Judith Ward Gross, Florida Catholic
TALLAHASSEE — When Humility of Mary Sister Sheila Salmon departed federal prison here July 24, she was as feisty and determined as the day she started her 100-day incarceration. Her crime? The 71-year-old was among 16 people arrested Nov. 19, 2006, for criminal trespassing at an annual protest at School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.
“My thing is, if it closes (the School of the Americas) one day sooner, it was worth it,” Sister Salmon said of the controversial training facility for military and law enforcement officers from Latin America.
She also reflected on the time spent with fellow prisoners.
“The women have given me more about life and strength of character than I could ever give back. I will miss them,” she said.
For nearly 20 years, closing of the military training facility — renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001 —has been an issue for Catholic social justice activists and others. Humility of Mary Sisters have participated in annual protests at School of the Americas from the time Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois organized 10 peace demonstrators in 1990 to commemorate the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two native women by a Salvadoran military unit led by a School of the Americas graduate. Now as many as 25,000 assemble every year outside the gates each November at Fort Benning in a nonviolent protest.
Those who have chosen to cross under or over the perimeter fence have often been arrested and spent time in federal prison for their participation. According to the advocacy organization School of the Americas Watch, human rights defenders have collectively spent more than 92 years in prison, while more than 50 people have been put on probation since 1990.
HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSERS
The School of the Americas, with its motto of “Libertad, Paz y Fraternidad: Liberty, Peace and Brotherhood,” has been implicated in training some of the worst human rights abusers in Latin America since its inception a half century ago. One notable graduate, Major Roberto D’Aubuisson Arrieta, a Salvadoran political and military figure known by detractors as “Blowtorch Bob” because of reports of using that tool as a torture instrument, founded the National Republican Alliance. D’Aubuisson, who died in 1992, was caught in 1980 with weapons and documents that implicated his group in the murder of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, an outspoken peace and justice advocate killed as he celebrated Mass.
An analysis of the School of the Americas and its successor by the Center for International Policy confirmed it trained many personnel from Latin American countries in which militaries ruled and committed serious human rights violations, and that its training manuals from the early 1980s through 1991 promoted techniques that violated human rights and democratic standards. Defenders of the school argue that today the curriculum includes human rights as a component of every class and that no school should be held accountable for the actions of only some of its graduates.
NUN KNEW THE RISK
With the knowledge of all that went before her and what could befall her, Sister Salmon was resolute in her decision to step over the line. Her steely resolve was bolstered by the commitment she had made years earlier when the Humility of Mary Sisters, headquartered in Villa Maria, Pa., created their Peace and Justice Commission, working and advocating for the poor and oppressed.
On a warm, sunny July 24, leaving her prison garb behind, the newly released Sister Salmon sat at a picnic table regaling those present with quips and recollections of her time behind bars. Members of Pax Christi Tallahassee hosted a “liberation celebration.” The plucky nun said she decided to live in the moment and find ways of being engaged in prison.
Through letters she shared with attorney and Humility of Mary Sister Catherine Cassidy, Sister Salmon’s supporters were able to follow her experiences in the federal lockup. Pax Christi members stayed active by visiting, praying and keeping public awareness current. In one of her first missives she wrote, “People who support the closing of the SOA … have written, including a soldier from Iraq. He asked for prayers because he plans to be a teacher when he gets home, if he is not killed there. He is married with a baby and he tries to be especially kind to the children of Iraq.”
She said the most difficult part of her sentence was the total lack of privacy and being treated as a “nonperson” by the guards. “You can do one of two things — be ridiculous or adjust. I adjusted.”
WISDOM BEHIND BARS
One woman with whom she talked gave her words of wisdom for her journey, saying, “Prison life and your life outside are two separate worlds. Don’t mix them. When you are inside, don’t think about the outside life. And when you are out, forget this life.”
Sister Salmon wrote about one 75-year-old Spanish woman who was sentenced to 25 years seven years ago for a conspiracy charge. “She speaks no English and had no attorney. She does not understand why she is in prison.”
Although no guard was abusive, she noted the way inmates were treated made her realize she and all inmates were considered property of the federal government. The absence of rehabilitation programs greatly bothered her and she feels the arbitrary actions of the guards are oppressive.
Sister Salmon, a bilingual retired hospice nurse, found ways of connecting with other inmates. “I can’t sing ‘Happy Birthday’ on key, but I volunteered for the Spanish choir and lip-synched,” the active septuagenarian said, laughing.
Next she found an interfaith group including Catholics, Muslims, Jews and Protestants and a Wiccan that met on Sunday evenings to watch spiritual videos. “I saw the ‘Story of David’ so many times I could have played Bathsheba!” she said.
She taught English to non-English speakers. Her first students were three Chinese women who spoke no English. For an hour they learned names and did a lot of bowing and continued to exchange bows when they met in the compound.
The medium-security prison houses a wide range of lawbreakers, from highly educated doctors and lawyers to the illiterate, “but after a while none of it makes any difference. You find commonality.”
After a while, as she became accustomed to the harsh reality she was living, her attitude as expressed through her letters became lighter, filled with humor and irony. The absolute inflexibility of the prison system was most ludicrous during her mandatory physical. Her pregnancy test was negative. “I felt like Sarah except it would not be good news for the HM ‘News and Notes’ if it were positive! Initially here at FCI Tallahassee my sense of humor was on vacation, but it has returned.”
When word of her presence spread, many women sought her out, asking if she was there because she is a nun. She used the opportunity to educate them about the School of the Americas and why she did what she did. In one letter she wrote, “Being a nun, having white hair, speaking Spanish and inmates now knowing why I am here has made me somewhat of a novelty. Whenever I go out of the unit, I am surrounded by people wanting to talk. It’s a bit much! But I am trying to listen attentively and not judge.”
During her imprisonment, Congress voted down a bill that would have cut off funding to the School of the Americas. The school’s existence survived by a slender margin of six votes, with Democrats largely supporting the measure, while 172 Republicans voted against it. Their actions guarantee another demonstration ending with a mock funeral Mass this coming November, as it does every year.
Looking forward to going home to Sebastian to resume her life as a death watch volunteer for hospice and with the guardian ad litem program for immigrant children, Sister Salmon knows what she has been through is the defining mission of her life. Would she do it again? She said she isn’t sure, but what she does know is, “I don’t ever want to be a bystander again.”
WHO IS SHE?
Sister Sheila Salmon
Order: Sisters of the Humility of Mary, headquartered at Villa Maria, Pa.
Career: Hospice registered nurse, missionary in Chile and Kenya.
Retirement activities: Outreach worker with Mexican migrants, abused and neglected children and hospice patients in Sebastian.
Arrested: Nov. 19, 2006, for criminal trespass during protest at School of the Americas.
Sentenced: Jan. 29, 2007, to three months, 10 days, in federal prison.
Reported to Tallahassee Federal Correctional Institute: April 17, 2007.
Released: July 24, 2007.