The Journal of a Convicted Quaker War Tax Resister
This is my first attempt at a Quaker journal. I am declaring myself a novice at this. My friend and Friend Jens was kind enough to share his copy of Howard Brinton’s Quaker Journals, which he brought to me on my first Saturday at the Columbia County Jail. I read it cover to cover without interruption. The intention in documenting this experience is to share the courage of peace witness and my conviction—a double entendre given my current situation.
On Saturday afternoon in Cell Block B, I broke into tears reading the section on the peace testimony. The tears that were streaming down my face were clarity. Judge McAvoy had sentenced me to pay a fine of $242,000, participate in 200 hours of community service, and spend 26 weekends in jail. He cited three reasons for the sentence: punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation. When I was sentenced, it was a relief to learn I could still support my family by working during the week, but the sentence also meant that the people punished most would be my children. As far as rehabilitation is concerned, I did not undergo a religious conversion to secular federalism; I am still a convinced Quaker.
During the 15 years that I did not pay income tax, there were many opportunities to turn away from this path and “get back into the system.” I chose not to. Government agents, lawyers, and family members all pressured me to change what I was doing, but it felt cowardly to give money to a system that was using the majority of it to hurt people, while refusing to allocate adequate resources to the parts of society most in need.
Today is November 22, 2013; 50 years ago today John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. I pass through the front door of the Columbia County Jail in Hudson, New York. A giant metallic bolt unlocks the door, and I pass through a metal detector and enter the dismal world of institutional green. I’m asked to enter the holding area. A TV is on. It is loud. An overweight black man wrapped in a blanket is behind bars sitting on a wood bench and watching the TV. I’m asked to go behind a screen and take my clothes off. One at a time each article of clothing is searched (for drugs presumably) until I’m standing there naked. I blush first in embarrassment and then in anger at the violation.
My picture is taken. I get a bracelet, but this is not an adventure park. My bracelet has a number and a bar code. I’ve been tagged like a cow: processed but not rendered. A guard unlocks a heavy metal door with an oversized key. It makes a big metallic sound. Cell number four in Cell Block G is open. I pause a moment before I go in. He waits. The cell is painted puke green. There is a stainless steel toilet, a sink, a metal rack (a bed, if you can call it that), and a table. I walk through. My back is to the guard. I hear the door slam. And so it begins.
As I left for the jail this past weekend, I was thinking of the early Quakers who were so committed to their faith that there were some meetings where there were only children left as attenders, because all the adults were jailed. In my case, my children have been left behind. They don’t have the emotional or physical presence of their father. Children need parents. Kids with just one parent don’t fare as well as kids with two, and the single parent often ends up feeling run down, short tempered, and emotionally unavailable.
John sold crack cocaine. He spent five years in three federal prisons for that crime. When I met him, he was “violated” by his probation officer for being in contact with his former cell mate. He now has to do 12 weekends in the county jail for his transgression. His probation officer asked for his phone records for the last year, and when she discovered a phone call that was off limits, he was put back into the prison-industrial complex.
John had this to say: “This is the biggest racket they have going. They like to keep you circling in and out, and they’ll violate you for the smallest thing.” The numbers are bleak for anyone who has interacted with the criminal justice system. It is a system that has an 85 percent re-incarceration rate. Its rules are rigid and inflexible.
Even absurdly small requests, like a pad of paper or a writing instrument, must go through a convoluted chain of command. I asked four different correction officers five separate times for items from my locker, and never received them. I gave up wanting anything and turned to my yoga practice.
I pulled my sleeping pad off of the steel table (otherwise known as a bunk) and put it on the floor. I start with a seated meditation. I just get quiet…breathe…wait on spirit…15 breaths…in and out. The first voice I hear is Paul’s from the epistle to the Ephesians: “the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know the hope of his calling” (1:18). I remember why I am lying on the floor in the Columbia County Jail—I was called to this. The spirit of Christ in me.
The corrections officer that I nicknamed “Whistler” was the intake officer this past weekend. As usual, he made his typical degrading comments to all of us as we entered the jail and went through the process of changing our clothes into prison attire.
“Gentile, your up. Everything off except your birthday suit. What size you take?”
Gentile answers, “Large.”
“Large? Are you kidding? That’s not what the girls tell me!” Long pause.
“Oh man, don’t insult me like that.”
Gentile is standing there naked, waiting for his clothes, and Whistler goes right for the jugular:
“By the looks of things down there, I’d say you’re more like a small.”
The jail has a very explicit policy against sexual harassment. Whistler thinks that he’ll remain anonymous and that inside the green cement block walls he’s the law.
