Mark Colville’s Prison Reflections

Mark Colville is one of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, along with Jonah House member Liz McAlister and five others. He’s been in jail exactly one year today. The following is a prison epistle that powerfully shows the injustice of the so-called justice system.

March 2019

Dear Friends,

Greetings and hugs all around! With a grateful heart I commend all who continue to make the sacrifices necessary to keep our doors at the Amistad Catholic Worker open, the kitchen warm, and the table set, especially during these harsh months and under the added strain of my extended absence. For some time now, I’ve hesitated to check in from here in Georgia before being able to offer a bit of clarity with regard to the legal situation of the Kings Bay Plowshares in Brunswick Federal Court. But with delays encroaching now into Spring, and still no action being taken by the magistrate judge on our pretrial motions, a brief update has become increasingly overdue.

Actually, what has been most on my heart these past three months is a deep sense of responsibility to speak about this jail where I’ve been warehoused now for the better part of a year. It is labeled a “detention center,” so-called because the people being kept here have been arrested but have not yet had their cases adjudicated. Considered a temporary holding facility, its conditions and amenities are suited to accommodate the accused for a a few weeks or a month at most, irrespective of the reality that – for reasons I’ll explain in a moment – half a year or more is closer to the average length of stay. This means that all the detained, most of whom are suspected of low-level or nonviolent offenses, are held in maximum security conditions for months, and in some cases years, on end. We are locked down on crowded cellblocks, essentially for 24 hours a day. The diet is heavy on starch, sugar and sodium, which rapidly foster obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease when combined with a sedentary lifestyle.(I’ve witnessed three people having strokes, and one man I knew died of heart failure in his cell late last summer). There is no access to the outdoors nor to physical recreation of any kind; no exercise permitted outside of one’s cell; no visits with loved ones except by video monitor; no use of a library, computer or internet. It also seems to be common knowledge that we are sitting on top of a toxic waste dump, but I have neither the means nor the fortitude to investigate that particular report.

As for the 400 to 500 detainees here, most are in the same predicament as Liz, Steve and I, being held indefinitely with their cases pending. Several systemic factors conspire to make this so.Bail is generally set extremely high, unaffordably so for many, although this can sometimes be remedied at a bail reduction hearing after at least six weeks have passed. The bigger issue, though, is what’s referred to as the “probation hold.” In Glynn County, persons arrested for any reason while on probation can be jailed for renewable terms of up to 60 days, and simply forced to wait until a probation violation hearing is scheduled. As anyone who’s had the experience knows, virtually any encounter with a police officer on probation can result in an arrest, regardless of probable cause or the likelihood of an infraction being provable in court . Merely being on probation is reason enough.

Practically speaking, lengthy probation terms usually have little to do with supervision, rehabilitation or public safety. They have plenty to do with funneling people back through the criminal justice industrial complex, which seems to be a significant source of revenue and employment in municipalities like this one. Convictions in the Brunswick court, 90 percent of which are obtained by plea bargain, commonly bring sentences which include probation terms of between 3 and 20 years! The prisoners here call it being “on paper.” Once they are on a probation hold, an investigation of the newly-alleged crime can proceed, or not, at the leisure of the D.A.’s office. Of course, whether or not they find evidence, the living conditions at the detention center will usually provide ample coercive power to secure another conviction. Obviously, after 60 or 120 or 180 days of 24-hour lockdown, almost anyone is well-disposed to accept whatever plea will result in an immediate release, even if it means being on paper for another decade. Thus, there is ensured an endless supply of indefinite detainees at the Glynn County Detention Center, and their demographic won’t surprise anyone; at present, I am one of three white people in a cell block of thirty-four.

From the inside, I find the real horror of all this in its utter normalcy. Sometimes it takes a rigorous act of the will to maintain a personal relationship with reality. I’m living in a place where hundreds of people accused of low-level and/or nonviolent crimes are being held indefinitely, under maximum security conditions, having neither been granted due process, nor convicted nor sentenced. The presumption of innocence is, quite literally, a punchline. The totalitarian culture of coercion that dictates every aspect of life in a maximum security jail has essentially chewed up and swallowed the “justice system” here, such that it is not honestly possible to even use that term without the disclaimer of quotation marks. Broken families bear a terrible burden, some driven from poverty into destitution. The racial bias could hardly be more obvious. Yet it all seems to function beyond significant public notice, and has nothing to do with questions of morality, necessity, or service to the public good.

Of late, I’ve grown convinced that it couldn’t be more fitting for the Kings Bay Plowshares to have been swept up and tossed into a human dumpster such as this. The racket they run here gives real substance, on the neighborhood level, to what U.S. nuclear policy – our national religion – has been preaching to every child born on the planet for the last seventy-five years: No Lives Matter. However long it might draw out, I hope that my incarceration here will in some way speak this truth. The idols we named at Kings Bay are not sleeping. They demand sacrifice. The god of the national security state feasts on the blood of the poor.

“The ultimate logic of racism is genocide.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., March, 1968. Yes, indeed.

– Mark Colville

[As of this writing, the Kings Bay Plowshares have been waiting many months for a ruling from magistrate judge Benjamin Cheesbro on a pre-trial argument they have placed before the court. The essence of their position is that a jury should be allowed to hear and consider the principles of faith and conscience that informed their action at Kings Bay, and that the government has acted improperly by filing criminal charges against them. The seven were arrested on April 5, 2018.]

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