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Home Action Media Outreach Articles Prisoner of Conscience
Prisoner of Conscience PDF Print E-mail
Kenneth Kennon's closest company for five months was a pair of scuffed, too-big work boots.

They came to him as part of his standard prison issue - the soles worn off and slippery, the former owner's toe prints already established. They rubbed his big toe uncomfortably. He wondered who walked in them before he did. He wrote a poem about them and called it "Used."

They were a daily reminder of the helplessness of his situation.

Kennon, then a pastor of 40 years and a 63-year-old grandfather, had been working for years on Latin American justice issues when he was given a six-month sentence in federal prison in 1998 for his part in a peaceful protest at what was then called the School of the Americas, a training camp at Fort Benning, Ga.

With students hailing largely from Latin American military and law enforcement agencies, the school's stated mission is to promote democracy and strengthen relationships in the Americas.

Protesters prefer to call it the School of the Assassins, although its name has been changed to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. They contend it is a government-sanctioned camp that allows Central American graduates to use their newfound knowledge to crush insurgency and wage brutal wars against their own people.

The flashpoint for school opponents was the 1989 slaying of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter by Salvadoran army troops, the majority of whom were graduates of the school. On that November anniversary every year, thousands of peace activists head to the military base to protest.

Arrests are standard. When Kennon and Randy Serraglio, another Tucsonan, were arrested, they were among 25 arrested for "crossing the line" onto the base while attempting to deliver petitions. Last year, there were 27 arrests. The two received maximum sentences for their misdemeanor offenses because both had been cited for trespassing the year before, when protesters planted white crosses on the grassy median of the base. Charges were dropped, but the two were banned from the base for five years.

Kennon, now 69, has published a book about his experiences and is traveling the country for book tours and speeches.

Lee Rials, the Georgia institute's public affairs officer, said he's at a loss to explain the ongoing protests, which drew 8,000 people last year.

"You can come anytime and sit in on our classes and talk to the students," he said, adding that 13 of the people who went to prison as a result of their protests have returned for tours. "I don't think it was very useful, though. It didn't seem to convince any of them."

In response to whether the school teaches torture of any kind, Rials responded, "Never have, never will." Legally, he added, the institute is a separate entity from the School of the Americas and the focus, too, is different from the Cold War orientation of the former school. Students get a minimum of eight hours of coursework in human rights.

"The real benefit is that we are developing some very real cooperation with our allies throughout this region," he said.

Kennon's involvement was spawned by tragedy. His 23-year-old son died of cardiac arrest in 1980. It was crushing. So when he started hearing the stories of Central American refugees who had watched loved ones kidnapped, dismembered and murdered, his heart sobbed.

Kennon started protesting. He was arrested a dozen times or so.

He harbored refugees in his home as part of the Sanctuary movement that rocked the city in the mid-1980s, when eight people were convicted of providing aid to refugees. In 1987, he was arrested by the Border Patrol for transporting Central American refugees, although he was never charged. In 1993, he joined a dozen others in a 40-day fast on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to close the school. He served one year of supervised probation for protesting at the federal building. He went on several "peace caravans" to distribute goods to war victims in El Salvador.

Throughout his ministry, he had from time to time worked with inmates. But when he went to the La Tuna Federal Correctional Institution outside El Paso, he found that while he's been fighting for justice elsewhere, there are injustices every day in American prisons.

A bespectacled, slightly portly diabetic with a neat gray beard, Kennon soon found himself wearing an orange jumpsuit and a belly chain, with his feet shackled.

"Even though I was on the lowest rung of security lock-up - there were no bars or razor wire, the guards didn't carry weapons - I was surprised at the experience. What they try to do is take people's humanity away," said Kennon, whose book "Prisoner of Conscience: A Memoir" (Xlibris Corporation, $21.99 paperback) was published in 2002.

The noise and the lack of privacy were bad enough, but the inane little power struggles were the hardest for him.

The paperwork to allow his wife of 45 years to visit was inexplicably delayed, so he couldn't see her for two months. The report from his doctor detailing his disabilities, from diabetes to a debilitating back injury, didn't show up for months. The first shoes he wore were painfully small because they didn't have his size, even though his size 10 shoes are fairly standard. The second ones were too big. Staff members told him that he was from then on, Inmate Kennon, and he would no longer receive mail sent to "Rev. Kennon."

There were other hardships. His sister was chronically ill and died just two weeks after his release. He wasn't able to see her before her death. His brother was battling cancer.

To cope, Kennon wrote letters and poetry. Some 500 people wrote to him during his incarceration, and he wrote 1,000 letters back. But the days were interminable stints of boredom. Three times a day, five days a week, his job was to work in the dining room, cleaning tables and filling salt shakers.

His writing from prison is gray. He tried to celebrate small moments of joy, from a glimpse of sparrows on the property to a psalm that would randomly spring to mind to give him peace. But he battled depression for three years after his release and only exorcised it through writing his book. "The depression comes from seeing my nation systematically warehousing people with this inhumane treatment," Kennon said. "There is no attempt at rehabilitation."

Dan Dunne, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said he could not comment on Kennon's specific allegations. But, he said, the agency's 34,000 employees are "dedicated to serving in the most professional manner possible, and that includes ensuring the consistent and appropriate treatment for inmates at all times."

Rehabilitation, he insists, is part of the mission. His prisons have full-time medical professionals ready to serve inmates. Compared to the 40 million Americans who go without health care, he said, "I would think the quality of care we're providing is greater than people without insurance are getting."

But Kennon said white America too often dismisses prisoner complaints as whining or deserved treatment. Raised in a conservative Republican family in the Ozarks, he knows his message about the U.S. justice system and the U.S. reputation elsewhere isn't a popular one.

In his travels, he has been greeted warmly but has learned that Americans are seen as an arrogant and hypocritical lot who are exacerbating international problems. "We carry with us so many myths about this country," he said, "and I understand that. I only gave up the vision of a shiny America with a fight."

After he left prison in September 1998, he was at the protest again that November.

He hasn't crossed the line again. Others are doing that for him. Now, the too-big shoes are nothing but a bad memory for him, as he sits in his living room, wearing Birkenstocks and a pin that says "No Mas Muertes" (no more death).

Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield Bloom at 807-8031 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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