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Through the Labyrinth of Steel Doors

I took a taxi to the Portland airport and flew to Houston, via Seattle. My ride to the show was one of the organizers and a friend of hers, and they were stuck in traffic. I sat outside the terminal with my stuff in the shade on a bench, watching the SUV’s and pickup trucks come and get everybody, many of them getting yelled at by an overzealous traffic guy. The man sitting beside me asks to borrow my phone. He calls his sister, who is waiting for him at the airport but they can’t find each other. I wonder if maybe she’s at the other Houston airport, so I make sure he explains to her we’re at George HW Bush Intercontinental. Then she figures out what’s wrong – he came to the wrong city. She’s in Dallas, a four-hour drive to the north. He’s never been to the US. He’s from an island in the Caribbean I had never heard of with a population of 20,000. It hadn’t occurred to him that Texas might have more than one international airport.

My ride arrives and we head into the city. Both of the women had been in prison for nonviolent drug-related crimes of one sort or another and had come out more leftwing than when they went in. We got to the Houston Cultural Center and there was a spiffy red and yellow flag with a hammer and sickle on it. The Houston Communist Party, proudly displaying their flag. There were a couple dozen people of all ages, mostly a bit older. Much of the crowd is made up of my most reliable fans, who are on my email list, folks I used to see more often when I more or less lived in Houston, at KPFT events or Green Party meetings.

The next day, Friday, I visited KOOP in Austin and spent an hour with veteran underground newspaper editor turned modern-day blogger Thorne Dreyer, then it was off to San Marcos for a concert in the outdoor pavilion of a suburban house belonging to a leftwing police sergeant. He voted for GW the first time but after that came to his senses and became a leftist. He tries to get his cops to watch Michael Moore films but most of them politely decline. Two of his cops came to the show. They were nice enough, but I’m not sure how much they liked it. Sergeant Dave Waugh apparently has a poster on the wall of his office at the police station from my Halliburton Boardroom Massacre tour. Definitely the kind of cop I like!

The next morning I discovered that there is no good coffee at the Austin airport, none. But I’m sure I slept better on the plane to Dallas that way, anyhow. In Dallas I got some coffee, rented a car and pointed the GPS towards the Carswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, where my friend Marie Mason is serving a 22-1/2 year prison sentence. The prison is next to a military base, but my GPS said it was on the base, so I went to the base’s entrance. The teenager in camouflage on guard politely directed me to the main entrance of the military base when I explained I was trying to visit the prison.

Miles away at the main entrance a woman gave me a piece of paper with directions to the entrance to the prison. Apparently this happens often. The directions are old, and some of the landmarks in them don’t exist anymore, such as a CVS pharmacy that has closed since someone printed them out. After getting thoroughly lost, I finally find the entrance to the prison, save the coordinates, and the guard tells me I’m ten minutes too late for visiting hours, they’re over for the day. It’s Saturday, and visiting days are Saturday and Sunday. He tells me which hours I can come back the next morning.

That evening I’m playing at a beautiful chapel sort of place, one of those big, spacious modern churches that the big cities of Texas are full of – gotta spend that oil money on something I guess. The place was designed for sound, but the stage was oddly set in the wrong part of the room, so the echo was horrendous. Whoever designed the building would have been really annoyed with whoever decided to put a stage in that part of the room, but it was a fun show, with a fairly small but very enthusiastic crowd. Dallas has a large population of folks from all over what we call the Middle East.

