26 Weekends at Columbia County Jail: Part Two

25The Journal of a Convicted Quaker War Tax Resister

This is part two of Olejak’s prison journal. Part one appeared in the March issue.

Weekend 11

This weekend was the most boring of all the weekends. My mind began to turn about all the loose ends in my life that have been unraveling since I began the peace witness. The frayed edges are many and are getting more and more difficult to manage as time marches on. I keep thinking of the central question in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22: “What does a sane man do in an insane society?”

My situation is becoming more insane by the day. I made what seemed to be a sane response to violence, but the price is very high. The sums I have been required to pay—restitution to the court, keeping current with taxes, paying child support, paying lawyers to manage this giant mess, and maintaining an apartment and staying current with business expenses—are completely unmanageable.

Weekend 13

This is the 13th weekend: the halfway point. The days are getting longer. The snow falls outside cell dorm D, and the icicles hang low off the roofs drifted deep with snow. The weather is warming. By 6:00 p.m. the slow drips from their sharpening ends is continuing—drip, drip, drip—like the seconds ticking off a clock as the second hand clicks inexorably towards six o’clock.

I make my “long walk to freedom” down two corridors to central booking and the holding pen. I see faces behind Plexiglas windows looking at me. One yells, “Take it easy, Doc.” John M. gives me the peace sign with a great big smile. Another shouts to the corrections officer, “Let me out with Doc, I’ll come back,” but ends his words with a snicker. The guard laughs and shrugs off the inauthenticity.

Weekend 14

John M. is 47 years old with no family still alive and no friends that I could figure. He is alone in the world. What was so compelling about this man was his need to connect with another person on a heart-to-heart level.

John’s story is one of substance misuse—the new and less pejorative term now listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) for substance abuse. It is a long story that stretches back to the 1980s and military service. John calls himself an addict and when he talks about drugs, he gets excited and animated as he regales me with stories about the effects of drugs on his life. He often pauses and reels himself back in saying, “See, right there, I was glorifying it again. That’s bad s—. I shouldn’t do that. That’s the addict talking.”

“It’s good to notice,” I say.

John has been charged with five counts of dealing drugs. At one point he hands me the indictment and lets me read it. “None of that s— is true.” He points right at me. “I was caught up in this sting operation.”

“Well, that may be so, but what is also true is that you were operating in a world of drugs where that kind of thing is routine, no?”

John looks at the floor. “You remind me of something the pastor told me during church services in this jail. If you hang out in a barber shop long enough, eventually you’re going to get a haircut.”

Weekend 17

Shaun is a good natured, gregarious African American man who stands about six feet one and speaks with a deep baritone voice. I overheard him talking to Tony M. about his sleep. “Man, I woke up out of a sound sleep last night. My heart was racing like it was gonna jump right outta my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack or something.” “Hey Doc, what’s goin’ on with my brother here?”

I look at him and advise him to see the nurse about his rapid heart beat. “Okay. I’m glad it’s just that ’cause it felt like I was gonna die.”

I’m curious now and want to know more. “I was convicted on two drug charges a few years ago, a Federal thing.”

“Okay. What happened there?”

“I was convicted for being black; that’s what happened.” Shaun laughs, but it is an uneasy, deeply sardonic laugh. The kind of laugh that would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. “My car broke down. I was hitchhiking and a friend picked me up on Route 23 on his way back to Catskill. Next thing you know, there’s cops and sirens and the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] has me in handcuffs. Next thing I know, I’m being charged with possession and conspiracy to deal drugs, and I never even knew there were drugs in the car when he was pulled over. It was guilt by association.”

I ask him if he felt he got a fair trial and Shaun replies, “The 12 people on my jury were old, white people. They hate them n—s. You think that’s fair? I got seven years, but was let out in three when my one conviction was overturned on appeal.”

“Why didn’t they overturn both charges?”

“They need to cover their a— is why.”

Shaun is angry, and he has every right to be. Here are a few numbers to wrap your mind around. Three-hundred thousand people were incarcerated in 1946. Today there are 2.2 million people incarcerated and another 7 million on probation or parole. This situation has been called the American Gulag. More people are locked up in the so-called “free world” than in any other modern industrialized nation on earth.

On Saturday evening at 7:00 p.m. C.O. Hogencamp calls us out for church. I’d never been to church, so I went with John just to see what it’s like.

I got down there and found Arthur, the pastor at a local church in Hudson, leading the service. We sang some songs, and then Arthur talked about Gideon and the idea that God has given us the spirit of love, peace, and a sound mind.

Arthur said that he liked the story of Creation because it is the story of God’s Word. I nearly jumped out of my seat and wanted to give my own sermon, but just as I was freaking out over the synergy of the message, John tapped me on the shoulder and gave me an all-knowing smile. He was getting it in spades, too! I’m thrilled. It was a similar message to one from our yoga practice, and to Arthur and me, it seemed to be divinely inspired. I love that the topic spilled out later that day in the rec yard in a discussion about Jesus. It points to a synergy occurring that is greater than all of us single players.

