[Ppnews] Seattle Grand Jury Resisters - Christmas in Prison

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Thu Dec 20 12:00:19 EST 2012

  Christmas in Prison

December 20, 2012

Katherine Olejnik and Matt Duran Have Not Been Charged with Any Crime, 
and Yet They Have Been Locked Up for Three Months and Counting

 From The Stranger 

The visiting room of the SeaTac Federal Detention Center is bleak. 
Prison is supposed to be bleak, but it's difficult to appreciate how 
bleak it is until you've walked inside---past the grim security 
checkpoint, the sallow-faced chaplain with the giant keys hanging from 
his pants, the many heavy doors that slam shut behind you like a metal 
thunderclap, the off-white walls and institutional lighting that seem to 
suck the color out of everyone's hair and clothes, the frosted-over 
windows to block any view of the outside world, and into the visiting 
room with its plastic chairs arranged in sets of four with a guard 
sitting in a high booth, presiding over the room like a bored judge.

And the waiting. Lots and lots of waiting.

The large visiting room, with many doors leading off to other places, 
also serves as a transit point in the prison. Men (and the occasional 
woman) wearing prison khakis sit, staring into the middle distance with 
flat expressions, waiting until a guard, sometimes wearing latex gloves, 
opens a door and barks out names. Then the inmates get up, sometimes 
eagerly and sometimes hesitantly, and walk into some other chamber of 
the federal fortress.

Amid all the bleakness, inmate Katherine Olejnik seems surprisingly 
smiley and optimistic. She is one of two inmates I've come to 
visit---the other is Matt Duran---who have been sitting in this prison 
for around three months. (Duran a few days more than that, Olejnik a few 
days less.)

They haven't been accused of a crime. They haven't even been arrested 
for a crime. They're here because they refused to answer questions for a 
federal prosecutor, in front of a grand jury, about people they may (or 
may not) know: who those people are, who those people hang out with, and 
what political opinions those people hold.

Supposedly, that federal prosecutor is interested in the smashup in 
Seattle on May Day and finding the demonstrators who broke the windows 
of a federal courthouse. But Olejnik says the prosecutor only asked her 
four questions about May Day, which she answered truthfully: Was she in 
Seattle on May Day? (No.) Where was she? (Working at her 
waitress/bartending job in Olympia.) Had she been in Seattle a week 
before or a week after May Day? (No.) Had anybody talked to her about 
May Day? (No. In fact, she says she learned most of what she knows about 
the smashup while she was in court.)

That was all he asked about the May Day vandalism.

Then, she says, the prosecutor began rattling off names and showing 
photographs of people, asking about their social contacts and political 
opinions. Olejnik guesses he asked "at least 50 questions" in that vein, 
compared to the four about May Day. That's when she shut down, refused 
to answer, was found in contempt of court, and was sent to SeaTac FDC.

She doesn't regret it. "I truly believe that people have the right to 
believe whatever they want politically," Olejnik says, sitting in a 
chair beside me in her prison khakis. "And it's none of the government's 

As far as she can tell, she's not in prison because she couldn't help 
with a vandalism investigation. She's there because she refused, on 
principle, to help the federal government draw a social map of radicals 
and leftists in the Northwest.

Grand juries are secret---prosecutors are the only attorneys allowed in 
the room---but people who've been subpoenaed to appear before them are 
allowed to talk afterward about what happened. The two attorneys for 
Olejnik and Duran, who sit with us during the interviews in the SeaTac 
FDC, vaguely say the versions of events described by their clients are 
consistent with what they read in the transcripts. The US Attorney's 
Office has repeatedly said it cannot comment on anything related to a 
grand jury, because grand juries are secret. So we have to rely on Duran 
and Olejnik and their attorneys' vague corroboration.

I have to interview Duran separately, because the guards don't want him 
and Olejnik---close friends and roommates at the time they got the 
subpoenas---to see each other. (They say they passed each other once in 
the visiting area and waved at each other, and the guards grumbled about 
that.) How, I ask Duran, would you explain why you're here to people on 
the outside?

