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This 85-Year-Old Nun Just Spent Two Years In Prison For Protesting Nuclear Weapons

ROSEMONT, PENNSYLVANIA–Two white-haired nuns stepped forward and embraced each other tightly. One has been living in a convent in a quiet Philadephia suburb. The other has spent the last two years in federal prison, charged with sabotage, trespassing, and destroying government property as part of a peaceful protest in Oak Ridge, Tennessee against the U.S.’ arsenal of nuclear weapons.

“Welcome out,” said Sister Margaret Doyle, beaming at the newly-freed 85-year-old activist Megan Rice.

Just days before, Rice was dozing in her cell at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York, when she heard the BBC Radio report that the most serious charge against her and her two fellow activists was overturned, and a federal appeals court ordered their immediate release.

On Wednesday, dressed in a tunic and sweatpants that were a gift from a fellow inmate, carrying all her worldly possessions in a grocery bag, Rice returned to the convent where she trained as a novice nearly 50 years ago. There, the Sisters received her with awe and concern.

“I don’t know how she survived. I’d be an absolute basket case,” said Sister Pat Tyrell. “We were so worried. But she had the guts to do it, God love her. We’re not keen on people breaking the law and going to jail, but everything she stands for we stand for.”

“She’s a real prophet,” added Sister Florence Rice. “I’m a nuclear activist too, but I don’t go to marches or go to prison.”

Sister Florence

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Before dawn on July 28, 2012, Rice and Christian activists and army veterans Michael Walli and Gregory Boertje-Obed broke into the Y-12 nuclear complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee — the so-called ‘Fort Knox of Uranium’ that holds hundreds of thousands of pounds of radioactive fuel for the country’s aging nuclear weapons stockpile. Once inside, armed with only paint, candles, bolt cutters, hammers and a Bible, the three wrote passages from Scripture on the side of the uranium-storage facility and chipped at its concrete walls with their hammers. When security guards finally discovered them, they were loudly singing “This Little Light of Mine,” and proceeded to offer the baffled officers communion bread.

In return, they were handcuffed and left sitting on the ground for hours as the sun came up, questioned by security guards wearing body armor and brandishing assault rifles. When they had their first day in court, they were brought in wearing shackles. Federal prosecutors pushed for the harshest charges possible: sabatoge, with “intent to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense of the United States.” More than a year later, Rice was sentenced to 35 months in prison and Wallis and Boertje-Obed each got 62 months. They were also each fined tens of thousands of dollars, which they are unable to pay having all taken religious vows of poverty.

Rice told ThinkProgress that her experience in prison — first in Georgia, then in New York — was “extremely enriching” and a “gift.”

“It was another education for me,” she said. “The people [in prison] are far better that we ever imagined. So many are innocent, really innocent. Women are so often the handmaids of the criminals, and their stories would just put you in awe. I was called a ‘saboteur’ for two years. But some people are labeled ‘murderer’ for 22 years, when the real murderer is walking free.”

Then, on May 8, 2015, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati not only threw out that conviction, they blasted the government for branding Rice, Wallis and Boertje-Obed as saboteurs.

“Vague platitudes about a facility’s ‘crucial role in the national defense’ are not enough to convict a defendant of sabotage,” wrote Judge Raymond Kethledge of the 6th Circuit. “First Amendment issues aside, it takes more than bad publicity to injure the national defense.”

Kethledge also scoffed at the government’s argument that the protesters harmed national security by distracting the security guards for a few hours.

“Responding to intrusions is what guards do, and thus not a ‘diversion’ at all,” he wrote. “To say that these guards were diverted from their duties is like saying a pilot is diverted from his duties when he flies a plane.”

Sister Margaret

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Soon after, the three were released from the three separate prisons where they have been held, and are now reconnecting with their families and activist communities, trying to build the movement they call “Transform Now Plowshares” — a reference to the Bible verse calling on believers to beat their swords into plowshares, to turn weapons of war into instruments of peace.

Speaking on Wednesday, Rice told ThinkProgress that she’s inspired by the founder of her order, Cornelia Connolly, who was “not a traditional woman” and took big risks in order to devote herself to “meeting the wants of the age.”

When Rice moved back to the U.S. in 2003 after teaching in West Africa for nearly 40 years, she decided the most pressing “want” of the current age is the threat of nuclear weapons.

