Archive for June, 2011

author’s note: Frog Gravy is a depiction of daily life during incarceration in Kentucky during 2008 and 2009, and is reconstructed from my notes. Because a single essay would be too lengthy, I am telling the story in serial form. This is the fourth entry. Frog Gravy contains graphic language. Names have been changed.

Jail cell 107, March, 2008.

There is a lot of turnover in the cell. Aside from Christie, Tina and I, who will remain friends in the coming years, the passing parade usually includes women that have had prior incarceration experience. Sometimes, inmates that cannot get along in any other cell in the jail end up here.

Sirkka is a new arrival, and her mental challenges are grossly apparent. She is tiny- about five feet tall and ninety pounds on a good day. She talks non-stop, in manic, run-on sentences, her speech a slurred and urgent volley, such that I cannot understand much of anything she is saying. Her arrival feels like someone has thrown a grenade into the cell and I want to yell, “Fire in the hole!”

Ruthie, another new arrival, is a young mother of two. She has a difficult time of it, being an inmate, because she is mentally slow and painfully aware of it, yet people make fun of her in ways that remind me of bullies at recess when I was a kid. I want to protect her somehow. Ruthie has the affect of someone that may have suffered fetal alcohol syndrome in infancy. She is loving and trusting and sweet, yet carries a sadness identical to an abused animal that presents a defensive posture. She has asked us what she should do in her legal case, and we do not know what to tell her, so one day, unbeknownst to us, she signed a guilty plea for a six-year sentence. She does this because she is assured probation, but she does not fully understand that she cannot return home and smoke a little pot once in a while.

Years later, I will notice that Ruthie will be locked up again.

One day, the chaplain comes and removes Ruthie for a brief moment. Her mother has died. Ruthie is inconsolable. We take turns holding her, combing her hair, saying prayers.

Sally is serial-calling her mother again, demanding bond money. She slams the phone again and says, “Yeah, she’s lazy. A lazy whore bitch, don’t do nuthin’ but lay on her back, we just wasted a phone call talkin’ about what a lazy whore she is.”

Sally slams, redials, slams, redials, and says, “Oh, my gawd. She hung up on me.”

Sirkka says, “You’re not actin’ very Christian.”

Sirkka is naked, on her belly on the floor, yelling under the steel door into the hallway, things about her tight pussy. She is directing this obscene soliloquy in the general direction of the men in the isolation cells: Curtis, who stuffed a DVD player in his pants at WalMart, ran from the cops, fell and broke his leg and is now in a cast; Austen, who is HIV positive and was attacked and beaten in a bloody fight in population; Henry, who yells “HELP! Helpmehelpmehelpme HELP ME! all hours of the day and night.

An irate guard approaches and slams the cell door open and yells at Sirkka, “You yell under that door one more time and you lose everything you got.”

Sirkka skitters backward across the floor like a cockroach, trying to keep the towel around her waist intact, looking sheepish. She is fortunate she did not go straight to the hole.

I try to keep writing but the distraction is overwhelming. Sirkka asks me if I want to trick write. I politely decline.

Trick writing is pretty much how it sounds. There are a great many men who specifically seek out and correspond with incarcerated women. These men send money, large amounts over long periods of time in some cases, in exchange for dirty letters from locked up women. Some men go onto jail and prison web sites and write women they see there. There are other web sites specifically designed for uh “pen pal” relationships. Some women in prison, I will find out later on, never want for anything because they have hundreds of dollars on their books from trick writing. Some men expect sex at some point, but many do not. Sometimes, true and lasting friendships develop. Nonetheless, these men are known as “sugar daddys” in the biz.

