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Doing time in Des Moines


Editor’s note: The following includes excerpts from the diary of Steve Clemens, a self-described peace and justice activist from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who was arrested for criminal trespass while condemning the use of drones while with the Des Moines Catholic Worker group this past summer. He chose to be booked into the Polk County Jail for 48 hours rather than pay a $100 fine, only later to learn of the jail’s $195 room and board charges. He wrote about his jail experience “to demystify it, hoping to embolden others to consider civil disobedience and jail witness as another tool in their repertoire of working for peace and justice.”

June 27, 2014

I spent 20 hours on the boundary between discomfort and pain. I thought of Martin Luther King writing about redemptive suffering and offered my time in the noisy, cold, boring void of the Polk County Jail on behalf of my despondent and discouraged friends in Afghanistan.

I had watched a nearly four-minute video Hakim had made of my friends Abdulhai, Faiz and Zekerullah in Kabul before I left for the second day of our drone protest trial. I wept as I heard the despair they experienced in the wake of the recent election run-off and the continued violence and terror in their occupied nation. Listening to and watching them helped me make the decision to take the road less traveled — well, less traveled by most, except the Catholic Workers. Who else would choose 48 hours in jail over paying a $100 fine?

I had a premonition of what was to come well before the jury returned with its verdict when the judge ruled he would not allow a jury instruction to include the words “without justification” in the charge of criminal trespass, despite the wording of the law as passed by the legislature, before the lunch break on the second day of trial. I took off my wedding band and placed it on the key ring with my car’s remote and my house key. As soon as I was found guilty, I gave Frank Cordaro, my friend from the Des Moines Catholic Worker, my iPad, cell phone, keys, wallet, comb, notebook and pens I had used during the trial so I wouldn’t have to book them into “property” at the jail — after quickly texting my wife that I was headed to jail.

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Not His First Rodeo

I must admit this wasn’t the first time I’ve chosen jail over paying a fine or doing community service without talking to Christine [his wife] first. I had at least told her it was a possibility — if the sentence was fewer than 72 hours — because I wanted to be able to continue donating blood platelets every two weeks. Jail time for more than 72 hours would mean I couldn’t donate blood again for a year.

At the last moment before being hustled out of the courtroom, I remembered I still was wearing my hearing aids, so I handed them to fellow defendant, Elliott Adams, (who had agreed to pay the fine) to give them to Frank. It is a good thing I kept my driver’s license since the paperwork generated from the court on my sentencing listed my name as “Douglas Clemens Stephen.” Might be good to have my proper ID to get out of jail on Thursday late afternoon!

We were escorted out of the courtroom by Polk County Sheriff deputies, taken to the lower level of the courthouse, patted down, surrendered our belts, everything from our pockets (including my “Get out of jail free” card from the Monopoly Game), handcuffed us, attached a waist chain to the cuffs and added leg shackles on our ankles. We shuffled off to a waiting police transport van with two opposite benches in the rear compartment. The three women had been separated from us in the courtroom, so Eddie Bloomer and I ducked and shuffled up and into the van to join two other male inmates who were returning to the jail after court appearances. Noticing my dressier clothes (I had already removed my necktie and given it to Frank), they asked me if I was in for a DWI (driving while intoxicated).

The Illuminati

When I told the men I was headed for jail for protesting drones, the first reaction was, “You must be one of the Illuminati!” When I laughed and said I wasn’t sure what that was, the guy said, “Of course you would deny it if you were one of them!” As the conversation continued with what military drones were, and that the protest was organized by the Catholic Worker, his face lit up, and he told us his brother used to go over to that place. He, too, had eaten meals there. And when Eddie told them he had been living and working at the Des Moines Catholic Worker for more than 20 years, I knew we had just made two allies on the inside.

However, when we arrived at the jail, they had us separated from the other two. They had already received either the two-toned green or the orange-and-white outfits with “Polk County Jail” prominently stenciled on both the pants and shirt. They shuffled into one area while Eddie and I — still in our street clothes, minus our belts — were placed into what felt like a refrigerated holding area after our leg irons were removed. We remained handcuffed to our waist chains for this first stop into the bowels of the belly of the beast. It was a room about 12-foot-by-20-foot with concrete benches attached to the two outside walls, which were deep enough to lay down. In the corner was the requisite stainless steel sink/toilet combo.

