29 December 2014


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new year chalkboard“My New Year revolution is I ain’t eatin’ no more cake,” Soledad announced when she sat at the breakfast table. “This shit makin’ me fat.”

“Resolution,” I corrected her.

“Wha? That’s  the name of this shit?” she asked as she directed her spork at it.

“No, it’s New Year’s resolution. As in resolve, like make up your mind. Not revolution.”

cake 2
It’s just Gold Seal brand bran muffin mix in sheet pans, but York Correctional Institution calls it “cake.”

“I always said revolution.”

“Well, you were wrong,” I told her bluntly.

“Don’t matter. I just ain’t eatin’ no cake. After today,” she said with her mouth full of the brown stuff.

“Good luck with that,” I snorted. York CI serves cake with everything:  cake with farina, cake with bologna, cake with meatloaf. Sometimes cake is the entire meal itself. The prison serves so much cake that you’d think Marie Antoinette was the warden.

“What the difference between resolution and what you called it?”

“You called it revolution.”

“Yeah. What the difference?”

resolutions blank paperI had to stop and think because many inmates have never done the right thing in their lives. Resolving to do one thing better – or one thing differently – is a revolution for them. I debated whether I should even venture into this philosophical ‘hood.

“Well, it’s just that when you resolve to do something, you are in control. Revolution means change, but in a different way for New Year’s. Resolution means decision…” And before I realized it, it came out of  that place in my face that takes the cake. “… more than the actual changing.”

Except for Soledad’s ‘revolution’ I hadn’t witnessed one other inmate voice a New Year’s resolution. Maybe it’s because they have no intention of changing. Maybe they don’t know how to change. Most likely is that they don’t know that that they can.new years list

Anyone can decide to change at anytime, but we choose to change at New Year’s because of the fresh start that changing one or two digits on your paperwork provides. At the New Year, books close on old ways. On January 1st, we bow to calendars and expect that opening a new one means opening a new self.  I don’t see how anyone wrung by criminal justice could ever feel like she has clean slate on any day, especially New Year’s. You have to be on the Chaplain’s short list just to get a calendar in here. They run out quickly.

Any inmate lives in her mistakes. They may not be criminal errors. Perhaps all they are is bad judgment. Every mistake  surrounds you in the cement walls, the two inch mattresses, the crappy cake, the smell of  antiseptic dirt in every building, the guards who call us “job security” because they predict we well recidivate when we leave the facility, never changing. Everyone else gets to reset, reboot and reinvent themselves at the end of December. We never really get that chance.

Inmates promise to change all the time. They make at least an oral decision not to come back to jail, not to ‘pick up’ (start using drugs), to take care of their kids. But the resolution finds dilution when they need to do something.

The one thing they do is make change by throwing out their stuff.  They throw out everything they own in the prison: papers, toiletries, pictures, even t shirts and underwear, cleaning the slate like an employee being fired does to an abusive boss’ desk. Whoosh.

No matter how I protest: “Wait! You’ll need those receipts! Whoa, whoa, whoa…how are you going to change your underwear?” they proceed. At first I thought it was mania or anger but after watching them clean slate a few times I understood. It was the only way to start fresh.

new years coartoonOf course, clean slates that come about like this don’t stay that way. Chaos ensues when the slater begs everyone else for hair conditioner or cries to me that she needs to return something to commissary but doesn’t have proof that she bought it. It’s like erasing a whiteboard only to see the colored scribble lines you just wiped away still show but now they’re just white. You never get clean.

I’m too tied to the past. It’s amazing in that all that is written about me and my story, almost nothing is correct. I would settle for a correct slate over a clean one. I dedicate my every move to cleaning – correcting – slates that have already been tossed by other people. Appeals, civil actions,  all attempts at the clean slate every day of the year.  I don’t have time to look for a forward-slanted clean slate because my neck is craned backwards.

new years ballWithout any resolution, last night the New Year’s celebration amounted to certain women kicking their doors and walls at midnight when they watched the ball drop in Times Square. My first new years in the dorms, one room housing 56 women, inmates couldn’t compartmentalize the party so I watched the melee from my cube-mate’s upper bunk. Strip shows by chunky dancers doing the worm on the filthy floor, lap dances. Then women tore their inmate handbooks into confetti and tossed it around the dorm at midnight celebrating the fact that one year had passed and another one was coming. At 12:05 AM those same women sat on their bunks and cried that one year had passed and another year was coming.

