FIFTY-THREE, NOVEMBER 1, 2000
© 2000 Al Aronowitz)
STOP THE PRESSES! I WANT
TO GET OFF
WEBS, WASPS AND WHIPLASH WHILE CRUISING THE O-ZONE
PART 5: B & E BY UUS FOR CLF BOOKS
the whole story. It's an important one to me because it was one of two incidents
that happened behind the walls at Leavenworth that helped me gain the reputation
of being a person who could be trusted. The incident stretched over a year and
involved the formation of a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in the federal
was a community organizing experience---organizing under the most
difficult, repressive conditions. Just the kind of challenge that a
rag-tag group of religious malcontents needed to make their year. And
what a year it was! We were surrounded by adversaries: the prisoners'
"religious leader," the chaplain, who was a Baptist; the warden and
assistant wardens for custody and treatment; the ever-present guards;
and a directive from the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington to
deny the UUs everything. The highlight of the year was our publishing
coup---a slick issue of an illegal underground magazine, published and
distributed throughout the prison---and not a single UU group member or
incident began in 1968 when a Chicano named Frank Sepulveda
somehow found out I was for the most part a Unitarian Universalist. He
had been trying to start a Unitarian Universalist discussion group for
years with no success. He asked me if I would like to join his
non-group. I was new and wary, but since Frank wasn't looking at me
like I was a love object I signed on.
group now had two members.
request was a simple one. We wanted to get some free thinkers
together to talk about religion. Among other topics we wanted to discuss were
the conflicts between reason and creed. Frank had a way with words. Of course he
had been working with words for nine years. He was serving a 15-year sentence
for possession of an amount of pot that was so small it couldn't be
measured---so small it couldn't even be smoked---in the bottom of a jacket
pocket. Those were the days when they locked you up for not paying tax on your
pot. Frank claimed that forcing a person to pay taxes on pot was
unconstitutional. He had been trying to get the federal courts to stop and
reread what the constitution says about self-incrimination. He had filed actions
on those grounds again and again. He had a son who was nine years old whom he
had only seen in the visiting room.
not only had a way with words, he was patient.
prisons love to see groups form. It looks good on paper. People with drinking
problems had a group. Gamblers had a group. Drug,
sex, and food addicts had groups. The Jaycees, Toastmasters,
Catholics, Jews, and Black Muslims all had groups.
request that we submitted and resubmitted was really quite simple.
Yet the request continued to be denied.
we pressed the chaplain for reasons we were told: 1) We didn't
have a sponsor (there were no UU fellowships or churches in the area,
in such cases the chaplain automatically sponsored any group with a
affiliation), 2) there were already too many groups in the
and 3) we required guard supervision because we were a
problem and they couldn't spare a guard.
was wrong. We called a meeting. By now we had four members.
asked Frank if we had missed something. There were many very crazy
in that prison. How could the religion of Thomas
and Albert Schweitzer be considered crazy or dangerous?
not the religion of Walter Kellison, a poet and the minister
of the People's Unitarian Church, Cedar Rapids, Iowa---the only Unitarian I
personally knew until I met Frank Sepulveda.
crazies in that crowd.
Frank and I asked the associate warden in charge of treatment for
he told us to go to church on Sunday if we wanted religion.
went back to the chaplain. He was hot. In prison "No" means exactly
"No!" When a prisoner doesn't accept the "No" he is
stupid or a troublemaker.
you two do with your lives is your business," the chaplain told
"but as long as I'm in charge of religion around here there will be
anti-Christian groups meeting in this prison."
are many things, but they are not anti-Christian. Since we
get a room for our UU meetings we decided to meet out on the
yard. We posted hand-written notices around the prison announcing the
notices had been up about two hours when Frank and I were told to
More unapproved notices of
would mean the ‘hole’ for them
captain, the man who handles discipline problems on a
basis. He told us that the notices were contraband, they had
not been approved by the chaplain, we had not been authorized to enter
the areas where the notices were posted---and if it happened again we
would be sent to Building 63---the hole.
resubmitted requests and sent copies to George Marshall, minister
the Church of the Larger Fellowship at UU headquarters in Boston.
also asked him for literature and books.
about a month, we wrote to George Marshall again and asked why
they hadn't sent the books. We got a fast reply. "First order was sent.