For most of the winter, the inmates have been stuck indoors without the benefit of fresh air or exercise. The effect of this has been a population that has been very restless. On Sunday the temperature was just about freezing at 11:00 a.m., and the snow had cleared. The guard came into the dorm and announced: “Anyone for outdoor rec?”

I walked in circles with Victor and talked about plans to build a solar hot water heater. Or I chatted with Bigs, a very big African American man who is a gentle giant, about the Bible. This time in outdoor rec we debated a finer point of Christian theology.

It was a lively debate for sure. At one point a small circle had gathered for the biblical forensics. I’m no theologian, but it seemed to me that the risen Christ was a very different Jesus from the Jesus who entered the garden. The risen Christ having fully fused with the spirit of God and metamorphosed into a being of light after defeating death and opening a spiritual path for humanity.

Weekend 18

On Sunday afternoon, John and I did yoga. Yoga is not just a good idea based on some mishmash East Indian mysticism and New Age ideas. Yoga changes the brain—in a good way. It can actually repair damage to the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that has been associated with a number of neuropsychological states such as anxiety, alcoholism, and drug abuse.

What this information points to is the need for courts to place more weight on mitigating factors when sentencing people for behaviors that society deems criminal. What if the basic structure of our society is so dysfunctional that we are creating criminals? Do we just lock people up, or does society have a responsibility in helping them to make their lives work?

This time yoga was different. I kept quiet for most of the session only stepping in to provide a little coaching on form and breathing. To my pleasant surprise, I needed to do very little. I was pleased because I was feeling very overwhelmed myself by the heat, the noise, and the confinement. My spirit was longing to be in a quiet place.

Back in November when I was sentenced to the 26 weekends, I had to inform my employer—a company I do consulting work for—that I could no longer work on the weekends. Since the information was public knowledge and there would be a good chance my war tax resistance would be known, I opted to tell them the truth.

They fired me.

I applied to the probation department this week to attend a speakers’ conference in Las Vegas to jump-start my speaking career. I filled out all the forms and wrote a nice letter.

Request denied.

I got a call on Monday, March 24 from my probation officer. She sounded like she wanted me to take this opportunity, but her hands were tied by the bureaucratic nightmare she works in. “We got your request. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to deny it.”

Getting fired and losing the income from consulting was a big blow both financially and emotionally. What it meant from a practical standpoint was clear. I could not pay the tax bill for 2013 for New York State or federal income tax. They’d set me up to fail.

As I sat in my office with a dead phone in my hand, I came to the sickening realization that the prison-industrial complex was not some abstract thing that affects other unfortunate people. It was directly impacting my life.

I am now and—as far out as I can see—will be in a debt spiral to various agencies of government until the day I die. It was this kind of indentured servitude that the promise of the New World was intended to avoid.

Weekend 21

A roofer by trade, Derek took to the business his father taught him. By his own account he’s done “every kind of roof there is,” and, he says, “I’m damn good at it.”

On Saturday we sat down for the usual breakfast of cereal and dry toast, and he opened up about what he was doing in the jail: grand larceny.

“A friend brought over a computer and asked me clean out the hard drive. I should have known it was hot when he offered to split the value of it with me. He asked me to do it because I’m good with Macs. As soon as I booted it up, it pinged my location and the cops knocked on my door the very next day.”

“Did you tell them you did not steal it?”

“Sure, but that doesn’t matter. When you are in possession of a stolen item, the cops assume you are the thief.”

When we talked later, I learned that the stolen computer story had another wrinkle to it. A few years ago on a roofing job, Derek had fallen two stories off a roof and herniated two discs in his back. Does that sound familiar? You can probably fill in the blanks by now. He went to his doctor got pain meds, was never sent for chiropractic or other body work therapy to rehabilitate his back injury and went from Advil to naproxen to hydrocodone to Oxycontin and then to street heroin.

Derek had a ten-bag-a-day habit when he was picked up for the stolen computer. The wipe on the hard drive was in part to support his heroin habit. While stealing is wrong and his involvement in it is not naïve, one can also lay the fault for the theft directly at the feet of the pharmaceutical industry and the medical doctors who dole out this stuff without making the appropriate referrals.

Weekend 22

A fresh-faced kid entered the holding cell with corrections officer Jake B., who I nickname the Turtle because he’s slow and deliberate and, like a turtle, never sticks his neck out. Jake B. is like most of the guys who work in this place, they are doing time as the inmates are, but they’re here for a paycheck and pension.

The kid looked like he was about 20. He probably just graduated from Columbia Greene Community College with an associate’s in criminal justice (an oxymoron). He’s got his game face on hiding behind the uniform, but he looks sad to me. Every once in a while when he comes on the block to do the punch (the half hourly checks on inmates with his little hand-held scanner), he has this lost look about him, as if he’s not sure what he’s gotten himself into. The lack of affect is what really worries me. There is a deadness about him (well, all the guards really) that they are not even aware of.