Feeling the passage of time is essential to survival in prison. It’s also what kills you. When you are in prison you can’t have your cake and eat it too. In fact, since you made a mistake, you can’t have it at all, unless its served on a plastic prison tray.

new year fresh start




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25 December 2014

Merry Christmas from Prison Diaries

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“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?”

“Plenty of prisons…”

“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“Both very busy, sir…”

“Those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”  – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol




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22 December 2014

Christmas Pity Invitation

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“Bosslady, Ima be right back, ok? I gotts to go get that Angel Tree paper. Even though I’m late they gonna let me do it. You can load this kettle by yourself?”

“Of course. Go ahead,” I waved her ahead.  Christmas was a few weeks away and we were making the gravy – margarine, soup base, flour and starch – for the Christmas meal. We needed to make 1200 gallons that day to be poured into all of Connecticut’s prisons for the holiday.

“You want a paper, too?”

“You know I don’t have kids,” I scoffed at her.

Click here to donate to Angel Tree. Remember: no matter what you think of their parents, their kids are innocent. Angel Tree is a reputable, responsible program that helps children.

“Yeah, but your niece and nephew. They can get something for them.”

Angel Tree is a nationwide program run by the non-profit organization Prison Fellowship, a network of not angels but saints who buy Christmas gifts for children of the incarcerated. Any inmate can sign up and an Angel Tree volunteer will contact the child’s caregiver and arrange for presents to be delivered.

“My niece and nephew have everything. They want for nothing.”

“So you can still  send them something to show you care and shit.”

“My mother gets them a gift from me every year,” I explained.

“But this is free,” she insisted.

“I know but just because something is free that doesn’t mean that you need to take it.” I shook my head and bit my tongue before I said anything else. It must be terrible for mothers who can’t see their children on the first day of Christmas because the prison cancels all visits on holidays. Angel Tree is less about material gifts than it is their only link to their kids that day.

I wonder how much psychic damage the Judicial Branch and the Department of Correction cause by disappointing children and denying them meaningful contact with their mothers on Christmas.  Keeping them from their children and forcing their contact through third-party presents harms the child more than it rehabilitates or punishes the parent. Children of troubled parents should not attenuate their relationships with their mothers on any day, especially not on what is a kid’s holiday. I hate to say it but not having children is a Christmas blessing for women in prison.

I would consider this extreme decorating in a prison but a couple of my cellmates did it.

Missing Christmas with my niece and nephew bothers me less than the explanation I will need to provide in the future, justification for missing four, maybe five, maybe six, maybe seven Christmases with them. Apologies for their being pulled away from new toys and forced onto the phone to tell me “Merry Christmas.” I don’t miss Christmas because it reminds me of how many Christmases I will miss.

It’s easy not to yearn for yuletide  in here. Save one paper banner above the school’s reception desk, all the decking in here is done with fists; we have no Christmas trees, garlands, stockings, wreaths or lights. Christmas decorations in the inmates’ own cells are illegal: contraband and fire-hazardous so I won’t risk it.  The absence of the blinking red and green commercial blitz that emerges the day after Halloween makes the twelve days of turtle doves and milkmaids blend with the remaining 353 days of the year.

Sometimes sympathetic staff  would sneak in holiday presence, like the nurse who gave me one green and one red gumdrop.  They told her: “That is frowned upon.”  Or the teacher who gave us mouthwash-sized Dixie cups of orange soda. They told her: “That is frowned upon.” Or the kitchen supervisor who gave a mini candy cane and a card to each worker, thanking her for her labor. They told him: “That is frowned upon.”

