19 January 2015

Letter from a Niantic Prison

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“So… where’d you get the envelope? No stamp on it.” Captain Soprano questioned me.image

Except for the one on Soprano’s desk, all prison envelopes bear the same stamp on the back: “This correspondence originated from an inmate at a Connecticut Correctional Facility,” a warning that the mailroom staff could easily shorten to: “IGNORE.” If Alabama’s Department of Correction imprinted this type of advisory on its inmate envelopes over fifty years ago when Martin Luther King, Jr. mailed his esteemed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” no one would have ever opened the fucking thing.

A Letter from a Birmingham Jail: the most famous and important letter from an inmate. They let Martin Luther King, Jr. type his, but not me.

You would pass over prisoner mail too, if you received it, just like everyone else does. We understand our confinement neutralizes us. We cannot call you or even alight your doorstep to pitch a bitch fit or, even worse, go totally postal on you with an illegal firearm. What hurts more than being ignored by people on the outside is what the guards do to your letters inside the facility. Mail tampering is as central to the penal experience as a lock or a lousy mattress. I still wonder how King got his letter out to the clergymen at all.

Addressed to my father, the envelope that Soprano and his investigator plopped in front of me lacked the mark of the prison’s mailroom. The commissary makes mistakes sometimes and misses one envelope they sell. The mailroom would have mindlessly stamped the missive’s wrapper and freed it to the United States Postal Service if any other inmate’s name and inmate number appeared in the upper left corner, but mine? Mine beckoned a formal investigation.

“Commissary. I got it from commissary,” I confessed. In any prison, the commissary is the lone legit game in town. It was the only place I knew to buy an envelope. It was the only place any prisoner could buy an envelope.

“Well, we called them and they said they don’t sell stamped envelopes.” Soprano lowered his gaze at me as if he had trapped me.

“Aren’t you calling me in because this one doesn’t have a stamp on it?” I asked. Soprano and Co. said nothing. “Uh… stamped envelopes are the only kind of envelopes they sell… Aren’t you in charge of the mailroom?” I couldn’t believe I was explaining the innards of the mailroom to the corrections captain charged with running it.

“Well, if that’s the case, do you have receipts for them?” he challenged me.

“Yeah, actually, I do, back in my cell.”

imageSoprano looked surprised and sent me off to fetch.  As I pushed through the double-glass doors of the administration building I weighed which was worse: the reality that people slight inmates by not slitting open their letters or the fact that every piece of mail a prisoner either sends or receives will be tampered with. Inside, Big Brother does more than watch, listen and read; he also rips, steals, chucks, defaces, alters, meddles with and corrupts a prisoner’s correspondence which – in lieu of expensive collect calls or cattle-call personal visits – is often the only gate a prisoner can use legally, the only portal to the outside world.

Correctional mail tampering is so pervasive and so old that even the United States Supreme Court acknowledged it over twenty-five years ago in its decision in a case called Houston vs. Lack. Way back then, the highest court in the country found that prisoner mail was so unfailingly fooled with that they established what we call “the prisoner imagemailbox rule,” law that states that legal mail sent by an inmate to a court is deemed filed the day that the inmate drops the letter in the prisoner mail receptacle, rather than on the day the court receives it, because inmates correspondence was so rampantly and severely delayed by prison staff.

As I walked back to my unit, I counted the molestations that my personal or “social” mail had withstood: a guard opened another letter to my father and inserted two pornographic pics, my People magazine arrives with a crossword completed in pencil even though is easy enough to use ink, another guard labeled my mail “Not in this unit” and tossed it in the trash, I received one issue of a 26-week subscription to Sports Illustrated. There were so many that I couldn’t even sort the mail problems in my memory.

One wonders why someone would bother to note that I was not in that housing unit (Thompson Hall as noted by the TH inside a circle) when the guard was going to throw this out. I saw it in the trash when I went into the guards' office for a roll of toliet paper.
One wonders why someone would bother to note that I was not in that housing unit (Thompson Hall as noted by the TH inside a circle) when the guard was going to throw this out. I saw it in the trash when I went into the guards’ office for a roll of toilet paper.

The problems with my legal mail were much more serious. Like me, many inmates represent themselves either because they can’t afford a lawyer and do not want to burden their families financially or they have already experienced attorney assistance and it’s the reason they’re in the can. Sometimes courts appoint attorneys in habeas corpus petitions – proceedings to secure someone’s release from custody – but the inmate must timely file the initial petition herself before an lawyer takes the case. The reliability of the prison Pony Express is vital to the self-represented inmate; the mail is sometimes the only way to send yourself home.

