: So it was a toxic waste dump site?

JG: They were drinking contaminated water, bathing in it.

LK: Support our troops.

JG: We knew this before we went. You know this is what you’re going into.

LK: It’s underlying everything. So it’s about a 11:45 on Sunday as you’re passing through the gates.

CB: Visiting hours are 12 til 3, so we were advised [by other people who visited there] to get there before 12.

LK: And you still haven’t contacted Cliff.

CB: Nope.

LK: So what did you have to do to get in?

JG: That was very straightforward. You have to check your car, you give your registration and get a pass for your car.

CB: We were told to bring the insurance, the car registration and ID. That’s all we had to do. They asked who was sponsoring us to go visit them. We said, nobody, we’re going to the brig. They said, okay, and we asked, where’s the brig, and the woman said, "I have no idea." [laughs] The camp is that that big.

JG: Then we had to go through another checkpoint. And that soldier – he was very young, the soldiers are all so young – he directed us to the brig.

So Camp Lejeune is huge, and we’re going down a main thoroughfare, and then you turn off, you pass storage sites for trucks, and garages and such.

LK: The back lots.

JG: Right. Then you turn a corner, and there is the brig, easily re recognized because it has barred windows – narrow windows that are barred, and red brick, barbed wire around the back.

LK: How big a building is it?

CB: It’s a four-storey building. It houses 280 inmates.

JG: And they have a logo.

LK: The brig has its own logo?

JG: Prison bars with a key in a great big circle with various symbols.

CB: It’s really unbelievable.

JG: Then we had to check in again.

CB: We could see a guy at a desk writing things down, and everybody in line, so we just got in line.

JG: It was sad. Because you see people waiting in line with the kids, and the babies. You wonder how many miles they’ve traveled.

CB: There were a lot of license plates from far away. And it was a long weekend there, I guess it was Columbus Day, so maybe more people than usual might have been able to come. I’m not sure. When we got there, there were maybe 15 people in front of us, and it was steady behind us, people kept coming. A steady stream of people coming to visit.

JG: We couldn’t take anything in. Michelle had to take some things back to the car.

CB: We had to take our wallets back to the car.

LK: Wallets, why? So you couldn’t give inmates anything, I guess.

CB: Yes.

LK: I remember from when [another campaigner] visited [deported war resister] Robin [Long] in the brig, he couldn’t take notes. Was that the case, you had to be completely empty handed?

CB: It didn’t even occur to us to bring pen and paper, but other people did have little tiny pieces of paper and pencil stubs.

JG: But I think it would have been inappropriate for us.

CB: It wouldn’t have been as good a visit.

LK: So the line moves up, and what happens?

JG: They take your passport and your car keys, and they wand you.

LK: Then at that point do they say who you’re there to visit?

CB: Yes. And I found the whole process very low-tech, very manual. They had little post-it notes. We said, “Cliff Cornell,” and the next people would say, “Joe Smith” or whoever, and they’d write the names down on post-it notes, and when they had three or four post-it notes, they would hand them through a little window to someone else. It seemed really odd to me that they didn’t have a more elaborate system.

JG: That was the spot where we couldn’t see through the glass. There was this glass where they were asking questions. Very dark, like a tinted car window.

CB: Both Michelle and I, as soon as we got into the line and starting going through the process, a real anger... a really strong anger. That this is what we were going to – that this is what our government had done to Cliff. It was very strong. We were very tense, too, because we didn’t really know...

JG: Because you don’t know what to expect.

LK: You mean, seeing this is what happened, because he couldn’t stay in Canada.

CB: I was so angry. Almost overwhelming.

JG: This big door unlocks, and you go through a passageway.

CB: And you don’t know where you’re going. Everybody else seemed to know where they were going. We tried to walk into this little room that looked like your classic image of visiting a prisoner – chairs on one side with a glass partition. But they told us, no no no, don’t go in there, go this way.

So we were looking and we could see prisoners down a hall, and then finally people told us, you come in here. And we went into a cafeteria. That’s where you visit.

They ask you, who are you here to see? We said Cliff Cornell, and they see how many of you there are, and look around for a spot that can seat everyone. It’s cafeteria tables. So visits were going on.

