Jonson Miller, a graduate student at Virginia Tech university and committed peace activist, spent fifty-seven days at the Beckley Federal Correctional Institute in West Virginia this summer for a trespassing conviction he received after protesting the continuing operation of The Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation [WHISC]. WHISC, formerly known as the School of the Americas [SOA], operates as a sort of military training ground for South Americans looking for United States aid in ridding their countries of rebels and anti-government groups. The interview took place over several sessions, including through regular old mail while he was still “down.”*
*Down = when you’re doing time, it’s called being down.
Q: How has the weather been? It’s rained a lot here. But now I think the rainy season’s passed. For you?
Miller: Exactly the same. I’m only an hour and half away from you.
Q: Okay. Maybe tell me first about where you are.
Miller: I am at the satellite prison work camp of the Beckley Federal Correctional Institution. It is actually in Beaver, West Virginia. (Not Beckley, as the name suggests.) As a guy-totally-insane-down-the-hall- from-me in “the hole”* said, “Even the goddamn name is a lie.”
*The Hole = the hole. It’s solitary confinement. Except, strangely, in the case of the Beckley FCI, they stack two or sometimes three people in one Hole, because of the prison overpopulation problem. The hole is about 6 × 9 feet. Given the additional space restrictions of having a shower stall and toilet in there, Jonson figured it would take about 250 laps to make a mile.
Q: What is all this about “the hole”? I heard about being careful not to send you “improper” material or say the wrong stuff. I hope this interview isn’t doing exactly that. But since you mentioned it first, I guess I can ask.
Miller: This interview is fine, but yes, people do get sent to the hole for the mail that other people send them. I spent my first week here in the hole because two of my friends gave me a raised fist as I reported in the first day. The hole sucks.
Q: What did you do in there?
Miller: I spent most of my time in an altered state of consciousness as my mind wandered around the astral. The food, obviously, sucks here, so it’s a hunger thing all the time too. Very painful, all the way. It’s some cut.*
*Cut = straight garbage, as in plain bullshit.
Q: What about how I’ve heard that it’s an Indian rite of passage, like Native Americans, to be sent into the wilderness for days without food where you have some epiphany about your role in life?
Miller: Yeah, no. It wasn’t like that. I drifted, yes. But it was aimless. No epiphanies. I guess I’m very Western. Just drifting, with no purpose. I didn’t have anything to read for the first six days, which was the worst of it. Some guy slid a People magazine under the door on the sixth day. But I ended up thinking reading that was worse than reading nothing.
Q: Why, specifically, are you in prison, by the way? I’m not sure I ever got the straight scoop.
Miller: I was sentenced here for “trespassing with the intent to protest” on the grounds of Fort Benning in Columbus, GA. Fort Benning is the home of the Army’s School of the Americas. Its name is now actually The Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation. A few years ago, Congress passed a bill to close the SOA, but they immediately reopened it as WHISC under the control of the DOD (Department of Defense) — but then they, perhaps illegally, gave control back to the Army.
Q: That’s messed up.
Miller: Well yeah. And this too — even after they changed the name to WHISC to try to distance themselves from the growing negative publicity, they even tried to get the media to manipulate that name too. Like, everyone, all of us opposed to it, started saying how it was WHISC, as in the government was just whisking it under the rug. So the media is supposed to refer to it as WHInSeC.
Q: Can you be more specific about what this SOA does? As in, who actually goes there and gets this training?
Miller: Soldiers from Central and South America are brought to the SOA for “counter-insurgency” training and other such stuff. In the 1980s, many of them came from El Salvador when we were trying to bolster their government against popular movements for change and revolutionaries. Today, most come from Colombia, where we want to defend the government against the Marxists. These folks routinely go back home with their new training and massacre civilians, attempt coups, and generally brutalize the civilian population. I want to end the training.
Q: Now what about this protest? I mean, how does this thing work? Is it crowded? Do you camp out? Port-o-potties?
Miller: The last two years, about 10,000 people stood outside a gate of the fort. There were speeches and, yes, port-o-potties. Then we had a funeral procession for all the victims of the SOA. Then 100 of us walked onto the base in an act of civil disobedience.