Baggy Pants

Cement floors, cement block walls on three sides with a large glass window on the fourth, brightly lit — this was where we remained over the next 2.5 hours as others came and joined us. They removed one handcuff so we could eat our supper of two hot dogs with rolls, cooked peas, coffee cake and milk. We each told a guard if we had any medical issues (and that we weren’t suicidal) and then just waited and waited. Eddie and I made a good team together — he told me what to expect, as he’d been locked up here for civil resistance many times — and I helped him pull up his way-oversized jeans that he wore from the Catholic Worker donation box. Without a belt and with such baggy pants, the guard had placed the waist chain through a back belt loop and they constantly made his pants sag in such a way that he’d be welcomed at a hip-hop convention. This for a veteran in his late sixties!

Next, we were herded into a large area where our cuffs and chains were finally removed. We surrendered our street clothes and got orange jumpsuits, brown boxers and a T-shirt, socks, a 3-inch toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and a comb. We had already received bright orange plastic shower shoes at the jail section of the courthouse, so at least we were fashionably coordinated!

Eddie and I briefly saw co-defendant Michele Naar Obed across the room in her two-toned green outfit; no sight of the other two women she left the courtroom with. After our photos were taken, Eddie and I were separated for the duration. He told me to try to get a roll of toilet paper to use as a pillow, and I was grateful for his advice.

I was placed in a 9-foot-by-11-foot cell with a stainless toilet/sink, a 3-foot high partial block wall along its side for minimal privacy, and an 8-inch raised cement “bench” that was 2-foot by 5-foot where another inmate was trying to sleep in a fetal position with his blanket. Each of us had been told to grab one blanket as we entered this cell. Throughout the next 17.5 hours, up to seven other men came and went, most of the time leaving four of us in this cell with no mattresses, a bright florescent light overhead and our blanket. I claimed the white painted “bench” after the first guy got bonded out and tried to make do with the roll of toilet paper he had been using.

Toilet Paper Pillow

It was cold, noisy, and the bright light was constantly on. One inmate was singing loudly next door; another was screaming curses and obscenities at the guard because he claimed he hadn’t gotten his phone call. The heavy metal doors opened and slammed shut all night long, people coming and going, and you could hear the guards chatting away loudly outside the cell door. I was miserable. I was cold; I ached. It was impossible for me to sleep, but some of the others were soon snoring loudly.

Drone trial defendants and lawyers. Front row, left to right: Michele Naar-Obed, Eddie Bloomer, Julie Brown, Ruth Cole. Back row: Steve Clemens, Rev. Chet Guinn, Elliot Adams, Glen Downey (lawyer), Larry James (lawyer).

Drone trial defendants and lawyers. Front row, left to right: Michele Naar-Obed, Eddie Bloomer, Julie Brown, Ruth Cole. Back row: Steve Clemens, Rev. Chet Guinn, Elliot Adams, Glen Downey (lawyer), Larry James (lawyer).

But I kept thinking of the privations and challenges of my friends in Afghanistan to put my plight into perspective. I had selfishly hogged the toilet paper “pillow” for the night hours. About midnight I was told to see the nurse about my medical history and then back again to my cell. I was disappointed that it was only midnight after seeing a clock en route — I assumed at least several more hours had elapsed. I couldn’t read the clock from the cell as the time crawled on slowly.

While struggling to remain warm and trying to nap on the hard concrete with my aching muscles and bones, I thought of my toilet paper pillow as not much better than the rock the biblical Jacob used during his vision of the ladder rising to heaven. I didn’t have a dream as vivid or insightful, but what went through my mind, over and over again, was the song “By Breath” by the perceptive and passionate Sara Thomsen. “By breath, by blood, by body, by spirit — we are all one…” It connected me to the Afghan Peace Volunteers and my co-defendants — now in other cells. Ruth Cole had insightfully answered the prosecutor when asked if she felt in “imminent danger” while standing outside the gate at the Iowa National Guard base. She boldly stated she couldn’t separate her “body” from the bodies of all others around the world who were being threatened by drones.


