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Life After Prison: An interview with Olympia grand jury resisters

 

Matt and Kteeo discuss the experience of federal incarceration at FDC SeaTac

After five months in prison, Matt Duran and Kteeo are finally free. They were released February 27th, after a long legal battle, being held in detention without actually being charged for a crime, and living through over two months in solitary confinement. Both Olympia activists were incarcerated at SeaTac Federal Detention Center for refusing to testify before a grand jury they argue was targeting them for their political beliefs. (For more information on the Pacific Northwest Grand Jury Resisters, please see previous issues of WIP at www.olywip.org).

Although both Matt and Kteeo are relieved to be released, they’re well-aware of the fact that their fellow grand-jury resister, Maddy Pfieffer, remains in prison. And with the grand jury still investigating the May Day protest, the possibility that more people could be subpoenaed lingers. The grand jury could also decide to indict a protester at any time in the next year.

Just ten days after their release, I spoke with Matt and Kteeo to discuss their experience resisting the grand jury. We sat in a quiet corner of the dimly-light lounge at The Reef while I downed decaf coffee and Kteeo nibbled on slices of apple. Matt, wearing thick, black-rimmed glasses, carried his laptop he said he brought around everywhere since he was excited to have it after months of irregular Internet access in prison. Wearing a blue sweater, hair pulled-back, Kteeo was her usual upbeat self. Underneath her levity though was woman just beginning to come to terms with the experience she endured. Laughing one minute and nearing tears the next, both Matt and she seemed to be walking a line between relief and fear, joy, and sadness. Their resilience was palpable as we spoke about solitary confinement, prison, and their tenuous transition back to normal life. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Marissa Luck: When you decided you weren’t going to testify before the grand jury, what were your expectations? Did you expect to be in prison for two weeks, two months, or for the full 18 months of the grand jury?

Matt Duran: I was ready to do the whole year and half….. Going in, half of me knew that it wasn’t how we perceive prison like in Prison Break or Oz, where people are constantly getting shanked and killed…but somewhere in the back of my mind I was like, ‘This is what I’m going to have to live with for the next year and half. I’m preparing myself for this.’

Katherine “Kteeo”Olejnik: I didn’t allow myself to believe I was actually getting taken in, even though I knew that was going to happen…. I forced myself into a state of denial so I could keep working until the night before I went in. But after I was there for a week, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is the next 18 months of my life.’ It was so much worse than I expected but so much better than I expected. It’s so hard to describe. You don’t expect community [in prison], but there’s no way to describe how prison fucks you up. No one can ever describe that in the media. It changes you completely.

Marissa: Were there any points when you felt like giving up or considered stopping?

Kteeo: Every day I was in there made me want [to give up] less. I was like, ‘Well I’ve already wasted two weeks of my life.’ After the first 20 days in the SHU [the Solitary Housing Unit, a.k.a. solitary confinement], I was like, ‘I’ve only called my mom once in 20 days. I am not doing that in vain.’

Marissa: So the more time you spent in there, the stronger your resolve became.

Matt: Yeah, someone mailed me a postcard with a calendar on it, and I’d keep track of the days. And I was like, ‘Well, I’m down four months, it doesn’t make sense to give up now because what the hell have the last four months been for?’

Marissa: Can you talk more about your experience in solitary confinement? I know many human-rights activists argue it’s a form of torture.

Kteeo: Like you said, being in solitary is torture. Just beyond the specific elements, just the idea that you’re put into this space, you’re never allowed to leave this space, how small the space is. And then there’s safety in numbers. If you have a medical issue in solitary, there’s no one to alert the guards if you can’t hit the panic button; there’s no one with you to witness guards’ behavior towards you, so you’re completely alone.

Marissa: Kteeo, I know you were saying that having a sense of community in the general population of prison helped you cope. Being in the SHU, and not having that community, what enabled you to stay strong?

Kteeo: One, remembering my community out there, and how badass they were. Like they didn’t allow us educational programs so we made our own; they took away our volleyball net so we played net-less volleyball….Also, working out compulsively… And letters from people. I can’t stress enough how important it is to write to prisoners. Every prisoner is a political prisoner. Every prisoner deserves letters….When you’re in solitary you might not always have a pen, so you might not be able to write back, but just knowing that someone out there cares…And being able to have a radio in solitary was important because the first time I was in solitary I didn’t have a radio and I never knew what time it was, and that was really jarring. The second time [in solitary] I had a radio, and that’s something that you have to buy so not everyone can have that, but it’s music, it’s people talking.

Matt: I had a radio the first I was in solitary but the second time I wasn’t allowed to have one because you can only have one [for the whole time you’re there], and I had broken mine while I was in general [population]….There are two different people that are classified to go to the SHU. You’re either in administrative dentition or disciplinary segregation. Due to overcrowding, every once in a while, you get a cellmate which is really nice but also annoying because you’re around the same person 24 hours a day. [Note: Matt only had a cellmate for 2 weeks].

Marissa: Did you spend the full 24 hours in solitary?

Matt: You’re allowed one hour out of it, where they take you out of the SHU and put you in a slightly bigger room. I just saw that as an exercise in futility…It’s called the rec yard, the exercise yard, but without the yard [because it’s inside].

Kteeo: And for the women…we didn’t have showers in our SHU cell so we would be taken out to our general unit, the unit would be locked down, and we’d get taken to these shower cages for 45 minutes every three days or so. Which was kind of cool in a way, because I only had a cellmate for one week when I was in the SHU, and there would be four people so you could talk to the people in the other shower cells.

