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Deborah Jiang Stein

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"Locked in This Little Room, Things Get to You"

Posted: 02/23/2012 2:17 pm

For ten years off and on I've sat face-to-face with incarcerated women in various U.S. state and federal facilities, allowed private meetings with nothing but my tape recorder. I write more about this in Even Tough Girls Wear Tutus: Inside the World of a Woman Born in Prison.

The following is an excerpt from a book-in-progress, near completion, my collected interviews with women in prisons.

After transcribing these interviews, secluded voices not often heard and now turned into monologues, some have been performed as staged readings.

Lost in a gray-and-white striped sweatshirt and faded blue jeans, both a size too large, she crosses and uncrosses her legs. Back and forth. She speaks in a hush and pauses when she can't compete with the clang and clatter from the dining hall down the wing.

Her eyebrows furrow when memories preoccupy her. Before almost each sentence, she flickers her eyelids closed. When they open, she gazes in the distance.

Sometimes her speech hesitates and she braces her chin in the cupped palm of one hand. Half-closed venetian blinds block the bright afternoon sun.

Twenty-something R.M.* has been in and out of prison or youth facilities most of her life.

"In my unit we're crazy people. People that's just wild and obnoxious. For some reason I intimidate quite a few people. It's just because when I get angry with someone I'm not afraid to tell them.

"Sometimes it comes out in a way not so polite. But they're people who need more psychological help than prison can give them and it's hard to live with sometimes.

"You have to adjust to all different kinds of people here. Hard to be around people who don't understand a simple yes or no. But for the most part I think we all know who we can talk to up here and who we just, "Oh hi, how you doin'." You know, just pacify.

"I mean if I was sentenced here for life I guess I could get myself used to this.

"I had a social worker from the time I was little. Six months old. Then before that I was in foster homes or shelters. When I was two they took me in, my foster parents. I was there eleven and one half months. My first foster family took real good care of me. In the institutions I was in, I learned to take care of myself.

"I'm Native American. Grew up with white people in a foster home and I would ask them how come my skin was darker and my hair blacker than my foster sister and brother. There was one girl and one boy other than me. I never got an answer. They would just change the subject.

"In school people teased me, you know how they make Indian noises? I didn't understand but I knew I was different from everybody. And besides, being short, and I always had this short hair. I like it cropped.

"I have seven sisters and four brothers. Same mother. I think it's three different fathers. Everyone went to foster homes originally and then she took everyone back but me. That's another thing I did not never understand. Now I wouldn't bother asking her.

"I know my mom. I met her when I was fifteen, met her for the first time in court. They were trying to take her rights away because this whole time she had parental rights but I didn't know this.

"She was drunk, loud, and obnoxious. There were people around and she was making a scene in the juvenile justice department. I just looked at her and I sat down.

"'Look at my baby, look at my baby! Oh isn't she cute!'

"Loud!

"My social worker said, 'Well, go give her a hug. Say something to her.'

"'If she stops talking so loud,' I said, 'maybe I will. Right now I don't want to associate with her.'

"'There's my baby over there!' she yelled.

"She was like, 'Give me a hug,' and I smelled the booze and piss and... and puke... everything. I stepped back and I just... I reached out my hand.

"I stepped back and shook her hand. Then she insisted on a hug. In court she was talkin' how much she loved me and this and that and I was so angry. My attorney was sitting right next to me and I kept nudging her in the leg.

"Then my mom said, "Well I care about her. She's my daughter."

"I said, 'Well where in the fuck...'

"I said, 'Where were you all this time!? I'm fifteen years old!'

"My lawyer said my face turned beet red. I was getting ready to jump up across the table and the deputies came and grabbed me and took me to the side room. That was the last time I seen her until I was eighteen years old.

"On and off, see, twelve, thirteen, on and off I was in group homes and shelters and treatments and detox. For drinking.

"See, my foster family told my social worker that they couldn't handle me no more so when I was twelve, one day I come home from school, my foster dad wasn't there, just my foster mom. She's all upset. Crying and saying it's the best thing for me. My stuff is packed in her car and off I go. I didn't even... I was just like, whatever.

"I didn't never really think about it until I started being in places like this. Prison. Time after time.

"Place like this makes you think. I write poems. I used to have a whole book full of poems but I think my foster parents have them.

"When I was eighteen I went through eleventh grade then got my GED at the County Workhouse. It was a forced thing.

"I use drugs but I don't shoot cocaine or nothing. I smoke weed and that's about it. Even booze, you can get in here.

"You know when I'm sober, I'm fine. I didn't ever do nothing sober. Never. I was in and out of juvenile detox fourteen times. That was just to sober up. Since I turned eighteen, I have been detoxed forty times.

"I spent eight and a half months in Seg [segregation: isolation from other inmates] this last time. Because I was assaultive and I just didn't care. I was upset about something and during the struggle I assaulted one of staff. So they gave me six months. 180 days in Seg.

"I didn't assault nobody just for the heck of it. I didn't just say, "Oh, you're ugly," and punch someone. I mean they provoked something.

"I was just terribly assaulting. (Laughs) I'm not making light of it but any time they come for me, they need three or four staff.

"Just a bed, steel toilet, and a desktop. There's a window but you can't open it. They had me kneeling when they brought my food in, kneeling on the floor face towards the window with my back to them.

"Like I am here, and way over there is my door, then they open the little slot on the door and throw a bag of food in and shove the slot. Otherwise when I'd be by the slot and they'd open it I'd stick my arm out and they wouldn't be able to close it because I would want air.

"180 days. You get out an hour a day for cigarettes or for rec. Which half the time I didn't even get out and when I did I was in handcuffs and shackles. They showered me like that three times a week, in handcuffs and shackles.

"Then something happened. When you're locked in this little room, things get to you."

*The women in this interview series are actual people, all who gave signed releases and permission for use of their full names. Initials used for the sake of their families.

We read and talk about women and men in prisons but we rarely speak with them because they're locked up. Far too often their voices are lost, ridiculed, or ignored. 150,000 women in prisons, they're too many to ignore.