Monday, December 30, 2013

                                                       Suza Lambert Bowser

An army marches on its stomach; a prison sits on its ass.  So, when a prison runs out of toilet paper, it’s much more than a fart in a windstorm – it’s a “shitty” situation.
Tempers flare.  Fists curl, Sphincters tighten.  Everyone’s tense – precipitously perched on the edge of their…toilet seats.
From two person to eight person rooms, there are bathrooms in every cell, and, precipitously, each bathroom sees a lot of action.  The prison allots six rolls of toilet paper to each prisoner per month, given out every Sunday and scrupulously noted beside each inmate’s name and ID number.  This works out to approximately one and a half rolls per woman per week…although she may burn through these in a couple of days, depending on her health status.
The cell bathrooms are not the only inmate bathrooms in the prison.  There are restrooms in the gym, at Health Care, and in the Academic, Culinary and Vocational sections.  Despite the widespread availability of W.C.s, however, using the restroom is not an easy task.  The continuous dearth of toilet paper leads to some gnarly situations that include –shockingly!- rampant stealing of the precious stuff.  The prison does not regard this as anything but petty thievery and par for the course.  Still, more often than not, purloined paper is a necessity because the inmates have run out!
I discovered the depth of the toilet paper tension one day when I slipped out of my Career Tech classroom to use the restroom.  I approached the ever-present C.O. at his desk and reached for the toilet tissue he keeps directly under his supervision (for the reasons mentioned above).
As I took the roll and prepared to enter the restroom, the C.O. shouted, “Hold it Bowser! You can’t take that in there!”
I froze with the customary flinch reaction of the incarcerated, trying to maintain the facial neutrality of hopeful innocence.  Thinking that he wanted me to grovel, I cleared my throat and prepared to beg.
“Please, sir,” I asked tremulously, reminding myself of Oliver asking for more gruel.  “Please, sir, may I have some toilet paper?”  
“You can’t have the whole roll!” He shouted, incredulous at my ignorance.  “Take what you need and leave the rest!”
Ah, I thought, now I get it.  I took a small amount and left the roll on his desk where he could maintain his watchful vigilance.
This interchange emphasizes the sad truth that there is nothing rational about prison life, including going to the bathroom.  Off your unit, there is never any soap and there are absolutely never any paper towels.  You must use your trouser legs to dry your hands.  It’s true.  And, too bad for you, sucker…too bad for you!
Luckily, my teacher in Academics can’t stand the thought of seventeen women in a small airless classroom handling computers and key-boards with unwashed hands.  She purchases cheap hand soap with her own money.  Part of my job, besides teaching basic computer skills, is pouring the precious liquid soap into two small plastic containers we keep stashed in the classroom.
Everyone knows that Illinois’ budget – like the nonexistent bathroom tissue – is basically down the toilet.  But what everyone may NOT know is that, here at Decatur Prison, we prisoners must now BUY toilet paper if we want to be sure to have some on hand during the increasingly frequent toilet tissue droughts.
TP was already available at the Commissary at $.87 per roll, and like many women, I had purchased a roll as backup.  But now, the toilet paper crisis has created a new business opportunity for the prison.  As a result of the paucity of paper, the purchasing department has made a new, shoddier toilet tissue available for purchase by the inmates.  At first, they offered the crappy paper to us for $.41 a roll.  But, then, with brilliant business acumen (after all we are a “captive” market!) they immediately raised the price to $.87.
The new inferior paper is a “piece of shit” compared to what is offered in the Commissary.  Laudably composed of recycled paper, this ecofriendly TP hails from Hialeah, Florida and bears the questionable “Green Seal Certified” emblem of it’s manufacturer, Atlas Paper Mills.
As an “Earth Friendly” product, the TP has a couple of disadvantages: the roll itself is about half the size of the “Envision” paper offered in the Commissary, and it disintegrates like freedom – with the slightest amount of moisture, nosebleeds, or tears.
