I’m out of prison but I’m still not free: the continuing struggles of the Y-12 Three

Washington, DC (openDemocracy) – “Sabotage of the national defense.” That was Judge Amal Thapar’s ruling when three peace protestors entered the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and daubed biblical slogans on the walls. Thapar handed down his judgment in May of 2013, and sentenced Greg Boertje-Obed, Sister Megan Rice and Michael Walli to prison terms of three to five years each.

Rice has a very different view of what happened that day when she and her colleagues entered the supposedly high-security complex. “There was no act of sabotage,” she told me in an interview: “It was an effort to heal a declining, decaying and broken facility. Ours was an act of love and compassion for the common good.”

Two years and eight days after their incarceration, the Y-12 Three—otherwise known as the “Transform Now Plowshares” or simply “MGM” after their first name initials—were released from jail when the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed their sabotage conviction.  A second charge of “depredation of government property” is still pending, but prosecutors have said that they won’t press for re-imprisonment when the case comes up again in September.

Closure, however, remains a distant prospect. “I’m out of prison but I’m still not free,” Rice said when I talked to her about her feelings after her release. “Freedom for one person is incomplete without freedom for all, whether oppression is rooted in the threat of nuclear weapons or unjust incarceration.”

“I certainly don’t feel free,” Rice continued, “or any free-er than when I was in prison, except for some obvious and welcome logistical things that I’m now able to do. Prison was another great opportunity to create relationships and learn from others, and that learning has widened my awareness of the devastation of the psyche that comes from years of not addressing the truth—the truth that our systems are unhealthy because they’re based on false principles of economy, ecology and morality and not the common good.”

This constant concern for others and the health of the wider struggle has been a common feature of the Y-12 Three’s beliefs and actions both in and out of prison. In August of 2015 I spoke to each of them about their experiences. Walli is living in the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington DC, where he’s been a resident on and off since 1987. Rice is in the same city, living with other members of her religious order, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. And Boertje-Obed has returned to his home in Duluth, Minnesota, another Catholic Worker House that was started by his wife Michelle.

Walli was the first of the group to hear about the success of their appeal in a phone call from their lawyers. “A few days went past and then on the Saturday [May 16th of 2015] I was told to go to the medical records section. There was only one employee there but she processed me out, and I was met by a Catholic priest from Pennsylvania who had served time in the same prison a few years before for protesting the war against Iraq.”

On the same day, Rice was following her normal schedule by listening to the BBC World Service News, when she heard the announcer declare their imminent release. “So I began to pack my things and say goodbye, but no one said anything to me officially until a cousin of mine from Brooklyn who happened to be making a scheduled visit was taken aside by a guard and asked what would happen if I were to be released. She told him that she would pick me up and take me home. He didn’t say anything to me, but a few hours later I was out.”

Boertje-Obed had no warning at all. “At three o’clock a guard said ‘come with me to the superintendent’s office.’ He didn’t say what for, but you usually go there if you’re in trouble.” Instead he was offered a phone call to his wife and a one-way bus ticket to Knoxville (the wrong destination due to a mix-up by the prison bureaucracy), from where he found his way back to Duluth with the help of his friends.

“There was no advance notice from the authorities,” he told me, “so I couldn’t say goodbye to anyone—they didn’t let me go back to the cell block or organize my belongings so I could give my things away. I made deep friendships in prison because you’re sharing suffering together, going through real oppression. Some of us tried to resist the racism that puts people into different gangs inside, so I and a few others made a point of sitting at an integrated table in the dining hall. Previously I had joined a Minnesota table, not realizing that it was just for white people. But after sitting at the integrated table I couldn’t go back to a segregated one.”

Rice had the same reaction: “I felt so badly for the other prisoners who were my friends. It’s very difficult spending time doing what I’m doing now while knowing that they are still in jail, when they deserve to be on the clemency list just as much as I do.” For her and the other two protestors, these relationships of love and solidarity—grounded in the vision of a compassionate creator—give them enormous inner strength and confidence.

“I see religion, said Rice, “as living according to the gifts that we have been given by our creator, who has revealed to me through many signs and wonders that God is infinitely compassionate and benevolent, who can heal out of every catastrophe and bring good out of every event, so long as we are in harmony with God’s purposes.”

But what are “God’s purposes?” That question is crucial in understanding how religion plays into social action.  Boertje-Obed answered it like this:

“It’s based on inner voices like Gandhi or the Quakers. In moments of quiet you will hear messages of what to do. Of course you have to test these voices by consulting with others and reflecting on the values of what would be ‘good’—your inner voice isn’t God if it’s going to cause harm to other people. So when we are preparing for a Ploughshares [peace] action we go to great lengths to ensure that people don’t feel threatened and aren’t hurt in any way.

Megan, Michael and I acted based on our faith in God. Our faith leads us to say, ‘justice is coming, justice is stronger than injustice. Nonviolence is better, stronger, more secure, and safer than violence.’ We all felt that God was leading us to do this particular action and we knew that it might involve years of separation, suffering and pain. Jail is not a pretty place. But we felt that God wanted us to take this risk and that God is on our side. That’s the only thing that made our actions make sense.”

Support from the outside also helped. “We had never acted in Tennessee before,” Boertje-Obed continued, “but there was a great outpouring of support from people locally including around the Y-12 complex, which is a little surprising since so many of them work and make their livelihoods there.”  “They are the people,” added Rice, “who know why the plant has to be transformed, and that much more life giving and sustaining alternatives are available.

“We got hundreds of letters expressing support,” said Boertje-Obed, “contact with the outside world makes a huge difference because your information in prison is so limited. You don’t know what’s going on outside, so it’s an immense boost to get mail from people. In some jails you can’t even receive a letter, only a postcard, and not even a picture postcard but only a plain one.”

I sent copies of articles from Transformation to MGM when I was writing about their stories, carefully selecting the ones I thought would make it through the censorship of the US prison system. Rice then distributed the pieces to other inmates.  “I honor your readership,” she told me, “anyone who is reading about the needs of the common good is acting with the energy, the power, the love, and the gifts that we have received from our common creator—the one who has made everything out of love, in love, and for love.”

Since their release, Boertje-Obed, Rice and Walli have continued their work against nuclear weapons, giving interviews and attending events like the memorial for Nagasaki and Hiroshima that was held outside the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge on August 8th 2015. Boertje-Obed is part of Veterans for Peace in Duluth and numerous other groups. Walli volunteers for the Catholic Workers Movement. “There are many ways to express opposition to nuclear weapons and the madness our country is leading the world into. We value all of them. We’re still hopeful. We are fully occupied.”

“Before [prison] you were not a credible person to speak about the nuclear situation as well as prison conditions,” Rice concluded, “but now I’m certainly feeling that there’s a wider interest in the message of our action, and that has really energized and exhilarated me.

How could there ever be one superpower on this shared planet? It has to be about the common good. St Thomas Aquinas and most other prophets through history have seen the same guiding vision of harmony and balance that is patterned in nature.

Image Source: Nicolas Raymond, Flickr, Creative Commons Nuclear Burst Grunge Flag

Image Source: Nicolas Raymond, Flickr, Creative Commons
Nuclear Burst Grunge Flag

So long as one nuclear bomb exists it is my responsibility to speak out and resist it for the common good in whatever way I can.”

This report was prepared by MICHAEL EDWARDS for openDemocracy.