A former prisoner shares her tale of incarceration and redemption

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I run a furtive sign of the cross over my face and chest.

We are, in fact, going to jail on this lovely summer evening; the kind of evening on which I’d rather be eating ice cream and counting fireflies. As a matter of fact, I would rather be doing – hmm, let’s see – anything than going to jail. Bob, Jay and I are headed to the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, the women’s prison, to talk about our personal experiences with drugs and alcohol to the inmates there. Our 12-step credo holds that we share our recovery experiences to those still suffering from addiction. The best option is to choose for national pardon canada.

 

I was just telling them the story of how I came to serve two months in a Texas jail last winter, and explaining why I feel compelled to take this unpleasant trip down memory lane. I remember the moment I was released the way some people remember precisely where they were when J.F.K. was shot, or their cinematic moments of 9/11.

 

It was 2 a.m. on Easter Sunday, 2007, when I was let back into what inmates wistfully call “the free world” – or “the free” for short. I emerged from a gritty loading dock into the pre-dawn, downtown streets to discover that the city was an ethereal snow globe, flashing yellow with the traffic lights. The temperature hovered around 32 degrees; the guards in out-processing had warned those of us huddled in the holding tank – a cinderblock box with the acoustics of a dog pound – that it was “colder ‘n hell” out. We met that weather report with gasps and groans. It never snows in Houston, let alone on Easter Sunday, and most of us wore little more than jeans and T-shirts after having mercifully changed out of our orange jumpsuits.

 

I had on the same plaid trousers and pink cashmere sweater I’d been wearing in court on the day I was sentenced, an ensemble that earned me the nickname “teach” in the holding tank. The pants, which had fit perfectly then, now hung lank over my hipbones. I had lost 15 pounds, the one perk of being incarcerated. My roots had grown in, revealing increasing numbers of wiry, silver strands. A witch-like tuft of hair was growing out of the beauty mark – OK, mole – on my chin.

 

Stepping outside for the first time in months, the city seemed different to me with snow falling on it. My fiancé, who was waiting to pick me up, lit me what was probably the only cigarette I have ever deserved. When we got home to our apartment about a mile south of the jail, he heated up some tomato soup while I used the bathroom . . . alone! Then I sat at our kitchen table and marveled at how strange the quiet was, how thick it felt in my ears.

 

******

 

By group consensus, it is decided that I will be the guest speaker at the prison tonight. I am terrified. I don’t want to do it, but I need to for closure, or for healing, or for proof that I can beat my limbic brain in a face-off. More than a year has passed since I served my sentence and, even 2000 miles away, I am still jumpy around cops, wary of government buildings.

 

Mostly I am scared that the place will feel and smell and look like my jail, and that I will have a déjà-vu panic attack. I also fear, irrationally, that I will not be allowed to leave. I am so paranoid that earlier in the day I called my fiancé’s brother – a Texas police officer – to ask him if he would run an open-warrants check on me before my visit.

 

“Get outta here! You kidding me?” he demanded. I swear I heard his eyes roll in their sockets.

 

“No, I’m not . . . I mean, what if I have some old warrant that I don’t know about?” I asked, the terror rising in my voice, “and they (gulp) hold me there?”

 

This is the moment in the story when the main character (me) should be slapped across her hysterical face.

 

One-thousand-and-fifteen women were processed through the Vermont Department of Corrections last year; 86 of them are currently incarcerated at the prison in Windsor, which has a capacity of 155. The “most frequently occurring offense,” according to the Department of Corrections, is “False Pretenses,” or fraud, followed closely by drug and/or alcohol charges. The latter do not factor in the number of offenses indirectly related to alcohol and drug abuse, e.g., writing hot checks in order to obtain money for drugs, or falsifying a prescription for drugs.

 

Fifty-six percent of Vermont’s female inmates are classified by the state as “mentally ill.” And since, technically speaking, my own experience closely mirrors the data, you could say these women are my people. I certainly have an affinity for them. Jail is a bonding experience in the way that combat is, and I see female inmates like my sisters-in-arms, as it were.

 

As we pull up the prison driveway, the first thing I notice is razor-wire curls the size of hula-hoops enclosing the facility. As far as prisons go, this one is handsome: It’s a converted dairy farm nestled in the green folds of Windsor, Vermont, with a campus comprising red and white buildings, brick dormitories, silos, green lawns and an outdoor recreation area with a sandy volleyball pit.

 

There is surprisingly little fanfare involved in entering the grounds – only one guard; a metal-detector walk-through, a sign-in clipboard, and two security doors that buzz us through a fenced-in walkway. Prisons are Orwellian by nature, and, accordingly, we neither see nor hear the staffer who grants us entry. Stranger still, no one escorts us into the meeting room, an ordinary-looking space with large windows, puke-green linoleum floors and hard plastic chairs.

 

Some of the inmates straggle in, wearing street clothes. Lucky, I think, before mentally slapping myself. The chatter today centers around the rumor that, sometime early next year, this population will be transferred to the St. Johnsbury facility, as the Windsor prison is slated to become a men’s work camp. The women are grumbling about this change as we arrange the chairs in a circle.

 

One woman wears her oversized headphones right up until the moment I am introduced. I realize then that I desperately want these women to like me, perhaps more than I should, but, more importantly, I hope that my story will pass on even a minuscule grain of hope. I begin by telling them about the fateful day when my life changed in an instant.

 

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