I’m convinced that this paper must have come through some sort of natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina.  There is an unmistakable odor of sewage…as if the overflow from a treatment plant or a midwestern flood swelled around the container that once held this ecofriendly stuff.  Who knows!?  Maybe it floated over from Japan in a radioactive miasma along with the tsunami.
One day, while this latest crisis was in full swing, a student named Sarah, in my Career Tech class, grabbed my arm.
“Bowser! Help me!” she spoke urgently.  “I’m desperate.”  Her eyes were wide with horror.  “They won’t give us no toilet paper on our unit.  They say we’re all out –
that there ain’t any more.  They won’t even let us buy any!”
Sarah grimaced and the hand that held her request slip trembled in her hand.  She moved closer to my ear and whispered, “It’s that time of the month, and I don’t know what to do.  Commissary’s sold out, and our unit don’t go to Toxics until Saturday!”
Great, I thought.  Not only are we unable to have the most basic necessity here, we can’t even buy it until we are allowed to visit a room with the dangerous-sounding title-“Toxics.”  (Just give me a Sears catalog, why don’t ya?)
Lucky for Sarah, my Career Tech teacher had mercy and allowed her to campaign with a C.O. down the hall.  This sympathetic soul finally relented and actually gave her a precious roll from his stash.  For the rest of the class, she sat at her workstation, the toilet paper roll displayed prominently by her computer to the envy of the other equally worried inmates.
Unlike many others, I’m fortunate to have a supportive family while incarcerated. Besides the $1.43 per diem I earn as a Career Tech Teaching Assistant, my loved ones make sure I have enough funds to cover what I need and what I can only obtain in prison by purchasing through the Commissary: shampoo, deodorant, soap, conditioner, lotion, underwear, shirts, shorts, sweats, paper, envelopes, Ibuprofen, tooth brushes, toothpaste, socks, and some foodstuffs.  These basics cannot possibly be covered by the $20.80 that constitutes my monthly salary.
As I said, I’m relatively fortunate.  Many prisoners, by comparison, receive absolutely nothing from home.  Most prisoners earn half what I get at my white-collar prison job, they must buy all their personals from what they gross at about $15.00 per month.  They net approximately $12.80.  (Don’t ask me where the other money goes). God forbid they must see the doctor at $5.00 per visit. For that $5.00, you can ask only one question. (I know because I tried to ask two questions and I got kicked out of the office!)
The disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in prison leads to a wide variety of strategies, as well as some creative solutions.  Women do all sorts of tasks to earn much-needed toiletries.  Drawing portraits, making birthday cards, doing pedicures, threading (plucking eyebrows and facial hair), and cornrowing each other’s hair – all of which are illegal activities and punishable with disciplinary tickets.
The bartering system is fairly innocuous when compared to the bigger badder picture, where predatory prisoners prey on those who have money.  These tough girls blackmail the unwary or stiff-arm the weak into giving up their bounty at every opportunity.
One of my roommates named “Tweaker” is a poster child for the prison bully.  Glad-handing and joking on the one hand, she can turn on a dime, making you fear for your personal safety.  At twenty-nine years old, she’s a big girl, and she can pop out her teeth at a moment’s notice to get it on in a fight.  Serving time for blackmail, extortion, burglary, and gun charges, she lives on her share of the $12.80 State pay she gets every month.  One of her favorite lines is: “She don’t want to f---ck with me!  I’ll punch her in the throat!”
She repeats this threat so often that I was finally compelled to ask for clarification.  “Why the throat?” I asked, “Why not the stomach, the face, or another part of the anatomy?”
She was at a loss to explain her favorite taunt; she scratched her head and said, “I don’t know, Bowser…what the f…k! Anybody f…ks with me, I’ll punch them in the throat!”
I concluded that the throat was her favorite punch location because it might be a way to silence someone.  But, then again, I might have been putting too much thought into it!
