28 September 2015

One Bitch, Two Bitch

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“Which bitch?” I asked a co-worker who just complained about “That bitch.” Every third word spoken in a women’s prison is “bitch”. Every woman here is a bitch, if not in demeanor, then in name.

Despite my education and commitment to spicing my conversation with “bitch,” rather than making the word the meat of my discourse like the other inmates do, I refer to women as bitches now without any rancor or regret. It’s like I’m Jay-Z. My new pottier mouth gives testimony to the power of immersion in learning a second language. No one said the second language had to be anything other than “bad.” Along with everyone else in here, I use the word so often that I sucked the sting right out of it.  “Bitch” isn’t an insult; it’s a pronoun.

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Not in here, doll.

“Bitch means ‘Being In Total Control of Herself,’” trumpeted a 23-year old inmate, her face studded with cystic acne, her worldview too innocent to survive this place. Everyone around her knows she swiped it from a bumper sticker and everyone around her knows she’s full of shit. “Being In Total Control of Herself” as a ward of the state, a slave to her poor choices, trying to master anyone but herself? No. Not here.

Some inmates are proud to be true bitches: nasty, trifling and cruel. “No one loves you and that’s why you’re here” is their version of “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny.” The bitches’ vitriol not only grows more potent but employs itself with greater frequency when an inmate with a physical or mental disability stares back into their bitch binoculars. To an inmate with a lazy eye: “Which way you lookin’? I can’t tell where you lookin’ with that fucked up eye. Probably why you’re here.”

imagePointing out ostensible – maybe implausible – reasons for a woman’s fall into crime is the cherry on the bitch sundae; it’s just no treat merely to insult someone. A bitch must send the message: IF you were different, you’d be better, as in not here. BITCH: Bullying Individuals That Call for Help.

Every woman in prison features dysfunction, but female inmates walk in clouds of chaos the way Peanut’s Pig Pen roams Charlie Brown’s neighborhood in a billow of filth; it follows them everywhere and forms their identities. Not that the bitches acknowledge this. They castigate others about their problems.

image“I got my shit straight. You need to get your head right. Use the steps, yo. You know them. If nothing changes, ain’t nothin’ changin’. You know that, you dumb bitch!” is a typical soliloquy from an inmate returning from an NA meeting, biting her nails and selling slices of American cheese stolen from the kitchen in exchange for another inmate’s Neurontin, a pill shed of its shiny coating from being tucked between the seller’s check and gum so a hawkish nurse doesn’t see. BITCH: Backsliding Into Three Compulsive Habits.

Bitches try to be as big as their britches and their efforts only end up showcasing their inferiority. They puff up around any guard who withstands their manipulation.

image“Faggot, with your motherfuckin’ fake colored contact lenses. Get me some toilet paper. You got an extra cookies?” They think these mini-harangues make sense and are inoffensive and effective. When the guard disciplines them, the unfairness of the expected comeuppance dazes them. “Yo, why you gotta be all fagotty and aggy (aggravating) ‘bout this shit? I never said nothing bad to you?” BITCH: Babbling Improprieties That Catch Hell.

imageOf course, no bitch elects herself mayor of Bitcharea; usually other people have campaigned against her self-esteem to put her in office. At her swearing in, they belittle her, telling her she’s stupid and worthless, striking and molesting her, twisting her mind to accept that she deserves torment because she’s inferior. BITCH: Bearing Injury That Caused Harm.

Bitches continue to sustain injury in prison. The male correction officers’ barrage of put-downs bothers each of us but, somehow, the men’s words don’t sting as badly as the sly condemnation from female officers. Many female guards are maternal and kind. Others are such vipers that we feel betrayed because there’s the human condition and then there’s the female condition. We all share that; no one granted them immunity from misogyny. Whether they wear cloth badges or we wear laminated tags like dogs, all of us have been called a bitch by a man at one point or another.

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Bitch.

