The New Absolutist
"The New Absolutist" by Suzanne Williams forms a chapter in CJ Hinke's new book about war resisters in prison, forthcoming from Trine-Day in Spring 2016. (He welcomes suggestion for a title!). CJ was the last person arrested for the Vietnam draft and lives in Thailand where he has co-founded the Nonviolent Conflict Workshop (NVCW) to teach the tactics of Gene Sharp and develop new ones. See https://prisonwarresisters.wordpress.com.
By Suzanne Williams
[Editor’s Note. Suzanne Williams was born on November 4, 1943 in Evanston, Illinois. On September 11, 1968, she was arrested for “damage to government property” and defended herself before the Federal District Court in Boston. She was sentenced to six months to six years indeterminate under the Youth Corrections Act for pouring black paint over the files of Selective Service System Local Board #30 in the Customs House in Boston. Suzi acted with poet/activist Francis Thomas (Assunta) Femia, a former Catholic brother.
Frank was already under a four-year sentence for refusal of induction after returning his draft cards and received one year for this action to run concurrently. After a motion for reduction of sentence by Suzi, her sentence was reduced to one year “flat time”.
Both Suzi and Frank had been very active with the New England Committee for Nonviolent Action. Suzi had been arrested several times before for civil disobedience actions and had maintained a position of total noncoöperation with the police, the courts, and the jails, including a total food and water fast until her release.
“Because we are pacifists, and because we believe that war is wrong, we have attempted to interpose ourselves between young men and the conscription which sends them to their deaths. Black is the color of death, and black is the color of the paint we poured on the files…We follow the example of the Boston Tea Party by engaging in ‘creative vandalism’. We also take this action in solidarity with others who have received heavy sentences for similar actions. Conscience cannot be intimidated.
Frank began to serve his sentence at the Petersburg, Virginia reformatory, but was recently transferred to work in the Education Department of the Federal Youth Center at Ashland, Kentucky. Suzi’s sentence began in the Federal Reformatory for women in Alderson, West Virginia in honor status. And it will not end there.
Even though Suzanne Williams is being held in maximum security now, she would have been released on July 12, 1969 upon expiration with good time. Her sentence will last a good deal longer because she would not bend to imprisonment.
The following are a descriptive series of letters from prison to her mother, Jean Williams.]
I feel somewhat lost here, not knowing what’s going on, but I expect that will wear off after awhile, when I’ve been here for a few days. Altho this place is big enough that it will take awhile to figure it out.
All in all, it seems to be (so far) a gilded cage. But a prison nonetheless. To sum it up, people don’t have too many complaints about Alderson, but everybody is glad to leave when their sentence is over. I’d like to leave right away, but since this is not possible, I don’t think I’ll have too much trouble doing my time.
But I do hope that I don’t have to do all six years. I don’t think so.
October 19, 1968: I’ve been here exactly one week today. Still don’t know everything that goes on here, but I am learning fast, both officially and unofficially.
My chances for release look worse and worse the more I find out about the Youth Act. One thing: contrary to what you may have heard, I cannot be released withoutparole, although they must release me after four years, but still with parole until the end of the six. Or they can take me off parole after I have had satisfactory parole for at least a year after being released from prison.
But I won’t summarize or make any conclusions from the various things that I have found out until I meet the November Parole Board and talk to them about my situation. They are supposed to come here on November 4th of all days. Some birthday present!
Another thing — I wrote to Judge Garrity, and told him exactly what his sentence means in practical terms and outlined the situation. I want him to be aware of how the Bureau of Prisons and the Board of Parole apply a Youth Act sentence. I didn’t ask him to change it or any such thing — that is up to him. But at least he has a clear picture of the situation.
“Lectures” (on various aspects of the place and programs) began today for me. Also I have been examined by a dentist. Next comes the dreaded physical exam by the medical people. Also today I got a piece of paper which is officially called my “Commitment and Diagnostic Summary” and unofficially called my “time sheet”.
It lists my mandatory release date as October 13, 1972, and my sentence expiration, (my “flat time”), as October 13, 1974. If you do the math involved, you will notice that my sentence runs from the day that I was sentenced, October 14, and not from the day I was arrested, September 11. With a zip-six (Youth Act) you don’t get time spent in jail before sentencing. So 33 of those days spent at Plymouth are what they call “dead time”.
