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

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.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Week 4: This is definitely NOT Mr. Rogers' neighborhood

Prison is depressing. Intake and Reception is supposed to be a very temporary stop between county jail and one of the state's prisons where an inmate will be housed on ground with the general prison population. However, with such overcrowding in the prisons, women aren't staying only a few weeks here. Some are staying over three months before there is room at their final prison destination. We are stuck in our little cells about 90 percent of each day. Only out to walk back and forth to chow hall, to get our three showers a week, and for our twice a week recreation time. At least I now have a roommate who helps pass the time more quickly.

Since I'm stuck in my cell most of the time I don't get to see many other inmates. But I do get to hear the yelling that goes back and forth between cells, and have developed some idea of the personalities of others by hearing these conversations.

Across from me is Meesha. Meesha stands in her doorway every night talking in a very loud voice through the window grate in her door. She's usually at it until at least 2AM. I can't understand everything she's saying, but what I do understand is all about drugs, drug dealing, and the raw deal she got out of being arrested. Again. The thing with Meesha is that I never hear anyone respond back to her! She repeats the same things over and over, and she isn't even talking to anyone! Now that's bizarre, but I don't dare tell her to shush because she, like everyone else here, scares me.

A girl named Dorez lives far down the hall from me. I've never seen her yet and have no idea who she is, but it's clear she's very popular and very funny. She has many friends calling her name at all hours (I call them the Dorez groupies) and joking with her. At night there is usually at least 15 minutes of Dorez and her groupies yelling "I love you" and "I love you MORE" and "No, I love YOU MORE" to each other. Usually just as I've finally dozed off. Yes, you can hear everything in here.

Then, there is the inmate who I call the "Loud Sneezer." She sneezes louder and more often than anyone I've ever heard, and her sneezes echo through the cellblock. There is another group of women that I could call the "loud sneezer groupies," but they're probably more aptly known as the "bitch-cover-your-effing-mouth-bitch" group who respond to the loud sneezer's loud sneezes.

Of course, there is the sorority girl group--the skinny young blonds who talk and laugh and swear all night long. They are clearly from the suburbs and think they are entitled to privileges even here in prison.

Finally, there are two girls who live 5 cells from each other: "Cash" and "Peppah." I thought her name was Pepper until I saw "Peppah" tattooed on her arm. This is prison. I guess that makes sense here. Every night around midnight they strike up a "conversation" that goes something like this:
Cash: "Hey, Peppah"
Peppah: "yeah?"
Cash: "fuck you"
Peppah: "no, fuck you!"
Cash: " Fuck You"
Peppah: "Fuck YOU"
Cash: "FUCK YOU"
Peppah: "FUCK YOU!"
Cash: "FUCK YOU!!"
Peppah: "FUCK YOU!!!"
Cash: "FUCK YOU!!!!"
Peppah: "FUCK YOU!!!!!"
Cash: "a'ight"
Peppah: "a'ight"
Both: "g'night"

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Week 4: New roommate teaches me stuff I never knew about before

My 2nd roommate in Intake and Reception, Elaine, is a riot. And a crack addict. She knows everything about the drug culture in her area. She also knows how to tell a good story. Ohhhhh My Goodness, the stories she tells! Drug deals, good drugs, bad drug reactions, drug related murders where she knew the victims and the murderers. Also, many descriptions of the lengths people will go to to "pay" for their crack when they don't actually have money (icky, icky) and stories of days she cannot remember due to drugs. Her broken wrist was drug related. She thinks. But has no memory of how she broke it. I had to ask her at one point if she had any friends or acquaintances NOT on drugs. Her answer: "Only my mother and grandkids." She's ten years younger than me, and already has eight grandchildren.

I've never known anybody highly involved in the drug culture, so I really learned all kinds of information about a lifestyle I never knew about before. Elaine had such a positive outlook and pleasant attitude that I guess I never expected of a drug addict. I mentioned that to her, and, surprisingly, she described herself as a nasty, intolerable bitch when on drugs, and told me I wouldn't like her at all. She said her personality changes because of her constant need for crack and singular focus on obtaining it. Wow.

She had been locked up for several months now without crack, but said she had never been able to avoid it even after months incarcerated without it. I really hope I had some effect on her future by frequently pointing out what a pleasant, enjoyable personality she has, and how much I enjoy having her as a roommate. Comments such as that did seem to affect her positively, and she seemed to understand that she is a much more likeable person without drugs. But, she said she is too entrenched in that culture, and crack is too addicting in every way possible, that she knows she will go back to it as soon as she gets released. Such a shame.

Surprisingly, Elaine described the people who make and sell crack as "scum" and "low-lifes." While I certainly agree with her, I asked her how that opinion fits in with her need for these people in order to maintain her crack habit. She implied that those addicted to crack couldn't help it, but the "low-lifes" who sell the crack do have a choice in their actions. I've never been sure how much I believe the "addiction is an illness" theory, but I'll follow my #1 rule of survival in prison-- never disagree or argue with an inmate. So I just nodded my head and said "hmmm."

Elaine was just plain fun to have as a roommate. When not listening to her drug stories, we liked to joke around. One of our favorite things to do (since we are both middle-age-ish) was to call the officers "son" since they were so much younger than us. They didn't know what to make of that, so they never gave us any trouble at all. We also encouraged the night officers to sing. Well, the ones with good voices. We would write down the words to songs and pass them under our door to the officers as they walked by. One night we had something close to a Rolling Stones concert going on when the officer started singing and many women joined in from their cells. Not surprisingly, none of the officers agreed to sing Elvis' Jailhouse Rock.

