March 6, 2023
C/O Beck Strasse 14
Dear Nukewatch friends, colleagues, comrades,
My incarceration in Germany was short compared to the other prisoners I met and got to know. The “open prison” at Glasmoor, 45 minutes from Hamburg, was a great relief from the conditions at the U.S. jails and prisons I’ve experienced. I wrote this general greeting just before being released February 28. Now I’m back home with Marion [my wife] at her flat in Hamburg and we’re looking forward to the ICAN conference in Oslo March 9 and 10.
The six weeks in the very-minimum security Glasmoor prison camp, after my first week of corona quarantine in solitary at the regular prison at Billwerder, were challenging because of my terribly poor German language skills. It was difficult to follow orders, but in my defense, I’m not so good at that in any language. Luckily, most of the official commands were meant for others and were merely annoying to anyone trying to read or sleep. After a while, I learned to recognize the drift of what was being demanded, or, alternately, understood that that message was gibberish.
On the morning of Tues., January 10, when I went inside the great wall of Billwerder prison in Hamburg, Marion and her colleagues had organized a brief send-off rally directly in front of the entrance. Peaceniks from the area turned out to hear a few short speeches and to say ‘see you later’ to me. (On February 15, I got a note from a friend in Hamburg who signed off saying, “See you when you get out, that is if they let you out.”) My friend Greg Klave said about a photo of me heading toward Billwerder’s imposing 30-foot poured concrete wall, that I looked like I was going on a camping expedition. He might have been projecting, because all the two of us have been doing regularly since 1978 is adventuring in the wilderness in canoes. It is true that this particular “portage” was an adventure of a new and different kind.
With a rally just outside the gate, I wondered about the possible reaction of some of the U.S. prison authorities I’ve met. I thought that perhaps such an event wouldn’t be looked on as something jovial by the gatekeepers, but as it turned out, the officials inside the wall didn’t appear to have noticed the event.
My first eight days at Billwerder were strangely quiet and contemplative, since the Covid rules required a five-day “quarantine.” This meant solitary confinement, which meant a 3D-floor cell with no books or reading materials. Why books were forbidden was never explained. The prohibition seemed ridiculous, since the authorities allowed me to wear my own clothes and bring in paper, pens, stamps, and envelopes. So, for a week in a very modern and well-furnished cell, I wrote notes and letters, gazed out the window overlooking the prison yard, did some light exercise, made countless cups of tea using the provided electric hot pot, and (as our teacher Mr. Albert Fenske used to suggest to his students), contemplated the nature of reality.
Garbled announcements in German blared from the intercom, and I missed most of the fine points. On the first morning I thought that I’d lost out on breakfast by not responding to what sounded like “gzhwaunschmaltschtz” over the air. It turned out that no breakfast is delivered. The food was delivered once a day in a presentation that included a hot meal in a covered tin around 11:30 a.m., and a plastic bag full of sliced bread, cheese, condiments, packaged jelly, sugary yogurt or pudding, and a piece of fruit. The bagged items constituted our evening meal and the following day’s breakfast.
In my roomy single cell, I had a writing desk, a big window, a closet, two book shelves, a semiprivate washroom set behind a pair of knee walls, and an electric hot pot. The window was inside a set of steel bars, but opened to the inside and accessed some outside air. The outer window sill between the glass and the bars was good for keeping cheese and yogurt chilled.
I was annoyed that I’d gotten no fresh air time out of the solitary cell in three days, when, on the third day, I was escorted to a 36’-by-60’ pen that had poured-concrete walls about 15’ high, for a one-hour bit of outdoor time. I walked around and around by myself, kicking pebbles off the concrete walk and thinking of my old dad who would argue about the absurdity of my chosen style of protest and resistance. There was no denying at that point that he was on to something about the absurd. Beckett wrote “we always find something to give us the impression that we exist.” but maybe he could have written “we usually” do.
Between January 10th and 17th, that was the only time I was outside in the air. This is officially some sort of a rule violation since a few people have told me that regulations stipulate every prisoner is supposed to get one hour out of the cell every day. I penned a note to our friendly attorney in Bonn, but in the big scheme of things my stay was not bad for an introvert. I told my friend, A. Powell, that there was no torture, but that they do try and reduce the prison population by boring us to death.
On the Tuesday the 17th I was transferred by bus to the very-low-security JVA Glasmoor “open prison,” so-called because the place allows prisoners a certain amount of time, between Friday and Sunday afternoons, off the grounds to be with family or friends. Designed for prisoners at the end of long sentences and preparing to return to the streets, this co-ed joint (250 men, 20 women) is modern, clean, humanely administered, and conscientiously respectful in its treatment of inmates. Everyone is addressed as Mr. or Ms., and the guards seem well adjusted rather than sour, angry, distrustful, and full of spite like in the U.S. slammers I’ve been to.
The four-person cells in Building 1 where I was assigned each have a private shower, and a small kitchen with a little fridge, and a hot pot for tea and coffee, and two cells with two beds each, and doors that close with keys given to us. The police can come in with universal keys and make unannounced “control” searches (and do so on a seemingly random basis), but don’t seem overly bent on finding anything other than the seriously verboten cell phone.