Up until four years ago,  on Christmas morning, the guards delivered each of us puzzles printed on Xerox paper and a one-page calendar for the next year, packaged in clear mini-trash bags with two of the red and white peppermint rounds that restaurants leave in a bowl for customers to pick up after their meal.  Two mints, puzzles and a calendar for measuring our sentences was penal paydirt. Then they frowned upon themselves and tossed the Christmas trash bags. We haven’t received anything since.


cup of orange soda

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Women here will tell you that, with no traditional Christmas influences to overexpect, overspend, or overindulge, the real meaning of Christmas, the spirit of the holiday, shines through. This holiday celebrates the birth of a man who truly had all the answers yet ended up being killed for it by scared dummies, allegedly in the vein of justice. His mother was a homeless, pregnant teenager when she had him. The nicest guy in the nativity story was the innkeeper who let Mary and Joseph and Mary squat in his shed. We know that spirit. And being reminded of this reality? Shining that spirit in our faces? That is frowned upon by us.

With my kettle-loading partner out climbing the Angel Tree, I lifted a tray of thirty seven pounds of margarine above my head and catapulted it into the kettle for the next batch of gravy. No one flinched to help out, instead focused on their own holiday analysis. 3-wise-men-and-bethlehem-wall-cropped1

“You know, Christmas, Baby Jesus’ birth, that was the set up,” I overheard a butcher telling the  phony holy roller who ran the breakfast line.

“Girl, you talkin’ crazy.”

“Really? God sent his own son and tipped everybody off, these three kings, that he was gonna take over. Then when he takin’ over in ways none a dem understand, they kill his ass. Them three kings, they brought the heat. Bringin’ that baby all that expensive shit was like callin’ the cops.

“See now you talkin’ about Easter,” Phony Holy Roller told her.

“Yeah, we don’t get nothin’ special for Easter neither. Cuz it’s on a Sunday, it ain’t even a paid holiday for most these motherfuckers,” she said as she waved at all the supervisors.

“You get something special for Christmas,” I reminded them and Vanna White-ed the kettle cooking the Christmas gravy, hinting that they might want to help me load another thirty seven pounds of margarine. “Roast beef.”Christmas in Prison

“Chandra, you worked in this kitchen long enough to know that them two Steakumm’s they give us on Christmas is just the Sunday meal switched to Christmas day,” Phony Holy Roller shouted to me.

“You’re right. I know. The ice cream [for Christmas dessert] gets switched off the Monday dinner, too.” I conceded.

“We ain’t gettin’ ice cream on the next Monday?”

I shook my head.

“Shit. They take motherfuckin’ everything.”

“Bosslady, I’m back,” my partner told me, breathless from racing to the chaplain’s office and back and from holding back tears that she won’t see her kids the day we eat two slices of beef and a cup of vanilla All-Star ice cream. “I got you the paper anyway. If you want to send it in.”

“Thanks,” I told her and politely waved away the Angel Tree form. “But I’m not going to insert this place in their Christmas. Christmas is…” I paused and put my palm in the direction of the sallyport through which the inmates leave the facility. “Christmas is out there.”




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15 December 2014

Fight After Death

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Street artist Panzarino prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-month anniversary of the massacre, at Union Square in New York

Prisons aren’t just about punishment.  They support public safety because many women in jail with me are dangerous.  Because so
many of the state’s stabs at correction fail, some will hurt another person when they leave the prison.  Their behavior will continue to be bad. They will be unsafe for society.

542c3aa133d2cWhen I watched the news that Friday [December 14, 2012] and learned that a madman had killed twenty first-graders and six people who took care of them, I wondered if society is safe for us.  After all, murder, assault weapons and depravity had leaked into a world of Christmas cupcakes, alphabet posters and dodgeball.  Danger waits for everyone everywhere; no place is sacrosanct.