Two more boxes of replacement books and literature sent today."
month passed. No books from UU headquarters.
this time, six or seven months have passed. Seem strange? You have
remember that nothing happens fast in prison-except killings.
this time other prisoners were becoming interested. But since
was becoming known that being a Unitarian Universalist wasn't going
to count for points at a parole hearing, most of the prisoners who came
to listen and ask questions decided it wasn't worth being hassled
began proselytizing. The jailhouse lawyers were informed that every
they raised a constitutional issue on behalf of themselves or a
fellow prisoner they could thank a Unitarian. Since many of the best
jailhouse lawyers were doing heavy time, they were unconcerned that the
administration was hassling us. To some, the hassling was what
Black Muslims asked, "If we can meet but the Unitarians can't,
just exactly what is it the Unitarians advocate? Must have `bad'
politics if you can't meet without a guard."
a diversion, our group began attending regular church services, but
we refused to allow the chaplain's clerk to add our names to the
attendance list. We claimed that taking attendance was only crowd
insurance and that it was discriminatory. The church attendance record
was part of the information given to the parole board. It took a long
time to get the practice stopped. When we did, the number of prisoners
attending church services declined drastically.
the chaplain would scream at us when we went to his office
ask about our books. Since George Marshall had told us he had sent
the books we knew the chaplain had them. Drastic action was needed.
day, as soon as the chaplain and his clerk left for lunch, one of
our new members, who was also a lock expert, walked four of us into the
chaplain's office so fast I couldn't believe my eyes. Quickly, he
locked the door behind us, then picked the locks on both desks, both
filing cabinets, and the closet. In the closet were the four boxes of
mission was half completed.
books of a religious nature that came into the prison had to be
stamped and signed by either the chaplain or the head of education. While the
books were being spread out on the
The chaplain’s signature
was forged in 57 books
in five minutes
the rubber stamp was
located and the books were stamped while I signed the chaplain's
name---I'd worked on duplicating his signature since we decided to take
"law" into our own hands. I signed 57 books in five minutes. The
pamphlets were all stamped but I only had time to sign 15 or 20.
was carefully put back, desks, closet, and filing cabinets
were locked, and we were out of there.
had made it in and out in 13 minutes and 28 seconds without anyone
first B & E had been planned perfectly, but what
fascinated me most was watching a man walk up to a locked door and,
what appeared to be three little steel "toothpicks," open it in
with barely a pause in our forward motion. Twelve years later,
Caan starred in a movie called The Thief, which used this man as
a model. The man was a professional. Contrary to what the movie
portrayed, though, he did not use guns in his work.
evening we had our regularly scheduled, unofficial, non-meeting
to determine a future course of action. Only four people knew about the
break-in. Actually five. The chaplain knew. We decided he couldn't say
anything without admitting that he had grabbed our mail. He would have
been in the clear if he had simply rejected the books and returned
them. Keeping them was a "no no," and that "no no"
course of action.
we sent him a letter thanking him for approving the books and
literature and being so supportive. We asked him which room he wanted
us to meet in.
to say, he provided us with a meeting room, but only under
certain conditions: We couldn't post notices that we were meeting or
that the Fellowship even existed, only 10 Unitarians could meet at
one time, and a guard had to be present at all times to ensure that
threatening the security of the prison was planned.
a year had passed---but organizing and the risks involved had kept
the juices flowing.
a month Emil Gudmundson, director of the Prairie Star District of
the Unitarian Universalist Association, drove down from Minneapolis,
800 miles roundtrip, to lead a discussion group. Don Vaughn, minister
of the First Unitarian Church of Wichita, drove over from Wichita once
a month---a 400-mile round trip.
named the group the Michael Servetus Fellowship, after the young
Spanish writer who searched for, but could not find, mention of the
Trinity in the Bible. Servetus not only wrote about his fruitless
search, he traveled around Europe discussing it publicly. He made a
serious mistake when he inadvertently wandered across the border into
Switzerland, home to the infamous Calvin. Servetus, unaware that Calvin
had a standing arrest warrant out for him, was arrested and brought
before this godfearing, Protestant reformer. Calvin had no time for any
"truths" other than his own. The kinds of truth Servetus was seeking
discussing were so abhorrent to Calvin that he promptly tied
to a stake in the town square and burned him alive.
felt a distant kinship with Servetus after being forced to interact
with the chaplain for so many months. Servetus only knows, that punk
chaplain would have burned our books if he'd had the cods for it.
as if dealing with the chaplain wasn't enough, the Bureau of
Prisons objected not only to our forming the group but to our choice of
name. Don Vaughn informed the warden that the American Civil Liberties
Union was taking the case. That threat removed the final barrier.
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