Freedom Is Frustrating
What Life Is Like After Prison and Solitary Confinement for Local Activists Katherine Olejnik and Matthew Duran
King Solomon's Reef, a diner and bar in downtown Olympia, was founded sometime in the 1960s and has survived several changes in ownership, two major fires, and probably scores of welcome-home-from-prison parties, although nobody has kept an official tally.
One night a few weeks ago, it hosted its latest welcome-home party, for well-loved Reef employee Katherine Olejnik and her friend Matthew Duran. The two had been released that day from the SeaTac Federal Detention Center (FDC) after five months, including two months of solitary confinement, for refusing to answer arguably McCarthyesque questions about other people's politics in front of a grand jury. The federal prosecutor was ostensibly interested in some political vandalism in Seattle on May Day—but neither Duran nor Olejnik were in Seattle during the demonstration. (Olejnik had been working a shift at the Reef.) Duran and Olejnik say they were shown photographs and asked to talk about who knew whom, who lived with whom, and whether those people were anarchists. When Duran and Olejnik refused to answer, they were sent to prison for civil contempt. At the time, Olejnik's attorney, Jenn Kaplan, said, "I'd hate for the public to think of her as an obstacle to a prosecution rather than as a principled person."
Five months later, Duran and Olejnik returned to their friends at the Reef. Both looked dazed.
Olejnik said so many people wanted to talk to her when she arrived, it took nearly an hour to get from the brightly lit front half of the Reef back into the dimly lit bar (which looks like a cozy dive from the late Victorian era, with dark wood columns and a stuffed deer head). There were hugs all around, and someone asked, "Whiskey or champagne?" After so many months of not being allowed to make everyday choices, she said, being decisive felt almost impossible. She eventually settled on champagne.
A few days later, Duran and Olejnik came to Seattle for an interview. They brought gifts: some prison chocolate, flowers, and a pen Olejnik was issued in solitary, which has a bendy stem, supposedly so it can't be used as a weapon. They still seemed shell shocked—just a few days prior, they had been in solitary confinement with no idea when they'd get out. Because they hadn't been charged with any crime, they were simply waiting for federal judge Richard Jones to release them. The office of US Attorney Jenny Durkan has declined to answer questions about who decided that Duran and Olejnik should be hauled in front of a grand jury in the first place, saying the office will "not discuss the status of investigations or the deliberative process." (Durkan's office also says it will not communicate directly with The Stranger—or at least me—because we have become an "active litigant" by filing motions with the Ninth Circuit asking to unseal some court documents.)
Duran and Olejnik said it was difficult to eat—because of stress and because their calorie intake had dropped in prison—or to stand social situations for very long. Both said that just the sound of a door locking could trigger panic and sobbing. Duran added that almost any noise behind him makes him jump against the nearest wall. He said he felt most comfortable in the bathroom, because "it's about the same size as the SHU," aka Special Housing Unit, the prison's solitary cages.
Duran and Olejnik are keenly aware that they are lucky compared to their fellow prisoners—the two had high-profile cases, which they think resulted in more delicate treatment from prison officials, and they were released to a supportive community. Friends and family are helping with jobs and housing, acquaintances routinely buy them food and drinks, and strangers stop them on the street to shake hands. "I don't know how other people do it without that kind of support," Olejnik said.
And how does freedom feel? "Frustrating," Duran answered. Because he and Olejnik are out, he said, "people think this is over." He's frustrated that the grand jury is still sitting and could put more people in prison. He's frustrated that another grand-jury refuser, Maddie Pfeiffer, is still locked up at the FDC, and yet another has to live on the lam. He's frustrated that he and Olejnik are still living under the threat of being charged with criminal contempt. (Civil contempt, which they were doing time for, is intended to coerce testimony. Criminal contempt is punishment for not having testified.) Duran's former employer, a small IT company, said it wouldn't hire him back until the statute of limitations had run out. How long would that be? "Four years, 11 months, and one day," he answered quickly.
Duran had been involved with prisoner-support work before becoming a prisoner himself, and both have returned with new insights—stories about how prisoners communicate from cell to cell by blowing water out of the pipes below the sinks with rolled-up magazines and talking through the plumbing. Boyfriends reconnect with girlfriends. Old pals from previous stints trade stories. But since their voices are traveling through the pipes, it's basically an old-fashioned party line, a gossip-tube that other people can listen in on.
They talked about camaraderie and how there seemed to be more among the women, who played "beauty shop" (which mostly consisted of the beauty-shop banter, since they weren't allowed to have scissors) and made birthday cakes for each other out of prison-issued cookies, candy bars, and potato chips. But there was some bonding among the male prisoners as well—Duran read to men with dyslexia and helped Spanish-speakers compose letters in English. They both talked about how prisoners would pass the time by teaching each other languages, math, and whatever other skills they brought from the outside. Olejnik said that prisoners drilled each other on their multiplication tables and that one woman taught the others a little Korean. Duran fumed that public defenders were so few and far between and didn't bring translators, which resulted in plea deals that were "totally wrong," and that the guards' best attempts at communication with one Chinese prisoner consisted of seeing "how LOUD they can SPEAK ENGLISH" at him.
Olejnik talked about how "the guards would creep on you" while women were working out. "They know where the line is and how to keep their jobs," she said. (A spokesperson for the FDC said, "We will take all allegations of misconduct seriously and will investigate fully. If inmates don't make any allegations, there is nothing we can do. So, no, I have no comment on this allegation.")
Duran and Olejnik talked about the inferior health care—how prisoners are only allowed to talk about one issue per visit to the medics (if you've got high blood pressure and chronic stomach pains, you have to choose).
Olejnik told a story about a pregnant prisoner who was about to give birth. She said most mothers in prison get poor prenatal care, but officials had promised this particular mother a few days with her baby after her labor. Instead, the mother was whisked back to solitary almost as soon as the baby was born. A few weeks later, her child died. "She didn't have a cellmate," Olejnik said, "and the prison wouldn't let someone spend the night with her—she was locked down by herself for eight hours after her baby died." The prison chaplain had been advocating for her, Olejnik said, but didn't get very far. (The public information officer at SeaTac FDC couldn't confirm that story, saying the facility would have "no records" of what happened to a prisoner's baby after it was born and left the facility. She also said the FDC, despite multiple requests—from The Stranger as well as Duran's and Olejnik's attorneys—could not explain why the two were placed in solitary confinement or who made that decision.)
Despite the difficulties, both said prisoners are extraordinarily supportive of each other. "People who've been in prison for a long time know way better how to live communally than any anarchist collective," she said. "Because they have to! All they have is each other."