Tweaker had burned through a lot of friends, having lived on every one of the eight units in this prison.  She owned an extensive wardrobe of the best clothing available: Nike shoes, the best knockoff Reeboks State pay can buy, polo shirts, sweats – all of which she’d bartered for or simply stolen.
And she was good at trickery too.  One day, when I pulled on my sweatpants, I was surprised to discover that they felt strangely different.  They were suddenly softer, older, and…oddly larger.  To my amazement, Tweaker had switched her old sweats for my relatively new ones, which were already on their way to a woman on our wing who was hired by Tweaker to alter them into a sexier fit. (Tweaker’s goal was to compliment her ample hips.)
She almost got away with it.  When I confronted her—carefully, I might add—she quickly blamed her other roommate, a woman named Toy-Toy, who’d done the laundry for our room.  I have to admit Tweaker was pretty slick.  She didn’t blink an eye, but protested her innocent error with great conviction, placing the guilt squarely on her bunkie.
Later, however, Tweaker stole Toy-Toy’s good polo shirt and traded it off to another unit before Toy-Toy knew it was gone.  They finally had it out in a big fight I was unlucky enough to witness, where they circled, snarled, and screamed like a couple of hyenas.  (I was waiting for the famed throat punch, but, thankfully, it was not delivered.)
This brouhaha did not impact Toy-Toy and Tweaker’s nefarious relationship for very long.  A couple of weeks later, I could tell they’d made up.  One of them must have gotten her hands on some pharmaceuticals.  I could tell they were now BF’s because they bonded in a coma of bliss for two days straight.
Besides this rather typical drama instigated by a prisoner with a few or no resources, another trafficking and trading debacle occurs when strong-armed dykes or “bulldaggers” throw their weight around.  These women supplement their meager incomes by performing sexual favors for rich inmates.  Other prisoners scornfully comment that they capitalize on their gigolo statuses in order to “eat-out-their-boxes”-a double entendre that I will leave unexplained.  Hey! It’s prison…right?
The problem involving hoarding, stealing, trafficking and trading toilet paper has 
caused great debate and discussion among the inmates.  Astonishingly, some defend the prison, claiming that if we would only cooperate and NOT hoard or steal the precious paper; we’d all have enough.  This is what I call the “Kindergarten Rationalization”, an explanation that smacks of complete institutionalization:  “If you learn how to cooperate and share, you can have a popcorn party… or even a cookie.”
But, this is not kindergarten.  It’s a prison.  And I lay the responsibility for the toilet paper problem firmly on the shoulders of the prison administration.  Why should having or not having toilet paper be the cause Celebrex of the institution?  In a place filled with drug addicts, lost souls, the sad and disenfranchised, shouldn’t the emphasis be on programs and rehabilitation services?  Shouldn’t the focus be on hope instead of toilet paper?
Wouldn’t it be more effective to simply have PLENTY of bathroom tissue, thereby avoiding the problems involved with metering out such a basic necessity?
For every inmate incarcerated in a women’s prison, the IDOC receives approximately $38,000. Per annum.  For seven hundred female prisoners, I figure the $26,000,000. allows for plenty of toilet paper.  Surely some of that money could be used to resolve the toilet tissue issue.
But prison is strange…as bizarre in nature as the fact that the United States is the most incarcerated country in the world…as bizarre as the fact that one out of every 107 Americans is in prison.
Knowing all this does not make me feel any better nor does it comfort the forty women and eight babies on our wing who did not escape the effects of the catastrophe.
At the height of the crisis, a frazzled C.O. arrived with a plastic bag containing six rolls of paper and announced in a loud voice, “This is only for emergencies!”  Our faces dropped with disbelief at this odd statement.  What could distinguish an emergency from using the restroom?
I tried to cheer my roommates.  I told them I’d just received new information from the administration on how we should cope with this problem.  The prison had determined that we should eat less, drink less, and when in doubt…..just hold it!
They didn’t laugh. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013