When I experienced severe delays with my legal mail in 2009, early on in my sentence when I still believed that upper-level management positions in government were occupied by people who gave a shit, I filed a grievance and hoped that official channels would route my envelopes more accurately because a prison grievance is supposed to be like someone on the outside saying: “I want to speak with your supervisor”; it should be the death knell for bureaucratic bullshit. But, per usual, things work differently for prisoners; it’s not a death knell for bullshit but its baptism. The grievance coordinator rejected my complaint outright, replying that the prison had the right to review my mail.

I never disputed their licensed invasions of the mail; my beef was that the delay incurred by the review was unreasonable and unlawful. I wrote this on a request form and sent it to the grievance coordinator but never heard back even though the request form didn’t have the “This correspondence orginated…” stamp to tell her to trash it.

The next time I experienced a severe delay with my mail was when the clerk of Connecticut’s Appellate Court didn’t receive certain documents I mailed for over six months. So I filed another grievance.image

Within two days the grievance coordinator, Officer No Brains, appeared in my housing unit with her muscle, Officer Brawn from the prison’s alleged “Intelligence Unit,” three or four thugs wearing fabric badges and penchants for gossip, which they call ‘intelligence.”

“Bozelko, this is your official warning that if you file another complaint about the mail we’ll ban you permanently from the grievance system… for abuse.”

“How am I abusing the system?” I challenged them.

“Read your handbook. Repeat complaints about the same problem are abuse.” Officer Brawn informed me.

“But I grieved two separate incidents. It’s the same problem but different instances of it,” I explained to blank stares.

“They’re both about mail,” the No Brains told me, her eyes slitted with condescension.

Instructing people who have power over you is a dicey situation. You never want them to think that you think you know more than they do but, in prison, underlings usually know more than the brass.  So I tread with both persistence and caution to break this Brawn-and-No Brains stalemate.

“So one grievance about mail prevents another grievance about mail, even if one alleges that the mail policy is wrong and the other complains about mail tampering? They’re not the same thing,” I said.

Officer Brawn explained the entire situation, simply, in three words.

“We’ll ban you.”

“OK. Just ban me then.”

The Department of Correction Administrative Remedy system: government fraud at its finest.
The Department of Correction Administrative Remedy system: government fraud at its finest.

No Brains and Brawn looked at me incredulously. They weren’t  of their minds for doing so: I admit that my response was unusual. But Brawn et al.  failed to understand that it was also strategic. Unlike many inmates who do not take the time to familiarize themselves with the facility’s own rules and procedures, I actually read the Inmate Handbook distributed at admission. And from reading it I knew that any ban entailed an affirmative showing of abuse to the warden; they would have to show him my complaints. I figured that any foray into the alleged abuse for the big, bad ban would reveal the content of my complaint, thereby apprising the warden of my mail problem which he would then solve.

No Brains never sought to ban me but I still stopped grieving my continuing mail problems anyway. Now instead I just swear out affidavits attesting to the date I mailed the envelope and lean back on the Supreme Court and their mailbox rule, the only guideline that really protects all those envelopes stamped in block black capitals that they originate in a prison.

When I reached the unit, I grabbed a stack of commissary receipts – counteracting mail tampering is expensive in the joint – brought them back to the administrative building and handed them to Soprano in the hallway outside his office so he could examine them.

A commissary receipt reflecting a “STAMPED ENVELOPES” purchase. York Correctional Institution has sold stamped envelopes for longer than Soprano has worked for the Department of Correction but he still hasn’t caught up to that fact.

“Huh… stamped envelopes,” Soprano read off the laser-printed page. He seemed legit stumped.

“That’s the only kind of envelope they sell. I told you.” I pointed to the proper lines on the receipt. This ‘investigation’ was one of two things: either it was proof that Captain Soprano was the most incompetent civil servant I had ever encountered – a tough contest to win, especially among Department of Correction personnel – or this was pure harassment because there was no way that Soprano didn’t know what kind of envelopes the prison used and that I got mine from commissary; those were the only two choices given the titanic idiocy of the whole scene.

“Can I take a copy of this and then close out the investigation?” Soprano asked me as if he needed prisoner permission to do anything. Soprano’s soldiers had tampered with and confiscated my paperwork for years, now the boss was asking me if he could take a copy of a document that was already in the prison’s database of what I had purchased from the commissary. The whole situation was simple-minded yet complex in its confusion: I had to prove that I bought a stamped envelope when mine wasn’t stamped. It seemed like a logical impossibility except I had just done it. I shook my head and shrugged.

