“Now that you mention it, I did see him walking on the tier with a pizza box…which was odd,” I told Blue, staring straight ahead as we walked.
“Bet he was. At least now you know what’s really going on.” Whut’s rilly gowan awn.
“Well, thanks for filling me in,” I said as I turned off the prison’s only thoroughfare, thinking about Officer New Guy, the target of the most recent investigation into prison romance, at least according to Blue.
More than fifty shades of grey span the palette of forbidden love. Among the inkier tones is illegal, morally reprehensible conjugality like incest and necrophilia. The lighter versions include student-professor, a Capulet-Montague merger, a Harvard-Yale alumni union, a rancher with a PETA member, an ambulance chaser/insurance adjuster arrangement. But the worst is the black mark made by the strangest form of the forbidden: the shady prison guard-inmate collision.
Whenever you have a group of women and a group of men penned in together in a relatively small space – especially one filled with beds – into that area assignations must fall. A majority of the guards here at York are men and all of the inmates are, ostensibly, women. Things happen.
Like the professor-student prohibition, guard-inmate relationships are verboten because of the power differential. Even if the contact is consensual in fact, the fact that one party, the guard, has the ability to punish the prisoner by denying her meals and access to showers, chucking her mail or trashing her cell, makes the relationship coercive as a matter of law. Just the potential for abuse – coupled with the fact that the prisoner cannot flee the scene – creates a power imbalance so severe that consent by the less powerful party is impossible. The collision is illegal, criminal, as in statutory rape. Society says that for sex between two people to be legal, they must be equally yoked.
Where’s the fun in any relationship without a power imbalance? I dare any woman to say that she never put her upper-hands up when dealing with a date. Seduction itself is a manipulation, one person sapping the other’s self-control and transfusing him with desire. When we say that the woman “wears the pants” in a relationship, we mean that the power imbalance – although defying gender stereotypes – still lives in relatively respected, legal relationships. The imbalance expected by the inmate guard relationship paints a picture of outright predation: lecherous, power-wielding men exploiting women with no exit.
But prison women aren’t your typical chicks. Many can con anyone. Once armed with the knowledge that a tête-á-tête can terminate a guard and possibly imprison him with an inmate number of his own, the scales shift. The inmates gain power and the slave-master split that philosophers have analyzed for centuries starts to blend back together.
I know of at least six women whom New Guy seduced; undoubtedly more exist who zipped their lips. Between the pizzas and steak dinners he delivered to one inmate in one housing unit to buy her silence, the cash he deposited into another’s account to cause her to clam up or the bronzer he anxiously sought in the aisles of Walgreens to keep a third inmate shut up, this man had become a veritable slave, indentured by his dick.
Although it does occur in the pure, violent, against-the-shower-tiles-style, rape in prison looks just like this. Coercion is not sharp and explicit like it is on TV. Instead it’s chicken parmigiana exchanged for blow jobs. Elastic pulled over her rear for seven minutes of doggie-style traded for Mariah Carey perfume – sample size no less. Many times prison rape is high school-type hijinks with hungry girls, thirsty for attention. Except in here, it’s a crime scene.
The data are not firm enough to pin down, but anywhere between 4.7 to 27 percent of women in prison suffered sexual coercion of some type. It’s hard to solve a problem when you can’t really find it. Some women report the abuse, some don’t. Some file reports and retract them when they get retaliated against. Some don’t know that they have been abused. Coercion in prison is subtle, pervasive, attached to the air. It’s everywhere but no one can find evidence of it.
The crime becomes detectable when the inmate decides either: a) that the guard has failed to deliver all of the contraband he promised or b) that she no longer wants the Bath and Body Works lotion, the meatball sub or the Victoria’s Secret panties he brings her. Then she spills the pill. Paperwork starts. Investigations commence. Everyone talks.
But the slaves never fall off the master pedestal entirely during these power-reversed flings. After he’s outed, the guard dismisses her report, scoffing and snorting that she’s a nutty slut, crazy and she’s stalking him. If not immediately, then at some point captains hold her in solitary for two weeks to a month. While she’s in the prison’s jail, he jeers at her physical inadequacies as evidence that he would never touch her. He maligns her, electioneers all of his guard friends to shit on her, writing bogus disciplinary reports, kicking her door while she sleeps. The whole process finally ends with her becoming so delusional in solitary that she tries to eat her mattress. He’s down the street at the Lyme Tavern telling the other guards how gorgeous his wife is. Pretty much the same script every time.
Liaisons with staff are so forbidden and their consequences so severe that it is hard to believe that they are as common as they are. I wondered what the meet-cute looks like in prison. Seeing it was a bitter pill.
I waited, alone and silent, to the side of the med-line. My thyroid medication had been increased three weeks earlier and now they would hand me the new prescription.
