31 August 2015

Orange Is the New Blah Blah

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The original sign, on the back of a commissary form.


As soon as I taped the sign on my cell door, using a label I ripped off my Vitamin E Gel, Soledad approached my door, read the sign and knocked while she poked her head inside the cell.

“Everything OK?”image

“Yes. I just want some silence.”

“OK. You heard we supposed to be locked down on….”

“Soledad, please. The sign.”

“Oh, OK, OK. I just wanted to make sure that you were OK. I’ll check on you later.”

Emblazoning my cell door  with the sign attracted all the magpies.

“Chandra, you better not let the C/O see that sticker from the lotion bottle.”

“I tole you stop helping these bitches. They makin’ you crazy.”

“You think anybody gonna respect that sign?”

imageI ended up inviting more attempts at conversation than without the sign. But that’s what happens with female prisoners: any attempt to stifle their chit-chat boomerangs with a bigger barrage of words than was coming anyway.

I see it most in emergencies, lockdowns, tense situations. A lieutenant can be red in the face, carotid artery puffed out on his neck as he stomps and shrieks his way toward that quiet settlement called Strokeville.


I would expect the din to deflate like someone unplugged the world. But you can still hear a giggle, a mumble and a whisper.


But Next One does talk and One After responds and The Third overhears and footnotes the conversation. They say the main affliction in a prison is addiction, that women have become slaves to some substance, but that’s not true. Compulsion – not being able to stop – is what plagues female prisoners. Words press out of inmates so fiercely that they have to set them free.

Their words would be fine if they had value but almost everything that tumbles out of an inmate’s mouth is overextended, pointless, insulting to at least one person and grammatically funky. No one here is pithy. Maybe me.

imageAnd I’m becoming even more economical because I’m going deaf from all the noise in here, a condition that makes women come at me even harder to make their non-existent points. They are compelled to pollute my air with their words. Have to do it. Have to.

They carp complaints, inventories of insufficiencies about the prison or their families or the criminal justice system or what a correctional officer said to them. I never hear: “I’m surprised; the counselor really responded quickly this time,” or “Wow, that guy at the discipline board was pretty fair.” It does happen occasionally.

Instead, everything oppresses them, even the consequences they know are guaranteed to follow from their actions. In the final analysis, very little of what happens inside a prison is that surprising. Often I’ve been shocked but the law of cause and effect is strictly adhered to in here. If you steal from work, then eventually someone will catch and fire you. If you screw with the lock on your cell door to keep it from securing properly, a guard will shake it down, maybe give you a ticket. If you rat someone out just to see her suffer, the ratting will revisit you in repulsive ways.

Likewise, pouring out piddling, quibbling words woos empty assurances that things can get better.image

I know that people need to vent. I do, too. I am squarely on the record championing the use of psychotherapy – talking as a cure – rather than swallowing psychotropic meds like Tic-Tacs. But venting should bring cleansing, an emptying of sorts, catharsis, not cataclysm.  I’ve said it before, but I still believe it: there’s a difference between having a voice and having an audience. Having a voice is knowing that what one says has merit, and force, regardless of its results. Having an audience is an opportunity for a pitch, to get results regardless of what one is saying.

Amid all the words, I almost never hear the phrase “model inmate.” “Quiet” is the one-word description for inmates who are well-behaved, telling how closely talkativeness and trouble can get. A quiet inmate doesn’t pick fights, argue with staff or cause chaos. I counted all the offenses in the inmate handbook, the Code of Penal Discipline. Twenty-one of 44 offenses are easily committed just by running one’s mouth too much.

“Don’t you think that they should offer a group called ‘Silence is Golden’ that would require everyone to sit for 50 minutes without uttering one word?” I pitched the idea to an inmate with 30 years of recidivism.bianca-hall-silence-is-golden-neon-sign-exclusive-to-rockett-st-george-5576-p

“Nah. No one would ever get the certificate,” she dismissed. In here, it’s all about the wannabe diplomas, empty words on paper.

“Maybe they wouldn’t stay quiet at first, but over time they might,” I offered.

“Nah. Bitches can’t close they mouths for one minute.”

I was tired of talking so I conceded. “You’re right.”

Conversation can’t talk rehabilitation off the ledge; real reform goes out the window when inmates babble more than they do anything else. Worthwhile introspection – all those searches like “fearless moral inventories” or “admitting you’re powerless” – can’t happen when you’re bullshitting with the inmate who works in the gym. It just can’t.

imageThat’s ultimately why everyone in a women’s prison talks so much: distraction from their misdeeds, sociability to cover for anti-social behavior. When the only thing talking to you is your conscience, lessons can be learned, unless you’re kibbitzing with the woman on your right. Constantly yapping with the other inmates – Did you see what the captain said to Wanda when she told him they keep letting us out five minutes late for rec? – causes your conscience to recede and become that quiet inmate who doesn’t cause any trouble.

Philosophers and scientists throughout history required absolute silence – verbal stillness – to make the breakthroughs that underpin modern convenience. Thomas Edison didn’t happen upon the lightbulb while he was trying to design a strobe light for his next rave. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke would never have formulated their theories on the social compact if they had swingin’ social lives. Even the framers of the Constitution – that paper that serves as the inmate’s virtual prison bars or her escape route, depending on how good her lawyer is – instituted a “no non-essential talking” rule that all of them followed without duress so that they could define our rights. Then some other framers came along and slapped an amendment on that paper granting us the right to remain silent, a law that suggests It’s- often-wise-to-shut-up-so-why-don’t-you-do-so?

No one in here respects the right to remain silent, even when you assert it with a sign on your door.



From the Hartford Courant: Fewer Job Centers Diminish Second Chances


The State of Connecticut is at a crossroads: Governor Dannell P. Malloy can either live up to its spoken promise to reduce the prison population or it can allow the local job centers to close and guarantee recidivism when released offenders cannot find employment.

Should Connecticut Governor Malloy parole low-level offenders now to save 95 jobs and six job centers?

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Posted August 31, 2015 by chandra in category "Is It Just Me?

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