If she’s not a lawyer, then at least she’s rich, the type of rich that has no money. Prison houses the highest concentration in the world of wealthy people who never had any money.
The wealthy inmates are so rich that they forget where they live. During one week, an inmate claimed to live in Stamford, then Greenwich, then Farmington, then Litchfield, all upscale residential towns in Connecticut.
I know she lives in Norwalk and I know that she didn’t relocate; she lived with me during that week, a week containing a five-day lockdown during which neither of us moved at all, staying in our 9 x 12-foot cell, except to tread down a flight of stairs to pick up Styrofoam trays containing our three hots. If she said that she lived in a cell with me, only then would she have been telling the unglamorous truth.
Besides the rich, there are the uber-educated. One inmate boasted a PhD. I asked her “What’s your PhD in?”
“It’s in my house.”
These women must think that their partners-in-prison believe anything they say because no one can verify their claims directly without any internet access or glimpses of front pages. Because nothing can be verified, we have chefs, American Idol finalists, Boston University seniors (I never knew they had a campus in Norwich!), Mafia don-ettes (who obviously know that the women’s movement never invaded La Cosa Rostra) and accountants. Actually, the accountants are real. They’re here for embezzling.
There are a million explanations for the fibs: mental illness, denial of who they are or what they’ve done, escaping their current reality, trying to manipulate other people. It doesn’t take more than freshman psych to jot down a well-informed list.
Many women will soon be called on their double-dealing – referred to as “bipolar” even though they’re not – and ostracized as much as a group of prisoners can ostracize a woman with whom the state forces them to live with within 500 square yards.
I haven’t been ostracized yet for my lie because most other inmates have rarely experienced the kind of consistency and relatively gentle nature I display when I help them write letters, edit their schoolwork and help them complete judicial forms. These activities make me a good, nice person to them.
“You’re so nice. You’re like an angel, like Jesus the way you help people in here,” Gina told me.
“If you only knew … ” I replied and she smiled and nodded. I believe she interpreted my words to mean something like If you only knew all the good I’ve done in my life … but I meant was Angel? Jesus? Me? No fucking way. My water always stayed water. I never multiplied the fish patties or hamburger buns here and I have yet to rise from the death of criminal conviction. In a very un-Jesus-like way, I was a raging asshole for a very long time, yet they compare me to the Christ anyway.
I describe myself as a nice person. It’s as fraudulent a label as self-imposed ones on the inmate who says she was in the Broadway version of Nunsense or the one who says she was Penn State’s college TV station weather girl.
Before landing in prison, I literally fell apart; I mean in two pieces. The nice person in me showed up when things were going well. The darker angel of my nature appeared whenever my fortune took a dive. I swore at people, made fun of them behind their backs and generally spewed nastiness at everyone because something bad was happening to me. Bad things happen to good people, but truly good people remain good and behave properly throughout the duration of the bad things. I thought that hitting a bad patch excused me from having to comport myself with civility, mercy and kindness like all good people do.
Being mistreated gave me leeway to lash out, at least in my mind, but I was lying to myself, pathologically. As a result, people around me never knew what to expect from me. Was her kindness a lie? Does that explain why she just insulted me and called me a fucking idiot? People avoided me and the further isolation made me angrier and entitle me to more explosions. I was vicious and this was my cycle. Prison, quite frankly, is probably the only place that would reform me, the spaces between the bars acting like a mirror serving the ugliness of my behavior right back to me.
Initially, I was too scared to lash out at others here in prison because guards had so much more power than I did, inmates so much more experience than I. Silently, though, I convinced myself that I had every right -and probably even an obligation – to tell the staff who were so undereducated (despite the fact that many have college diplomas and a handful have advanced degrees) and inmates what I really thought of them, but I didn’t have time to do it. I was preparing to leave any day and leave them behind.
Then I sat with some nurse for a routine health screening. She knew my social and educational background.
“So, Chandra, what are you going to do while you’re here?”
“Nothing. I’m not going to be here long.”
“But if you are here for a while … your sentence is long,” she posed to me.
“Even if I am here for a while, there’s nothing here for me … ”
“What about cosmo?” she asked me, referring to the cosmetology course in the prison school.