Even in the worst of the worst situations, as Sandy Hook parents lowered mini-coffins into the ground, people dug up small reasons to feel safe and sustain faith.  The outpouring of donations, miles of makeshift memorials and the trails of twenty-six acts of kindness that newscaster Ann Curry blazed, prove that evil lands some solid punches but goodness, although bruised and burning with pain, never taps out.Good_vs__Evil_by_RaptorKraine

That’s when the Sandy Hook lesson spreads behind bars.  Women whom I silently labeled as lowlifes for their outrageous behavior in the prison, their complete immunity to correction and their abject disregard for the rights and interests of others showed their goodness.  A symphony of popping pen caps sounded in counselors’ offices here in the prison as inmates filled out forms to donate to the United Way’s Newtown initiative.  Others continue to crochet hats and scarves for men and women in a New Haven homeless shelter.  After the attack, I even witnessed a bonafide bully display outright kindness to another inmate who is the typical target for scorn for her mental illness and physical disabilities.

Good_EvilSure, bad things happen to good people but when you see compassion and good citizenship inside a prison, is it bad people doing good things or good people doing good things in a place where their bad deeds landed them?  I can’t tell. It does not make sense that we can do good on one day and totally avoid it on others. Our goodness looks like swamp fire, flashing like it’s ignited when it really just appears at will. And might not be what it seems.

I’m the first to concede that prisoners often deserve contempt.  The women around me disgust me frequently and I offend myself.  My problem is my attitude, my lack of gratitude.  As you might imagine, many prisoners are violent, outrightly disrespectful, vandals and thieves.  But then out of a prison’s pool of perfidy, we dredge decency.  On a good day, this phenomenon is confusing; on a bad one, it’s infuriating. Who has time  to look for the good in the bad?

US-CRIME-SCHOOL-SHOOTINGAfter Sandy Hook, it’s overly sanguine, trite, and offensive to victims’ families and survivors, people who would gladly toss every teddy bear out, down every cross and refund every donation with usurer’s interest to rewind their lives to December 13, 2012 to say that good triumphs over evil.  It doesn’t.

But goodness is scrappy and gives as good as it gets.  Sometime part of its strategy is to mix in with evil and hide.  This is why nothing and no one is all good or all bad.  Even if no place is safe, none is a guaranteed danger.  Even if people commit horrific crimes and do tremendous wrong, rightness worth redeeming dwells within. At least every now and again.




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14 December 2014

Remember Sandy Hook

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Charlotte Bacon (DOB 2/22/06)

Daniel Barden (9/25/05)

Rachel Davino (7/17/83)

Olivia Engel (7/18/06)

Josephine Gay (12/11/05)

Ana M. Marquez-Greene (4/4/06)

Dylan Hockley (3/8/06)

Dawn Hocksprung (6/28/65)

Madeleine F. Hsu (7/10/06)

Catherine V. Hubbard (6/8/06)

Chase Kowalski (10/31/05)

Jesse Lewis (6/30/06)

James Mattioli (3/22/06)

Grace McDonnell (11/04/05)

AnneMarie Murphy (07/25/60)

Emilie Parker (5/12/06)

Jack Pinto (5/6/06)

Noah Pozner (11/20/06)

Caroline Previdi (9/7/06)

Jessica Rekos (5/10/06)

Avielle Richman (10/17/06)

Lauren Russeau (6/1982)

Mary Sherlach (2/11/56)

Victoria Soto (11/4/85)

 Benjamin Wheeler (9/12/06)

Allison N. Wyatt (7/3/06)

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8 December 2014

Forbidden Love

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mendez arrest

“Now that you mention it, I did see him walking on the tier with a pizza box…which was odd,” I told Blue, staring straight ahead as we walked.

“Bet he was. At least now you know what’s really going on.” Whut’s rilly gowan awn.

apple orange
Inmates and guards are like apples and oranges but both are forbidden fruit for the other.

“Well, thanks for filling me in,” I said as I turned off the prison’s only thoroughfare, thinking about Officer New Guy, the target of the most recent investigation into prison romance, at least according to Blue.

More than fifty shades of grey span the palette of forbidden love.  Among the inkier tones is illegal, morally reprehensible conjugality like incest and necrophilia.  The lighter versions include student-professor, a Capulet-Montague merger, a Harvard-Yale alumni union, a rancher with a PETA member, an ambulance chaser/insurance adjuster arrangement.  But the worst is the black  mark made by the strangest form of the forbidden: the shady prison guard-inmate collision.