“Sure, go ahead. Seal it up.”


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12 January 2015

The Grass Is Always Meaner

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images (9)

Sperry the supervisor was chatting as he spread the Sun Butter – the new peanut butter perfidy that the prison foisted upon us- on his wheat bread. Instead of peanuts, Sun Butter manufacturers use sunflower seeds into a baby-diarrhea consistency spread. The supervisor bit the sandwich and almost choked.

“What the hell is this?” he shouted.

“Sun Butter,” Bengals told him.

“It’s made with sunflower seeds,” Green Bay informed him.

“It replaced the peanut butter,” NY Giants said.

This is Sun Butter.
This is Sun Butter.

“What… some flower child out in California thought this would be better than peanut butter? Well… fuck you asshole!” Sperry shouted to the theoretical flower child on the opposite coast and chucked his sandwich into a trash can. It’s always interesting to see a jailer get jailed himself, even if he’s only bound by the taste of Sun Butter in his mouth.

Not that the taste of Sun Butter is the worst confinement that the corrections staff can face. The administration has tossed more than a few (but still not enough) male guards to the lions of criminal prosecution for sexual contact with inmates, creating another one of those situations like when God became man or Zeus made himself mortal. People in power find out how much the powerless world sucks.

The supervisor had yet to lose the taint of sunflower seeds in his mouth when word spread like butter that a local police department arrested one of the guards, one who had worked here for several years, for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend very severely. The judge set high bond.

imageI do not know for sure but I think the guard eventually bonded out of custody. Until that point, his own employer penned him in. This guard knew what the people watching him thought of him – as a corrections employee he was probably a higher profile inmate than his cohorts – because he thinks those same thoughts about us. Being new in confinement, he wore his uniform, a different one still issued by DOC,  24/7; anyone admitted to a Connecticut prison  has no pajamas at first. No one can sleep in their underwear because they might flash a guard. He ate question-mark cutlets that pass for protein just like we do. To post his bond, he wrote a request form to a correctional counselor who probably worked for the department for far fewer years than he to schedule a call to a bondsman. Then he sporked over a retainer to a lawyer who met him at court, a place twenty-five miles away that takes eighteen hours to go to and fro. He likely saw guards he already knew from working with them before they transferred out of York, apparitions from posts gone past whose awkward greeting (if he was greeted at all) shrinky-dinked his self-esteem.

I’m not feeling 50 shades of shadenfreude. I am not happy that Sperry disgorged his Sun Butter or that the C/O took a collar. I like Sperry and the C/O never gave me a problem. But still, in my penal processing, staff have tampered with my food and my mail, vandalized my property, taunted me with names, invaded my privacy and even assaulted me. They played “jokes” on me, providing false information/orders that I would follow. Every revenge fantasy entailed some scenario where they were rendered just as powerless as I am. I dreamed of nothing violent, just instances where I controlled all toilet paper in the state, duly authorized not to spare a square to any of them. Or that DOC would hire me as a staffing consultant and I would decide who among the guards stays and who blows. You’re fired!images (10)

In abusive or oppressive situations, role reversal is the ultimate reprisal because the payback is rarely out of proportion with the original offense. Role reversal is like LASIK surgery performed on an eye for an eye. Everyone’s vision improves as their eyes well with tears in their new, bad, circumstances.

It’s no secret that my parents would forcibly hospitalize me in psych wards early on in my tenure as public enemy number 330445. I mass-produced angry tears during each of these events in 2001 and 2005. For those who have never experienced it, involuntary hospitalization feels like a kidnapping and the place that holds you for ransom is the Bizzaro World in Superman. Someone – for me it was my parents – calls the police who shanghai you in an ambulance even though no one is hurt. EMT’s physically force you onto the rig (if you resist you can be charged criminally with assaulting a law enforcement officer) that transports you on a stretcher, even though you can walk or sit upright, to an emergency department where a physician determines whether you are a danger to yourself or others. Then the good doctor decided whether you can meet your basic needs – food, clothing and shelter. If you’re homicidal or suicidal, you stay. If you are neither homicidal or suicidal but are so addled that you cannot scale even the first step of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs, you stay, too.

Every single time they called, I stayed.

images (6)No physician ever actually interviewed me as I shivered in a paper gown in an exam room. Instead, the medical establishment collected clinical data on a patient in their midst from people who weren’t even there, my parents. Despite calling 911 and referring their daughter for emergency treatment and intervention, my parents never came to the ER. As I stayed, they stayed. At home. Grilling steaks or watching Masterchef. Once they ventured out after calling 911 – to a restaurant. Another time they were to a charity auction as I sat emergent, dangerous, half-naked at the hospital.