Marissa: What was your communication like without the outside world while in solitary?

Kteeo: In solitary you can only make one phone call a month, which is horrible. Every 30 days you’re allowed one 15-minute phone call if you can afford it (you have to pay for it out of your commissary account). That’s the only time you’re getting love and support from the outside world, and if you don’t have a cellmate, that’s the only time you’re getting any love and support….So many women in the unit were mothers, so they were allowed one 15-minute phone call a month, if they were in solitary, to connect with their children and to coordinate custody and coordinate money for their kids. In general population, you’re allowed 300 minutes a month, if you can afford it because it’s really expensive, which we were fortunate enough to have people fundraising for us, but [300 minutes] breaks down to just ten minutes a day.

Marissa: How often were you allowed to contact your lawyer in the SHU?

Kteeo: You had to fight for a lawyer call.

Matt: Yeah, you have to schedule it like a week or two in advance.

Kteeo: Fortunately my attorney would visit me once or twice a week though.

Marissa: Matt, I heard that you were unable to see your partner the entire time you were there since only immediate family could visit you.

Matt: Yeah I had one social visit during the entire time I was there, and that was from a nonprofit. It took about three months for them to approve my mom to come and visit…and the day she came out was the day I was released.

In the SHU, you’re not allowed contact social visits. You’re recorded on a camera and that’s put on a TV and then you talk on the phone, and that’s the visit.

Kteeo: That’s just for the men’s SHU. The women’s does get contact visits. I saw my parents once but that was the only social visit I had.

Marissa: How did you react when you realized your cases had become high-profile?

Kteeo: It was so weird…because I didn’t get mail the first five days I got there and then on sixth day, I had 80 letters. And some of them were friends and regulars at The Reef actually. Some of my support came from around the world but a lot of the support came from people who work or hang out in downtown Olympia who know me. And they were just like, ‘We don’t care about the politics behind this, we care that someone we care about has been taken away from us.’ And that [support] has been continuing on. Downtown Olympia community has been fucking incredible….I was expecting friends and family to have my back but I wasn’t expecting an apolitical Midwestern fire fighter to be writing me telling me they hope their infant daughter is as brave as me someday. Or 60-year olds writing me and telling me that I give them purpose.

Matt: This one 70-year old person wrote and was like, ‘I am so proud to live during the time you’re doing this and it makes me wish that I had taken a stand at your age. It was incredible. And then to see things in print about us in Al Jazeera or Reuters comparing us to the American Pussy Riot. It was like, ‘Jesus, I was just gonna sit here for the next year and half and I wasn’t expecting this at all.’ Someone [who resisted another grand jury] involved in the Twin Cities RNC protests wrote, and he was just like, ‘Oh I went to my grandma’s birthday today and the sky was really nice.’ And those are things that I love hearing about in letters because you don’t get see those [moments]. The absolute mundane, ordinary things in life are extraordinary when you’re incarcerated.

Marissa: What lessons are you were taking away from your experience in a prison?

Kteeo: As much as I want the abolition of prisons, we need to do things now, really obtainable goals. Improving conditions, whether that’s an extra piece of fruit a week even, or getting more people to write prisoners, or getting behind the one-third good-time law so you can get a third earlier than a fifth, or ending solitary confinement.

Matt: I was reading [a speech that talked] about something that Assata Shakur had said that we need to walk the line between prison abolition and prison reform….the end goal of prisons should be for all prisons to end. If they were effective and if they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, we would be the most law-abiding country in the world since we have the most people incarcerated.

Kteeo: [I also learned that] unless you’ve experienced incarceration or some sort of imprisonment you just don’t get it…You just can’t explain how if you want to shower, having to be hand-cuffed and walked by three people [to the shower], or to have people go through your shit all the time.

Matt: Or getting stripped searched three times to go see your lawyer….[You just focus on] making it day to day, hour by hour….Every minute that you’re surviving is a minute that you’re winning.

Kteeo: Anyone that survives solitary is winning.

Marissa: How did you react when you heard Leah-Lynn Plante was released? [Note: Leah-Lynn Plante was another grand-jury resister from Portland who also incarcerated but released for unclear reasons. Observers believe she cooperated with the grand jury.]

Kteeo: I allowed myself to be kind of angry for a while but then I was like, you know when you’re in prison you need to keep your head up. So I was like, ‘I can’t control her actions or what happened.’ I try not to think about it…Leah made herself so much a poster child for the grand jury…I felt like me and Matt went ahead [and refused to testify] because it was just the right thing to do and we didn’t have a political agenda. I felt like Leah always had a political agenda. But you know, those who talk the loudest break the weakest.

Marissa: What do you mean you didn’t have a political agenda when refusing to testify?

Kteeo: Well, I wasn’t at May Day and didn’t know anything that happened. Even if I did know something that could have landed someone in prison, honestly what they’re saying people did doesn’t warrant what you go through in prison. No one deserves to go there… And also, I don’t want to continue a political witch hunt and make that normalized…. [Deciding to resist the grand jury], it’s not about someone thinking you’re cool and political; it’s not about anarchy or the anarchist scene. Regardless of what my politics were, whether anarchist, or communist or liberal or even Republican, I would have had the same answer.

Marissa Luck is a regular contributor and volunteer  with Works in Progress. When not reporting on local issues, she works as a content director at a web-design firm. Marissa graduated from Evergreen with an emphasis in political economy and international studies. Contact her via Twitter@marissaluck7 or email marissaluck7@gmail.com.

 

 

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