My first two cellies are finishing up 5 and 8-year bits for drug trafficking. “R” immediately shook hands upon my arrival, didn’t seem to mind my interruption of his and the M’s “space.” He began calling me “brother” immediately, and said all the food in the fridge and the cupboards was free for the taking, to help myself, and to make myself at home. Since he knew I arrived without any food, he began cooking for me from the things he got through commissary. The food system here is the same as Billwerder, with a hot tin and a bag of bread and other things once a day. Prisoners with means can order on Tuesdays from a dictionary-length commissary list written in 9-point type, and pick up the goods on Thursdays. I messed up my first week’s order and was dependent on R another week until finally I was able to contribute to the food supply.
After a week, one cellie moved to another building and so our unit had a lot of room, and we each have had our own sleeping room with three lights we control, a large south-facing window, two bookshelves, a closet, and a writing desk. In the little kitchen, we cook together most of the time, although he explained he has to eat alone in his cell because of his experience of 2-and-1/2 years of solitary confinement. If R’s stories are true, he’s a former body guard and ‘heavy’ for a Colombian drug cartel who’s worked as a hired gun in Colombia, Mexico, Russia, Israel, and Switzerland. He tells me flabbergasting stories of his life. Born in Iran but with a German passport, R said he completely understands my refusal to pay the courts “any goddamn money,” shaking my hand and saying “great respect, my brother.” In spite of becoming friends, I don’t think I’ll be joining him in the Hells Angels, the Aryan Brotherhood, or even getting a tattoo any time soon.
After a few days of extra space, a short-term inmate who speaks Polish and German but no English, joined us in the cell. The three of us got along cooking meals together that were heavy on pasta, rice, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. The bread supply from the prison is generous so everybody not on an exercise program gains weight pretty easily.
Like many U.S. joints, there is a price that prisoners pay for the privilege of 24 weekend ‘holiday’ trips away every year. Here, we are obliged to toil for 7 hours Monday-Thursday, and 4 hours Friday, at light industrial hand work given to us in a large heated garage. For most of the time, I sit with five or six others around a large table placing small items in small Ziplock bags. Later, 50 of the bags get counted out and put in a cardboard box that gets taped shut and ID’d with a sticker. The boxes are then stacked in rows on pallets which are later wrapped about 2,000 times by a mechanized Saran wrap device, and then fork lifted out to a beautiful post-and-beam barn which is built like Fort Knox.
On February 14, we put labels on small boxes, covering up wrongly placed labels. This meant unwrapping then unpacking whole forklift loads of these little boxes, relabeling them all, and then replacing them in stacks of pallets for the forklift. It’s like an exercise routine except that the only result is just carpal tunnel or a nervous condition.
The crew is deliberately and comically slow at the work, and we take a break outside every 20 or 30 minutes. I walk across a parking lot to look at the neighbor’s horses while most everyone else smokes cigarettes. One morning I watched the horse whisperer patiently brush a big tan mare from head to toe while the horse watched me.
At the work table, there is a lot of kidding and story-telling, mostly coming from R who has the gift. The crew smirks, rolls their eyes, grins, laughs, and groans in disbelief or pushes back with dry rebuttals at the stories he shares. My first day A., who worked as the half-time janitor for the whole room, boldly asked me directly upon seeing a new man, “What’s your name? What are you in for?” When I told him political protest against nuclear weapons, he pointed at me and said, “Greenpeace!” Then, pointing to the work table I’d been assigned to he declared, “Okay, this is the Greenpeace table.” Again, R was my interpreter and guide to the rules in this deeply understated and melancholy world of prison hand work.
The evenings have been busy with mail, phone calls, cooking dinner, and corresponding. I did get one whole week without work after I complained a second time to the in-house medical staff about shoulder pain. The first time I got a Thursday and Friday off, and the next time I got a Thursday and Friday and the following week. That allowed for some writing and correspondence.
And after two weeks of paperwork and off-property trips, I have earned the privilege of going out from 3 p.m. Friday, until 4:30 p.m. Sunday, spending the time with Marion at her Hamburg flat. One weekend, the two of us made a 4-hour train trip to Cologne for a Campaign Council meeting. I mostly skipped out on the discussion (all in German) but enjoyed an exhibit at a major city museum just down the block. I had to train back to Glasmoor on my own early Sunday, because the meetings continued while I had to be back at open prison. The next Saturday, February 25th, we trained to Berlin for a large anti-war rally which made international news that reported a crowd of 50,000. We are keeping track of a major anti-war Open Letter on Ukraine from Alice Schwarz, et al., calling for an end to weapons deliveries, a ceasefire, and a start on peace negotiations, which has obtained over 750,000 signatures. The same dilemma of right-wing and left-wing acrimony is splitting anti-war communities in countries all over. The Code Pink Board asked Medea Benjamin not to speak at a rally in D.C., while here there are groups and individuals splitting on the Open Letter over questions about the background of groups or individuals that have already signed. Some are asking others to withdraw their support. But who cares? The War Party does not have to pay attention to open letters or even elected representatives.
The open prison system is a major improvement over the half-way-house system in the U.S., and far better than minimum security joints run by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. Having been to 21 such U.S. institutions in my life as an anti-war crime fighter (I made a list during my Billwerder solitude), I can say with some confidence that the program at Glasmoor is better than any in the U.S. It does sorely lack educational programs. It has no music or art programming, and the light hand-work factory system is not representative of real world, time-clock settings where crew bosses crack the whip.
Thank you for all your letters and cards of support and concern over these last weeks. I am grateful for our extended Anti-Nuclear family!