Gentile is a married man with a wife and two kids who ended up in jail after a drug charge. Like lots of other people in this place, he made a mistake and got caught up in addiction. Instead of having a clear drug treatment policy that keeps people out of jail and getting some help, the state sentenced him to five years in a medium security prison. He’s doing 12 weekends in county because of a phone number found on his cell phone bill by his probation officer. He was “violated” and sent back in. The revolving door of the prison-industrial complex is alive and well.
As I wait my turn, I recall a verse from Proverbs: “Smart people speak wisely…but the foolish talk too much and are ruined” (10:13–14). I’m the last one up. I strip down, but I leave my cross and the New Testament/Proverbs on the counter where they are clearly visible. In a minute or two, I’m changed and out of there. We only exchange a few words about clothes size and a piece of tape inside the Bible (apparently a concern over contraband). The size of my boxer shorts are never mentioned. I feel the power of His presence, and I am thankful.
Since the publication of the news article on my Quaker war resistance, it became well known in the jail that I was a chiropractor. I had to fend off requests for treatment and felt bad that I wasn’t helping this population with chronic back pain.
Late on Sunday afternoon, I pulled the absurd one-inch foam pad from my cell and placed it on the floor in the middle of G block and started doing yoga. In a few minutes Cory, Cory Bly, Dave, and John were looking down on me. I’m on my knees in child pose, stretching my lower back fascia, and Cory Bly (ever the wise-ass) blurts out, “Are you a f—ing Muslim?”
I point to the opposite wall: “Mecca is that way. No, this is yoga, and this posture is called Child Pose—it’s good for your lower back.” In no time, there are four pads on the floor, and the new corrections officer (a woman) comes into the block and says, “What the hell is this?”
Bly blurts again: “Yoga!” I’m smiling on the inside.
“Okay, guys, the whole trick to this is to breathe once you get in the posture: 15 deep breaths. Let your spine relax into it. Focus on the in and the out of your breathing.” The corrections officer who’s been observing this with a smirk on her face orders me up: “Olejak, you’re out of here. Pack up your stuff.”
I head toward the door, and these four guys who I’ve gotten to know over the last 48 hours each give me a fist bump. That’s code for you’re alright. I take it in and say, “Merry Christmas.”
Lunch was served: a delightfully tasteless chili over rice, applesauce, pudding, and milk. “Does anyone have salt?” I asked. “This has no taste at all.”
Anthony piped up, “I’ve got chicken seasoning.” It was in a little plastic pouch and looked like a combination of spices, but tasted like colored MSG. I never eat MSG, but I was desperate. “Mind if I try some?”
“Sure, knock yourself out.” This was an act of generosity. Everything that gets into the jail is either paid for through an over-priced commissary or brought in as contraband. And yes, salt is contraband unless you buy it through the jail commissary system: a system that operates as a profit center for the jail. The other is the telephone. Local calls run $1.50 per minute in a day and age when I can buy a calling card and call Europe for less than five cents per minute.
James was lying in the lower bunk next to mine in the middle of D-Dorm. He spent most of his time in bed on his side because his back was in chronic pain. I was reading a book and I heard what sounded like a whisper, “Hey Doc, do you think you can help me?” I decided the only way to treat James and keep myself out of trouble was with a detailed informed consent form. I drew one up and had James sign and date it.
I examined his spine and found his left Sacro-iliac joint; on hip flexion, it was 50 percent restricted compared to the right side. This could account for the lower back pain. He wanted me to manipulate it back to normal movement, and I did.
James stood up and said: “The worst of that pain is gone.” And a smile came across his face. And that’s when the others started forming a line. It was then that I looked up and saw the corrections officer Whistler looking through the plexiglass. “Oh s—” I thought. Whistler points to me, “Olejak!” and then smiles and says, “I didn’t see that.” Definitely not a jerk.
Every weekend the jail issues each inmate a wrist band. It has a UPC code on it, and your every movement is tracked when you’re out of the cell. This week I was not issued one, but I did have the bracelet my daughter Rhea made for me out of tiny rubber bands, a gift she got from Santa for Christmas. Naturally, this would have been considered contraband and promptly confiscated, but it seemed to be invisible to every corrections officer I came across. I liked that. Rhea, my little heart, was with me all weekend. My daughter, so full of love, protected me every moment of my weekend.
One theme that has come through loud and clear is the shared humanity we all have in the body of Christ. In each of these men I see the divine spark, what the Quakers call the Inner Light. It shows up in subtle ways like the gift of a sandwich or the way they gently showed me the ropes when I was a newbie. On the surface they seem gruff, but there is a softness in each of these men. It only requires the ability to listen and be present.
