my name is ra.

(i)nnocent

They said she was in for murder, but no one ever said it like they believed it. No one. Not the chaplain, not the correctional officers, not the girls.

They said she was a lifer.
Some people believed that part.

The system is broken, you see. You can be factually innocent and still do time. The time inside can kill you, if you let it.

On A-Yard, a free staffer– one of the humans I was lucky to have stumbled across– gave me an article about a boy who served his innocence at Riker’s. His name was Kalief Browder. His time inside killed him, though they call it suicide officially. Even when you can pinpoint the mental poison that caused your own body to kill itself, it is suicide– not the fault of the poison.

I read the article to my cellies, the seven other women sharing a cell with me. They wanted to know why I was shaking, why I was crying. Their faces were stone as I read the article. Their silence was almost too loud to read over. Finally, we talked about it. They told me stories of the days they served on a trumped up charge, or a factually inaccurate one, or a simply unprovable one.

It’s a myth, on the outs, that the women inside run around talking about their innocence. Innocence itself becomes a myth in prison, or rather– an irrelevance. The only relevant word is justice. There’s nuance to both, a crack between the pieces that you only find when you fall between them.

My cellies seemed unaffected by the story, but that night when we prayed together, the quiet one added, “And please hold Kalief close to you”, and the loud one added, “and let his mama see the grace that holds him.”

I cried myself to sleep that night, but when I woke up– I woke up angry. I think it is perhaps why the free staffer gave me the article. Not to start a conversation, not to make me sad– but to tinder a flame. It was the first time the anger of my experience hit me, and that little spark stayed with me even when I was transferred out of Chowchilla’s A-Yard to the California Institute for Women.

The world inside is a different sort of place. It runs with a different set of rules and values. It’s a little unnatural, a little more obviously feral. Emotion is understood there, in a way that it could never be embraced on the outs.

I kept my own anger in check, though. Breathing it out through asana, running away from it with laps and laps across a dirty path, digesting it with packets of Ramen and mayonnaise.

Till one day, when I was enlisted into the Fire Camp program and assigned to Kim’s beginner group. She was the inmate trainer for our group, known for her deadpan sense of humor that set off the giggles in even the most hardened among us.

They said she was in for murder, but no one ever said it like they believed it. No one. Not the chaplain, not the correctional officers, not the girls.

They said she was a lifer.
Some people believed that part.

The system is broken, you see. You can be factually innocent and still do time. The time inside can kill you, if you let it.

Kim did not let it.

When I fell during our group run, she put her hands on her hips and shouted, “Why did you scare me like that? How do you fall down gracefully? That’s an oxymoron! Why am I still screaming?! Because you scared me, that’s why!”

I was dinged up, but couldn’t help but laugh. There’s something reassuring about someone caring enough about you that your pain is their own. There’s something reassuring about someone whose heart is open enough to hold you, even when you are new to them.

A week or so into training, we were put with the advanced group because of scheduling conflicts. We were asked to do things we just couldn’t do. I was on the 700th arm lift in a routine dubbed “One Thousand Arms” when I just gave up.

I was in my head. My time was in my head. Prison was in my head. The injustice and indignity of this was in my head. The girls beside me who were hurting their bodies to fight fires for people who wouldn’t even hire them, people who are silently complicit in removing their right to vote for a lifetime– it just all hit me. I was angry, I was hurting, I was sweating…

and I shouted at Kim.

Kim.
Innocent Kim.

One of the funniest people I’ve encountered in my entire life. One of the kindest women I met inside. One of the finest instructors I’ve ever had the luck to know.

I honestly don’t even know what I said, but I remember her eyes getting big, and then soft, and then filling with tears. Then they focused, and she patted me on the back, standing as if she was waiting.

“What are you waiting for?” I asked, grumpily, angrily.

“For you to decide if you want this to be the moment when you let this place win.” She paused. “For the record… if it matters… I’m rooting for you. This time will pass. You’re going home.” She made a little cheer motion, and I smile-cried, then went back to the One Thousand Arms.

It takes a powerful level of patience to look directly at ugliness and wait to see beyond it before judging. It takes a certain kind of courage to cheer for the people who get to go home, when you might never.

Innocence is irrelevant in moments like this.
Innocence is irrelevant inside.

When I talk about the girls I knew inside, people will often ask me what they did– meaning, why were they there? What were their charges? People who have only met me now want to know what I did, how much innocence I claim, and in the face of what.

The subtext does not slip by me.
I am a reader,
and I still have a little spark of anger inside.

You want to know if I deserved the pain I suffered.
You want to know if the girls I mention deserved the hurt I describe.