In retrospect I am glad I declined trick writing. Aside from the fact that it felt like cheating (although many do not feel that it is) I found out much later that if I had too much money on my books I would have been denied in forma pauperis, and I would not have been able to proceed with an appeal. We had no money at all and I was assigned an attorney on appeal based on my indigent status. Money on my books, no matter where it came from, could have been viewed as me being able to afford private counsel, and I would have been committed to trick writing for a good long time. Here is an example of how that works, from a random case, names deleted:

“PETITIONER FILED MOTION TO PROCEED IN FORMA PAUPERIS. TENDERED PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS. ###COPIES TO JUDGE AND AG **PETITIONER HAS HAD THE SUM OF $916.20 DEPOSITED TO HIS INMATE ACCOUNT DURING PRECEDING 6 MONTHS. THIS IS AN AVERAGE MONTHLY DEPOSIT OF $152.70 PER MONTH. ###D.16.PB”

-snip-

and:

“PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS IS DENIED.”

Above person will have to hire a private attorney because he or she is making too much money to be considered indigent.

Trick writing aside, since Sirkka is a bona fide prostitute her tricks are real, and since she cannot stop talking non-stop, she tells us about them: Max, a fat car lot owner who likes butt toys, Jack and Geoff, old men who like freaky letters, and C.W., aka Santa Claus, who likes his dick sucked and works at Pine Ridge apartment complex.

I go to my drug class and learn that I have very nearly been voted off the island because I have steadfastly refused to plead guilty to my charges, and because I have been to college. I rehabilitate myself by assuring the group that I have had plenty of drug issues, so just because I am maintaining my innocence in these particular charges does not mean that I cannot contribute and participate in this group. They take a vote and allow me to stay, and I am tripping on the fact that I nearly got kicked out of drug school in a jail.

When I return to the cell, the conversation focuses on animal cruelty, but to my amazement and horror, no one sees it that way. The talk is joking, jovial, punctuated with giggles and laughs. The talk is about hanging hogs from trees up side down and slitting throats and slicing abdomens and watching guts splash to the ground, throwing puppies into the fire, and killing pitbulls that lose dog fights, killing birds and baby mice, breaking legs, mangling eyes, torturing racoons and possums and kittens. Slicing the testicles from boars.

Just when I think I am going to get up and start screaming, Ruthie breaks the levity of the sickening conversation and says, “That’s how they found my Momma dead, just like that.”

We look and Ruthie has her mother’s picture. She strokes the edges of the picture, as if stroking it provides comfort somehow.

“See. She was settin’ right here, next to the air conditioner, and she had her inhaler in her hand. But no one found her and…”

Tears stream down Ruthie’s face.

“You know no one found her right away…”

Tears stream down my face. For Ruthie’s mother, who died alone by the air conditioner with her inhaler in her hand and no one noticed.

And for the animals. Tears stream down my face for the animals.

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Author’s note: This is a true story reconstructed from my notes. Names have been changed. Frog Gravy is a depiction of daily life inside jail and then later in prison, from a woman’s perspective, during the years 2008 and 2009 in Kentucky. My sentence is eight years, and I served nearly two: half in two different jails and the other half in a penitentiary. Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

Jail Cell 107, March, 2008

I have graduated to better real estate: a bottom-level steel bunk, one of four. Steel jail bunks are identical to military barrack bunks.

I have used toothpaste, perhaps the most versatile jailhouse product with easily a dozen uses, to paste cards that my family has sent me, to the steel above me. Many of the cards depict nature because I love nature. One even had a real bird feather on the front, but staff confiscated the feather because they fear that I will use the quill for a tatoo needle. So the front of the card has a small glob of glue where the quill used to be.

I go over each card. I wish I could touch the whiskers on this wolf or that baby harp seal, or swim with that turtle or talk to my son.

Any cell, does not matter where it is really, takes on an Animal Farm quality in a matter of time, and ours is no different. Behind the steel door and out of sight and earshot of the guards, our rules apply now, and these rules are not loving in any way. Loud verbal fights are an every day occurrence. Not really surprising when six people live in a four-person cell, sharing through three senses, one toilet and guarding, in a Rubbermaid container, the whole of their lives. Humans in uncontrolled groups can act surprisingly hateful and infantile and can spew hate even while quoting scripture.

Sally is on the phone again, for the zillionth time begging her mother to get to a hard money lender and borrow $2000 for bail.

“God damnit, I saw the name of a lender on TV. Easy Money!! Listen to me! Go down there today and get it!!”