A Fox News piece on marijuana sales in Colorado starts up a lively discussion on the benefits of “medical marijuana.” I know I’m going to be asked to weigh in on this topic, so I just hang back and listen to what comes up. It turns out that the retail is only marginally more costly, and the consensus of the conversation is that it’d be better to pay the premium and avoid the legal hassles. I find this astonishing given that all these guys are connected and know exactly how to land a dime bag if they wanted to, but they’d rather buy it legally.
Prohibition didn’t work for alcohol, and it certainly did not work for street drugs. As a health practitioner, I’m in an unusual situation because I am no advocate for drug use of any kind and that includes smoking, drinking, shooting, or snorting drugs, but at the same time, I fully understand that the “war on drugs” is a “war on people with addiction problems.”
In Alcoholics Anonymous, alcoholism is considered a spiritual disease. I’m a scientist and I understand the physiology of addiction, but there is some truth to this. No addict of any drug left the substance they were abusing by themselves; it takes intervention on many levels: physical, spiritual, and social.
Oscar and Chris had been getting on each other’s nerves long before I was assigned to B-Dorm. I had no idea what was going on between the two of them. I did sense a kind of undertow in the room, but wasn’t sure where the tension was coming from.
Then all hell broke loose. It started with yelling.
“You ain’t my big brother! I’m my own man!” Oscar yelled, pointing at Chris.
Chris steps toward Oscar like you’d see in a boxing ring and cusses him out.
Oscar steps back. “I don’t like to fight.”
“I like to fight!” says Chris. And like a bolt of lightning, his fist hits Oscar in the ear, knocking him off balance.
“FIGHT!” The corrections officer sounds the alarm, and six officers come running in at once and knock the two fighters to the ground.
“BREAK IT UP!” is yelled several times. The struggle continued for a moment. Then I heard “I’m not resisting” from Chris who is face down on the cement with cuffs being put on him.
At the same time, Oscar is taking a blow from the sergeant, Dean, who blurts, “I’ll f—ing kill you!” Oscar is flipped over on his stomach, and cuffs are put on him. Dean has a knee in his back while two other corrections officers hold him down.
The fight scared me: it erupted too quickly, and I did not see it coming. I was also frightened by the ferocity of the anger and, what seemed to me, the excessive use of force to end the debacle.
A half an hour later Oscar is returned to the dorm. He does not want to admit any weakness in this crowd. I want to know more about how the fight started. He tells me, “I should have thrown the first punch.”
“Oscar, do you know that I’m a Quaker?”
“No, what’s a Quaker?”
“It’s a faith that believes in many Christian ideas, but our main thing is that we feel very strongly about nonviolence. We place a high value on peace and peaceful means of solving problems. That’s why I’m in here: I did not pay income tax because I was against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“Wow. For real? That’s cool.”
“Next time you want to throw the first punch, come to me and let’s figure out a way to work it all out with words. Okay?”
Oscar nods his head.
This weekend was a bit hard on me emotionally. Even though it meant I was one-third of the way through the sentence, I felt empty, lethargic, and hopeless. It seemed I had just arrived and it was already Sunday night. I had a slight fever when I arrived on Friday and was fatigued. On Saturday and Sunday, the fever did not progress to acute flu-like symptoms, but remained a low-grade feeling of the blahs.
I had mailed myself Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela on Wednesday, timed to arrive when I was there. Such a book puts one’s life in perspective. I knew about some of the repressive measures the Apartheid government had inflicted on the different racial groups in South Africa, but I had no idea the lengths to which the Afrikaners went to dominate and control the native people.
I see the early signs of this domination and control returning to America. We fought a civil war to eliminate the scourge of racism, but we have not quite learned the lesson. The racism is creeping back into the culture in small degrees.
I’m even more worried about the domestic spying programs started during the George W. Bush Administration, continuing today under the National Security Agency. Had these electronic surveillance systems been in place in the 1940s and 1950s, people like Mandela and the African National Congress would have been crushed in the infancy of their political campaigns.
What I found so courageous about Mandela was his willingness to sacrifice his own life for something bigger than himself. I worry that we are running out of heroes like Mandela. We have become a nation too materialistic and too apathetic to even care about matters that concern our own self-interest.
We need to examine the worn-out notion that war is a solution to problems. Genesis reminds us that out of the void God created with the Word. This is not just a child’s fable but an idea with real power. Yet, it only has power if we relate to our word with integrity. If talk is cheap, then the creation story has no power: certainly not power of bombs and drones.
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More: Our colleague Jon Watts of QuakerSpeak interviewed Joseph Olejak last year, in Why I Stopped Paying Taxes.