"Oh, World, I cannot hold Thee close enough!
They woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag with color…
Lord, I do fear Thou'st made the world,
                                                          too beautiful this year!"
                                             - Marianne Moore "God's World"

"It doesn't have to be blue iris,
it could be weeds in a vacant lot,
or a few small stones; just pay attention…"
                                             - Mary Oliver "Prayer"

"Many, many thanks to my dear sister, Alison and husband, Mark, for all the love and support! LFE"

"To: GKR: Hello, sweet dear. All love to you and the Admiral. Hugs and kisses all around!"

"My mother, Deborah Lambert, is one of the strongest women I have ever known. Throw in humor and warmth and you have an incredible role model."

"My daughter, Jamila, is such a precious part of my life…I miss her…I adore her so very much!"

"The harshest cruelty I have endured in prison is the new unilateral decision to close the courtyard where I walk until March 2014. Here, the bright spot of my day has been to open the door to the outside-even in 104 degree heat or 13 degree frigidity. This has been my sanity. Outside I can see the sky, the red and olive green cardinals, the pair of red tails that live over by the creek. I can touch the trees and feel the air on my face.
When they told me the decision, I went into my room and like one of the babies I care for on this unit. My grief surprised me with its intensity, but I sobbed long and hard. My roommates were surprised-but they don't go outside anyway. I, on the other hand, have lived most of my life on farms, boats, or on ridges without electricity…in tipis…or Ford vans.
There is a small enclosure in the middle of the unit called the "Smoke Pit," although no one is allowed to smoke inside anymore (or outside for that matter). The Smoke Pit is about twenty feet by twenty feet, glassed in on three walls, and topped with a chain link ceiling open to the sky.
This is my only view of the clouds for the next three months: a sky defined by chain link, as am I.
But, I will walk on the unit- round and round- listening to a scratchy radio to block the chatter, and, on occasion, I will step in the the "Smoke Pit" and look at the tops of the KEntucky locust trees and the oaks, now leafless.
Believe it or not, I will be grateful for this…very grateful. There is beauty in all things.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Suza: Stats on discrimination

"One in three black boys born in 2001 stands a lifetime risk of going to prison"

"Black male life expectancy in Washington, DC is lower than the Gaza Strip"

"Black unemployment is almost double than that of whites"

" The percentage of black children living in poverty is almost triple that of whites"

"Almost 50% of whites believe conditions for blacks have improved.  Only 10% of blacks agree.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Anthrax, Ghosts, and Dominoes in Prison
By Suza Lambert Bowser

Revenge is an airborne disease in prison, one that seeps beneath the skin and pervades the atmosphere like a deadly fog.  An inmate’s honor, once impugned, seems to require action, and the most common method for redeeming one’s “face” is an act of revenge.  This response can involve mild name-calling, bullying, a few dirty tricks or more intense actions like “narking” on an enemy to the IA or even worse, committing an act of violence.

One such act of violence occurred the other day when two women attacked each other during “gym”. (Only half a dozen of the fifty or sixty women who attend gym actually exercise or play volleyball; most congregate to exchange information or gossip.  The rest come to meet their “boo’s”.)  No visceral sex act under the watchful scrutiny of the guards, but jealous passions often ignite quickly as they did with Medea and Juno. 

These two clashed with Titanic fury.  Although the odds seemed to favor Juno at 6’1” and 230 lbs., the shorter, wiry Medea was equally fierce and she flattened Juno with a full-on body slam.  Juno was prepared, however, and struck back with a shank made from a pen, which she used to slice Medea’s head open, all the while screeching with ear-piercing glee at the satisfying gusts of blood.  They were of course, immediately handcuffed and carted off to segregation-one to health care segregation and the other to the regular segregation unit.

Being stuck in a jail inside a prison proved too much for Juno.  She threatened to kill herself with two sharpened screws from a light fixture.  When the CO offered to enter her room and restrain her, she refused his aid and countered by smearing herself with her own excrement, shouting, “Come and get me now,
m-th-r –f---k-r!”

(Ah, prison life!  In some ways it’s rather similar to life on the Arcata Plaza as witnessed by Kevin Hoover’s Police Log stories, except the inmates can’t wander off into the Redwoods to smoke a fatty!)

