No Mercy at Federal Prisons


Special to The Progressive Populist

Fort Worth, Texas

The "neglected work of mercy," says Kathleen Rumpf, is helping those in prison. The 48-year-old Catholic lay worker and Ploughshares activist from Syracuse, New York, ought to know. She's been arrested 80 times, spending from ten days to 18 months behind bars for acts of civil disobedience that began 28 years ago with Rumpf's first lone three-day vigil on the steps of the Pentagon.

On July 21, she was released from the Federal Medical Center-Carswell, just outside Fort Worth, where she spent the last eight months of a year-long sentence for rewriting the welcome sign for the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, to read "School of Shame." SOA graduates include some the most brutal assassins and human rights violators in Latin America's history, all trained in their slimy craft with U.S. tax money. For messing up its sign, Rumpf and four fellow Ploughshares members each were sentenced to a year in prison, fined $2,000 and ordered to pay $1,025 in restitution (to re-letter the sign.)

"Americans can feel safer in their beds with this dangerous bunch behind bars," her hometown paper, the Syracuse Herald-Tribune wrote following the sentencing.

Rumpf, who has artificial knees, was sent to the Bureau of Prisons medical center for women at the former Carswell Air Force Base where about 1,100 women are in custody.

The facility may yet rue the day she showed up behind its razor wire-enclosed walls. After spending almost a year there, she's convinced that women are being denied basic medical care resulting in unnecessary suffering and death, and she's telling everyone who will listen.

On top of that, Warden J.B. Brogan likely will remember July 19, the day Rumpf's time was officially up. On that day he inadvertently let the public in on another well-kept secret: a Bureau of Prisons policy that allows prison time to be extended "indefinitely" by a warden -- without the benefit of due process.

By 7:30 that morning, about 20 of Rumpf's supporters were outside the air base's south gate, waiting for her release. Actor Martin Sheen, a fellow Ploughshares activist and some-time comrade in handcuffs -- arrested "58 times over the past ten years, one for every year of my life," he said -- was en-route from Los Angeles. Sheen and Rumpf were supposed to appear over the next few days at a series of events, spearheaded by State Representative Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat, and Fort Worth City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Ralph McCloud to raise money for Libra, a legal aid fund for indigent women prisoners or their survivors who believe they were denied needed medical care at Carswell.)

Burnam, a life-long social justice activist and no newcomer on such issues to Fort Worth's press corps, was holding forth that morning on the evils of the SOA. None of the reporters on hand had ever heard of Rumpf -- one 30-something TV reporter was clueless even about the School of the Americas -- but clearly the new kid on the block was McCloud, the Coordinator for Peace and Justice for Fort Worth's Catholic diocese when he's not wearing his council hat. Here was the councilman, who was usually low-key and impeccably dressed, duded up in jeans and anti-SOA T-shirt, calling the training camp "one of the most heinous institutions of our times" while sweating in the noonday sun with a bunch of rabble-rousers and waiting to embrace a convicted felon. McCloud would be all over the TV news and the front page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. With that coverage, of course, came the report that Rumpf had not been released -- and why.

Two days before, Warden Brogan, acting under a little-known federal statute that dates back to the late 1980s and one that even Rumpf's local attorney, Maureen Tolbert, hadn't heard of, ordered Rumpf to sign a promissory note for the unpaid $2,000 fine, or be held "indefinitely."

Rumpf, who survives solely on Social Security Disability, refused on grounds of poverty and principal.

Brogan refused to release her.

"This statute basically says 'if your fine is over $150 and you don't sign a promissory note to pay it off after you get out, the BOP can hold you until you sign'," said a furious Tolbert, a criminal defense lawyer whose clients are indigents assigned by the Tarrant County courts. It "squeezes the poor, forcing them to choose between lying or staying in jail.

"If they sign in order to get out, which most people will do, and then can't pay because they don't have the money, they can be sent right back to prison. If they refuse to sign, they can be held in prison until they do. It's a nail in their coffin either way."

As the statute is written, there is no provision for a hearing, no right to an attorney, nor is there any time restraint on how long the Bureau of Prisons can hold a prisoner who refuses to sign. Tolbert says the statute is "clearly" a separation of powers issue and unconstitutional.

"It allows prison officials, who have no constitutional authority to do so, to basically re-sentence someone who has served his or her time. That role belongs to the courts and a judge, following due process."

Burnam, who waited outside the gates of the air base for three hours for the release that didn't come, put it more bluntly: "This is nothing more than debtor's prison. Didn't we got rid of that with a revolution?"

The law's been challenged twice in separate federal district courts, in appeals filed by the same prisoner, Jabari Zakiya, a former NASA employee sentenced to 16 months and a $25,000 fine for tax evasion. In 1996, the first court upheld the statute; the second, in May of this year, tossed it out as unconstitutional based on the separation of powers argument.

"That [last] court ruled that to take this ... to its logical conclusion, someone could be held for life for a fine of $150," Tolbert said.

By the time the court ruled in Zakiya's favor, he had served three years beyond the time of his original sentence.

For Rumpf, the point became moot after two days of extended jail time. Friends in Syracuse raised the $2,000 to pay her fine and she walked out of the prison a free woman on July 21.

"This doesn't mean the issue of 'debtors prison' is gonna go away," Tolbert said. "Two of the others sentenced with Kathleen [a priest serving his time in Washington State and a nun in Kentucky] are due to be released in November. They say they won't sign either, which may get this to the Supreme Court, where it's bound to be overturned -- it's so blatant."

In the meantime, Rumpf is back in Syracuse building a file on women prisoners -- or their survivors -- who may have been injured or died as a result of medical care withheld at Carswell.

Sheen spent two days in Fort Worth fielding more questions from the local press about John F. Kennedy, whose son had just flown nose first into the Atlantic, than the SOA or Rumpf ("I didn't know John Kennedy, guys, I only played him," he reminded reporters). He flew back to Los Angeles to begin work on a new TV series about a liberal Democratic president. "This only makes me a living," he said before he left, "so I can do the real work of this world, like shutting down the School of the Americas."

Betty Brink is a writer based in Fort Worth. Contact S.O.A. Watch, PO Box 4566, Washington, D.C. 20017; 202-234-3440. Libra Fund, c/o John Hirschi, 3305 Buchanan, Wichita Falls, TX 76308. Kathleen Rumpf c/o Maureen Tolbert, 2630 W. Freeway, Fort Worth, TX 76102; 817-332-3441.

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