“I saw you in the kitchen today,” Outdated Guard said to me. He and his wife have worked for the facility for years.
“Yeah. I work there.”
“I saw you at work.”
“Yeah…I…work in the kitchen?” My answer morphed into a question because I had no idea where this exchange was heading.
“I was watching you.”
“Oh… Yeah…Well, you…you must have been bored since I wasn’t stealing.”
“Do you need anything from CVS?” he asked without changing his tone.
“Huh? Are you calling this CVS?” I pointed to the haphazard chain of women waiting for pharmaceutical intervention. Because I wasn’t in the actual line, I thought he might be asking if I really needed to be there.
“You need anything? I’m going to CVS after.”
“Oh. Um. No. No. Thanks. I’m good.”
“You sure? Sometimes the girls like the makeup, the cover-up they call it.”
“No. I’m…Don’t need cover-up,” I chuckled even though I did. Is he commenting on my skin?
“Twizzlers?” he offered.
“They have those at commissary,” I said. “But, um… thanks.”
No matter how many times I replay the scene I’ll never know if that was a proposition or a blatantly incompetent set-up. What would have happened if I had batted back “Yeah, Sour Patch Kids and Bio-Oil!” when he asked. Would I have returned to my cell after the nurse placed a string of Synthroid in my hand or to solitary? Most likely I would have set out to the administration building to pay for my goods in a locked closet. I probably wouldn’t have minded if my biological clock were ticking for a Sour Patch Kid and it would be the only one I could have for the remainder of my life sentence. That’s why inmates get into these messes; they prostitute themselves for a touch of the outside that they will never have again. Or never have this month. Luckily I had to wait a mere four years for my Kids, so I wasn’t even tempted.
I had an opportunity to report other abuse I suffered but I bucked out; the retaliation seemed to start before any report could be made. Daily prison life is hard enough without being targeted. Enduring the unofficial discipline was more than I could handle. I wish I were principled enough to say that I regret not pursuing the situation more but I don’t. Its harder to report an assault in prison than to undergo it. Sometimes self-preservation is’nt selfish at all.
To keep him out of cot-lined housing units during his investigation, lieutenants posted New Guy near the trash cans in the dining hall. I approached the grey buckets to toss a tray with a hair in the mayo.
“When you out of here, Bozelko?” New Guy asked me. Before I could answer he threw his chin out. “When you get out, hit me up on Facebook. My first name is Dumb. I don’t have a pic up but if there’s more than one of us, look for the one who used to install cable,” he said and pointed his thumb at himself.
“I’m not on…I never used Facebook,”
“Never? How long have you been here?”
“When’re you leaving?”
“Soon. I mean…I don’t know. I have no idea what’s really going on,” I admitted more to myself than to New Guy. I had no attraction to him, no intention of contacting him, no flattery by conversing with him. But I stayed for the exchange because it was one of the clearest lessons on how lost I was, both inside the place and on the outside. Cable guys who become New Guys and then Persons of Interest? Outdated Guard with Cover Girl concealer in his pocket? And all of it exposes the guards to prison time themselves? Why wouldn’t they wait until she got out? When am I getting out?
I heard the next week that an inmate accused New Guy of opening the shower curtain while she bathed, cupping her boobs and just walking away. The avalanche of allegations toward New Guy were too much and the warden suspended him. The accuser became my roommate the week after that. As I dragged my property into the cell, I noticed on the counter a TiGi Bed Head pump bottle. Commissary never sold that. She moved out two months later when she went to seg.
Prison scrubs clean the windows into one’s life, removing any protective coasting deposited by privacy rights. HIPAA’s (the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act’s) requirements become little more than good intentions in a correctional health care setting, sometimes for good reason (like safety) and sometimes for bad (gossip). Within a prison, everyone knows everyone else’s business, including their medical secrets. I don’t think one woman who has HIV has the secret of it anymore, at least not in here.
Most secrets leak because the prison’s HIV testing site is actually not even in the medical building; it’s a converted office in the assessments unit even though not everyone gets assessed. If you have been in the prison for more than 90 days and you get called to 3 South, everyone knows you have been called for an HIV test like I was.
“Bozelko, 3 South. You have an appointment,” CZ announced over the overhead. I waited for him to open the door for me.
“Appointment for what?” I asked as I came down the stairs.
“Doesn’t fuckin’ matter. I’m telling you to go.”
“I’m not refusing…it’s just that there aren’t any appointments in 3 South,” I told him knowing full well that there was a certain type of appointment in that building.
“Oh, but there are.”
I wanted to tell him I never requested an HIV test but I just turned to leave, thinking that I must have been caught in some mandatory testing scheme. I assumed that all correctional facilities tested inmates and this was now my turn. I was wrong.
