My day started at the women’s maximum security state prison. In the area that I live there is a men’s and women’s maximum security prison. I just so happened to have moved in across the street from the men’s maximum security prison, as you may have read, and sure enough a few weeks later someone signed me up to go on a tour of the women’s maximum security prison. Coincidence in my life? Act of God in my life? I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Anyway, my friend studies prison reform and so I brought her along with me. We got up early, stopped by the gas station for a little more coffee, and made the twenty-minute trek up the road.
It was a tough morning for me, but the women in the yellow jumpsuits had a much tougher morning. I only got a glimpse of them. They were just delivered to the prison, having been sentenced for whatever they were convicted of. As the door swung open to the intake room I saw dozens of stone cold-faced women sitting shoulder to shoulder on wooden benches. They looked at me almost as a collective stare. There was no emotion behind their eyes or in their face. You know when you are on a subway or at the grocery store and you happen to look at someone you don’t know, there is this moment (before you realize that some creepy person is staring at you) when your face and their face softens just a bit and you acknowledge that someone else is there too? There was no of that. Their faces were the definition of a blank stare. It was as if someone had wiped their insides clean of emotion. I had no idea how to look back at them so I just lowered my eyes.
They saw a variety of doctors today, some for their bodies, some for their minds and hearts. After their exams they were placed in small cells were many of them will spend the next few months going through detox. We were told that not only is the imprisonment rate increasing for women but the number of women coming in with major drug addictions is rising too. Instead of the plush accommodations movie stars get, these women would have to be sick in a small cell laying in a bunk bed over a roommate they just met. As the door slammed and echoed through the halls I had questions:
How many do you think are pregnant?
Many of them are, I would say at least 12.
Do they deliver their babies here or at the hospital?
We take them to the hospital.
What happens with the babies after they are born?
The mother has 24 hours with them and then someone takes them.
Or a relative, but if there isn’t anyone then they go into the system.
My heart broke for them. My heart broke for the little ones too, the babies that only know their mothers for 24 hours. I thought about the women in yellow jumpsuits and how statistics say that many of them were born to women in prison or women who spent time in prison. A friend of mine recently told me that statistic is one in seven. So at least one, if not two, of their children would be back in that room several years down the road. My heart was heavy as we walked back through the metal doors and into the breezy spring morning.
There were some bright spots in the whole experience. Some of the women make all the uniforms for the other prisons in the state. They are paid and get to spend the money at the prison commissary or send it to someone on the outside. Several other women work with dogs to train them how to take care of elderly folks and others with disabilities. It was pretty cool to listen to the women talk about how they train the dogs to take care of their future owners. The dogs were pretty amazing too. They could turn on lights, pull the covers up, and grab toilet paper which they then delivered to their owner slobber free, well mostly slobber free.
These women, the dog trainers, had a light in their eye that was in stark contrast to the women in the yellow jumpsuits. The dog training ladies expressed the feeling that they were helping people as they worked with their dogs. The dogs would move on into the lives of people who really needed them to meet physical and emotional needs. I think that says a lot about our need to be productive and help other people. The dog trainers have found a way to contribute to the larger community despite their circumstances. I hope and pray that some of those women in the yellow jumpsuits will find their way to that place, the place of work, contribution, functioning well in the collective.
The last place we went was the dog training area. I wonder if they planned that. I wonder if they wanted us to leave on a hopeful note. Or maybe it was just closest to the front gate. In any case, I did leave a bit more hopeful than I would have if we had ended the tour with the women in the yellow jumpsuits. I left hopeful that people can find a productive place in prison. They can work for the collective good and that light in their eyes and warmth in their face could return when they were given something productive to work towards. Maybe that is a lesson for me when I loose a bit of the light in my eyes, think about someone else and how I can contribute. Maybe I can think about those babies that only have 24 hours with their moms and find a place to help there. Who knows…but there is hope.
Originally posted on Burnside Writers Collective 2011.