no words

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.

So maybe,
we can be More.

Be Better.

Be Hope.

… no matter where we live, relative to the cage.

109 thoughts on “no words

  1. “these women.” Those words immediately set me on edge, alerting me to what would follow. Almost any time I see “these” and “those” in certain circumstances, my heart begins aching for the specific people facing specific, particular problems swept away from sight by inclusion in overbroad groups reflecting very, very little of who each is and what they are up against … to simply ensure survival, without any of the added niceties on top. Those can only come when survival, at long last, seems likely.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Exactly so. It’s all about being able to see the faces, and the humanity of those faces, no matter where they are. I’m not like “those women” because I have a face… so, maybe I can help give them all faces.

      It’s similar to the last comment that I ranted to you about, the one posted on my thought catalog post that said “Why were you incarcerated? That’s kinda important to the story.” and I thought, “No, it’s not. My story is about finding, building, and holding onto your sense of self. Even if I stabbed a very friendly hippo in the eye, and was tried and found guilty, it doesn’t matter. The punishment does not include the suffocation of self or knowledge. It is the sacrificing of two different precious resources– freedom and time– and all those other losses are consequences of us just not paying attention.” I mean, does she really believe that anyone deserves to lose all sense of identity? That that would rehabilitate them or make them safer/better people on their release? I didn’t even know what to say, so I went blank, and didn’t reply.

      But then today I was telling Bill about how everyone feels like they’d stop a hate crime or a dramatic sexual harassment or abuse if they saw it, but what about the little manifestations of those things? Every once in awhile, isn’t it our responsibility to say something about the little prejudices, too? Maybe?

      Or maybe I just had too much coffee today. 😀

      Thanks for reading, Deb. ❤

      Liked by 7 people

      1. I think it’s important to address those little prejudices, as circumstances (like survival) permit, especially when you can have words that others might not; not that you are speaking for all, but to some commonalities of experience.

        What seems little to a person who’s peripheral to certain experiences isn’t as little to someone who experiences the slight but real cruelties of those judgments many to dozena of times a day.

        But, of course, nothing I’m saying adds to what you have said with such clarity. I hopehopehope (and believe) your words will gestate in hearts and minds over days ahead and bloom as increased compassion. I am glad you are planting those seeds around experiences into which few (myself included) would otherwise have any insight whatsoever.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I knew so little. I was safe and judgemental. I had my doubts about a rickety system but they didn’t bother me because I was safe…
    I know a little more now. I’m a little less judgmental. And I can see, clearly, what you are showing us, but I’m still inclined … to… let it slip to the wayside. Because I’m still safe.
    A convenient lie to ease troubled thoughts.
    I still know so little.
    Thank you for sharing your view of the world. I learn a little more each time.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I knew probably less than you, Matt. I had no idea, and this post only addresses a small glimpse of the want for better. It doesn’t even tap into all the other misconceptions, or thoughts, like the simple one that plagued me throughout jail, pre-prison, the idea of “What is the punishment we are doling out?” As in, what are the terms of it? And now I’m focused on all the nonsense that goes along with having ever been in there at all– and that’s another big area that I just ignored because I could.

      I am learning, though, and I learned, and I think that’s what’s important. I said it lightly in the post that I understand the misconceptions, but I really really do because I was in that same safe distance, just 635 days ago.

      And I still know so little.

      But, man, we really did learn a lot together. 🙂 Thank you, again, and always, for taking so many steps of that journey with me. ❤

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Oh Ra, I have no idea what to say or how to say it but it is so nice to read one of your blog posts and not be days behind everyone else. There is so much that needs to change, but in the meantime – you’re magic and extraordinary and I love you.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. ‘There’s a vacuum in prisons and it tries to suck down the quest for More or Better’. That really hit me. For as long as prison is viewed purely as a form of punishment, society is not playing its role to renew and give new hope. Communication, words, and the right to escape our everyday troubles through literature, are basic rights that are as essential as food, water and oxygen. Depriving people of them can only lead to distress, certainly not to hope and self-improvement.
    I’ve said it before, I’ve said it again: your experience, written in your unique and touching style, would not only be a hit, but could maybe be a way to alert people to the misconceptions you describe and maybe contribute to getting things changed for the better. Think about it, huh… xxx

