Thursday, March 28, 2013

From Suza

Overall, things are getting easier for me.  Scrubbing pots and pans was not my cup of tea but the women were wonderful and in general, kind and generous.  Here in prison we are all the same.  This egalitarianism is delicious to me in that I can truly experience women who come from a completely different experience than my own.  I was so bored in the kitchen that I ended up singing a lot.  This invited some ridicule as well as some genuine fun with all of us singing together.  Then I would play the machines like drums-I just can't help it.  I just get so repressed.  (Note: Suza has since been transferred to the prison school where she is tutoring.)

On another small note, I have lost weight and I am focused to get to my "good weight".  I am highly dedicated to this with a lot of other women.  22 times around my wing=1 mile....oh yeah.  There are aerobic sessions too.

To Ben, Spellman, Jamila, Amira, Kimber, Kinsley, Ryan, Scout, Christina--you beautiful children are always in my prayers.  Love, Mom

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Decatur Correction Facility

Dearest T-bones (often what she calls me),
(at the top of the letter beautiful drawing of a horse)
In my mind, I am sitting invisible behind you as you ride West.  It's an image I can't shake.  You are on Cooskie Mt. over on the North Side of the River near the Ocean.  I'm the small bird perched on the brim of your hat, and I can see the trees, blooming - earlier than the Illinois Oaks around Decatur.  The river is moving jade and emerald, and the sky over the Pacific looms changeable every moment.  One second, the fog is licking its great white tongue over Uncle Tommy's,the next,fat cumulus are soaring above the mouth - 40,000 feet of excellence in white drapery and glorious triumphs of updrafts. Hawks and Raven hold the currents with their expert balance, and the cows gaze back at you - Bovine Buddhists, their mouths moving slowly, chanting together in a smooth,calming mastication.  Maybe they are super-conscious! Maybe they know everything of value,everything that's important. Maybe those sloe-eyed beauties and their stodgy males have the most  fun of any sentient creature on the planet. How do you know what they're thinking T-bones?  You don't know! Hah!

Letter from Suza to Peggy: Description of life in prison


Dear Peggy,
I received your nice letter—the last from NYC—with the poem about the
peonies. I want to tell you how very much I appreciate your caring for me as I
navigate the impossible world of incarceration! Yes, it’s quite the adventure! And,
yes, it’s also humiliating, insulting, and bewildering. At the same time, it’s
enlightening, beautiful, and spiritually uplifting—who knew?
This prison is filled with light. There are windows along the corridors (floor
to ceiling), and, although the windows in the cells are frosted, they allow visions of
sun. Through the high windows in the “day room,” I can see the tops of trees that
are covered with new buds. Also, in our wing, there’s an old “smoke pit” –no longer
used for smoking, obviously—and covered with a chain link ceiling, but open to the
air. Birds come and sit on top—fat sparrows eager for spring to begin in earnest.
When the weather warms (beginning of April), we will be able to go to the “yard”—a
place where we can play softball. I think—also, a place to walk laps. Since I have
been here, my wing has been allowed to use the “patio” area one time. This is also
outside in a small yard, where there are a couple of picnic tables and some trees—
all surrounded by razor wire, of course.
I have seen merlin hawks (small—look like falcons), cardinals, grackles, and
sparrows—no ravens (I miss them most of all). There are a couple of squirrels—
and, once in awhile, a herd of deer graze by a wooded creek outside the razor wire
chain link boundary.
All movement inside the prison is heavily regulated. One is “unauthorized” if
walking even 5 feet without a guard—an action that can earn you a “ticket”—
relatively minor, but a ticket nonetheless. There’s no real instruction manual for
prison (smile) although there is a terse handbook. But, it doesn’t give specific
instructions for “walking.” I haven’t received any tickets, but I have been confused!
The COs (correctional officers) bark and yell and upbraid clueless prisoners
like me, while the other inmates reassure me that I’ll “get-the-hang-of-it.” For a
relatively courteous, high achiever like me, it has been upsetting and, sometimes,
galling to be reprimanded in cruel and insulting language, even when I ask a polite
question. I don’t possess the witty or sassy repartee that other prisoners whip out
with, pouts and posturings—it’s just not my style. Still, there are some fairly decent
COs who do not “get off” on belittling me—and I find that I am grateful to them.
I’ve been here about a month so far, and my first work assignment was
“Dietary I” from 6-2 pm. Yes, all my fancy education was useful as I strategized and
problem-solved my way through scrubbing countless stainless steel trays and
serving containers! It sounds terrible and it was—in a lot of ways. Nonetheless,
there’s beauty and joy in everything—even prison! I met some lovely women in the
kitchen whose humor and kindness saved my ass! We started an impromptu
singing group to ease the pain. Isn’t it amazing how the human condition always
allows us to rally?
Of course, even with the kindness of my fellow workers, I was eager to get
out of there. It was a mandatory 90 day stint, but I wrote the “Education”
department and lucked out. A T.A. position became available and the civilian

