Camera’s back!!

Rose and Heart: jail art
jail art by CraneStation on flickr

Lillies: jail art
jail art by CraneStation on flickr

For information about a new release book titled This Side of my Struggle, that has three Frog Gravy essays in it, go here.

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

Frog Gravy has graphic language.

This post is not comprehensive. One could probably write an entire book on prison inventions, slang and situations, particularly if the setting is in the South, where colloquialisms are priceless.

Jail and prison terms, divided into categories and used in sentences, followed by explanations:


Pheening, jonesing, popping the socket, striker, squares, break ’em down, smokin’ the bible, phone card, posting up, who’s on the camera

Inmate 1: Bitch. These Camel Menthol Wides. You can break ’em down and get thirty for twenty squares, and get an extra phone card. I’m pheening for a cigarette right now.

Inmate 2: You ain’t alone. I been jonesing all day for one. Loan me your striker so we can pop the socket and get this done.

Inmate 1: While you’re rolling the bible I’ll post up and watch the hallway. Who’s on camera.?

Inmate 2. It don’t make no damn difference. Ain’t no cameras in the cell.

Two inmates crave a cigarette. They plan to remove the tobacco from a Camel Menthol ‘Wide’ cigarette and roll it into a page from the bible. They also plan to sell some of the rest of the harvested tobacco for phone time. One inmate will stand watch, because cigarettes and smoking are not allowed. A striker is a paper clip, that is placed across the prongs of the TV plug-in to create a spark so that the inmates can light the cigarette.

Conflict resolution statement

bitches got me fucked up, got me bent, skanky, clitty litter, ho, clock out, beat the breaks off her, you feel me, set her face apart

Inmate 1: These bitches got me fucked up with somebody else. Motherfuckers got me bent. Let another bitch call me a skanky clitty litter ho. I’ll clock out and beat the breaks off her. I’ll set that bitch’s face apart.

Inmate 2: I know that’s right.

Inmate 1: You feel me?

Inmate 2: Slap the taste right out that bitch’s dicksucker!

Inmate 1: Bitch ain’t got no mutherfuckin’ teeth. Taste is all she got left to slap out. I got this.

Inmate 2: Peace up. A-town down.

Inmate 1: I know that’s right.

Someone has insulted inmate 1 by commenting on her body odor and calling her a whore. Inmate 1 tells inmate 2 that the person delivering the insult must have mixed her up with somebody who will not fight back, and that if it happens again, Inmate 1 will physically beat up the offending inmate. Inmate 1 solicits agreement from Inmate 2. Inmate 2 agrees and they part ways. A-town is an endearing slang term for Atlanta, a city that some consider to be a pretty cool place. ‘Dicksucker’ is a common prison/jail slang term for mouth.

Random colloquialisms


My public pretender is about as useless as a cat with side pockets .He ain’t got sense enough to pound sand down a rat hole.

Inmate comments that her court-appointed attorney is not doing any meaningful work in her case.


Inmate 1: Earlier at work in the kitchen I was sweatin’ like a whore in church, but now it’s colder than a well-digger’s ass and a banker’s heart. Can we tell the guard to put the heat on?

Inmate 2: That guard couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the directions were written on the heel.

Inmate 1: Heh. Yeah. Plus, she’s uglier than the east end of a horse headed west. She’s so ugly you’d have to hang a pork chop around her neck to get a dog to play with her.

Two inmates return to the cell from work in the kitchen and find the cell to be cold. They decide that it is unlikely that the guard, who is very unattractive, will put the heat on in the cell.

Request for transfer to another cell

off the chain, drop a note, vet, crazy slip

Inmate 1: This cell is off the chain. I’m gonna drop a note to the vet for a suicide cell.

Inmate 2: The vet won’t do nuthin.’ Better drop a crazy slip.

Inmate 1 tells Inmate 2 that she wants to transfer to an isolation suicide watch cell because of the chaotic atmosphere in the current cell. She wants to submit a request to the medical department. Inmate 2 tells Inmate 1 to submit a request to the mental health department because the medical department will ignore the request.

How to make paint and makeup in a jail that bans everything except certain types of religious materials

Joyce Meyers magazines are the most versatile for manufacturing jailhouse makeup for court appearances and for adding color to pictures that inmates draw for their families.

-Find the color you want.

-Rub a tissue onto stick deodorant, and then rub the magazine color. The ink will transfer to the tissue.

-Use less ink for subtle makeup, and more ink for pictures.

-Canteen Fireballs make cheek color when nothing else is available if you are really pale from never having recreation in the outdoor cage. Substitute red M and Ms if you do not have Fireballs.

– No-shank pen ink on a toothbrush can is sometimes used for mascara.

-No-shank pen ink cut with water is sometimes used for eyeliner.

-Menstrual pads are sometimes used for earplugs, eye coverings, and for the manufacture of tampons, which are not allowed in jail.

-Toothpaste is the most versatile substance in the cell, and it is most commonly used to affix photographs to the wall.

-paper scraps and toilet paper scraps mixed with water can be used to make dice, dominoes and chess pieces.

-‘Homemade’ tampons can be used (Remember: I’m just the messenger here) for hair rollers.

-Jail-issue underpants, wrapped just right, look like a do-rag.