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Depriving people of them can only lead to distress, certainly not to hope and self-improvement.” So well said, MM, I can’t imagine what I would have done without all of you. The brain needs to be constantly built up! I am thankful for you, and I hope that translates in the book I’ve pieced together…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Whaaaaat? Yipppeeeeeeeee!!!! When, where, and how do I get my hands on it? My Mum will want to read it too (she ws keeping an eye on you from the far depths of Cornwall, UK) and she’ll probably hand it on to my Dad, who worked with an association promoting literature, writing and reading in prisons to keep prisoners in touch with their children until they were released.You’re a diamond and I’m so proud of you. Shine on, you crazy diamond!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw, thanks, Duncan. I feel like if I rant on the internet in any shape or form and you don’t reply, it hasn’t gotten the official stamp of approval, so I am thankful you came by without me hunting you down. 😉 😀

      And I agree, punishment is one of the prime directives of prison, but if we take a deep breath and qualify what the punishment is supposed to be, and what it actually is– we’ll see a lot of human pain in the deviance.

      As for Sherlock, he’s my guy, since the beginning, I think he’s used to me crying on his shoulder by now. I was grateful to have him there when I most needed him. 🙂


  5. There are few more common human traits than thinking we know what-we-do-not-know.

    I’ve learned that, whatever I claim to understand perfectly, I must not really “know” it, because knowing and confident understanding are, almost always, complete opposites.

    I grew up in Florida, and my mother was part of a group of women who visited prisoners who otherwise had no visitors. When I asked her, as a teenager, why she did it (it was a very long drive), she said, “People are still people.”

    I didn’t understand that answer then. But it makes a lot more sense today, reading what you wrote.


    Liked by 4 people

    1. Knowing versus confident understanding! Yes! Diamond Mike and I often go rounds on that concept, trying to quantify the stages of belief, knowing, and understanding.

      Your mother sounds like good peeps, which of course explains so very much about you. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is the part about human nature that I never understand. How hard is it to look around and realize that everyone has a story and it’s never the same story? Regardless, I’ve been reading a lot of “they” and “them” and “those” perspectives, so I started the day with a full head of steam.
    Thanks for pointing us to the Women’s Book Prison Project, which is headquartered out of Minneapolis, near where I live. Compassionate action is the only real antidote to anger.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Compassionate Action and Open Listening are two traits shared among the people I know that I am ever so grateful for. I really feel like if you have a grasp on either of those things, or especially both, then you are building a better world just by existing. 🙂 WPBP was a lifesaver to me, I feel quite literally, and I’m glad to spread their word. Thank you, Michelle, for your insights into stories. It is one that stuck to my insides and I’ll ponder it for awhile more. ❤


  7. What a post, Rara. You never cease to amaze me and guess what? I have a new idea for an upcoming Comments for a Cause thanks to you. Thank you for sharing your world with me in such a way that inspires me to do more, to act more kindly and to try to be less judgmental. Your words always make me want to be a better person. Hugs.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Your posts are so eye-opening. They make me realize what a very small part of life I know anything about. Now I need to find out how to get books to women in Canadian prisons.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wish I could help with that, but even prisons from one area to another area of this State are different… I can’t imagine the variances in Canada, but it’s my hope that they are gentler with their women. Thank you, Elizabeth, for being so willing to hear. ❤


  9. I thought there was something in the constitution banning cruel and unusual punishment. Not allowing prisoners to use a library? That is cruel and unusual in my eyes! This was a very touching post about a subject I know little about. I think your analogy about starving kids licking candy wrappers is great, for without the words in the books, your mind is starving, and just as one who grew up with little food will still have the desire to fill their bellies, those who grew up with little education must still have a desire to fill their minds.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Trent, for reading– and sharing! 🙂 Yes, in my mind, too, the lack of access to books was cruel and unusual. I actually felt heartbreak, as silly as that is to say, but I am a reader and being without my favorites was devastating at times.

      Yes, we were starving to expand our minds, and we were lucky that so many of us were willing to share their stories and knowledge. In a way, the tribal form of oral storytelling became our food of thought, and that has a sort of beauty to it in and of itself.

