AUSTIN, Texas -- This is a story about the Federal Medical Center Carswell, a women's prison hospital on the outskirts of Fort Worth. It should not be read with breakfast.

Kathleen Rumpf of Syracuse, N.Y., is part of the Catholic Workers movement, probably the most formidable people of conscience in this country. She has been arrested more than 100 times during a lifetime of activism for peace and justice.

Rumpf also ran a prison ministry in Syracuse, where she exposed a hideous local practice: "the Jesus Christ" -- stretching out naked prisoners and shackling them to the bars, a la Christ on the cross. "60 Minutes" did a piece about it, and a lawsuit ended the practice. Suffice it to say that Rumpf knows about prisons.

"I am used to abuse," she said last week. "I am used to roaches and rats; I've seen guards who are buffoons and guards who are mean. I have never seen anything like the corruption and cruelty at Carswell Women's Prison Hospital.

"I couldn't believe it as I lived it. The mind control is amazing -- they keep repeating, 'You're getting the best medical care available in any community.'"

Rumpf wound up in Carswell after receiving a two-year sentence protesting the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. The school has been a target for pacifists (and everyone with a vestige of conscience) for years.

Rumpf, in her good Catholic Worker way, fasted, prayed and rallied against the school. In 1997, she went with a terribly dangerous group -- a 71-year-old priest, a nun and a potter -- to protest the school.

They planted crosses outside Fort Benning and carried banners and pictures of murdered Jesuit priests. On the sign reading "Welcome to Fort Benning," they painted: "School of the Americas (equals) Torture" and "School of Shame."

Pretty rough stuff, and you know how terrified our government is of pacifists. Rumpf got two years, and after four months of being moved around the system, she was transferred to Carswell because of bad knees.

"At first I bought right into it," she said. "I thought I had never seen such a nice prison, like a movie set -- the floors were all shiny and they had six computers in the library. I found later the computers were never hooked up."

Female federal prisoners all over the country are sent to Carswell; it is the only medical facility for them. Of the 1,195 women at Carswell, only 642 are there for medical and psychiatric reasons, according to the Bureau of Prisons, though Rumpf believes that the number is much higher.

She details case after case in which the phrase "not medically necessary" is the response to requests for medical help.

In one noted case, Valerie Virgil, a unarmed bank robber doing six years, came in after a car crash that left her with burns over half her body and one leg amputated.

The special hygienic soap, detergent, lotion and dye-free clothing that she needed to keep her fragile skin grafts from becoming infected were all deemed "not medically necessary." The federal judge who had sentenced her finally wrote Janet Reno that Virgil's treatment was "cruel and unusual punishment."

Rumpf believes that part of the consistent pattern of denial of treatment at Carswell is the assumption by some prison staff that women are "hysterical."

She knew one woman who fought for months to get a biopsy on a lump in her breast. She was State 1V when it was diagnosed.

Rumpf reports that a 32-year-old mother of two named Shirley begged a counselor for help in a hallway in the hearing of several prisoners.

The counselor said: "You better not be faking it. If you're faking it, you're going to the hole."

Shirley died the next day. There was an eerie scene at her memorial service, when one of friends raised her face to heaven and screamed, "Are you faking it now, Shirley?!"

State Rep. Lon Burnam of Fort Worth and others have set up the Carswell Women's Project to help. They can be reached at (817) 237-0111.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.