No easy sentence: Peace protesters do time with hardened cons

CORDELE, Georgia (AP) -- For years, peace protesters arrested for trespassing at Fort Benning were allowed to serve their sentences at minimum-security federal institutions closer to their homes, where they could kiss relatives and hold babies in visiting rooms.

Not anymore.

Some protesters -- including a priest and a grandmother-to-be -- were sentenced earlier this year to serve their six-month sentences alongside thieves and drug addicts behind razor wire in a rural Georgia jail.

"The only thing I can come up with is that they are getting mean," the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, founder of the protest group School of the Americas Watch, said of Bureau of Prison officials.

Protesters Toni Flynn and the Rev. Jerry Zawada were among a group of 28 who pleaded guilty or were convicted in July for trespassing at a Fort Benning training school. All but five went to federal institutions.

The protesters are members of the School of the Americas Watch, which blames the Army's School of the Americas and its successor, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, for human rights abuses in Latin America. Opponents say some of the school's graduates have been linked to the slayings of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989.

Defense officials replaced the School of the Americas nearly two years ago with the new institute, which still trains Latin American soldiers, but now includes police officers and public officials. Human rights courses are mandatory.

Zawada, a 65-year-old Franciscan priest from Cedar Lake, Indiana, and Flynn, a 56-year-old Catholic volunteer from Valermo, California, were among three sent to the Crisp County Jail, a boxy, single-story brick building in the middle of a clearing of pine trees, where a chain-link fence topped by razor wire encloses a recreation yard.

The third person was later transferred to a federal institution. Two others served three-month sentences at the Harris County Jail in west-central Georgia.

Supporters of Flynn and Zawada bombarded Crisp County Sheriff Donnie Haralson with hundreds of letters and faxes, questioning the quality of the food and water, the availability of health care, the use of pepper spray to subdue an unruly inmate and the death of an inmate from natural causes.

Haralson responded by having his 12-year-old jail, which has about 175 inmates, inspected four times by the Bureau of Prisons, twice by the U.S. Marshals Service and once by a jail mediator.

"It's a modern-run facility," he said. "I've shown I'm human and I've done what's right. But I catch the devil both ways. I catch it from the protesters and from the working taxpayers who do not sympathize much with people put in jail."

The Bureau of Prisons defended its decision to send some protesters to county jails.

Paige Augustine, a spokeswoman for the bureau's Southeast Regional Office in Atlanta, said federal policies provide for sending inmates serving less than a year to county jails, instead of federal institutions. Such decisions are usually determined by space availability, she said.

"We deal with it on a case-by-case basis," she said. "We may have lots of beds open today and none tomorrow."

Wearing pumpkin-colored jump suits during a recent jailhouse interview, Flynn and Zawada said they have no regrets.

Flynn said she spends her days praying for a peaceful resolution of the Iraqi crisis, doing aerobics and getting used to Southern food. "I'm learning to love grits and greens, but I'm getting tired of beans," she said.

Zawada, who said he's lost 30 pounds while praying and fasting for peace, shares a cell with three other men -- two of whom he refers to as "the Huck Finns."

"I've never felt threatened," he said. "The Huck Finn guys are delightful, but they are very simple. They live in a trailer by the railroad tracks."

The pair are asking supporters on the SOA Watch Web page to stop harassing the sheriff.

"When I leave here, I'm going to write the sheriff and let him know I support anything that's restorative to human beings," she said. "It would be so easy to say the sheriff is the bad guy, but he's a human being, too."

Still, they said they were surprised when they were sent to Crisp County.

A volunteer with a Roman Catholic worker community and prison ministry in Southern California's high desert, Flynn is about 3,000 miles from her four grown children on the West Coast and will miss the birth of her first grandchild this month.

"I am heartbroken that I was not transferred to California," she said. "I would plead with the Bureau of Prisons to consider the hardship on my family. I have not had one visit from a family member or my Catholic workers. No one can afford the $700 plane ticket."

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