I found the package of Oreos under my pillow on the very night I awoke to the muffled groans and pleas and tearful whimpers from the cell next door. The late August air was still and hot; the dense smell of sweat drifted through the steel bars to where I lay.
Then I heard the scamper of steps, like rats scurrying from sudden light, and the contented chuckles — the conqueror’s refrain.
I had met Kevin my first day at the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky. We were both nineteen. I’d had long hair and smoked pot, and so had he. We’d been carefree college students and anti-war protesters when we committed our heinous crimes against society: Kevin had refused induction into the armed forces; I had received five grams of pure Peruvian cocaine from a friend through the mail. A federal judge sentenced Kevin to five years imprisonment; another sentenced me to six.
We were cute, slender kids with white teeth and smooth complexions. We were fresh prey for the seasoned convicts who scavenged the cellblocks and hissed as we walked by. I had experienced something like this before: longhair, counterculture types were often reviled by the rednecks on campus. It was, after all, 1969, and the University of Alabama was light-years from Berkeley. The catcalls were different now, though. There they wanted to kick my ass; here they wanted to violate it.
While the symbolism of the Oreos was clear — hard black pressed against soft white — race was hardly the issue. Young and svelte were the only prerequisites. Though he had eluded Vietnam through his unyielding stance, Kevin succumbed to the violation in cell eight that night.
The sham courtship in Ashland always began with offerings: Kevin had been given shampoo and shower shoes; now there were Oreos under my pillow. Then, feigned friendship and constant attention — a perverse mockery of roses and adoration.
In the TV room the next evening, one of them finally hit. I was just about the finest thing he had seen here at Ashland, he told me. I grabbed a folding metal chair and waved it menacingly. His buddy stepped between us and said, “Not now,” to his partner.
When it happened, I wasn’t sure what had startled me awake, what had brought the piercing pain slamming into my left cheek. Stunned, I jumped to my feet and in the dark of my cell I saw them distinctly, one hovering over me with clenched fists. I plunged past them and out the cell door, stumbling to the officer’s desk down the hall.
My face required eight stitches, but I had escaped Kevin’s fate. As the victim, I spent thirty days in the hole, or as the feds euphemistically call it, “administrative detention.” My assailants’ punishment? Thirty days in the hole.
The federal judge who first sentenced me had said that, due to the “serious nature of your offense,” he was obligated to mete out a substantial sentence in order to “punish, deter, and rehabilitate” me. I still don’t understand what the big deal was about a college kid getting a little coke in the mail. I wonder if that night at Ashland was the type of rehabilitation the judge had in mind?
My mother has Alzheimer’s disease. She remembers nothing — not her children, not that she just ate breakfast. When I have one arm out of her sweater, she doesn’t remember whether I’m putting it on or taking it off.
When I take care of her for a week, now and then, to give my father a respite, I feel imprisoned myself. I can’t open a window in the stifling Florida house; the movement of tropical air agitates her and makes her think she’s cold. I can’t run fast enough from the driver’s seat to her passenger door before she forgets that she isn’t alone; I race to open her door and her terror-stricken face is pressed at the window. “Oh, thank God you’re here! I thought I’d never get out.”
My father once made an illegal turn, and I joked that he’d end up in prison. “That doesn’t sound too bad, ” he said wistfully. “All by myself in a room, three meals a day . . .”
When my mother asks, every fifteen seconds, “Where’s my husband?” I am in prison. But so is she, trapped inside the question, and so is my father who has vowed to care for her till their deaths.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
On the Fourth of July our blues band played at the state prison in Vacaville. It was one of the more rewarding gigs of the summer, and not just because it paid well. Our listeners were as starved for live rock-and-roll as they were for female companionship. We were nervous; if these guys didn’t know about the blues, no one did. But we were glad to be there. While America was shooting fireworks and swilling beer and boasting about war heroes, we were playing music for people who have few freedoms left.
