Some people live in a world that the rest of us can't even begin to recognize.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

New Roommate

After saying goodbye to Elaine on Tuesday, I had a few hours ALONE in my cell. Privacy has become so unnatural that even a short amount of time alone is welcome. I remember a time, when my children were all preschoolers, that I couldn't even go into the washroom without them following me. I remember wishing for some alone time, and usually got it when they took their naps. I'd give anything for that kind of non-privacy than the kind you get in prison.

Elaine left me a note! She wrote her mom's address (since she, herself, is often homeless or moving from friend's house to friend's house) and asked me to write her. She said I had been a very good influence on her, and maybe we could get together outside of prison. I'd devoted years to helping and giving support to others, but knew there was no way I planned to keep in touch with anyone I met in prison. But I did make sure my husband sent her, at her new prison destination, the words to some of the songs we had just requested that he send us. I do wish her the best, and hope she is able to stay away from crack in the World. Unfortunately, her description of a drug addicted lifestyle for over 30 years gave me little hope that she would remain clean.

When one roommate leaves, another soon takes her place. The screening wing, cell block B, is the one used when all new inmates arrive. It is usually full, and a new shipment of at least 50 women arrive from the largest city in our state every Wednesday, so the ladies from cell block B are somehow all considered "medically cleared" on Tuesdays, and fill in the rooms of those who just left.

Around lunchtime I heard the wing door opening and closing over and over, and knew that the cleared inmates were arriving. I saw someone hovering near my door, and eventually the officer came and unlocked the door. In walked Lorri. She entered the room, didn't even introduce herself, but proceded to speak without stopping for at least ten minutes. She didn't even put down her bag of possessions while she told me, what had to be, every single little detail of her life, her relationships, the reason she was back in prison (yes, another repeat customer) and all the people who had done her wrong--in her opinion. When she finally stopped talking, I knew the names, and nicknames, of all of her children, the fathers of all of her children (three kids from three different men and she was only 29), her boyfriend who she referred to as her husband, his three children (who were actually his brother's kids but he had custody?) and how she had only stepped into the house that was being burglarized by her cousin for a few moments, so, in her mind, she was not a participant in the burglary and should not be in prison at all again.

I knew from Lorri's ten minute soliloquy that there was no chance she would be a pleasant roommate. But, aside from her annoying monologue, there was something else about her that concerned me greatly. She had a scaly red rash covering half of her face, her entire neck and throat, and all other uncovered portions of her body that I could see. I ignored all my own social skills (realizing she wouldn't even notice) and, instead of introducing myself, the first words I said to her is "Is that contagious?"
She had obviously been asked about her rash before, and simply replied "no" it was not contagious, just something she has had since she was a teenager. WHAT? Astoundingly, she said she didn't know what it was, but since no one else in her family had it, she herself had decided it wasn't contagious.

I thought all women leaving the B wing were medically cleared. This did not look like something that should be mixed in with the intake population, let alone put in my cell with me! Lorri then told me that she had seizures, and that she needed the bottom bunk. She did not have a bottom bunk order, and I did have one, and there was no way I was giving up the bottom bunk for her. She began to cry that she was so scared to sleep on the top bunk. I said that I couldn't imagine the prison making someone with a seizure disorder sleep on the top bunk, but maybe they knew her meds would prevent any problems. I guess I should not have been surprised when she said she wasn't on meds, and had diagnosed herself as having seizures after she became dizzy one day. I can't believe I kept a straight face when I sarcastically asked her if she is a medical doctor.

When it became clear that I was not going to give up the bottom bunk, Lorri pulled the little plastic mattress off the top bunk, and laid it on the floor! This, in a room that had only about 12 square feet of empty space, meant that one end of the mattress was actually UNDER THE TOILET SEAT! And that was the end where she put her pillow! I pointed out that I'd have to step on her at night if I needed to use that part of the room. AND her head would be right there if I needed to go at night! All kinds of thoughts ran through my mind, and none offered any type of plausible explanation that explained this girl's complete lack of social skills, lack of having a doctor look at her rash or see if her worries of seizures were valid, and her willingness to sleep with her face 6 inches from a possibly occupied toilet!