At 3:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, the lock-down count occurs. Everyone must go into his cell, so the jail can account for all the bodies they have in storage. Everyone on the block goes to his cell and locks himself in, closing the bars behind them in staggered unison. One after another, the locks clang, clang, clang—all except one.

“OLEJAK! Lock yourself in.”

“I decline. That’s your job.”

Merante then goes off on a tear. “Oh, no. My job is to make sure this place is secure. Your job is to do as you’re told. You understand that?”

I refuse to answer. His question hangs there as he stands outside my cell. An uncomfortable pause ensues.

What Merante fails to understand is that I will never voluntarily close the door to my cell. It is a line in the sand for me. Never once since I’ve been in this hole have I closed a cell door and locked myself in. In my mind, it is a psychological barrier I cannot cross because what it signifies for me is that I have become my own jailor, that I have imprisoned myself, and that I have crossed into the region where I am willing to take away my own freedom.

Meranti pushes the cell door shut. I sit there and begin my meditation. The image that comes into my mind is the stone rolling away from the tomb of Jesus, but he was not there. As I meditate on this image of the risen Christ, I feel a great peace wash over me. I am safe. I am held by something larger than myself.

I mentioned this to Phoenix when I got home on Sunday night, and she told me that she received a message for me over the weekend.

“What is it?” I inquired.

“This knot is a sign that you are now bound closer to the spirit of Christ through your experience.” Without warning, I was overcome with emotion and cried for a while, and Phoenix held me. “The knot also signifies an opening into the realm of Spirit. It is right where the astral body would be.” For those not schooled in such things, the astral body is a subtle body posited by many philosophers as an intermediate between the intelligent soul and the physical body, composed of a subtle material. I understood that this opening is the Spirit of Grace. This is what was making me cry. I am forgiven. My humanity and the humanity of every one of these men is accepted without judgment for what it is. We are under Grace.

Weekend 25

This weekend my “it’s not my job” came back to bite me. C.O. Merante waited and then pounced. When I got my bedroll on Friday night, it was missing an important item—a pillow. And guess who had control of the block? Merante.

“C.O. I’m missing a pillow; can I get one from laundry?”

“Not my job.”

He took personally my unwillingness to lock myself in, as though it had been an attack on him and now he was returning the favor. I’m taken aback by how petty these guys are. The us vs. them mentality was really getting old after 25 weekends.

I rolled the end of my bedroll into a makeshift pillow and used my other blanket to bolster my head, so I wouldn’t wake up with a headache. In the morning, another C.O. was on shift, and my pillow arrived forthwith.

Weekend 26

It was the final weekend. When I passed out of the jail interlock, I realized I’d forgotten a book that I loaned to Craig S. The book is called Difficult Conversations.

I loaned it to Craig to help him communicate to his wife, but he finished it and passed it on to John M. The guard handed me The Power of Habit through the teller window. “That’s the wrong book,” I said.

“You’ll probably never see it again. It’s being passed around.”

“That’s okay. I’ve read it. They need it more than I do. It’s a gift then.”

I passed through the doors of the Columbia County Jail for the last time on May 18, 2014, at 6:04 p.m. Phoenix was waiting to pick me up. She was parked at the end of the visitor waiting area.

The sun was still out. It was warm and the grass was high, still unmowed following the rain. I kicked off my Crocs and ran through the grass. When I got to the end, I did a little end-zone dance. Phoenix came out and we hugged. It was finally over.


When I went into the county jail, I was angry. How could this be? I stood up for what I believed in, and now I was in this place. I was a clod of self-concerns, focused mainly on what was happening to me. Little did I know that even though the jail was a place where fear, anger, uncertainty, and oppression reigned, it was also a place where, if you listened, you could hear the voice of God in the lives of the men incarcerated there.

Over the past 26 weeks, I listened carefully to the life stories of many men. What I discovered is that there are two ways to listen. One can listen from what one already knows and “hear” with a tin ear, or one can listen from nothing. By nothing, I mean listening in a way where one adds nothing: a kind of listening that is fully present and is open to what is going on, leaving aside all the judgments, preconceived ideas, past experiences, opinions, and assessments. It is a listening that touches the void.

Joseph Olejak

Joseph Olejak is an attender at Old Chatham (N.Y.) Meeting. He is a chiropractor by training.

1 thought on “26 Weekends at Columbia County Jail: Part Two

  1. Thank you, Joseph Olejak, for sharing. Especially your epilogue. It affirms your humanity and that of the others to whom you listened. And describes so perfectly the kind of listening that we do in spiritual direction, with the added caveat that in the direction relationship, we are listening as closely to what Spirit is saying in the life of the seeker and the session. It is clear from your notes shared, that though you may not have been aware of doing spiritual direction, your time and encounters with those around you in the prison was blessed. You may never see it, but one can sense that you planted “seeds” and in time, some will bear fruits. Blessings for your faithful witness.

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