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Nuns imprisoned in human rights protest cope with life behind bars

Posted: Friday, September 07, 2001

PEKIN, Ill. (AP) -- They wear the same green uniforms as the drug offenders and thieves incarcerated with them.

They follow the same tight schedule and are under the same watch.

But two women serving time at Pekin Federal Prison Camp are uncommon inmates. Gwen Hennessey and Elizabeth McKenzie are Roman Catholic nuns, ages, 68 and 71 respectively.

Gwen's sister, Dorothy Hennessey, 88, was with them, too, before being transferred a federal halfway house last Sunday.

They are each serving six months for repeatedly trespassing on military property during November protests at Fort Benning, Ga., home of the Army's School of the Americas, a facility for training Latin American soldiers.

The nuns have held fast to their convictions while in custody, believing they and 23 others sentenced for trespassing were justified in their actions, which were aimed at drawing attention to protesters' calls to close the school.

The women also feel their imprisonment has only fueled support for their cause.

''I think the Army made the biggest mistake ever when they sent Dorothy to prison,'' McKenzie said.

The women have spent much of their lives working on civil rights and social issues. They see their roles in School of the Americas Watch, an organization dedicated to shutting down the school, as an extension of that work and their religious beliefs -- even if it means breaking the law.

Critics contend instructors at the school have taught torture techniques to Latin American soldiers, and that graduates of the program have been involved in atrocities, including the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two women in El Salvador.

The school vehemently denies the claims, arguing it has helped spread democratic principles in Latin America. The school cannot be blamed for the illegal actions of a few of its graduates, the U.S. military says.

''The law of God is higher than the law of man. We were trained to follow our conscience,'' Gwen Hennessey said.

They aren't the first religious figures to be jailed for protesting the school, which last year was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. A nun and a Jesuit priest were imprisoned in 1995, according to the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch.

The Hennessey sisters were drawn to the group through the work of their brother Ron, a missionary in Latin America from 1964 until his death two years ago while home on leave. They said he secretly wrote down firsthand reports of atrocities -- which allegedly were committed by School of the Americas graduates -- and arranged for them to be smuggled back to the United States.

The sisters began trespassing during the 1997 protest, and McKenzie began the next year. Each has been arrested three times, but this is the only time they've been prosecuted.

Rich McDowell, a spokesman for Fort Benning, said first-time trespassers are barred from the reservation for five years. On subsequent arrests, he said, their names are sent to the U.S. attorney for possible prosecution.

Bourgeois said every time a nun is jailed, it brings publicity to the movement and swells the crowds at the annual November protest at Fort Benning, a mock funeral procession.

''One can find meaning by being sent to prison. It's where you can continue to speak and use your voice for people who are voiceless,'' he said. But he cautions that ''you've got to know in your heart that this is for you, and you'll be at peace with it.''

McKenzie had been living in a private apartment in St. Paul, Minn., when she was convicted. The Hennessey sisters lived in a Dominican religious center in Dubuque, Iowa.

They traded those accommodations, and the fellowship of their religious orders, for cots in dormitory housing divided into living spaces that are 9 feet by 10 feet, each shared by two prisoners. The majority of their companions are felons; 63 percent are serving time for drug-related crimes.

The prison camp has no bars or fences, but life is regimented. Days begin with breakfast at 6 a.m., followed by an inspection. Lunch is served at 11 a.m., and dinner follows a 4:15 p.m. head count. Prisoners are free to move around the campus when not working.

Dorothy Hennessey said the 34 years she spent living in convents helped her adjust.

''I'm not used to luxuries,'' she said during a recent interview at the camp. She was later transferred to a halfway house in Dubuque. A prison spokesman said he could not discuss the reason for the transfer.

Back at the prison camp, the nuns were assigned light duty in the food service department, making less than 40 cents an hour taking care of tasks such as refilling napkin dispensers and wiping down tables.

They also have had to answer reams of mail -- most of it letters in support of their cause, along with requests for interviews from international media.

''We get letters from a lot of people we don't even know,'' Dorothy Hennessey said.

Still, they miss their freedom.

''You don't want to be locked up. You're treated like an adolescent and have to follow rules,'' Gwen Hennessey said.

The three nuns will be in custody during this year's protest at the school (they're scheduled for release on Jan. 14). But they all said they may cross the line again.

''I'm just as resolved as ever. I haven't changed my mind,'' Dorothy Hennessey said.



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