One of the deadliest residents of U.S. prisons – the HIV virus – escapes repeatedly because a majority of correctional facilities in this country refuse to seal the exits with mandatory HIV testing. You have to request the test in Connecticut and thirty-three other states. Very few inmates request it; I hadn’t requested one. Another inmate had written a request for a test in my name as a joke, harassment or a way to embarrass me if I were HIV+. This crap happens a lot in women’s prisons.
With its aggressive-and-voluntary schtick, the Obama administration squandered the opportunity to get a collar on the epidemic by refusing to test individuals while they interface with government control. In terms of preventing HIV both in and out of prisons, mandatory testing of prisoners makes one jailbird in our hands now worth two released in the Bush administration. It is estimated that we are missing 21% of people who have HIV and don’t know it by foregoing mandatory testing policies. And the only reason why we don’t do it is that the American Public Health Association knows that confidentiality is impossible to keep in prisons and has warned prisons away from mandatory testing. People are sick and will stay sick and make others sick because no one in a prison can keep a secret other than their own.
However aggressive it may be, voluntary testing for HIV in prisons is nothing new. The result of aggressive and voluntary testing is this: of the 2.3 million inmates in the United States, 1.7% of male inmates and 1.9% of female inmates are estimated to have already been diagnosed with the virus, meaning 41,822 people in correctional facilities have been diagnosed with the virus. But the reported number on how many prisoners have HIV is 21,987, according to the Department of Justice. And it was 34,372 in 1999 according to the CDC. Ultimately, we have no idea how many people behind bars are affected by this virus and we think we have an effective HIV policy. It always amazes me how inmates can know each other’s business but no one else does.
While it is not as high as rates in other populations, a prisoner prevalence rate of 1.7% provides more than enough reason to mandate HIV testing in correctional facilities. First, by public health standards, 1.7% is a crisis rate. A prevalence rate of only 1% is a generalized or severe epidemic and it’s almost three times higher than the country’s overall prevalence rate of 0.6%.
Besides, that 1.7% rate reflects only identified positives, not unknown positives; the true prisoner prevalence rate is actually higher when undiagnosed positives are accounted for.
The numbers seem too high to believe, but even 145,000 new infections would barely bump the country’s overall prevalence by five ten-thousandths of one percent. Over time, any new additions to the HIV+ population are corrected for by AIDS-related deaths, so the AIDS Pump is almost imperceptible from a statistical standpoint; for every AIDS-related death, a new infection emerges, probably from a prison.
Civil rights activists argue that mandatory testing of any kind is tantamount to a warrantless search and violates the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. They forget though, that prisoners lose many civil rights upon conviction; that’s the way the criminal justice system works. If a convicted felon refuses to provide a DNA specimen voluntarily, then she may be criminally charged and the state can forcibly take a buccal swab from inside her mouth and enter the DNA pattern into law enforcement databases. The head of the records department threatened me with just that when I refused the DNA swab because my convictions remained on appeal. Police can compare my sample to DNA evidence found at crime scenes to crack cold cases and solve new ones more quickly so I really refused the DNA test because I was sure a murder would occur right on the spot where I would spit out my gum someday. That’s my luck.
The same luck that would have infected me with HIV. And I wouldn’t have known it if I hadn’t agreed to the test that day in 3 South. As I waited for my results, I told the “AIDS Guy,” as we call him, how I noticed that HIV has infected some of us but its lexicon has infected all of us. Most inmates couldn’t tell a T-cell from a -bone but each had assimilated the clinical language of end-stage AIDS. Anything on the brink of demise is “on its last T-cell.” HIV is “the virus.” Women who acquired it through a used needle are “sick” and the ones who caught it from an infected partner “got burned.” The ones who were infected by their mothers during childbirth just have HIV because the lexicon falls short when it comes to describing utter injustice.
AIDS Guy listened intently to me and I wondered how a staff member could be so nice but then I remembered he must make small talk with many women who are about to be devastated by this particular DNA test. They are in that AIDS pump.
“Negative. You’re good to go,” he said and released me to the walkway with a half sheet of paper that stated the minimum: – name, number and negative – to return to my unit. I should not have felt relief but I did. A little.
“Bozelko, back from 3 South,” CZ announced to no one when I arrived at my unit. He motioned for me to hand the paper I was holding to him.
“”Oh, you never gave me a pass.” Inmates always have to surrender the slips when they return from a compound jaunt if the guards aren’t too lazy to write them.
So convinced that I was right, my usual self would have so professionally told this man “I am under no obligation to give this result to you” but I handed it over wordlessly. He looked at it and, instead if giving it back to me after violating my rights, he put it on the top of the black filing cabinet behind his control panel. My usual self would have asked for it back but I said nothing. What he was doing was blatantly illegal and unethical and I was playing along, willing as a virus in a new body.
