Albion Monitor /Commentary

Susan McDougal, One Tough Woman

by Alexander Cockburn

Why is Susan McDougal being held in frightful conditions in the Sybil Brand Institute for Women in California?

The McDougals were the couple with whom the Clintons entered on their Whitewater property speculation. Swept up in the Whitewater prosecutions, both of them went down on felony charges. Susan got two years, now on appeal. Jim McDougal has just begun his three-year sentence in prison in Kansas. Under enormous pressure from Starr, he finally cracked and went before an Arkansas grand jury with testimony designed to inculpate the Clintons.

Starr tried the same tactic with Susan, now divorced from her husband. She has refused to testify before the grand jury, and so, in September of last year, Starr succeeded in persuading Susan Webber Wright, U.S. district court judge in Little Rock, to cite Susan McDougal for contempt and to consign her to prison, as a coercion to make her cooperate.

The relevant statute here is 28 U.S.C. 1826, part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. The law authorizes a maximum civil contempt commitment of 18 months and the "confinement is civil, not criminal; its purpose is to secure testimony through a sanction, not to punish the witness by imprisonment."

So, after Judge Wright sent her off to jail on Sept. 9 of last year, Susan McDougal has experienced the following sanctions. I take this history from the motion filed by Michael Kennedy, her attorney in the civil contempt matter.

First, three months in the Faulkner County Detention Center in Arkansas, in a unit built for 10 and holding twice that number. One visit for Susan per week, through glass. No contact visits on the insistence of Starr's office. There's a men's unit directly above. Susan can hear youths being gang-raped. The unit swelters in the late summer heat. McDougal's legs swell from lack of water and fever blisters. Each time McDougal goes to court or to the doctor or dentist, she's shackled hand and foot. The federal marshal won't remove the shackles for Susan to use the rest room at a gas station. She has to hop up the steps of the courthouse and falls down in front of the press.

McDougal's next jail is in Catswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, where she's soon consigned to the maximum security section, with hard women serving 30- to 50-year sentences on drug charges. And then the largest women's jail in the world, Sybil Brand Institute in Los Angeles. She's on K-10 status, which means isolation from all other inmates. Anytime she needs to use the shower or phone or even walk on the concrete in front of her 5-feet-by-9-feet cell, everyone else must be locked down. McDougal gets out of her cell at most for two and a half hours a day.

She has to wear red, the color for informants and baby killers, and the inmates scream insults at her. Maybe three hours a week, she gets to sit in a cage on the roof of Sybil Brand and see the sky. She has every meal in her cell, dead cold. At night, she can't sleep because there's a flashlight shone in her face every 20 minutes. When she goes to court, she's put in a cage inside the bus with her hands cuffed to a waist chain. The male prisoners in the bus masturbate in front of her. Back from court, she's strip-searched, told to "bend and spread." Once, totally nude, she's having her period while being searched and blood streams down her legs after a guard takes out her tampon. She's not allowed to clean up and has to wait a day to shower.

So far, she has endured nearly 300 days of these "sanctions," not credited against her two-year sentence. It's clear that, as Kennedy puts it, "the vague frontier between coercion and punishment has long since been crossed." The rule of thumb, one federal judge noted in a case back in 1986, is that "a contemnor who has shown sufficient fortitude to withstand about six months in jail is entitled to release." Susan McDougal is way past that point. After a month in the Faulkner county jail, she went to Judge Wright's court and told her, "I don't believe I can be purged of contempt for those people," i.e. Starr and his team. "These people don't have a punishment unless they can tell the government to put me on a pillory or a rack. ... And I could not answer their questions and live with myself, because I know what they did to me, Your Honor. They took my life ... "

The most grotesque aspect of McDougal's ordeal is that it is entirely pointless. The current edition of the newsletter CounterPunch, put out by myself and Ken Silverstein, has the first inside account of Starr's investigations, from one of his prosecutors.

"Many of us feel that Susan McDougal's treatment has been barbaric and counterproductive," Starr's subordinate tells CounterPunch. "It's obvious she can't be compelled to talk. She doesn't know that much material in the way of facts. And what testimony she might give wouldn't have that much credibility before a grand jury anyway."

So why is Susan McDougal still on lockdown at Sybil Brand, other than to feed the vindictiveness of Kenneth Starr, whose only substantive contribution to the public welfare has been to highlight the cruelties of the U.S. prison system?

Two weeks ago, Judge Wright refused to release McDougal, saying coercion still might work.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor July 13, 1997 (

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