My name is Ra.
It’s a nickname, for Radhika Kumari Atma Ram Jaini. My CDCR number is WF0124. It is active until my probationary period is up.
In prison, they’re not allowed to call you by your assigned ID number. They can use it, but they have to throw your last name in the mix, too. I was Jaini 24, or Jaini 124, or Jaini WF0124 until staff realized I responded much more quickly if they called me Rara or Ra.
This attempt at retaining an inmate’s humanity is written in the book that protects the rights of an incarcerated person, the Title 15– a little pamphlet reissued year after year, written in casual legalese. Of course, casual legalese is still a language most don’t understand and the balance of abiding by the word and enacting the necessary effects is a standard bureaucratic mess.
My name is Radhika.
It’s a name that means accomplishment. Standing in a prison medicine line, I waited with a woman whose name meant pride-of-a-generation, every inch of her dark skin and profile a testament to the culture that birthed her. I thought how I must look the same to others. You can’t see the Texan on me, or even the Mexican in most lights, but you can trace the origins of my name through the flow of my profile, the hues of brown in my skin.
People with names such as ours, she said, should not be here. It’s good they don’t call us by name. We don’t deserve ours. I mourn the loss of mine.
I was prisoner WF0124.
Unlike the woman I met in line, I didn’t grieve my name and its beautiful roots. I didn’t miss being Indian or Mexican — content to be a checkboxed “other”. I didn’t miss being known as a techie or a professional, geek girl or educated woman. Most of those labels don’t even make sense in a world where computers barely exist and the most intellectually-taxing job given to inmates involves keeping five stacks of papers separate from each other. And though I missed being a wife, sister, friend, daughter– I didn’t miss the labels. Those are things that I define in my life, not things that have defined me.
When things are taken away from you, you realize how little you miss. You realize what you think is important about you, because when you meet a stranger in a prison medicine line, you get to decide what they know about you. You get to decide what they remember about you.
Five cells and 300 miles later, I ran into that girl again. She looked good and healthy. She was teaching algebra to an eclectic group of women. I patted her on the shoulder as I walked by and said, “If I looked up pride of my generation in the dictionary, I think I’d see exactly this sort of picture.”
Hey Ra, she said. Are you still magical?
Yes, I laughed as I walked away, wondering what on earth I told her in that line so long ago, but not really worrying about it…
Because it was obviously honest. I was born Radhika, and I call myself Ra, and I lived as WF0124 for awhile. You can call me anything you want because it doesn’t matter. You’re not defining me, only summoning me. And I am magical still.
I call it Intuu.
Happy Label Day, friends.
And you, what’s your label today?