The yacht broker’s daughter was reading the Bible the day she got marked as a jailhouse snitch. Ephesians 5:11. “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them,” it said.
The words resounded like the inner voice that, on another day, had beckoned her to blockade an abortion clinic door. So when the guards barged in with a rumor that someone in her dormitory had cocaine, she stepped forward and--before 200 convicts--bore witness against the inmate she had seen smoking crack in the toilet stall.
“You’re dead meat!” the inmate shrieked as the deputies dragged her away. Within moments, women were shoving their fists in the anti-abortion activist’s face.
“I just thought, ‘Speak the truth,’ ” the small, bespectacled woman would ruefully recall. Released last week from a Los Angeles County jail, she was forced to serve the rest of her time in protective custody.
For a wave of abortion protesters who, in the last two years, have grabbed headlines with clinic blockades and mass arrests, the time has come for a final test of their convictions--jail. Across the country, thousands detained in demonstrations orchestrated by the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue are finally getting their day in court and, eschewing plea bargains, landing for days, weeks and, in some cases, months behind bars.
With their Bibles and pamphlets, they are some of the most unlikely convicts ever to do time, bringing an often-credulous evangelism to a subculture defined by cynicism and sin. Churchgoing matrons with visions of jail as a “mission field” emerge from custody with tales of deliverance from homosexuality behind bars. Family men, confident that prayer will protect them from harm, tell of inmate brawls touched off by flash points as small as a borrowed pencil.
Suburban couples talk about planning their incarceration the way they would prepare for a week out of town: drop the kids at grandma’s, ask the neighbors to keep an eye on the house, arrange for someone to water the plants and feed the cats. They return to find their vocabularies laced with jail slang, saying “road-doggies” when they mean “co-defendants” and “kick out” instead of “early release.”
Operation Rescue officials nationally estimate that about 50,000 rank-and-file activists have been arrested--mostly for trespassing--since the group was founded in 1988. So far, said spokesman Gary McCullough, “several thousand” have spent some time in jail, and perhaps 250 to 300 have earned the status of POC, “Prisoner of Christ,” which is the group’s designation for those who have spent more than 30 days behind bars.
McCullough said that, as the cases have slowly wended their way through court, the group has had 50 to 80 POCs at any one time in jails across the United States. Last week, for example, there were 56, half of them in California.
In Los Angeles, trespassing charges have been filed against 1,278 protesters who have demonstrated at local clinics where abortions are performed. So far, 547 have been convicted, 10 and 20 at a time, and 728 await their day in court. Only a handful have accepted the government’s offer of probation in exchange for a pledge to leave the abortion clinics alone, prosecutors say. The majority have opted for sentences ranging from several weeks of unpaid community service to several harsh months behind bars.
Prosecutors assert that what is happening is part of an Operation Rescue strategy to clog the court system and jam the jails. But the organization says there is no such master plan. The only goal is to save the unborn.
Meanwhile, petty thieves, prostitutes and addicts who have served time with abortion opponents shake their heads in bemused respect for the Operation Rescue activists they have come to recognize on sight.
“This place can be pretty shocking if you’re not used to it,” said Brenda Anderson, a convicted Santa Monica cocaine dealer who is winding up a year’s jail term at the Sybil Brand Institute for Women in East Los Angeles. “And these people don’t look like anybody you’d expect to see in here.”
Take, for example, Deborah Grumbine, 39, a Whittier podiatrist’s wife with whom Anderson shared a jailhouse dorm.
Until last Easter, Grumbine confined her activism to passing petitions, writing homemaking guides for Catholic wives and lawfully counseling women outside clinics where abortions are performed. But then came Operation Rescue, and soon the mother of seven found herself blockading women’s clinics throughout Southern California.
Her first sentence was five days at Sybil Brand, the most crowded facility in the county’s packed network of jails. She served all five days in the institute’s teeming reception area. The cigarette smoke was so thick that she had to shut herself in a broom closet just to get a breath of fresh air, she said.