I grabbed a paper and pen, and told her that I would make sure she got a bottom bunk order (yeah, like I have the power to do that). Our communication with the officers was often through notes that we slid into the crack in the door jamb. I quickly penned a HELP note, explaining that my new and supposedly medically cleared inmate had what could potentially be a contagious rash all over her body, and that she was insistent on sleeping on the floor in the only empty space in the room. (I didn't mention her questionable mental status that I was clued into by her seeing nothing wrong with sleeping under the toilet.)

I slipped the note into the door crack. And prayed. This definitely was the "punishment" aspect of prison.

Lorri, oblivious to the fact that I had no desire to listen to her life story, began talking non-stop about herself again. I don't think she had even asked my name yet. I knew I was in for a very long week.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Everyone moves on ...... eventually

On Monday mornings, excitement and anticipation hang heavily in the air all over cellblock C, and throughout all halls of the Intake and Reception building. The build-up to the drama of Monday mornings begins on Sunday, with whispers of "I hope I'm on the list" and inmates attempting to see anything resembling a list of names on the Officer's desk. Intake and Reception is only temporary; we are all eventually hauled away to our final prison destination to complete our sentences. Our state only has a few women's penitentiaries, with "shipment" to all of them done on Tuesdays. Monday mornings are highly awaited since that is when the lucky inmates are told that they have been chosen to be shipped. (I do realize how bizarre it is that I consider being moved from one prison to another as "lucky." Funny how being in prison completely changes your mindset and perspective on so many things.)

The Monday drama begins at exactly 8:30 AM when the wing's officer begins his or her walk around the cellblock with "the list" that tells who will be leaving the next day. All eyes are looking out the tiny cell door windows, even though we can hear more than we can see.

Some women spend one week in intake before they are "shipped," and some spend three whole months before they are chosen to head to their final destination. From what I can tell, there is no rhyme or reason to whom is chosen to go where or when--only "wherever and whenever there is room."

Rumors and stories abound in prison, and, with the number of repeat offenders here, everyone has heard that the final destination prisons, also called being "on grounds" or in the "general population," are so much better than being locked in your intake cell over 90 percent of the time. Apparently, on grounds you are able to spend a big part of the day in the Day Room, mingling with the other inmates. (Ummmmm, that may sound like fun to others, but, to me, hanging out socially in a room filled with female criminals sounds so much worse than having lunchroom duty in a junior high school. And that's bad.) The commissary "on grounds" supposedly has so many more items to eat, drink and wear. And, if rumors are true, inmates actually receive their own razor, so all that unwanted hair can finally be removed in a natural fashion.

Life in intake and reception is so awful that everyone looks forward to being shipped somewhere else. When the officer unlocks a cell door and says the name of the woman actually getting to leave this place, screams of delight are the general response by that woman. When the officer moves past a room without stopping, screams of... well, whatever the opposite of delight is are heard. Soon there is yelling and shouting throughout the cellblock because everyone wants to know who the lucky women are who get to leave.

On the second Monday I was here my roommate "Casey the candy thief" was shipped, and Elaine took her place. On the fourth Monday I was in intake, my excitement was growing as the officer headed toward our cell. He unlocked our door! YES! My turn! I was so sure I was lucky enough to be getting out of here. But, wait. Damn. He said Elaine's name, not mine. What? I've been here longer. The officer told her she had five minutes to "pack out." I congratulated her, and went back to bed.

Elaine packed all her stuff in her pillowcase and went off with the other 20 girls who would also be leaving. They go to another building, stand in line to be given the brightest, eye-straining, neon-colored jumpsuits (so they can be spotted from space if they try to escape?) to be worn the rest of Monday and on the shipment bus on Tuesday. Their belongings are all packed into a trunk, which will be the only place they can keep their possessions at their destination prison. Elaine came back with a tiny bag with soap, a toothbrush, and toothpaste to get her through until Tuesday, and wearing a neon-colored jumpsuit that was SO bright we shut off the lights to see if it actually glowed in the dark.