Whenever you have a group of women and a group of men penned in together in a relatively small space – especially one filled with beds – into that area assignations must fall.  A majority of the guards here at York are men and all of the inmates are, ostensibly, women.  Things happen.

forbidden-loveLike the professor-student prohibition, guard-inmate relationships are verboten because of the power differential.  Even if the contact is consensual in fact, the fact that one party, the guard, has the ability to punish the prisoner by denying her meals and access to showers, chucking her mail or trashing her cell, makes the relationship coercive as a matter of law.  Just the potential for abuse – coupled with the fact that the prisoner cannot flee the scene – creates a power imbalance so severe that consent by the less powerful party is impossible. The collision is illegal, criminal, as in statutory rape.   Society says that for sex between two people to be legal, they must be equally yoked.

Where’s the fun in any relationship without a power imbalance?  I dare any woman to say that she never put her upper-hands up when dealing with a date.  Seduction itself is a manipulation, one person sapping the other’s self-control and transfusing him with desire.  When we say that the woman “wears the pants” in a relationship, we mean that the power imbalance – although defying gender stereotypes – still lives in relatively respected, legal relationships.  The imbalance expected by the inmate guard relationship paints a picture of outright predation:  lecherous, power-wielding men exploiting women with no exit.

But prison women aren’t your typical chicks.  Many can con anyone.  Once armed with the knowledge that a tête-á-tête can terminate a guard and possibly imprison him with an inmate number of his own, the scales shift.  The inmates gain power and the slave-master split that philosophers have analyzed for centuries starts to blend back together.forbidden_love_by_beautifulending-d6tfz84

I know of at least six women whom New Guy seduced; undoubtedly more exist who zipped their lips.  Between the pizzas and steak dinners he delivered to one inmate in one housing unit to buy her silence, the cash he deposited into another’s account to cause her to clam up or the bronzer he anxiously sought in the aisles of Walgreens to keep a third inmate shut up, this man had become a veritable slave, indentured by his dick.

Although it does occur in the pure, violent, against-the-shower-tiles-style,  rape in prison looks just like this. Coercion is not sharp and explicit like it is on TV. Instead it’s chicken parmigiana exchanged for blow jobs. Elastic pulled over her rear for seven minutes of doggie-style traded for Mariah Carey perfume – sample size no less. Many times prison rape is high school-type hijinks with hungry girls, thirsty for attention. Except in here, it’s a crime scene.

The data are not firm enough to pin down, but anywhere between 4.7 to 27 percent of women in prison suffered sexual coercion of some type.  It’s hard to solve a problem when you can’t really find it.  Some women report the abuse, some don’t.  Some file reports and retract them when they get retaliated against.  Some don’t know that they have been abused.   Coercion in prison is subtle, pervasive, attached to the air. It’s everywhere but no one can find evidence of it.

The crime becomes detectable when the inmate decides either: a) that the guard has failed to deliver all of the contraband he promised or b) that she no longer wants the Bath and Body Works lotion, the meatball sub or the Victoria’s Secret panties he brings her. Then she spills the pill. Paperwork starts. Investigations commence. Everyone talks.

forbidden loveBut the slaves never fall off the master pedestal entirely during these power-reversed flings. After he’s outed, the guard dismisses her report, scoffing and snorting that she’s a nutty slut, crazy and she’s stalking him.  If not immediately, then at some point captains hold her in solitary for two weeks to a month. While she’s in the prison’s jail, he jeers at her physical inadequacies as evidence that he would never touch her. He maligns her, electioneers all of his guard friends to shit on her, writing bogus disciplinary reports, kicking her door while she sleeps.  The whole process finally ends with her becoming so delusional in solitary that she tries to eat her mattress. He’s down the street at the Lyme Tavern telling the other guards how gorgeous his wife is. Pretty much the same script every time.