I have no idea how many guards or inmates saw my test results. I don’t know if it was confinement’s effects that blunted the activist I am supposed to be, the righteous complainer within me or the consolation I felt knowing I didn’t have to take on this guard to protect a test result that read “Positive” or worry about who would would find out.
It sounded like a huge ice chunk clanging against metal. He said nothing but you could hear his blood pressure rise.
It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and one of the Food Prep Supervisors, Green Bay Packers, had prepared a pre-emptory holiday meal for the workers. Sausage stuffing made with cornbread that Green Bay had carefully culled from breakfast leftovers and frozen throughout the past year, broccoli and cheese casserole, buttered corn, pumpkin pie. It may sound like holiday de rigueur but, to us, this was like a spread on a ship-board cruise.
And not only was Green Bay treating his workers in Food Prep, he included laundry workers, workers from the prison school, from commissary, the property office, DataCon (the data entry site turned sweatshop), a total of about 100 people. If you’ve ever prepared Thanksgiving dinner for 25, then you know it’s a ton of work and an assload of food. For these one hundred women, Green Bay did four tons of work and had four assloads of food. He was ready to load a four-tier cart and roll the assloads out to the mini-dining hall where he would serve the assloads to us assholes.
But when Green Bay grabbed the cart to pull it in from the hallway, the ice chunk that fell was a broccoli brick, stashed by an inmate after she stole it from the freezer. The usual way a C/O busts a thief is by catching her with the booty on her body so inmates who steal from Food Prep think they employ super stealth when they swipe something and hide it in the hallway for future retrieval.
This asshole thief snatched one of the broccoli bricks from the case opened for the holiday meal and opted for a really shitty spot to hide it: between two carts that Green Bay or another supervisor could and would pull apart at any moment sending the broccoli brick to the floor, making it a crime scene.
If lieutenants just rewound the surveillance cameras with lenses directed at the hallway, we could spot the swindler, she’d be fired and Green Bay and his broccoli and cheese would cool down, but that is entirely too easy. Instead inmates like me have to get all CSI in the hallway, particularly with perishable food: If it’s still cold, no condensation? The heist went down less than twenty minutes before. Cool with condensation? During the current shift. Room temp and bone dry? At least one day, maybe more. Because I have worked there the longest, lead investigator status usually falls to me.
“Chandra, we found cubed chicken/cheese/margarine/roast beef out in one of the recycling bins!”
“Hold on. Don’t touch anything,” I say as I glove up and quickly examine the scene. Bending down I assess the evidence, holding my index and middle finger on it like I’m taking its pulse.
“OK. I’m gonna call it. Time of Theft within the last hour,” I strip off my gloves and announce to grim faces because that means the perp is probably still on the scene and the supervisors are about to disallow coffee, juice and the occasional muffin to us as punishment. No one is that concerned that the bandit remains among us. We’re in prison; the perp is always among us.
But I didn’t have to call the Time of Theft on the broccoli brick. The frost on it looked like matte fuzz and Green Bay knew the robber and the brick walked right past him as he put the finishing flair on the meal. Green Bay was understandably cheesed off.
“The only reason you’re getting to eat this is that I’ve already invited so many people,” he announced.
My parents were once extravagant entertainers during the holiday season and my mother eschewed caterers; she insisted on cooking everything herself. When pre-party anxiety crept up my parents spines and they squabbled, my mother would say the same thing. “I’m only finishing these crab cakes because we have people coming!” The holidays really are the same wherever you go.
“After tomorrow, nobody’s gettin’ nothin’!” Green Bay continued as he rolled his four assloads of food to us. We ate with the commissary and the laundry workers but the food in my mouth tasted metallic and faint. The perp among us had slammed our bosses’ generosity backward and sucked any heartfelt holiday spirit out of the dining hall and into the hallway.
Our supervisors Food Prep are real chefs, artists whom the state supplies with only the lowest quality components (us) and the food ingredients aren’t much better. But year after year they combine us low quality components with special holiday meals. They could be – and have been – executive chefs in upscale establishments but instead they choose to supervise pre-menstrual yet premenopausal, hysterical yet morose, angry yet frightened, unworldly yet manipulative women. They get punched, ripped off, insulted, cried upon, hit up for tampons every hour. It makes them look like gluttons for their own punishment when all they really try to do is relieve ours.
We stayed on punishment until mid-December. No extra coffee. No cheese with our eggs. Until the perp was identified. The lady assigned to the pot sink it was, but the supervisors couldn’t can her because they “lacked objective proof,” a phrase, when translated from correction, that means “no one with a badge saw her but almost every inmate told on her.” They couldn’t prove she took the broccoli brick but they spied her tasting a corner of the roast beef we were slicing for Christmas dinner and pounced on her for stealing that. To me, snacking on one of the meat ends was not a ticketable offense; I had done it many times, even that morning.