Poor Juno probably would have been happier in the days when this prison was a mental hospital.  Back then, Thorazine flowed like the River Lethe. (Hell, they’re still prescribing that ole zombie med today!)  But now, all that remains of the original loony bin are the unhappy ghosts that roam the wings looking for lost lovers and revenge.

“Alice”  a young sprite that inhabits our unit, slips along the corridors at night only to appear suddenly beside our bunks gunning for the deadbeat dad of her orphaned children, a man she says she will murder in a variety of innovative ways.

“Sandra” is not so maternal; she’s after the son-of-a-bitch who threw her 290 lb. ass down the stairs, breaking both of her sizeable arms.  Later, when her heart finally exploded from all the chocolate pudding she consumed, her spirit was consigned to our wing.  At night, she whispers her eternal question: “Where the fuck is Ralph?”

Revenge takes many forms in a prison, where snubs or perceived offenses can kick off a rampage of vengeance.  Take the case of the missing dominoes.

Decatur Prison is acoustically challenged:  the white walls, the white linoleum flooring, and the occasional floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows are highly reflective.  Thus, dominoes, dumped on a stainless steel tabletop can sound like a truckload of ice crashing onto a city pavement.

This incessant clacking must have pushed one inmate over the edge, because the game pieces suddenly disappeared without a trace, leaving a strange quiet on the unit and angering the die-hard domino players.  The relative stillness was eerie except for the normal sounds of the ice maker that operates with a Las Vegas slot machine clatter, along with the maniacal shrieks and howls of the other inmates, vocalizations reminiscent of this place’s earlier incarnation of a mental ward.

The disappearing dominoes threw C-Wing into a tizzy, including Officer Pagan, who vowed shakedowns and worse, segregation if they were not returned immediately.

Every prisoner possesses contraband, whether it’s an orange from the chow hall or nail polish cleverly concocted from floor wax,  secret love letters (“kites”) or “straps” –sexy paraphernalia made from shampoo bottles. (Don’t ask.)  No one wants a shakedown, so everyone was incredibly relieved when the missing dominoes turned up beside the utility sink.

Our collective sighs of relief quickly turned into sharp inhales of fear, however, when the entire prison went into emergency lockdown status.  Scurrying to our respective wings faster than the festering plagues of Olde London, we all whispered one fearful word:  “Anthrax!”  “Anthrax!” we said, recalling the recent news reports of threats against Obama.  “Anthrax!” we muttered, mulling over the image of revengeful envelopes stuffed with toxic white powder spilling in the mailroom,

Strangely, the threat of this lethally infectious pox leveled the playing field in our prison.  No one, including
 staff, was allowed to leave, except for the lucky visitors in the Visiting Center who threaded their way out through news vans and reporters, the FBI, the ATF, HAZMAT vehicles,  Decatur Fire Department, Illinois State Troopers, and the NSA.  Safely at home, those visitors watched the drama unfold from their living rooms with bags of chips and bottles of beer.

Inside the prison, we also watched the TV news with our own bags of chips (sans beer, however) while we mentally said
gnoodbye to our children and grandbabies.  “Anthrax!”  I thought bitterly, picturing my body laid out on a slab, being
dissected by strange men in space suits.  Was this my penance for driving marijuana through Illinois?  Was
 Anthrax-induced agony the final price for my crime amid the soybean and cornfields of Macon County?

I’m happy to report that I did not die-at least not as of this writing, and the Anthrax turned out to be nothing but
harmless powder, a fact that was disappointing to some inmates who were hoping for something more titillating and
practical – like cocaine. To date, no one knows why someone would send the white powder to Decatur Prison, but I’m
putting my money on revenge, an emotion that seems to follow a predictable path in this neck of the woods.

As I lay me down to sleep on my unforgiving metal bunk bed, my roommates regale me with stories of “Carla”, the
vengeful vamp of “C-Wing” who died of heartache when her crank head boyfriend killed himself and, far worse,
totaled her beloved vintage GTO.

