One Million Ways to Mutilate in the East
“You look like you got a tan or a sunburn,” a woman commented. I had seen her long before, remembered her hangdog cheeks, extra weight from overindulging gone past, 1980’s counterfeit Gloria Vanderbilt glasses frames and a bad perm that had been leaving her roots for a long time. These were no fashion choices; I could tell she was stuck in the 80’s financially and could not afford any updates. She hadn’t been in the facility since my last sighting of her because her uniform jeans were too unfaded and her shoes – Keds distributed to all incoming human cargo whose shoes didn’t meet property criteria: white or black sneakers – were dazzling white, totally unmarred. To remain that clean, a C/O must have thrown them at her a few days ago in the Admissions and Discharges building. The time between her discharge and readmission had faded my jeans and bent the black Reeboks I purchased through the prison commissary because they don’t replace the Keds for long-termers. I had been down almost two years at that point.
“Don’t do THAT! That’s SELF-MUTILATION!” she yelled. Then calmly announced: “I have a visit,” and walked to the door to leave the housing unit.
“Wow,” I commented to another woman. “She has a real thing about sun damage. What’d she have, cancer or something?”
“No. She right. Self-mutilation a class A ticket. You know. Sunburns, piercings, tattoos, cutting, that type of shit. You can go to seg for it.”
“Why for a sunburn?” I asked.
“Who gives a fuck why. You just can.”
I checked my Inmate Handbook and surely Section 12-Y of the Code of Penal Discipline officially kiboshed the tats and the studs. I knew this from watching women get hauled away in cuffs for piercing themselves with the ends of paper clips and using a tooth of a comb to keep the hole open. The sunburn seemed to be a law of the past, proving that Hangdog knew old rules and not new tricks because she had been in and out of prison for a long time, the time in between a bit wider than for other women who cycle through for years.
Especially since society encourages the same coloring and decoration that the Department of Correction prohibits, calling it self-mutilation seemed overkill to me. It is almost as if the state expects all the women with dark pasts to enter this facility lily white like their new shoes and stay that way, no dashes of pink or dots or rows or boyfriend’s names demarking their bodies added while in custody.
“They takin’ away our in-div-ig-ee-ality with that shit! If I wanna do shit to myself and make me look different, ain’t none of the gov-ment in that,” an inmate janitor’s voice exploded from the shower area where she sprayed tiles with weak bleach solution.
DOC must not want these women sick, I figured, thinking that the self-mutilation prohibition might be thoughtful in a Weirdville way, a kind of in loco parentis gone loco.
“I’m sure they do it to reduce disease. This place is a microbial marsh,” I advised, always the voice of reason whom no one understood. But I misunderstood; a couple of reasons kill the chance to dot up or hole down. The prison needs everyone looking like their ID photos/mug shots for accountability purposes and artistic expression usually involves gang symbols. The warden doesn’t give a shit if the scabs on your skin are cattle calls for bacteria.
Hangdog came back from her visit quickly. Flash visits usually meant a face to face with the Bail Commissioner, not friends or family, who comes in periodically to see what can be done to cut loose the new admissions with $50 bonds. Do you know anyone who will put up the fifty? Hangdog had no one who would.
“This is too much. Too stressful. I’d do anything for a cigarette,” she cried and tried to feign tears, whipping her cheeks around to make sure everyone heard her. I knew she couldn’t really be crying because when someone starts to cry in prison, his/her face either goes down or inverts upward toward the sky. If perchance it doesn’t go up or down, it stays stone still.
“You smoke?” I asked. I was surprised that someone I had pegged as financially strapped would dare such an expensive habit.
“Everyone smokes,” she said and rotated her head ninety degrees in each direction, possibly for agreement but probably to see if anyone would lead her to a bogey, even though they are contraband.
“I don’t smoke. Never had a cigarette in my life,” I offered.
“That’s impossible,” Hangdog derided me.
“It’s extremely possible.”
“Well, aren’t you a Goody-Two-Pie. I heard about you,” she snorted at me.
“I think it’s ‘Goody Two-Shoes.'”
If DOC really did care about saving ourselves from ourselves, then they would do more than just busting some chick stupid enough to tattoo herself, meaning stupid enough to attach a bent staple to the engine of her electric razor to make a tattoo gun and use as her ink shampoo mixed with colored pencil shavings to mark “Pinky ♥s Mario” between her forefinger and her thumb.
The term “break” in prisons shouldn’t be an escape, but how to break the habit of smoking. No one here at York believed me that I never smoked a cigarette in my life. It would be bad enough if they viewed smoking as an essential rite of passage but these women actually see it as an essential right. None of the inmates can imagine a smoke-free life.
The denial is easy for them. Even on the outside, scarce few of them work in offices, fly in airplanes, eat in Manhattan restaurants, join pick-up leagues, go to the gym, the usual mainstays of smoke-free living. But the public health campaign against tobacco is so refined, so extensive, I don’t understand how it missed prisoners, but it has.
Including York CI, sixty-five percent of prisons do not offer smoking cessation courses despite the fact that smoking is a habit much harder to break than drug use, more conclusive of causing fetal damage than heroin or cocaine ingestion in female smokers and almost 24 times more likely to cost inmates their lives than illicit substance abuse. If you need help with a habit, you are better off as a heroin addict than a smoker. Smoking causes 435,000 to drug use’s 17,000 annual deaths according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Smoking is self-mutilation if I ever saw it.