-Elastic threads from socks make hair ties.

Ways to communicate with the cell next door

-Pick up the phone and tap on the wall. Some inmates tap codes on the wall.

-Talking under the door is common.

-Some report that you can flush the water out of the plumbing pipes, and talk through the pipes or tap on the plumbing.

-‘Fish’ things back and forth by running a cable cord with something attached under the door.

Being paraded into court on a chain gang

Here in McCracken County, when you are in jail and you have a court appearance, you are handcuffed and chained to other inmates. The chain gang is paraded across the street and into the courtroom like an orange outlaw centipede, and this goes for people who have not been convicted of anything.

Once in court, you are all seated together, and the court-appointed lawyer says something like, “Your Honor, my client, Mr. He-Sure-Looks-Like-A-Guilty-Criminal is here today, on the line.” The lawyer won’t turn to face you or look you in the eye. he simply waves his thumb in your general direction. Anybody in the passing public can swing by and see what you look like, on a chain gang.

McCracken bends over backward to be insensitive about who you are chained to. A friend of mine in jail was chained up with the man who beat her toddler son to death while she was at work one day.

How to make paint in a jail that has colored pencils

-Shave some of the lead and crush it.

-Put the lead into a bottle cap with a drop of water.

-Microwave 30 seconds.

-Stir in a couple of drops of shampoo with an empty lip gloss applicator, and apply the paint with the applicator.

Spartanburg County Jail Portrait Series

Spartanburg County Jail Portrait Series by David Blackwell under creative commons on flickr.

Nokes: What do you want?
John: What I’ve always wanted. To watch you die.


Father Bobby: [about sermons, before the boys are sentenced] This is one of my favorites.
Young Lorenzo ‘Shakes’ Carcaterra: What is?
Father Bobby: “Whatever you do to the least of brethren, you do to me”.

above two quotes are from Sleepers, by Lorenzo Carcaterra


This bird-killing-and-enjoying-it guard is bespectacled and boyish looking. He was probably bullied. So now he’s just getting a little action himself, although in a chickenshit way, because we are inmates. Behind razor wire, we must restrain ourselves from delivering a good ass-ramming to the guards, and he knows this, and so, he walks around the ball field with that stupid grin and Nazi mindset, figuring out how he can bolster his own weakness by picking on defenseless people. He does this full time.

Med Line: Frog Gravy 40


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.”

The Hole, The Chair, And The Holding Cell: Frog Gravy 17

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

Inmate names are changed.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

McCracken County Jail, February 2008

It is three o’clock in the morning, and a couple of female inmates next door, as well as Meg, in this cell, are on the floor, on their bellies, taunting and tormenting Harry, who is mentally ill and housed at the end of the hallway in an isolation cell. They shout, at maximum volume, “HAAAAAAARRRRREEEEEEE!!! Want some puuuuussssyy, Harrreee?!”

Harry shouts, “HELP! Somebody! Please! HELP ME! Let me out, please Helpmehelpmehelpmehelp.”

Harry’s repeated requests for help reveal, on its face, Harry’s profound lack of understanding of his own surroundings.

I am on my bunk, listening. I cannot help Harry. If I try to intervene, the bully inmates bullying will turn their rage onto me. If I do not try to intervene, they will continue to prey on Harry.

I do not intervene, and I am ashamed of myself. I do not intervene, because I am afraid that I might hurt someone.

I have never seen, nor will I ever see, during my stay in McCracken County Jail, the pathetic man we call Harry. None of us knows why he is locked up.

If the guards were to take Harry out of his cement tomb for recreation in the outside cage, we would have witnessed it, because we watch the hallway that leads directly from his cell at the end to the outside cage at the other end. We never see Harry go to rec. Christie, who had been here for seven months on my arrival had never seen him during that time either.

On my bunk, I try to think things through, although the noise is distracting. There must be thousands and thousands of Harrys locked up everywhere. Harry the person is no longer Harry the person. Harry is a bait ball in a cement cell at the end of the hallway. He is as defenseless as a child. The apex predators are hungry to hate, and they feed on Harry constantly, kicking the steel door, shouting insults every time they pass by, picking what’s left of Harry and then picking some more.

I often wonder if Harry is somebody’s father. Or son. Was he ever loved? Did Harry ever matter, to anyone? Was Harry a veteran, psychologically crippled by tours of duty? I do not know.

Why are the Harrys out there picked up, locked up, and then alternately ignored and picked on? The bullies use Harry almost exactly as they would a bar. They wander by and use him when they need him, and when they’ve had their fill, they belch, toss the glass, and move on.

There are rumors that Harry has spread feces onto the walls on the cement tomb. Perhaps this is the only thing left for Harry to do, to tell himself that he still exists.

I wonder also about Harry’s mental and physical treatment care plans. This jail has a social worker who oversees the medical needs of the mentally ill inmates. While there may be a nurse practitioner or an off-site physician signing off on the care plan and the medications, all initial requests for such must go through the social worker gatekeeper first. The sad thing is that Harrys own profound disability at the moment prevents him from filling out the initial request form on his own behalf.

This jail is not at all unique. Jails are the new ground zero for Eighth Amendment violations of the mentally ill, as I see it. Harrys are warehoused, untreated and abused everywhere.