Breakfast came about 5:30 a.m. as the cell door opened and we were handed a molded plastic tray with Froot Loops, milk, OJ, two pieces of bread and two tubes of peanut butter. Finally, after lunch, 20 hours after being taken into custody, I was cuffed and chained again and told I was to be taken to “BarneyLand,” my next stop in the belly of the beast we call the Prison Industrial Complex.

Judge William Price bragged about the new, “at least 3-star,” jail that Polk County, Iowa, runs. He smiled and exchanged pleasantries with us and our lawyers as the deputies collected the paperwork to haul us off to his self-described plush accommodations. Obviously he had never entered as a “paying customer!” I’d love to see if he has the cojones to spend two to three days inside, incognito, before he sends anyone else to that jail. Same for the prosecutor (although, in fairness, he only recommended a fine for our conviction on trespass) as well as all the corrections officers and staff at Polk County’s “finest.”

I write about my jail experience to demystify it, hoping to embolden others to consider civil disobedience and jail witness as another tool in their repertoire of working for peace and justice.

The Cooler

After 20 hours in the “cooler” (I understand more clearly the street slang for prison/jail after my first frigid stops within the jail), I was handcuffed and chained again to be moved to “BarneyLand,” the euphemism given to another holding way-station in the jail before entering general population (referred to as a “pod”). The name came from its early days when the TV there only played PBS (Public Broadcast Service) and because of the prevalence of cartoon character shows like the purple dinosaur, Barney. The name stuck — even the guards use it. It has two-person cells on the upper level and more on the lower level, which also includes three to four single-person cells. My cell had a rolled steel bunk with mattresses on each bed with a built-in pillow device — a great improvement from laying directly on cement! Don’t get too excited — it’s not a Posturepedic or any other chiropractic-approved bedding. The toilet and sink are separate and porcelain. A stainless steel 18-inch-by-18-inch shelf serves as a desk/table with a stool bolted in front. A stainless steel “mirror” completes the ensemble. The cell door has a clear window so I can see the clock outside the CO’s station, located between two identical “BarneyLand” units.

No bible

I was assigned a lower bunk (hallelujah!), and after unpacking the “bedroll” I received before entering the unit, I begin to arrange my new residence by placing my nearly threadbare sheets and blanket on the mattress. I also now possessed a towel, washcloth, a plastic cup and a spork. I had asked the night before and again for a Bible but I was told “you have to wait until you get to a pod before you can have one.” After being told by others that you could be in BarneyLand for up to 24 hours, I figured I’d probably remain there to finish my sentence. Of course not. After getting close to two hours of needed rest on my bunk (since we were locked in the cells), the CO yelled to us, calling us by last name to “come down and get your uniforms — you are going to a pod tonight after dinner.”

I was issued two sets of two-toned green pants and shirts, another T-shirt and boxers and another pair of socks. We were told to change out of the orange jumpsuit and return it to the laundry workers who gave us the clothes. We were again unlocked to come to the main level for dinner to eat at the stainless steel tables and stools bolted to the floor. A ham bologna slice with bread is complemented with cooked carrots, Frito-like corn chips, canned pineapple, blueberry pie and milk — served on the same molded plastic trays.

By 6:30 we were assembled again, re-handcuffed and chained for the march to our respective pods. I was assigned to a lower bunk, 630, in North 6, which holds about 60 inmates in four-man, two-bunk bays on two levels. Each bay has three walls with the front completely open, facing the day room. At the end of the bays on both levels are four toilets and four sinks on each level. Opposite the bay area are showers and a TV room with hard plastic chairs designed to look like cushioned, living-room-type chairs. The CO has his desk on that wall opposite the bays directly in the middle. In the bay area are both phones for expensive calls and video screens for visits. I wasn’t there long enough to see how they work, but with others milling about, it didn’t seem to afford any privacy except over the handset.