I feel really sorry for Sally’s mother as I listen and run my fingers over the surfaces of the cards, as if tactile sensation is transforming.

Sally continues, “God must have sent the commercial to the TV, because the Lord works through many people.”

Ah the Lord God,I think. How conveniently disarming.

Sally got creative one day and visited a local veterinarian and took a good look at the vet’s stationery. Then, she duplicated the letterhead at home and crafted a letter to her doctor, on the veterinarian fake stationery. The ‘vet’ explained to the doctor that Sally’s dog had eaten all of Sally’s pain pills and died of an over dose…and Sally needed a refill.

When asked to answer to this literary brainstorm, Sally skipped court, eight or ten times. Maybe the Lord wanted her to think about all of this. Personally I wished the Lord would put Sally in another cell to think about it.

Sally screams and yells at her mother, ends the call with a daughterly, “You fucking whore,” and slams the phone.

Other than family mail, religious material or I should clarify Christian religious material is the only reading material allowed, other than a very rare and very unreadable romance novel. I have also learned that, if I agree to get baptized into the local [censored by author] church, they will put money on my books. A lot of women get baptized because you get a free towel, and you get to be out of the cell. I refuse baptism because I was raised Presbyterian and baptized as an infant, which, in some circles, assures me a seat in Hell.

I decide to go through Bible study pamphlets to pass the time, because judges seem to like inmates that study the Bible and they might even grant shock probation, although I have seen inmates get spectacularly fucked by shock probation.

We have several bibles, mostly NIV, several pocket-sized New Testaments, and several study pamphlets that are on magazine-like paper.

We have managed to smoke most of one of the pocket New Testaments because the pages make decent tobacco rolling paper. So we smoked quite a good deal of Mathew, left John 3:16 alone, and after some concerned discussion, smoked some of the Revelation of St. John. I have a request in to visit the ‘law library’ such as it is, so I can get another smokable New Testement.

I am reading a study pamphlet entitled, The Antichrist Is Alive Today, because I can complete the questions, mail them off and get credit and the Judge will be happy.

The pamphlet is talking about Daniel. What do the beasts mean? Nations. Okay.

What do wafers represent? People. Fair enough.

What do the ribs in the bears mouth represent? The three principle powers conquered by Medo-Persia: Lydia, Babylon and Egypt. Hmmm.

Wings represent speed.

Then there is a monster with ten horns. Ten horns represent ten nations but there is one little horn that represents the Antichrist, who is none other than the papacy. The pope is the Antichrist, it says.

Then comes the qualifier and the disclaimer: “That’s not to say that many Catholics are not good people…”

The next study guide is called, The Mark Of The Beast.

This story is non-fiction, reconstructed from my notes. Names have been changed.

Jail Cell 107. February, 2008

Phone calls are limited to fifteen minutes and this is frustrating, especially if there is some disagreement between the parties. Often, the inmate is in hysterical tears on the phone, over some disagreement or some profound misunderstanding. Many disputes involve custody or visitation. There is no counselor or social worker or group to resolve these issues, so there is a lot of screaming and crying, in fifteen-minute segments.

Thursday night going into Friday is miserable. Meg has made me a dreamcatcher and I have it hanging over my bed. She is Native American and she has blessed the dreamcatcher. It seems to alleviate some of the nightmares, but the odd thing is that I do not want to wake up in the morning because my dream life all takes place in the setting of freedom and my waking life takes place in a concrete coffin. I wonder at what point my dream life will be imprisoned as well, and Leese says this takes about seven months to achieve.

The cell next door taunts the crazy man in the isolation cell, yelling “HARRY! We wanna play with you Harry!” And Harry yells back, “HELLLP! Helpme help me HELP” all hours of the night.

At 1AM a guard comes by and asks us if we want to go to the gym. He routinely comes by between one and three AM, to offer “rec,” and we ask him to come back. He never does. He will mark this exchange as a “refusal” in the documents in case the State checks on our rec situation. They will be satisfied.