teacher took me on—with several caveats: 1. her experience had shown her that
prisoners with higher degrees tried to “take over.” 2. She could not have anyone in
her room who was tempted to “correct” her. It worked out! Thank God! And, now, I
am assisting in a classroom where rudimentary skills in Microsoft Word, Excel, and
Power Point are the basic topics. Hallelujah! My new hours are 8:20-3:20 with an
hour off in the middle. This allows me a good 3 hours of writing time in the
I am making myself useful on the “ward” as I call it, referring to my unit or
“wing,” as a letter writer and as a teacher. I have a young student who is eager for
higher ed, so we are reading Romeo and Juliet aloud. What a pleasure to see this
young woman get excited about the language! Her surprise and delight at the puns,
the humor, and, of course, the romantic love poetry is infectious—I’m teaching her
and, soon, another student Basic English Comp, vocabulary, and Basic Math as she
prepares for college entry. Another woman (older but eager) needs help to earn her
GED. All these services (and there are more that I don’t really dare to describe,
although they are certainly positive and helpful—my caution is because of possible
punishment!) are beneficial to me and the other women. Everyone helps everyone
else in here—and that creates a reasonably “caring” environment. To say that the
prisoners are clever, innovative, and agile multi-taskers would be an
understatement (they can even make cheesecake in a hot pot!).
Having written this snapshot of prison life in Decatur, Illinois, I have to add
that it is not easy or fun by any means. But, there is humor, kindness, and love here
(as well as some rough stuff too!). I can truly say that some of my best friends are
recovering heroin or crack addicts, alcoholics, forgers, arsonists, embezzlers, pill
poppers, nurses (who wrote illegal prescriptions), gun runners, aggravated DUIs
with scars all over their bodies, and marijuana drivers from California—like me!
What a study of human nature: mothers, wives, lovers, grandmothers, women in
wheelchairs, bulimics, women with colostomy bags, the crippled, the lame,
dreamers, and schemers. We’re all here, and, in prison, we are all the same.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Lift Me Like a Leaf by Suza

                                                                                                            Suza Lambert Bowser
                                                                                                Decauter Prison- March 2013
“Lift me Like a Leaf” (After Shelley)
While standing in line, I spot a red cardinal
Now dead and nesting in a little of leaves
My neck cranes brokenly, struggling to see beyond the prison glass.

Here inside, I can’t hear the paper scrape,
The whisk and hush of desiccated leaves.
So, like the audio overdubs I’ve recorded in my life
I cover this video with remembered sounds from outside.

“Look!” one prisoner exclaims, “a hummingbird!”
The other women sigh a cute and tragic “Awwww.”
These girls don’t know shit about birds, I gloat
Noting the red feathers melting soggy against the skeleton.
But, then I see it:
            A tiny shadow on the concrete ledge,
            A smudge, a fluttered shape
            The needle-thin tubular beak.

It’s a hummingbird all right and by God.
Silent swirls of dead leaves grace this humbling delicacy
Like the cardinal, I’m the red-faced oaf fallen beside a fairy.

Day 20 in the X House

  Suza wrote: (Transcribed by Arrolyn Vernon) 

                                                                                                         Suza Lambert Bowser
                                                                        Dwight Maximum Security- Feb 18, 2013
“Day 20 in the X House”
Post prandial, we walk from the dining hall in two lines
Wearing the deep yellow and royal maroon of Tibetan monks.
Razor wire slices crystalline blue into icy splinters of light,
And the prison grass glitters flawed diamonds.      
The sun is winter weak, but the wind is strong enough to prick my skin.

I pivot on this compass point- awry- then,
Alighned beneath a lopsided minim, beyond the fence,
A gas station pulses red, white, and blue- blinking
With an off-handed unobtainable liberty:
            Eighteen wheelers, SUVs, prison guards, coffee, tobacco,
            Cornucopias of candy, sour wieners, beer, farmers,
            Factory workers, toothless Midwesterners- and the beat goes on.

For one brief chilly moment my vision is as spherical and clear
As the shimmering chain link that contains me.

I don’t want to be in this prisona, but I don’t want to be
In that convenient mart either.

An unseen train plays jazz- spotless and concise…
A C Major 7th cleaves the air and reorganizes my brain.

My Roomate is a Cat

Suza wrote: (transcribed by Arrolyn Vernon)

“My Roommate’s a Cat”                                                                                            03-18-13
            For a while, I don’t know what it means: the moans, the grunts, the groans, the audible sighs. Suddenly, my roommate will utter a plaintive “Oh shit.” Then, she’ll roll over and whine like a little child, either humming with contentment or whispering in pain.
            In my silence and cautious quiet- my pen moving across the page, careful not to rustle the paper- I wonder at her apparent indifference or perhaps her ignorance. Does she not know that her sounds and the silent flashing of her television screen impact the fragile peace of this four-woman cell?
            Sometimes with her TV earbuds in place, she bursts into giggles and outright laughter at a commercial or a situational comedy- a reality home video. I swallow my irritation because: a) I don’t know and can’t hear or see what she’s laughing about, and b) these sounds fracture my focus, and I must stop, retrench, and recompose myself to continue writing or reading.
            Often, I plug my own radio earbuds and listen to classical music, convenient symphonies that serve to mask the endless laughing and shouting in the Day Room outside the cell door as well as to mute my roommate’s strange vocal eruptions inside- and, then, I pray to keep my resentment from growing into full blooming anger- ahhh, the little things that chip away one’s sanity in prison!
            Finally, I realize that all these sounds are for me, the chronicles, the note-taker, the writer of emotion and human saga. Whether consciously or unconsciously, whether for a bid for pity, compassion, or a poke to stoke my ire, my roommate offers those sounds as gifts. They are gestures of homage, revelations and testimonies about her personal pain- which I happen to know is plentiful.
            These sounds are little dead birds and broken mice that she brings to lay at my feet. “See?” she says, her coat matted and crusted with blood. “See? This is me.”