The metal bunks and the bathrooms were rank with the vomit and diarrhea of addicts in withdrawal. The food was the greasiest she had had in her life. On her first night, she watched wordlessly as the guards yanked a Latina inmate off the phone by the hair because the Spanish-speaking woman had either ignored or failed to understand their order to hang up. Grumbine maintained her stunned silence when more deputies forcibly restrained a hallucinating woman who was babbling hysterically.
“I was beside myself,” Grumbine said. “But you have to sit still and not move, or the deputies will do the same to you. So I just sat and prayed that the angels would protect (the inmates).”
When she wasn’t praying, she cleaned.
“I had to do something to make me not feel homesick. I’ve got a big family and I’m used to cleaning toilets,” she said. “One of the girls there told me you can really tell the rescuers in jail by the way they always clean the bathroom.”
Over and over, she said, inmates would ask why she had been arrested--a question she and other Operation Rescue inmates welcomed because it provided an opening “for ministry.”
“It’s a mission field,” enthused Susan Zook, 44, a co-defendant and neighbor of Grumbine. In fact, Zook said, she was so eager to spread the Operation Rescue gospel behind bars that she smuggled in a New Testament and a stack of “Life Begins at Conception” pamphlets on the day she was booked.
In general, Grumbine said, during that first stay at Sybil Brand and a 15-day stay at the Mira Loma facility near Lancaster last month, she had little trouble--except when it came time for bed.
“This last time,” she explained, “the woman below me was a really promiscuous homosexual. The first thing she asked was, ‘Do you like women?’ I said, ‘I like Jesus.’ That sort of took care of all the angles for me.”
But as night fell, she said, a parade of women crawled in and out of the bed below.
“The whole bunk was shaking, and all the sounds were coming up from down below, and I just had to sort of pray to get through the night,” she said.
“But the next day, I got transferred to another bunk. You see? The Lord provides.”
Parables like that are part of what sets the Operation Rescue jail experience apart from that of the average inmate. No sacrifice, it seems, lacks a reward or a deeper purpose. Every story has a moral.
Take Steve Kipp, a Monterey Park father of four who was punched in the stomach by an inmate because he refused to relinquish his jail-issue pencil.
“It knocked the wind out of me,” he said. “But it also drew the attention of all the other inmates in the tank. It was dead silence. I started talking about why I was in there. . . . Everybody was tuned in. And, you know, I feel God allowed that to happen so that I could have a listening ear. Before I left, I went over and shook the hand of the guy who took the pencil away. I said, ‘I forgive you.’ He just smiled sheepishly.”
Or take Danielle Mora, a 20-year-old Rancho Dominguez receptionist who went to Sybil Brand last month sporting a “Save a Baby, Go to Jail” T-shirt and armed with a full-color plastic model of a fetus at two months.
Both items were confiscated, and Mora despaired of making an effect on her fellow inmates during her 90-day sentence for unlawful assembly and failure to disperse. Then she looked around, she said, and realized that she was not the only Operation Rescue woman in jail.
Soon, she said, she was hosting prayer meetings and songfests at her metal bunk aided by a nun and a minister’s wife who had gone to jail for clinic blockades. And by her second day, she had a new visual aid. An inmate in the infirmary sent down a pamphlet with graphic photos of aborted fetuses, which Mora uses almost daily in lobbying pregnant inmates to carry their children to term.
“All I’ve gotten here is encouragement,” she said in a recent jailhouse interview. “I feel really blessed.”
To the cellmates of Operation Rescue defendants, such remarks are just another sign of their beatific eccentricity. There’s no telling, the inmates say, how many abortions and lives of crime have been renounced just to shut a “rescuer lady” up.
Inmate Anderson recalled mirthfully an activist’s story about the night the amorous conversation of two gay inmates kept the anti-abortionist awake. The activist prayed fervently for an end to homosexuality, she said, and when she stopped praying the inmates were asleep.
“Now, wasn’t that a miracle?” Anderson laughed. “I’ve been in here five times in my life, and every time I get more religious.”