I drift off into an uneasy sleep, but not before I sense “Carla’s” ectoplasm leaking through the air vent to “tickle
our noses as we lay asleep.”  If you peek out the cell window at 2:00 am, you will see her gliding down the corridor as
pale and white as Anthrax, wearing only a long black veil and looking for revenge.

Wet Dog, Blood, and Fertilizer in Prison
                                                                        by Suza Lambert Bowser

            In the bad ole days, when this place was a mental institution, the 15' by 15' outdoor space on each wing was the “Smoke Pit.”  Today, the official sobriquet is the “Fresh Air Pit.”  No matter what PC name the administration gives it, we inmates still refer to it as the “Smoke Pit,” and while I rehabilitate myself here at the Decatur Prison for Women, I can't help but feel that “pit” is the operative word. 

            I arrived at this facility on February 19, 2013 – four days and a year after my brilliant arrest in Illinois on I-80.  During the months that followed, I've seen the Smoke Pit on a daily basis, watching blizzards and thunderstorms and the snow and rain that fall like chaff through the chain link above the graveled interior.  The sides are lined with ten-foot-tall plate glass stretching from floor to ceiling, except where they've been replaced with plywood , a testament to past breakages and pre-safety glass construction.

            Recently, one of my roommates and another woman fell against a window, breaking it into giant decapitating shards that fell like guillotine blades, one of which sliced into Tessa's forearm.  Blood spewed, and chaos ensued, turning the white linoleum hallway into a scene from Carrie.

            Tessa was all right, and the slab of skin was slapped back onto her arm, stitched down with all the Frankensteinian delicacy of a Boris Karloff character.  Antibiotics were most likely not around when Mary Shelley wrote her masterpiece, but the prison has a full stock in the Health Care Unit along with enough psych meds to make zombies of the most bipolar inmates.  But for this highly addicted prison population, the only available medication for everything from tooth-pulling (of which there is plenty) to Tessa's wound is Ibuprofen, baby!

            Regardless of the danger to life and limb, we offenders continue to seek the fresh air that is sometimes offered in the eponymous pit.  But, I was quickly disabused about the notion of drawing a clean breath, one morning at 8:00 on my way to work.  (Yes, I have a job in prison:  I'm a Teaching Assistant from 8:20 to 3:20, Monday through Friday in Career Technologies at $1.43 per day.)

            Eager for a breath of non-forced air before diving into my windowless classroom, I slipped into the “Fresh Air Pit” only to retreat quickly when I inhaled a hot, humid lungful of what tasted like wet dog and fertilizer. 

            (There was a time, during my early writing years, when I would have described this rancid smell by saying that it was as if a filthy whore had squatted over this prison.  However, some of my Bfs are Sex Workers and they're universally some of the most obsessively clean people I've ever met!)

            I found out later that the mangy fur scent – eau de wet dog- emanates from a giant food processing plant the size of a small city.  This industrial complex straddles the interstate with tubes, chutes and conveyor belts, moving tons of soy and corn, through the factory where the crops transform into cat food kibble and other assorted food stuff.

            I know what must go into this food, not only because I'm aware of the monolithic corn and soybean industry, but also because I'm aware of the monolithic corn and soybean industry, but also because I listen to the local “Brown Field” Report on my clear plastic AM/FM radio/cassette player, (Clear  plastic radios and televisions are required so that prisoners can't conceal contraband inside them.)

            Besides describing “Butcher Hog and Live Cattle” prices, the Dupont-sponsored show offers advice on how to combat “Frog-Eye Leaf Spot” and what sounds like “Sardonic White Mold” with phosphate soluble inoculant.  This “fusion technology” enhances root and nutrient uptake allowing “micro essentials” to yield greater “ R.O.I.”  (Tofu, anyone?) 

            This morning, I turn off my radio, disconnecting me from one of the only three receivable Decatur stations, and stow it in the box beneath my bunk.  The CO unlocks C Wing for the 8;20 line and I head to work, having  forgone the pleasure of inhaling Illinois oxygen in the “Fresh Air Pit.”

