The Nature of Imprisonment
© Joanne Cowan / "Penned in Phoenix, " No. 8
June 25, 2006

A view of razorwire and hurricane fences. Credit: US Bureau of Prisons
Colorado resident and Quaker peace activist Joanne Cowan was arrested during the nonviolent protests at Ft. Benning's "School of the Assassins" in Georgia. She is serving several months in a federal prison in Phoenix, Arizona.

Friday May 12, 2006 -- As I circumnavigate the prison's baseball field, repeatedly every morning, I've been greeting my sisters in the track with a smile and the sarcastic words, "Another day in paradise." Today I added an adjective to my jab -- "blistering." The weather is getting hotter -- I'm most relieved I'll be living in CO during the summer -- repeated days over 100 and nights in the 70's are not my kind of environment.

Arizona doesn't have my kind of weather, but I am thoroughly liking the dry, desert experience, which for obvious reasons I have always avoided. In some ways I'm reminded of bush camping in Tanzania during fieldwork. Actually, no: the only thing in common is the temperature, and even that wasn't as intense as here.

Finding myself confined to the "camp," combined with a few opportunities of stillness and quiet (defined differently when one is always in the midst of 300 other women), watching sunsets, morning and evening walking, and meditations behind the chapel, have provided me time to observe birds, rabbits, other wildlife, the sun and moon along their seasonal and daily journeys, and the cacti and trees of the compound as they bloom and open to summer. Observing at the same time (approximately) day after day is very informative.

This is going to be the environmental, ecology letter. I'll try to keep politics, prison living, and compound lore out of my head and off this page. This also ends my week of no corresponding back to anyone, and it may be close to my last Penned in Phoenix because I think I've told you all enough! I'll save my praise of the creativity and artistry in cooking and the crafts for another time.

OK, back to the track (the "morning" track, not the evening walk). The track is at the back of the women's compound, across the street from the men's prison. Only PAV's (Prison Authorized Vehicles) -- go down this road to the men's prison, the shooting range, or the maintenance and Unicor facility.

I walk past our four housing units and past basketball courts to get there. It is my first opportunity since sundown to see, feel, and hear the world. There are no windows built to open in the living units and I'm still "living" in the hall, so I've no window to look through (the cubes do have windows). Thrushes, grackles, flickers and wrens are darting about in twos and threes, shouting to each other and competing for perches and food. Pigeons are cooing (or is it purring? And just what is "pigeon-toed"? They look OK to me.) as they part for me to pass, continually staring at specks (food?) on the lawn or pathway.

There are lawns here -- there is landscaping. We are not allowed in or on these features except to clean and maintain. Posted signs proclaim "Irrigated with Reclaimed Wastewater." (I thought this was good -- I imagine it's shower and sink not toilet, but the bug I heard was only "how gross, it smells." I don't think so.) The outfield is lawn, thus watered, and it's a regular habitat for rabbits, quail, mourning doves, pigeons and thrashers. They seem to have their own preferred spots -- the doves like the third baseline, the rabbits the northwest back corner of the outfield, the grackles the first baseline.

Out Beyond the Shooting Range
The Arizona Desert forms a living carpet to the horizon.
There is a shooting range behind the field, outside the fence (which we cannot approach or touch). The red "off limits" flag must be up as I write because I can hear the repeated popping now (7:15 AM) as officers do their thing with weapons. Walking the track this morning, I passed a billboard that faces the road, and today I stopped, turned, and read it. Large letters facing the road on which officers drive to park before they shoot, announce "INMATES WORK IN THESE AREAS. AMMUNITION AND BRASS ARE CONTRABAND. DO NOT DISPOSE OF YOUR WASTE HERE. VIOLATORS WILL BE CITED." Interesting, I think -- them or us or both? Are we all subject to the Warden?

Rolling hills surround the camp in all directions. Mostly at a distance, but as I turn on the first leg of the circle from walking east towards the brightening sky and proceed north, I face the closest "range" and clearly see a line of saguaro cacti along the top of the ridge, outlined against the whitening sky and scattered throughout the hillside. I think of them as "desert crosses" greeting my morning. I'm walking towards the cluster of rabbits now in their corner, munching away as they squat on the lawn. (Did you know that rabbits don't sit on those long back legs? I didn't. They kind of suspend their fuzzy torsos, always ready to scamper away.) But these guys just ignore me; a few lift their heads and watch me pass.