This morning, those of us in orientation got to talk to the guy who heads the Classification and Parole department here, and I asked him about this business of a possible six years (with YCA) when my maximum possible sentence on my charges was four years; was it legal, etc. He said it was — that anybody under 26 can get a zip-what the maximum (even for a misdemeanor!) because this is a commitment to treatment, not to imprisonment.
Actually, there is no difference in how we (Youth Act kids) are treated here as compared to those with other kinds of sentences! We are all doing time in a federal prison. I don’t think O’Brien [David O’Brien] will get anywhere with his appeal.
The main reason I am writing this letter (seems pretty gloomy so far, doesn’t it? Actually, I am in excellent spirits.) is to wish you a VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! Although they don’t know it here, they are going to have a celebration of your birthday. I expect they’ll try to disguise it as a Halloween party or some such ruse, but I will not be fooled! Do have a good birthday.
October 25, 1968: Greetings from the lovely hills of West Virginia. I have been here almost exactly three weeks and I pretty much know the place by now. Have been in “orientation status”, but this week I was “classified” and I start my school and job assignments next week. For school, I am taking a number of boring but useful subjects: typing, shorthand, bookkeeping and secretarial science. For a job, I have been assigned to work in the office of the Protestant Chaplain, Rev. Jiskoot, who seems very nice, and is both young and modern thinking. So I think the job will be more interesting than many.
In looks this place resembles a college campus more than it does a prison. We live in dormitory-type buildings, called cottages, and have rooms rather than cells. The food is excellent (even OK for vegies!), and we are permitted to wear our own clothes as well as those issued by the institution. We go places around the reservation unescorted, but there is much signing out, signing in, telephoning to check on people, and, of course, much counting. So while it is a high-class prison, Alderson is definitely a prison.
We are grouped by age, and thus I am in one of the youth cottages, YC-1 (even though this past Monday I reached the ripe old age of 20).
I find one of the most annoying things to me is not being trusted in trivial matters by the officers, simply because I am an inmate. Although it’s done without malice, it’s extremely insulting to have someone go to great lengths to check something you have said, especially in small matters, instead of taking your word for it.
Tuesday I had an unexpected visitor: Special Agent George Patterson of the FBI, asking about the June 17, 1968 women’s draft card burning in Washington, D.C. His questions seemed aimed at conspiracy charges, as well as the more obvious one of draft card burning.
I answered his questions and we discussed many other things, such as the draft, nonviolence, human freedom, prisons, etc. He was a very nice guy and we got along quite well. He didn’t seem too happy with helping out in a process which will probably result in my getting more time.
Am trying to get permission to write to Frank, even though I don’t know for certain where he is.
Mail policy here is more reasonable than at most prisons. I believe I have been getting just about all the letters sent to me regardless of lists. So If anybody wants to write, I’ll probably get it.
November 7, 1968: Veterans Day is being celebrated here in a big way, with a steak dinner and other things. It figures. Be joyful and happy when thinking about all the poor devils who have slaughtered each other for political reasons, people they didn’t know and had nothing against. At least they could have it be a day of mourning out of respect, but no, there will be a celebration!
Found out today that Frank is at Petersburg (Va.), which is just south of Richmond. Not too far from here. My request to correspond with him is still going thru red tape, but am feeling more hopeful along those lines.
The Catonsville Nine were supposed to be sentenced today, but I don’t know how much time they got as this is not the type of news the West Virginia mass media see fit to disseminate.
Have been here three weeks today. On the one hand, seems like I’ve been here longer but on the other hand, it’s been painless and has gone fast. Much faster than time at PCJ [Plymouth County Jail] or other such places.
November 8, 1968: Expect to see you two days from now, but since you will need this form to send a Christmas package, here it is. As you see, the bottom part of the form has to be included with the package.
Also, about that letter you got from Mr. Garrity — at first I planned to send you all the information, reasoning, etc.; but decided finally to send it straight to him, instead, with a note of explanation. I went into a fair amount of detail on a number of matters, and so, maybe now he will understand the whole thing a little better.