“Wait! In the interest of full disclosure, I think I need to tell you that I ate a piece of roast beef, too,” I confessed, hands up like I was caught in a searchlight, to the butchers’ supervisor, Bengals, as he completed Pot Sink’s disciplinary report.
“Yeah, so?” Bengals asked as he signed the ticket. They were looking for anything, a flinch of a fuck-up, barely a breath of transgression to excise Pot Sink from the culinary workforce. The ticket was handed off to lieutenants who would start the process of serving the paper to Pot Sink in her cell.
Right then I learned the single-most important lesson in corrections: even if you got away with something, you’ll never get away with it entirely; your sin will always find you. Even if they never connect your face with the perp on the news who knocked over a liquor store, you’ll get hanged for accidentally bouncing a check. Even if police never connect you with a homicide they’ll bust you for the drugs in your house when children’s services comes to investigate your upstairs neighbor. They busted Pot Sink for broccoli but the charges read “beef.” When successfully fleeing from felonies you will trip over multiple misdemeanors. The only way anyone gets away with anything is not to do it. On Thanksgiving, we should give thanks for our ability to think twice.
“OK. Everything’s back to normal!” Green Bay boomed as the ticket wound its way to the Lieutenants’ office. Coffee pots and sugar packets appeared on cue, like the Thanksgiving thievery never happened.
As the next November neared, Green Bay told the NY Giants:
“I’m cooking for our girls only this year. That’s it.”
“And DataCon,” added Giants.
“No, I’m not. Only our girls.”
“And laundry,” Giants went on.
“Better make sure all the roasting pans are back from the dining hall, ” mused New England Patriots because he, like everyone else, knows Green Bay will do it again.
I admit that I was pinker than usual, my usual Irish ruddiness a bit angrier as did the laundry for 24 women.
“You look like you got a tan or a sunburn,” a woman commented. I had seen her long before, remembered her hangdog cheeks, extra weight from overindulging gone past, 1980’s counterfeit Gloria Vanderbilt glasses frames and a bad perm that had been leaving her roots for a long time. These were no fashion choices; I could tell she was stuck in the 80’s financially and could not afford any updates. She hadn’t been in the facility since my last sighting of her because her uniform jeans were too unfaded and her shoes – Keds distributed to all incoming human cargo whose shoes didn’t meet property criteria: white or black sneakers – were dazzling white, totally unmarred. To remain that clean, a C/O must have thrown them at her a few days ago in the Admissions and Discharges building. The time between her discharge and readmission had faded my jeans and bent the black Reeboks I purchased through the prison commissary because they don’t replace the Keds for long-termers. I had been down almost two years at that point.
“Yeah, I was outside yesterday,” I explained off-handedly.
“Don’t do THAT! That’s SELF-MUTILATION!” she yelled. Then calmly announced: “I have a visit,” and walked to the door to leave the housing unit.
“Wow,” I commented to another woman. “She has a real thing about sun damage. What’d she have, cancer or something?”
“No. She right. Self-mutilation a class A ticket. You know. Sunburns, piercings, tattoos, cutting, that type of shit. You can go to seg for it.”
“Why for a sunburn?” I asked.
“Who gives a fuck why. You just can.”
I checked my Inmate Handbook and surely Section 12-Y of the Code of Penal Discipline officially kiboshed the tats and the studs. I knew this from watching women get hauled away in cuffs for piercing themselves with the ends of paper clips and using a tooth of a comb to keep the hole open. The sunburn seemed to be a law of the past, proving that Hangdog knew old rules and not new tricks because she had been in and out of prison for a long time, the time in between a bit wider than for other women who cycle through for years.
Especially since society encourages the same coloring and decoration that the Department of Correction prohibits, calling it self-mutilation seemed overkill to me. It is almost as if the state expects all the women with dark pasts to enter this facility lily white like their new shoes and stay that way, no dashes of pink or dots or rows or boyfriend’s names demarking their bodies added while in custody.
“They takin’ away our in-div-ig-ee-ality with that shit! If I wanna do shit to myself and make me look different, ain’t none of the gov-ment in that,” an inmate janitor’s voice exploded from the shower area where she sprayed tiles with weak bleach solution.
DOC must not want these women sick, I figured, thinking that the self-mutilation prohibition might be thoughtful in a Weirdville way, a kind of in loco parentis gone loco.
“I’m sure they do it to reduce disease. This place is a microbial marsh,” I advised, always the voice of reason whom no one understood. But I misunderstood; a couple of reasons kill the chance to dot up or hole down. The prison needs everyone looking like their ID photos/mug shots for accountability purposes and artistic expression usually involves gang symbols. The warden doesn’t give a shit if the scabs on your skin are cattle calls for bacteria.