They were tables that would seat six, so if your party was 3 and someone else’s was 2, you might be at the same table with a little space in between.

JG: I don’t remember this part. I was blanking out, I was so anxious. But I do remember feeling a huge relief that we were actually going to be sitting with Cliff. It was actually going to happen.

CB: Remember you read the rules? Before we went in, there was a big list of rules, and we saw, oh my god, you can hug them. We couldn’t believe it, because we had heard a lot of stories about some places were inmates aren’t allowed any physical contact with visitors.

LK: So they brough Cliff out, and had they told him who was visiting?

JG: Oh no, he was in shock.

CB: He was in shock. I wasn’t looking that way, because it felt kind of rude – if you were looking that way, you were staring at people who were already visiting, who had come in before you. But Michelle was watching, and she said his face went from disbelief to a big giant smile, an ear-to-ear grin.

JG: He gave us each a huge hug. When he sat down at our table, his face was red, and he was in tears.

CB: He couldn’t believe it. And I think we couldn’t believe it either.

JG: Just to see Cliff, in the flesh, it was so...at that point it was so rewarding.

LK: Was he wearing a prison uniform?

JG: Orange. Orange jumpsuit.

LK: Orange jumpsuit? Oh boy. That’s awful. So after Cliff sits down and you all calm down a bit, what happened?

CB: We started saying, oh my god, I can’t believe you’re here, you look okay...

JG: And he did, he looked okay. It was that kind of relief, that he was here, in front of us. Then we talked about what it’s like there.

It’s harsh. The place is set up for people doing 30 to 90 days. So they make it tough, so people learn their lesson and don’t misbehave again.

LK: So it’s meant to be a short-term, intense experience.

JG: Right, get your punishment and get out.

LK: But for Cliff it’s not short-term.

JG: And again, the guards that are guarding us during this are all Cliff’s age. Very young men guarding very young men. It’s bizarre.

LK: How long as Cliff been there?

CB: He was sentenced at the end of April. It took ten days or so until they actually got him to Camp Lejeune.

LK: So it’s coming on six months.

CB: We started out talking about the drive down...

JG: And it was his birthday on Friday, so that was opportune.

CB: We didn’t know that, but we were making jokes like, of course that’s why we came down, to celebrate your birthday, telling him everyone wishes him a happy birthday.

JG: Then we began asking him what it was like. Forty people to a barracks, so there’s no privacy. No time alone at all. Cliff does have a job reconditioning fire extinguishers. There aren’t many fire extinguishers to be reconditioned, but he tries to stretch it out as long as possible, because that’s his only time by himself.

LK: What else does he do? How does he spend his time?

JG: It’s very boring. They’re allowed outside for one hour a day. They have the opportunity to do something extra-curricular, supposedly educational. Although we know Cliff doesn’t have a drug or alcohol problem, he has joined AA, which seems to be a good thing. It gives him a chance to speak, to hear other people’s stories.

LK: He goes to the meetings for community?

CB: Maybe. We don’t know what the choices were. One choice was a group for sexual offenders. We spent a long time talking about did he know why he was sent to Camp Lejeune, because nobody can understand why he got placed there.

He thinks it’s because it’s harsher, that it was part of throwing the book at him. He got a longer sentence than all the other people who are in there. Everyone else there is in for three months or four months. People who deserted who were gone for eight years, or people who were charged with desertion and a whole bunch of other charges, got much, much shorter sentences. So he thinks it’s all part of the package.

JG: People who were in for sexual assault, attempted murder – they got a few months.

CB: It’s just crazy. Cliff got 12 months.

JG: His fellow inmates, when they hear his sentence, they say, you got screwed.

LK: And what does he attribute this to?

CB: To speaking out against the war.

LK: Did coming to Canada contribute to it, do you think?

CB: It’s hard to say. We don’t know.

JG: Coming to Canada may have contributed to his lengthy sentence, but the thought of returning to Gabriola Island is the very thing that’s getting him through. All Cliff wants is to return to Canada.

LK: So Cliff is serving time with people who were convicted of violent crimes?

CB: Yes.

