Image “Living Fear” by Scott Smith (SRisonS) under Creative Commons on flickr.
Author’s note: Frog Gravy is a depiction of daily life during incarceration in Kentucky, in jails and in prison, during 2008 and 2009, and is reconstructed from my notes.
Names have been changed.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language.
The Hole, McCracken County Jail, January 23, 2008
After my trial, I am handcuffed in the courtroom, walked across the street to the jail where I kiss my husband for the last time, and placed in the hole.
I have been convicted of possessing less than ten dollars worth of crack, tampering with evidence, and DUI.
I am stripped of my clothes, forced to squat and cough and then take a cold de-lousing shower. I walk to the hole in an orange outfit, sans bra, socks or shoes.
It is freezing cold in the cement cell. Fluorescent lighting burns my eyes. I stare at the drain in the floor and try to focus, but I do not have glasses. I am consumed with hopelessness and despair, and wish that I would stop breathing, and die.
I hear a man screaming “HELP! Let me out! Helpmehelpmehelpme HELP!”
I am moved to a different hole, one with a cellmate, and I become outraged and claw at the skin on my arms.
My cellmate yells, “There’s blood!”
Some jail staff arrive at the cell, a Queen Bee and her brood, and she shouts, “What are you doing?!”
“I do not belong here, in this hole,” I say, crying. “I just came from court.”
“We read your charges,” says Queen Bee. “You shouldn’t have committed all those crimes. I’m putting you in the chair.”
The worker bees strap me and strap me in leather straps into a tilted back chair that looks like an electric chair. They handcuff and handcuff, and leg iron and leg shackle, and then wheel the chair into the booking area and park it.
Two hours later I have to urinate but they tell me that people shit in the chair all the time, so I urinate in my pants. Snot drips onto my shirt.
My hand and legs are numb with nerve pain (I will have nerve palsy in my right hand for some time after this) but the more I complain about lack of circulation, the more they laugh.
A change of strategy is in order because I fear I will lose use of my limbs, so I shift my legs as best I can, and smile, and say,”Man, I love this chair! This is a blast! I get to be out of the hole where it’s warm, and I get to see everything that’s going on: all the drunks on Friday night, all the false, bogus arrests, all the jail staff running around trying to look busy. Can we make this a nightly…”
Queen Bee and her workers are on me, unstrapping and unhandcuffing, and she says, “We need this chair for someone more combative than you.”
“Ah, come on, lighten up,” I say. “I was enjoying this. Oh well. Maybe next time. First dates can get off to a rocky start, after all. By the way, I’m sorry I called you a sadistic bull dyke.”
The next chair occupant is a naked man. I will hear an accurate description of his penis, including length and girth, from another inmate later on.
I am returned to the hole. The next day another woman shows up. She is on “medical watch.” She is throwing up and coughing up blood, and the jail’s solution to this is to place her in the freezing hole and take her blanket.
The woman is well enough to converse through the wall to another woman, because they know each other; everyone seems to know each other in this inbred trap. This is the first I hear of Ricky’s World, the famed surreal dungeon-like jail in Fulton County where the ‘worst of the worst’ are sent. The woman brags of eating pussy on a steel table in a cell in Ricky’s World, on a dare.
As she is relating the story, my eyebrows raise, and I wonder if she sees my shocked facial expression, and I quickly pretend like an eyelash has fallen into my eye. I rub my eye and try to act casual.
Then, I am briefly moved to a holding cell. The holding cell is a paradise: It has TV. Control of the TV is territorial, well-defined and deadly off limits to newcomers. As a newcomer, the last thing you want to do in a holding cell is change the TV channel; it is like signing your own death warrant.
The war, the mass exodus from Gaza, the looming national presidential election, politics and economics are all off limits. It is Beverly Hillbillies, game shows, soaps, talk shows, and Martha Stewart.
“Bet her cell looked good,” I say, referring to Martha Stewart.
“Huh?” say several cellmates.
“Martha Stewart was in prison,” I say. “Bet her cell looked great.”
“Nah,” says someone. “I was in with someone that knew someone that was in with her. She didn’t get shit.”
Whenever someone new arrives, there is always two-way curiosity as to why we are all here. A woman asks me, “Why are you here?”
“DUI, possession of less than ten dollars worth of crack that I never saw before and tampering. I took it to trial and lost.”
“Never take anything to trial here. Everyone knows that. I got charged with tampering.”
“Oh yeah? Why?” I ask.
“I moved the body.”
I dig out another eyelash and say, “Excuse me?”
“Well. I only moved him to another room but they say it’s tampering because they love to charge tampering around here.”
“Tell me about it,” I say. “Did you kill him?”
“Oh yeah. He owed me five hundred bucks so I stabbed him. Fuck it.”
My finger is actually inside my eye and I say, “Jeez. There’s something in my eye.”
“I’m facing the death penalty,” she says. “Or life. I might get life because I only have one prior, for having sex with a 13-year-old boy.”
I am moved back to the hole. The pneumonia cellmate is gone, and another cellmate has taken her place. Her name is Roberta, and she is in the hole for a strange reason. She picked a fight in the main population cell with a woman she is in love with, in hopes that they would both be placed in the hole together. They were both placed in the hole, except I am stuck with Roberta, and her love interest, LeeLee, is in the hole next door.
Roberta beats on the walls and yells, at maximum volume, all day, and all night: “LeeLee! LeeLee! LeeLee! LeeLee!” (wham wham wham wham wham) “Come here! Come ‘ere! COME HERE!” (wham wham knock knock wham WHAM) “I love you!” (wham wham) “What would I do without you?” (wham) “I luuuuuve you!!” (wham wham wham wham) “Answer me! That’s it, I wanna hit your face with a brick!”
I grab a Kotex pad, tear out some stuffing and stuff as much as I can into my ears to no avail. Queen Bee comes to the cell and says, “I can’t even talk on the phone out here it’s so loud, now I will take your mat and you won’t get it back, I don’t never have to give it back if I don’t want to.”
Queen Bee leaves and I parrot: “Roberta, they will take your mat and you will freeze to death and they will enjoy it.” I look out the tiny window to the hallway, and see Queen Bee, plastered up against the wall, itching to get a mat.
“She’s right there, Roberta,” I say. “And if you lose your mat they won’t let you sleep with me to stay warm.”
The silence lasts about ten seconds. Meanwhile, life, such as it is in the Valley of Holes, is so loud and there is so much pounding and screaming that the one time I do doze off briefly, I have a dream that a construction crew is working on the building.
I get up and peer out the small window again and a SWAT team is in the hall with a scoped rifle, and I say, “What the hell…”
But then we both start coughing and choking, and Roberta says, “Pepper spray,” and then she runs to the toilet to puke. We cough, choke, puke, and cough.
“Move,” I say. I puke on top of her puke. I have a nosebleed. “The fuck is this place anyway?” I ask, spitting out bile. Why don’t those animals leave that man alone? They told me in holding that he is homeless and mentally ill and they are taunting him and torturing him, what is wrong with them?”
The man in the pepper spray cell cries and screams and coughs and chokes and yelps.
Roberta coughs, then laughs, snorts and giggles. She runs to the wall and starts pounding and yelling, “LeeLee! LeeLee! I love you! Come here!” (wham wham wham wham) “I love you! I love you!”
I want to hit Roberta as hard as I can.
In the hallway, the homeless man in isolation screams, between obscenities, to the pepper spray SWAT team, “You’re racist!”
“I’m not precious,” says the guard, and I assume he meant to say, ‘I’m not prejudiced,’ because he says, “I don’t like nobody.”