Activist glad to be home from prison Print
There's no place like home - just ask Peg Morton.

The 73-year-old peace activist stepped off a train and into the waiting arms of nearly two dozen supporters at the Eugene Amtrak station Tuesday, after serving a three-month sentence in federal prison for civil disobedience.

Morton parceled out hugs and then, true to form, distributed fliers urging people to contact their congressmen in support of prison reform legislation.

Supporters marveled at her resilience, and rejoiced at having her back. "Tonight you'll sleep in your own bed and the only guards will be your guardian angels," fellow activist Charles Gray said.

Morton, a Quaker, was imprisoned for trespassing during a protest outside Fort Benning, Ga., last November. The Army complex is home to a military school used to train foreign soldiers who opponents contend have later gone on to commit rape, murder and other crimes.

Most of the 27 activists arrested in November were given six-month sentences, but a U.S. magistrate reduced Morton's term to three months in deference to her age and health problems, which include a bad back.

Morton served her sentence at Camp Dublin, a federal minimum-security complex on an Army base located east of the San Francisco Bay area. She was released Friday.

Morton said she never feared for her personal safety but often felt intimidated by guards who were verbally abusive or would threaten extra work if she committed a minor infraction, real or perceived.

"There were times when you felt like you were being treated like a naughty child - in ways you'd never treat a child," she said.

Morton was initially assigned to clean the bathroom area for 49 women inmates, but then was assigned to landscape duty - a level of physical labor she felt unable to do. After considerable pleading and haggling, she was allowed to return to bathroom duty, she said.

For her troubles, she got all of $5.25 - not an hour, or even a day. That was her monthly pay.

In an effort to save expenses, she was given one can of Ajax cleanser a month, and no brush with which to clean the toilets.

One of the greater challenges, she said, was to live peaceably among such a diversity of women. She said she had to deal with personal conflict, putting her ideals of nonviolent communication to the test.

"They call them `dramas' - people told me it takes about three days for a drama to go away, and they were right. I can say that the people who were screaming and hollering at me ended up hugging me."

Morton said she went in hoping to be an avid listener and advocate for other women in prison. She did her best, she said, "but I was tired a lot of the time. I would have been more available if I had been less tired."

To maintain her emotional balance, she would read books whenever she could, especially novels. "I could disappear into another world," she said.

She also was sustained, she said, by a steady diet of letters and cards from supporters - anywhere from five to 21 a day. It was almost embarrassing, she said, because some prisoners received little or no mail.

None of the women prisoners were there for violent crimes, and Morton said she came to believe that many are serving unfairly long sentences - such as four to nine years for marijuana possession.

She heard wrenching stories from women who feared they'd never see their children again. She was struck by many of the women's compassion, competence and hunger for spirituality. "Some of them have become my friends," she said.

Aside from plenty of sleep, Morton said she's looking forward to eating "real food" - fresh vegetables instead of iceberg lettuce and lots of starches - and being with friends with whom she can genuinely relax.

"And I want to go camping."

LETTERS FROM PRISON

Excerpts from the 21 letters Peg Morton sent to supporters during her three months in federal prison:

? "On the first day (of landscaping detail), I tried to clip, squatting to do so. Swept the sidewalk, picked up cigarette butts. My back became painful, tears welled up. (Now) I take frequent walks around the outside of the park, to `pick up trash' and stretch my back, sneaking up to my bed to be down for 15 minutes."

? "What feels to me like excessive punishment happens day by day. One woman reported 20 minutes late returning from a furlough (a permitted weekend at home). She was put in solitary confinement for five days."

? "I make a deal with another inmate: She will crochet me a beautiful tote bag, and I will purchase items for her in the commissary. This kind of arrangement is made all the time, and is one way that people with no or little commissary money can get supply needs met. But it is illegal."

? "Long-term inmates seem able to respond without fear. They are not fazed by the power trips of some officers, their threats, their write-ups. They take the consequences - cleaning or landscaping on the weekend, the isolation unit. I can learn from them."

? "A friend is suddenly gone. She has at least one and perhaps two more years. She was unexpectedly called for a court appearance. No warning, no goodbyes. They just came and got her, and packed out her belongings. That is prison life. Inmates remind each other: `You come in alone, you go out alone.' They learn to live with the sudden wrenching of friendships."

? "(An inmate's nephew) is a 19-year-old medic with the Army in Iraq. One of the women here encouraged all of us to write him letters, and she gathered some 37 to send."

Copyright 2004 The Register-Guard