Hangdog came back from her visit quickly. Flash visits usually meant a face to face with the Bail Commissioner, not friends or family, who comes in periodically to see what can be done to cut loose the new admissions with $50 bonds. Do you know anyone who will put up the fifty? Hangdog had no one who would.
“This is too much. Too stressful. I’d do anything for a cigarette,” she cried and tried to feign tears, whipping her cheeks around to make sure everyone heard her. I knew she couldn’t really be crying because when someone starts to cry in prison, his/her face either goes down or inverts upward toward the sky. If perchance it doesn’t go up or down, it stays stone still.
“You smoke?” I asked. I was surprised that someone I had pegged as financially strapped would dare such an expensive habit.
“Everyone smokes,” she said and rotated her head ninety degrees in each direction, possibly for agreement but probably to see if anyone would lead her to a bogey, even though they are contraband.
“I don’t smoke. Never had a cigarette in my life,” I offered.
“That’s impossible,” Hangdog derided me.
“It’s extremely possible.”
“Well, aren’t you a Goody-Two-Pie. I heard about you,” she snorted at me.
“I think it’s ‘Goody Two-Shoes.'”
If DOC really did care about saving ourselves from ourselves, then they would do more than just busting some chick stupid enough to tattoo herself, meaning stupid enough to attach a bent staple to the engine of her electric razor to make a tattoo gun and use as her ink shampoo mixed with colored pencil shavings to mark “Pinky ♥s Mario” between her forefinger and her thumb.
The term “break” in prisons shouldn’t be an escape, but how to break the habit of smoking. No one here at York believed me that I never smoked a cigarette in my life. It would be bad enough if they viewed smoking as an essential rite of passage but these women actually see it as an essential right. None of the inmates can imagine a smoke-free life.
The denial is easy for them. Even on the outside, scarce few of them work in offices, fly in airplanes, eat in Manhattan restaurants, join pick-up leagues, go to the gym, the usual mainstays of smoke-free living. But the public health campaign against tobacco is so refined, so extensive, I don’t understand how it missed prisoners, but it has.
Including York CI, sixty-five percent of prisons do not offer smoking cessation courses despite the fact that smoking is a habit much harder to break than drug use, more conclusive of causing fetal damage than heroin or cocaine ingestion in female smokers and almost 24 times more likely to cost inmates their lives than illicit substance abuse. If you need help with a habit, you are better off as a heroin addict than a smoker. Smoking causes 435,000 to drug use’s 17,000 annual deaths according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Smoking is self-mutilation if I ever saw it.
“You know, they say that people can have heart attacks and strokes if they don’t get their cigarettes,” Hangdog continued to everyone around her.
Normally, I stayed out of inanity but this was too much, especially since I had no way to recede back into my cell, into relative silence, because I used my chance to ask the guard to unlock my door early when I pulled the Inmate Handbook out to see if my slight sunburn would box me up.
“No one ever died from lack of cigarettes, OK? I mean, except maybe a preeclamptic woman but that’s not you,” I interjected. Again, none of them understood. I had already tried losing the fifty-cent words in conversation but they still didn’t comprehend. Vocab might be a barrier to inmates’ understanding what I said, but the bigger hurdle is the truth.
I knew smoking was bad since kindergarten when I came home and reported to my father, then a smoker himself, what I had learned at school. I have no recollection of it but I explained the effects of his smoking on my own health; a targeted anti-tobacco crusade imparted this knowledge to my five-year old self. Many times public health campaigns achieve results.
Inmates with children click their tongues over and over, saying “only thing matter to me is my kids” but their habits can make their kids sick — mutilate them — through passive smoke. I would expect them to be grateful for a prison smoking ban if their children matter that much to them because it would force them to quit a habit that harms society and their own. But they resent another chance to learn to protect their children.
To anyone who will listen, they fantasize about lighting up right after they cross the sallyport on their way home. Not getting a job, not eating porterhouse steak, not walking on a beach, not driving a car. Not seeing their children. Smoking is the priority for the average inmate who leaves York. The tobacco ban in Connecticut prisons is just a break in smokers’ habits, not a break of them. And as long as prisoners refrain from smoking while they are incarcerated and kiss their jailers goodbye with promises never to use illegal drugs again, wardens are more than willing to release addicts to resume smoking, to re-enter a legal but deadly habit that they cannot afford. They call this recovery and reentry.
The reason for the disparity in how prisons treat drugs and tobacco seems obvious; we think tobacco use ignites remarkably less crime than illegal drugs but that’s not necessarily true.