As an inmate, when you interact with a correction officer, sometimes you feel like you’ve re-entered society because the guard is not institutionalized; it can be almost humanizing. When female guards defile that communication with bitchiness, it really crushes you. From the male guards, we expect bald chauvinism and ridicule. From female officers, we resent it. BITCH: Being Inhumane To Crush Hope.

I can’t really tell anymore,  but I think I have become more of a bitch than I was upon entering. Although I talk less and being a bitch requires bitching, so my bitch level may have been reduced. But when I do speak, my words seem like icy daggers. It’s been one hell of a rehabilitation, especially if I can’t tell if I’m a worse bitch or a better bitch, a hoarse bitch or a bitter bitch. BITCH: Basically I’m Tired, Confused = Hateful.

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering which kind of bitch I am. And any prisoner will tell you: figuring yourself out is always a bitch.

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READER POLL

Pimp-C-sweet-jones-prisons-julia-beverly

From vice.com: The Story of How Pimp C Ended Up in Prison

“…[J]ournalist and Southern rap expert Julia Beverly explores the life of Pimp C—real name Chad Butler—and, in particular, sheds light on the period leading up to and encompassing his incarceration. Among the many revelations she offers is an astute analysis of the way that Pimp C’s legal troubles coincided with an intensely concentrated investment in the Texas correctional system.”

Does a rapper who hasn't done time have any cred at all?

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21 September 2015

South of Zero

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Authored March 2011

“Do you understand that they put me in the building with all of the murderers?  What do you think of that?” I challenged my mother over the phone.  I felt like she never did enough to help spring me from prison and I figured that telling her that I mingled among murderers and danced daily among some unidentifiable danger would cause her to step up her game.

imageIt wasn’t a lie; after living here at York for five months, “Operations,” as we call the collection of guards who engineer each inmate rearrangement, had relocated me to Zero South, the “long-termer” building, the Green Mile for Connecticut’s female prisoners where inmates served sentences from five years to one hundred and seventy years.  Zero South was Ground Zero for despair.

York C.I. breaks most of the rules regarding the prison/jail distinction.  Because there is only one facility to which we can go, both women who have been convicted and sentenced and those inmates who remain incarcerated before their trial end up in the same place, right next to each other.  In other states, unsentenced prisoners reside in a jail and sentenced prisoners in a prison.  Within those two types of facilities, classification systems divide and sort inmates according to security risk assessments which include the crimes affixed to the prisoner’s name.

At York, like does not dwell with like.  Operations lumped me, convicted of attempted identity theft and larcenies, with people serving sixty-year sentences for murder.  Burglars live with drug dealers.  Murderers reside beside thieves.  Stalkers with bank robbers.  Drunk drivers with home invaders.  York Correctional Institution is a transgressor’s melting pot, so egalitarian that it would have made our founding fathers proud, if they could get past the fact that people here are killers, thieves, drunks, exploiters and frauds. The inmates are, too.

imageEven though I felt I would never fit into the Zero South, I qualified, technically, for the building with my five-year sentence.  I never felt physical danger when I moved in but I did feel uncomfortable among the ‘murderers.’  After all, not many people live among others who have taken a life.  Among the inmates on my tier (one of four floors of a housing unit with twelve two-person cells), at least one less person roamed the earth because of the actions of thirteen out of twenty-four women.  It shames me to admit that I felt embarrassed at being included with a group of people so hated by society.

Not that society was sending me Valentines.  I was used to a different kind of classification that the prison’s Operations unit used.  Many merciless monikers about me appeared in the press coverage of my cases:  “id thief,” “convict.”  The New Haven Register called me “Orange woman,” a designation that refers to my hometown, but makes me sound like an Oompa-Loompa.  I knew well that, unlike Band-Aids that pinch when you pull them off, labels hurt when someone pastes them on you.