Each time I stayed, some ER doc shunted me to the psych ward where an RN with a frying pan face would greet me.

“Hi Chandra. I’m June, your primary nurse. Do you remember me?”

Of course I do, you bitch.

A picture of the kind of Luella bag that shockingly went missing during my stay. I think June is a thief and a liar.

No one else ever had a primary nurse and I do not know why June insisted on being mine. I suspect that it was because she loved itemizing my property and clothing as I stood by, now clad in scrubs.

“I’m such a clothes horse. I like these shoes. Cheap and Chic by Moschino. Did you get these at the outlets?”


“And this bag! I love this green. Do you remember the pink Prada one you had last time?”

“Well, I own it so, yes, I do remember it.”

“I’ve never heard of this designer Luella,” June gushed.

“And yet, somehow, she still exists.”

“And Blugirl. Blugirl. What’s Blugirl?”

“It’s Blumarine, their younger, more affordable line.”

“They have it at Forever 21?” she inquired.


“Boy, Chandra, you sure can dress,” she conceded as she sealed everything that came in with me in a plastic bag like the ones cops use for evidence.

“So I guess I can’t feed or house myself then, if I can clearly dress, right?” I asked June, referring to the standard for involuntary admission: inability to feed, clothe or shelter oneself.

Nervous laugh.

imageThese hospitalizations never lasted very long, mostly because I always filed for a hearing with the local probate court. Eventually the probate judge would amble in with a tape recorder – the record – and ask doctors if I should have been held against my will. I was naïve and inexperienced enough at first to expect that employees of the hospital would testify that a colleague, also employed by the hospital, had no grounds to hold me. But because the truth would have exposed the hospital to litigation and complaints – as well as lent me some sway – it never showed up. June, my primary nurse, was handmaiden to the fraud, raising a manicured hand up near her botched highlights to swear her oath. Then she lied.

“Ms. Bozelko has multiple scars on her forearms from past suicide attempts. It’s highly likely that-”

“No I don’t!” I interrupted. “Look,” I offered the inside and outside of my arms to the probate judge. At the time, I could barely believe that the hospital attorney would allow perjury like that. Now I’m shocked when they don’t do it.

images (8)Any probate court hearing held within a psychiatric setting is such a kangaroo court that I don’t understand why veterinarians don’t sit in on them alongside the shrinks, the lawyer and June, my primary nurse. The judge always ruled that it was within the doctor’s discretion to hold me involuntarily. Somehow I was always released hours after these sham hearings. I suspected that the judge knew I was right but was too much of a power player to ratify my rightness officially. After all, just like the criminal defendant, the psychiatric patient can never be right. Never. Once you get a Dx (diagnosis)  that requires Tx (treatment) with an Rx (prescription), you will be hallucinating, mistaken, lying or just plain wrong for the rest of your life. I had no idea that after that first hospitalization, I would never be right again.

Now, years later, I borrowed another prisoner’s copy of the Connecticut Law Tribune and read an article about Attorney Ira Grudberg and how he had obtained a relatively large settlement for a client who was hit by a bus. His client sued the bus company because her injuries prevented her from working. His client was June, my primary nurse.

According to the article, poor June, my primary nurse, could no longer subdue psychiatric patients because her injuries were so severe. Not working, June, my primary nurse, became clinically depressed, got a Dx that needed Tx with an Rx. When I get out, I might go to the courtroom look up June, my primary nurse’s case and find the name of the driver who hit her so I can send him or her an Edible Arrangement in congratulations and gratitude.

imageHow a person handles a reversal of fortune tells almost everything anyone needs to know about him. A real jerk will still shit on the little people, not realizing that he’s one of them. A good guy will realize that, when you have a little bit of power, the grass is really meaner on the other side and he will stop being mean himself. Sun Butter has yet to dawn again on any of our trays since the Sperry ordered the Sun Butter thrown out to make way for real peanut butter again. The guard has yet to report back to work – at least not with inmate contact – since his arrest so no one can tell how he landscapes the grass on this other side. Like the guard, June, my primary nurse, has not returned to work. She probably does not realize that she’s on the other side now because she put way some green from that settlement. It has not been forced on her yet that the grass is always meaner where she is now. Roll up your sleeves, June. Let me check your arms.

I don’t want to rub anyone’s face in his/her misfortune; I know what it’s like to lose. But I do want to ask Sperry, the guard and June, my primary nurse, without any trace of ridicule, revenge or rancor:

   How did it feel?