All inmates know they will eventually be moved somewhere else, so you would think they would be happy for the ones who are leaving, knowing they will eventually get their turn. Oh, wait. This is prison. When it is lunchtime on Mondays, we all finally get to leave our cells, and see the lucky ladies dressed to be shipped the next day. Instead of being happy for others, jealousy seems to be the main emotion shown by the 80 or so who were not chosen to leave. Arguments break out. "You Bitch! You're leaving and you just got here two weeks ago." Or, "Bitch, I got here before you, I'm filing a grievance." Groups of women stare at the lucky "shippees" in the chow hall, certainly producing some anxiety in many of the lucky ones. I notice that the women in the neon jumpsuits try to be as quiet and inconspicuous as possible. I also notice that security is much tighter in the cellblock and dining hall on Mondays.

Well, I guess I'll have to spend all week hoping that next week is my week to leave.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Getting the most out of chow hall

Most women in prison try to follow the rules. That's a bit different from when I was in "County" where there were frequent arguments and women trying to get around every rule, simply to show off their power. In the state prison women who don't follow the rules get written up and lose privileges for breaking the rules. Not to say that County officers went easy on us, they just knew it was a very temporary place for most inmates.

There are rules for meals in prison. Line up silently, walk in pairs, enter the chow hall when allowed, line up along the wall, take the tray of food given to you, and sit on the seat at a table for 40 (20 on each side) in the order you entered the building. We get about 15 minutes to eat, then each table is called in the same order in which we were seated.

On some days, there is a "white shirt" officer in the chow hall, and all the other corrections officers (who wear blue shirts) are on their best behavior trying to prove how good they are at their jobs. I learned that a "white shirt" officer has a higher ranking than our daily corrections officers.

When "white shirts" are in the chow hall, you can bet we will have body searches as we leave to assure nobody is bringing salt packets or the occasional cookie back to their cell. The officers pat us up and down, and search in our coat pockets. They don't search everyone, apparently just the suspicious looking ones.(It's prison, shouldn't everyone look suspicious? They do to me.) Once, when I had a bad cold, I had lots of folded up toilet paper in my pockets to use for my sneezing and runny nose. My pockets must have looked suspiciously full, because the officer beckoned me over for a search. First she patted me up and down. Then she put her bare hands in both my pockets and pulled out my used tissues. The sour look on her face made it clear she knew what she had just touched. "I have a bad cold, Miss, you might want to go wash your hands" I said. She threw the tissues on the floor and walked away towards the officer's washroom.

The food that we are served actually tastes okay sometimes. Fried chicken, unmoldy bread, any lunchmeat and cake are coveted items that many try to bring back to their cells. We are not always given salt and pepper, so those are traded to others who then return with them to the next meal, to use in case we do not get salt or pepper at that meal.

When white shirts are not present in the chow hall, and the few officers who have the reputation of "she's cool" are present, the inmates know they will not be searched. On those days, almost all trays are emptied of anything that can be wrapped in napkins. These items are then stuffed down pants, into bras, up sleeves, and into socks where they are brought back and enjoyed at a later time. I was surprised to hear others talking about how they would share this wrapped up and stuffed-into-underwear food with friends or roomies later. Ewww, gross! When I asked one friendly woman how she could stand eating food that's been carried that way, she told me that most women in the prison had lived on the streets and eaten out of dumpsters at some point in their lives. She stated that extra food wrapped in a napkin out of someone's pants was much better than some of the the things she had eaten in the past.

My gosh, it is true that three meals of prison food daily provides far better nourishment than many of these women had even gotten. How very sad.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Calculation Sheet!

Being naive about all things prison, I thought that a two year sentence meant two years in prison.

As a law-abiding citizen, I would read articles where a drug dealer, child abuser, or drunk driver would be sentenced to, say, 8 years in prison, and be glad that person would be held out of society for that long (believing that 8 years meant 8 years!).

As a falsely convicted inmate, I was shocked--but pleased (for myself)--that a two year sentence doesn't mean anything near two years. My fellow inmates had told me I would receive a "Calculation Sheet" which would give me my exact out date. Apparently, even though the judge's booming voice indicated that I was sentenced to "spend two years in the State's Department of Corrections" the department of corrections is way too overcrowded to actually keep people locked up for very long.