Liaisons with staff  are so forbidden and their consequences so severe that it is hard to believe that they are as common as they are.  I wondered what the meet-cute looks like in prison. Seeing it was a bitter pill.

I waited, alone and silent,  to the side of the med-line. My thyroid medication had been increased three weeks earlier and now they would hand me the new prescription.

“I saw you in the kitchen today,” Outdated Guard said to me. He and his wife have worked for the facility for years.

“Yeah. I work there.”

“I saw you at work.”

“Yeah…I…work in the kitchen?” My answer morphed into a question because I had no idea where this exchange was heading.

“I was watching you.”

“Oh… Yeah…Well, you…you must have been bored since I wasn’t stealing.”

“Do you need anything from CVS?” he asked without changing his tone.

“Huh? Are you calling this CVS?” I pointed to the haphazard chain of women waiting for pharmaceutical intervention. Because I wasn’t in the actual line, I thought he might be asking if I really needed to be there.

“You need anything? I’m going to CVS after.”

“Oh. Um. No. No. Thanks. I’m good.”twizzlers2

“You sure? Sometimes the girls like the makeup, the cover-up they call it.”

“No. I’m…Don’t need cover-up,” I chuckled even though I did. Is he commenting on my skin?

“Twizzlers?” he offered.

“They have those at commissary,” I said. “But, um… thanks.”

No matter how many times I replay the scene I’ll never know if that was a proposition or a blatantly incompetent set-up. What would have happened if I had batted back “Yeah, Sour Patch Kids and Bio-Oil!” when he asked. Would I have returned to my cell after the nurse placed a string of Synthroid in my hand or to solitary? Most likely I would have set out to the administration building to pay for my goods in a locked closet. I probably wouldn’t have minded if my biological clock were ticking for a Sour Patch Kid and it would be the only one  I could have for the remainder of my life sentence. That’s why inmates get into these messes; they prostitute themselves for a touch of the outside that they will never have again. Or never have this month. Luckily I had to wait a mere four years for my Kids, so I wasn’t even tempted.

I had an opportunity to report other abuse I suffered but I bucked out; the retaliation seemed to start before any report could be made.   Daily prison life is hard enough without being targeted.  Enduring the unofficial discipline was more than I could handle.  I wish I were principled enough to say that I regret not pursuing the situation more but I don’t. Its harder to report an assault in prison than to undergo it. Sometimes self-preservation is’nt selfish at all.

To keep him out of cot-lined housing units during his investigation, lieutenants posted New Guy near the trash cans in the dining hall. I approached the grey buckets to toss a tray with a hair in the mayo.

“When you out of here, Bozelko?” New Guy asked me. Before I could answer he threw his chin out. “When you get out, hit me up on Facebook. My first name is Dumb. I don’t have a pic up but if there’s more than one of us, look for the one who used to install cable,” he said and pointed his thumb at himself.

“I’m not on…I never used Facebook,”

“Never? How long have you been here?”

“Two years.”tigi spoil Me

“When’re you leaving?”

“Soon. I mean…I don’t know. I have no idea what’s really going on,” I admitted more to myself than to New Guy. I had no attraction to him, no intention of contacting him, no flattery by conversing with him. But I stayed for the exchange because it was one of the clearest lessons on how lost I was, both inside the place and on the outside. Cable guys who become New Guys and then Persons of Interest? Outdated Guard with Cover Girl concealer in his pocket? And all of it exposes the guards to prison time themselves?  Why wouldn’t they wait until she got out? When am I getting out?

I heard the next week that an inmate accused New Guy of opening the shower curtain while she bathed, cupping her boobs and just walking away. The avalanche of allegations toward New Guy were too much and the warden suspended him. The accuser became my roommate the week after that. As I dragged my property into the cell, I noticed on the counter a TiGi Bed Head pump bottle. Commissary never sold that.  She moved out two months later when she went to seg.