            As I walk down the plate-glass lined corridors under the watchful eyes of the guards, I wonder if  there is some sort of fungicide available for ear worms. The last song I heard on my radio was a bubble gum pop tune by Taylor Swift, and my ears seem to be infected with her looping lyrics:  “Trouble...trouble...trouble...”

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Prison Tornados
Suza Lambert Bowser

We can't see Decatur from inside this prison, but at 9:30 pm, we hear the city's sirens wailing in the distance. Those alarms signal the worst disasters: floods, fires, plagues of locusts, nuclear attacks, and, of course, tornados.

It's June 5th, and the TV visuals of the “F-4” that just wiped out Moore, Oklahoma are still fresh in our minds when the C.O. stops by to check on our 14'x11' cell. He sticks his head through the door and says, “it's a code 7, ladies. Get under your mattresses.” With that questionable admonition, he disappears, and we don't see him again for the rest of the night.

I'm from California-a stranger in this strange midwestern land-but no stranger to my home turf catastrophes like tsunamis and earthquakes. Still, for a newcomer to Illinois weather patterns, the idea
of a tornado brings a couple of thoughts to mind besides the obvious images of devastation.

One is the old joke about the similarity between an Oklahoma tornado and a divorce where the punch line is : “somebody's gonna lose a trailer.” The other associations involve the old familiar yellow brick road adventure. Tonight, with sirens screaming, I'm not sure I actually want to meet the man behind the curtain. The series of intense thunderstorms, high winds, and multiple tornadoes headed our way make me nervous about funnel clouds, witches on bikes, and having conversations with the great and powerful Oz.

After the C.O. Directs us to make like ostriches, Desiree says, “fuck that! We need to go into the bathroom .” Our resident “ocd” resident roommate adds, “ Yeah, lets hide in the bathroom. I ain't messin' up my bed for this shit!”

And so, we wedge ourselves into the 3'x4' cubicle, our state-issue pillows made of weird 1970's-style cracked naugahyde, positioned over our heads.

Desiree sits backwards and side-saddled on the throne, her ample bottom precisely six inches from my face. I tell her I'm extremely grateful she is not ingested some explosive chow. Elnora is jammed on the other side of the pot; Crystal sits to my left folded up like a pretzel.

I can reach the doorknob from my spot behind Desiree's butt, so I crack the door to glance at Elenora's TV on the top bunk. Disturbingly, I see large yellow letters and exclamation points on the screen: “TORNADO WARNING!!! TAKE COVER IN AN INTERIOR ROOM AND STAY THERE!!” I shut the door on the TV and dive back into our dubious shelter.

We hide out in the bathroom for two hours, emerging later and surviving the night with no damage to Decatur Prison, although there is news of flooding, a collapsed house, and a gym that had a wall ripped off. Two tornadoes touched down nearby but nothing worse than downed trees litter the byways near us.

In the morning, we resume our regular prison activities only to find a storm has moved inside our razor wire fences. “A” Wing is on lockdown apparently, an anonymous inmate wrote a threatening letter to the Warden expressing anger at the supposed sexual frenzy raging on the unit. A shakedown ensues lasting four days. According to, the IA finds scalding love letters, kites, contraband, and sculpted jolly rancher dildos made by some mysterious alchemical methods using a hot pot.

All hell breaks loose. Just like the Salem Witch Trials or the Red Scare, an accusing finger is more than enough to send someone to the dreaded segregation unit. Fear grips everyone, and, although I have done nothing wrong, the potential for getting caught in the crossfire is frightening. This is prison after all, where storms can cause serious injury. It's scary, and I can't escape this danger in the bathroom.

The prison walls are still intact as I dress for my day. I pull on my dark blue trousers and my state-issued white smock. My cheap knock-off Reebok are clean and tide. But as I lace my shoes, I find myself desperately trying to remember where I lost my ruby slippers.

