To the Mattresses
Can’t this wait until morning? I thought. Ever since I moved from 0 South to 1 North, women had been waking me up to ask me something. “Can you steal me some margarine from Food Prep?” No. “Do you have the free waiver forms so I can order my transcripts?” Yes. I’ll swing my 22-inch legs down this 5 ½ foot bunk bed to haul out my folders to get it for you even though I have to wake up in five hours and you can’t mail it out until Tuesday. “Do you have anything sweet to eat?” Yes, but these stubby limbs are not scaling this structure to get it for you.
Now, instead of speaking through the crack of my cell door, my neighbor was banging on the other side of the cinderblock that separating our cells. I ignored her, deciding I would plead “headphones on” if she asked in the morning why I refused to answer her.
But she didn’t ask me that. She asked me:
“Why were you banging on my wall last night?”
“I wasn’t. You…” I was about to reverse the accusation on her but I realized this might be a trap, a way to squeeze out of me that I had heard her but paid as much attention to her as the Correctional Institute of America pays to us. I left it.
She did it again that night at 2AM. This vindictive little bitch. She’s gonna keep this shit up just because I didn’t answer her last night. She knows I go to work in two hours.
But the next day:
“Stacey, no one banged on your wall but you or your roommate.”
“Nooo. We both took mad allergy tab[lets] last night and were asleep from like 9 o’clock. We weren’t even awake until you started pounding.”
So went the exchange for days until the banging stopped. Because it was replaced with shouting.
“Stop fuckin’ banging bitch!” Stacey shouted through her wall, through to me who was half asleep.
“I’m not banging Stacey. I’m sorry I didn’t answer you the other night but I was tired, OK? Let’s end this.”
“I didn’t call you the other night.”
“You were banging on the wall. You woke me up.”
‘Who the hell was banging’ was me. And it was Stacey. Both of us were banging the wall – half asleep – when our arms and hands would fall fully asleep, pins and needles style, from laying for hours on two-inch, springless mattresses on unforgiving metal platforms. It turns out we do it all the time but are too groggy in the night and too deprived in the day to know that we were.
The first time my arms fell asleep because of substandard bedding, I happened to be balled up in sheets of self-pity over being in prison. My arms and hands were completely insensate. I scrunched up my fingers as much as I could. It just never ends. First I land in this pighole and now I have MS! I lamented silently.
Neither the pins nor the needles were MS but they were NS – non-stop – and kept me from REM sleep because each night they interrupted my rest so painfully that the only remedy was/is to thump the wall next to my bed until I scared my capillaries back on course. I am half-awake when I do it so I don’t remember rapping the cement with my fist. Neither did Stacey. We were both right and both wrong when we accused the other of beating down the walls that divide us. We were so shut out of any serious shut-eye that we didn’t even know what we were doing.
None of the inmates are well-rested unless they lied to a psychiatrist about hearing voices and he ordered the pill equivalent of an I.V. Haldol drip in which case they don’t need to be rested because they never wake up. I estimate that I’ve achieved probably 1500 hours of REM sleep in the past six years. At six hours per night, I should have logged almost 2200.
My worldview dips and swells here in prison. Sometimes I have hope and sometimes I doze off into total cynicism. The difference between my insight one week and my sense the next is so wide sometimes, so different, that I actually started to wonder if I did have a mood disorder. I had fought a diagnosis of bipolar disorder for so long to unreceptive shrinks that the prospect that I was wrong when I stood against the diagnosis scared the shit out of me. The anxiety of a correct diagnosis made me so restless that even a Posturepedic topped with a featherbed wouldn’t have given me rest.
My turns of mind are not sharp enough for others to notice, mostly because I don’t share on one day how I think that all inmates (besides me, of course) are deviants who need to breathe every last breath behind bars or how, on the next day, I believe that all of them have a chance at success. Or how some days I feel that my life is over and others I can square with “God’s Plan” no matter what it is. Most days I’m even-keeled when others misbehave. But the other day I bitched out another woman at work for stealing the bran squares they serve us for breakfast.
“It’s just the stress of being here,” is what everyone says when you’re feeling wobbly. The stress of being here, though, is not that tasks stack up on us or that we don’t have enough time (who doesn’t have time in prison?). Overstimulated nervous systems and under-stimulated brains from lack of rest causes the stress, the breakdowns, the bad and inexplicable behavior.
“It’s only a mood disorder if it interferes with your life. You do what’s asked of you. You do what’s expected of you. You don’t engage disrespectfully with the staff. You’re OK,” a social worker consoled me when I explained my fears about my changing perceptions. “You just need some rest. You get up at 3:30 every morning. Try to take naps.”
Which I do. But when my head hits the plastic, inflated pillow on my bunk, the shouting and other releases of hot air commence outside my cell.
“What? You think I’m some kind of bum? I gave you like ten dollars worth of food…”
“Close the fucking door before they search the place. I got shit in there I need to protect.”
They squabble, scream and screech at decibels I could never sustain for more than two seconds. I can’t sleep because of them and they can’t sleep because their mattresses are yoga mats. So they scream until the staff intervenes.
“You’re grown fuckin’ women! Stop it!” the unit manager bellowed down the hallway after he locked everyone down for noise. He’s right; this behavior is embarrassing for anyone over 14 years old. But I wonder if he really understands how sleep deprived we are and what it does to our brains. Guards shuttle off to the mental health unit any inmate whose behavior is off. Unless it induces a Shakespearean sleep, the script she snags from a doctor in the psych unit won’t work for long because laying steel of an elevated cot counteracts most drug-induced rest. They shift during the night and bang their hands on the walls to wake the cell death out of them and wake me up in the process. I unwittingly serve it all right back to them.
It’s amazing that all the psychological/psychiatric interventions, all the penal discipline and all the soothing cooing form social workers may never solve any behavioral problems. While our sleep stays so shitty, maybe all wardens need to do to rehabilitate us is to follow the example of the original gangster – the biggest cinematic criminal ever – and go to the mattresses.
And to replace the fucking things so we can sleep.
The subtext of any article on stuffing our prisons is that prisoners who live in overcrowded conditions usually face sleeping conditions that are more substandard than usual prison conditions, using’boats” – plastic canoe-like contraptions – for their beds instead of a bunk.
Sorry, there are no polls available at the moment.