“No. There’s nothing here for me. You can’t really be stupid enough to think I would go to cosmo,” l said, my words sounding like those of the haughty bitch in an after-school special. When I said them, the words seemed well-bred and tactful to me.
Then somehow a memory of a verbal altercation I had over the phone with one of my lawyer’s secretaries seeped into my consciousness. The secretary had made a snarky remark about me to my lawyer – the specifics of which I could not remember but, in hindsight, I’m sure I deserved – and I called her on it rather than forgiving it like my alleged nice personhood would have done.
“Who do you think you are?” I asked her “Do you think you’re special, that you have the right to put me down? Are you an Ivy League graduate, Patty? Don’t you realize that you don’t matter?” I asked her; my words were ludicrous, malevolent. And dissonantly calm because I was evil, ugly and essentially not a person anymore.
“Chandra, leave me alone,” she said. I had always fancied myself a person who doesn’t bother anyone. I proclaimed it everywhere. I’m not. That was a lie.
Everyone warns against the perils of self-hatred; “Don’t say that!” people chant around the person who says he hates himself. But, at that moment in the prison nurse’s office, I loathed myself. And for the insufferable effrontery I showed, l should have hated myself; my self deserved to be despised. It was through detesting myself on that cold winter night on a molded plastic chair, slippery from endless friction with the asses of other self-loathers that made me realize I needed punishment and rehabilitation to rid myself of the parts I hated. I think it’s why I’ve fought more to overturn my convictions than just get out. It’s like I know a revolution needs to happen but I know it needs to happen in here.
Confinement reveals false life stories because it unifies personalities; that’s what it did to me. You are who you are in prison and you can never be someone else and l don’t speak of identity theft. Those women who Jekyll-and-Hyde everyone at home – self-described angels who are really nasty ghouls who heckle and hide – must pick one persona and go with it. Eventually all fake life stories get abandoned, if not by their tellers then by the people around them who know they’re full of shit. It is what it is.
In prison, you need to decide who you are and then be that woman because she’s the only human being who will carry you through your time. It’s the one aspect of rehabilitation in which incarceration never fails: developing a type of self-reliance, even as one lives as a ward of the state. Being pulled out of society and out of your own cloud of lies lets you know how alone you really are and how the only one who can really fix you is you.
The way I got fixed was that I realized you can say you’re something for a long time but, eventually, you have to be it. Thinking and proclaiming that l was a decent person was a really nice verbal billboard but eventually I had to deliver the goods.
Prison isolates a woman from everything and everyone she knew but isolation is not without its perks. Often women isolate themselves willingly to achieve peace and reflection through meditation because introspection never happens in a crowd. I doubt that l would have attempted to answer the questions that plagued me, like why I value the elusive goal of having everyone like me, or why I’m so narcissistic if I had remained incarceration-free. As a free bird, I never asked myself why I’ll screw up my own endeavors to help someone who really needs to carry her own cross. Why must I be right all of the time? And when I am right why do I care so much if others still think I’m wrong. Or why do apologies – giving or receiving – frighten me so much? Could, as friends suggest, hate really mask jealousy? Before I came to prison, the amount of self-esteem I had was pretty little so I couldn’t and wouldn’t answer these questions. I haven’t locked in my responses as final, but since I got here, I’ve started to formulate truthful responses to myself. It’s about time.
THREE IDEAS IN JUSTICE REFORM FROM OCTOBER 17 – 23, 2016
Ideas put prosecutors in the hot seat this week.
The Dean of the Valparaiso School of Law made a great point: the United States has an Attorney General and a Solicitor General but we don’t have a Defender General, someone who can provide some pushback on top prosecuting authorities when they’re making big decisions on law or who to charge with a crime. Read her piece in Indiana Lawyer here.
Three professors think they have the answer to the systemic racial bias in criminal justice: not allowing prosecutors to know the race of the people they’re about to charge. Love setting some blame at the feet of system.
Since criminal justice reform bills often don’t pass, if they get voted on at all, a new idea has come up to change the system: vote out the prosecutors who keep the spring of criminal defendants eternal. The replace them with reform sympathizers.