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Home Action Media Outreach Articles Faith, from within
Faith, from within PDF Print E-mail
COLEMAN - The last time we talked to Faith Fippinger, she was in her Sarasota living room in a flowered dress, offering a glass of orange juice, wondering about prison.

She wondered whether the government would send her there, and if it did, whether she could do the world any good while she served her time.

Now here she is, in an olive green prison uniform, most of the way through a three-month sentence at Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County. "I'm sorry I can't offer any juice," she says. After all, it's not her kitchen.

Except for the surroundings, not much about her has changed. She's still in trouble with the government for going to Iraq last year as a human shield: putting herself in the path of missiles and volunteering in Iraqi hospitals, trying to stop the war. She's still waiting to find out how she'll be punished for violating U.S. sanctions against travel to Iraq. She's still not sorry she did it.

For months, her case slogged through bureaucracy and her story made her a hero of peaceniks, a target of hate calls and the subject of a documentary. All the while she wondered if she would go to prison. Officials at the Treasury Department said she would probably just get a fine, but she doesn't trust them.

Then, in November, she got nailed swift and clean for a similar but less glamorous act of civil disobedience. This time she went to the Army base at Fort Benning, Ga., got arrested on a trespassing charge, and was quietly and unceremoniously sent to jail.

So now she knows.

She knows that prison, at least this minimum security version of it, is a place where, oddly, she can do what she likes best. She has found people she wants to help. She's had time to meditate, to sing and to read and answer her fan mail. This is not a resort, but she's not a high-maintenance woman anyway, and so jail is not out of line with the life she already lives.

The trespassing charge was her first arrest in her 63 years, most of which were spent traveling, gardening, reading, teaching blind children and studying Buddhism. But now that she's here, she admits that she and jail seemed sure to find each other.

* * *
The part of the prison where Fippinger is held is called Camp.

It has no razor wire and no clanging bars. The inmates could bolt for Highway 470 if they got the urge.

For a woman who once lived for two years without electricity or running water on the Alaskan tundra, the conditions aren't bad.

She gets vegetarian meals and takes a yoga class. She works in landscaping, which is as close to gardening as she could get. She drives a noisy lawn tractor and there, silenced by the roar, she can do her Buddhist chants as loud as she wants.

Buddha Buddha may I become just like you.

Sometimes she sings Girl Scout camp songs about golden days dying behind purple hills.

She has received more than 200 letters, and she's trying to respond to them all. The other inmates saw all that mail and wondered if she was famous. She told them she was nobody.

Fippinger has seen the occasional prison movie, and she wasn't sure going in if the other inmates would be kind to her. Now she talks about them the same way she talks about the Iraqi mothers she met last year, with a soft, shaky voice.

"On Mother's Day the visiting room was packed," she says. "It was overflowing with joy and laughter, heartache and tears. There were babies, little children, and people who were babies when their mothers came here and are now grown. And the beautiful voices. They sang a beautiful song."

At night, Fippinger turns on a little reading light, settles into her bottom bunk and hopes for some quiet. She has finished a book called The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, and another on Vietnam, a war she protested in the traditional sign-carrying manner.

Usually when she tries to read, she hears noisy laughter, the kind that might have been maddening if she hadn't seen what she has seen. Being in Iraq taught her to appreciate laughter wherever she finds it.

"It's wonderful to hear it."

She likes to watch the women do each other's hair, buying perm solution in the prison commissary and creating elaborate, twisting configurations of braids.

Fippinger, who never fusses over her appearance, thinks she might get her hair done for her release.

"I might treat myself," she says. "Maybe some cornrows. Maybe a French braid."

But it will be hard for her to walk out of here when her "bunkie" has five years left to serve. She has listened to so many sad stories that she has grown attached. Most of the stories are about drug charges. Many of the women are here because of mandatory minimum sentencing.

She didn't want to come to jail. But it's hard to walk away from a good cause.

"You think about all the women you don't want to leave," she says. And she starts to cry.

* * *
She cries a lot and always has, and people who know her know that as quickly as the tears come, they go, and her voice can turn hard and strong, then fall back to a whisper in mid sentence.

In jail she saw the photos of Iraqi prisoners being tortured, and that brought out her wrath and her despair in waves.

"I thought, what else? How far are we going to fall?

"I am in prison for protesting torture training," she says. "U.S. military torture training."

Fippinger and 10,000 protesters demanded the government close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which used to be known as the School of the Americas. The Army trains Latin American military personnel there. Fippinger calls it a terrorist training school.

The protesters held hundreds of wooden crosses, each bearing the name of someone they think died or disappeared in Latin America at the hands of students of this school.

On the other side of a wall, military police waited to make sure the protesters stayed in their place. Fippinger and 27 others stepped around the wall. "They were there with handcuffs and shackles waiting."

She said she trespassed because the other forms of peaceful protest - letter writing, picketing - hadn't worked.

"I feel I'm speaking with my body," she says, "and that's the last I have."

A U.S. District Court magistrate sentenced her to three months in jail. She came to Coleman in April.

Sometimes, on her lawn mower, she looks at the razor wire and the buildings behind it, where the more serious offenders are kept. She wonders about those people, about their lives. Sami Al-Arian is kept here somewhere. She guesses that murderers live here. Maybe people wrongly convicted, but people rightly convicted, too.

And inevitably, thinking about those people makes her think about another high-security compound, and the man inside.

"That fraudulent resident of the White House and his cadre of criminals have been responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of men, women and children. They've sent our own country's children over there to die. And he's still free, still in office, still destroying.

"It makes me wonder about justice."

* * *
She is often asked whether she really accomplished anything. She didn't stop the war. She didn't close the School of the Americas.

But she saves the letters she gets, reads them again and again. "I think there's been a consciousness," she says.

"Even from within, I've been able to share with people - people who didn't know if George Bush was a Republican or a Democrat. But as important as them knowing my story is my knowing theirs."

From her bunk, the window catches the afternoon sun. She knows this sounds corny and sentimental, but after she is done working for the day a stream of sunshine pours in.

"It streams in on me," she says, in that odd combination of weepiness and resolve. "It makes me think that in this dark time is a ray of hope."

Her release date is July 2. Her brother will pick her up in her 13-year-old Geo, if it survives the trip from Sarasota.

She'll go back to her little house, decorated with trinkets from her travels, put on her Yanni CD and figure out what to do next.

She has thought about going back to Iraq, meeting other former human shields and trying to do something about all the orphaned Iraqi children. But she doesn't know if that is possible, doesn't know if it is legal, and doesn't know if it is the best way to help.

She has also heard about proposed legislation involving federal parole, nonviolent offenders and mandatory minimum sentences. Maybe she will make a phone call or write a letter to a congressman. Maybe she'll just send the inmates some old magazines to read.

"I think the most important thing I can do right now for them is not forget them," she said.

She hopes after a long walk on Siesta Beach she'll know what she should do next.

She has a couple of more weeks to think about it, in a quiet-enough place.

Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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