Monopoly Man

After I made up my bunk, I took a stroll around to see my new digs. Four guys sitting together at one table ask if I was in for DWI. Another laughed and said, “I recognize you” and points to a picture of the hefty banker with a mustache on the Monopoly Board Game. When I told them about drones, only two of the four have ever heard of them, and they didn’t see them as a necessary problem. As I explained about my friends in Afghanistan and my friend in Pakistan and their experiences, you could see a light go on in their imagination. When I told them I chose to go to jail instead of paying the $100 fine (I put it, “I chose to do the time instead of paying the fine”), they each gave me a fist bump and said, “Alright!”

In traversing the pod, I saw one guy open a cabinet door and start rifling through paperback books. When he was done, I quickly checked to see if there was anything I’d like to read since I was sure I wouldn’t sleep soundly on my steel bunk — even with a mattress. I find a copy of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” and even though I read it years ago, it is well worth another read. Christine and I had just seen a play at the History Theater based on it a month or two ago.

One guy approached me and offerd some instant coffee — a generous offer here since coffee is only available from the commissary in a cost-cutting effort by the jail. I’ve never been to a jail or prison where coffee hasn’t been a staple of the inmate diet. Other ways of taking it out on the vulnerable are evident with the posted notice that any visit to the nurse will incur a charge of $5; to the doctor, $10; a mental health visit, $10; as well as charges for any prescriptions. The big surprise awaited at checkout time.

Private dump

They say necessity is the mother of invention. I was pleased to see the guys had rolled one of the large Brute trash receptacles right in front of the toilet closest to the CO’s desk. If you needed to take a dump, you had to roll the trash can between you and anyone walking by — for at least a modicum of privacy. If you wanted more, you had to wait until after lights out at 10:30 p.m. and before 5-5:30 a.m. when they were back on for breakfast. At night, only lights at both far ends of the pod were lit. Or, after breakfast and cleanup, most of the guys went back to sleep for several hours so there was less traffic by the toilets.

There are no windows to the outside in the entire prison except two louvered ones about 15 feet high on the outside wall of an enclosed rec room. The room itself consists of cement block walls, several plexiglas windows on the side facing the CO’s desk, and a cement floor. Some guys use the area for walking exercise, but unless you buy some shoes at commissary, walking in the shower shoes is not the best experience. The windows in our rec room were obscured, one louver open in a way you can tell only if it is daytime or night but not the weather. But Mother Nature has its own way. Early in the morning a loud boom of thunder erupted, and I could hear the driving rain. Later, in the early afternoon, the thunderstorms returned during time for commissary, and a nearby lightning strike darkened the entire prison for about five seconds. Several inmates yelled “jailbreak,” and the two women distributing commissary got up to run out of the pod — reacting much quicker than the CO. We laughed when the lights came back on as they sighed with relief. With only the two obscured windows at the end of the pod, it was very dark.

Room + Board =$195

Although the judge’s order stated I was to be jailed from 4 p.m. until 4 p.m., two days later, 4 p.m. came and went. I had all my stuff packed, ready to go since 3 p.m., thinking I should walk out the door in my street clothes at 4 p.m. and it would take some time to check out of this bed and breakfast. Finally, as the clock ticked on, at 4:08 p.m. the phone rang, and the CO yelled out, “Clemens.” He patted me down and took me to the pod door where I was once again handcuffed and chained for the march back to the release area. We stopped en route for Eddie to join me and then had to sign to get our property and clothes back. We put on our street clothes and then Michele and Ruth arrived as well. I was asked to sign a form that acknowledged I received my invoice for room and board charges — $195! I told them there was no way I was going to pay such an absurd bill, and I’d refuse to sign it. They said, “We’ll bill you anyway.” So, go figure — go to jail for two days because you won’t pay a $100 fine for reason of conscience only to be issued a bill for $95 more than that amount to undergo such indignities.

What do you expect from an empire in the throes of decline and desperation? CV 

Read more about Steve Clemens drone trials at http://mennonista.blogspot.com.

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