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.