South of Zero
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.
It 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.
Even 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.
I 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 right. Wrong. 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.
By 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.
Using 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.
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.”