But anyway, for your own future information here is (verbatim) what the “Certificate of Parole” says under the section “Conditions of Parole”. (Editor’s Note. See Question #10 in “Appendix I: Questions and Answers About Federal Prisons”. Although the wording is slightly changed for several conditions, the text is still the same. The pledge which the applicant for parole is urged to sign has been changed to allow for arbitrary recommitment or changes by the United States Board of Parole.)
The whole thing presents the question, though, of just who owns me — myself or the U.S. Board of Parole. And this is apparently something I will have to fight mostly alone, since the general consensus seems to be (here and outside, with a few exceptions) that I’m a fool for not telling them what they want to hear, or at least promising to follow parole conditions.
So there are many people pressuring me in that direction. Not that I am likely to change my mind, but it will make my time that much harder. Which is maybe what Mr. Garrity had in mind.
November 20, 1968: Had meant to write sooner, but the effects of your visit were so delightful that they lasted long enough for me to be unaware that quite a few days have passed since then, and I really should write.
The biggest thing in my horizon here since you visited is my application for a job change. When I went to one of the appropriate people about my problem with being useless at work because of two people in a one-person job, he suggested that I ask for a job change. So I did, and yesterday met the “treatment team” about it.
My regular caseworker wasn’t there, nor the fellow who had suggested I apply for a job change, and I got denied. This didn’t bother me as much as their attitude: I was talked to as if I were a grade-school child. Also it was like talking to a brick wall.
Their minds were made up, so they told me there were no jobs, except those where you had to type 50 words a minute (I type 15 w.a.m). I happen to know that jobs are open, but they didn’t want to hear it.
So they made me feel grouchy the rest of the day and more than ever convinced that they don’t actually give a damn about us, as long as we don’t make trouble or rock the boat while we’re here.
I got the distinct feeling that they wanted to hurry up and tell me no so they could get on with the next case. And one feels ganged-up on, with a half dozen or more of them sitting at a table with little old you.
And to top it off, none of them seems to have a sense of humor, which is unforgivable. I think they are trapped people. Anyway, so much for that — griping is over (for awhile, anyway). But I’ll pursue this matter.
You know that other political prisoner I was telling you about? Well, I finally met her and she’s very nice indeed. You would describe her as a sweet person. We have not had much of a chance to talk, but I imagine we’ll become better acquainted over the years.
This is my morning to sleep late, but I couldn’t because my roommate was up at the usual time, switching on the bright fluorescent light, banging the drawers and door and worst of all, filling the room with cigarette smoke and hair spray. (Another gripe — good grief, Charlie Brown, I’d better shut up before I give you the impression I’m miserable, which is untrue..)
Good news: a long letter from Chuck [Chuck Matthei], just about to depart Oklahoma for Chicago, where he’ll be Thanksgiving, then he’ll visit here sometime before Xmas.
November 27, 1968: Got your letter — many thanks. So nice to hear about people getting stuck in snow drifts: we have no snow around here at all, and probably won’t until January.
If I remember correctly, this is the old dog’s birthday. Tell him he is a sterling hound and to take it easy in his declining years (and not to come up behind people and steal their mittens). And take him on a walk for me — down thru the upper meadow, then cut across the little meadow and go into the woods where the dead tree is. There is an old tractor trail there, which you can more or less follow up into a clearing, where there are vestiges of logging and lots of ground ivy (clubmoss, lycopodia). On the other side of this, the trail continues (vaguely) for a bit more, first a bit of swampy area, and bearing gently but continually to the right. During this last part, the ridge is to the left. When the trail ends, you turn left, and go up the ridge, going along the top of it until you come to the road. There are on top of the ridge various old logging roads (ill-defined), and a property line with trimmed brush and somewhat faded iridescent orange paint markers. The hound and I often took that walk.
It’s most lovely and almost like Vermont.
Speaking of Vermont, enclosed please find two parts of an ad for Vermont Life calendars, which I clipped from the New York Times. Would very much appreciate two of them, one to hang up on my wall, and one to give to my “homie”, whom I told you about. She got a letter from her folks in New Hampshire recently, with photos of snowy scenes. If anybody has a camera, photos are allowed to be mailed in and would be much appreciated.
