When I got to prison, I was surprised that I couldn't tell a murderer
from a bogus check writer. They're all women. And now that I'm one of
them, I don't look at what they've done and judge them. I just look at
who they are now.
I was on my way to
California's newest women's prison. I had four boxes of property
(personal possessions), six years of doing "life." At 4 a.m.,
the transportation team arrived. A male sergeant announced there would
be no talking and they weren't afraid to "take a boot up our
ass." He said women would take an ass-whipping better than a man
because we were "used to being beat."
We were each shackled at the
waist and ankles, then chained to one other woman and put on the bus. It
was dark when we left. The guards never said a word. Neither did we. Few
women wanted to use the toilet in the back of the bus because one of the
male guards had his post right beside it.
The view outside the bus
windows grew desolate and the air polluted. Finally, we were off the
freeway. We drove and drove--nothing in sight but corn stalks and small
grape plants. Finally, a sign announced the prison and I got a lump in
my throat. It looked like one way in and no way out.
When the bus pulled in, we
had been six hours with no water, just a bag lunch with bologna and
fruit. Our property was unloaded first. Finally, two by two we were
taken off the bus and escorted into a holding cell identical to those in
police stations and county jails.
Half of us were placed in
one cell and half in another. The first cell was "stripped,"
and then it was our turn. "Stripping" is justified under a
security issue: "To maintain the order and security of the
prison," yet, how is it possible to breach security when we are
transferred from the inside of one prison to the inside of another
prison on a bus in shackles and chains with guards toting shotguns?
Making a person undress and
become completely naked has long been a way of establishing dominance
over prisoners. Adolf Hitler used this practice in his concentration
camps. Being naked or remaining naked for any length of time brings
physical as well as emotional vulnerability.
We were ordered to place our
hands on the wall with our backs to the cell. Then we were instructed to
take our shoes off first and clap them behind our backs; next socks,
next our moo-moos, then bras and underwear. All 19 of us were then
ordered to turn around. We had to stand in a circle bare-naked, with
nothing to hide behind. Some of us crossed our arms over our breasts.
Everyone working in the reception center behind the counter could see
Four years later, a Senator
doing a walk-through of this prison ordered that "vanity"
screens be installed for cells where "stripping" is done. They
are now a permanent fixture.
Once we were naked, the
process was even slower. First, we had to spread our fingers to insure
there was no "contraband,"( drugs, etc.) between our fingers
or under our nails, lift our breasts and/or bellies, comb through our
hair with our fingers, rub our belly buttons, comb through our pubic
hair with our hands, raise our arms, show the underneath of our feet and
between our toes. Everyone felt humiliated.
Finally we were told to face
the wall again and squat and cough three times as an officer held a
vanity mirror five inches under each of our vaginas to again search for
"contraband." Nothing was found on any of us. New moo-moos
were issued. At least this oversized sack dress finally covered up our
A series of ceremonies like
this one is designed to emphasize the moral condemnation heaped on us
and to create a sense of helplessness and control. One's ego and sense
of self are successively peeled away. Clothes and other personal
possessions are taken from us. We are stripped naked, lose our names,
and become only numbers.
The officers issuing our
personal property took anything they felt was not within the guidelines
"allowed" at this prison even though it had been
"allowed" at the other. Half of the property we had brought
with us was rejected for one reason or another.
Possessions are important
for their symbolism, not just the material comfort they provide. In the
free world, we express our sense of self through the clothes we wear,
the music we play, the colors we paint our walls, the pictures we hang
on them, the furniture we buy and the way we arrange it, the games we
play, and the lifestyle we develop. To be stripped of one's material
possessions is to be stripped of an integral part of the self--all the
more so since contemporary society tends to equate material deprivation
with personal inadequacy.
The importance of
possessions as an assertion of self is demonstrated by the risks and
expense to which inmates go in trying to give their clothes and their
cells a touch of individuality--violating regulations by bribing inmate
laundry workers to get them "new" clothes that actually fit,
or decorating the inside of their gray lockers. Inmates' attempts to
invest something of themselves in their stark, interchangeable cells are
poignant attempts to remain individual and human.
Finally we were handed bed
rolls (2 sheets, 2 blankets, 1 pillowcase, 1 towel, 1 washcloth) and a
small brown bag containing a small tube of toothpaste, toothbrush,
Vaseline, roll-on deodorant, single blade razors, and 4 ounces of
shampoo. After five hours, at last we were on our way.
The hot air hit us like a
breathing dragon and the newly laid blacktop steamed in the sun. We were
escorted in a single file line to our housing unit about a quarter mile
down the road, all of us, tired and dehydrated, struggling to carry our
blanket rolls and keep up in the line.
The assault on our sense of
self does not end when we leave the Reception tank. Prison life is a
continuous process of mortification. First, there is the extreme sensory
deprivation of prison life, the oppressive grayness of the prison
environment, the unrelieved harshness of metallic surfaces which amplify
every sound. The absence of flowers, plants, trees, indeed any direct
contact with nature or the outside world.
