The Making of a ‘Prolific Criminal’
by Frida Berrigan
Bonnie Urfer exudes calm and strength. Her eyes twinkle and her voice stretches o’s like a Wisconsinite. On Wednesday, Judge Bruce Guyton called her a “prolific criminal.”
Prolific? Sure. Bonnie has been an activist since the 1980s. Working with a group called Nukewatch out in the forests of Wisconsin, Bonnie has tracked nuclear waste and materials shipments, cut down the Extremely Low Frequency poles that studded her sylvan landscape to communicate the first strike orders to nuclear submarines, and been arrested dozens of times. Criminal? Not when nuclear weapons are illegal (at least according to international law—which by treaty is our law too), immoral and just plain useless.
But Bonnie is prolific in her artistic gifts as well as in her resistance.
Earlier this summer, my then-almost-husband Patrick got an envelope marked:
Irwin County Detention Center, Oscilla, Georgia. This letter is being mailed by an inmate/detainee of this facility. The Administration has not reviewed the contents. I.C.D.C does not assume responsibility for the written contents.
Inside was a card drawn by Bonnie (above). She inked it with just the cartridge of a pen because the jail does not allow the women to have real pens. It was signed by Jean Gump, Sister Ardeth Platte, Sister Carol Gilbert and Bonnie Urfer and congratulated Patrick and I on our upcoming wedding. These women, in their 60s, 70s and 80s, were awaiting trial for “trespassing” on to the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee Security Facility last July in an action organized by the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance.
The Y-12 facility is nestled in the rolling hills of Tennessee. In 1945, its scientists and engineers fabricated “Little Boy”—the nuclear weapon used to incinerate 140,000 people in Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945. Today, under the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Administration, the site processes uranium for the new hydrogen bombs being built to replace W76 warheads on Trident submarine ballistic missiles.
Sister Carol shared their daily jail routine in a letter. It mentions, among other things, how much prisoners pay for phone calls: 50 cents a minute for out-of-state numbers.
In her sentencing statement, Bonnie relates what she and her cell-mates experienced in jail and asked:
Do I begin a campaign to highlight the illegal starvation diet in the Blount County jail, for which no one has been arrested? Do I join the effort to condemn the practice of overcharging mostly dirt poor inmates for phone calls, and commissary, so that corporations and counties receive greater kickbacks?
Bonnie received an eight month sentence, meaning she’s slated to serve an additional four months on top of the time she has already spent in jail.
Jean Gump, the first of the 13 activists to be sentenced, received time served earlier this week. Father Bill Bischel, a Jesuit priest, was sentenced to three months in jail. In his statement before the court, he pointed out to the judge and prosecutor:
When we threaten other nations with nuclear weapons, we can hardly say we are bent on peace, sisterhood and brotherhood. Nagasaki and Hiroshima have shown us the terrible destructive power of these bombs. We can do something as a nation instead of using our power to show Afghans around, we can share with one another, enter into a dialogue.
On Friday, Sr. Carol Gilbert Sept. 16 and Sr. Ardeth Platte, Dominican nuns and members of the Jonah House Community, will be sentenced.