From what I understand, murderers have to do 85% of their sentence. Then why not just sentence them to that much? Instead of giving them 50 years, give them 42.5 years, and make them stay in prison 42.5 years. Or better yet, if they are given a 50 year sentence, make them stay in prison 50 years! Gee, if I wasn't where I am now, and hoping to get out as soon as possible, I'd look into these questionable "truth in sentencing" laws.

So, I received my calculation sheet today. By state law, my sentence was immediately reduced by 50% (as are all sentences except murderers'). Then, I was given my "time off for good behavior" which reduced my sentence by another 6 months. Funny how everyone gets their 6 months "time off for good behavior" within a few weeks of entering prison! How does the penal system know their behavior will be good their entire stay? When my calculation sheet showed a few more weeks off for time between conviction and sentencing added on, my total time in prison would be about five and a half months.

My emotions are torn! I am so glad my two years has magically turned into 5 1/2 months, but cannot believe that actual criminals spend nowhere near their actual sentence length given by the judge. There is something really, really wrong about this. But I think I'll wait to complain for about, oh, 5 1/2 months.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

I wish I'd never noticed

You know how when you notice something for the first time you think it's uncommon, then all of a sudden you see it everywhere? It was like that after I saw my first fellow inmate with few teeth. Or is it more correct to call them inmates who are missing many teeth? (Perhaps this is another one of those is the glass half full or half empty questions.) They are everywhere, and I can't help but notice them. Okay, I'll admit it. I can't help but stare. Often the remaining tooth or few teeth are badly discolored, broken or misshappen.

They kind of remind me of a bad car accident. You know when these women open their mouths you are going to see something gross and unpleasant. But, like driving past a car accident, you look anyways because you are so intrigued that you can't help but stare.

Starting up a conversation with a stranger about her missing teeth is very difficult to do. But I just had to know how they ended up like this. Most women in prison are missing at least a few teeth (and I'm not just talking about pulled wisdom teeth here-- a large proportion of women have big gaps in their mouths where teeth should be).

Since missing teeth are clearly the norm, women did not seem uncomfortable talking about them. Many said that they never went to the dentist unless they had a toothache. Their dentists simply pulled the rotten tooth, and the women could not afford to have it replaced with a crown or partial denture. Many said they could never afford going to a dentist at all, but did brush their teeth regularly. Apparently, just brushing wasn't enough to save their teeth.

Being the naive middle aged woman that I am, when the first person gave me the answer of "drugs" when I asked about their missing teeth I thought they were kidding. My roommate started pointing out women with "meth mouth" whose teeth were not only missing, but those they had were discolored and broken. She was fairly adept at correctly guessing a woman's primary drug of habit by the state of their teeth. Apparently, many drugs, and especially meth, eat away at teeth. Plus, I guess if you are "trippin" for weeks at a time brushing and flossing twice a day is not a priority. My roommate told me that the other inmates can tell I am not "one of them" and do not use drugs because my teeth are nice.

Gosh, you can't learn this kind of stuff in school. I am gaining knowledge that I didn't imagine even existed before! I don't know how useful it will be when I get out, but I have a feeling I will be taking greater notice of the quality (and quantity) of my friends', neighbors', and coworkers' teeth from now on.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

More Tattoos than Teeth

Since arriving in prison I've been surprised at the number of compliments on my teeth that have been given to me by other inmates. I've never thought of my teeth as a special feature of mine. Sure, I get regular dental care and don't mind smiling for photos, but I'd never be mistaken for those models in toothpaste commercials who have perfect teeth.

Generally throughout my life, whenever I receive a compliment I return it by showing appreciation, and by attempting to return the compliment. I think my mother taught me that long ago and it has stuck with me my entire life. Since all women wear the same clothing in prison there is nothing to compliment there. So I usually compliment the other person's tattoo. The majority of women in prison have a tattoo. Or two or three. Or eight or ten. I had never seen a tattoo on anyone's neck until I came to prison. They look so painful. And I am in the minority by not having a neck tattoo. Heck, in this place you'd think I was from a completely different planet by having no tattoos at all.