There should be a zero-tolerance policy for inmates tormenting their fellow mentally ill inmates. If I were the jailer I would post signs everywhere: You torment Harry and you go to the hole, to sit and think about your bullying. Signed, The Jailer. But, it is not meant to be. Rather, Harry is shelved jailhouse prey and nothing more.

What will eventually happen to Harrys everywhere? On my bunk, I wonder these things.

Today my husband and I got on our bikes and rode into town, to pay our bills and visit the unemployment office. Due to the unchanging climate change, it is possible to ride bikes all over town, in the dead of winter, and so today, we did not leave our carbon footprint on the earth. At least for a while.

No one will hire me, even to make sandwiches, because of my record. So I wrote Frog Gravy. But that’s another story. Today I read the classified section of the local newspaper, and I saw a horticulture job advertised, and since I got straight As in Horticulture while I was in prison, I figured, well, I’m perfect for the job. So, I made a planned stop at the unemployment office. The place was packed. And dead silent.

After I filled out all of the paperwork explaining my whole life, and after my husband finished paying bills, we met each other on our bikes and began our homeward journey.

I ride a Mongoose with a kickstand and a rusted chain that I bought on sale at Walmart one time. It’s yellow. Yeah. And he rides some kind of a Raleigh dueling-suspension for lack of a better term, road bike. Or maybe it is a mountain bike, but anyway, I got that one from Goodwill one time. It’s silver. Uh-huh.

So, we’re riding down the street in downtown Paducah, just a stone’s throw from McCracken County jail, where I was once a guest. All of the sudden, my bike just stopped dead. It was as if someone chocked the tires, in mid-cycle.

Stay with me here, this is the truth. I nearly flew over the handlebars. Here is what happened: A one-gallon-sized zip lock plastic bag had entangled itself in the, what’s that thing called? The derailleur. It bent…listen to this…It bent the derailleur, and placed the thing over the top of a spoke in the rear tire, without bending the spoke.

So much for my bike. The wheel won’t budge. We are miles from home. Crap like this only happens in my life, it seems.

Anyway, along came a man named Bill, straight from God, he was, and Bill gave us a ride home. Thank goodness. We need more kind people in the world like Bill! Thank you so much, Bill. We will do our best to pay it forward and we will never forget you.

I may look for another bike at the recycle center, where I plan to take my ruined bike.

So that is why I did not write a Frog Gravy today. You think that’s funny, do you? Yeah. Laugh it up. There’s more. Our African Grey parrot knows it’s gonna be Spring soon. So, his internal clock went off, and he is, once again, sexually active. Thank goodness he is bonded to my husband’s hand and not to me.

Have a look at this video. Laugh yourself sick. Also, if y’all are into prayer, somebody please pray for me to get a job soon. Thanks!

Barn at winter by Crane-Station
barn at winter by Crane-Station on flickr. jail art done at Ricky’s World.

In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.
-Albert Camus

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

Inmate names are changed.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

McCracken County Jail Cell 107, winter, 2008

Meg announces to the cell that she is on her period.

“So?” says Christie.

“So, I get out in two weeks, and I can get some dick!”

Meg lives in a motel on the outside, where she trades her body for drugs. She has nine children; many of them were born while Meg was in jail. After Meg is released and after she gets her ‘dick,’ her tenth child will be born in prison, but we do not know this yet.

She has made the comment about getting some ‘dick’ to be mean, because she knows that the rest of the cell occupants are serving lengthier sentences than she has ever had to serve, and that we will be unable to know a man’s touch or have sex, and she will.

When the announcement about dick does not elicit much of a response, Meg starts in on Christie, who, having been denied drug court and now faces 24 years for nonviolent drug-related charges, is desperately depressed. Christie stays on her bunk all the time now, crying.

One of Christie’s felonies, by the way, is for a cold check in the amount of something like one dollar and seventy-two cents, whereas Meg, who will walk out of the jail and get some dick and get pregnant two weeks from now, has a lengthy history of theft and possession charges that, for some reason, she has never had to worry much about, in terms of serving any time.

Rather, during her frequent yet brief accomodations in the McCracken County Jail, she busies herself with the passive-aggressive practices of constant manipulation and torment of fellow inmates who will be serving lengthy sentences entombed in cement with no hope. Each time, Meg leaves, and gets some dick, among other things.

Meg says to Christie, “I think you are overreacting.”

“I can’t help it,” says Christie. I’m not overreacting. I feel really, really, really bad inside. People notice that there is something wrong. I can’t quit crying. I don’t mean to be such a bitch about it. I just don’t know what to do about it. I sleep 15 hours a day now. I can’t handle this.”

“It’ll be all right,” says Meg, who, two weeks from now will be having sex.

“You don’t know that,” says Christie.” I’m sorry. This isn’t me, but I just don’t know what to do.”

Christie cries.

Down the hall, Harry yells from his isolation cell, “HELLLLP! PLEEEEASE! Somebody! Let me out! Helpme helpmehelpme helpmehelpme Helllllpp…”

Sally is on the phone, calling her mother “a fucking whore.”

Sally calls her mother every five minutes or so, and treats her like a disobedient child. She says, at maximum volume, “I love you! Shut your fucking mouth, you’re nuthin’ but a lazy whore.”