JG: Not only violent crimes. There are other deserters there, too.

LK: But they’re serving shorter sentences.

CB: Yes. Three months, four months. His is three or four times as long.

LK: And he’s not even at a facility set up for long-term incarceration.

CB: One of things that really struck us was the frustrations, the continual frustrations. They make rules and then they change them. It used to be that if you got books sent to you, when you were done, you could pass them on to somebody. Now you’re not allowed to do that. You can’t even donate your books to the library. You either have to throw the book out, or mail it someone on the outside, paying with your own money.

There’s all this stuff about "trafficking". If you have an extra postage stamp, and a fellow inmate needs a stamp, you can’t give him one, because that’s trafficking.

LK: They’re interrupting community-building all the time. All the places where bonds could be formed – by passing a book along or helping someone out with a stamp – they’re cutting it off. Because what other reason could there be for not letting people share books?

JG: And why else would you share a book?

LK: And they have to control everything about you while you’re there.

CB: And threatening people with more time. You accumulate days off your sentence for good behaviour, so it’s a continual threat that if you do anything wrong, you can lose those days.

JG: So with this time off for good behaviour, Cliff could be out in February. But it’s at their whim. You’re absolutely powerless.

LK: So not only can’t you share the book, you can’t say, I don’t care, I’m sharing the book anyway, because you could end up with six months more time.

JG: Exactly.

LK: The consequences are too serious. This reminds me of what other resisters have told me about the pressure, while in Iraq, to not speak up about the human rights abuses they saw every day. All the pressure, the threats, coercion that keep people from speaking out, because the consequences are so dire. Besides being beaten up, they threaten to cut off your money to your family, to extend your tour.

JG: It’s not only them. The prisoners have wives, kids, families, Cliff has Jim and Annie [his adoptive parents]. The consequences are not only for them, the consequences are for the whole family.

LK: And for many people, that’s even worse, a stronger threat.

CB: Absolutely.

LK: It’s mind-blowing that you can’t pass a book along.

CB: And it was all like that. All the rules around what you can get, how you can get it. If you don’t clean your foot locker properly, if you talk when you’re not supposed to talk – and you’re not supposed to talk most of the time. You’re almost never allowed to talk.

LK: So he’s allowed outside one hour a day. What is the outside like, like a pen?

CB: Yes. Barbed wire and all.

JG: On the weekends, they only get two meals, as opposed to three. They can’t smoke, so you’re in nicotine withdrawal. So when you first go in, the shock, and to also be in withdrawal, it must be just awful.

LK: Can families bring food while they’re there? Any gifts?

CB: No. One woman had her husband’s sweatpants. The guards told her she couldn’t bring it in. She said, he asked for these, he’s supposed to have them. They said, you have to come back during the week and process it the right way.

JG: And remembering, getting to Camp Lejeune to have something processed is not an easy process!

LK: Sure, if she has kids, or a job, or if she doesn’t live nearby.

CB: Here’s another thing that’s more than a daily frustration. Janet mentioned there are 40 people to a barracks. You’re classified by your sentence. You can be moved to less restrictive conditions, where there are 20 or 24 people instead of 40.

There’s the highest level of how many people in a barracks, then two levels lower. Cliff was supposed to be moved several weeks ago. When the day came and he asked about it, they told him there was a mix-up with your paperwork. All this time you were supposed to be at a different level, so we’re going to leave you where you are.

JG: And you don’t know what this “paperwork mix-up” is. And it’s only about moving someone, so it must be a very simple procedure.

LK: It’s just messing with you. They can decide not to move you.

JG: The level of frustration is very great. Cliff said he is just keeping his head down, trying to get through it. But I could see how with so much frustration, you might just flip. Then you’d lose everything and have to start all over.

LK: So he has to find self-control, because the consequences are so harsh. But even if he’s perfect, and he does everything right, they can still punish you. And underlying all this is the question: What did Cliff do? What was his crime?

JG: He followed the law. He followed the law of United Nations. He followed his conscience.

LK: He did what we’re all hoping soldiers will do. He can’t say, “I was following orders” – he did the right thing and refused illegal orders. And that’s why he’s there.