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1 December 2014

Sometimes Prison Is Not a Test

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Prison scrubs clean the windows into one’s life, removing any protective coasting deposited by privacy rights. HIPAA’s (the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act’s) requirements become little more than good intentions in a correctional health care setting, sometimes for good reason (like safety) and sometimes for bad (gossip). Within a prison, everyone knows everyone else’s business, including their medical secrets. I don’t think one woman who has HIV has the secret of it anymore, at least not in here.

imageMost secrets leak because the prison’s HIV testing site is actually not even in the medical building; it’s a converted office in the assessments unit even though not everyone gets assessed. If you have been in the prison for more than 90 days and you get called to 3 South, everyone knows you have been called for an HIV test like I was.

“Bozelko, 3 South. You have an appointment,” CZ announced over the overhead. I waited for him to open the door for me.

“Appointment for what?” I asked as I came down the stairs.

“Doesn’t fuckin’ matter. I’m telling you to go.”

“I’m not refusing…it’s just that there aren’t any appointments in 3 South,” I told him knowing full well that there was a certain type of appointment in that building.

“Oh, but there are.”

I wanted to tell him I never requested an HIV test but I just turned to leave, thinking that I must have been caught in some mandatory testing scheme. I assumed that all correctional facilities tested inmates and this was now my turn. I was wrong.

One of the deadliest residents of U.S. prisons – the HIV virus – escapes repeatedly because a majority of correctional facilities in this country refuse to seal the exits with mandatory HIV testing.  You have to request the test in Connecticut and thirty-three other states.  Very few inmates request it; I hadn’t requested one. Another inmate had written a request for a test in my name as a joke, harassment or a way to embarrass me if I were HIV+. This crap happens a lot in women’s prisons.

In 2011, when I had already been down four years, the federal government unlocked funds for twelve different grants to study HIV/AIDS in correctional facilities for the next five years as part of our nation’s first national HIV strategy.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have withheld from mandating testing in prisons instead wanting to wait until the data comes in to see how “aggressive and voluntary” testing of inmates will find undiagnosed virus carriers within prison.  I wondered if harassment-by-request-form was the aggression the federal government wanted.

Completely free of risk factors, I knew I was HIV negative even though I had never been tested. Which means that I really didn’t know I was negative.image

The NIH estimates that one of every seven people infected with HIV, diagnosed or not, will enter a correctional facility at some point in his/her life. If approximately 231,000 people in the United States are infected with HIV and don’t know it, then over 30,000 unknowingly HIV+ people will come into contact with correctional health care and possibly depart without a diagnosis or treatment plan because testing is “aggressive and voluntary” and not mandatory.

With its aggressive-and-voluntary schtick, the Obama administration squandered the opportunity to get a collar on the epidemic by refusing to test individuals while they interface with government control.  In terms of preventing HIV both in and out of prisons, mandatory testing of prisoners makes one jailbird in our hands now worth two released in the Bush administration. It is estimated that we are missing 21% of people who have HIV and don’t know it by foregoing mandatory testing policies. And the only reason why we don’t do it is that the American Public Health Association knows that confidentiality is impossible to keep in prisons and has warned prisons away from mandatory testing. People are sick and will stay sick and make others sick because no one in a prison can keep a secret other than their own.image

However aggressive it may be, voluntary testing for HIV in prisons is nothing new.   The result of aggressive and voluntary testing is this: of the 2.3 million inmates in the United States, 1.7% of male inmates and 1.9% of female inmates are estimated to have already been diagnosed with the virus, meaning 41,822 people in correctional facilities have been diagnosed with the virus. But the reported number on how many prisoners have HIV is  21,987, according to the Department of Justice. And it was 34,372 in 1999 according to the CDC. Ultimately, we have no idea how many people behind bars are affected by this virus and we think we have an effective HIV policy. It always amazes me how inmates can know each other’s business but no one else does.

While it is not as high as rates in other populations, a prisoner prevalence rate of 1.7% provides more than enough reason to mandate HIV testing in correctional facilities.  First, by public health standards, 1.7% is a crisis rate. A prevalence rate of only 1% is a generalized or severe epidemic and it’s almost three times higher than the country’s overall prevalence rate of 0.6%.

