Walking with a Prisoner of Conscience

Prisoner of Conscience, a Memoir, by Kenneth Kennon, 88105-020, Former Prisoner of Conscience (POC)

Kenneth Kennon ranks high among the minority of those who walk their talk. This devoted family man and friend, minister and counselor, poet and writer, agitator and lawbreaker recently walked a path that led him into federal prison. His book, Prisoner of Conscience, thoughtfully and insightfully details that walk through a punishing, dehumanizing, monotonous and frustrating six-month stay.

Readers unacquainted with the infamous School of the Americas (SOA) and with the SOA Watch, the organized protest against the school, should flip to a few sections near the end of the book (pages 196-199 and 271-273) for a bit of history before turning back to the Preface to walk Kennon’s path with him.

He quickly takes the reader through his childhood, youth and adult experiences that ultimately led him to the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia, and thus to the Federal Prison Camp at La Tuna, Texas, because, “for me, there was no other choice.” Then he launches into his experiences there as a “deer in the headlights.”

And, much as such a deer, he is trapped by circumstances over which he has little control. “There is a lot of making sure the inmates remember who’s in charge and control,” he writes. “It seems to be the accepted duty of the powers-that-be to strip us of all vestiges of our humanity.”

Kennon’s first-hand account belies the “Club Fed” label too many on the outside give to federal prison camps. He demonstrates the “monotony of ridiculous routine” inherent in the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) system, and the difference between policy written for public relations and the actuality of inmate treatment. He speaks of the “systematic brutishness” of many of the guards (oops, they want to be called Corrections Officers – an oxymoron, if there ever was one).

Kennon points out the system is designed and operated for punishment and has no rehabilitative component. His many examples of the health care BOP provides to inmates are particularly shocking. At best, care delivery can be described as “inhumane negligence,” and can actually be life threatening.

Nevertheless, Kennon made his incarceration work for the protest. He created opportunities to educate inmates and staff about the SOA. He wrote op-ed pieces and gave interviews published outside the camp. He answered the hundreds of letters coming to him from supporters and got many involved or more involved in SOA Watch. He arranged speaking events after his release to take his prison witness with him to communities along the path home and at home. All this while working a split-shift schedule in the dining hall and following the mindless routine of lines and headcounts!

To brighten his long path, throughout his prison witness walk, Kennon kept his faith in his God and in the inherent goodness of people. He looked to the flights of birds, the growth of flowers, the changes of season to sustain him. He read the words of other nonviolent activists, including former POCs. He talked gently with inmates who sought his counsel and encouragement. And he wrote in his journal, numbering and mailing the pages home each week, about the thoughts and incidents that now make up his book.

The book will shock his readers in many of its aspects, yet often fill them with hope. In the beginning, he says: “I want my children and grandchildren, and the other children of America, to know something of why prisoners of conscience do what they do and why it is necessary.”

I hope children of all ages read this book and know, perhaps be encouraged to join Kennon and others at the gates of Fort Benning this coming November or simply to find their own path to the service of peace and justice.

– Lois Putzier, 90292-020, former POC (pww@pww.org) –