Public health researchers have discovered that an addict is 59% more likely to relapse into illegal drug use once she has resumed smoking after stopping for a time. Those 1.84 million smokers who may quit smoking temporarily as a result of an incarceration-forced break in habit are likely to resume the habit once they are released because they have not received formal intervention. Without nationwide, mandatory tobacco control education in place in prisons and jails, any released inmate who starts smoking again has a 59% increased chance of relapse into illegal drug use and the crimes that accompany it.
No one knows what causes the substance abuse relapse, whether it is that resuming smoking initiates a chemical process that sets off a cascade of bad decisions or it is a gateway drug, a threshold once crossed that justifies more severe, more damaging crossings. All I know is that any program with a strong chance of causing offenders to quit one habit that will help them quit another should be mandatory in prisons. Instead, it’s nowhere in here.
Lack of funding is what usually stubs out prison health programs and treatment. People who work for DOC conduct their careers in financial famine. “We can’t afford that” is the answer to every inmate suggestion about her health. Well, can you X-ray my arm? We can’t afford that. I think I need a nebulizer. We can’t afford that. Can I just have a cup of ice to put on this burn I got taking fish patties out of the oven in the kitchen? We can’t afford that. Low coffers might explain the absence of such anti-smoking programs in prisons. That is, if a lack of money actually existed.
Brochures and pamphlets designed to light a fire under smokers to quit appear everywhere now, even on packs of cigarettes. But there are none in prison, a smokers’ convention. When the medical unit couldn’t provide me with any anti-tobacco literature that I could produce the next time I had to hash out the cigarette topic, my sister sent me a few of the first pages from Googling “prisoners smoking.” It was worse than I thought.
Here I blow: In 2010, the states collected $25.1 billion from the 1998 tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes. Less than 15% of that revenue would fund tobacco prevention and smoking cessation programs at CDC-recommended levels throughout each state, including prisons, leaving more than 85% of that revenue for other purposes. Yet the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids estimates that only 2.3% of that 2010 revenue, $58 million, is spent on tobacco prevention and cessation programs. Only one state, North Dakota, finances its tobacco prevention programs at the CDC-recommended level of funding. Thirty-one states provide less than a quarter of the CDC-recommended level of tobacco control programming despite the fact that they have the money. So I’m not blowing smoke when I say to the state about smoking cessation and education: You can afford this.
Money unspent is a governmental wet dream. Oddly, Connecticut legislators seem unable to use the tobacco settlement money in their possession for prison anti-smoking plans that might, through their effects, reduce death, drug use and crime for everyone.
“Here, I’ll help you,” Hangdog approached me at the dryer. “I need to do something if I can’t smoke.”
“There’s no ‘if.’ You can’t, ” I told her and shoved a bundle of warm sheets at her to fold.
As I doubled a sheet over, I lifted the crease and looked down to assure that the corners were aligned. I saw this Goody’s two shoes; dusty, cruddy. Next to them was unmutilated white on the woman whose lungs are black and repeats her offenses. I wondered what would happen if people realized that smoking correlates not just with cancer but with crime. Maybe they already know.
Many people who work in prisons are veterans, some having completed an entire career with the armed forces prior to working in corrections. Today Prison Diaries thanks them for their service and remembers those who served but are no longer with us.
“Just let them mourn,” Bengals, our supervisor in the Food Preparation Unit told one of us when she promised to go and ask one of the guards what was happening. We watched through the windows of the dining hall as captains and guards filed out of the medical building, the site of the emergency just announced. A lieutenant went down, the radio said, and was unresponsive. The captains’ and guards’ faces flushed red only to be cooled by unrelenting courses of tears. One of their own had fallen.
The warden froze walking traffic on the grounds. None of us could leave and four guards came into the dining hall and blocked the large windows that served as our vantage point. Most of what I learned about the prison was gleaned through dirty windows and I had never witnessed staff block the windows like that (they usually just herd us somewhere else if something is that bad) so, as the elder statesman of the kitchen workers, I informed the others:
“This is really serious. Don’t do anything dumb.”
We continued to work, not in total silence (impossible in the company of several women) but quietly. After all, someone had just died.
Ms. Badlee, another supervisor working at a different location, walked in and noticed the pall over the normally obstreperous and obnoxious women.
“What the fuck’s wrong?”
“Lieutenant Thrower. Passed away,” Bengals informed her in an undertone. “You didn’t hear on the radio? Responders came out crying.”
“Thrower ain’t fucking dead, ” Badlee pronounced. Everyone stared. “Nah, he tried to mace somebody and ran into his own spray. Got knocked out. That motherfucker ain’t dead. Just knocked his own ass out.”
“They said he was unresponsive,” my supervisor protested.
“Yeah, unresponsive like he wasn’t talkin’. He ain’t dead.”
Lieutenant Thrower lived and breathed, unresurrected. His heart and lungs continued to pump and expand like they belonged to Dr. Oz. The people who helped him had followed him headlong into his mace cloud; that was what made them screw their kunckles into their eyesockets, not tears of grief.