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5 January 2015

I Keep My Ideals

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“I want my picturrre! I want my picture now!!” Then came sobbing.

imageWithout even seeing her, I knew that the woman in the cell next to mine was probably cognitively disabled as well as mentally ill. She had not come down where it’s wrong to be- with me in the maximum security section of the solitary confinement unit, a postmodern dungeon- solely because she was disabled. Solitary is for the allegedly problematic inmates. Her problems differed from mine: she fought other inmates, threw tantrums, assaulted judicial marshals, all while pregnant. Before her solitary cell, the prison doctor had allowed her to recuperate in the medical unit when she bore a daughter a few weeks earlier. In the labor and delivery room, a social worker informed her that she would never see the child again; a probate court terminated her parental rights before they ever kicked in. All that remained of her newborn was a photo someone had snapped before her baby was snatched. Now it, too, was elsewhere, lost in her transfer back to solitary. Sometimes imageshe warbled, weakening during her vocal endurance test. In those dots and dashes of lowered volume, I heard the guards twittering.

“Is Demers back? Let him handle this because… I don’t know. Maybe she needs to go back to medical or wherever,” a female guard told another. Then what I heard reduced itself to indistinct conversation, which meant that they were leaving. They couldn’t tolerate the crying either.

Demers was the captain assigned as unit manager for the solitary confinement building. The unit manager is every prison housing division’s buck stopper. Demers stopped bucks and hearts, not from good looks but from bad management. Inmates told stories of physical abuse he had heaped on women in the facility; throwing one against a table, thumping another’s head against a cinderblock wall as guards pressed her against it. Supposedly he and one prisoner boxed each other blow for blow in the prison dorms. Everything about his manner- speech, intonation, pitch- said not only was Captain Demers ready for a fight, he was looking for one. I remembered a kerfuffle in the dining hall a year earlier. After guards announced the emergency, Demers sprinted from the solitary building – about 40 yards – with his arm outstretched, his finger already atop his mace’s spray button. He intended to blind every member of the scrum and sort out the jumble after.


Demers never assaulted me but our interactions made me feel like the kid whose see-saw partner jumps off to let the other end plunge and bounce; he emphasized the power imbalance so much it felt like a smack on my ass. His favorite line remains “I get paid a lot of money to make your life miserable.” When he wasn’t justifying his salary, he laced his conversation with a sick, possessive paternalism. Guards were “my men” (even the women). Solitary was “my building.” The entire facility was “my house.” Its cliché to say he thinks he owns the place but I’m convinced that he really believes that.

This is not to say that he was kind to his personal belongings. He chastened the guards pitilessly to the point that they hated him, too. With this popularity, Demers gave me little hope he could quiet the woman next door.images (4)

Women who sit in restricted housing’s entrail fret and fume about why they sit there and when they’ll be pushed out. We welcome some noise to breach the sameness of each hour. Relentless howling, though, overloaded my nerves.

In life, powerlessness sometimes comes and goes with its victim unaware. In maximum solitary confinement, powerlessness announces itself like a repeated cheer for the opposing team. I could do nothing to quiet the screams next door so I prayed:

Please God, make it stop. I can’t take this anymore.


I’m praying wrong. OK, God, please bring peace to the woman next door, comfort her and let her know that everything will be all right, with or without the photo. Lessen her load.

I heard Demers and a guard descend to our floor. The guard, a Wolverine knock-off, never earned the Boy Scout’s compassion badge, as I could tell. Actually, he is an outright dick. Saggy, feminine flab ringed his midsection, an undergut that cried ‘distended uterus,’ almost as if he had been very heavy at one point and his skin no longer fit. Bullied? Parents who overbore? A victim himself once, teaching prison’s most prominent lesson, that abuse begets abuse? I always wondered. As I saw it, the Demers-Wolverine Duo would give even Anne Frank goosebumps and an eraser  to rub out her conclusion that goodness resided in every person.

I don’t know if other inmates think of Anne Frank as often as I do – primageobably every day. Many other prisoners have never read her captivity diary, a staple of eighth-grade English, mostly because many dropped out in the seventh. But Anne Frank’s preternatural optimism and faith is almost inconceivable for the modern prisoner. Her situation differed entirely from that of 21st century prisoners; Anne faced death at the hands of social and political caprice and wondered each day whether it would be that morning, that evening, when she would witness  execution by Gestapo soldiers.

