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PICS Reading Assignment 01 - Inside Valley State Prisone for Women

An Article By Terence T. Gorski
GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications
Published On: Julyn12, 2001          Updated On: August 30, 2001
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

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Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS)
Reading Assignment


by Christy Marie Camp
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 us.

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 nakedness.

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.

Opportunities for 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 everything else.

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 echoes.

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 presence.

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.


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 body

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 family

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 too thin

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.


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