Sounds like you all had a most jolly Thanksgiving. Things here were not so good, but an improvement over last year’s situation in D.C.
Finally got to call Erica [Erica Enzer]. We had a most jolly conversation. Have applied for December for one to you, and will get it sometime or other. Applied early, because they will not have any this month from about December 20 on thru to a few days after new year’s.
No word yet from Petersburg on Frank — so I wrote them an explicit but extremely polite letter reminding them I would like to know about writing to him.
Am attacking the job change thing from several indirect angles right now, instead of Don Quixote windmill style, which fails because this place has oodles and gobs of “inertia of rest”: they are allergic to change, and those who are responsible for such things have the general attitude of, “Don’t bother us, kid. Can’t you see we’re busy?” So I will be well-armed with facts, figures, etc., the next time I present my case, and I will thus be harder to brush off. (Nothing quite as insulting as being lied to in a transparent way — give me credit for a little intelligence.)
My typing varies between 15 and 20 words per minute, except when they want me to do arithmetic on that infernal machine. And speaking of arithmetic, I started bookkeeping today: I hate it already, but expect that I shall learn it. The shorthand comes along fair to middling. Still looks like chicken-scratch, though.
There was was a small matter the other day in which I was actually trusted by an officer! I was so surprised that I didn’t believe it at first. When I first got here I was quite irked at not being trusted (still am), and now I am so used to not being trusted, that I am surprised when it happens (which is not often). Such are prisons...
We have been practicing Xmas carols in choir — I alternate between a low alto and a soprano, but this in something my voice does all by itself and over which have no control. (You should hear all the great talent I have when I sing in the bathtub, however.)
December 3, 1968: At last we have snow. Beautiful snow! Am just hoping that it sticks. My opinion of West Virginia weather has gone up considerably, however.
And now it’s snowy, I can’t go out: I’ve been sick today (it’s now about 9:00 pm) and was half-sick yesterday. I think it’s a touch of the Asian flu that’s going around the reservation. Or maybe a delayed reaction to some shots (tetanus and typhoid) that I got a number of days ago. Whatever it is, I feel lousy. But time heals all ills, and I have plenty of time. Six years to be exact.
Have decided to hold off on plots for a job change for awhile. Me and my boss had a little chat about a number of things. Also, I want to wait until after I meet the parole board to make any long-range plans. Then I will have a more definite idea of just how long-range I should plan.
Those bunch of phinques at Petersburg wrote back and said they “do not approve correspondence between you and Mr. Femia due to the fact that you are not relatives and there are no extraordinary circumstances that would warrant maintaining a relationship.” Made me mad, but I don’t suppose I should have expected anything else. I don’t suppose it occurred to them that it would make his time easier and make my time easier. But then, none of them have ever done time themselves. Frank and I couldn’t possibly corrupt each other as we are both absolutely hopeless cases anyway.
We have a big inspection tomorrow — everybody has been running around like a bunch of idiots cleaning the place, yours truly included. Although if the truth known, on this particular subject (the immaculateness of the cottage), I “don’t feel nothing” as the saying goes.
Somebody “made bush” (an expression meaning “to escape”: an abbreviation of “to make bush parole”) last night. So far they haven’t caught her. Hope they don’t.
The mountains are very pretty in the snow. Chuck ought to be here sometime in the next week or two.
December 9, 1968: Today I am a “lock-in” from classes (I have Tuesday afternoon off from work anyway). It isn’t that I was feeling lazy, but I was feeling sick. So this morning I went up to sick call, and the officer was even nice enough to call “area patrol” to take me up there, as it was doubtful that I could make it up the hill.
Please send Frank a big beautiful Xmas card, since I can’t write to him.
December 10, 1968: Last night I tried to call you but nobody was home. Tonight I was called to make the telephone call, but I was out caroling in town with the choir. As far as I know, there are no more calls this month, so I guess I’ll just have to write.
The caroling was great fun — there were about 25 of us (prot. and cath. choirs) along with the chaplain and the two nuns and an m.c.o. who drove the truck that we all piled into the back of — an open truck with a couple of bales of hay to sit on. We drove all around Alderson (about the size of Amherst or a bit smaller) and caroled from the truck. Was much, much fun! just to get off the reservation for an hour was glorious.
