Christmas in Prison

I suppose you want to hear a Christmas story.  “It was Christmas in prison and the food was real good, we had turkey and pistols carved out of wood… ”  That John Prine song will be 40 in the New Year.

Twenty years ago this month I wandered through parts of the Midwest humming that tune and it’s there and then my story of Christmas in prison takes place.  It’s one of those true/not true stories that one accumulates/embellishes after a half-century on the planet.

At the time, we were a bunch of (relatively) young activists living in a rented house in Chester, West Virginia.  We were helping the locals in the Ohio/West Virginia/Pennsylvania region fight the construction of the world’s largest toxic waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio.

The battle had been joined for several years and had been white-hot for the previous year, with multiple acts of civil disobedience and by December most of us had been repeat guests of the Columbiana County Jail.  (Jail is not prison.  Jail is a local holding facility for those awaiting trial or serving short sentences, usually under a year.)

Now we were facing more jail sentences, this time for contempt of court.  County Judge Douglas Jenkins issued an odd injunction, writing that anyone who might be protest at the Waste Technologies Inc. site was enjoined (i.e., forbidden) from doing so.  It was odd because such orders usually name specific individuals – blanket, pre-emptive injunctions were rare things at the time (although more common in the last two decades, as our civil liberties erode).

One of the enjoined was Claire Stover, in her 80s at the time.  She’d gone over the barbed wire fence (with assistance) at the incinerator facility wearing cat’s-eye glasses and a plastic rain bonnet.  Now she loudly advised Judge Jenkins to file his injunction in a most unlikely place.

The injunction stopped nothing, dozens of citizens violated the judge’s order, so as the holidays approached and many were in contempt, we younger, single, out-of-town activists (scorned as outside agitators) volunteered to let the locals (jeered as NIMBYs) finish their jail time so they could spent the holidays with their families.  After all, in our organizing efforts, we’d emphasized that while the corporation was in this for money, the activists were in it for family and community.

The sheriff’s office let us know no new prisoners would be processed on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (at least not for contempt of court), so I actually never spent Christmas in prison or even jail although there may have been subsequent embellishments to that effect.

Instead, Scott Sederstrom and I – the only two activists in town that Christmas – drove down Route 2 to Wheeling, where we were given dinner by local activists Connie and Michael.  For gifts, Connie presented us each with a jar of huckleberry preserves, from berries picked in the Dolly Sods.  It was not lost on us that we who preached the value of home and community had – at that moment in our lives – no real homes or communities of our own and thus Connie and Michael’s embrace was even more appreciated.

The next day at dawn we presented ourselves at the jail, were taken in, served our time and were released.  There might have been leftover turkey; I can’t recall.  The point of the Christmas in prison story was never prison, or even jail.  The point is home and community and what we do to protect them.  May it ever be thus.  Happy Holidays.

“The searchlight in the big yard swings ‘round with the gun
and spotlights the snowflakes like dust in the sun.
It’s Christmas in prison, there’ll be music tonight.
I’ll probably get homesick. I love you, good night.”

© Mark Floegel, 2012

Update:  Scott Sederstrom writes to remind me that on 24 December 1992, he put out the following fax (!) to the press following our work in Ohio:

‘Twas the night before Christmas
And in the Big House
Not a creature was stirring
‘Cause we’d been deloused

Merry Xmas and best wishes for the new year
Your friends at Greenpeace

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