There in a suburb (the whole city is a suburb) called Richardson the directors of the Holy Land Foundation were found guilty of giving charity to hungry Palestinians in some fashion that the government decided was terroristic, and now they’re serving unbelievably long prison sentences of up to 65 years, in Communication Management Units similar to the one Marie is being held in. (Listen to my song about the the Holy Land 5 if you want.) I recognize faces in the crowd from the Palestine Film Festival in Dallas where I’ve played before. Others, such as one of the organizers of the show, Leslie Harris, I recognize from Camp Casey and many protest-related encounters since then. Camp Casey is what changed her life, and she went from organizing tailgate parties at football games to organizing tailgate parties at protests. Even as her life was was changed by living in the ditch with Cindy Sheehan beside Bush’s ranch in Crawford, some of the cops assigned to dealing with Camp Casey were also changed by the experience, became different people, different cops. What seemed like the remnants of Occupy Dallas were also there. I never got to Dallas during the Occupy Autumn, but the Occupy crowd was clearly represented, waving their hands in the air instead of clapping when someone said something they liked, with the sort of enthusiasm of people who just discovered this tradition of unobtrusive appreciation. I personally associate it with the anticapitalist movement around 1999-2001, but I’m sure it predates that scene as well.

In the morning I left Leslie’s house early to get to the prison on time, but there was massive construction going on at one of the interchanges and I missed the exit and had to drive an extra twenty miles or so, and by the time I got to the gate the first window of opportunity was over, which was from like 8 to 9 am, and the next one was at around 11. I went and got more caffeinated at a nearby Starbucks full of camouflaged soldiers on breaks, who all looked tired and worn down. When I got back to the gate there was a line of cars waiting along the road for the gate to open. Should’ve got there sooner, I realized. But the line moved, slowly. I got to the gate house and the harried-looking man there told me I couldn’t go in because the expiration date on my driver’s license is faded (which it is). I should have brought my passport for extra ID but I didn’t. I sat there for a couple minutes or so thinking about the possibility that I had come all the way to Texas to visit Marie in prison and would be turned away for having some faded text on my stupid Oregon driver’s license. He called someone and came back and told me I could go in, that they’d decide whether my ID was OK further on in the visitation process.

I drove down the barren streets in the neighborhood past the gate. It was a very basic kind of prefabricated neighborhood clearly intended to house workers, very much like the places where the soldiers lived in the massive adjoining military base. There are signs all over the place announcing that any visitors can be searched anytime, but there was no one around who looked like they had any time to search a car, the streets were empty. The guard at the gate had told me to take a right, head towards the big flag, then park in the lot beyond it. The big flag was indeed big, and impossible to miss. It flew proudly directly in front of the building where visitors enter the prison. The friendly, obese man behind the desk smiled and said, “we’ve been waiting for you!” I wasn’t sure if that was about the faded expiration date on my license or because I was visiting one of the few women held in this ultra-maximum-security prison within a prison that are the CMU’s, nicknamed Little Guantanamos, since most of the prisoners in them are of Muslim extraction.

Visiting Marie there at Carswell is a special procedure, not like visiting most of the thousands of prisoners at this huge complex surrounded by multiple, very tall, very barbed-wire fences, overseen by a tower, presumably staffed with snipers. A guard escorts a group of us visitors to a big room where most of the visitation is taking place. I’m instructed to wait until another guard comes to get me. I don’t want to be nosy, so I sit close to the wall, several meters away from the nearest group of visitors and prisoners hanging out together. I can’t hear much of what people are saying, but from the body language of everybody in the room it’s completely clear – the sadness, the guilt, the mourning, the attempts at putting on a brave face, the stiff upper lips, it’s all there on everybody’s faces as clear as tattoos.

A guard comes to get me. He’s a clean, polite, short man with a close-cropped goti and an Italian name. His demeanor seems highly professional, he strikes me more like Secret Service or FBI rather than what I imagine prison guards to be like. I don’t know many prison guards, but you hear about the sadistic rapists, like the 7 or 8 from this very prison who are themselves in another prison now for raping inmates – not like this clean, polite professional. He takes me through a variety of the biggest metal doors I have ever seen, doors that make the bomb-proof buildings I’ve seen in Ireland look like tin foil. They always came in sets of twos, and the guard always needed someone else to let us in. They all have these massive keys, the size of the old ones, but higher-tech-looking. The doors, of course, all open and close by themselves, slowly, deliberately, so you can feel just how massive they are. Each one must weigh a ton.