Since I’ve only been locked up about 3½ months, I didn’t expect that the outside world would be so strange, but it was! Just to see lots of ordinary things like traffic lights and grocery stores and houses with kitchens and kids and people walking any old way they feel like. And, all kinds of things that you never see here. Kind of like a brief period of cultural shock. It’s another world completely, and I guess the feeling I got is probably impossible to explain to someone who has not done time. Anyway, enough of that.
A friend loaned me a copy of Commonweal, which has an article entitled “Guerrilla Christianity” by Paul Velde. It’s written for people familiar with various Catholic traditions, thought, liturgy, etc., etc., and thus I have to read it over again several times before I can say what I think of it. It’s about the Baltimore, Catonsville and Milwaukee actions and what it means in Christian terms. They seem unaware of the Boston action, possibly because it is a little hard to fit into some of the generalizations they make about the other three.
Unauthorized mail has been cut off. It may be restored, but I get the feeling that a lot of these people don’t know the importance of mail when you’re locked up, or else, as the saying goes, they don’t feel a thing.
This place is often quite ludicrous, ridiculous, amusing, etc., etc. Example: yesterday, at “Christian Living class”, it was part of my job to take down everybody’s name and cottage number, and then get on the telephone and call in to “control” just who was there from what cottage. Which I did. Today, our officer had to work In the mail room (which is located in YC-12) for an hour, and so she took all of us who were in the cottage (YC-l) with her to YC-12, so she could have us babysat. So yesterday they trusted me to keep track of seven inmates for an hour and one half; while today they wouldn’t trust me to keep track of myself for an hour!
Hilarious, no? (Also, I was somewhat put out because it’s my day off from work, and they woke me up out of a sound sleep to tell me I had to go and be babysat in ten minutes.) Such is life at Uncle Sam’s Finishing School for Unrefined Ladies.
Tomorrow night (Xmas eve), we (the choir) will go caroling around the reservation. This will also be fun. Then we’ll have a midnight service at which the choir will also be expected to sing (if we have any breath left by then).
December 22, 1968: Tonight the Catholic Choir, Spiritual Choir, and Protestant Choir went caroling around the reservation, ending up at the Warden’s house, where we caroled and she had a party for all three choirs. Much fun.
We had a bit of snow yesterday and today, but unless we have more tonight (unlikely: for once it’s too cold to snow), the whiteness of our Christmas will be pretty sparse.
Hope you all had a good Christmas. Was really great to talk to you on the phone last night.
The midnight service was pretty good. Also, today I went with a friend to the Mass, which was also not at all bad.
It may be that I can once again hear from a larger number of people than those listed. But of course these things are always subject to various types of fluctuation. We have no rights, only privileges. But you might tell people who have had letters returned to try again, quietly, and there’s a chance that I’ll receive them. Also: got an issue of The Peacemaker today (we get mail on Sundays and holidays: the only real advantage to this place as compared to the free world), but for awhile was not getting it.
Although a zip-six is not altogether a picnic, many have (and have had) a much harder row to hoe. Today we celebrate the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, one of the great teachers and nonviolent revolutionaries of all time. His struggle was certainly much harder. And although now people mostly worship his name and forget his teachings, I still think that he was the mover of a great deal of good. And there are some who both worship him and practice his teachings, as the Catholic Workers and others of that general belief.
Think DeCourcy [DeCourcy Squire] is going to visit me in January. Don’t know when Chuck will show up.
No word from Garrity. But it’s o.k. for him to take his time: time is something that I have plenty of.
[Editor’s Note. On February 8, 1969, Suzanne Williams merely climbed over the fence and started walking. Chuck Matthei was staying with Anne and Theodore Upshure in New York and was told be be prepared for his arrest for failure to report for a physical and for induction in Chicago. That arrest came on February 6th, before Suzi was able to reach him to stand with him in New York.
