dear gillian

Written July 14th, 2015 from the California Institute for Women – 100 hours before I was free, a letter never sent, to a friend I’ve not yet met.   I didn’t ask her permission, so I’m not linking to her (yet), but she is a blogger, and she is loved.


Dear Gillian–

Good morning! It’s 10am here in Corona, California, USA, and I’ve been up for hours. (Our doors unlock with a shotgun-like popping sound at 6:15am.) Don’t worry, prison hasn’t turned me into a morning bird, but I am still me. I like to be ready. I like to be wide awake before the day pops, so I flop out of bed at 4:30am, stretch for about 10 minutes, and then go about getting ready.

But first coffee.
With all due respect to the laws of relativity, let’s call it “delicious” coffee. I have a plastic mug with advertisements all over it– advertisements from one of the three places we can order out from. It comes in a package we call our “box”. We are allowed one a quarter and, to us, in here, they are worth roughly their weight in liquid gold. I fill the mug with tap water, and drop my stinger into it, and then plug in the stinger. (A stinger is basically the coil part of an electric stove, except it’s shaped like a comically-large paperclip. It heats by electricity, and is quite sensitive. They often burn out.) It takes about one minute for the water to heat how I like it– not quite even a small rolling boil. Then, I drop in a couple spoonfulls of instant coffee. Easy. I let it sit as I brush my teeth, comb my hair, and wash my face.

All those morning supplies are tucked on a little wooden corner shelf that was illegally built into my room sometime before I came here. They’re hidden behind the peacock you sent me. It reminds me of my husband, and the memory is even sweeter since he passed away this May. I don’t know if you know, and I don’t remember if you read him, and I am sorry if this was not the most gentle of ways to say it. Right now, the stuff I don’t know outnumbers the stuff I know 10 billion to one. But, I do know that the colors of this peacock will be the future look of and my living area, if I can manage it. I envision RARASAUR written out, with each letter in one of the most prevalent colors.

I say my morning prayers, give my morning gratitudes, and then sip my coffee on my messy bunk. When I start to hear the keys jangle, I know first watch officers have gone home and my normal second watch officers are in. I don’t know why it matters, but I suppose it’s because Mamasaur’s voice is always in my head, making me worried that Ms. Varro will peek into a dirty room. So, I fold up my blanket and sheet– all white, of course– and retuck the sheet that wraps around my mattress. We sleep on basically a thick yoga mat that we knot a sheet around so that it always looks tightly wrapped. As if it were manufactured that way, in fact. The girls take the visual perfection of things very seriously. In some lifer rooms, the lifer makes the bed to make sure it is right! This was my experience in Chowchilla– the prison up north.

Then, I clean my floor. With a soap water mixture made from shampoo, and a maxi pad, I get on my hands and knees and clean under the bunk. I have to stretch to reach the far end, but it’s worth it. The floor sparkles. Right now, I sleep on the lower bunk because I have no bunky. Then, I flush the pad. The toilets here could swallow a small zebra, even though Richard the plumber (an exceptionally kind man) frowns on such behavior. Then I sit, enjoy a few more sips, and the doors pop. In the room across the hallway is my friend and co-worker, Steph. She is usually standing in front of her bunk, watching her morning news. She turns around to shout “Good morning!” because she always shouts everything. I smile, because how could you not? And walk over to her room with my coffee, the yellow spoon still in the cup. I make sure I have my ID card and my plastic dinnerware. It’s easier to remember everything now that I’m on S-Time.

S-Time is my time off from work, two weeks before going home– yes, Gillian. I am coming home. When employed at CIW’s firehouse, I wore orange pants — like jeans– and a button down orange shirt. There were plenty of pockets. Now, I’m in state standard blues, which is a three quarter length light blue top and nurse-like dark blue pants, with an elastic waist and one pocket. I miss my Oranges, because the Blues don’t fit my bodyshape at all. They make me hyper aware that body is a woman’s body, and the men’s clothes on it don’t know how to respond to the swish of my hips. A swish I didn’t even realize I had before wearing these pants that pinch and fall off simultaneously, magically.

Steph is in her oranges already, shouting at something that happened somewhere. I sit on her toilet, my favorite chair, and listen. Cookie comes in then, her long dark hair puled into a bun with a pencil and her eyes still sleepy behind the glasses. She is not a morning person either, so she does our group’s little “fox” wave, and plops down on the only real chair in the room. It’s plastic with metal legs and, like us, is dark blue.