From my own pain, I should have known better than to use conclusive words like ‘murderer.’  Especially if the old saying that “your words become your thoughts and your thoughts become your actions” is true, moving to Zero South showed me that it’s imperative to use words in the right way.

imageI must have forgotten it because I learned this lesson a long time ago, well before Zero South, through my ninth grade English teacher, strangely enough.  When I was a freshman, I wrote a paper, saying something about ‘humans’ and how they needed to dismantle certain power structures.

“Please!” my teacher wrote in the margin, “Do not do this!  ‘Human’ is an adjective.  It modifies the word ‘beings.’  It does not define it.”  That grammar instruction stayed with me for the last twenty-five years and taught me more about humanity and prejudice than my teacher probably ever imagined.  We need to use descriptors, not definers, when we speak about other people.

Dictionaries say that ‘human’ can be used as a noun; the word can define itself.  But, when used alone in normal speech, the word ‘human’ is an adjective, as in “they did not treat him like he was human,” not “they did not treat him like he was a human.”  The sentence that used human as a noun, as a defined person or thing, would have invited the margin comment “Awk,” as in awkward.  Does not sound rightWrong.  Wrong because it is not our prerogative to define people or decide what they are.  We can only characterize what we behold in them.

I did the same thing with the word ‘murderer.’  When I used the word murderer to my mother, I described nothing.  Rather I defined people I had not even met and limited them without ever knowing them, a practice that cheated everyone since each person is more than her mistakes, as bad as they may be.

imageBy definition, a murderer is someone who commits a murder; if someone has not committed a murder, then she’s not a murderer.  I can’t verify it from in here but supposedly 452 wrongful convictions for homicide were overturned in state and federal courts from 2000-06, using newfound evidence to prove that juries incorrectly convicted the ‘murderers.’  More claims of innocence wait for adjudication, still pending in court.

For example, just last month, The New York Times reported that some of the science used to convict defendants of killing children through “Shaken Baby Syndrome” was faulty and that infant stroke mimics the effects of shaking a baby.  Several women who live in Zero South are currently using those new findings to challenge their convictions; the women here at York who were convicted of killing children in this way may not have committed a murder because the child died of a stroke, something beyond their control.  Are they really murderers?  No.  But I called them that noun before their names had a chance to be cleared and I was wrong.

President Bush’s Second Chance Act provides federal funding for local programs that help offenders when they discharge from prison. ‘Criminal,’ the noun, never appears in the text of the statute because, in the world of second chances, defining an individual in a certain manner, rather than describing her, might just cause her to stay that way.

imageUsing the phrase “convicted of murder” and “criminal” as adjectives instead of the nouns ‘murderer’ and ‘criminal’ is more than just a kinder, gentler way to refer to someone.  These ways of speaking realign our focus on what we actually examine in courtrooms:  behavior, misconduct – not the individuals themselves.  One of the requirements of a crime is action; the person has to do something wrong, not just be wrong.  Looking at criminal behavior, we can trace actions back to the thoughts that originated them, and back to the words that started the whole cascade, making it possible for us to learn how to prevent crime in the first place.  Branding people ‘murderers’, ‘thieves’ or ‘criminals’ makes us think that crime is predestined and unavoidable; then our thoughts and actions make it so.

Many may scoff at my distinctions as niggling, minute.  It’s possible that word economy, and not bad intentions, birthed the practice of using nouns instead of adjectives.  To wit, “murderer” is one word, while the phrase “murder suspect” is two and “convicted of murder” takes up three words.  In the long run, the custom of calling individuals ‘murderers’ can save a lot of time for speakers and tons of ink and paper for writers.  But if we ditch these conversational conventions, we can save so much more.

I could have saved face if I never used the word ‘murderer.’  No longer embarrassed that Operations lumped me in with the unpopular offenders, I am mortified at my ignorance when I moved into Zero South in 2008.  Eventually, Operations moved me from that housing unit; they moved me to different units a bunch of times in the past three years and each time I asked to go back.  Among the ‘murderers,’ life is safer, cleaner, more peaceful.  Many of the women convicted of murder are my friends.

