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.