[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
-- by BRENDAN KILEY
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
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
"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
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