We will be out of the cell according to this routine, exactly three times in the following three months. We do not go outside, of course, these three times, the reason given is that it is winter. “Rec” is held in the gym or in the chapel. I do not care for the gym, because there is semen stuck to the wall behind the mat at the back of each basketball basket, and the din and echo give me a raging headache.

Breakfast is served at 6AM, after a mop bucket is rolled in with a cheery, “Time to sweep and clean, ladies!” We take turns sweeping and cleaning so the rest of the group can sleep in. We eat and then go back to sleep because we are exhausted from being up all night. Sleep deprivation will become a way of life for me.

During breakfast, Christie says, “You know this table here. I was in a jail once, and another inmate was so obese she got stuck between the steel table and the seat bolted to the floor.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Then her teeth became dislodged, and she was choking on her teeth and turning blue. The guards came running and they had to do the Heimlich maneuver and dislodge her from the picnic table.”

“Damn,” I said.

Christie tells a story of better days in the penitentiary, when a boot camp program for women was in place.

“If inmates completed the boot camp program in four months they were paroled. The penitentiary boot camp was run by real ex-military, ex-marines, ex-army. We did Jane Fonda exercises, chanting ‘I love you Jane.’

“Cool,” I say. “I used to go to the Jane Fonda studios in Encino in the eighties. Loved it.”

“Boot camp was co-ed. I bent down once and looked between my legs and there were a bunch of guys behind me, butt-ass naked and swinging their dicks and shit, and they were looking at me.”

“Hell no.”

“It was like real boot camp only ten times worse because we were inmates and they could do whatever they wanted. They called me ‘Pow-Wow,’ and I mean this motherfucker’s lost his mind. He’d say, “Pow-Wow what in the hell do you think is so fucking funny?” and I’d say “nothing sir” and he’d say “well then I’d suggest you get your ass moving.”

“Jacked Jesus.”

“Three count push-ups and I can’t even count to ten, so I would ask “permission for cover sir” (permission to quit) and he’d say “permission denied.”

“Did you finish the program?”

“No. I got kicked out for receiving a letter from some guy and I flushed it right away but this bitch named Biscuit snitched.”

“Does the program still exist?”

“No. Because a woman was raped.”

Author’s note: This is a true story, reconstructed from my copious notes. It is also a much longer story than this post. If people are interested in reading about modern-day incarceration I will continue to write. If not, I will stop. The names have been changed but the story is real.

Jail. January, 2008

After seven days in the hole, I met with one of the jailers, a placement specialist. I had spotted a no-shank pen with ink on the floor next to where I sat, and was going to get it, one way or the other. I made mental note of the cameras and began talking.

“Please don’t put me in population. I mean, surely there’s a spot in one of those little cells in the back.”

“This ain’t the fucking Hilton.”

“Hey I know, you know, but I really have some, uh, mental difficulties in population, and if you can’t you can’t but I am just asking.” Please don’t put me in the screaming zoo.

“Hold on a minute.”

The jailer got up and walked away, I had to seize the moment, so I glanced at the cameras, dove for the pen and rolled it into the waistband of my orange jailhouse pants, all in one fluid motion I might add, and the camera people were none the wiser.

Another guard arrived.

“Get your stuff.”

I gathered everything that was my new life: a mat, a sheet, a small bar of soap, a hand towel, patted the pen to make sure it was secure…and I was led to Cell 107, mercifully, in the back of the jail and out of ear shot of the large population cells. The back cells are where they place violent offenders, State inmates (I was one of these now) and crazy people. A man, a few cells down in isolation screamed, “Helpme helpme HELP ME, Oh please HELLLP me, helpme helpme, help!”

I was now the sixth resident in this four-person cell. There is a certain finality to the steel door being closed when you are on the wrong side of it. At the time I did not know that this cell would be my home for the next four months. There was no good real estate left for my bed roll, I noticed immediately, and five people were looking at me annoyed.

Still holding my bed roll, I looked back at the door, where an artist had carved the words KILL FUCK DIE in block, and then had also scraped a frame with bunny ears to make the window facing the hallway look like a TV set. The ‘volume’ knob was labeled “valium” and the maximum setting was labeled “10 mg.”