“You know, they say that people can have heart attacks and strokes if they don’t get their cigarettes,” Hangdog continued to everyone around her.
Normally, I stayed out of inanity but this was too much, especially since I had no way to recede back into my cell, into relative silence, because I used my chance to ask the guard to unlock my door early when I pulled the Inmate Handbook out to see if my slight sunburn would box me up.
“No one ever died from lack of cigarettes, OK? I mean, except maybe a preeclamptic woman but that’s not you,” I interjected. Again, none of them understood. I had already tried losing the fifty-cent words in conversation but they still didn’t comprehend. Vocab might be a barrier to inmates’ understanding what I said, but the bigger hurdle is the truth.
I knew smoking was bad since kindergarten when I came home and reported to my father, then a smoker himself, what I had learned at school. I have no recollection of it but I explained the effects of his smoking on my own health; a targeted anti-tobacco crusade imparted this knowledge to my five-year old self. Many times public health campaigns achieve results.
Inmates with children click their tongues over and over, saying “only thing matter to me is my kids” but their habits can make their kids sick — mutilate them — through passive smoke. I would expect them to be grateful for a prison smoking ban if their children matter that much to them because it would force them to quit a habit that harms society and their own. But they resent another chance to learn to protect their children.
To anyone who will listen, they fantasize about lighting up right after they cross the sallyport on their way home. Not getting a job, not eating porterhouse steak, not walking on a beach, not driving a car. Not seeing their children. Smoking is the priority for the average inmate who leaves York. The tobacco ban in Connecticut prisons is just a break in smokers’ habits, not a break of them. And as long as prisoners refrain from smoking while they are incarcerated and kiss their jailers goodbye with promises never to use illegal drugs again, wardens are more than willing to release addicts to resume smoking, to re-enter a legal but deadly habit that they cannot afford. They call this recovery and reentry.
The reason for the disparity in how prisons treat drugs and tobacco seems obvious; we think tobacco use ignites remarkably less crime than illegal drugs but that’s not necessarily true.
Public health researchers have discovered that an addict is 59% more likely to relapse into illegal drug use once she has resumed smoking after stopping for a time. Those 1.84 million smokers who may quit smoking temporarily as a result of an incarceration-forced break in habit are likely to resume the habit once they are released because they have not received formal intervention. Without nationwide, mandatory tobacco control education in place in prisons and jails, any released inmate who starts smoking again has a 59% increased chance of relapse into illegal drug use and the crimes that accompany it.
No one knows what causes the substance abuse relapse, whether it is that resuming smoking initiates a chemical process that sets off a cascade of bad decisions or it is a gateway drug, a threshold once crossed that justifies more severe, more damaging crossings. All I know is that any program with a strong chance of causing offenders to quit one habit that will help them quit another should be mandatory in prisons. Instead, it’s nowhere in here.
Lack of funding is what usually stubs out prison health programs and treatment. People who work for DOC conduct their careers in financial famine. “We can’t afford that” is the answer to every inmate suggestion about her health. Well, can you X-ray my arm? We can’t afford that. I think I need a nebulizer. We can’t afford that. Can I just have a cup of ice to put on this burn I got taking fish patties out of the oven in the kitchen? We can’t afford that. Low coffers might explain the absence of such anti-smoking programs in prisons. That is, if a lack of money actually existed.
Brochures and pamphlets designed to light a fire under smokers to quit appear everywhere now, even on packs of cigarettes. But there are none in prison, a smokers’ convention. When the medical unit couldn’t provide me with any anti-tobacco literature that I could produce the next time I had to hash out the cigarette topic, my sister sent me a few of the first pages from Googling “prisoners smoking.” It was worse than I thought.
Here I blow: In 2010, the states collected $25.1 billion from the 1998 tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes. Less than 15% of that revenue would fund tobacco prevention and smoking cessation programs at CDC-recommended levels throughout each state, including prisons, leaving more than 85% of that revenue for other purposes. Yet the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates that only 2.3% of that 2010 revenue, $58 million, is spent on tobacco prevention and cessation programs. Only one state, North Dakota, finances its tobacco prevention programs at the CDC-recommended level of funding. Thirty-one states provide less than a quarter of the CDC-recommended level of tobacco control programming despite the fact that they have the money. So I’m not blowing smoke when I say to the state about smoking cessation and education: You can afford this.
Money unspent is a governmental wet dream. Oddly, Connecticut legislators seem unable to use the tobacco settlement money in their possession for prison anti-smoking plans that might, through their effects, reduce death, drug use and crime for everyone.
“Here, I’ll help you,” Hangdog approached me at the dryer. “I need to do something if I can’t smoke.”
“There’s no ‘if.’ You can’t, ” I told her and shoved a bundle of warm sheets at her to fold.
As I doubled a sheet over, I lifted the crease and looked down to assure that the corners were aligned. I saw this Goody’s two shoes; dusty, cruddy. Next to them was unmutilated white on the woman whose lungs are black and repeats her offenses. I wondered what would happen if people realized that smoking correlates not just with cancer but with crime. Maybe they already know.