      Thank you! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I sent you a book. It never occurred to me you might never receive it.
    It seems counterproductive to keep books from prisoners. Books can change lives for the better, and isn’t that supposed to be one of the goals of incarceration? To change lives for the better.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I received your book! I don’t think the slow mail was deliberate on their part, simply bad management of a system. Much of the worst of prison was simply bad management, not malicious intent.

      As to the goals of incarceration being rehabilitation, that’s a theoretical idea, but I can honestly say I saw almost none in practice. It’s a miracle if prison didn’t do the exact opposite to most of us.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And, by the way, thank you. Infinitely. For everything. You know I took your daughters artwork with me everywhere I went, right? You, and your family, were a wonderful light. 🙂


      2. I hope it wasn’t a bad choice for a book. It probably was.

        I feel like I jumped to conclusions with my comment, not unlike the commentor who inspired this post. I have a lot to learn still.


  11. We all live in our little bubbles. Until something happens to break the bubble. We all have these preconceived notions of what ‘others’ are like because of where they are at. Foolish of us. If we are lucky we learn empathy, not from being in the same situation, but from our hearts that know people are basically good and need words from a book, a letter, a note to hold onto until they get a new bubble. ❤

    Liked by 3 people

    1. People are definitely good, and I wonder… even if they aren’t… if I would advocate the removal of such a basic human right. For most of us, our salvation and growth comes to us in words. I guess this shows how I don’t define myself by any label so much as “reader”. 😀

      Thank you, Jackie, for having so many empathy, and showing through example how to live in its grace. ❤


    1. I was on A Yard for 4 months, and I can’t even express how that New Yorker saved my life. It really did. There was a word in there I’d never seen before — “theophany” — and I read it over and over again because it was new and wondrous, and took me away. Thank you for reading the slices, chica. Hugs. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I would call your commenter vanilla, but that would be giving vanilla a bad name. I would say that your commenter had not walked a mile in someone else’s shoes, but that would imply that they had walked a mile in their own shoes, giving shoes a bad name. I would believe your commenter must have some inexpressible depth to share that just got trapped inside a mind so wise, but that would give wisdom a bad name as well, calling to mind the best advice Job’s friends gave him as he sat on a life’s pile of garbage… SILENCE.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Silence is magical, but then sometimes the only way we find our way to new knowledge is by speaking– so maybe there’s something to be said for sound, too. 🙂 Thank you, Mr. Friday, for popping by and reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Your tag “we can do better” made me cry. We are a judgemental society. It is one of our worst traits. We think the nasty “it” whatever it is will never happen to us but none of us knows what tomorrow will bring. We could be the thing we judged. My dad taught me that at a young age and I thank you for the reminder.

    I’m happy you saved that book from the trash. Part of reading is imagination. The missing pages may remove a bit of the story but the mind is good at piecing things together. Thank you for letting us know about the prison book drive. It is unfortunate that the books may not reach their intended audience

    Love you. ❤

    Liked by 5 people

    1. PS. The entire internet is a sonder. I’ve been roaming around and found a blog called my name is Jamie. I haven’t read but a couple posts but in one he hopes the prison passes on the books that were mailed. Again, I’m glad you were able to save that book.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. Honestly, I thought California was more progressive than where I live, here in the Southern state of Georgia which often seems like a third-world country. I am stupefied to read how hard it was for you to get books and other reading material. Last year I taught in a charter high school set up in the largest women’s prison in Georgia. Everyone was always bringing books (not school books but library books) to class. The prison has a large library. Everyone was always reading. My classroom aides were inmates with college degrees, and they read every chance they had. We were able to have some wonderful discussions about books they were reading. I really miss everyone at the prison (that would sound strange to most people). The state turned the school over to a new charter high school, as we contracted only to set up the pilot program. I miss my classroom aides and the students. I knew why each person was there, but it didn’t matter. I got to know people individually, and I think of them often and yes, I miss them.

    Liked by 8 people

  15. It’s hard for me (and probably most of us) to imagine being confined in prison, but I never imagined that there wouldn’t be books. I’m speechless.

    I have been in the process of weeding out books, collecting boxes and boxes of books to donate, although I don’t know where they end up. I clicked on your link and there aren’t any chapters or affiliates here in the DC area (sort of figures,doesn’t it). But I will try to call Monday.

