On A-Yard– prison receiving– the library was closed to us.
I sold a bag a coffee for a Koontz book and first dibs on a story about a raccoon. It was my only bag of coffee for the month. The women in my room traded lunches for book dibs. There was no library access, and the books sent our way were held back for months in the shipping room, often not arriving till we left.
I stopped a correctional officer, one of my favorites, from throwing away a book that was left outside after an emergency lockdown. Tears ran down my face, and he paused. “There are pages missing,” he explained as he lifted it out of the trash, and I thought that I must look like a beggar to him. I thought of the stories I heard growing up, about children stealing the wrappers of candy bars from the trashcans of tourist-trap hotels so they could lick the chocolate residue up. I thought of the people lying under stained blankets because any warmth was better than none on a cold night in the streets of LA. In that moment, it doesn’t matter what it looks like to anyone else, or even yourself on a different day. I reached out, and the book that smelled like trash, with pages missing, was placed in my hands. I took it immediately back to my room where my cellmates and I read through it time and time again.
Later that week, I met a staff member who lent me a copy of The New Yorker, September 2014, and I read every word in there until it was memorized, and then again. Many days, it was the only thing I was able to read, and certainly it was one of the few writings that could mentally engage me, at the level to which I was accustomed.
Our room was tossed one day — slang for when the officers come through and shuffle everything around looking for contraband. The mattresses were on the ground, our clothes knocked everywhere, but my New Yorker was set carefully to the side, because everyone knows how precious something like that is in a place like that. Even officers.
It is chocolate, to a starving belly, it is a cashmere blanket on the streets of a city forgotten by everyone but the rain. It is luxury and deepest need.
There’s a shortage of books, always, even as you proceed forward– even as the experience gets better– and the breadth covered in those books is limited.
We’re cold there, sometimes– hungry, often– and questing for knowledge and the warmth of human wordings, always.
It wasn’t just me, it was my 65 year old white bunky with a 3rd grade education, and my 32 year old black transgender friend who loved her Honda, and that daughter of a Navy captain, and the teenage mom with a cat named Seaweed, and the girl who saw her husband murdered months before being arrested, and everyone.
Just because we didn’t have an opportunity to expand our minds, doesn’t mean there wasn’t a want.
I understand the confusion because it’s easy to see the outcome. Some women have spent years learning not to let those tears fall, not even for deepest need. Some women don’t have my superpower of finding the best of people everywhere. Some women don’t have family out here who can send money for them to buy coffee that they can trade for the most coveted possessions.
What you see as a “normal inmate” is a result, and you’re assuming a causation, and the intent behind that causation.
And you are wrong.
You don’t know, you didn’t know, and maybe– maybe– you couldn’t have known.
But now you do.
I was a normal inmate, but I had an abnormally wondrous network outside, and that accounts for most of the differences you can see with your naked eye. From where you’re standing, the gates outside that place can’t be seen, and certainly can’t be smelled or tasted. I am doing my best to stand where you are, to wash the taste of cuffs and barriers from my life– but while I still wear the shackles, mental if not physical, I want to use the clarity to shine a little light for you.
There’s a vacuum in prisons and it tries to suck down the quest for More or Better. There’s a shortage of words and it eats Hope.
But we come home anyway. Maybe it doesn’t look like we tried there, because we were so busy surviving there, but as someone who lived inside those gates– let me assure you–
We tried. All of us. Even when there were no words.
If you feel like we could have done better, like I did better than most, then give those girls inside what I had– reach your heart in, and carry one of them wit you. Or at least support the ones who do.
90% of the books I read in my time there came from the Women’s Prison Book Project, including the copy of Sherlock Holmes that I sobbed into when I learned of Dave’s death, and the dictionary I read numbly when I learned of my grandma’s death, and the little story of a hike through the Appalachians that bonded me to women who would protect and love and brighten me for days to come.
Words are magical, and as rare as magic inside the cage. There’s a lack of substance, not a lack of want.
I was luckier, not better, and it’s important you know that because we– those of us walking in freedom– can do better, but we won’t if we keep pretending that we know the women who are in there. We won’t if we keep pretending that we know what their punishment is, or what is right and fair and productive in the pursuance of that punishment.
All we know is what we see, from our very safe distance away.
So sit next to me, and let me tell you what I saw there, while I still see it oh-so-clearly.
Listen, to the words I say, and all the things I can’t. Listen to the spaces where there should have been magic, where there could have been stories. Let me give you some of the characters that take up so much space in my heart, so you can mix in your gut responses and brilliant thoughts. Let’s start a story that takes us through all the things we still need to know.
So maybe we can know More.
So maybe we can do Better.
we can be More.
… no matter where we live, relative to the cage.