Packing for Prison

When a senior citizen gets ready for her first stint in the Big House, some chores need doing.

Last Friday afternoon, Cheryl Sommers carefully bent over and placed a ceramic bowl into a moving box on the floor of her studio. The kitchen dishes were already wrapped and neatly stacked inside the box. She straightened up. “The trick is not to make one box too heavy,” the 68-year-old said. “Too much, and I can’t lift it.”

The retired schoolteacher was clearing out her studio to make way for a subletter she’d found to rent out her place for the next three months. In just four days, Sommers was due to turn herself in at the gates of the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, a low-security prison for female inmates. In November, she was arrested for trespassing onto a US Army base in Georgia after she crawled beneath a wire fence to gain access to the site.

While 36 fellow activists were also arrested for trespassing, Sommers was one of the oldest, and perhaps the greenest. Unlike many of the agitators on hand, she had never participated in an act of civil disobedience before. Nor had she spent a single minute in the pokey. She hadn’t even been to South America, the continent where the atrocities she was protesting took place.

But now she was prepared to spend three months of her life in a cell.

“I don’t regret what I did,” she said as she packed. “One of my purposes is to write from prison. I figured I had a stronger voice inside prison than outside.”

In the days leading to her incarceration, Sommers has planned well. She bought a pair of transitional bifocals that change color with the sunlight, since the prison allows only one pair of glasses per inmate. She got her hair shorn. “This will have to last me three months,” she said as she tugged at the salt-and-pepper hairdo. “I didn’t want someone in prison cutting my hair.”

Her apartment bore all the marks of a move-out in progress. A crumpled throw rug in the living room was crisscrossed by vacuum-cleaner cords; empty packing boxes leaned against a wall; stacks of papers, books, magazines, and bills lay in piles before ultimately finding the recycle bin. A television in the bedroom was tuned to a C-SPAN debate in which congressmen discussed homeland security.

“We didn’t get far,” Sommers said of her crawl beneath the fence. “They knew we were coming.”

Until she was arrested in Georgia, Sommers said, she had never broken the law. She wasn’t much for protests, either. In the late 1960s, she lived in Berkeley, raised two daughters, and worked as a fifth-grade teacher. She saw the tumult occurring, but by her own recollection, turned a blind eye to it.

“I walked around the protestors then,” she said with some regret. “I physically avoided them.”

After her kids grew up and moved out of Berkeley, Sommers attended St. Joseph the Worker Church, where Father Bill O’Donnell was as famous for his protests as for his friendship with actor and activist Martin Sheen. O’Donnell regularly denounced the School of the Americas, a US-funded combat training facility for Latin American soldiers located in Panama. The school’s opponents complained that it trained armies that ultimately turned against the citizens of Central and South America. O’Donnell invited speakers to visit the church, who told stories of roaming goon squads that carried out assassinations in the streets. The training camp, according to critics, eventually moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, and was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. For the past four years, protestors have regularly shown up en masse at the gates of the fort to protest the institute’s existence.

Initially, Sommers wanted to “cross the line” in 2004, but she was afraid. She’d been told it would cost $2,000 in legal fees off the bat, and take a year to clear up — not to mention possible prison time for trespassing on federal property. “I realized I wasn’t ready,” she said.

But at a St. Joseph meeting in January 2005, Sommers was particularly moved by the story from a man named Carlos who’d just returned from Colombia. Carlos had seen entire families executed, children tortured, people kidnapped — all perpetrated by soldiers trained by the American government.

A few weeks later, word reached the church that Carlos had been shot dead.

“That was it for me,” Sommers said. She began to weep at the thought, and took a seat on the edge of her bed. “I thought, this can’t go on,” she said. “I have to speak up.”

To free up some cash, she sold a rental home in Oakland. The money eased her retirement and cleared the way for her to take action.

In November, she took her first trip to Georgia and prepared to make her run. Nearly twenty thousand activists showed up. A few led the way to a “safe pocket” along the wire fence and peeled it back to create an eighteen-inch gap. Two accomplices held back the fencing while the activists wiggled through.

When her turn came, Sommers remembers thinking clearly about the consequences. “I hope this makes a difference,” she said.

Sommers is unsure what a stint in federal prison holds for her. Short-timers are usually lumped into the “satellite camp,” which has a reputation as a volatile unit — guards can get itchy around new faces.

A friend gave her Jailed for Justice, a manifesto for the conscientious prisoner. Sommers said she has put off reading it. “I couldn’t,” she said. “I didn’t want to really worry about it.”

When she told her two grown daughters she was facing ninety days in prison, she said their response was: You? “No one expected this from me,” she said as she took a break from packing.

“I never put myself on the line,” she said. “I always steered clear from it. … I felt bad that I didn’t say anything at the time, and I always made excuses one way or the other.”

Then she raised her head.

“Not this time.”

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