Sally’s mother shouts back. Sally also screams at her 17-year-old son on the phone. She holds the receiver and says to us, “He ain’t got his books for home school yet. Can you believe that shit? My mother ain’t even got his books! She ain’t nuthin’ but a useless whore, don’t do nuthin’ but lay on her back all day.”

The son is supposed to be homeschooled by Sally’s mother, who is addicted to Vicodin and who never completed the eighth grade, because Sally is in jail.

The son is also apparently very sick, with some kind of severe illness that Sally cannot define. Munchausen by Proxy I think to myself, although I never say it. I think this to myself privately because Sally also self-reports severe, undefined illness in herself, and the mother is dysfunctional, and there is too much collective severe-yet-undefined illness in a young group of closely connected people. Sally looks healthy and robust. It is Christie, crying on her bunk, unable to get up, that I worry about.

I like Sally, and we get along well. I do not agree with how she speaks to her mother or her son, but Sally is amicable to fellow inmates, and she has a delightful sense of humor.

Meanwhile, Meg has come back to the cell from a brief visit to the jail library. The library is a jail cell with mostly paperback romance novels and religious materials, and a remarkable dearth of literature. Meg sets an arm load of romance novels onto the steel table, and then starts gossiping about YaYa, who was in the library, gossiping about Amy. YaYa is not here to defend herself.

Meg says, “I just wanted to hit her.”

I say, “She’s pretty big. Maybe that is not such a good idea. You know, hitting her.”

“The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

Meg taps on the wall to the cell next door, to arrange for her delivery of drugs for the evening, in the form of the inmate-next-door’s psych meds. Everything went okay for her first delivery, and I secretly hope that everything will continue to go okay, because when Meg is on someone else’s psych meds, she usually shuts up.

They make some arrangement.

Later, I am doing exercises on the floor next to the steel door when the steel door flies open, nearly hitting me, and there stands Tiffany, the sergeant, and she is irate. She says, “Who got the note from Carter!?”

“Who’s Carter?” I say.

“Who got that note from Carter!?”

Just then, we realize that Meg’s drug arrangement has not gone as planned. Carter, the inmate next door who was on psych medication, had wrapped two pills in paper and ‘fished’ them underneath her cell door and into our cell, under the door. But it did not work, because the note got stuck.

Tiffany leaves. Meg goes off on Carter. “Dumb bitch, she shoulda knocked.”

Meg smiles, giggles, and laughs, as though she had nothing whatsoever to do with the note or the pills in the note. She dismisses the whole incident, and gets on the phone to make arrangements with someone on the outside to smuggle cigarettes into the jail. Later, she tries to get me to make an appointment with the nurse and lie about some ailment, so that Meg can get Tylenol pills, or any pills. I refuse.

When I refuse, she makes fun of me, of my trial, of my conviction, of my lengthy sentence, and of the fact that she will be getting dick two weeks from now and I will not be getting any dick until it is too late for me to have sex, because I am too old.

In my mind I try to come up with reasons for meanness and lack of empathy among warehoused humans in the same predicament, and I wonder if people in the train cars during the holocaust were mean to each other. What is it, exactly, that brings out such hate? Perhaps it is overcrowding or demeaning, dehumanizing treatment, or lost confidence in ‘the system,’ or female jealousy, mental illness, lack of stimulus, or hormones, or frustration and separation from love, touch and family. Maybe it is a combination of everything.

I fold my cranes out of scavenged paper. I move them around. I adjust the towel on my head. I go into the bathroom and climb onto the steel toilet and look through the slit to the dumpsters outside.

I return to the steel table. I put the tiny cranes with the big cranes.

I stay silent.

“I can’t get out. He won’t let me out…”

John Carpenter
In The Mouth of Madness
Bicycle Scene

“It’s probably an apocryphal story,” he said. “But he deserves it. And those people who deserve an apocrypha, well, I find a peace in them. Even in the men who fuck me, I find peace, in all the lies of their lives, because they’re only living when they can hold a smooth blushed cheek against a blackness in their loins, and then they return to their fat wives. I love them. You can’t ever know what peace, what hope they give me…”

Naeem Murr
The Boy

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account in Kentucky.

Inmate names are changed.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

McCracken County Jail, late winter/early spring, 2008

We are watching the news. This is rare. I savor it. I am not even really sure who will be running for president. But I can tell you how much weight the blue team of fat people lost last week on The Biggest Loser.

We hear about a pot bust at the BP station on Alben Barkley Drive. I say, “It’s dumb to get busted at that station. There’s always a cop car parked there.”

“The cops do that,” says Christie.

“Do what?”

“Park cop cars at gas stations, at WalMart, at the mall, and just leave the cars there. There’s no cops though. They just want people to think there are.”

“How do you know?”

“I realized it when I was smoking crack in the WalMart parking lot one time. I was like, there’s no cops there.”

“Seems to me that this time there were cops there,” I say.

During the news I return to my task-at-hand, at the steel table where I am seated. I have a religious handout titled, HELL- What is it? Beneath the title is a list of definitions taken from scripture, along with the citations. I am checking off, with a no-shank pen, each description that fits this jail. For example, I am perpetually congested, and many nights I awake coughing, from the pepper spray being inflicted on the mentally ill man down the hall in his isolation cell. Pepper spray permeates all of the cells whenever they spray Harry. I check off:

A lake of fire (Rev. 20:15)


A lake of fire into which people are cast alive (Rev 19:20)

Down the hall, Harry screams from his isolation cell, all day and all night, every day and every night, “PLEASE!! Let me out! Somebody please! HELP ME!”