Suza Lambert Bowser

Here, at Decatur Prison for Women, inmates from Chicago brag about that city’s cuisine, sighing over the variety and the ethnocultural excellence of the food. This rapture includes the world-renowned “Polish,” a sausage prepared in Maxwell Street, a locale whose “to-die-for” reputation extends well into these Macon County provinces.
Unfortunately, I cannot taste the delights of Maxwell Street at present, limited as I am by razor wire and the terms of my sentence. Still, adversity is the mother of invention, and my fellow Decatur prisoners manage to create innovative meals that reveal a Chicago influence, cooked in nothing fancier than a cheap hot pot.
I’ve seen and tasted everything from pizza pockets, burritos, strawberry cheesecake (and it really does taste like strawberry cheesecake!), to a Chicken Bacon Potato (much like a twice-baked potato without the potato).
Using ingredients purchased through the commissary (nothing more than convenience mart/gas station fare), my “bunkie” made a “to-die-for” faux “Polish” that made my tastebuds hum a Chopin Polonaise.
She started with a large hot sausage, which she split and filled with a mixture of habanero cheese whip, chopped jalapenos (no, she did NOT have a knife!), lots of mustard, minced onion, mozarella cheese and some hoarded ingredients about which  it is probably best not to ask too many questions. She enclosed the whole thing in a flour tortilla, wrapped the result in clear plastic, and inserted it into a clean, reclosable instant coffee bag. Finally, she placed the ensemble into the ubiquitous hot pot, where it “cooked” partially submerged in hot water for one hour.
The results were excellent -- truly remarkable. I enjoyed a spicy, melt-in-your-mouth flavor that left me pledged to visit Maxwell Street for a real “Polish” when I have cast off the mortal coil of my imprisonment.
Lest this incarcerated cuisine sound too appealing - luring the unwitting to traverse the inhospitable highways of Illinois, where danger lurks under every overpass - I must warn you that the prison culinary arts can result in serious repercussions.
Enter the “Fat Girl.” This appropriately-named treat requires the same set up as a “Polish,” except that it weighs in at a whopping 5,000 calories. The scale-tipping tonnage includes: 1 whole Butterfinger candy bar, 2 oatmeal cream pies, 1 brownie, 1 whole snickers bar, with optional roasted peanuts, a honey bun, and a lot of instant creamer whipped into melted peanut butter. After a series of mysterious alchemical exercises, the whole thing is wrapped in a flour tortilla and cooked in a hot pot for an hour.
Needless to say, some women throw all caution to the wind, losing teeth and gaining 100 pounds winning the “Biggest Loser” prize. You guessed it: a candy bar!
More handy recipes can be found in the “Chef’s Pallette (!)” section of the prion newspaper which is titled: “Decaturing the News.” Here, religious testimonials blend with practical household tips like using chamomile tea bags for facial cleansers, removing lipstick stains with bread, and admonitioning the reader against hand washing one’s underwear.
Recipes in the “Sexual Assault Month” issue of the “Decaturing the News” featured: “Cookie and Cake Dough” made with brownies, chocolate chip granola bars, Snickers and instant cappucino mix as well as “Hot Chili Corn Chip Pie” using Texas beef Ramen noodles, chili with beans, summer sausage, tortilla shells, cheddar or jalapeno cheese spread, and corn chips.
The hot pots used to cook these creations only get relatively hot. They never actually cause water to boil unless they are “geeked” - a big “no-no” which may bring the PO-lice (pronounced here with the emphasis on the first syllable). “Geeking” a hot pot involves some innovative electrical engineering that, if caught, can get the inventor sent to Segregation.
The spicy languages that swirl around the local hot pot hearths are as numerous and vaired as the dishes that are prepared there: flavors of North Shore Yiddish, salsa-tinted Spanish a la Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Mexico, South Side Chicago Black-speak redolent of fried chicken, the flat, nasal twang of Wisconsin as sharp as cheddar cheese, a Tennessee hills patois where you can hear the echos of coon a possum (or at least the hunting dogs!), Missouri white bread and biscuits, and you guessed it, full-on Chicago “Polish.” And with a minimum three year sentence, it looks like I’m going to be here long enough to learn at least a couple of new languages and cooking styles...long enough to get a little bit of “Poland” under my belt.