The worst we face is being demeaned or escorted to solitary – where I was – without prison comforts like pillows, washcloths or emery boards. The prospect of our own physical destruction is much less explicit than Anne Frank’s. In prison, shades of grey nuance death and destruction; each woman watches other inmates’ slowly passing, but few actually die. Besides, Anne never deserved her underground exile; each woman here earned hers, at least according to the state.image

Given her nadir of existence, Anne’s unflagging faith in essential human goodness baffles me. I once could find an excuse, a justification, for any inmate’s crime. But after watching those same perps I absolved, I concluded that evil exists, even flourishes and is often absolute. Inmates who have murdered people laugh about their victims. Some try to murder, premeditatively, other inmates while they’re here. They assassinate each other’s characters (or what’s left of them) unmethodically and without qualm. Then, of course, we have authorities like Demers and Wolverine. Evil does not reside in everyone but it isn’t homeless, either.

When Demers and Wolverine approached the cell next door, screams doused every attempt at communication. I caught a few words, mostly’ calm,’  ‘down,’ ‘quiet.’ Finally in an authoritative yet compassionate tone, Demers said:Quotation-Anne-Frank-life-courage-hope-Meetville-Quotes-98721

“I can’t talk to you if you can’t hear me. You need to be quiet for me to help you.”

“It’s… they have… I can’t find…my baby is…my picture, my picturrre.”

“OK. I want to help you. I will speak to the medical unit. That’s where you were, right? They probably still have it. But you need to stay calm and stop crying. Can you do that for me?”

I had pressed my ear to the doorjamb to hear this unexpected kindness from Demers and I scolded myself.

images (5)You give up too easily on people. See? This captain you thought was so cruel is actually an okay guy and good manager to boot. Maybe that goodness you can’t see can’t be shown because you’re in prison. Maybe tending to Connecticut’s most wayward burns these employees out and they can’t always be that Clara Barton-Martin Luther King-King Solomon hybrid you expect everyone to be. Anne was right, people are good.

My failure of faith and defection to doubt about human goodness disappointed me so much in myself that I resolved to write to the warden when I left solitary to report the kindess I saw Demers display to the pictureless post-partum among us. I had nothing to retract as I never complained volubly about him. But Demers’ performance so revised my thinking it gave me goosebumps and an eraser; I needed to confess my misperception, I had to delete cynicism’s smirch on me.images (3)

“So we’re okay now? You’re going to stop crying and screaming and bothering my staff?” Demers asked.

“Yeah,” she conceded.

“And if I can help you, you’ll control your behavior?”

“Yeah…Yeah. I promise. When you gonna get my picture?”

“You aren’t getting your picture. Sike!” Demers yelled to her as I heard him pulling her cell door closed to block the lunge of revenge at him, a deflection of violence very uncharacteristic of him. Laughing, he and Wolverine ascended the stairs leaving my neighbor wailing.


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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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25 December 2014

Merry Christmas from Prison Diaries

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“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?”

“Plenty of prisons…”

“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“Both very busy, sir…”

“Those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”  – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol




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22 December 2014

Christmas Pity Invitation

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“Bosslady, Ima be right back, ok? I gotts to go get that Angel Tree paper. Even though I’m late they gonna let me do it. You can load this kettle by yourself?”

“Of course. Go ahead,” I waved her ahead.  Christmas was a few weeks away and we were making the gravy – margarine, soup base, flour and starch – for the Christmas meal. We needed to make 1200 gallons that day to be poured into all of Connecticut’s prisons for the holiday.

“You want a paper, too?”

“You know I don’t have kids,” I scoffed at her.

Click here to donate to Angel Tree. Remember: no matter what you think of their parents, their kids are innocent. Angel Tree is a reputable, responsible program that helps children.

“Yeah, but your niece and nephew. They can get something for them.”

Angel Tree is a nationwide program run by the non-profit organization Prison Fellowship, a network of not angels but saints who buy Christmas gifts for children of the incarcerated. Any inmate can sign up and an Angel Tree volunteer will contact the child’s caregiver and arrange for presents to be delivered.

“My niece and nephew have everything. They want for nothing.”

“So you can still  send them something to show you care and shit.”

“My mother gets them a gift from me every year,” I explained.

“But this is free,” she insisted.

“I know but just because something is free that doesn’t mean that you need to take it.” I shook my head and bit my tongue before I said anything else. It must be terrible for mothers who can’t see their children on the first day of Christmas because the prison cancels all visits on holidays. Angel Tree is less about material gifts than it is their only link to their kids that day.

I wonder how much psychic damage the Judicial Branch and the Department of Correction cause by disappointing children and denying them meaningful contact with their mothers on Christmas.  Keeping them from their children and forcing their contact through third-party presents harms the child more than it rehabilitates or punishes the parent. Children of troubled parents should not attenuate their relationships with their mothers on any day, especially not on what is a kid’s holiday. I hate to say it but not having children is a Christmas blessing for women in prison.