We played a forty-five-minute set in each of the four yards. One of the yards was high security, for those who had committed violent crimes. The other three were populated primarily by thieves and drug dealers. They reminded me of my high-school buddies. Most were bright, some well educated. One had been a college instructor, like myself. He’d gotten three years for possession of cocaine for resale. It wasn’t lost on me that I — and others in the band — had committed some of the same “crimes” that had landed these guys in prison. Was the difference simply luck? I had the very clear sense of life as a jungle of forking paths. In this society, once you’ve been apprehended for a wrong turn, stained by the world of prisons and criminal records, it is nearly impossible to get back on track. It’s a very unforgiving system.
My few hours at the prison left me depressed for days. The sight of hundreds of able-bodied men strutting around inside a guarded cage troubles the soul. While you may not want those same men set loose on the street, the present arrangement is clearly unjust. Something in the chest tells you it’s wrong.
I will never forget one man. We were playing our third yard, the high-security one. Over near the basketball courts there were two masterful female impersonators, occasionally acknowledging our music with sexy dance moves, attracting their share of admirers. But most of the men had gathered around the stage. They were a polite crowd, less rowdy, more focused than the others. Perhaps their measured conduct was in deference to the gentleman who caught my eye: a Native American, deeply handsome, large in a way that was not fat, with a gleaming black braid of hair; his presence was strong, yet humble. He clearly commanded the respect of fellow prisoners. It was evident that he was knowledgeable about music. I could feel him weighing our notes, our delivery, the effect of our performance. I tried not to stare. He was on to me, though, and soon relieved me with a quick smile and nod.
I introduced myself after the set. He graciously told me how much he enjoyed the show, and thanked me for coming. I learned that he was the music director of the prison gospel singers. He told me with pride that his group had been selected to compete at an upcoming gospel show in Oakland.
“Must be nice to get out of here every once in a while,” I said, surveying the barbed fences and gates. He explained that his group was not allowed to leave the grounds; they would be competing by videotape. I asked the next question before I could stop myself: “How much longer before you get out?”
He looked at me squarely. “I don’t,” he said.
When I was the institutional parole officer at a youthful offender prison, one of my responsibilities was to recommend leave for young men to attend family funerals.
Jay was an eighteen-year-old inmate whose father had died; he had been granted a three-day release to attend the funeral. I went to check him back in and make my report to the parole board. When I arrived, he was crying. He begged me to release him for another week in order to assist his mother who was all alone with two small kids.
When I first arrived at the institution eighteen months earlier, I was very compassionate; I probably would have helped the youngster then, but after a while you become cynical. When the young man pleaded with me, I sneered and told him he was crazy for even thinking such a thing.
The escape siren sounded as I made my way back to my office. Jay had gone over the fence. I remembered the despair in his voice, the hollowness in his eyes. He was only a kid, but he felt the responsibility of a father for his mom and brothers.
About thirty minutes later the guards brought Jay through the lobby and up to the hospital floor to be treated for dog bites. I heard the guards laughing as they mimicked the young lad, begging, “Please don’t turn the dogs loose on me.” They roared as one exclaimed, “You should have seen the expression on his face when the lead dog got him.”
I knew it was time for me to leave.
When I met Kingston he was begging on the streets of New York City. I was eighteen and playing hooky from my summer job as a nurse’s aide. Because I was young, because it was a beautiful summer’s day, I invited him to my third-floor walk-up for a bowl of soup and a slice of toast. After he’d eaten, we sat outside on my small back porch beneath the green leaves of a tall tree. We told each other our stories. I was a literature major who wanted to be a poet. He was an unemployed construction worker, separated from his wife, and living on the streets. He hoped for a run of good luck.
Not long after, I learned that Kingston was in Bellevue, a psychiatric detention center; his wife had jumped or was pushed out of a window.
I wrote to him. He said he was innocent — he could never have killed his wife. He loved her. I believed him. He was sentenced to twelve years in prison.
We continued to write. One day he sent me a sketch. It was me, sitting under my tree, arms around my knees, the summer breeze blowing in my hair. I was astonished at Kingston’s artistry and urged him to keep drawing. He did. Not long after, he was transferred to a prison with art classes. Soon he was doing commissions for the authorities, including a mural on the wall of his prison.