"Not everyone will understand," Duran says in a soft voice. "You have to 
be in a different state of mind to be willing to go to jail to protect 
someone you basically have no knowledge of." He talks about his years as 
a young student in the Army ROTC, when veterans would come and talk 
about serving their country because they felt a sense of duty. Not 
answering questions about other people, he says, "is the duty I can 

Duran, like Olejnik, believes that when the FBI comes knocking, handing 
out subpoenas, legally compelling them to tell a federal prosecutor 
about their fellow citizens' private lives and political beliefs, they 
have a duty to object. And, like Bartleby the Scrivener, their most 
powerful tool of protest against a force like the federal government is 
to simply and politely say: "I would prefer not to." (It's worth 
remembering that Bartleby's quiet, stubborn "I would prefer not to" 
eventually lands him in prison.)

And that's why they're spending the holidays in prison.

Both Duran and Olejnik say other inmates, and even the guards, are 
baffled about them---and especially why they're there. The two 
grand-jury refusers are fairly normal people with fairly normal jobs. 
Until the incarceration, Olejnik worked as a bartender and waitress at 
King Solomon's Reef, a diner in Olympia. Duran worked for a 
computer-security company and was pleasantly surprised when his employer 
said the company would hold his job for him, as long as he wasn't 
charged with anything. (Having a criminal on the computer-security 
payroll might be bad for business.) "I didn't expect them to understand 
what was going on," he says, then chuckles softly. "But even /I/ don't 
understand what's going on!"

More to the point, they haven't actually been charged with anything, and 
they have no idea how long they'll be there. Technically, they can leave 
whenever they decide to cooperate with the federal prosecutor, but both 
say they're firmly resolved against that.

"It's not even an option in my mind," Olejnik says. "They've already 
made me walk away from my job, my family, my home---there's nothing they 
could legally do to make me give them information." Or, as Duran puts 
it: "Everyone's here because they /did/ something. But I'm here because 
I'm still doing it."

Duran says he's explained his situation to inquisitive prisoners and 
guards, and it usually comes down to the same exchange: "So you're just 
here because you wouldn't talk?" "Yeah." "That's messed up."

The FDC bureaucracy doesn't seem to know what to do with them either. 
They haven't been accused and they haven't been sentenced, so they're 
stuck in the pretrial units, where the prisoners don't have access to 
the usual prison programs: education classes to work on GEDs, kitchen or 
janitorial jobs, Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous (which is a 
heavy burden on some of the prisoners), or regular exercise equipment. 
If the SeaTac detention center is a boring limbo, its pretrial units are 
a limbo within limbo.

Olejnik says she and her fellow pretrial inmates are "super-jealous" of 
the Zumba dance-aerobics classes that the other prisoners get. Her unit 
exercises in "the yard," which isn't really a yard, but a large cell 
with a metal grate 20 feet high on one wall that allows in some fresh 
air. You can sometimes see a sliver of the moon, she says, or feel the 
rain coming in. That's as close as it gets to being outside. (Duran says 
in his unit, a plane flying past the grate in the yard is the highlight 
of the day.) For their workouts, the women mostly run in circles around 
the cell, or do what yoga or Pilates moves other prisoners can remember. 
And they get to play volleyball.

The first question in the women's unit, Olejnik says, isn't what a 
prisoner is in for---it's whether she has children. If the answer is 
yes, the second question is always whether she has custody of the kids. 
"Since it's a pretrial unit," Olejnik says, "most people still have 
custody of their children and are working incredibly hard to keep it. 
You get 300 phone minutes a month---for people who can afford it." If 
someone gets stuck in solitary confinement (called the Special Housing 
Until, aka "the SHU"), Olejnik says, she gets one phone call a month. 
She's seen women in solitary spending their monthly phone call helping 
kids with homework---trying to be as motherly as possible under the 