Innocence is an important concept out here. We grapple with it. We tie it into stories to weigh it against other stories. We tell ourselves that we’re qualified to measure innocence and punish the lack of it. We tell ourselves that certain human suffering is positive, that some human unkindness is good for us as a whole.

I said that Kim was in for murder.
Some of you stopped caring about her value at that point.
Some of you stopped caring before even that.

An inmate is just an inmate, after all.
They should have stayed innocent.

We imagine that inside a jail cell, innocence is a concept that matters.
It does not.

Inside, your right to determine innocence, even your own, is just one of the many right stripped away.

Only someone on the outside can decide, based on limited information, in a limited amount of time, within the confines of a turbulent, convoluted, and corrupted system– how much suffering you deserve for having let your innocence slip away.

Then we all hope that the system is right, but of course it isn’t always.

In 2016, Kim went home.

Thank God.
I was rooting for her.

____________

Kalief Browder:
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/06/before-the-law
http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/kalief-browder-1993-2015

Kimberly Long:
https://californiainnocenceproject.org/read-their-stories/kimberly-long/
http://www.pe.com/2016/07/26/corona-how-kimberly-long-is-rebuilding-her-life-after-murder-convictions-reversal/

24 comments

  1. Wow. Powerful. I was a drug and alcohol counselor with homeless people, and I had a client, Alex, who did, like, 30 years for being an accessory to murder. He was, like, 15, and with a “friend” who had a grudge with some guy.
    I didn’t usually think about that, though, and he was really reluctant to bring it up. I had known him for many years, in many stages of sobriety. When I learned I was pregnant, he was the first client I told, and he was so happy for me. He said, “Miss Sarah’s gonna have a little pink cupcake running around.”
    I think it was hard for him to see himself as more than his conviction (and addiction and mental illness) and I know a lot of other people wouldn’t see past that, but there was so much more. Like with Kim and your other friends inside. I’m so glad you had them and can share these stories with us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am cheering for Kim and for you. The entire system makes me sad. How, we as such fickle human beings, are put into such power to pass judgment at any given moment. We all make bad and poor decisions in life. And yet, we call can change. Life is a journey, a wild, crazy and scary journey, but also a loving and hopeful one. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read, too. Not as voraciously as some. Mine is more the “between the lines” kind of reading. And there is more content between your lines, than in the lines themselves. Innocence… right, wrong, circumstance, association… all that really matters is the grey-shaded story. And the black and white between each grey line.

    I read this story, and kept reading, because of one innocent girl. Who is showing the world the innocence of others. One story at a time.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Continue to spill over, continue to shine. Your light can never be dimmed. Your words are powerful – they invoke such emotion, in me – in others, I’m sure. I can’t imagine you yelling at someone.. that surprised me. Ra… ❤ ❤ I came across this the other day and just loved it – sent it to my girls. I want to share with you – the last line is perfection.
    (not sure of the author)

    Set some goals.
    Stay quiet about them.
    Smash the hell out of them.
    Clap for your damn self.

    Clap for your damn self Ra – many are clapping for you too. I am but one of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m glad she went home. I’m glad she rooted for you, and you for her. When you asked for our help with writing letters and provided us a list, I was nervous, and cautious about who I chose to write from the list. I remember distinctly not choosing someone that was in for murder. Later I read up on that inmate and learned that she was in for killing her abuser. I regretted my omission immediately. You see it isn’t true that women can just walk away…but that is the widely held belief. They don’t have to kill they can just leave. It’s never that simple. Abuse is insidious, and abusers use every tool in the book to keep control. Leaving can work if you don’t have kids and you have some place really good to hide, and some way to take care of yourself. Most do not have any of that at their disposal. There are shelters and programs, but eventually you have to be on your own. Often when women make the decision to leave the abuser stalks, hunts, and kills them. I once trained to work at a shelter… they told us how important the secrecy was for the protection of the women and staff. There were women who completed the program went back out in the world only to be found by the abuser and killed. It was more than I could take. I am not sanctioning murder, but until there are better protections for women in these situations and harsher laws on those found guilty of DM, I can understand how it happens, and I don’t think in those circumstances they deserve life without parole. 😦 Maybe we all need to be a little angry if that’s what it takes to make sure justice is served.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You rock. Often your writing moves me. See? now I’m over here. It doesn’t take too long to realize that the justice system is not just, or perhaps they just named it ironically like calling a big dude tiny. It’s never fun to be on the other side of the partition, where the weight of the prosecution and the state drag you down like an albatross with a weight around his neck for some reason. The freedom of choice, the freedom of free, it’s a gross feeling when you begin to realize how much you take for granted. It’s totally awesome to go to a bathroom behind a closed door for example. I just plain like that shit. Keep keeping it real sister. You rock.

    Liked by 1 person

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