And yet, she added, there is a “good aura” to the Operation Rescue women, who never call the inmates by their nicknames--Shorty and Casper and Midnight--but who say their Christian names in tones that are kindly and soft.
“They were real nice,” Anderson said. “As a matter of fact, one of them gave me a lead on a Christian home where they can help me get a new start.”
For the men of Operation Rescue, jail has been more menacing.
Dwight Monaghan, a Compton schoolteacher, said that at the outset of the 220-day sentence he is serving at downtown’s Hall of Justice jail, he was instructed by his dorm mates to steal food from the mess hall for them. He refused, and one night he looked up from his pale-green bunk to find himself encircled by men. They pushed him around for a few minutes before letting him walk away, he said. He hid in his bed for five days.
Since then, he said, he has learned to keep a low profile and tune out the violence that seems to be everywhere. When he tells his cellmates why he was arrested, he said, they seem baffled.
“It’s, ‘Why would you jeopardize your teaching position, your time, to do something of this type?’ ” Monaghan said. When he explains, however, they seem to respect his beliefs, he said.
That is more than he can say for his family.
“He’s put his job on the line. He’s put his home on the line. I say to him, ‘You don’t even have any children! Why are you so against this?’ ” fumed Monaghan’s sister, Gilda Moreland, who also lives in Compton. “I tell him, ‘Dwight, God gives everybody choices, and you can’t make people do right.’ But those people in Operation Rescue only see things one way--their way. And he says to me, ‘Abortion is murder.’ ”
Monaghan said he was drawn by his religion to become involved with Operation Rescue--an involvement that, until his arrest, he hid from his superiors at the Compton Unified School District, where he teaches fifth grade. But because his jail term will run into the school year, he said, he felt compelled to tell his principal about his activism. School officials said this week the lengthy sentence has forced them to remove him from the teacher roster for September. Monaghan has applied for a sabbatical in hopes of preserving his job.
Similarly, Kipp has put his livelihood on the line.
Although the 33-year-old father works as an administrator for an anti-abortion group, his wife, Lauralee, said the family finances have dipped drastically since he began serving a 220-day work-release sentence requiring him to put in 40 hours of unpaid labor a week.
Initially imposed as jail time, but converted because of overcrowding in the county jail, the sentence was a cause celebre for Operation Rescue, which has criticized the local judiciary for the harsh sentences judges have been imposing on anti-abortion activists for relatively minor crimes.
But City Atty. James K. Hahn noted that, in each case, the sentences were ordered because the Operation Rescue inmates refused to accept the plea bargain and its requirement to stop blockading clinics. Moreover, Hahn noted, a federal court order capping the population of the Los Angeles County Jail has prompted the Sheriff’s Department to grant early release or work-release programs such as Kipp’s to most of the activists. Typically, he noted, inmates end up serving less than 65% of the jail time to which they are sentenced.
Even the unusual decision by some judges to stamp “no early release” on the paper work of Operation Rescue stalwarts has been ignored. In recent months, Deputy Dist. Atty. Claudia Wrazel said she has begun offering several weeks or months of unpaid community service as an alternative to jail time. Unlike the plea bargains, she said, the defendant need not promise to avoid abortion clinics to get the community service option.
Consequently, Kipp has been free for most of his highly publicized sentence, living at home while he works off his time washing buses at the Central Jail downtown. The work has cut sharply into the money he can earn at his regular job, said his wife, who nonetheless has chosen to stay home with their preschool children rather than get a job. Not long ago, she said, their 18-month-old outgrew her dress shoes and they could not afford new ones.
“It’s costing us,” Kipp said. “But when you weigh finance against what’s happening to the unborn babies, there’s no comparison.”
Which, he added, is why he plans to blockade another clinic at the earliest possible opportunity--a sentiment shared by most, if not all, of the Operation Rescue inmates.
“If God said, ‘Take probation,’ I suppose that’s what I’d do, but he’d have to yell that pretty loud,” said Grumbine. Though she is now two months’ pregnant with her eighth child, she said she has no plans to avoid arrest.
“I think Christ is partial to those who get dumped in the tank,” she said.