Both Duran and Olejnik were put in solitary confinement as soon as they 
arrived, without much explanation. (Both of their attorneys, who have 
represented other inmates at the SeaTac FDC, say starting the prisoners 
off in solitary confinement isn't typical in their experience.) Olejnik 
says she wasn't told she could ask for a cup or a spork, so she spent 
her week in the SHU drinking water out of her hands. She depicts the SHU 
as "intense psychological torture" that's difficult to describe---you 
don't know what's going on, you can't talk to anyone, and the lights 
come on and off without your control. "I was only in for a week," she 
says, and can't imagine what it would be like to be in there for months. 
Then, one day, she was let out into her unit.

Both Duran and Olejnik wonder if they were immediately shoved into 
solitary in the hopes that it would freak them out and convince them to 
answer the grand jury's questions. If so, it didn't work.

"We do each other's hair a lot," Olejnik says of the women's unit. The 
prisoners pull their chairs out of their cells, and fuss over each other 
with a blow dryer and curling and straightening irons (they aren't 
allowed to have scissors), trying to replicate the casual beauty-salon 
conversations they had in the outside world. When we talk in the 
visiting room, Olejnik's hair looks like it spent some quality time with 
the straightening iron.

The prisoners also fuss over Olejnik's mail. Both she and Duran get a 
/lot/ of mail from all over the world, several letters a day, sometimes 
from anarchist supporters and sometimes from strangers who say they've 
never been involved with political activism but feel like this grand 
jury situation is beyond the pale. (The outpouring of support was a 
surprise---both say they did what they thought they had to do, went to 
prison, and fully expected to be forgotten.) The other prisoners don't 
get so much mail. Olejnik pulls all hers into a pile, and the women read 
it together, sometimes aloud, smelling the paper for any scent from the 
outside world---a flower pressed in the pages, cologne, incense---and 
help Olejnik work through her return letters.

Olejnik also shares the books people send her. She helped one prisoner 
read the first volume of the /Harry Potter/ series. Olejnik and the 
prisoner would read every night, going paragraph by paragraph, sounding 
out the big words and discussing what happened in each passage. "She got 
to the point of reading a whole page on her own," Olejnik says. When 
they finished, the other prisoner told Olejnik that was the first book 
she'd ever read. "She called her mom to tell her," Olejnik says. "And 
her mom cried."

Olejnik says having your period in prison "really sucks." The 
commissary, apparently, isn't carrying tampons these days, and 
strip-searches while you're on your period are deeply humiliating. 
"People on their period," she says, "mostly stay in their rooms all day."

But the prisoners laugh sometimes, teasing and joking. "And I have so 
little to complain about compared to other people in here," Olejnik 
says. "That's not to say I don't have bad times. We all cry in here. But 
I try to keep those days to a minimum."

While Olejnik is robust and incongruously cheerful in the bleakness of 
the visiting room, Duran is more subdued. He's slight and bookish, wears 
glasses, and tries to keep his head down. His unit sounds tenser, with 
more jealousy and prisoners quick to take offense. "It's like a 
microcosm of the real world," he says, but magnified by the confinement. 
"Race politics, class politics---one cellie [cellmate] was mad at the 
other for being really rich. He didn't pay something like a million 
dollars in back taxes." In most conversations, he says, "I try to stay 
as neutral as possible."

His mail, unlike Olejnik's, is not a community event. He says some of 
his fellow prisoners joke, "Hey, save some mail for us," but it's 
starting to overflow in his locker. He can afford the postage to forward 
it on to friends for safekeeping, because fundraising efforts for the 
grand-jury refusers help pay his commissary bills. "But," he says, "I 
don't want to flaunt my wealth in front of the others." Mail to 
prisoners is a big deal, he says. "It can make or break a prisoner's 
day." One guy has been depressed for weeks because some books he was 
supposed to get around Thanksgiving haven't arrived yet.