Now it’s just those arsonists who scare the shit out of me.

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READER POLL

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From nytimes.com: Shaken Baby Syndrome: A Diagnosis that Divides the Medical World

Again, the New York Times questions the validity of criminal convictions stemming from “Shaken Baby Syndrome.”

If "Shaken Baby Syndrome" is not as accurate a diagnosis as we thought it was, what other forensic evidence should we question?

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14 September 2015

Thawed So

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image“No, you go in and get the green beans/cheese/pudding,” they always say. Other inmates who’ve worked with me fear entering the refrigerators or freezers. The Brady Bunch episode where Greg and Bobby lock themselves in Sam’s meat locker might have scared me as a child but I saw that they got out within 30 minutes, so walking into one of the room-sized chambers of cool never bothered me. In the summer, heading in for a retrieval brought relief.

imageOn a mayonnaise mission, the door closed behind me and I heard a thump. Thumps, bumps and crashes are common in a prison kitchen. When I pushed on the door with two gallons of mayo cradled in my arms, it barely budged. I pushed even harder but didn’t break through to more agreeable air. The supervisor had locked me in.

I hardly panicked but I did wonder how long it would take until someone realized I was missing. They’ll look for me in here, right? I devised scenarios whereby everyone might leave the kitchen in an emergency. Only two events empty a prison kitchen of all people: quitting time or a fire. It was early morning but… the ovens. I knocked and knocked against the noise of a busy industrial kitchen but no one heard. Am I getting scared?

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How many women in prison wouldn’t be there if they feared knives?

I know fear of refrigeration restriction is not an official phobia because my thesaurus contains a list of them and, while knives (aichmophobia), lice (pediculophobia) and missiles (ballistophobia) have their own codified neuroses, freezers don’t appear on the list. Fear of cold (psychrophobia) and confinement (claustrophobia) cuddle next to each other on the phobia index; the others’ fear of being locked in a refrigerator constituted a combination of both. I assumed that anyone in sentenced to prison time would have conquered claustrophobia a few weeks in and started her work on agoraphobia. Perhaps not.  Am I developing both of them now, too?

imageI have never been a phobia fanatic; I limit myself to one: fear of heights (acrophobia) probably because I’m so short. It set in when I was fifteen years old and vacationing with my parents and younger sisters in Rome. We scaled the steps to the walkway around the Sistine Chapel, the place that lets tourists see Michelangelo’s ceiling work up close. Clammy and quavering, I decided that being up that high was for the birds. I like to keep my head at around six feet off the ground which means I can still climb ladders without Sweaty, Queasy and Clammy jumping me.

They find me, though, when I go to court. I have a phobia of lawyers and judges now, cops too because, to me, they are swords, not shields> Maybe I do have aichmophobia because my heart races at the prospect of appearing before the swords.  Maybe it is my acrophobia acting up in court; the judges’ egos are so overinflated and attorneys so high on themselves (and cocaine for a few of them) I feel wobbly looking down at myself from their perspective. I suppose these would be called adjudiphobia or counselphobia but they’re not phobias, probably because my fear is far from irrational. Fear has to be irrational to be a phobia.

A handful of guards are so quick to rage at an inmate that a hair trigger would slow them down. They berate and demean women, usually feast on an inmate’s physical disability or scars. It scares me when I walk down the walkway that I might have to watch how they treat weaker prisoners or how they chortle and chuckle at me. But I don’t think I have a bona fide phobia, just a conscience.

imageThe door muffled the sound of fumbled keys and scraping metal. Then it opened to a stubby supervisor whose facial expression was half amusement, half mortal fear.

“Oh my God!” screamed one inmate.

“How did you…?” asked another.

“Ask to go to mental health and fall on the floor if [the supervisor] won’t send you!” ranted a third.

