Leonard, the Umbrella Cockatoo, by Crane-Station on flickr. Jail art: pen, colored pencil and magazine ink. When I was transferred to Fulton County Detention Center (Ricky’s World) and was allowed to purchase colored pencils for the first time, I spent my days drawing pictures for my parents. My parents are elderly and live out of state.
Author’s note: Frog Gravy is a nonfiction account of incarceration in Kentucky, first in jails and then in prison, during 2008 and 2009, and is reconstructed from my notes.
Names are changed, or else non-identifying nicknames are used.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language.
Frog Gravy posts are also on Firedoglake.com in MyFDL, in my diaries.
McCracken County Jail, late February, 2008, Cell 107.
I am seated at the steel table gathering stationery. Due to an ice storm, commissary has not arrived, and so, I am using papers that I gathered during church services, and I am writing notes on the blank backs, and then mailing the notes to my family.
Two Class D men and a guard open the steel slot on the steel door to the cell to deliver lunch.
One of the Class D men says, “All rise,” and we laugh.
Down the hall, Harry yells from his isolation cell, “Let me out! Help! Helpmehelpmehelpme HELP! Somebody! Help me!”
After a lunch of one slice of white bread, okra, potatoes, a hamburger patty and cake, I resume my activity and look at the church handout before me. It reads:
…speaking and dressing lewdly. Homosexuality gets the green light, too. We’re told that we can’t “help” it if we prefer sex with the same gender.
We are bombarded with sexual messages from morning ’til night, if we’re not careful. Sexual immorality is so much a part of our lives that we don’t consider many aspects of it anymore.
I notice that I have torn the paper in half, probably to make an origami crane out of it. I flip the paper over and it reads,
“What does God think about homosexuality? Read Roman 1:24, 26-27 and underline the words that describe this sin.”
Under the question I have written,
“I do not believe that homosexuality is a sin.”
I cannot use this paper to write notes, I decide.
When my family learned that their mail was getting to me only some of the time, and that the jail rules kept changing, they realized that they were vicariously doing time as well, and they engaged in a little civil disobedience of their own. They began to write me letters on one side of pieces of paper, and then mailing the ‘letters’ to me so that I could use the blank side to write my notes, and mail them back to my family for safekeeping.
The final straw was this: My parents were originally told that they could send stamps in, on blank stamped envelopes, but when they sent in stamps affixed to envelopes, the jail mailed the blank envelopes back to my family. Back to my elderly and very kindly parents, I might add, who, in addition to my husband, were already being milked for commissary and phone card funds.
Make no mistake: families do the time too, and I really believe that in many ways the time is much harder for the families.
So now I have all sorts of paper in the form of fake letters that do not say much, other than things like, “Wow! I just started to write this letter, and guess what? A letter wizard popped up!” and, “Today I walked the dog and put gas in the truck,” and, “You know, I am typing the letter today because I am such a slow writer.”
Just when I think my notes are stagnant and I need a new topic, though, the cell door opens and in walks none other that YaYa, with mat and bucket in tow. If anyone can loosen the corset strings of the cell, it is YaYa, and I am relieved, because to be honest, there was tension in the cell such that, although I had taken a personal vow of silence, I had not promised myself not to silently and swiftly choke the life out of Meg, who was grating on my last nerve.
YaYa is an enormous, hilarious but at the same time annoying black woman, 5’9″ and 315 pounds. She has been in this jail for nine months, and has been moved around frequently, because of her temper and propensity to throw punches. I happen to like YaYa. But I do not have a history with her.
YaYa sits her belongings down and says, to no one in particular, “I tell you, this place? McCracken? Jessus betta watch hisself. Girl. I tell you. Whole thing starts over tobacco. Dorothy and Ashley? Huh-uhh. They be assin’ me, gimme a blank page outa yer Bible.”
“Your Bible?” I ask.
“And girl, I say, ain’t nobody gonna be smokin’ up my Bible. But anyway, I’m the one who brought the cigarettes in, a whole pack.”
Tina says, “Yeah, Menthol Camel Wides.”
Christie says, “Camel Wide Menthol, you can break ‘em down and get 30 out of 20.”
“Right,” says YaYa, “An I was assin’ 40 dollas, and Dorothy promised me two phone cards. I took the risk. I can ass forty, right? I brought matches in but Sergeant found ‘em.”
“Where?” I ask.
“Right here in my bra.” She gestures to the top of her right breast. “I didn’t get no charge, though, I jes told Sergeant yeah, I forgot they were there. I come up out of a smoking facility, and you unnerstand how you gots to hide your matches.”
I feel as if I am listening to a manic freight train and I ask, “Where’d you hide the cigarettes, I mean a whole pack?”
“Right here under my boob. My boobs is so big, it’s like, well, when the cigarettes gits under one, it’s lock, stock and barrel, baby.” She swings her enormous breasts from side to side to demonstrate.
I duck and say, “Lock and load, lock and load!”
Author’s end note:
My parents had a pair of umbrella cockatoos at the time, Leonard and Toots. Toots would groom Leonard, and in the process of grooming, she removed quite a bit of his umbrella feathers, hence “plucked.”
Leonard is pictured here with a prosthesis because, alas, his ‘brella’ is mostly missing.
“Useless” is a term of endearment in my family, and is used in many contexts and settings; I do not know how this all got started!
YaYa had been locked in the McCracken County jail for nine months when she arrived in Cell 107 that day. She had been moved around a lot in the jail, due to fighting. I will continue this story later, but you may be interested to know that YaYa herself did not smoke. Her anger issues were actually more than surface deep, and she was awaiting transfer to Kentucky’s psychiatric lockup, KCPC. I liked her and never had issues, perhaps because I was in general a quiet inmate. She found frequent accomodation in jail for forgery, trafficking in government IDs, theft, cold checks, assault, extortion, and the charge that used to be very popular but I do not know if it is anymore: persistent felony offender.
Also, if you have incarcerated family or children, there is a helpful site that consists of supportive forums. That site is readily evident if you Goggle “Prison Talk,” and you must sign up and receive email verification in order to participate. The threads are interesting and, at the very least, show that you are not alone.