29 December 2014


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new year chalkboard“My New Year revolution is I ain’t eatin’ no more cake,” Soledad announced when she sat at the breakfast table. “This shit makin’ me fat.”

“Resolution,” I corrected her.

“Wha? That’s  the name of this shit?” she asked as she directed her spork at it.

“No, it’s New Year’s resolution. As in resolve, like make up your mind. Not revolution.”

cake 2
It’s just Gold Seal brand bran muffin mix in sheet pans, but York Correctional Institution calls it “cake.”

“I always said revolution.”

“Well, you were wrong,” I told her bluntly.

“Don’t matter. I just ain’t eatin’ no cake. After today,” she said with her mouth full of the brown stuff.

“Good luck with that,” I snorted. York CI serves cake with everything:  cake with farina, cake with bologna, cake with meatloaf. Sometimes cake is the entire meal itself. The prison serves so much cake that you’d think Marie Antoinette was the warden.

“What the difference between resolution and what you called it?”

“You called it revolution.”

“Yeah. What the difference?”

resolutions blank paperI had to stop and think because many inmates have never done the right thing in their lives. Resolving to do one thing better – or one thing differently – is a revolution for them. I debated whether I should even venture into this philosophical ‘hood.

“Well, it’s just that when you resolve to do something, you are in control. Revolution means change, but in a different way for New Year’s. Resolution means decision…” And before I realized it, it came out of  that place in my face that takes the cake. “… more than the actual changing.”

Except for Soledad’s ‘revolution’ I hadn’t witnessed one other inmate voice a New Year’s resolution. Maybe it’s because they have no intention of changing. Maybe they don’t know how to change. Most likely is that they don’t know that that they can.new years list

Anyone can decide to change at anytime, but we choose to change at New Year’s because of the fresh start that changing one or two digits on your paperwork provides. At the New Year, books close on old ways. On January 1st, we bow to calendars and expect that opening a new one means opening a new self.  I don’t see how anyone wrung by criminal justice could ever feel like she has clean slate on any day, especially New Year’s. You have to be on the Chaplain’s short list just to get a calendar in here. They run out quickly.

Any inmate lives in her mistakes. They may not be criminal errors. Perhaps all they are is bad judgment. Every mistake  surrounds you in the cement walls, the two inch mattresses, the crappy cake, the smell of  antiseptic dirt in every building, the guards who call us “job security” because they predict we well recidivate when we leave the facility, never changing. Everyone else gets to reset, reboot and reinvent themselves at the end of December. We never really get that chance.

Inmates promise to change all the time. They make at least an oral decision not to come back to jail, not to ‘pick up’ (start using drugs), to take care of their kids. But the resolution finds dilution when they need to do something.

The one thing they do is make change by throwing out their stuff.  They throw out everything they own in the prison: papers, toiletries, pictures, even t shirts and underwear, cleaning the slate like an employee being fired does to an abusive boss’ desk. Whoosh.

No matter how I protest: “Wait! You’ll need those receipts! Whoa, whoa, whoa…how are you going to change your underwear?” they proceed. At first I thought it was mania or anger but after watching them clean slate a few times I understood. It was the only way to start fresh.

new years coartoonOf course, clean slates that come about like this don’t stay that way. Chaos ensues when the slater begs everyone else for hair conditioner or cries to me that she needs to return something to commissary but doesn’t have proof that she bought it. It’s like erasing a whiteboard only to see the colored scribble lines you just wiped away still show but now they’re just white. You never get clean.

I’m too tied to the past. It’s amazing in that all that is written about me and my story, almost nothing is correct. I would settle for a correct slate over a clean one. I dedicate my every move to cleaning – correcting – slates that have already been tossed by other people. Appeals, civil actions,  all attempts at the clean slate every day of the year.  I don’t have time to look for a forward-slanted clean slate because my neck is craned backwards.

new years ballWithout any resolution, last night the New Year’s celebration amounted to certain women kicking their doors and walls at midnight when they watched the ball drop in Times Square. My first new years in the dorms, one room housing 56 women, inmates couldn’t compartmentalize the party so I watched the melee from my cube-mate’s upper bunk. Strip shows by chunky dancers doing the worm on the filthy floor, lap dances. Then women tore their inmate handbooks into confetti and tossed it around the dorm at midnight celebrating the fact that one year had passed and another one was coming. At 12:05 AM those same women sat on their bunks and cried that one year had passed and another year was coming.

Feeling the passage of time is essential to survival in prison. It’s also what kills you. When you are in prison you can’t have your cake and eat it too. In fact, since you made a mistake, you can’t have it at all, unless its served on a plastic prison tray.

new year fresh start




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Posted December 29, 2014 by chandra in category "Orange is Black?

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