“I’m fine,” I shrugged. I was. I continued my work until the supervisor called me over to apologize for locking me in for 45 minutes, or so I assumed.

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The prison within the prison isn’t seg…

“I wanna show you something,” he explained as he led me back to my former tomb. “There’s this knob here.” He pointed to a tiny steel rectangle protruding from the wall. “If you get locked in, you just turn it and it unlocks the door.” He showed me how the bar of the door closure slides to open the portal even as a lock – one so mighty it would scare Houdini, David Blaine and Criss Angel even if they were working conspiratorially –  remained tightly closed. “Just in case you get locked in again.”

“Well, why don’t you just put up a little sign that says ‘If you get locked in, turn this knob that way’ so everyone will know how to get out if they get locked in?” I asked him.

“Can’t do that. Then no one will be afraid to go into the refrigerator,” he explained, like fear is a requirement in here. Maybe it is.

READER POLL

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From Aljazeera:  America Needs More Female Cops

Because women reportedly diffuse escalating situations better than men do and are involved in fewer shootings, thought leaders are suggesting that police departments are better off recruiting more women than men of color.

Do we want more female cops?

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7 September 2015

Labor Day 2008: It Works

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“He says he’s gonna put in a work order on Monday and Maintenance will be here by Wednesday,” Amber, my cellmate, told me when she got back to the tier from meeting with the unit manager. She’s the laundry worker for the twenty-four women who live down here, currently contending with a leaking hose-faucet connection on the wall that generously donates countless gallons of water to the tier floor with every load of laundry we do. There’s a drain about a yard away from the faucet but the floor is uneven so the water from the leak flows away from it. A typically designed prison.

None of the staff members will give us paper towels to wipe it up, probably because the entire prison doesn’t have enough to wipe up the pond that develops every time we wash clothes.

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This is where we were headed if the leak wasn’t handled.

So instead, they give us blankets to sop up the water. Wet blankets are a total drag, especially when you have to drag them out of your home in garbage bags without getting to wring them out first. Now I know how it must feel to move a dead body.

“Monday is Labor Day, so he’s not doing anything that day. The earliest he’ll do anything is Tuesday and Maintenance won’t be here until probably Friday. We won’t be able to wash our clothes for a week if this doesn’t get fixed,” I told her.

“Well, I  don’t know what to do,” Amber sighed. “Hartmere [the unit manager] said I can’t wash anything if water’s gonna get on the floor. They don’t even have any more blankets to give us so even if I try to wash the clothes, some C/O’s gonna pull the plug when he sees the water. Then their clothes are wet and they can’t wear them. What’s better – dirty clothes you can wear or clean clothes you can’t wear?”

“True, Am, but even though it’s September doesn’t mean it’s not summer. People are still sweating like it’s July. We have three kitchen workers down here, too. We need to wash their stuff.” She didn’t want to hear what I was saying.

We just stared at the crappy Kenmore washer-dryer set.

image“Can you get one of those cardboard boxes that the garbage bags come in? Actually two. I need two,” I asked her.

“I’ll try…” she turned her head toward the C/O’s desk. “Might take me a few minutes,” she muttered as she knocked on the glass door of the tier and smiled widely at the C/O’s. Amber’s done time before and she can get what she wants.

“Good. Leaves us time to get the other stuff I need,” I told her.

“Other stuff? what are you going to do?” she asked, still smiling at the guards’ desk.

“Fix it.”

“How the fuck are you gonna fix this?” Still smiling.

“You can fix something by working with it,” I told her as I knocked on a cell door and told the inhabitant: “Labels, stickers, pull them off everything you have. Your deodorant especially. Those labels are good.”

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These work best, if you’re ever in a pinch.

“You gonna pay me?”

“You want clean clothes?” I volleyed right back.

“Aite,” the inhabitant agreed. I repeated the exchange at every other cell door.

