Rose, heart balloons and crane by Crane-Station on flickr. The drawing is ink, magazine ink and colored pencil, and was done in Fulton County Jail (Ricky’s World) because McCracken County jail banned art supplies. The crane was folded at home.
Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account in Kentucky, during 2008 and 2009, in jails and in prison and is reconstructed from my notes.
Inmate names are changed, except for nicknames.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language.
Frog Gravy posts are gathered at froggravy.wordpress.com.
McCracken County Jail, Cell 107, early March, 2008
In the morning I do not want to wake up, because I still dream in freedom. I ask Leese how long it will be before I dream in captivity. Leese, who is on her bunk writing a poem, looks up from her writing and replies, “About seven months or so.”
Since we are only allowed religious materials to study, I study scripture each morning, and complete some bible studies. I have two bibles: a Catholic Serendipity bible with discussion questions that my family sent to me, and an NIV New Testament that I checked out from the small library. The Catholic bible almost did not make it to me, but when my family threatened to call the governor, the bible made its way to Cell 107.
I do some standing-in-place exercises. I write. I fold and refold my towels. I wash my underwear. I refold my towels again. I rearrange books. I count pieces of paper. I re-hang cards and cranes and pictures of my son with toothpaste. I climb onto the steel toilet and peer through the slit that is scratched in the ghosted-out window to the outside world. I look at the dumpsters.
Down the hall, Harry shouts from his isolation cell, HELP!! Let me out !! HelpmehelpmehelpmeHELP!”
Since January, we have been to the outside cage for recreation two times.
The day drags into evening, punctuated by meal tray arrival. Meal tray arrival becomes the focus of our lives, and someone always stands at the steel door and peers down the hall to watch for the meal cart. When the cart turns the corner in the hall so that it is visible, the watchman alerts the others with a cheery, “Trays!”
Class D men, accompanied by a guard, deliver the trays through a slot in the steel door. For breakfast we had cereal, toast, eggs, milk and one tater tot. We ate the food with an orange, plastic “spork,” a utensil that is a hybrid of a spoon and a fork. For lunch we had a hamburger patty, one slice of white bread, beans, spinach and pudding. For dinner we ate a chicken patty, black-eyed peas, carrots, bread and cake. We sound like locusts when we eat. We smack, belch, and fart. There are always spats that begin with “Are you going to eat that?” Everyone hoards. We are animals at a trough.
The cell is constantly cold, and with each passing day, I have more difficulty with my vision. I think the fluorescent lighting is damaging my eyes. The screaming and wall pounding in the jail never stops.
At 2 AM, the steel door opens and three guards enter our cell. Hands are on my shoulders and I am roughly led to the shower stall and told to remove my clothing. “SQUAT!” says the guard in a loud tone. I squat. “COUGH! she shouts” I cough. “Again! HARDER!” I cough again, harder.
After we are all stripped and after we all squat and cough in the shower stall, we dress ourselves and are placed in the hallway to wait. The guards tear the cell apart looking for tobacco and contraband. There is no tobacco and there is no contraband in the cell. The guards take down all of our family photographs and throw them onto the floor. They tear down my cranes. They scatter papers and books and letters and cards all over the floor. They upend bins with our belongings. They confiscate cups.
As they are leaving, one of the guards says to me, “You can keep your bugs. You just can’t hang them.”
“They are peace cranes,” I say. “They are birds.”
He leaves, taking a crane for himself.
We return to the cell and pick up the pieces of what we have collected and displayed to remind ourselves that maybe we belong in families somewhere. I pick up my cards with the turtle and the wolf and the birds. My cranes are crushed and torn. Ruthie picks up the only photograph of her mother, who just passed away. She cries. Leese retrieves her poem. Its four pages are scattered.
After this night in the jail, aside from one other time in prison, when I teach another inmate how to fold an origami crane, I will not fold another crane until after my release.
The next day, the same hellish routine begins. I am seated at the steel table with notes, studying scripture from two bibles.
Sally, the guard, comes by the cell and says to me, “You cain’t have nuthin’ but one bible in here.”
“Why, because you have too many books to search through when you’re looking for tobacco at two in the morning?”
“You guys is lazy. You just sit up in here like the Queen of Sheeba, havin’ everybody waitin’ on you.”
“And exactly what else are we to do?” I ask. “We have nothing. I mean nothing. You tell us we can’t have anything but religious materials, then you try to take them away. Clergy can’t even visit anymore.”
“You don’t need nuthin’ but one bible to do bible studies.”
“I study different versions.”
“Are you Catholic?”
“Oh, here we go. I happen to be studying Catholicism.”
“You cain’t study nuthin’ from two different bibles! One’s Baptist and the other one’s Catholic.”
“Well them’s two different religions. You cain’t do that.”
“Same textbooks, except the apocrypha.”
“You cain’t study Baptist and Catholic at the same time! I was gonna be a Mormon one time, till I done read that Mormon bible. They be marryin’ all them wives and everything. I cain’t do that. I done decided I couldn’t be no Mormon.”
“Mormons don’t do that anymore. It’s against the law.”
“You cain’t study two religions.”
“I like to learn. I love to study. I’d take classes, but the jail won’t let us. This is all we have in here, Sally. First, it’s books they take away. Then, it’s classes and 12-step meetings. Then medication, and health and dental care. Then, outside recreation. And then it’s toilet paper. We have to jump in the shower after we use the toilet!”
“They’re gonna start charging you if y’all make any more hair rollers out of toilet paper.”
“Fine. Put the toilet paper on commissary then. Did you know that we get two individual paper towel squares to clean the whole cell? And then, when we use a pad, they put us all on pad watch.”
“We’re spendin’ too much money on y’all.”
“The woman next door is on pad watch, Sally. She just had an emergency c-section. She nearly died in here. Her placenta was 75% abrupt, and the baby was breach. His foot was through her cervix, and you guys walked her out of here in shackles after making her wait for an hour while she nearly bled to death! And here’s the kicker: She is on Pad Watch.” They flew her two-pound, three-month premature baby to another state, Sally, and she gets three pads a day, including the pus pad for her incision. Where is the Queen of Sheba in that?”
Sally says, “Don’t get smart with me. I don’t make the decisions.”
Actually, Sally is correct. She never did make the decisions, and, aside from this encounter that was frustrating for both of us, I found Sally to be kind-hearted. I also observed that Sally’s job was nearly killing her. I think she wanted for things to be better for the inmates.
By inches and seconds, the jail ruins inmates and guards alike.