Clearly, I am in the lowest percentile when it comes to the number of tattoos worn by the women in prison. Apparently, though, having a full set of teeth qualifies me to be in the highest percentile in that category. I first noticed this in chow hall when I realized that the woman sitting across from me had only one tooth! All of a sudden I started noticing that many women had numerous teeth missing. I know I'm naive, but how is it that an entire group of women have so many missing teeth? How do they chew? Eat? Speak correctly? Not to mention the effect on their appearance. An adult mouth with only one or two teeth is, well, quite an aberration!

As an adult, I had always joked with my mother (who raised three small children as a single parent in a blue-class working neighborhood after my father died) that she needed to move out of that neighborhood at the point in which her neighbors had "more tattoos than teeth." The neighborhood in which I had grown up was changing, but I thought my "more tattoos than teeth" label was clearly a joke, and there weren't actually people that fit that description. Little did I know that someday I, myself, would actually live in a world where more tattoos than teeth was the norm.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Week 5: Chow Hall

The building where "meals" are served is a little distance from the building where the intake prisoners are held. Okay, it's 758 steps (give or take a few) from the door of our building to the door of chow hall. I got bored one day and counted. At least it is 758 steps outside to chow hall, and 758 steps back. (Unless it's raining and there are thousands of worms on the small sidewalk, which is a story in itself.) With the minimal time we are allotted out of our cells, I have learned to appreciate the fresh air, sight of trees, clouds, and birds, and, especially, the sight of sunsets or stars at night. Occasionally, we are walking to or from chow hall when the church bells are ringing on the hour. I wonder if everyone else here recognizes how precious and incredible the beautiful sights and sounds of life are, and how much we are missing when they are limited to us by the penal system.

We are expected to walk in complete silence, partnered in twos, from our building to the chow hall. There is always an officer walking us to and from anywhere we go. I feel sorry for him, because expecting over 100 women to walk silently and in pairs is pretty much an impossible task.

The young girls who call themselves "the ghetto girls" (but don't anyone else DARE call them that) cut in line when the guard is not looking so they can all walk together. They like to rap, sing, and dance during the walk to chow hall, and know which officers will allow them to do so. Given how white, how suburban, and how much older I am than them, they joke that they will "turn me ghetto" before my stay here is over. I think I've mastered the head bob and and hand twirl, but, for the life of me, haven't figured out the coordination involved in the "Stanky Leg."

We never know what special surprise awaits us at the Chow Hall for lunch or dinner. (Breakfast is pretty standard and the same each day of the week.) This prison surely gets a discount on soy products. Soy hamburgers, soy chicken patties, shredded soy pork, soy turkey, and soy hot dogs or sausages are the major staples of our diet. Gross. Along with the soy main dish, we have at least one soggy, overcooked and tasteless vegetable, a few leaves of iceberg lettuce, and some type of bread product. Okay, it's just wheat bread, but the various amounts and patterns of mold on it gives it that suspensful, momentary "gee, are we getting something different today?" hopefulness.

Dessert is definitely the crowd pleaser in the chow hall. Sure, jello and pudding are served frequently, but many days we get cake. And cake days are good days. Big, 4x4 inch squares of all flavors of cake, with thick, creamy frosting on top. Trades and deals are constant. I often give away any cake that is not chocolate, simply because I hear women talk about the dozens of pounds they've gained in the small time they've been here. When you spend 90% of your time laying in bed, and your primary nutrition is commissary junk food and the lunch and dinner cake, the pounds do add up quickly.

There is a certain strategy about sharing your food with others in the Chow Hall. You don't want one person to claim you as their extra food source and make you feel you owe them some food daily. You also don't want to look like you are refusing to share, and return your tray to the garbage line with a preferable food item still on it. My strategy? I offer all of my desserts to those suburban blond "sorority" type girls. My cell neighbor asked me why I did this. Was I wanting to join in their crowd? Gosh, no. Those women are young, blond, skinny and look good even in prison. They are everything I wish I was. No, I don't want to get in with their crowd, I want to fatten them up! Then they'll be everything I am!
Others joined in the campaign to FEED THE BLONDS, and those girls were soon complaining that their clothes were getting too tight, and, oh my goodness, they needed to get a larger size when we got clean clothes on shower days.

Yes, entertainment is so minimal around here, I have to invent my own.