Longest Jail Time for a War Tax Resister

| History, IRS, Real Life Stories

People unfamiliar with war tax resistance assume that if you do it, you go straight to jail, or at least wind up there eventually.

“Why aren’t you in jail?”

Years ago when I was in the ready-room before appearing on a TV interview program, the host asked me “Why aren’t you in jail?” Similarly, a 2006 episode of “Boston Legal” began with a legal secretary getting hauled off to jail the day after she mailed her 1040 form with “Stick It!” scrawled across the front to protest Bush’s Iraq War. Undoubtedly the IRS is pleased with this popular perception, which readily fuels fear of resistance.

Joe Donato sitting at a table.

The longest? Joe Donato was convicted in 2004 and jailed in February 21, 2006, for attempted evasion of employment taxes and failure to file taxes. The 27 months he spent in the Fairton, New Jersey, Federal prison is the longest in U.S. history (to our knowledge) for someone who resisted taxes because of conscientious opposition to war spending.

Only 31 Make It to the Big House

Nevertheless, out of the tens of thousands of war tax resisters since World War II only 31 have been imprisoned for their resistance and, of those, only two (James Otsuka in 1949 and Tony Serra in 2005) were jailed for actually refusing to pay taxes.

Tony Serra wearing a t-shirt that says "Resist War Taxes"

Tony Serra 2007. Photo by Ed Hedemann.

The rest were locked up on related charges, such as refusing to turn over records, failure to file, contempt of court, deliberately falsifying tax forms. In fact, only 52 were ever called into Federal District Court in the first place. And all but one (Tony Serra) was ever jailed more than once, despite years of continued resistance. Even Thoreau, who refused his taxes for 7 years, spent only that one infamous day in jail.

Donato was a member of the Restored Israel of Yahweh (RIOY), a small Bible-study community in Mays Landing, New Jersey, that taught the gospel of pacifism, which included refusal to participate financially in the military.


Jim Shea, 1970. Photo by Bradford Lyttle.

The second longest jail time — 24 months — was served by Kevin McKee, also a member of RIOY, similarly on the same charges. The upstanding citizens in their conservative rural community had been seeking any excuse to punish them for their beliefs and the perception that RIOY was some sort of cult.

Third longest was 9 and a half months served by Jim Shea in 1974 for bail jumping following his conviction four years earlier of falsifying the old-style W-4 form*.

See the complete listing of convicted war tax resisters on the NWTRCC website.

Post by Ed Hedemann

* which was restricted to just the number of dependents and did not include (until a few years later) allowances based on itemized deductions, certain credits, adjustments to income, or two-earners/multiple jobs situations