Despite the tensions, Duran says the fact that he's there because he 
refused to talk has given him some currency, even across the usual 
racial lines. "A lot of people in my unit are there because somebody 
snitched on them," he says. "One guy I hang out with was in a group of 
people charged with conspiracy." Conspiracy is a common charge to loop 
in bunches of people who have a peripheral relationship to the central 
crime. "They all said they wouldn't snitch. He's here now because he's 
the only one who /wouldn't/ snitch!"

But because Duran is Latino and speaks Spanish, he's a de facto member 
of the Latino clique. They measured his thin biceps when he first came 
in, which---to their chagrin---measured only 13 inches around. Now they 
call him "El Trece" (Spanish for 13) and hector him to work out more, 
like doing pull-ups when he'd rather be reading. He thanks me during our 
long interview for saving him from the afternoon workout. "I'm really 
sore from yesterday," he says, smiling slightly while rubbing his arm.

Conversation among his fellow prisoners centers on four topics: their 
cases, how bad the food is, how cold the prison is, and, as Duran puts 
it, "I did this thing once five years ago, and it was cool."

"It is," he says, "extremely monotonous."

Duran says he's in a protective custody unit for people who aren't 
supposed to be in the general population---that includes snitches, 
alleged cartel affiliates, high-profile prisoners with well-publicized 
cases (his situation, so he's told), and sex criminals. Duran's face 
goes dark. "I really," he says slowly, looking down, "don't want to be 
associated with those people."

Prisoners who've done time in that unit, he says, usually don't mention 
it on the outside, even to other people who've done time at the SeaTac 
FDC. It's not a reputable unit, even among fellow prisoners. Duran says 
that for him, it's just "study, keep your head down, do your time."

Still, he seems as resolved as Olejnik to refuse to capitulate. Does 
doing his time feel different than somebody who has a concrete sentence? 
"Yes," he says. "I'm not gonna be here for 10 years, but I don't know 
how long I'm gonna be here... could be a day, could be six months, could 
be two years, could be longer." But, as he said earlier, he feels he's 
doing his duty. "Even most of the inmates I talk to say: 'Why don't you 
lie? Why don't you put the rap on somebody else?'" Duran says. "I don't 
want to be part of the process that puts anyone here. Here is really 
bad... The government wants me here out of pure frustration---for an 
entity with worlds of power, they don't want resistance at any point."

He says sticking to his guns means he has "a more satisfying life... I'm 
here because I'm doing something."

Duran and Olejnik are in prison for civil contempt of court, which is 
supposed to be a coercive measure---to get them to change their 
minds---and not punitive. It's as if the government has sent them into a 
corner, telling them to come back when they're ready to start answering 
those questions about other people and their politics. Both Duran and 
Olejnik say that's bullshit. As Duran puts it: "In prison, it's /all/ 
punitive." They could be in detention for civil contempt until this 
grand jury dissolves in 2014.

Or they could be released if either the federal prosecutor or Judge 
Richard A. Jones---who presided over their civil contempt 
hearings---files a motion to end their incarceration. Olejnik's attorney 
says it's highly unlikely the prosecutor will take this step. He is, she 
says, "pretty resolute that this is a path he should be pursuing." But 
the ultimate authority rests with Judge Jones. Why has he favored the 
prosecutor in this case and not Duran and Olejnik? It's hard to say. 
(Judge Jones did not respond to a request for comment.)

But even if the government and Judge Jones force them to run down that 
clock, they could be further charged with criminal contempt of court, 
meaning even more time. Limbo within limbo. (A third grand-jury refuser 
named Maddy Pfeiffer, 23, will soon join Duran and Olejnik. At a 
contempt hearing last Friday, Judge Jones ordered Pfeiffer to report to 
the SeaTac FDC at 9 a.m. on December 26.)

As a Thanksgiving treat this year, Duran says, the prisoners got a can 
of soda, an extra helping of food, and the chance to watch a movie: 

I didn't ask him what he thought they'd get for Christmas

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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