“There’s nothing in the 20th and 21st century that’s as big a danger as nuclearism,” she said. “I knew if I was to live in this country, I couldn’t do it without [confronting] that.”

It’s a danger she understands both spiritually and scientifically, having done a Masters’ thesis on auto-radiography and worked firsthand with nuclear isotopes. She also was deeply impacted growing up by stories from her uncle, a World War II Marine who saw the devastation in Nagasaki six weeks after the US dropped a nuclear bomb.

“He for the rest of his life educated us about what he experienced,” Rice said. “So it fell to me naturally. I couldn’t see anything as serious in the whole wide world.”

Sister Pat

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Now, she and her fellow activists are struggling to make others understand that seriousness, and are especially sounding the alarm about President Obama’s plan to spend billions of dollars upgrading and rebuilding the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next three decades. That proposal, made public in February, follows moves to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from nuclear non-proliferation programs, including those that convert radioactive weapons material into civilian energy sources. The money has been redirected to maintaining enriched uranium and plutonium, missiles, nuclear warheads and long-range bombers that collectively could end all life on Earth several times over.

The Administration defends these choices by arguing the aging weapons pose a danger in themselves, and that they should be refurbished instead of scrapped to keep the “nuclear deterrent” effective.

But it’s a sharp departure from the President’s promises to drastically reduce the stockpile of nukes.

One of the group’s biggest supporters in Washington, D.C., veteran Plowshares activist Paul Magno, told ThinkProgress that the current heated debate over a nuclear agreement with Iran may provide an opportunity to spotlight US hypocrisy.

“The US is chief offender, the first and only [country] to use nuclear weapons in wartime, and chief perpetuator of the competition in nuclear forces to this day,” said Magno. “They have failed to even attempt to obey the law for well over 40 years now, effectively encouraging other powers, Israel, Pakistan, India to venture into these hideous weapons. [The US] needs to be the chief pace-setter by example in disavowing and dismantling its nuclear arsenal. Then it may have something credible to say about similar weapons and ambitions by other nations.”

Magno says he’s encouraged by the support of Pope Francis, who will visit the US for the first time this fall, on this issue, but says that when it comes to Church leadership, “preaching and doing are not the same. In Christian terms, ‘offering our lives,’ as Sister Megan has put it, in genuine risk and sacrifice for love of the human family and of God’s creation, is Christ-like in the most authentic way.”

Sister Megan

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

But Sister Margaret Doyle, one of order’s leaders, told ThinkProgress that it’s very rare for a nun to commit an act of civil disobedience and go to prison. Most members of the order try to better the world as teachers, though some have devoted themselves to immigrant rights and farm-worker rights work.

Still, she said, “we have great reverence for each person’s conscience. When someone, through reflection and prayer, decides there’s an action she must take, we support that.”

Despite the joy and offers of spiritual and material support, there was a cloud hanging over the Sisters’ reunion. This summer, Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed will have to return to Tennessee for a re-sentencing hearing. The activists’ lawyers will ask the court to grant them “time served,” saying they’ve already spent more than enough time in prison for the lesser remaining charges. But government prosecutors could push for additional jail time, and could even appeal the decision to toss out the charge of sabotage. At age 85, Rice knows it’s a real possibility that her life could end behind bars.

“If I died in prison, it would be an honor,” she said. “What’s the best reason to die? For the planet.”

Her fellow Sisters weren’t taking the news so calmly. “They’ve already served enough time,” cried Sister Florence Rice. “The government is just ashamed out of their wits that a couple of people with pliers could break in.

The ability of three unarmed, older peace activists to infiltrate a high-security nuclear facility is just one of the U.S. arsenal’s many embarrassments over the past few years. In 2013, Air Force officials caught officers routinely leaving “blast doors” to storage rooms full of nuclear-tipped missiles propped open. In 2014, nine nuclear missile commanders were fired for allowing dozens of officers to cheat on the exams that certified them to be able to launch nuclear weapons. In response, the Air Force said it would make the test easier to pass. Others tasked with guarding the deadly weapons were found to be using drugs on the base.

Based on these revelations, Sister Florence Rice said it was ridiculous for the government to punish Sister Megan. “I think they’re making it hard for the wrong people here,” she said. “They should make it hard for the people who make those armaments.”

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