By the time Amber came back with the two boxes – total contraband –  I had 21 labels, good one,s and was gingerly ripping the edge off the tiny clear garbage bags the prison provides to each cell.

“What did you have to do to get those?” I asked, only half-joking.

“[I had to] listen to Copingo tell me how he likes long walks on the beach…” Amber said, non-plussed.

“That must be why he works at a women’s prison next to a state park on the shore…” I laughed.

“Yo, you really think you’re gonna fix that faucet?” Amber laughed back at me.

“No. I can’t fix the faucet. I told you; you can fix something by working with it.”

I ripped the tape off each of the boxes connected them with the labels. Then I lined them with the garbage bags, using as few labels as possible. I needed them for other things.

“What the fuck are you doing? Art and fuckin’ crafts?… Yo, smart people can be so dumb sometimes!” Amber was still laughing.

“Grab a towel,” I told her as I led the long plastic-lined cardboard half-pipe through the door delicately.

“My towel?”  She had no faith in me.

“Fine, use one of mine,” I sighed as she followed me down the hall.

image“We need to dry the wall around the leak so they labels will stick. Dry away ALL of the water,” I instructed Amber and she obeyed. This whole event was so strange to her that she had no choice but to start to believe in me.

Meanwhile, the other inmates started watching the construction, in relative silence, which means that they were intrigued. I folded the ends of the cardboard under and attached them to the wall underneath the faucet and then, resting the turn on top of the dryer hose, I directed the cardboard like a slide towards the back of the dryer where the turned back toward the wall and down to the small basin around the drain.

“Turn on the washer,” I directed Amber who, again, followed my instruction like I was wearing a badge.

The washer lurched on and the leak started again, except none of it fell to the floor. Instead, it pooled in the plastic and worried me that the puddle’s weight might pull the whole contraption down to the floor. But then the pool loosened and started a steady trickle down the slide. Into the drain.

“That shit works!” shouted one of the inmates behind me.

“I can’t believe you fixed it,” Amber said, incredulous, watching the water slide down.

“Where did you learn how to do that?” another inmate asked me.image

“Learn how to use deodorant labels to rig up a cardboard pipe, lined with garbage bags? Nowhere.” I answered matter-of-factly.

More than half the women on the tier thought I had been formally educated in cardboard construction. They couldn’t even grasp the idea that I simply figured out how to use what we had to get where we needed to go.

I can’t tell if it is my privilege or my personality speaking when I go all Rosie-the-Riveter on them and tell them: You can do it! All social problems have solutions somewhere, even if they’re only temporary. But the problem is that no one affected by social problems thinks that there is a solution to anything. It’s not that poor, uneducated people don’t know how to solve their own problems; they don’t know that problems are capable of being solved. If they can’t even conceive of a solution, they certainly won’t make themselves a part of it.

Captain Hartmere toured the tier before he was leaving for his long weekend, stopped at our cell and told Amber:

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Hartmere was going to hang us out to dry for Labor Day weekend.

“I’ll take care of that washer next week, OK?”

“Take your time, Hartmere. We fixed it for a while.”

“You fixed it?” Hartmere asked, laughing at her, so I interceded.

“Ah, the leak isn’t fixed. I set up a cardboard thing to siphon away the water and lead it to the drain.”

“Ah, that’s not good,” Hartmere taunted me.

I am very respectful towards staff because I don’t ever want to get to their level of indignity and because I know disrespect is suicide. Such sass was not like me but I shot back:

“Do you have a better plan to get us through the long weekend?”

Hartmere just walked away from our cell. I heard him stop near the washer but he kept going without messing with my cardboard pipe. He, too, saw that it worked.

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READER POLL

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From U.S. Uncut: These Seven Household Names Make a Killing Off the Prison-Industrial Complex

Many more companies use inmate labor than people expect, paying prisoners between $0.23 and $1.15 per hour.

Should inmate laborers be paid at least minimum wage for the work they perform?

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