Q: So basically you knew going in that you’d get arrested?
Miller: I knew it was possible that I’d get arrested and maybe prosecuted, but I didn’t know for sure. This year, everyone [the 100 who crossed the line] got prosecuted.
Q: Since you already knew you shouldn’t do it, is getting arrested the best thing for the cause? I’m just thinking that, on the one hand, you’re preaching to the choir and, on the other hand, you’re giving those who already oppose that mode of protest some justification for doing so.
Miller: Representative Rick Boucher [D-VA] kept putting off or refusing to cosponsor the current bill to close the SOA. After getting convicted, I spoke to several news outlets and told them that Boucher had told me three times that he would cosponsor the bill and never did. I then called his office, told them I had talked to the press, and suggested that Boucher sign on ASAP. He did. This all makes it sound like it was useful to get arrested.
Q: I want to ask a bit about prison life. So some usual questions, like what do you do all day?
Miller: I work as a math tutor for the GED classes. Though I rarely actually work because the classes are always cancelled for one reason or another. Other than that, I read books and write letters. I am also learning to play banjo. We have a few taped-together instruments here. I also play bass and guitar with some Bluegrass and Old Time players. It isn’t bad. [Editor’s note: basically, this is called “biddin’.”*]
*Biddin’ = what you do when you’re Down. For example, Jonson grew a beard and played banjo a lot.
Q: But did you ever do any tutoring?
Miller: Just a few times, all told.
Q: How did the teaching experience compare to the classes you do at Virginia Tech?
Miller: The major difference is that at school everything is basically set up to help people learn, whereas at Beckley everything is set up to prevent anyone from learning anything. If you’re going to get a GED there, you have to do it on your own. On the other hand, the two teaching environments are similar in that they’re both trying to produce the strange phenomenon of educated ignorance — simply producing good consumers and workers and disempowering students.
Q: Have you made any friends?
Miller: Oh yeah. There are some great folks here. I hang out with drug dealers, smugglers, and gun runners. They’re some of the coolest folks I’ve ever met.
Q: Do you have good discussions? Or is it pretty tame and mundane?
Miller: Oh, no. We have good discussions all the time. As you can imagine, nobody here is in love with the Federal Government. I am, by no means, an extremist here. We often talk politics. I also like the stories about how they got here.
Q: What’s one that sticks out?
Miller: One guy was arrested after cops tried to sell him drugs thinking he was the guy’s cousin, who they knew sold drugs. This guy refused the drugs, but they arrested him for conspiracy. However, he was never indicted and there was never a grand jury — as required. His appeal should be pretty clear cut, but he’s lost five years of his life.
Q: I guess I’m curious about what these other people are like.
Miller: They’re pretty much like anyone else, though there is a disproportionate number of people of color and people without high school diplomas. But conspiracy laws are so harsh and the burden of proof in Federal court so low that entire families and their acquaintances can all be locked up. It’s insane.
Q: Are there a lot of preacher types, religious types?
Miller: Oh, fucking preachers, Jesus. They are everywhere. This place is a breeding ground for fundamentalists. You can’t get in two sentences edgewise without being told Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior will see you through. I’m atheist, and the first day I was there I told my cellee* that I was atheist. He’s a fundamentalist and it turns out we had a lot of really fine conversations. He was very cool and we developed a kind of mutual religious respect. That was an exception.
*Roommates are called cellees, since they live in cells, you know. Cellees who are, how do we say, especially close, are called Bunkees. I asked if they were called Sally’s; Jonson agreed that was sort of funny, but he also didn’t think it was very original.
Q: What’s his deal? What’s he in for?
Miller: He’s on the seventh year of a ten-year sentence for drug conspiracy. Probably another year and he’ll move on out to a halfway house.
Q: No shit? Same as the other guy? I guess you’re serious about the conspiracy thing.
Miller: Yeah, he and his cousin were named by another guy in court who was trying to reduce his own sentence. That guy gave up names, or “made up” names, whichever way you see it.