I have never seen Harry. When they spray him, he yelps and yells, like a whipped dog. His yelping amuses his tormentors. On my list, I mark:

A place of torments (Luke 16:23)


Where they scream for mercy (Luke 16:24)

Lea returns fromthe nurse. They want to change her blood pressure medicine, and add a new medicine. They have checked her blood pressure exactly one time in five months.

I say, “They charge you to go see them, don’t they?”

“They better fuckin’ not. I didn’t ask that. I can barely afford to wash my ass, I can’t afford two prescriptions. I know ten dollars ain’t that much but I cain’t afford it. They didn’t charge us nuthin’ at PeWee. The whole fuckin’ time I been here, this is the only time they checked my blood pressure to see if the medicine’s working.”

On the TV, we learn that the nine Amish men who were cited for not displaying a large orange triangle on their horse-drawn buggy will fight the charges.

I say to Lea, “That’s nuts, only checking your blood pressure one time and then adding a new medication.”

I star and underline Luke 16:28:

A place where they did not want their loved ones to come.

Lea says, “Now they want me to take another pill and I don’t like the way it does me. You’re a nurse. What do you think the problem is?”

“I am not a doctor. I just know my body. When I took too much blood pressure medicine on the outside, before they got the dose right, I felt sick. Maybe it’s too much for you, if it makes you feel bad. But, I am not a doctor. Frankly, I think they want the five dollars for the visit.”

A place of torments (Luke 16:23)

Several months ago, I slammed my index fingertip in a door. The blackened nail now finally loosens, and falls off. I pick it up. I want to reattach the black nail, because it is a reminder of and a connection to freedom.

While I am trying to figure out how to reattach my blackened fingernail that connects me to freedom, inmates in the cell next door begin to yell at Harry and torment him, and so, I make another adjustment to the terry cloth towel on my head. Maybe the towel does not keep everything out but it is better than nothing.

A place where their worm dieth not and fire is not quenched (Mark 9:48)

Lea says, “I think you’re right. I done lost all that weight, and I know my body, and I don’t need that shit.”

I go into the bathroom and climb onto the toilet and peer through the slit in the ghosted out window at the dumpsters. I have not slept well. In my dreams, I relive my accident over and over. I am in a wheelchair, and I cannot run from the tornado. I find a dumpster. In the dumpster is a beautiful porcelain doll. I retrieve the doll and send it to my mother because she has always loved dolls, and she collects them.

I realize that Lent is near. What do I give up for Lent? I decide to give up bread. The sun shines outside, onto the dumpsters. I wipe tears from my face, climb down from the steel toilet and return to the steel table.

A guard comes and gets me from the cell and takes me to the nurse, because I have filled out a medical request, for exercise or recreation time outside of the cell. I have cited the rule, that inmates are to have one hour of recreation and exercise each day.

The nurse tells me that this is not her department.

The jail extracts five dollars from my books for the visit, and I return to the cell.

When I return to the cell, I learn that the jail has confiscated an obituary that my mother sent to me. A classmate of mine (Lakeridge Class of 1978) has died. The jail claims that the obituary is a news item, and that all news items are considered contraband.

I say a silent prayer for Ada.

A place of damnation, world without end (Mark 3:26)

Author’s note: My dream about the doll actually came true after my release. As soon as I can find the photos I took of the doll before I sent it to my mother, I will post them.

Update: here is that doll:

Porcelain dumpster doll

The music for this post is for Masoninblue, and it is Just An Old Fashioned Love Song, Three Dog Night with the Tennessee Symphony Orchestra LIVE August 6, 2010. Hat tip ubetchaiam.

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account in Kentucky.

Inmate names are changed.

McCracken County Jail, winter 2008

I am in the toilet, trying to get a look at myself in the steel mirror that resembles those mirrors in the rest stop areas. An older inmate has crowded in front of me, and is also looking in the mirror. She has a full beard. Her skin is a pasty green hue. She has bags underneath her eyes. She looks to be about a hundred years old, and her face reminds me of a Latex Halloween mask of a witch that I had when I was a child.

I do not speak to her because I am focused on my own legs. There are scabs on my legs and they itch. The quality of the jail-issue razors is so poor that I cut my legs pretty bad when I first arrived here. I remember the Psycho scene diluted chocolate syrup circling the drain in the shower. After I discarded my clothes, another inmate gave me a helpful hint: only shave one leg each week.

Christie has received news that Livingston County has denied drug court for her. She now faces 24 years for bad checks, even though she is making restitution and has begged for help for her drug addiction. She tells Carol, “I now have three PFOs (persistent felony offender enhancements. Each enhancement doubles the original sentence) and a prior. I feel so bad inside. I cannot believe what I have done to my life with drugs.”

She cries, and YaYa overhears the conversation and cries with her. They lament with each other, some of the things that people do, in the grip of drug addiction. Going into schools during recess and getting the purse out of the teacher’s desk and taking checks. Asking a neighbor to use the restroom and going through the medicine cabinet.

