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Wednesday, March 19, 2008 01:39 am

What an activist learned in jail

Diane Lopez Hughes came home more dedicated, but different

Untitled Document They say that time behind bars makes criminals better at what they went in for. A gangbanger makes more gang connections, and a small-time bank robber learns from the best. The same holds true for Springfield peace activist Diane Lopez Hughes, who just got home after 45 days in the Muscogee County Jail, in Columbus, Ga. Jail strengthened her resolve to oppose war and help the poor, while showing her connections between those causes. It gave her time to think about her life and ways she might change it. And it gave her a new cause to add to her list: jail advocacy.
For years Hughes has been the indefatigable local voice for peace-and-justice causes, one of the organizers of every rally, protest, and interfaith peace service. She sends out many e-mails a day urging the faithful to write in support of this position or attend that event. At the end of every gathering she’s the one who announces half-a-dozen more events coming up. She has so much energy, and is so persistent in trying to get people to do right things, that she can wear people out. Some of her many supporters got a welcome rest after she went to jail for her act of civil disobedience — “crossing the line” to go onto military property during last November’s annual protest at Fort Benning, Ga. But at a March 16 reception, where dozens of friends came out to welcome her home, there was a sense of relief that a leader has returned and life can get back to normal. “I think leaders need to go to jail,” she told me, and she didn’t just mean governors. If more people with some power and influence spent time in this country’s lockups, they would change some of the petty abuses visited on the mostly poor who find themselves there. “Anything beyond depriving people of their freedom is ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment,” she says. “How much can coffee cost?” She knows that not all jails are like Muscogee County’s, and even it wasn’t terrible. The worst parts were bad food, no caffeine, cold rooms, a TV blaring 15 hours a day, and senseless rules. What all jails may have in common is their waste of time and lives. “There is no attempt at rehabilitation and no opportunity for restitution,” Hughes says. “We need to use community service more for nonviolent crimes.” She is eager to investigate conditions at the Sangamon County Jail. “The guards are more in prison than the inmates,” she said. “For the guards, an act of kindness was countercultural” — though there were a few. Once, the TV was left on past the time when it was supposed to be turned off. When a sleep-deprived Hughes approached the guard, who was not known for thoughtfulness, to ask that the rules be followed, she was told that some inmates were being allowed to finish a movie they had been watching.
In contrast to mostly mean guards, the women built a community of resourcefulness. “There were lots of hugs.” They made a pencil holder from a toilet-paper tube, only to have it confiscated as contraband. They made soap dishes from magazine covers, and toothpaste worked as glue to decorate the walls with greeting-card pictures. Socks were forbidden, so underpants became socks and headscarves. Adhesive from an oversupply of sanitary pads was used as tape for any number of purposes. How did jail change her? “The first thing you learn is humility,” Hughes says. “You’re one of the girls, no different and no better than anybody else.” She has always known that intellectually, but this drove the point home. And humility leads to patience, both with people and with the work: “You need patience to do the things we do, like standing on street corners holding signs. This war may continue for a long time. If you believe in peace and justice, you have to be patient.”
Hughes regards her 45 days as “a gift of space and time.” A devout Catholic, she plans to go on retreat soon, to discern where she’s needed most and how to spend her time. “We run through life,” she says. “We never get to know who we are and what we’re meant to do. If I’m going to be a nonviolent person, then I need to stop rushing from here to there, because rushing is a form of violence.” She notes that major peace events were planned and carried out in her absence: “My time away reminds me that I don’t need control. In jail I had time to write and read. I need that.”
In her time of discernment, she’ll ask what God wants her to do next — but it won’t be a one-way conversation. “Don’t tell me I can’t add one more thing,” she says, as though rehearsing her argument. “Jail advocacy is important. Jesus himself tells us to visit people in prison.”

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.
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