Monday, June 22, 2015

The Sisterhood of the Cell, or the Third of the Anniversaries

Women bond in many ways.

Sharing the experience of booking and incarceration is a uniquely bonding experience.

Over the course of the days I spent in Hennepin County jail, I recall the dark fear and anxiety, my physical pain and the deep, inescapable cold, and - most suprising - giddy laughter shared with other women.

The people I met Friday night made quite the cast of characters.

Kelli - my jail twin; a woman who shared the fear and wondering through the long nights and days in jail and who has remained my friend
Animal - the detoxing woman who only woke long enough to devour her food, much like an animal, and then slept until released
Eyelashes - the beautiful young woman arrested for solicitation, who lost her eyelashes from her left eye during the long night of booking
Cigarette - the hilarious 21 year old who swore she was going to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes the minute she was released - all at once - while holding a drink in each hand; her philosophy of life boiled down to this notion: a woman should have the right to wash her vagina
Daddy's Girl - the young woman who's father paid a lawyer $7,000 and got her out of jail within hours of her arrest
Purple Hair - the woman with the most beautiful, braided, and very purple hair
Grandma - the woman who got there first and volunteered to clean the room in exchange for extra food - enviable food too; she got fresh fruit and veggies
Toothless Ho - the prostitute with no teeth who was upset at her early release; she wanted supper before she left

When we first got to the Cell, everyone had the same bemused, shell-shocked look on their faces.  Some women were already in their cots, sleeping.  It was about 7:30 in the morning. Those of us arriving together made our cots quickly and got in them.  Some women had grabbed a second plastic mattress to achieve a little more cush; eventually, they had to put them back so I was glad I didn't mimic that idea.

Lying in my cot on my right side, I opened my eyes and saw Kelli in the cot next to mine.

Me: Are you scared too?
Kelli: Yes.
Me: It's weird, but it helps me to know you feel the same way I do.
Kelli: Me too.

We both slept for a few minutes.

Eventually rising for breakfast, the women were surprisingly quiet. 

Randomly women would be called to the door to talk to an officer or get something.  Medicine came at specifically scheduled times, as did meals. The endless, enforced idleness is nerve-wracking.  Eventually, women started talking, bonding.  I started asking questions.

Me: So, what does it mean that I don't have any charges yet?
Someone would answer, reassuring me that it was normal or not to worry or whatever.
Me: So, what if they charge with a refusal to test, what will happen?
Someone would answer with their idea of what would happen.  Everyone sort of thought something different.
Me: So, you're charged with prostitution? What does that mean?

Apparently, at the end of nearly every one of my question-asking sessions, I said, "But that could change, right?"

Know-It-All hated me. She asked if I was a spy and that's why I was so curious. She hated that I was asking questions and that I was so naive.  She eventually told me she just tried to sleep through all my questions, but that I was like an annoying, pesky puppy.  By then, when I started to ask questions, she'd come answer.  She was a veritable font of information and really did seem to know it all. She wasn't actually correct about most of it, but she answered me.

Know-It-All had a sad story.  She had been arrested for domestic assault when her and her mother got into an altercation.  It wasn't the first time she had been in jail, and it seemed like her consequences were going to be fairly stiff unless her mother recanted her story.

She mocked me one morning.

Know-It-All:  Hey, Grandma.  If I got charged with a gross misdemeanor and was wearing purple underwear and had nine dollars and seven cents, what do you think would happen?
Grandma: Well, you won't find out until you get your charge sheet! (laughs)
Know-It-All: But that could change, right?
Me: You're mocking me, aren't you?
Know-It-All: Yep.

Everyone laughed.  It was an ice breaker. And, it's true; most of my questions were freaking stupid.

The two younger women, Eyelashes and Cigarette, didn't know what to expect either. The two of them were in the cots above Kelli and I, and we all ended up talking a fair amount that first day.

Eyelashes: Kari.  Tell me a story.
Me: About what?
Eyelashes: Anything.

I told her about my boys until she faded to sleep.

Like women do, we all shared stories. At one point, sitting in a circle on a couple of cots, we shared the arrest stories.  Why were we each there?

Know-It-All shared the story of her and her mother.  A couple of women were there for prostitution.  There were other DWI-related arrests.  Kelli talked about being assaulted and thrown out of her house.  She drove a car in the driveway to the nearby Walmart and was crying on the steering wheel when a concerned shopped contacted law enforcement to help her. I said I was drinking wine.

Cigarette: Was it at least red?
Me: No. White wine.
Know-It-All: OMG. You are such a white girl!

