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.

47 thoughts on “dear gillian

    1. In hers, she sent me a glimpse of normal life, so I wanted to send a glimpse of what had become my normal. Then the letter got lost in the fray, then everytime I saw it here, I would be too worked up to send it– I think it just brought me back too much. Today though, I was able to look at it so I thought, better take advantage of the moment and type it up. 😀

      And, that long story had nothing to do with anything, ha. I need a nap. 😉

      Thanks for reading, Daniel. 🙂

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I always find it fascinating reading other people’s glimpses of the normal, everyday. There’s something about describing things in your own voice that really appeals to me. It always feels like a privilege to be invited into other people’s lives like that (so thank you)

        Liked by 4 people

          1. It can be as mundane as you like but I find each person’s take on it so refreshing. I really like Jessie’s (Behind The Willows) writing for the same reason – not that her writing is mundane(!). Ok, now I will stop babbling and let you have that nap!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Totally 100% agree! I love Jessie, infinitely, and her glimpses into her real life kept me sane. I love that she explains the details of her daily so artfully that you forget for a moment that you’d never notice it if she wasn’t saying it– she has a unique sight and the ability to share it. It’s a gift. 🙂 ❤

              Liked by 1 person

  1. This is such a sweet letter, Rara! I know you think it’s not “about” anything, but it is. It’s about you, and the life you were living at that time. That makes it about a whole lot. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing this. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Nessa. It was embarrassingly difficult to type because it was like reliving it, which is silly because it was all about the better parts of the daily life… but, I did it. I got the letter to her. Almost a year later, good thing my friends are made of forgiveness and sunlight and peacock shades. 😀 Thanks for being one of my multi-colored blessings, chica.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. It touched a raw part of your life, it’s no wonder that would be difficult to address. I understand. I have parts in my life like that too, so you are way more courageous than I could ever be.

        The multi-colored blessing is you, sweet girl. I’m just grey. See, that’s why you don’t need sugar, because you are already so sweet. 😀 *hugs*

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Robin, thank you. And thank you for checking up on me. Sreejit emailed and said that he worried on me when I wasn’t writing, and I thought, “I worry about me too!” and then you emailed– just, thank you. The love and light you sent surely is part of what made me get out of my head and do something. 😀 Love you much! ❤


    1. Thank you for reading, Irene. The morning routine changed so often, they shake things up a lot there… but that was basically my day to day from maybe a few weeks before Dave died till I left. It’s really surreal to live it through my words again… a combination of not remembering it, and forgetting that I’m still not there. Strange, right? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You say Gillian sent you a glimpse of normal life? I feared sending you that. You could have all my support and stars but I feared sharing a ‘normal life’ because I could not give it to you. I’m glad you had those who were brave enough to recognise that it didn’t matter. I’m sorry that was not me.
    Lovely letter, Ra. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah, Kate, the beautiful thing about people is that they are all different and combined they form a community that has no holes in it. You sent me stars and impossibilities — I needed that as much as the reminder of stickers and real life. And of course, everyone’s letters were heavily coated in love, and I needed that perhaps more than anything else. 🙂 Hurrah to the brave hearts I know– and yes, whether you believe it or not, that includes you. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this letter! Makes me wish I had written you more often. I thought of you often, but couldn’t really think of anything worthy to write…and of course it could have been anything, because all is worthy of writing. I really like your description of food exchanging, like a game of Mystic Square. I can just imagine the all happening automatically without discussion because you all know each other so well. Anyway, I’m so happy to be a part of your life in a small way. Feeling blessed and grateful for you, your friendship and your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gorgeous letter back to Gillian, and good for her for sending you such a hope-filled peacock.

    The thing which struck me most was how lovely and smiley everyone in the last picture looks, but I suppose it’s good to have my preconceptions of ‘what a criminal looks like’ challenged. I’m glad you had your people around you inside 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a friend who is currently at our state prison. I was afraid to write him a detailed letter of things that are going on in our lives, because it, well, it sort of seemed like torture. Like offering a dog a bone that he can’t have. Then I read about your peacock card. I believe I’ll start writing. Thank you for that.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. RaRa,

    Maxi pad as a single use mop eh? Great read RaRa. This may sound weird, but you sorta make prison sound kinda cool when you imagine beyond the confinement. I know you miss some of the people, you mentioned hesitation for leaving the routines…do you miss that state of mind that holds curiosity outside of whatever gates attempt to bind you? I know you have a boundless state of mind anyway, but did it feel sharper or more limber on the inside?



  7. Thanks for sharing this beautiful letter. I am sure Gillian loved it and a glimpse into your last few days there was certainly eye opening. No one can ever know what someone else is living through but through your words I feel just a bit closer to you and to what you endured. Love you. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Is it strange that this was a calming sort of read. Reaffirmation that you are able to find peace and love where ever you are. An extra long exhale at the end knowing that you have the freedoms you lack and a small sigh for your friends that remain. But, mostly, just the calming rhythm of life.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow, you have such a way with words: painting such a clear picture of life inside prison, without self-pity, but with a beautiful heartbreaking simplicity. Thank you Ra.

    p.s. Who took the photos?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What an insight into prison life, Rara. This part of it seems bittersweet – anticipation of getting out but anxiety at what awaits you. I’m so proud of you that you made that transition with grace, humor, magnanimity, and creativity.

    Liked by 1 person


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