She's hired a housekeeper for her husband and the neighbors promised to take care of her garden and watch protectively over her 16-year-old son, John.
Now on Tuesday, Mary Benson, a Brainerd mother of four, will say goodbye to her family as she steps foot into a women's federal prison where she will spend the next six months.
Benson, 57, along with 25 other protesters, were convicted in May of trespassing onto Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., last fall as part of a massive demonstration to demand the closing of an Army school that trains Latin American soldiers.
Benson, her twin sister Martha Hayward, of Negaunee, Mich., and Hayward's 19-year-old daughter, Rachel Hayward, were among 3,400 protesters who marched onto the military post Nov. 19 to protest the School of the Americas. Of those 3,400 protesters, 26 people, including Benson, Hayward and her daughter, were charged with trespassing and convicted in federal court in May. Benson and her niece received six-month prison sentences while Benson's twin sister received three years probation.
On July 6, Benson and her twin sister's birthday, they were informed that Benson and Rachel Hayward would have to enter the Federal Correctional Institute in Pekin, Ill., on July 17 to start serving their sentences. Seven other female protesters, including an 88-year-old nun from Iowa, also will enter the women's federal prison on A rally protesting the School of the Americas and the protesters' prison sentences will be held outside of the women's federal prison Tuesday before the nine women enter together to serve their six-month sentences.
Benson's friends Jan Kurtz, Marcia Ferris and Sara Dunlap threw a farewell party for her Thursday at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Brainerd. Benson's twin sister and niece were also able to attend the party, along with 50 friends and other family members, including Benson's husband, Chuck.
The potluck dinner was meant as a fun way to say goodbye to Benson and show their support to her and her family, said Kurtz. Two friends baked cakes with files in them as a joke. Many guests gave Benson gag gifts. Still, several people broke into tears at the party, telling Benson how much they admire her for standing up for her beliefs.
"It's hard for me to imagine this has come to a prison term because drunk drivers get less time than she's getting," said Kurtz. "I feel she's doing the thing that I don't have the nerve to do. She's representing all of us."
Faye Christensen first met Benson three years ago after she spoke at her church, Park United Methodist Church, about the School of the Americas.
Christensen then wrote a resolution for the general conference of all United Methodist churches in the country to publicly oppose the School of the Americas. The measure passed overwhelmingly. Christensen credits Benson for this.
"It's outrageous," said Christensen, of Benson's prison sentence. "It's just unconscionable that good people for civil disobedience are being imprisoned over this. It shouldn't happen in this country."
Protesters say graduates of the school have been linked to murder, torture and other human rights abuses. Officials say the school's mission is to spread democratic principles among Latin American leaders who come there to study.
The School of the Americas moved to Fort Benning from Panama in 1984. It closed last December and reopened in January with a new name -- the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Responsibility for the school has been transferred from the Army to the Department of Defense.
Benson said she is only allowed to take her glasses with her into the prison. She's been trying in recent weeks to get everything in order at her home for her husband and their children.
"It's been so hard," she said. "I said goodbye to many people. It's hard to just step out of your life for six months."
Benson said she is hoping that good will come out of her prison term.
"I hope it draws attention to the issue and I guess even if it doesn't, I felt I had to take that stand anyway," she said.
Kurtz said she and her friends are planning to write to Benson as often as they can so she gets a lot of mail. If you would like to write to Mary Benson at the women's prison, write to her at this address: Mary Benson, Prisoner No. 90281-020, Federal Correctional Institute, P.O. Box 6000, Pekin, IL 61555.
Make sure to include your full name and address on the front of the envelope or your mail will not be delivered. Don't forget her prisoner number as well. Keep in mind that all mail will be read by prison staff before it is delivered to her.
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