Second, there is a profound
humiliation in being able bodied yet lacking authority to do the
simplest things for oneself. We must beg for even small necessities such
as sanitary supplies and toilet paper. At chow time, we must line up in
our hall, must wear state-issued clothing, must tuck in our shirt, must
walk in a single file to the dining room, must show photo
identification, must sit at the table of four in the order we came in,
must eat what is provided in the time provided, must not get up from the
table until our row is excused, and finally be subject to search by, in
most cases, a male guard upon exiting the dining room. Many women opt
not to eat to avoid the psychological stress.
self-improvement are few, and health care is poor. Frequently
psychiatric drugs are distributed to some prisoners as a form of social
control (1 out of every 4 units houses these women).
Prison is a concrete
graveyard, a human outhouse, a hate factory, a huge pressure-cooker
filled with pain and treachery simmering on a slow fire of stress and
fear. It is a place where women silently cry in their sleep and fight to
hold on to their sanity and hope. The weak are preyed upon, the
predators being the ones whose own hearts were the first victims. Faced
with daily rejection and condemnation, prisoners seek their own sources
of dignity and pride to invest their lives with meaning.
Status revolves around money
and possessions just like in the "real world," but it can also
be gained at another woman's expense by putting her down verbally or
physically. There is an exaggerated emphasis on toughness: either
victimize others or withstand the victimization, especially by women who
appear to be bigger and stronger. Every presumed slight must be counted,
or else the woman being slighted will be branded as a punk. The most
casual interactions, brushing against someone in line, using the
"wrong" tone of voice may end in violence. Prison life is
intimidation and conflict, and the more frequently prisoners come and
go, the more volatile the atmosphere is likely to be. Victimization
takes on a variety of forms, but the threat of physical harm underlies
The first year I was down,
fun died. The second year, laughter; the third year, tenderness; the
fourth, love. By the time I get out, there will be nothing left but
We thought it was over, the
decades in prison. We had waited for elections, held our breath as the
votes were tallied; finally a Democrat in office. Then it hit like a ton
of bricks, a statement by the new Governor that no one would be paroled,
that we could still be held captive, even after far exceeding our
minimum terms. Who would intercede on our behalf and rule against the
highest authority of our state?
The day you are released
begins like any other; the sun comes up, the shifts change, and the
prison slips into its old dull routine. You pack what you haven't
already given away, wait to get processed out the same way you got
processed in, sign some papers, and get the hell out!
If you're lucky, you have a
ride waiting for you. As you're driven away, you try not to look back at
the fences that kept you in, but you do. By tonight, another woman will
already be in your bunk. As you drive further away, the prison which has
been the center of your life for so long becomes nothing more than a
tiny speck. The only thing that ever gave it any importance was your
The return to society is as
shocking to your senses as the day you entered prison in chains. What
you went through adjusting to prison you now go through again, only
backwards. And the deeper they had you buried and the longer you've been
away, the harder it will be because so much has changed.
You may not feel much of
anything because you are numb. Your body and mind are working overtime
to absorb all the changes that come with suddenly being thrown into the
speed of modern life. Your body is out there, but the rest of you is
still in prison.
Forget about getting a job.
A job depends on the economy, your criminal record, the need for
transportation and a mailing address and phone, and finally SOMEONE
willing to give you a chance. You have been convicted of a crime and
sent to prison. Because of your negative social image, you will be
rejected on many levels. The majority of "citizens" will
refuse to have anything to do with you.
WE MUST CROSS
It's about strip searches
and cell searches and a life of violations and indignities that only a
woman who's been there could ever comprehend
It's about not being able to
attend a loved one's funeral because no one could get the money up; and
about dying alone with no family to say goodbye, or no one to claim the
The mothers who cried for
their daughters in prison and the prison mothers who cried for their
children on the street; and every child who's already on the track to
the state penitentiary, or can't understand why mommy can't come home
For every woman who lives
life to the fullest in spite of everything and every woman who
discovered her intellect in her cell
The women who work in the
prison factory for next to nothing and send the money home to their
The women who have lost
contact with a spouse, friend, or lover while inside; or they never came
to see them
For all the letters sent that have never been answered
For every woman who has been
too cold, too hot, too wet, too thirsty, or too hungry, and there was
nothing to be done about it
Prison soap, and pressed
wool blankets, disinfectant, body odor, sheets too short, and mattresses
For every woman who's inside
trying to do the right thing on the outside, and for every woman who's
been doing the right thing since she got arrested
For women junkies who are
choosing to die on their feet trying to keep the bridges away
For every woman who went
crazy inside a cell in lockup and gave up
For every woman prisoner's
dreams still waiting to be fulfilled
My fair ladies, these are
the bridges we must cross.