Even though Elaine and I have no decent singing voices whatsoever, I wrote my husband and asked him to send me the words to many songs that we wanted to sing. Elaine and I sang everything from Johnny Cash's Folsum Prison Blues to Janis Joplin's Piece of My Heart to Dr. Hook's Cover of the Rolling Stone. We also sang bizarre songs from our youth, including "Knock Three Times on the Ceiling if you Want Me," "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," and "I've got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates, You've Got a Brand New Key." Our cell neighbors thought we had somehow gotten high and were enjoying ourselves a little too much.

From then on, when things got a little too boring, we'd burst out singing a paraphrased version of Johnny Cash:
"I'm stuck in this here prison, and time keeps draggin' on."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Week 4: My New Roommate

Prisons are way too overcrowded so it didn't take long for them to put someone new in my room as soon as my first roommate left. Casey the candy thief had only been gone a few hours when an officer unlocked the cell door and a woman walked in with her bag of possessions. She stood in the doorway and looked at me sitting in the bottom bunk, and announced that she has a bottom bunk order because she has a broken wrist. Well, I told her that I have a bottom bunk order, too (because of my age--being older does have its benefits here). I wasn't about to give up my bottom bunk. And the new roommate looked a little rough and tough. And scary. A middle-aged biker chick with a mullet. But then again, everyone in prison looks scary to me.

The new roommate said her name was Elaine. She stood in the doorway staring at me for a few minutes. I assumed she was waiting for me to move out of the bottom bunk and let her have it. I finally told her that I needed the bottom bunk, and maybe she could hurry and ask the officer to put her in a room where she could also have a bottom bunk. She calmly said she would stay with me, and she'd be fine with the top bunk. She didn't seem upset at all (bottom bunks are high priority here in prison).

It didn't take long for me to realize that my first impression of Elaine was completely wrong. She was quite personable, easy-going, and seemed to always be in a positive mood. Elaine and I became quite good friends, and I actually had fun during the time she was my roommate!

A few days after Elaine arrived I asked her why she didn't ask for another room when she found out she couldn't have the bottom bunk. She actually said that after spending just a few minutes with me she knew I couldn't really be a criminal, and she'd rather have the top bunk in a room with me than take the chance of getting a bad roommate! I felt somewhat pleased and flattered by that statement, especially given that this was Elaine's sixth incarceration, and any compliments she gave were based on years of knowledge and experience!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sanitary Pads make great Swiffers!

Women--no matter where they may be--can be very creative.

While we are in this Intake and Reception building (before we are moved "on-grounds" to our final destination prison) we have very few choices of things to buy on our Commissary list. We can get personal items such as deodorant, shampoo, soap, conditioner, hair grease, oral hygiene necessities, paper, pens and envelopes, and up to six each of candy bars, chips, and soda. No razors, tweezers, make-up, extra clothing, hats, gloves, or any items of comfort. Our families are allowed to send us only letters, books, and magazines.

With no razors or tweezers there's an awful lot of body hair growth. Unibrows, upper lip and chin stubble are not uncommon. There is absolutely nothing sharp anywhere to use for hair removal, but there are several women who have become hair removal artists! Believe it or not, their hair removal product is a simple piece of string. During recreation time these hair removal artists are busy with "clients" the entire hour. They tie the ends of the string to make a big circle, then twirl it around three times and hold it in their first three fingers. Using the right finger movements they are able to sculpt eyebrows, remove facial hair, and 'shave' legs.

One girl named Babycakes is an expert at string hair removal, and is paid well for her work. Giving anyone any of your possessions earns you a major ticket for "Trafficking and Trading." Babycakes charges an envelope/Write Out for eyebrows, and an envelope plus candy or chips for upper lip or chin hair. This may be prison, but she says nobody has ever cheated her out of her payment. In spite of the constant vigilance of the guards, she also has never been caught collecting her "pay."

Another necessity that most women miss is make-up. No problem. They moisten an M&M in their color choice, and rub that across their eyelids for eye shadow. It actually lasts a long time! Blue is the most popular color, and I order M&Ms because I know I can trade my blue ones for something good. Some women prefer the bright yellow and orange "eye shadow." I can only imagine how they make themselves up in the real world. Pencils and pens are used for eyeliner. Dampen a red colored part of a cheap magazine and you have lipgloss and blush. The concrete between the bricks is used to file nails.

We get to clean our rooms on Saturdays-- if the officer on duty feels like taking the time to walk room to room with the spray bottles of bleach, sanitizer, and the broom. Actually, the bootcamp inmates carry the cleaning materials from room to room, but the officer has to walk along so nobody is given any extra bleach or sanitizer. We don't have paper towels or rags to clean with, and are supposed to use toilet tissue to wipe off the sprayed surfaces. That's where sanitary pads come in handy. They are great to clean floors, walls, and other surfaces with. Kind of like Swiffers, the cleaning product. And, in spite of the rules, the bootcamp girls are willing to give a few extra sprays of bleach onto as many pads as we want so we can wipe down and disinfect surfaces more than once a week. And the best part is that most of the officers are male, and never argue when an inmate says she needs another bag of sanitary pads.

My prison legacy? I realized that the metal edges of the bunk beds rust to the point where there are some sharp parts. I always wear straight bangs to cover my wrinkled forehead, and was worried when they grew too long. When I discovered the sharp, rusty bed edges, I dragged my bangs back and forth across them. I was able to cut them that way! My bangs were now short again. When others noticed, I told them how to do it, and haircuts became possible.