Suzi left as the guards were occupied with the movie’s letting out. Instead of heading for the road, where quick capture would have been certain, she made for the nearest railroad tracks. She kept on walking until she had passed through the small town of Hinton, then changed to the road. Another inmate who had once “hit the bush” warned Suzi not to be seen in Hinton: it’s a very small town and strange girls are suspected escapees from Alderson 20 miles away. At Hinton, Suzi was picked up by a newspaper truck driver who, thinking she was a runaway, took her to Beckley, a much larger town. There Suzi borrowed a dime for a collect telephone call and her escape was complete.
She first went to New York to find out about Chuck’s situation and then up to New England. She was picked up by the FBI and a state trooper at her brother’s home in Vermont on a routine check on February 27th and was held incommunicado in Rutland, Vermont, for that entire week. She was returned to Alderson, where she will be indicted and sentenced in the Southern District of Virginia. The usual penalty for escape is from six to 18 additional months.
Only one other political prisoner, Gary Hicks, walked out of the Allenwood camp and was returned to Lewisburg in solitary and sentenced to 18 months extra time. Gary is a black draft resister and is the only other prisoner in recent times to have taken this action, although other prisoners have been giving the matter serious consideration.
Suzi writes that a little over half of the prisoners at Alderson are black with a considerable number of Spanish-speaking prisoners, and a few American Indians. The only other political prisoner there, though, is a Puerto Rican nationalist who helped shoot up the House of Representatives about 15 years ago, during Harry Truman’s presidency. She has has 40 more years to go with little chance of parole.
Now Suzi is being held in maximum security and the only matter that remains to be decided is how much extra time she will have to serve for the crime of freedom.]
Guess what? I’m back in West Virginia. Hope you got the letter I wrote from Albany, New York, where I stayed overnight on the way down. I wrote you a bunch of letters from the jail I was in at Rutland, but they didn’t mail any of them.
I guess Xtoph and Penny [her brother and sister-in-law] must have told you the circumstances of my arrest. The first place I was taken after that was the State Police barracks in Shaftsbury, where I was photographed, fingerprinted, etc. Then I was deposited at the Bennington County Jail for several hours until the marshal came and took me up to the Women’s Reformatory in Rutland (that is the only place in Vermont authorized to hold female federal prisoners).
I was there Thursday (February 27th) night and Friday through Tuesday until 3:00 pm or so when I began my trip back here. Tuesday night I was at the Albany County Jail in Albany, and Wednesday night at tho Women’s Detention Center in Washington, D.C. I got here yesterday about 4:30.
The Rutland Jail had good food, comfortable bed, etc., but was lousy because I was put in a cell by myself, with the others forbidden to talk to me. This is because I was a “security risk”. Albany was almost like a movie stereotype, with bars everywhere, and clanging electronic gates, etc. Poor food, small cells, hard bed. But nicer than Rutland, because there were people to talk to. Wash. D.C. hasn’t changed much since I was last there.
The marshal was very nice and also the lady marshal who was along for escort purposes. The marshal used to be a Vermont state trooper, and was at one time assigned to work in the Bennington area, so we had a lot in common.
He remembered that Dad had been involved in county politics, and he told me about how, as a state trooper, he used to chase the Greens and the Moffits all over Shaftsbury. Said they gave the cops more trouble than anyone in Bennington County.
So — talking over the good old days. He did handcuff me all the way down, though. But I guess that’s only to be expected with an escape. Anyway, it was a fun trip while it lasted.
Yesterday when I got here, it was just as people from YC-11, my old cottage, were going to dinner, so I was able to wave to them from the gatehouse. Then up to the admissions office, in Davis Hall. There were altogether five of us (from two cars: we had picked up two more people in D.C., and another marshal had come in just before us with two people) who went thru the admissions procedure together.
After that, I was brought upstairs in Davis Hall, and put in seclusion. I don’t know how long I’ll be up here. Probably I’ll find out sometime this week. They told me it was up to the treatment team. But it will be for a long time, I fear. It’s very unfancy here. But I guess I can handle it (guess I’ll have to — I don’t have a choice in the matter!). There is not a lot to do here. As expected, and by design.
I tried to call you on the phone while I was in Rutland, but you were not home the two times they let me try. Maybe I can call you sometime in the next month or so, but right now it looks doubtful that I will be able to.
Enjoy all your snow.