Activist with Baltimore roots languishes in Georgia jail

Many Baltimore readers older than 60 will likely be familiar with the names Elizabeth McAlister and Philip Berrigan, who founded Jonah House, the Baltimore-based resistance community that’s long served as a training ground for scores of war resisters. The former priest and nun joined forces in the 1960s to form one of most potent and creative anti-war duos this nation has ever seen.

Many who followed their high-profile law breaking — which for Berrigan included setting fire to draft records in Catonsville with eight others in 1968 — viewed them as extremists. Others, myself included, saw the McAlister-Berrigan team as the prophetic couple that changed the way people of faith resisted war, violence and corporate sin.


Berrigan is credited with taking nonviolent direct action to another level as the mastermind behind the Vietnam era draft board raids and again, in 1980, with the inception of the Plowshares movement against nuclear weapons and war in general (today, there have been more than 100 Plowshares actions around the world).

At his death in 2002, Berrigan had spent 11 years of his life behind bars for his antiwar efforts. He married Liz McAlister while imprisoned in 1972, and both were excommunicated from the Catholic Church when he was released and the marriage legalized the next year. After Phil died, Ms. McAlister kept up her work for peace at Jonah House, and she has remained a mentor to many.


Today, Ms. McAlister, 79, sits in the Glynn County Detention Center in Brunswick, Ga., a miserable Southern jail. She has been there since April 4, 2018, when I joined her and five other Catholics in a Plowshares action at Naval Station Kings Bay. The Atlantic coast home port of Trident submarines, the Trident II-D-5 missiles collectively include enough nuclear fire power to kill 14 billion people and make Earth uninhabitable.

Calling ourselves the Kings Bay Plowshares, the seven of us entered the base on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King's assassination. We carried blood, hammers and crime scene tape with us to expose the evil of Trident. The federal government has charged us with three felonies and a misdemeanor.

After seven weeks in jail, I joined four of my co-defendants in accepting bond conditions: $50,000 and house arrest with a requirement that we wear electronic ankle monitors. Ms. McAlister, and two others — Fr. Stephen Kelly of the Society of Jesus; and New Haven, Conn., Catholic Worker Mark Colville — refused those conditions and have remained in jail.

The Glynn County jail, where I was also held, is, like most jails — a hell hole used primarily to hold poor people, the mentally ill and those with addictions. The diet is poor, and on the weekends, the jail serves just two meals. Supper is a bag “lunch” with a sandwich as the main course. “Outdoor” exercise is limited to a once or twice a week trip to a crypt-like cement enclosure with a roof covered with a steel fence. Mail includes only post office-issued white post cards. Jail officials frequently withhold books and magazines or return them to senders.

Jail visits don't exist. A loved one can sit at a jail computer monitor and speak for 15 minutes per week to an inmate, who also sits at a computer monitor in his or her cellblock. Catholic priests are not permitted to celebrate mass for inmates, while evangelical ministers are permitted to conduct Sunday services inside the cellblocks.

In early August, we appeared in federal court for oral argument. Because our judge does not allow us to meet together to prepare a common defense, it was the first time the seven of us met since last November.

Despite her legacy as a Catholic leader of the peace movement for almost 60 years, Ms. McAlister has now spent more than 500 days and nights in jail in relative obscurity; her sacrifice for nuclear disarmament unknown to most Americans.

Sadly, our hopes of Ms. McAlister being freed without having to post bond or wear an ankle monitor were dashed when U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood denied her request for release on her own recognizance. It was a decision of enormous judicial cruelty. Most lawyers working on the case believe Ms. McAlister has already served more time in jail pretrial than she would get if she is convicted.


Our trial date is Oct. 21, so Ms. McAlister could spend several more months in jail depending on the outcome of our case.

Ms. McAlister’s suffering is selfless, and prophetic. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus said, "blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

Patrick O’Neill ( is among the seven “Kings Bay Plowshares” activists facing federal charges for breaking into a nuclear submarine base in Kings Bay, Ga., last year.