I faced my tough audience.

“Any of you bitches got a cigarette?”

Everyone spoke at once.

“I wish.”

“Welcome to Hell.”

“We can get tobacco if we show our tits to the guys in the hall.”

I jerked my thumb to the large window facing the hallway, where two male inmates, one with a mop and the other with a bucket were mopping linoleum but mostly staring at us, the women.

“Tits for tobacco?”

“Sometimes we fish.”

“Come again.”

“We take the cable cord off the TV, run it under the door to the next cell if they have tobacco and we don’t, they attach a cigarette and we fish it back.”

“How do you light it?”

“Sometimes they light it next door and we fish it back lit, sometimes we have a lighter. But usually we just pop the socket.”

I claimed a new-person’s space on the floor while the usual introductions were being made and noted that there one one shower and one toilet and one steel four-person table for six people. I was told how to take advantage of the only view to the outside world: climb onto the steel toilet and squint, and you can see the dumpsters in the back of the jail through a two-inch slit that yet another artist had carved into a ghosted out bullet proof ‘window.’

My cellmates casually returned to the discussion at hand: how to beat a drug test.

Kathy said, “I tried all that goldenseal and all that over-the-counter shit, spent a fortune and still came up dirty.”

Tina said, “I had a friend who put urine in a condom, then stuffed it up there to keep it warm, then used a pin.”

“I know someone that used a Tylenol bottle,” I said. “With foil over the top and a fuzzy hair tie super glued around the rim in case any dirty urine leaked around the sides. Problem is, when she poked the foil, the whole thing- the bottle, the hair tie, and the foil dropped out and into the toilet.”

Kathy said, “What you gotta do is, for like twenty-four hours straight, before the test, do nothing but drink water. Drink as much water as you can possibly drink. My boyfriend does this and he passes every time.”

“Yeah,” says Leese, that used to work but now they are checking creatine levels, to see if you have been drinking too much water in the previous twenty-four hours. They confronted me on that and I’m like, my first urine was too dirty and now it’s too clean.”

“Hey!” I said. “Let’s make some money. We could sell our clean urine on eBay.”

“Twenty dollars a pop,” said Leese.

“Seventy. All day long.”

Christie says, “I have a story but it’s really disgusting.”

“Cool.”

“No, I mean it is really disgusting.”

We wait.

“Well, you remember that girl Cammie, she was really cracked out?”

“Yeah,” said Melissa. Knew her from the streets. She was beautiful.”

“She was. She’s dead now. She and one of her two babies died in a fire last year, remember that?”

“Yeah, it was so sad,” said Melissa.

“They say it was a space heater, but then later one officer said she had a meth lab in there. And when the firefighters arrived, she was dead and one baby was dead, but the other one was in the kitchen surrounded by flames everywhere except where the baby was.”

“How strange,” I said.

“Anyway, I was at her house once, we used to hang out until she caused me trouble. I felt sorry for the babies so I would take them things. But I had been called for a urine test so I told Cammie, go get the baby’s diaper, I need the baby urine. So we collected the baby urine and I came up dirty anyway.”

“Sounds like it might have been her,” I offered.

“I couldn’t figure out if it was me handling the bag that I put the urine in, or if it came from the baby, because Cammie smoked crack non-stop around those babies. I mean, I used to try to help, buy diapers and food, put clothes on them, stay with them. I told Cammie not to have all those men in the house with those babies, not to have all that around.”

I said, “I think the baby was dirty because they test for cocaine metabolites and not raw cocaine, don’t they?”

Christie said, “Yeah, and so do I. I think it was the baby.”

Author’s end note: I became very close friends with Christie, a beautiful woman, during incarceration. Christie is non-violent. She had a tendency to write bad checks to support her crack habit. (She is white, FWIW). She was given a 24-year sentence, denied all forms of treatment and denied drug court… and in May of this year she was served out on this sentence. I do not know how many more years it will be until she serves to her minimum on this, but she will return to the community, untreated.