We were led out of the corral, after waiting for nearly twenty minutes in the cold. We flashed our IDs at the dinner officers as we made our way into the chowhall. The cops call it VC because, at one point in time, it was actually named the Village Cafe. For a long time, I assumed this was a joke, but after I heard the same story from enough people, I realized it was just a throwback from the days of treating prisons like rehabilitation centers rather than refugee camps. Still, it was something unexpected to be found in all the blue and routine, so I found joy in it, and laughed every time I heard it said.
The chowhall was loud, already completely full of seated girls, and the line wrapped around the entire cafeteria. We waited, Steph and I, and talked about the workday and how the hoses in the back needed to be rolled, and how my engine needed a good scrubbing. We stood out in the crowds because every other girl was wearing blues and only Firehouse girls wear orange, but we would have been noticeable anyway. I was the only Indian-looking person in the entirety of CIW, and Steph is one of those people that just stands out.
We kept up the idle chatter, picking up our trays in the little window, and walking to a round stainless steel table where we were joined by the next two people in line– two friends. The noise in the chowhall was deafening at that point. Steph and I were exchanging the universal symbol of “I can’t hear you!”, when I finally got frustrated and used a volume of voice I hadn’t utilized in decades.
“I know both of us are loud enough to speak over this whole dang hall, Steph. I don’t know why we’re miming.”
People around us stopped talking, moving, eating, for just a few seconds. Most probably hadn’t heard me speak before, let alone speak to an entire room. It was unexpected enough to cause a miniature commotion.
Steph smirked, then laughed, and spoke in an equally loud voice — “Ohhhh, you want us to use our inside voices.”
Our whole table and some of neighbors broke into laughter. I even saw the officer in the corner bite back a smile.
Our inside voices. The voices our teachers taught us to use in class, the one where only people six inches away can hear you. The loudest voice that is needed while inside because someone is always there to hear you.
Our inside voices. The shout needed to be heard by anyone when you are incarcerated. The loudest voice you have. The one that still comes out muffled because no one, not even in your caged sisters, have the energy or will to listen to your words.
Our inside voices. A privilege of the chosen few who aren’t afraid to stand out, or simply can’t help it. A privilege of those who have an audience. A privilege of those born with the volume. Even if they haven’t used it in a long time.
Our inside voices became my inside voice, and I took it with me to the outside. I shout, and I shout, and it still comes out muffled and whispered. There are so many who cannot or will not hear, but I am loud, and I am persistent, and that voice carries with it memories of things that need changing.
That voice carries stories that need freeing, stories that need hearing.
And with every story, the volume comes a little easier to me… and reaches more and more neighbors who maybe needed something a little unexpected to come along in order for them to stop, listen, find a little joy, and be part of the change.
AMA question: Why do I tag my prison posts with “My Inside Voice”? Because for me, absolutely everything metaphors.
Are you a metaphor, simile, analogy addict, too?