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Columbia Jail Journal: The Compelling, Exclusive Inside Story of the Columbia Three, by James Monaghan, Brandon Press, 277 pages

Reviewed by David Preston

Of the many and varied detours a man can take off the road to happiness, a trip to prison would have to be about the most discombobulating. And for most of us, a prison stint in an impoverished and violence-blighted nation like Columbia would have to be considered equivalent to organ failure or death. Yet, in fact, even a calamity like this is survivable—if you’ve got people. Fortunately for James Monaghan—who spent the first three years of the twenty-first century as a political prisoner in Columbia—he did have people. Accordingly, he has lived to tell the tale.

Monaghan’s 2007 book recounts his odyssey as a prisoner in the not-failed-but-not-exactly-successful state of Columbia, where he and colleagues Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly traveled in the summer of 2001 on behalf of the Sinn Fein, the party of the Irish republican movement. By that time Sinn Fein had been participating, as a minority party, in the Northern Ireland peace process for several years, and the organization wanted to observe and advise Columbia’s left-wing FARC rebels as they laid down their weapons and began a similar transition from armed rebellion to peaceful political struggle.

After winding up their mission as observers, the three Irishmen (irlandeses in Spanish) were returning home when soldiers arrested them at a Bogotá airport on suspicion of “rebellion” and, typically for Columbia, drug possession. That this was a political case is evident from the fact that a shadowy figure from the U.S. State Department—never a friend to Irish republicans—was lurking about almost from the time of the men’s arrest, directing the interrogation, overseeing secretive tests for explosives and drugs, and consulting with the Columbian authorities about what charges to press. That the main evidence against the men was fabricated may be surmised from the fact that the bulk of this evidence was withdrawn by the time of the trial, leaving the government with a case that amounted to, essentially, passport violations. (The men, who had a record in Ireland on behalf of their political activities, had been travelling under assumed names.)

As the Columbian peace talks began to collapse, the right-wing press in Great Britain and the U.S. hastened the process by quoting anonymous sources who characterized the Columbia Three as IRA “terrorist operatives” and claimed to have info linking them to the IRA. Ever the lapdogs, the right-wing Columbian establishment gleefully and publicly chimed in, ensuring that the men could never get a fair trial there. To perfect the comic irony of this puppet show, it turns out that one of the supermax-style prisons where the men spent time (Combita) was actually designed, and is still overseen, by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. That’s the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Ultimately, the Columbia Three were found innocent of the main charges and released in late 2004, pending sentencing for passport violations. While awaiting sentencing, the men were able to slip out of the country for good. During their three-plus years in custody they had been shuttled between six prisons around the country. By the end of their stint, they had become experts on the Columbian penal system.

In Jail Journal, Monaghan portrays a world where violence is endemic; besides the usual nastiness of prison there are politically motivated beatings and assassinations, winked at, even encouraged by, prison guards. Yet surprisingly, life in a Columbian prison is not as cutthroat as one might expect. In ways it seems even humane, especially by U.S.
standards. True, they don’t have HBO, but prisoners are allowed liberal access to reading material, mail, phone calls, and commissary privileges. They are even allowed visitors, and under significantly lighter restrictions than one would find in the US too. Conversely, there are none of the abhorrent “isolation units” with which readers of this magazine are so familiar, at least not in Monaghan’s experience; he was never isolated from his fellow irlandeses for more than a few days. Prisoner disputes and behavior problems are usually solved by more or less democratically elected cell block leaders, and prisoners awaiting trial are allowed at least some constitutional protections, which the Columbia Three took liberal advantage of in forcing the prosecutor to finally bring their case to court.

But the most remarkable thing about life on the inside in Columbia is how closely it mimics life on the outside. Outside—where politics is all. The first thing required of each new internee is that he choose sides: there’s one section of the prison for the guerillas, another for the paramilitaries, with no neutral ground in the middle. Nominally, both groups are subject to the same prison regulations, but the prisoner’s daily experience is influenced much more deeply by the rules and customs of the political subculture he aligns himself with. As Monaghan tells it:

“Life with the guerillas is more orderly and safe from bullying but you could be killed in an attack on the guerillas. Life with the paramilitaries is more violent and the prisoner may have to pay rent for a sleeping space on the floor, and perhaps be a servant to a paramilitary leader. The real deciding factor is that when released after the sentence, the prisoner would be classified as an enemy of the state if they spent their time with the guerillas. Their lives and the lives of their families will be affected for ever afterwards.
Not surprisingly, most social prisoners spend their time with the paramilitaries.”

As leftists, the Columbia Three naturally chose to cast their lot with the guerrillas. By so doing, they were able to tap into a network that could extend its protection to them inside as well as garnering them essential support and publicity on the outside. This prison network kept them from harm while the “Bring Them Home” campaign launched in Ireland joined forces with a handful of steadfast supporters inside Columbia to win their release.

I found myself stifling a yawn or two while reading Jail Journal; Monaghan’s daily accounts struck me as annoyingly dispassionate at times, considering that he and his friends were under constant threat of assassination. But I’m not claiming false advertising. As the book’s title indicates, this is a journal, not a screenplay, and in another sense the author’s dry, matter-of-fact style goes toward his credibility. (No one could manufacture this stuff.)

Certainly, Monaghan’s experience is not typical, so if you’re looking for an all-around survival guide to prison, this is not your book. If you’re looking for a guide to surviving adversity, however, it comes closer to the mark. And if there is a lesson for the rest of us in Monaghan’s tale, it is that anyone, no matter how bleak his situation, can benefit from keeping faith in his cause. Whether that cause is freedom, or mere survival.

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