I would consider this extreme decorating in a prison but a couple of my cellmates did it.

Missing Christmas with my niece and nephew bothers me less than the explanation I will need to provide in the future, justification for missing four, maybe five, maybe six, maybe seven Christmases with them. Apologies for their being pulled away from new toys and forced onto the phone to tell me “Merry Christmas.” I don’t miss Christmas because it reminds me of how many Christmases I will miss.

It’s easy not to yearn for yuletide  in here. Save one paper banner above the school’s reception desk, all the decking in here is done with fists; we have no Christmas trees, garlands, stockings, wreaths or lights. Christmas decorations in the inmates’ own cells are illegal: contraband and fire-hazardous so I won’t risk it.  The absence of the blinking red and green commercial blitz that emerges the day after Halloween makes the twelve days of turtle doves and milkmaids blend with the remaining 353 days of the year.

Sometimes sympathetic staff  would sneak in holiday presence, like the nurse who gave me one green and one red gumdrop.  They told her: “That is frowned upon.”  Or the teacher who gave us mouthwash-sized Dixie cups of orange soda. They told her: “That is frowned upon.” Or the kitchen supervisor who gave a mini candy cane and a card to each worker, thanking her for her labor. They told him: “That is frowned upon.”

Up until four years ago,  on Christmas morning, the guards delivered each of us puzzles printed on Xerox paper and a one-page calendar for the next year, packaged in clear mini-trash bags with two of the red and white peppermint rounds that restaurants leave in a bowl for customers to pick up after their meal.  Two mints, puzzles and a calendar for measuring our sentences was penal paydirt. Then they frowned upon themselves and tossed the Christmas trash bags. We haven’t received anything since.


cup of orange soda

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Women here will tell you that, with no traditional Christmas influences to overexpect, overspend, or overindulge, the real meaning of Christmas, the spirit of the holiday, shines through. This holiday celebrates the birth of a man who truly had all the answers yet ended up being killed for it by scared dummies, allegedly in the vein of justice. His mother was a homeless, pregnant teenager when she had him. The nicest guy in the nativity story was the innkeeper who let Mary and Joseph and Mary squat in his shed. We know that spirit. And being reminded of this reality? Shining that spirit in our faces? That is frowned upon by us.

With my kettle-loading partner out climbing the Angel Tree, I lifted a tray of thirty seven pounds of margarine above my head and catapulted it into the kettle for the next batch of gravy. No one flinched to help out, instead focused on their own holiday analysis. 3-wise-men-and-bethlehem-wall-cropped1

“You know, Christmas, Baby Jesus’ birth, that was the set up,” I overheard a butcher telling the  phony holy roller who ran the breakfast line.

“Girl, you talkin’ crazy.”

“Really? God sent his own son and tipped everybody off, these three kings, that he was gonna take over. Then when he takin’ over in ways none a dem understand, they kill his ass. Them three kings, they brought the heat. Bringin’ that baby all that expensive shit was like callin’ the cops.

“See now you talkin’ about Easter,” Phony Holy Roller told her.

“Yeah, we don’t get nothin’ special for Easter neither. Cuz it’s on a Sunday, it ain’t even a paid holiday for most these motherfuckers,” she said as she waved at all the supervisors.

“You get something special for Christmas,” I reminded them and Vanna White-ed the kettle cooking the Christmas gravy, hinting that they might want to help me load another thirty seven pounds of margarine. “Roast beef.”Christmas in Prison

“Chandra, you worked in this kitchen long enough to know that them two Steakumm’s they give us on Christmas is just the Sunday meal switched to Christmas day,” Phony Holy Roller shouted to me.

“You’re right. I know. The ice cream [for Christmas dessert] gets switched off the Monday dinner, too.” I conceded.

“We ain’t gettin’ ice cream on the next Monday?”

I shook my head.

“Shit. They take motherfuckin’ everything.”

“Bosslady, I’m back,” my partner told me, breathless from racing to the chaplain’s office and back and from holding back tears that she won’t see her kids the day we eat two slices of beef and a cup of vanilla All-Star ice cream. “I got you the paper anyway. If you want to send it in.”

“Thanks,” I told her and politely waved away the Angel Tree form. “But I’m not going to insert this place in their Christmas. Christmas is…” I paused and put my palm in the direction of the sallyport through which the inmates leave the facility. “Christmas is out there.”




