By Any Other Name
“I am not a number!” Number Six would protest on the 1960’s television show “The Prisoner.”
Number Six’s remains a chronic inmate complaint – we’re not numbers, we’re people, known by names – and Number Six was right; no inmate is a number. We are now six numbers, strings of digits and dashes that each new inmate earns in ‘Admissions and Discharges,’ the prisoner delivery dock.
Now, more than fifty years after “The Prisoner” aired, guards can’t refer to inmates by their numbers because, as the United States prison population grew ten times larger, inmate numbers have become unwieldy. Even if the Department of Corrections deputized Rain Man as a correction officer, there would be too many numbers for him to manage. In that way, the incarceration boom has stripped prisoner management of its depersonalization because none of the C/O’s can remember the trail of digits associated with each of us.
Instead, staff members use our last names as our only names. I learned during my first days here, after I returned to my housing unit from a legal visit with a sentencing consultant who had missed the fact that I was already sentenced.
He squinted. Couldn’t find it on his clipboard.
“Why don’t I have you?”
He looked for Chandra as a last name. When he finally figured out the first and last name junction, he told me:
“In here, we don’t use first names.” Then he re-christened me. “Your name is Bozelko.”
Women here bitch that this practice depersonalizes us. But I always understood the reason behind using last names to be that there were too many Heather’s or Maria’s here and when a C/O yelled that name, too many heads turned; the last name narrowed the field a little bit.
Because of the guards’ usual practice of referring to us by our last names, prisoners conclude that when guards call an inmate by her first name, they mean it as a sign of respect. I don’t know if that’s even possible in here. But, if calling an inmate by her first name is respectful, that would be something we need to avoid, so I am Bozelko now.
I figured guards were scared to pronounce Bozelko – even though that would keep with correctional tradition – whenever one called me Chandra, a name making mainstream if their questions served as any indication:
“Chandra like that model Chandra North?” they ask. Yes.
“Chandra like the black woman on Gray’s Anatomy?” Precisely.
“Chandra like that missing intern who ended up dead because she screwed that congressman?” Exactly. And don’t get any ideas.
When first and/or last names fail us, staff and inmates default to nicknames.
Prison is a culture of insult and the fact that these institutions collect the flawed among us makes nicknaming people easy. Male or female facility, there’s always a “Red,” a “Slim” and a “Tiny” in prison. When they go home, the nickname shifts to the second thinnest or shortest or most red. I think it might be against the law for a prison not to have a Red, a Slim or a Tiny living within.
The remaining nicknames zero in on weaknesses and turn the general population into one giant bully. The women dubbed one inmate with a congenitally malformed arm “Chicken Wing.” The rest are no kinder: “Cry Baby” for a woman taken to tears, “Fatty Girl” for the obvious, “Teen Wolf” for a woman stricken with thick, dark facial hair from polycystic ovary disease, “Green Eyes” for everyone whose eyes are neither dark brown nor black. “Brooklyn” and “Manhattan” persist in popularity, particularly for women who’ve never been south of Bridgeport.
We have a “Six” too, just like that old TV show; maybe it’s a law that prisons have to have at least one “Six.” We fill out the rest of the roster with some cutesy names: a “Gucci,” a “Smiley,” a “Chop-Chop,” the nickname for a woman who allegedly cut up her boyfriend’s body and drove around with his parts in her sedan’s trunk.
There are a couple of “Rock Stars” but those are always self-imposed. Anyone who is from the south, the midwest, the northwest or Maine is called “Country” like Portland, Louisville and Austin are rural. I didn’t say the names were accurate.
I suppose some psychological theory would explain the reliance on nicknames in a prison: that people need to become someone else in order to metamorphosize or rehabilitate themselves, that the nickname shields their true identities and feelings from discovery by others, a self-imposed protective layer of depersonalization. If all we’re known by is our names, then changing them changes our impact on the world. Or so we hope.
It’s probably why I got so excited when I saw a list of names under the “ALIAS(ES)” section of one of my arrest warrants. Who am I? I wondered and read the names: Chandras A. Bozelko, Chandra Boselko, Chandra S. Bozelko, Shandra Bozelko. They disappointed me, that list of clear QWERTY errors. I wanted to know that I can always change who I am, maybe become someone else if all this rehabilitation doesn’t take.
But after living here for years, I doubt that the reason for nicknames is as complex as my theory. Nicknames in prison are just accessible words that lend themselves to caste-making, to power. Nicknames aren’t funny monikers we use to refer to friends with affection; they’re oppressive classification. Weak, disfranchised people will do almost anything for a little bit of power, to feel a little bit better about their stations in life, so they call a woman with high cheekbones “Skeletor,” thinking it will change something for Skeletor or her bully when it won’t.
Always an overachiever and coming from a background of abundance, I have several nicknames in here. The new names I wear are mild, adoring. There’s “Boss Lady” for the work I did in the kitchen.
Somewhere in the middle of my sentence came “Winky” because I supposedly “look like a Winky” and I have no idea what that means. I think I heard “winky” used as a word for pud, so I’m not sure how to take that one. Winky morphed into the shortened “Winks” and I still answer to both.
Some call me “Princeton” and that makes me feel like crap because it shows how far I’ve come in life: not even the length of a winky.
There’s also “Mighty Mouse” because of my small stature and the fact that I have helped an inmate here and there with written endeavors. “Here I come to save the day!” they sing and raise their right arms high, palm out, though, not in a fist like the real Mighty Mouse. Not making a fist is a switch in here.
“Put that down!” I tell them and they think its humility speaking but they’re wrong. The raised arms smack too much of the Nazi salute for my comfort.
“Jesus, if anyone saw you they’d expect you to chant ‘Heil Hitler!’”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with that, Mouse. Hitler was a boss!” Tiny said. Other inmates understand such little world history that they know not what they do.
“Hitler would have killed you because you’re black and because you broke the law,” I told her in an all too abbreviated history lesson.
“They do that shit anyway. The new Jim Crow,” Tiny said and did a little dance. She doesn’t understand American history either or what the new Jim Crow is supposed to mean.
“Hitler was worse, I promise. And Hitler wasn’t a boss. And just, please, when you come up with your next nickname for me, don’t use that one. I’d rather be ridiculed or reduced to a number. Any number. Three sixes would be better.”
Tiny and the others still didn’t understand because, to prisoners, any name is better than a number.
THREE IDEAS IN CRIMINAL JUSTICE FROM FEBRUARY 8 – 14, 2016
Finally, someone mentioned the R-word in a debate. On Thursday, February 11, 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said we need to reduce recidivism with jobs and education. He also promised that, if elected POTUS, he would make sure the United States doesn’t lead the world in incarceration. These are nice thoughts but I can’t feel the Bern until I feel some details.
United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a judge who earnestly believed that innocence didn’t matter when administering the death penalty, died in Texas on Saturday, February 13th. Before his body was cold, the internet exploded into flurry of handicapping all cases pending in the country’s highest court and who would replace him. And we called Scalia cold-hearted. We could have shown some respect for the dead and waited for the next business day to start the speculation.
Forty-six correction officers in Georgia were arrested for drug trafficking and for smuggling booze, cigarettes and cell phones inside Georgia’s prisons. I dare any correction officers union to maintain the position that they shouldn’t be searched when they enter their workplaces. I double-dare them to bitch about being called guards.