I lost my virginity, studied Oriental art, graduated from college, continued to write to Kingston. He read everything he could get his hands on. Philosophy, art, the biographies of artists.
After six years he was given parole and flew to Miami to live with his mother. I bought a cheap ticket to Florida and went to see him. He painted my portrait. We made love for the first time. I promised to keep writing poetry, he to keep painting.
He was planning to sketch my infant daughter from a photograph when he died after a stroke three years ago. We had been writing for twenty-five years.
I teach journal writing in the jails here. Every face I see — male or female — is another Kingston.
Drawing, writing, and dancing were once a part of me. I felt no fear when I picked up a crayon. I didn’t retreat when music asked me to dance.
Then I found myself in dance classes, art classes, violin lessons. Soon there were expectations to fulfill; the effort became joyless. My mind might trick me into revealing I wasn’t smart enough. My body could trap me into betraying that I was not a dancer, not a musician, not an artist — that I was nothing. My drawings, poems, the pull of my bow across the violin strings, all seemed inadequate. The violin was a special instrument of torture, not self-expression.
It was time to retreat. I refused battles I was not sure of winning. My drawings became mechanical; in the modern dance and ballet classes I imitated the movements without being in my body. I tried only when I knew I could do something well, and went through the motions in everything else. No one saw what I was doing, including me. Around the best part of myself I constructed bars so strong I still can’t break free.
What this prison needs is a riot — a knife held to the throat of the jailer that is me.
I worked in a prison for several months when I was a newly divorced mother of four young children. My job was to teach communication skills to inmates incarcerated for drug-related activity. What I really did was listen to stories, songs, and poetry written and sung by men with names like Crazy, Pig, and Wolf. I have no idea if I touched any of their lives; they changed mine.
“What are you doing here, woman? Go home to those babies. Don’t let go of them like we got let go of. Jobs or drugs or men, makes no nevermind to those babies, they can’t tell the difference. You go home to those babies.” A mantra of pain. Finally, I listened. Born of working-class parents, I was raised in Montana and sent to college; AFDC medical coupons and food stamps were unfamiliar to me. Now I learned well the strategies for negotiating the public welfare system — knowledge that would prove invaluable to a single mother, providing me with the opportunity to be at home with my children for the next ten years. These men were good teachers.
Guards, metal detectors, noise, dirty windows — and most intimidating of all, the solid clunk of metal doors closing behind me — punctuated the beginning and the end of each day. It was dark when I entered and dark when I left. One day I just stopped going. I don’t list the job on my résumé. I think of those men almost every day.
Lopez Island, Washington
We get to kiss for one minute at the beginning and one minute at the end of our visit. We get to hold hands for the other fifty-eight minutes. Our eyes get to make love, our words get to be spoken, we get to smell each other. We depart through opposite doors. She picks up her ID while I strip naked to show the guards I have no contraband. But she smuggles me things all the time: smiles, thoughts, hope, promises, devotion.
I often wonder how the concept of taking a person from home and loved ones to an environment of poverty and emotional harshness could have survived the Middle Ages. I wonder why my loved ones should have to do time with me. I wonder how the world will feel again after all these years.
They say we’re all doing time, that we all live in prisons within ourselves, that everyone knows degradation and loneliness. They have never been inside the walls and steel. They have not had to try to find the romance in the sound of a number rather than the sound of their names.
Stillwater State Prison
For a couple of years, I worked part time in a prison for young boys, back in the days when kids could be incarcerated for “incorrigibility” — disobeying their parents. At first I organized mural projects. Later I was the art teacher’s classroom assistant, and then I began to provide art therapy under the direction of one of the cottage supervisors. The kids, the staff, and the institution taught me a lot, including many things I was sorry to have to learn. The only thing that had ever made anything better for me was art, and I hoped that art would help the kids too. I also thought I could help by befriending them. I used to arrange for their passes to leave the campus. I would take them to Denny’s or the Kit Carson Cafe, buy them nasty restaurant food, and talk.