In the bathroom, I put hair conditioner on my face because I do not have any lotion. I wish the old woman would move. She annoys me. I re-fix the towel on my head. The towel keeps some of the thoughts away during the day, I think, but I take it off at night and a dream sometimes slips in.

In the dream, it is the end of the world, not due to disease (my prevailing theory) but due to arrests. There is a tornado. I try to run but I am paralyzed. A very close friend of mine, a man named Polhemus, turns out to be a vicious killer, and I am trapped with him in his apartment. He loves his mother. He is dangerous. He takes out ice picks and scalpels and needles and he says he can fix my tooth, but I see that he will torture and kill me. Suddenly, his lover comes in. The lover throws Polhemus’s mother’s severed head at Polhemus. I ask to have some sort of break. I try to run. I say, “Take everything else. You’ll never have me.”

The dream ends. I do not know where the name Polhemus came from.

In the bathroom, I gently scratch at the scabs on my legs. The hair conditioner on my face smells good.

I look in the mirror. At first, I think the old woman has put a towel onto her head, just like I do.

But, there never was an old woman.

Ab Fab, Edina in court.

Hint: “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mom. Your mouth is working for the prosecution.”

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account in Kentucky.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language. Do not read this post at work.

Inmate names are changed.

McCracken County Jail, Cell 107, sometime in March, 2008

In the news, we learn that a health screening day was held at Walmart. Among other things, the screeners were testing body fat. Seventy percent of those screened were obese or markedly obese. I empathetically and privately note that Ruthie, who is 5’4″ and over 300 pounds, fits into this category.

Around Ruthie’s middle, an apron of fat hangs lower than her orange khaki shirt hem. Enormous breasts hang down and rest on the apron. She has difficulty breathing, and each night she snorts and snores.

We are kind to Ruthie, because she has cognitive difficulties that some summarize as not being quite ‘right.’ My best guess is fetal alcohol syndrome as possibly exhibited by her difficulties with thinking, expression and social skills. Ruthie has shared with us that her biological mother used drugs during the pregnancy, and that Ruthie was raised in foster care, where she was abused. Also, Ruthie met her biological mother for the first time when Ruthie was eighteen, and both of them were residents in this jail. Like many other inmates here, Ruthie has frequent-flyer-in-jail family members. We also know that she has been abused by various men in her adult life.

During the news, we can hear Harry shouting from his isolation cell down the hall, “PLEEEase!! Help me! Let me out! HELP! HelpmehelpmeHelpMeHELLLP! Sombody Please!”

Ruthie receives a little more than $600 each month from the government for disability. She has two mixed children. They are in foster care or with family. Ruthie prefers black men; her current boyfriend is black. She struggles cognitively but she also struggles with a drug addiction. McCracken County courts have determined that the most healing, productive environment for Ruthie and her children, is Ruthie’s placement in this jail cell with us.

While Ruthie articulates with great difficulty, she is adept at street slang.

At night, she lies on the floor next to the steel door, and shouts underneath it, to Creighton, a black drug dealer who she slept with on the streets. Creighton is housed in the cell next door (cell 111).

“Fuck you, Creighton! Herpe-boy, herpe-boy. Fuck y’all. Your dick smells like yo ass! Fuck you!”

Creighton replies, “Fuck you! Your pussy smells like sardines!”

“Huh-uh. This pussy smell good. You jes mad ’cause you cain’t have any ‘o ‘dis pussy. You just jealous ’cause I done fucked Mississippi. He is fine. His dick bigger den yours.”

“Your breath smells like yo ass, bitch!”

“Wash yo mouth out wit soap, herpe-boy, herpe-boy, fuck you,” sing-songs Ruthie. “Yo dick ain’t thick like Mississippi!”

“I heard yo mouth is a sperm bank!”

Ruthie turns to us and says, “Mississippi done got a thick dick, ’cause he beats hisself all the time. He done love playin’ wit his wee-wee. Dey say dat if a man play wit hisself, he get a thicker dick.”

Tina says, “If that were true, every man would have a hundred-foot dick.”

The guard comes by, kicks the steel door and shouts, “Cut it out!”

Startled by the kick, Ruthie actually levitates off the cement floor. I wonder how this is physically possible.

I say, “Get up, Ruthie, or they’ll take our TV. Plus, they won’t allow Class Ds onto the walk anymore. And we won’t have anything to look at. Who’s Mississippi?”

“Black dope dealer wit a thick dick,” replies Ruthie. “He done went back to Mississippi.”

When the guard leaves, Ruthie is back on the floor, yelling. “That’s right, herpe-boy, he done had a bigger dick than you! I fucked ‘im every night, smoked all the crack I wanted, shore did! I didn’t want for nuthin’! You jes jealous ’cause I’d rather suck a glass dick than yours!”

I say, “Shut up, Ruthie. They’ll take our TV.”

Ruthie gets up, giggling.

Like so many people in jails and prisons, Ruthie is mentally disabled. She is very childlike, and draws simple pictures for her wall. Her stick-figure drawing features a man and woman, happy, smiling. The man wears a baseball cap and is smoking a cigarette. The woman wears a dress. The sun is a child’s sun, full, with stick-rays. There are two clouds and a tree. The house has a front door and two windows.