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15 December 2014

Fight After Death

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Street artist Panzarino prepares a memorial as he writes the names of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims during the six-month anniversary of the massacre, at Union Square in New York

Prisons aren’t just about punishment.  They support public safety because many women in jail with me are dangerous.  Because so
many of the state’s stabs at correction fail, some will hurt another person when they leave the prison.  Their behavior will continue to be bad. They will be unsafe for society.

542c3aa133d2cWhen I watched the news that Friday [December 14, 2012] and learned that a madman had killed twenty first-graders and six people who took care of them, I wondered if society is safe for us.  After all, murder, assault weapons and depravity had leaked into a world of Christmas cupcakes, alphabet posters and dodgeball.  Danger waits for everyone everywhere; no place is sacrosanct.

Even in the worst of the worst situations, as Sandy Hook parents lowered mini-coffins into the ground, people dug up small reasons to feel safe and sustain faith.  The outpouring of donations, miles of makeshift memorials and the trails of twenty-six acts of kindness that newscaster Ann Curry blazed, prove that evil lands some solid punches but goodness, although bruised and burning with pain, never taps out.Good_vs__Evil_by_RaptorKraine

That’s when the Sandy Hook lesson spreads behind bars.  Women whom I silently labeled as lowlifes for their outrageous behavior in the prison, their complete immunity to correction and their abject disregard for the rights and interests of others showed their goodness.  A symphony of popping pen caps sounded in counselors’ offices here in the prison as inmates filled out forms to donate to the United Way’s Newtown initiative.  Others continue to crochet hats and scarves for men and women in a New Haven homeless shelter.  After the attack, I even witnessed a bonafide bully display outright kindness to another inmate who is the typical target for scorn for her mental illness and physical disabilities.

Good_EvilSure, bad things happen to good people but when you see compassion and good citizenship inside a prison, is it bad people doing good things or good people doing good things in a place where their bad deeds landed them?  I can’t tell. It does not make sense that we can do good on one day and totally avoid it on others. Our goodness looks like swamp fire, flashing like it’s ignited when it really just appears at will. And might not be what it seems.

I’m the first to concede that prisoners often deserve contempt.  The women around me disgust me frequently and I offend myself.  My problem is my attitude, my lack of gratitude.  As you might imagine, many prisoners are violent, outrightly disrespectful, vandals and thieves.  But then out of a prison’s pool of perfidy, we dredge decency.  On a good day, this phenomenon is confusing; on a bad one, it’s infuriating. Who has time  to look for the good in the bad?

US-CRIME-SCHOOL-SHOOTINGAfter Sandy Hook, it’s overly sanguine, trite, and offensive to victims’ families and survivors, people who would gladly toss every teddy bear out, down every cross and refund every donation with usurer’s interest to rewind their lives to December 13, 2012 to say that good triumphs over evil.  It doesn’t.

But goodness is scrappy and gives as good as it gets.  Sometime part of its strategy is to mix in with evil and hide.  This is why nothing and no one is all good or all bad.  Even if no place is safe, none is a guaranteed danger.  Even if people commit horrific crimes and do tremendous wrong, rightness worth redeeming dwells within. At least every now and again.




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14 December 2014

Remember Sandy Hook

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Charlotte Bacon (DOB 2/22/06)

Daniel Barden (9/25/05)

Rachel Davino (7/17/83)

Olivia Engel (7/18/06)

Josephine Gay (12/11/05)

Ana M. Marquez-Greene (4/4/06)

Dylan Hockley (3/8/06)

Dawn Hocksprung (6/28/65)

Madeleine F. Hsu (7/10/06)

Catherine V. Hubbard (6/8/06)

Chase Kowalski (10/31/05)

Jesse Lewis (6/30/06)

James Mattioli (3/22/06)

Grace McDonnell (11/04/05)

AnneMarie Murphy (07/25/60)

Emilie Parker (5/12/06)

Jack Pinto (5/6/06)

Noah Pozner (11/20/06)

Caroline Previdi (9/7/06)

Jessica Rekos (5/10/06)

Avielle Richman (10/17/06)

Lauren Russeau (6/1982)

Mary Sherlach (2/11/56)

Victoria Soto (11/4/85)

 Benjamin Wheeler (9/12/06)

Allison N. Wyatt (7/3/06)

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8 December 2014

Forbidden Love

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mendez arrest

“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.

apple orange
Inmates and guards are like apples and oranges but both are forbidden fruit for the other.

“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.

forbidden-loveLike 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.forbidden_love_by_beautifulending-d6tfz84

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.

forbidden loveBut 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.”twizzlers2

“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?”

“Two years.”tigi spoil Me

“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.



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