As I turn west and walk parallel to the close hills (someone told me Wickenburg, a town, is just over this hill), I can see trails going up and crossing along the hillside. Who goes there? I used to wonder, until one morning (I was up earlier than usual) I saw three deer bounding along outside the fence. And that same morning I heard coyotes barking and crying to each other. (The day I arrived, about noon, we saw an adult coyote cross the road, turn and look at us and then lope off. I took that as a peaceful, good, opening because I discovered with a friend in Virginia that the coyote, or trickster, was "my" native animal!)

I continue west towards the men's compound and see their US flag perfectly open and extended as a stiff, warm breeze blow-dries my hair and I watch officers pull into the parking lot in front of the other prison. Now going south, I'm approaching home plate and the [] and passing the metal bleachers along the third baseline, the dove habitat. They're so stately, gentle, and reserved. I "get" the metaphor after observing them round after round.

I turn east again -- where my laps start -- and approach the bleachers on the first baseline. This is where we "park" our water bottles and "count" our laps. Many use piles of pebbles that are transferred, lap by lap, from one spot to another. I started that way too, but changed to saying out loud the number it is as I pass the start place. I've created a whole mental thesis about doing "laps -- doing time," but that's not for now, this is already too long and I haven't even started on vegetation, or the sky. (Another thesis I'm mentally writing is on lines in prison!!)

Lap ONE -- I think of the words from the famous moonwalk.
TWO -- I think of "Tea for Two" and Gene Kelly.
THREE -- I think of mice or those chimps and what not to do.
FOUR -- I love this one -- I smile and recall "For she's a jolly good Quaker"!!
FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT all have their "tag" too.

But enough about how I count my laps. I've yet to do lap number nine. I'm kind of dragging by seven or eight and focused on not tripping.

This compound was built in 1984, and I think a number of saguaros were saved. There are some huge ones, which have been blooming in the last few weeks -- white trumpets I call their flowering. These giants are habitats themselves with many holes in their sides into which birds dart and inside (hollowed out?) must be nests, because I hear chicks. I've counted three species living in one. While bees pollinate the blooming outside, bird mates exchange tasks and positions (one clinging to a thorn outside, the other feeding young inside) and other bugs fly about. I've also seen snakes (RATTLERS), kangaroo rats, mice, and lizards.

Spring was very colorful here: a huge jacaranda tree still blooms bright purple; oleanders still bloom pink on bushes. (Are their flowers poisonous, as yard lore advises?) The yellow, fluffy blooms from sweet acacia trees are all gone now and those trees (many) are now in full leaf and offering shade where they lean over our stone tables and benches. Several tall eucalyptus trees exist here. A beautiful, tall deciduous tree is the focal point (for me) of the yard and appears to have survived almost being uprooted (flash rainstorm?) -- its main trunk is twisted and crooked and strikingly gnarled. It's a survivor and I like considering its metaphoric message and presence living in a prison.

There is an abundance of attractive cacti growing here and encircled deliberately by rescued stones (from the open space I imagine, when the ground was cleared). I especially like the large orange-blooming ocotillo cactus. Stones are the main landscape design: pretty, Native designs in black and white, large stones outlining the cement "paths" we must always use; stones in crescents and kokopellis. There are also patches of lawn -- OFF LIMITS -- that decorate, add color, and are used on special occasions. Clearly all this is not for us to enjoy (but some of us do).

There is work HERE, and we all must work. One of the first jobs for a "new commit" is in the yard -- daily, precisely scratching straight parallel lines in the dirt which blows consistently onto the glass windows of the offices and the cafeteria. Daily washing windows is another job. (There are hoses, which could be used to sprinkle plants and the ground. Windows would stay cleaner, lines would last longer, but this is the BOP -- "DON'T THINK, DON'T SPEAK -- JUST DO WHAT YOU'RE TOLD.") The yard is to show off to official visitors. A pet peeve: to get to the phones, laundry, cafeteria, etc. one must walk around these decorative obstructions, never to anywhere as the crow flies.

So it's time to stop and get this in the mail. I'm concerned how long it takes (and if it's possible) to transcribe something this long. I remember with love and gratitude Fran (and others who help her read my scratches)!! One more thought.

Today I enjoyed how my shadow (ME!) first appeared in the east road, as our dear planet turned, and by the time I finished that leg of the circle "I" (my long shadow) was across the road in the parking lot. I enjoyed this "violation".

Later dear friends.

Love, Joanne
Federal Prison Camp 37930 N. 45th Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85086

See the author's first-hand report of her arrest, "A Cross in the Road," in The-Edge's archives

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