Ruthie uses magazines and deodorant, to rub color into the pictures, then hangs them on the wall with the universal jailhouse glue: toothpaste.

Ruthie came to our cell because her cellmates in her other cell were always mean to her. She smelled horrid when she arrived, like a vaginal infection. We urged her to go to the nurse and get STD tested and get medicine. She did, and she smells better. We try to be good to her. She did not understand that she would have to sit in this cement cell for six months for seven contempt of court violations.

We explain legal things to Ruthie, because no lawyer has explained anything to her.

We also help Ruthie to read, write and count.

I sit at the steel table with my notes. I continue to transcribe Leese’s poem.

Sick of getting my hopes up, sick of being let down

Sick of the sky, sick of the ground.

Sick of the water, sick of the dirt

Sick of feeling nothing, sick of being hurt.

Sick of being wrong, sick of being right

Sick of not seeing, sick of having sight…

Splitting the bill:

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account in Kentucky.

Inmate names are changed.

McCracken County Jail

McCracken County Jail in Paducah, KY by Crane-Station on flickr.

The new McCracken County Jail

The new annex to McCracken County Jail in Paducah, KY by Crane-Station on flickr. The jails and the courthouse dominate the downtown Paducah landscape. Although Paducah has an excellent public library, I rarely visit the downtown area. Underneath the white paper on this jail is a lot of steel rebar. The new jail will add to, and not replace, the old. Class D nonviolent offenders will likely inhabit one of the structures for the duration of their sentence.

Today’s McCracken County Jail census: 466 inmates.
Paducah’s 2010 census population: 25024

Kentucky’s Class D census today: 9249
(from advanced search, KOOL)

Kentucky’s total inmate census today: 22249

Kentucky 2010 census population: 4339367

As you can see, nearly half of Kentucky’s inmate population is nonviolent Class D. The vast majority of these people will be warehoused in cement, in the jails, and then they will be released directly to the community. Lengthy sentences for Class Ds increase the jail profit margins. Lack of programs increases the chances of recidivism.

Recidivism is the return to an adult facility within 24 months of release. From my anecdotal observation, recidivism is more common than not.

KCIW PeWee Valley Women’s Penitentiary, near Louisville, KY, Late Fall into Early Winter, 2008-2009

I rake leaves fallen from beautiful oak and maple trees. Lady bugs often land on me. A caterpillar the size and weight of a mouse is sunning himself on top of a picnic table. He is green, with red-orange hairs and dots, and he will turn into a moth that appears to have eyes on his wings.

We have a couple of feral calico kittens on the yard that we are forbidden to feed, under constant threat of a disciplinary write-up. This morning at breakfast I sneaked some contraband fried bologna out of the cafeteria. The guard in front of me had her back turned and was harassing another inmate about feeding the cats, so I sneaked to the corner of the chapel with my meals-on-wheels bologna, only to discover about a 2-inch pile of already-delivered bologna. The cats are not starving.

I also keep my precious birds well fed. Each day, in the dining hall, I sneak food into my pockets. Bread. Cornbread. Hotdogs. Cake. I am the Bird Lady. Others hand me things; overflow goes into my hat. Pancakes, sausages, chips. If I get caught,they will likely put me in the hole, and if they do I will get 20 stamps, pack my shit and rest my neck on concrete for 45 days. Nothing scares me though. Not after the cement living grave of the jails.

For the most part, due to the birds, prison is okay. But I wonder about some of the practices, especially when it comes to nonviolent pregnant people.

One pregnant inmate in the ‘medical’ unit began screaming when she started to experience either chest pains or labor pains. She screamed in pain for something like an hour. So, there was all this screaming.
Guards called an ambulance. They made the woman undress and put on the requisite orange jail clothes, and then they handcuffed and shackled her like they did me for my Hannibal mammogram.

Meanwhile, the ambulance had to go through a search procedure where the guards check the engine and all underneath the vehicle, in case one of the drivers was using this call as an opportunity to do a little drug smuggling.

This is what the war on drugs looks like.

By the time the woman was properly dressed in the right colors and handcuffed and then on top of that, ‘boxed’ (where a locked box is placed over the handcuffs) and then shackled in leg irons and chains, and the ambulance had been thoroughly searched and all of the paperwork was neatly and completely filled out, the woman had stopped screaming.

She was dead. So was the baby. CPR was unproductive.

My crows do not need me, but I need them. I chase their unrequited love as one would chase a college boyfriend who does not love you, never did, and never will. They visit me occasionally for the meat snacks. In my mind, I make their visits meaningful to them. But, for the most part, it is starlings and sparrows that I feed. They are the college boyfriends who have always loved you and always will. They are the ones that people say you should stick with, in lieu of the philandering bad boys. I stick with them all because I need them all; I tried discussing some feelings with the psychologist and he said, “no one cares,” and so I stick with my birds.

I push my 80-year-old friend Olivia, who I had Thanksgiving dinner with here, around the ball field in her wheelchair. Her leg is in a brace, and will be during her entire stay in the prison, because she broke her leg and injured her knee when she was boarding a van, shackled. Olivia and I enjoy the birds together. I can even get her to smile.

Olivia is here for ‘conspiracy to sell a controlled substance.’

