Joan Andrews Bell left a Pittsburgh prison March 26 with the same message that led to her incarceration more than two months ago: She will not cooperate in any way with corrupt court and law enforcement systems that condone the killing of unborn children and penalize those who attempt to save them.
Sentenced Jan. 15 to three to 23 months, with three years probation, for refusing to register for probation, Bell was unexpectedly released more than two weeks short of the minimum sentence, with time off for good behavior. Officially, she is on parole, but she was not informed of any terms of the parole or appointed a parole officer.
In contrast to the tortuous legal case that began in 1985 with her trespass arrest at a Pittsburgh abortion clinic, and included a federal warrant issued last September after she and her husband went through an immigration service background check in connection with a foreign adoption, her release was amazingly simple.
“The officer in charge of our section of the jail came that evening and said, ‘You're released. Get your stuff and get out.’ I was shocked,” Bell told the Register from her New Jersey home three days after being freed. “I had no idea anything of the sort was in the offing.”
As she walked toward the front desk of Allegheny County Prison around 8:30 p.m. March 26, she was cautious, suspecting a legal trap. She had been jailed for refusing to follow the judge's order to register with the probation board. Perhaps there would be papers waiting and the authorities would expect her to sign in a weak moment after tasting the hope of freedom.
“There was a delay and they said there was a problem,” Bell recalled, “but it turned out they were having trouble finding my clothes. Soon after that I was out.”
Bell, who has been arrested more than 200 times for Operation Rescue activities, will not register for probation, because doing so would be admitting that she had done wrong and needed rehabilitation.
The most curious part of the proceedings, as she was later to discover, was that prison authorities had filled out the papers for her early release, hand-delivered them to the judge, Raymond Novak, who signed and returned them the same day. Her lawyers were left shaking their heads. Their client, who had followed a practice of non-compliance with most prison regulations to protest an unjust legal system, and who was placed in the psychiatric ward because of this practice, was given time off for good behavior.
The Bells attribute her release to the Blessed Mother. A New Jersey priest who is a friend of the family told her husband, Chris, to pray especially hard on March 25, the solemnity of the Annunciation. The next day she was out.
“I know this was the Blessed Mother, she watches over all her children,” said Bell.
She stayed with a friend in Pittsburgh for one night and the next morning was in Allegheny County Court to testify on behalf of a pregnant woman she had befriended in prison who was in danger of miscarrying. While incarcerated, Bell had arranged for her own lawyers to petition for a medical furlough for the woman. Throughout her jail stay, Bell helped arrange the release of a dozen such woman, and persuaded one young inmate to cancel her abortion and give the baby up for adoption.
“If for no other reason, being in jail was worth it just to save that one baby,” she told the Register.
Now that she is out, the Bells can move forward with the adoption of Emiliano, a nine-year-old handicapped Mexican boy whom they have had custody of for three years. They are scheduled to meet with Mexican child-care authorities in late April for what they hope will be the final time. They also have a five-year-old daughter, Mary Louise.
The three-year probation still hangs over Bell's head. Judge Novak, a former priest, could call her back at any time to register with the probation board, and she could be jailed again for refusing. She is too thankful for being reunited with her family to think about that possibility.
“I took the children to the park when I got home, and we went to Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul in Hoboken. It was wonderful,” she said.
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.