I swear sometimes the staff here make the Keystone Cops look like Navy SEAL’s. Even organized endeavors usually proves one of them incompetent beyond a reasonable doubt.
Every time I sit on my cell’s countertop, looking out its lone window, I decide that few of the guards would survive more than four minutes in the private sector.
Once I watched two guards run into a housing unit’s south end in apparent response to an emergency. Just as quickly, they exited the building’s south end and rushed to the north end only to circle back out to the south end again. They backtracked two paces to the north end, then stopped, legs shoulder-width apart, waiting for the next instruction. Their running reduced itself to merely shitting their weight toward the north, toward the south, at the conflicting commands on their radios. Then they left for the correct location of the crisis. Apparently no one knew where the emergency was, proving that, if these people worked for an organization motivated by accountability, they would exit in black body bags, truly unresponsive because they would be fired.
Another time I donated several minutes of my attention to the window as a lieutenant ran to a fight in the dining hall, entering through the kitchen’s back door, the door where inmates sometimes break the rules and shove an unmanned meal cart through instead of leading it outside themselves. He crashed so hard into this cart that he fell flat backwards. He sprung up quickly but before racing in, he whipped his head around to catch anyone who might have seen. He forgot about the cell windows that the warden had ordered covered with reflective coating so that all the Bob-the-Builder construction workers reforming the buildings couldn’t become peeping toms. He couldn’t see us but we saw him. He still thinks he performed without an audience.
From yet another cell window, my second-to-last, I watched a “chronic sweep”- a troop of guards decked out in azure-colored latex gloves who gather inmates with the worst discipline records and drop them in the Chronic Discipline housing unit- one officer cried and pointed:
“There she is. There’s Lombardo” and the troops pounced on her because the officer was right; she was Lombardo. But she was one of two in the facility. They hunted Melissa but caught Stacy and took her off to pay for Melissa’s misdeeds. Eventually, a little effort cleared the confusion and the squad picked up the proper sinner. It must have been easy enough since each inmate wears a unique number on her ID. The original sweep squad never checked Stacy’s number against their list before busting her.
Traded on the New York Stock Exchange, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company rakes in $1.7 billion every year. Unshielded by the sovereign immunity doctrine that protects and enables government employees’ incompetence, a private prison cannot avoid civil liability when their employees screw up. I wonder if CCA would hire these idiots in the first place, much less keep them on the duty roster after they made so many dumb mistakes. Because it is almost impossible to sue a public prison or the state government that does its cover-up, public prisons become bunkers for these bumblers. How else would these mistake-makers maintain employment if they were held responsible for their screw-ups?
As broad, macroeconomic policy, prison privatization is generally bad. Almost all of new prison construction between 2000 and 2005 erected private correctional facilities, according to the ACLU. Private prisons are the engines of mass incarceration and one of the primary causes of the 700 percent increase in the prison population in 35 years. You would want to lock people up, too, if you could own vacation homes in Aspen because of it.
If the prison industrial complex likes incarceration, then they must like crime, too, since no one can have one without the other. Corrections Corporation of America calls high recidivism rates “positive investment trends” and the fact that this country incarcerates one of 100 adults a “predictable revenue stream.” As long as Wall Street funnels investors in the company, they could not care less that an ex-con might whoop your ass when he carjacks your Nissan Maxima. He’ll get caught, their thinking is, and then he’ll come home to us.
In microscopic view, through my cell window, privatization would improve and protect the lives of inmates. Looking through my last cell’s glass rectangle, I watched guards inundate another housing unit; an ambulance flashing cherry light backed up to its door to extract a woman who had slipped into a diabetic coma. After she failed to report for her blood-sugar testing that morning, no one followed up to find out why. Sprawled motionless on her bunk, she avoided any concern from guards who passed her cell, counting inmates for almost twelve hours.
“She should sue!” inmates chanted and she can try. But unless she can prove that the staff exceeded their statutory authority – not flubbed it or fell short of it – her claim is barred because private citizens can’t sue the government without its permission. I can’t imagine giving anyone permission to sue me and the government thinks likewise.
Because of this immunity, few inmates ever expose what happens in prisons in legal briefs. Governmental immunity blocks and clouds the windows into a correctional institution and prison administrators convince themselves that anything that is not seen never happened. If this were a private prison, she could retain a lawyer who would work overnight to draft the summons and complaint against the people who ignored her health problem so he could snag some of the private prison’s profits. That same lawyer would never even return the call of an inmate who has a claim against a public institution. No one ever pays for prison guards’ negligence and incompetence in a government run facility which is why – at least for the inmate in the coma – the rest of the prisoners almost ended up mourning one of their own.