Then Vero walks in, her elaborate makeup already made, and she wrinkles her nose to ask, “What’s for breakfast?” We look at Steph’s menu, and report. Not everyone gets a menu. We trade photocopies of a TV Guide for ours, just a perk of being a Firehouse Girl. Today, it’s pancakes. We hear Ms. Varro’s voice carry down the hall then– “Chow time, ladies, VC!”

VC is what our chowhall is called. Inmate rumor, confirmed by a cook and a CO once, says it stands for Village Cafeteria– a throwback from the days of prison reform. We walk down the hallway in a line, so as not to be hit by doors opening. It smells like poop, but that’s what happens when the bedrooms of a place are also the bathrooms.

We walk out of the unit, around another unit, and then usually get corraled while they queue us up. I call the corral “Bubble Island” because it makes the dehumanizing aspect of it a little more silly and far more bearable. I even made a little song for it, and as I hum it, Steph groans in mock pain. We laugh and chat the whole way through. Out of the corral, we show our IDs to the Correctional Officers on duty– usually the same ones, including one who always seems to be able to make me really truly laugh. Steph nudges me and says “Your friend is here.”, Cookie shakes her head. No one understands why I talk to the cops, but I offer a friendly good morning anyway, and walk into the chowhall–

To wait in another line.

We walk up to a little window, get our tray– which at breakfast includes a bagged lunch– and then sit. At AM Chow, we can sit where we want, so we do. Steph picks the table, Cookie and I pray, and then we all eat. We’ve been dining together so long that it seems almost orchaestrated. My milk goes to Steph, her juice goes to Vero, all our fruit goes to Cookie, all of Cookie’s lunch to Steph and Vero. Vero gives me her butter pat, and I hand her my syrup. Between the industrial fan, the scullery clatter, and the eighty other women, we can barely hear each other. We shout our way through the conversation. (Because of an earlier conversation, we jokingly call this shouting voice our “inside voices”.) Then, Steph collects our trays and drops them at the scullery window. Now that I’m on S-Time, I sometimes volunteer in the kitchen–but never in the scullery. I did that for the much smaller kitchen in RC and that was enough experience for me.

We pack up our lunches and utensils, then leave– outside, to the unit, and back to our rooms. Cookie is a college liaison, and Vero studies advanced electronics, so they prepare for work. I hang out with Steph till they call “Ice!” and then we walk to get our allocated scoops– one scoop each, per tupperware shoebox container. Ice is a privilege of the Honor Dorm in which we live. It’s a point of contention that the Firehouse Girls are allowed to live in the Honor Dorm. Unlike Cookie and Vero, Steph and I did not have to earn our place there, only our jobs. Ice is precious.

Work release is at 7:50am and Steph and the other girls — almost everyone in the unit– leave to work or school. Lately, I’ve been napping right after, but today I worked out and re-organized my letters– since I will have to carry them across the whole institution on Saturday morning when I finally go home.

And that’s when I saw your letter again– re-read it, as I oft have– and that’s when I thought– I should write and thank her again for the breath of fresh air. Because everyone should know when they’ve made a lasting impression, and you have.

In less than 100 hours, I will be free, Gillian. I am excited, but terrified– not quite ready to forsake the comfort of my routine. Not quite ready to hold my husband’s ashes, or see my mother’s hands, or make a decision more complex than whether or not to eat a butter pat.

But I do know, wherever I end up setting my proverbial hat– I will also set out the peacock card you sent me and it will make things… well, not okay. But better.

Softer. Easier to bear.

Thank you.
You are oh-so-very appreciated.

With love,
Ra ❤


Random, unsourced, internet pictures that might help explain:

05 - Brittany Bass - Pregnant in Prison Prisoners Child Childcar
The walkways between units.
Some of these girls are completely 100% in my heart.
Firehouse Girls wear the same Oranges as FireCamp Girls. Just like this. But while hundreds of girls get sent to camps to fight California’s wildland fires, only about 5 of us stay behind and work at Firehouse 531.
Those baseball tees were sold long long ago, before they were banned from Quarterly Boxes. If you see someone in them, they’ve been in for a long, long time– or know someone who has.