Finally I’m led into a room, completely barren except for an odd poster of the Statue of Liberty or something, and two card tables with a few plastic chairs around them. The tables are next to each other. The guard takes one of the tables and moves it to the other end of the room. The room is around four square meters, not very big, but he takes his table as far from the other one as he can. A door opens after a few minutes, and there is Marie in her blue prison jumpsuit. I then realized that the guard was trying to give us as much space as he could under the circumstances during our visit. Marie and I hugged briefly – she had already told me over the phone or in a letter how full-blown hugging is forbidden, but a brief greeting hug seems to be acceptable.

I hadn’t seen Marie in person for years, since she was under house arrest in Michigan. She looks a lot like she used to except for the gray hair and the pallor of a person who lives in a cage with very little access to direct sunlight. In her face is the clear look of an animal who is attempting to live a life inside a cage. Not surprising to see that look, since that’s the situation she’s in. We talk about her conditions and things she could use in there. The problem is, there’s so little she’s allowed to do.

Where she was held before, at Waseca up north, closer to home, to where most of her family and friends live, she was allowed to play the guitar and there was regular access to social activities with other prisoners at least. Then she was moved to Carswell, a thousand miles from most of her personal connections, to a city where she didn’t even know a single person, for example, someone with whom her children could stay when they came to visit, so they didn’t have to pay for a hotel. There at Carswell she had access to a guitar for a little while every week or two, that was it. The occasional phone call, the occasional visit on some weekends when someone like me made the trek to Dallas from somewhere far away.

There are only twenty women in her unit in total. Most of them are crazy, and badly-behaved, and her unit is under lockdown much of the time. Several of the prisoners are some of the finest political prisoners you could imagine. Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani scientist who supposedly attempted to defend herself against American soldiers who had kidnapped her. Ana Belen Montes, the high-ranking Defense Department official convicted of spying for Cuba for 25 years, about whom I wrote a song about ten years ago. And Marie Mason, convicted of several cases of politically-motivated arson. Like Montes, Marie did not hurt anyone in carrying out her offenses, but now, like Montes, she is serving a sentence many times the length of sentences served by lots of actually violent criminals. The mix of the insane and the political seems like such an obvious reference to the Soviet gulag it’s almost beyond belief that it’s happening today in the USA, but I guess there is no more Soviet Union to set the standards we’re supposed to be avoiding anymore.

Since being convicted Marie has become what we could call a third-tier celebrity – famous among a limited crowd of people, but for some she’s certainly a rock star, along with people like Eric McDavid, Daniel McGowan, Bill Rodgers, Rod Coronado, Peg Millett – an unrepentant radical environmentalist of the direct action variety. The point can’t easily be missed by anyone who sees her up close – she has an amateur tattoo job on her left arm that has been added to a more professional, circular, Celtic-looking piece of body art. On one end of the circle is etched “A.L.F.”, and on the other side, “E.L.F.”

We go back and forth talking about politics and talking about life in prison. Mostly I’m asking questions and she’s answering them. I wish I could have brought in a recording device. She has a lot to say about the state of the environmental movement, the Occupy movement, and more. If these movements were a bit more movement-like we’d have more to talk about, but as is so often the case with two leftwingers in the US these days having a conversation about politics, most hopeful references in terms of overthrowing established orders usually have something to do with Latin America or the Arab world.

We talk about those perennial questions of what do you do when you live in such desperate times and most people are not responding with the militancy that change requires. What is it we should be doing, at least among those who are willing to make great sacrifices for the cause? What are the most useful courses of action? Is Derrick Jensen right or wrong? We probably don’t see eye to eye on all these questions, but we both enjoy the discussion, and Marie is, as always, open to seriously considering different viewpoints. She’s concerned about becoming out of touch with the world around her – an obviously relevant concern in her situation. She wants to remain engaged somehow or other, although cut off from the physical outside world as well as from the virtual world, the internet, only allowed a limited amount of monitored, restricted communication time. She says something positive about the Guardian, a newspaper I also read regularly. She’s so hesitant to ask for anything from anyone. I order her a subscription to the Guardian Weekly when I get online the next day.

