Xavier Magazine

Broken Places

In an act of protest and civil disobedience, Mike O’Grady, S.J., a graduate theology student and Jesuit brother, climbed a chain link fence a year ago and dropped onto the grounds of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation—formerly the School of the Americas (SOA)—where the U.S. military trains foreign soldiers. It’s believed the school’s graduates participated in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two women in El Salvador. O’Grady was charged with trespassing and sentenced to three months in jail. While in prison, he wrote letters to his Jesuit brothers at the Claver Community in Cincinnati. The following are excerpts from his letters.

DAY 17
Dec. 9, 2003 | Conditions are very bad here. I still have not adjusted to the changes that I must accept to do this time well. My paperwork for jail visits and to receive a Bible keep getting lost/misplaced. I think the guards don’t want us here.

DAY 18
Dec. 10, 2003 | The diet here is beyond bad. My vegetarian disposition is not adaptable to the food, so I eat some of the meat to survive. I am in a cell block 24 hours a day without any opportunity for outside exercise. The lack of healthy food and exercise weigh on me and is affecting my moods.

There is a television going full blast 21 hours a day. Inmates fight for control of programs and so we get jumbled snippets of violent movies, violent videos, violent cartoons, violent sports. We’re kept in a constant state of agitation. The whole environment is fluorescent lit 24 hours a day. Lights go a little dimmer from 11 p.m.-2:30 a.m. but the environment is numbingly lit. With no clocks or watches it is difficult to tell time. The cell block is always cold and drafty. We wear plastic sandals, canvas pants and short sleeve pullover shirts. We’re given a blanket to keep us warm. The absolute lack of privacy is very difficult to adjust to, and television noise is impossible to avoid, making reading, writing and praying a challenge. This stuff would be overwhelming if I, God forbid, got angry or resentful.

Some of the guards here seem to enjoy acting vicious and mean. I hold my tongue—these guards are excellent teachers about how to not treat people. Most of the fellows in here are black guys waiting to be moved to state prison. What is coming clear as these days progress is that this SOA witness action is also giving me a deep, grace-filled perspective on our culture’s outsiders. I feel like I am in privileged space, sharing in a small way the same burdens our brothers carry. The word comes to mind—solidarity.

DAY 26
Dec. 18, 2003 | Each week we receive a towel/washcloth and bedding to cover our foam mattresses. Yesterday the guards gave me bedding that was shredded from top to bottom. I asked for a replacement and was told “You get what you get.” It took a little while of being angry at this and then I realized I should be grateful for whatever I get. Later one of the same guards came by and I said to him, “Sorry I got on you for these bedding things.” The fellow was genuinely shocked. An opportunity to gather anger and turn it into resentment turned into an opportunity to connect with a fellow human being.

There’s a large group in my cell block who see their time in here as a time to play the tough guy and glorify their past exploits while waiting to get back out there. There’s a much smaller cohort who are desirous of changing their behavior. One of the guys last night was saying, “I finally get it. I can’t do this stuff anymore. I get caught.” I say this only to reflect that people change only when they’re ready to change.

DAY 31
Dec. 24, 2003 | There are guys who are carrying the stresses of the confinement so heavily that they are depressed and “shut down.” I see fellows who are clearly mentally ill. I’m really being changed by this experience. I think God invites us into the broken places of our world, and if we persevere, he invites us into the broken places of our hearts. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m here.

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