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.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Due to an Anthrax hoax here,  I have no mail.  That is, I can't receive OR send mail until
this lockdown on mail has been lifted.  So, don't worry if you don't receive letters from me
for a bit.  I'll be in touch soon.   All love, Suza

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Prison Logic - Tidbits of Incarceration IV

12) In prison, don't think about getting out; focus on going inside.

13) There's more integrity in the little finger of a drug addict/hooker than in the entire body of a cruelly ignorant C.O.

14) I've always depended on the kindness of strangers. --Tallulah Bankhead

15) If you can imagine what prison is like, think airport security.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Prison Logic - Tidbits of Incarceration III

8) It's "trafficking/trading" to share anything -- ticketable offenses. So we all sneak. Great rehab plan!

9) Don't hope or count days in prison. Just stay cool.

10) Be cautious about excelling in prison. Humiliation is swift and sure. Stay cool.

11) In prison, a facade of ignorance, a bovine mask of compliance works best. Stay cool.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Prison Logic - Tidbits of Incarceration II

4) Acts of kindness and compassion abound, and unconditional love is the only way to fly in prison.

5) There are no atheists in foxholes and very few in prison.

6) Prison quote from a prison addict: "First thing, when I get out? A blow, a rock, and a Newport Long."

7) Prison quote from a recidivist: "I've been here eleven times. Next time? I'm not coming back."

Monday, July 1, 2013

Prison Logic - Tidbits of Incarceration

1) Prison logic: 
          You will get a ticket and your blanket will be taken away if you wash it. They say they will exchange your blanket monthly, but they never do.

2) Thank goodness years of physical and mental abuse have trained me in the arts of pseudocompliance!

3) My dear friends: Thank you for posting. Although I can't have internet, some friends print these for me.