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What America's Ballsiest Eco-Activist Says About Prison Will Surprise You

What America's Ballsiest Eco-Activist Says About Prison Will Surprise You

Tim DeChristopher was sent to the hole; he did his best not to lose hope

Author: Reilly Capps/Sunday, May 26, 2013/Categories: environment

[Photo by Reilly Capps, SWP Media]

By Reilly Capps

You figure that, if you have to step into the concrete walls of prison, you better be made of steel. Be ready for gangs, beatings, maybe a shivving. 

So when I asked recent parolee Tim DeChristopher what prison was like, his answer seemed … odd.  

Prison, he told me, "It's like being stuck in New York City traffic." You're stuck in a big metal box with nothing to do, with nowhere to go, unable to leave. It's not torture, but it's not fun. 

Prison was like that, for 21 months. 

DeChristopher has become an icon of the environmental movement, a semi-celebrity: interview on Bill Moyers, friends with Daryl Hannah. And a subtle backlash can be heard among some environmentalists who say DeChristopher is overexposed; that he sounds like a preacher, that he has stopped being a regular dude who sneezes, sleeps and eats breakfast, and has become Saint DeChristopher, patron saint of greens. 

And so a snapshot of his time in prison may be in order, not to build a case for martyrdom, but so you can see that his whole life isn't TV gigs and speaking engagements. And to recognize that his suffering isn't just a means to establish cred. He did time. 

Plus, his experience in prison may illustrates how far the government is willing to go to punish dissenters. It begs the question: did the punishment fit the crime? 

DeChristopher, as you know, is America's ballsiest eco-activist, having busted into a shady oil deal in December 2008 and wrecked it. In July 2011, he was found guilty and sentenced to two years. 

"From a mental perspective, I saw it as a vacation," he told me. 

Um, WTF?!?  

Well, he had no responsibilities, no consultations with lawyers, no dumb questions from dumb journalists, not all of whom were me. No need to pay rent or soak beans on Friday night for stew on Sunday. 

But, as you might imagine, it wan't Club Med.  

For example: in March 2012, he was sent to "the hole," a maximum security facility for the unforgivable offense of writing a letter. 

In there, he'd go days on end without exercising or leaving his cell or seeing daylight. The guards ignored the prisoners' pleas; no one could ignore their screams in the night. 

"You could actually hear people lose their minds," DeChristopher said. 

But that wasn't the worst moment. The worst moment, he said, came early in his sentence, in a prison in Nevada.  

His bed was under an A/C duct, and he got sick. The food was terrible. He was hungry.  Worst of all, in a dorm-like setting with 100 other prisoners, he felt he was alone. Not just alone inside prison, but alone in all senses. 

He had hoped that others would follow his lead and throw themselves into the gears of the machine that is the oil industry and the government. But his prosecution had shown that gears those gears are gears that crush. And he worried that, by sending him to prison, the government had "scared people into obedience." 

He began to feel sorry for his sad, sick self. 

Then, on the prison TV, came a story of a protest in Washington, D.C., against the Keystone Pipeline. His buddies were hauled away; his friend Daryl Hannah was cuffed. It was just what he needed. 

"That is why I'm here," he said he realized. "I'm part of that movement, I'm not alone, I'm not doing it for nothing." 

He determined, then, "to make the most of my time, not to dwell on the negative aspects." After that,  "I spent very little time in those 21 months feeling sorry for myself." 

He read. He had visitors. He lifted; his arms, never pipe cleaners, are now the size of the buttresses on I-35.  

In the end, was it right to incarcerate him for nearly two years when he was clearly acting not out of malice but out of concern for the planet, a determination to keep government honest, and a deep moral sense? When he hurt no one -- though he did cost some drilling companies some dough? When the auction he was protesting wasn't a good idea anyway? 

Nowadays, DeChristopher speaks and writes about activism, civil disobedience, reform of the justice system and abolition of for-profit prisons, among other things. He works in a bookstore in Salt Lake and is headed to Harvard Divinity School in the fall. 

He's a free man. He can do what he wants. 

Although Boston has terrible traffic. 

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