THE BLOG
05/30/2014 10:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Nun Behind Bars in Brooklyn

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Sister Megan Rice
Courtesy:Megan Finnerty

You could call it a homecoming of sorts, but without the welcome home party. After growing up in the shadow of Columbia University in Manhattan's Morningside Heights, serving the Catholic Church as a biology teacher in Africa for more than 40 years, and a peace activist in Nevada, 84-year-old Sister Megan Rice has landed back in New York City. She's at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn. It's Sunset Park, but without the grass and trees.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Sister Megan in all probability would have served her 35-month prison sentence at Connecticut 's Danbury Federal Prison. But female inmates are no longer being housed in that institution. So, Danbury's loss is Brooklyn's gain. Sister Megan is one of 78 low security female inmates known as "cadres". They're not awaiting trial or transfer. They've been convicted and, it appears, will serve their sentences at MDC. Although the prison system classifies this kindly, grandmotherly nun as "low security", prosecutors described her as a danger to the community during her recent Knoxville trial, and won a conviction for sabotage, which the law defines as a "federal crime of terrorism".

In July 2012, Sister Megan, along with two fellow peace activists, carried a Bible, candles, bread and bolt cutters into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Y-12 processes and stores America's highly enriched uranium, the material terrorists could use to make a dirty bomb. The facility has enough highly enriched uranium to make 10,000 nuclear bombs. Using bolt cutters the trio sliced through four chain link fences, reaching all the way to the outside walls of the building where the bomb making material is stored, before they were accosted by a single security guard. The guard took one look at Sister Megan, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed and knew immediately they were peace protesters... and it wasn't just because they offered him bread, instead of brandishing weapons.

The security breach was a huge embarrassment to the federal government and sent shock waves around the world. After all, other nations send their vulnerable nuclear materials to be stored at Y-12. Several Congressional hearings examined the incident during which a number of lawmakers said America owed a debt of gratitude to Sister Megan for highlighting security flaws at Y-12 that needed to be addressed, and urgently. Nonetheless, the federal government came down hard on the three protesters charging that they had interfered with the national defense. During their trial Y-12's federal manager, a prosecution witness, said the three damaged the facility's credibility as the nation's Fort Knox of uranium.

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Defense attorney Bill Quigley with Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli who were convicted along with Sister Megan.
Courtesy: John Amidon

The three activists never intended to expose security failings at Y-12, instead their protest action was designed to draw attention to the multi-trillion dollar nuclear weapons industry which, they say, is siphoning off tax payer dollars from real needs like healthcare, education, housing and jobs. The U.S. spends more on nuclear weapons than all the other countries of the world combined and four times more than Russia. Over the next 10 years additional spending is planned as the nation ramps up to modernize its entire nuclear arsenal: submarines, missiles and bombers, at a cost the Congressional Budget Office estimates to be $355 billion. The activists are members of Plowshares an international movement opposed to nuclear weapons, whose mission is the conversion of resources from weapons of mass destruction to that which is life giving and can benefit humanity.

Since her conviction last year Sister Megan has spent time in a number of prisons in Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and now New York. She told me she ministers to the women by listening to their stories and sharing in the emotional pain. "Clearly these are the most vulnerable people in society. They are those who cannot find the jobs. The jobs are not being created, and many of them, because of that, fall into the drug industry just to survive, to buy diapers for their children. As we know the military budgets are eating up everything and have for so long, " says Sister Megan.

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Sister Megan entered the order of the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus at the age of 18.
Courtesy: Megan Tourlis

Besides comforting the women trapped in the system... there are the letters. Sister Megan told me during a recent phone call from MDC Brooklyn that she does not have enough time in the day to attend to the flood of letters that are sent to her. Since she can't respond to each one individually, she's enlisted a circle of six friends (one jokingly describes herself as Sr. Megan's secretary) to disseminate her response letters. Recently this circle sent out 120 letters.

The letters are a window into her sincere spirit amid the realities of prison life:

"I could never fully describe the kindness with which a guardian angel guard (male) walked me through "intake" in about 15 minutes, while I ate my baloney and cheese sandwich (brown bread! turkey baloney!) the first meal of the day for me except for two apples given to me by my sister passenger 'Tiffany' on the way from Newburgh to Brooklyn."

"It's good to be 84 and the next young thing only about 70, if that! The United Nations is represented among a large population from Brooklyn, Queens, and up-state New York towns-Watertown, Ithaca, and Plattsburg-well represented with one loner from Florence, AZ."

From behind bars she continues to follow events in the outside world. And, ever the teacher, in her letters she counsels her supportive community on how best to keep moving forward on the issue closest to her heart:

"And in the what can we be doing now? category, we can begin by signing the petition at www.nuclearzero.org in support of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which has filed suit in the International Court of Justice and U.S. Federal District Court against the nine nuclear- armed nations for "failure to comply with their obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law to pursue negotiations for the world wide elimination of nuclear weapons."

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U.S. Atomic Bomb Test, Bikini Atoll, the Marshall Islands, 1946.
Courtesy: Flikr Creative Commons

From 1946 to 1968, the Marshall Islands acted as a testing ground for America's nuclear weapons program. The U.S. detonated 67 atomic bombs during that time period which is the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for 12 years. Castle Bravo, the largest nuclear bomb ever tested by the U.S., was 1,000 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb. Having experienced firsthand the horrible consequences of nuclear weapons, the small island nation has petitioned the World Court for an injunction to require the nuclear armed states to meet their disarmament obligations as laid out in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and under international law. The lawsuit is supported by a number of Nobel Laureates including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Shirin Ebadi and Jody Williams. A global petition is being circulated on line for people to sign in support of the lawsuit.

Regarding the lawsuit Sister Megan told me, "It's marvelous news, a David and Goliath story. I really want to be able to sign something... .or if you could sign it for me?"

Helen Young is producing the documentary "Nuclear Insecurity" on nuclear disarmament activists, including Sister Megan, and the policy experts on the frontlines of the global movement to abolish nuclear weapons.