The war inside and outside our prison system

My author chat inter­view with Joseph Ole­jak, author of 26 Week­ends at Colum­bia County Jail in the March issue of Friends Jour­nal.

Unlike most war tax resis­tance cases, Joseph’s was pros­e­cuted and he was sen­tenced to 26 week­ends at his local county jail (you can learn details about the sen­tenc­ing from this arti­cle on the NWTRCC web­site).

I found Joseph’s piece far more inter­est­ing beyond the peace and taxes issue. Joseph started keep­ing a clas­sic Quaker jour­nal while in prison and doc­u­mented the sto­ries of his fel­low inmates. The Friends Jour­nal arti­cle, (and a part two to run later this year) is only an excerpt from these volu­mi­nous accounts. What I found strik­ing is how often many of Joseph’s polit­i­cal and career choices (he’s a chi­ro­prac­ter) were sur­pris­ingly echoed in the lives of the pris­on­ers. There was a lot of drug depen­dence start­ing in mil­i­tary ser­vice and quite a few sto­ries seemed to be peo­ple “self med­icat­ing” from phys­i­cal injuries or men­tal health issues. Many of these men wouldn’t be there if we had a more enlight­ened med­ical sys­tem, vet­eran sup­port sys­tem, and decrim­i­nal­ized and treated non-violent drug addictions.

FJ’s video­g­ra­pher Jon Watts inter­viewed Joseph last year with far supe­rior video pro­duc­tion stan­dards for the Quak­er­S­peak project: Why I Stopped Pay­ing Taxes.

These days, Joseph is work­ing on a letter-writing cam­paign at Old Chatham Meet­ing in New York in sup­port of the National Cam­paign for a Peace Tax Fund , work­ing with sym­pa­thetic con­gress­peo­ple since 1971 to pass leg­is­la­tion would redi­rect the taxes of peo­ple of con­science toward non-military spending.

Ninth Circuit Rules Against Quaker War Tax Resister

Ninth Cir­cuit Rules Against Quaker War Tax Resister. Court rules that Eliz­a­beth Boardman’s protest is frivolous:

War tax resisters tend to be scrupu­lous and totally trans­par­ent in what they are doing, while tax pro­test­ers often engage in behav­ior, like hid­ing assets, that makes it dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish them from tax evaders. This dis­tinc­tion prob­a­bly accounts for the extreme rar­ity of pros­e­cu­tion of war tax resisters for tax crimes.

Mass incarceration from the inside: “This is the biggest racket they have going”

Mass incar­cer­a­tion from the inside: “This is the biggest racket they have going”. When Joseph Ole­jak was sen­tenced to 26 week­ends in prison for war tax resis­tance, he brought along a jour­nal. In excerpts printed in this month’s issue of Friends Jour­nal, he shares some sto­ries behind the mind-numbing sta­tis­tics of mass incarceration.

[My fel­low pris­oner] John had this to say: ‘This is the biggest racket they have going. They like to keep you cir­cling in and out, and they’ll vio­late you for the small­est thing.’

Inmates re-evaluate the benevolent Quaker founders of their prison

From Rebecca Onion in Slate, a great piece about inmates at America’s old­est women’s prison rewrit­ing the his­tory of its benev­o­lent Quaker founders. Pris­on­ers research­ing the his­tory of the insti­tu­tion found that the com­mon story didn’t line up with what they found:

“a feel-good story” about Quaker reform­ers res­cu­ing women from abuse in men’s pris­ons and turned it into a darker, more com­pli­cated tale.

This arti­cle on the Quaker two Quaker women who started a prison in Indi­ana in 1873 who turn out not to be the benev­o­lent fig­ures handed down by his­tory should not be ter­ri­bly surprising.

A lot of 19th cen­tury Quaker reformist activ­ity was equal parts inter­est­ing and hor­rid. There was a lot of con­de­scen­sion toward lower classes–Quaker sci­en­tists did some of the ear­li­est eugen­ics stud­ies and one work­ing in South Jer­sey coined the word “moron” to label peo­ple of infe­rior genetics.

Octavia Hill before and after
Another type of Quaker social work con­sisted of scrub­bing the eth­nic­ity and quirk­i­ness out of social infe­ri­ors. There’s a great set of before and after pic­tures in Still Philadel­phia: A Pho­to­graphic His­tory, 1890–1940 that shows an immi­grant slum kitchen after the Quaker-connected Octavia Hill Asso­ci­a­tion got through with it. They took down wall­pa­per and swept the place–as if mantle­piece clut­ter were to blame for the insti­tu­tion­al­ized poverty and racism these immi­grants faced.

And yet… Some of these reform­ers’ work looks good on paper. The Octavia Hill ren­o­va­tion included adding a new win­dow in the kitchen. Clean­ing up ghet­tos and accli­ma­tiz­ing new immi­grants to the unwrit­ten norms of their new home­land is use­ful. I won­der if part of the prob­lem is that these reform­ers weren’t ask­ing the more rad­i­cal questions–Why were immi­grants flee­ing here? Why were they being offered bet­ter jobs? Who prof­ited by keep­ing them scared and desperate?

The twenty-first cen­tury inmates writ­ing this new his­tory have some per­spec­tive on this. They’re ask­ing why women com­mit­ting petty crimes were incar­cer­ated while one of the prison’s co-founders lived off of the gains of an hus­band who embez­zled large amounts of money.

In many ways this echoes the cur­rent dis­cus­sions of white priv­i­lege. Crime was not then and is not now enforced equally. In Fer­gu­son most of the town was lit­er­ally clas­si­fied as crim­i­nals based on the most sub­jec­tive of bro­ken laws. As pil­lars of the com­mu­nity Quak­ers were given a pass, both by out­siders and within our own ranks. We must ask hard ques­tions about seemingly-neutral con­flicts which result is ongo­ing pat­terns and we must con­stantly pay atten­tion to who’s defin­ing the definitions.

Also of inter­est: a long account of Rhonda Cof­fin (pic­tured), the prison co-founder whose hus­band lost the for­tune (and who was later drummed out of Friends). She’s a fas­ci­nat­ing and com­pli­cated fig­ure at the fore­front of the tec­tonic changes then occur­ring among Indi­ana Friends: wealthy, Evan­gel­i­cal, a social reformist and sup­port of revivals. She argued for fem­i­nine val­ues when estab­lish­ing a prison and yet was step­ping out of “tra­di­tional” female role her­self by doing this work.

How a Small Quaker Group Forced PNC Bank to Stop Financing Mountaintop Removal

How a Small Quaker Group Forced PNC Bank to Stop Financ­ing Moun­tain­top Removal. George Lakey exam­ines the tac­ti­cal deci­sions behind the Quaker envi­ron­men­tal groups organizing:

The group made a num­ber of deci­sions along the way that attracted crit­i­cism, even from some who agreed with EQAT that global warm­ing is a threat. EQAT rec­og­nized that many Amer­i­cans are in denial about the class war­fare rag­ing around them. Tar­get­ing a bank, we though, might help peo­ple smell the coffee.