CB: That’s why I had such that overwhelming sense of anger. The US military and how they run their brigs, and all that kind of stuff, I don’t think there’s anything surprising about that. It’s shocking to see it with your own eyes, but to me it’s not surprising.

What’s shocking is that our government would participate in putting people who’ve done the right thing into that position. And that after Robin, and after Cliff, they’re still moving ahead to try to do the same to other people. It’s unbelievable. It’s outrageous.

And they know it, too. Their spokespeople say, ‘There would never be persecution in Obama’s America,’ but they know exactly what they’re sending people back to, and they’re choosing to do it.

JG: When we were there, a fellow from the Chapel Hill [North Carolina] Quakers joined us, and two people from Veterans from Peace. [Two of them have visited Cliff before, one of whom visits regularly.]

CB: There are people who have been visiting him, and it’s been really, really important. He also gets a lot of mail, which is great. He’s considered a celebrity, because he gets so much mail.

But they [the other peace activists] talked a lot about Cliff’s mental state, and depressed he was early on, how worried about him everyone was. And how much better he’s doing now.

JG: They were really scared for him.

LK: Because he was so depressed?

JG: Yes. It was serious. It was very hard. But he’s midway through now. He’s able to look to the future. And he’s got his survival skills figured out.

CB: Cliff wants to come back to Gabriola. Not right away – he’s going to stay with his family in Arkansas for a while, maybe do a little bit of speaking. But he does want to get back to Gabriola. That’s home to him. He’s got a very supportive community. But it’s going to take a fair amount of work to make that happen.

JG: To think, here’s this guy who did the right thing, who could be on Gabriola Island with a community, and a job, sitting in this prison. It’s appalling! No, it’s worse than that. It’s unbelievable.

LK: It’s surreal.

CB: That’s what Janet kept saying while we were there, that it’s surreal.

JG: You feel like you’re in a bad play or something. And it’s so contained. You go into this place, and you leave, but he’s still there. We felt so badly leaving him. It was horrible.

LK: How long were you there?

CB: Visiting hours were 12:00 to 3:00, and we stayed the whole time. Then it suddenly ended. We weren’t paying attention to the time, then all of a sudden Cliff said, it’s over now. I looked around and everyone was saying their goodbyes.

JG: I’m glad it was quick like that. I think it would have been a mess if we had known.

CB: Oh yeah, it would have been worse otherwise.

JG: It’s like going into another country. You get out of those gates, and back into the free world. It was like we were behind the Iron Curtain or something.

CB: It was a relief to get off the base.

JG: After visiting hours, the prisoners were all strip-searched. Even though no one could take anything in, and you’re sitting in a small room with guards all around you.

CB: You’re being watched the whole time.

LK: So then what did you do?

JG: We got out, got our keys, our stuff, then we talked to Curt [the Quaker visitor] for a while, which was a relief, because he does visit Cliff regularly. He seemed like a really caring guy, and now we feel like we have a contact to Curt. Don’t you feel it’s a relief?

CB: Oh yes, I do. At first my overwhelming feeling was relief, to see him, to see he’s okay. Even though you know how difficult it is, and how hard it is for him to go through, it was just good to see him, to see he is coping. And he kept saying, ‘I’m a survivor.’

It was his 29th birthday, and he said, I really could write a book, 29 years and never a dull moment. [laughs]

JG: Except on Gabriola Island! [laughs] But I really admire the guy so much. And I realize the bonds, how deep it is, how much we in this campaign truly love each other.

CB: It’s really true.

JG: I think I didn’t let myself think about having to leave him there, until a couple of days after. I’ve been trying to write about it, and I couldn’t. I just felt so bad, but didn’t know why. Now I realize: it’s because I feel so bad to think that here’s there and we’re out here. Having to leave him there. That’s what was at the root of my sadness.

[The three friends had rented a place on the beach, and went there to relax and regroup.]

CB: We knew we had to do something. We could walk and look at the waves, and look at the birds. But even that was hard, because you’re not that many miles away, and you know that Cliff is still there. But we needed to do something.

JG: Just to have a few hours to realize, there are birds, and there’s a sun in the sky – and it will be there for Cliff, too.

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