We’re not allowed musical instruments in there or anything else as far as I know, but I wish we could play music together. I regret that I didn’t just try organizing a little a cappela singing with her – she’s a good singer. But there’s so much to talk about, and time seems so short. I had to leave my phone behind so I don’t know what time it is, but after two or three hours our time’s up. The guards have changed during our visit, and now the guard is an absolutely massive, musclebound man of unmistakably Nordic descent. He looks like Thor, complete with shoulder-length, light blond hair, but his shoulders are wider, and the muscles on his arms, torso and neck are so huge that I wonder if he has the flexibility to touch his own waist.

Thor is even more reserved than the last guard, and clearly doesn’t want to be in the position of telling Marie her visit is over. He waits patiently while we say our last good-byes. Marie walks down a hallway where I’m not allowed to follow, smiling but with tears in her eyes. Thor and I walk together through the labyrinth of steel doors together in silence.

When we’re outside I venture a little communication. “I wish she could have a guitar,” I say.

“I was trying not to listen in on your conversation,” he said, “but I’ll see what I can do about getting her more access to the music room.”

You’re terribly understaffed here, is that right? I had heard this from Marie, about cuts to staff at this prison. Thor sort of acknowledged this, but seemed not to want to get too much into that subject. What he did make clear, in a roundabout way, was that letting Marie have access to the music room was not a time-consuming or difficult thing for him to arrange, but that it wasn’t up to him. He told me Marie is such a well-behaved prisoner that it’s easy for the guards to forget she’s there. The look on his face, as with the guard before him, told me that he felt seriously conflicted about what must have felt like keeping his mother under lock and key. Many prisoners fit the part – they “look like criminals,” you might say. They’re covered with tattoos, they’re obviously angry with life, they treat guards and each other with blatant disrespect, and so on. Marie doesn’t fit the mold in any way, and I’m pretty sure I could see how uncomfortable this was for these guards.

I drove to the airport, returned my rental car, and flew from Houston back to Portland, via Denver. The flight from Houston to Denver was full of people who had apparently never flown before. The flight was somewhat delayed and everybody on the plane, it seemed, were terribly concerned that they were going to miss their connection and be stranded forever at the Denver airport. Many people were wondering whether the airline was going to pay for a hotel in Denver if they were stranded there. They were constantly harassing the flight attendants for information of all kinds, and all the flight attendants could tell them was that the airline people would do everything they could to make sure they got to their destinations, but this vague bit of information only pissed people off even more.

Having done this before, I knew that probably we’d make our connections, because the folks on the ground in Denver, which was the hub city for the airline in question, would know this flight was delayed and would delay the various connections, which they did. If people did miss their last connection and the airline didn’t want to pay for their hotel room, the flight attendants were not the right airline employees to be whining to – you had to save the whining for the customer service desk, if you wanted your whining to actually accomplish anything other than allowing you to blow off steam at some low-wage peon. But blowing off steam at low-wage peons is an American pastime, Americans just do that without giving it any thought, it seems.

In Portland I shared a shuttle with an Army veteran who was heading home after visiting his girlfriend, who is herself in the Army, and he had just been visiting her on another Texas military base.

I had a smoke on my porch, enjoying the fresh air that I usually take for granted, and went to sleep in my comfortable bed, with no crazy people waking up sweating and screaming anywhere nearby, no musclebound jail guards walking by with their keys clattering, no fluorescent lights.

The next day I went for a walk to a cafe and played with my daughter in a park, something Marie won’t be able to do with her kids until they are well into middle age, unless something dramatic happens between now and Marie’s release date that changes the scenario. I hope so.

David Rovics is a musician living in Portland, Oregon. Help him record his new album, Unindicted Co-Conspirator, by donating to his Kickerstarter page.

More articles by:

David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon.

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