On the outside, had the pregnant woman neglected to seek immediate attention for her medical emergency and her baby had died as a result, she would spend the rest of her life in prison for homicide.

But she was an inmate. So, no one cares.

“Hey, Olivia, look,” I say. I point to a cardinal couple.

“Oh, my, aren’t they pretty,” she replies.

This is what the war on drugs looks like.

I found this in my notes this morning. This is a letter that I wrote to Governor Beshear in March, 2008, regarding McCracken County Jail conditions. I sent copies to various agencies in Frankfort and Washington DC.

Note what I say about the pregnancy-disaster-in-jail baby’s early brain scan. I initially reported that the baby suffered no detectable oxygen deprivation following his traumatic birth. The subsequent scan, however, revealed some sort of potential deficit (ischemia or otherwise) according to the mother’s report.

At some point after this letter, I did receive an antidepressant in the jail.

I was removed from McCracken County Jail for my letters.

This may fix the prevailing fantasy that warehoused nonviolent inmates spend 23 hours a day in the cement cell. It is 24/7 for months on end.

March 22,2008

To: Governor Steve Beshear
700 Capitol Avenue
Frankfort, KY 40601

Dear Governor Beshear:

On 3-19-2008, I was sentenced to eight years in prison for DUI, possession of 0.144 grams of crack cocaine and tampering with evidence. I had no drugs or alcohol in my blood, nothing illegal on me or in my car, and exhibited no bad driving. Yet, I was convicted of all three. Inmates have subsequently told me never to take anything to trial in McCracken County, because everyone is convicted, but I did not know this, because I am not from here.


1. Since January 23, 2008, we have been outside our cell for recreation exactly one time. We have been to the filthy gym for recreation, exactly twice. We wait up most of the nights, hoping to get outside the cell for rec, at night. The only two times we went to the indoor gym were between 1:30 and 2:30 AM. In the night, guards go up and down the hall, banging on the hallway windows and doors yelling, “Rec, rec!”
Each night, they do this. We say we want real recreation, not recreation in a tiny chapel. The guards mark this in a book as a “refusal.” They submit the book to Frankfort, so it looks like the inmates all refuse rec every day. We get maybe one hour of rec per month if we are lucky.

2. The jails such as this one are overcrowded defacto prisons. I may be here until I meet the parole board in 19 months, because I am a nonviolent State inmate.

3. The only reading material allowed is certain types of religious materials. My family sent letters and literature that were returned because they were Catholic in nature. Only after my sister called the jail chaplain and said, “Are you all anti-Catholic? Because if you are, I am calling the Governor,” did I receive a Catholic bible that the guards make fun of.

4. No educational materials are allowed.

5. No AA or NA meetings are allowed.

6. There is no dental care.

7. I was not allowed to continue my anti-depressant medication, even though the conditions are extremely depressing.

8. A social worker tells the NPs what psych meds to prescribe. She is not licensed to prescribe anything, yet they defer to her on dosage and type.

9. The lights are on from 5 AM to 11 PM.

10. First, they said that family could send in paperbacks, news magazines, and newspapers. Then, they refused to give these items to us.

11. First, they said that family could send in self-addressed, stamped envelopes. Then, they refused to give these items to us. Then, they threatened to reseal the empty envelopes, and mail them back to family, instead of placing them in property.

12. The woman next door, six months pregnant, started bleeding. The guards ignored her. All three back cells pounded and shouted. They told us to shut-up and get to bed. They did nothing for more than one hour, then walked the pregnant woman, cuffed, out of the jail. Her placenta was 75% abrupt, she nearly lost her uterus. The baby was breached; his foot was through her cervix, she required an emergency C-section, and the baby was flown out of state. His brain scan does show potential future deficits.

13. The same woman has an incision that is infected now. The jail won’t giver her gauze. They make her use maxi-pads. But, she is on pad watch now. She is allowed three pads per day, including the pus pad.

14. They would not allow us to attend church service on Thursday night, saying that it was 12-step. When we said we were here on drug offenses, they would not let us go to the service.

15. The cells are always cold.

16. In addition to maxi-pad rationing, they now ration toilet paper. Several times, we have had to use our washcloths, or the shower, after toileting, because we have no toilet paper.

17. We get watered down disinfectant to clean the cell.

18. In the morning we get exactly two individual paper towel squares, to clean the entire cell.

19. They have put new restrictions on clergy visits.

20. No textbooks, educational classes, crosswords, number puzzles, logic puzzles, arts or crafts are allowed.

21. In the hole, medical watch, suicide watch, there is no way to wash hands, shower, or brush teeth.

22. The only time we received materials to clean the filthy cell walls and vents was because “the state” is “coming to inspect.”


Author’s note: When I mention requests for real recreation, I am referring to requests for recreation in an outdoor cage. When the guards banged on the doors at night to offer rec, their offer was for rec in a tiny chapel that was the size of a medium-sized cell.

There was also an indoor gym in the jail, but this was rarely offered.

Between January and March, we went to the outdoor cage one time, the indoor gym two times, and the tiny chapel several times, although we frequently declined to visit the chapel for rec, because it was little larger than another cell, and it was indoors.

The rest of the letter concerns Judge Craig Clymer’s behavior and actions during sentencing, trial, and on various documents. I will cover this in separate blogs.