Besides, that 1.7% rate reflects only identified positives, not unknown positives; the true prisoner prevalence rate is actually higher when undiagnosed positives are accounted for.  image

And both consensual and non-consensual sexual relations – meaning rape, in-house prostitution, exchanging sex for contraband or commissary – in prison are estimated to be as high as 50% by public health researchers and underground intravenous drug use/needle sharing do not stop when addicts are confined. Someone who doesn’t know she has the virus is three times more likely to spread it than someone who knows her serostatus.

Under these conditions, HIV+ prisoners create what is called a “virtual AIDS pump” back into society.  Even though only 21, 987 to 41,822 people in custody are currently identified as HIV+, public  health authorities estimate that prisons and jails release a whopping 98,000 – 145,000 HIV+ inmates into society every year;  not all infections are new as many are people who entered the prison infected yet undiagnosed and changed their statuses through the test I was opening my mouth for, but thousands of infections are new. Of those infected people who spread the virus, many stretch HIV’s slice in society through the sale of sex or drug relapses.

The numbers seem too high to believe, but even 145,000 new infections would barely bump the country’s overall prevalence by five ten-thousandths of one percent. Over time, any new additions to the HIV+ population are corrected for by AIDS-related deaths, so the AIDS Pump is almost imperceptible from a statistical standpoint; for every AIDS-related death, a new infection emerges, probably from a prison.

imageCivil rights activists argue that mandatory testing of any kind is tantamount to a warrantless search and violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. They forget though, that prisoners lose many civil rights upon conviction; that’s the way the criminal justice system works. If a convicted felon refuses to provide a DNA specimen voluntarily, then she may be criminally charged and the state can forcibly take a buccal swab from inside her mouth and enter the DNA pattern into law enforcement databases.  The head of the records department threatened me with just that when I refused the DNA swab because my convictions remained on appeal. Police can compare my sample to DNA evidence found at crime scenes to crack cold cases and solve new ones more quickly so I really refused the DNA test because  I was sure a murder would occur right on the spot where I would spit out my gum someday. That’s my luck.

The same luck that would have infected me with HIV. And I wouldn’t have known it if I hadn’t agreed to the test that day in 3 South. As I waited for my results, I told the “AIDS Guy,” as we call him, how I noticed that HIV has infected some of us but its lexicon has infected all of us. Most inmates couldn’t tell a T-cell from a -bone but each had assimilated the clinical language of end-stage AIDS. Anything on the brink of demise is “on its last T-cell.” HIV is “the virus.” Women who acquired it through a used needle are “sick” and the ones who caught it from an infected partner “got burned.”  The ones who were infected by their mothers during childbirth just have HIV because the lexicon falls short when it comes to describing utter injustice.

This is what my test looked like.
This is what my test looked like.

AIDS Guy listened intently to me and I wondered how a staff member could be so nice but then I remembered he must make small talk with many women who are about to be devastated by this particular DNA test. They are in that AIDS pump.

“Negative. You’re good to go,” he said and released me to the walkway with a half sheet of paper that stated the minimum: – name, number  and negative – to return to my unit. I should not have felt relief but I did. A little.

“Bozelko, back from 3 South,” CZ announced to no one when I arrived at my unit. He motioned for me to hand the paper I was holding to him.

“”Oh, you never gave me a pass.” Inmates always have to surrender the slips when they return from a compound jaunt if the guards aren’t too lazy to write them.

“I know.”

So convinced that I was right, my usual self would have so professionally told this man “I am under no obligation to give this result to you” but I handed it over wordlessly. He looked at it and, instead if giving it back to me after violating my rights, he put it on the top of the black filing cabinet behind his control panel. My usual self would have asked for it back but I said nothing. What he was doing was blatantly illegal and unethical and I was playing along, willing as a virus in a new body.

I have no idea how many guards or inmates saw my test results. I don’t know if it was confinement’s effects that blunted the activist I am supposed to be, the righteous complainer within me or the consolation I felt knowing I didn’t have to take on this guard to protect a test result that read “Positive” or worry about who would would find out.




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