When the Reagan years came, the money ran out. I applied for a job at the men’s prison in another part of the state. The prison administrators liked the idea of offering the men something besides basketball. The money was good, but the hours were horrible — nights and weekends. I went out to the facility to see if I wanted to take the job. The recreation director took me to the room where I would teach. We had to go through the gym to get there. There were a lot of big, strong, sweaty guys with tattoos in there; they looked nothing like my little, lost teenagers. I kept my head up but didn’t really look at anybody. Suddenly I heard, “What are you doing here?” It was a kid named Buddy that I’d last seen at one of my Kit Carson Cafe lunches. I liked Buddy. He was cute, and we all thought he was going to do OK. I said, “I’m having a job interview. What are you doing here?” His response made me decide not to take the job. He said, “Twenty.”
I thought when someone close to you died, the world would stand still and refuse to turn without them. It isn’t that way at all. The world keeps going. It’s you that stops.
I look at my watch. Five o’clock. The shoppers around me seem anxious to get home with their last-minute dinner purchases. I have no stomach for food or anything else. My daughter Jenny died just as the day broke, almost twelve hours ago. What is it about the dying, the way they can make it through those long, dark, interminable night hours while you struggle to stay awake — as if it’s your vigilance that will keep them alive — but with the light they slip away? Maybe they realize in that moment they don’t have the strength to face all that brightness one more time.
This morning I walked the muddy tractor ruts, stepping over the spindly mustard plants with their silent little explosions of yellow. I walked back and forth, back and forth, for I don’t know how long. All I could think was, what do I do now, what do I do now? I didn’t get an answer. Maybe I was too busy with my question to hear one. There was sunshine at first, and a thin warmth, and I tramped that soft, damp soil until I felt like I was part of it.
The line moves up. The checker starts in on the order in front of mine. She knows the woman. She asks her how she is and the shopper pours out her tale of woe, how one of her kids has chickenpox and she was up for an hour and a half in the middle of the night — all that sleep lost — and now she’s ready to collapse.
I move up, pay for my milk, and take the bag. I feel an invisible wall between me and the checker. I don’t remember the money changing hands. She must have asked how I was doing but I don’t know how I answered, except that I didn’t tell her the truth.
At home I don’t eat. We all go to bed early, my husband and I curled up in each other’s arms — the only place that seems safe — and our older daughter on the floor beside the bed, clutching the teddy bear that was to be her sister’s first Christmas present. I tell myself not to dream about this day, and I awake the next morning having succeeded, but it’s only the beginning of a long sentence.
Another day, I see Melinda in the grocery store, and she quickly slips into another aisle. She has a son a week younger than Jenny. It will be six months before she allows our grocery carts to meet near the dairy case. Neighbors try to talk about other, pleasant things because they don’t want to upset me. It makes me feel as if Jenny’s become a nonperson, every trace of her wiped away, as if she never existed. I much prefer the casual acquaintance who met me in the produce section one day and expressed her sorrow. We talked for an hour between the onions and the potatoes and the broccoli. I went away in tears, but only half of them were tears of grief; she had allowed me to talk. I needed to be able to say Jenny’s name. You cry a lot in prison but it’s salutary, too. It lets you know you’re still alive.
For months I will see Jenny, half-materialized, standing in her walker and reaching up to me. I can feel her tiny arms around my neck and the shadow of her weight against my lap when I sit in my rocking chair. Sometimes I know I’ve conjured her up; other times I’m certain she’s reaching out to me from somewhere. I only wish I could break through whatever keeps us apart. More than anything I want to hold her again.
Ultimately I realize it’s the dying that keeps me from seeing her, the dark imprints my mind keeps rerunning that blot out all the beauty I knew with her. For years the sleepy, solemn greens and grays of winter landscapes sprinkled with mustard flowers give me the shivers. Eventually I realize I’ve stepped past the bars, I don’t know quite when. My life is full of activity. More children are born. None of them are Jenny, and I love her the same as ever.
I still remember my own prison. I try to be alert to send a rose under the door of someone else’s cell.