    Rara, I hope you are working on a book yourself.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. I so love your writing. More importantly, the way you bring us to see things and to understand things in a new and gentle way. It is so important that you share. Thank you.
    We have a local prison come in and pick up our library discards and donations a few times a year. Im grateful that you wrote about how important it is but it makes me sad that there isn’t enough. Reading is so very important. Happy Sunday, Rara.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. Please never stop writing ❤
    Advocacy drives your language the way a strong engine can pull others along. Lights are shining bright on the truth about souls and how everyone's got one tucked in their plight behind words and finding them, and in finding peace.

    Peace sister, from the bottom of the bottom of my heart. ❤

    Liked by 3 people

  18. I can’t imagine not having books. This post made me think of stories of prisoners in far away places who would sit all day making up stories and poetry in their heads because they had nothing to read. Then I read this post – not so far away – within a few hours of my home. I agree with another reader who said it was cruel and unusual punishment to withhold reading materials. Books are basic needs like food, shelter, and water. I was so moved by this post. I will be sharing it with my congressman. He is a good man and an unusually aware person (for a politician.) I know it is a small thing to do but these women deserve to see the outside, so that when they get there again their souls will be free and they won’t go back in ever again.

    You write so beautifully. Thank you for sharing this. Wishing you peace.

    Liked by 4 people

  19. I am the worst at commenting on your posts because I get so blown away by what I’ve just read. I think it’s the way you make me feel like you’re talking only to me like I’m opening up an email from you (though I’ve never seen an email that well written lol). You are honest, inspiring, interesting, engaging… THUD. ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  20. As the daughter of a man who spent the better part of thirty years working for the bureau of prisons I am very familiar with the attitude towards inmates. I found your piece insightful and inspiring. I now want to collect all the books I can and send them to the people who so desperately need it. So glad I stumbled across this blog.

    Liked by 5 people

  21. So, if I wanted to send inmates in a prison some books (which I’d never have thought of if you hadn’t written this post) how would I do that? I guess I need to write to the prison system, the gov’t branch…or would that work? Would they pass them on to prisoners? What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I began reading your blog with an open mind. The intensity of your writing blew me away. I would be lost without books to read and to think that anybody who wants to read has to beg for that right breaks my heart. I am from the UK, I don’t know if we have the same rules over here in our women prisons but I am going to find out and if so be it, I am going to send my books on.

    Thank you Rawr for opening my eyes.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Discovered! Well done and well deserved. I’m always weirdly happy when I know someone who was Discovered. Same thing when FreshPress was still around. It feels like I know a celebrity or something. Maybe it’s a Freudian validation of my own tastes.

    See how I made your Discover about me? That’s my talent. Not bad, right? My wife says it’s uniquely “me.” I wonder what she means by that?

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Pingback: No Words |
  25. It’s hard to conceive of reading books being restricted. There seems to be no point or purpose to it. Who profits by such a policy? What weird social philosophy is in force here? Just seems nuts.


  26. Words ARE magical, as you say. Many parts of your post are rather like a poem.
    Thank you for sharing! I was happy to share in the experience. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  27. Sometimes it’s like the words are lost, or upside down and backwards. When you’ve lost all 4 limbs to this trap or that, it can seem as though you’re tiny voice and tiny thoughts are all that’s left, and it’s easy to convince yourself that it’s okay to stay in place so long as you have a melody… But it seems far too scary to ever put the 2 together…a pearl terrified of its shape, so scared to leave a mark on anyone that might make them hurt; feel the way she feels inside….

    Liked by 2 people

  28. Thank you for your post. This is the first one I have read and I will definitely go back for more.
    I am in the process of writing my own book and I am so inspired to send it to prisons and write letters.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Rara from Nairobi Kenya I feel what you are saying. You have reminded me of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. How books became solace him in prison for 27 years. Like you have rightly said, we need to see the face of human in those languishing in pain of isolation. Empathy is the mantra that we should uphold.

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Hi Ra
    ! You are so inspiring in every way. and i really adore your blog and your write-ups. Can you also help me improve mine? i am still a newbie in blogging and it would be very much appreciated if you take a look at my blog and comment suggestions in my entries as well. love to hear from you!

    Liked by 2 people


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