That nickname stuck.  From that point forward, Kelli and I were the White Girls.

Emotions struck randomly, it seemed.  Fear. Confusion. Dismay.  Disgust. Giddiness.Grief.  Uncontrolled laughter.  Tears. Shame. Guilt. Horror. Unmitigated boredom. Panic.

And through it all grew a Sisterhood.

The night I was arrested was an unusually busy night in Hennepin County.  As a result, the women who went through booking just before me, with me, and just after me were housed in the men's part of the jail.  The room - cell, rather - was long and wide.  The cots were lined up on either side of the room, were fairly close together, and were all stacked two high.  Each cot contained a plastic mattress, and the packet we'd each collected during the long walk from booking to the cell had two sheets, a thin blanket, and a cup with toiletries (soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, and comb).  Next to each cot was a shelf for belongings.

Each person is assigned a cot.  We were told to wear all pieces of our uniforms at all times unless we were in our own cot. The rule was for our safety; we were in the men's part of the jail, with male prisoners delivering meals and male deputies in charge of monitoring our room and providing our care.

There was a plastic tray of items on a table near the window.  In the plastic tray were two forms, one for medication requests and the other for other requests, and pencils.  There was more soap and toothpaste, and sanitary napkins. There was a rolling cart with reading material in the opposite corner.  Front and center was a small television, controlled by the officers.

I've long held that sweat doesn't generally stink.  Healthy workout sweat only creates bad smells when dirty clothes are left wadded up somewhere.  Sweat from outdoor heat is the same; it almost smells fresh.  Both kinds of sweat are honestly achieved and healthy.  The sweat of fear is completely different.  It smells bad.  It feels bad.  It's completely uncontrollable.  Every time I picked up the phone to call my husband or my dad, I sweat in fear.  Fear they wouldn't answer.  Fear they would.  Fear of what they would say. Fear of not hearing them say anything.  Fear. Pure fear.  I wiped it constantly with the front of my heavy gray uniform t-shirt. Eventually I could smell it on my t-shirt - and I couldn't stand it.  

New uniforms come on Thursdays, I believe.  You can get a new uniform if you tell the officers you have your period.  Otherwise, you wear the same uniform for the duration.  You sleep in it, spend the days in it, and even go to court in it.

There aren't any products in jail.  No lotions or sprays, no curlers or ties.  No makeup.  It's sort of the great equalizer - everyone looks the same.  But, in my opinion, it's very dehumanizing. There was no opportunity to be really clean, there was no way to express personality, and there was not a thing to do about it except submit.

I got really desperate for a clean t-shirt.  While sitting at the table after lunch, I spied that plastic tray of stuff.  "I know," I thought.  "I'll wash my shirt with a bar of soap."  The soap is the size of hotel soap, but not good soap. 

When I showered, I used the soap on the front of that uniform t-shirt.  It didn't work very well at all.  Then I recalled the toothpaste!  I washed the front of my shirt with toothpaste.  It didn't smell clean, but was sort of minty and better than before the washing. Incidentally, it takes those heavy t-shirts a very long time to dry.  With the rule that we could only be in bed if we weren't in full uniform, I was stuck there for a long time.

After washing my hair, with no products or tools at my disposal, it hang limp and heavy on my neck.  Sweating made that feel gross too.  Apparently pony tails are suicide risks or something, so there wasn't anything to use for hair.  I improvised.  Removing some sanitary napkins from the plastic wrap, I twisted two plastic wraps together and wrapped them around my pony tail.  Huge, huge hit with the Sisterhood! Within 15 minutes, everyone who was anyone in Cell Block H was sporting a sanitary napkin pony tail.  One creative woman wrapped them around her braids and actually wore them to court.

In those few moments, damp t-shirt and hair wrapped in plastic, I felt as clean as I ever did during those days. Then I called home and pleaded to be picked up.  I was desperate not to have to ride in the back of another police car with my hands cuffed behind me on that plastic seat.  I was sure to have to do that if I stayed that last night for the Tuesday morning court date. I was sweating again before that call ended.

I cried then. 

And the Sisterhood wanted details.  I started to talk.  And I talked and talked and talked.  At the end, the consensus was that my husband was having an affair and was generally an ass.  I defended him.  Too bad I never had the chance to tell them they were right.

I will never see those women again.  I don't remember most of their names.  Outside that Cell we had nothing in common - not experiential, not socially, not financially.

And yet for those hours when I most needed them, I had Sisters who refused to judge, hate, or denigrate.  Many of the people long in my circle of friends didn't offer the same. My dad certainly didn't.  Neither did my husband.

I learned something important about accepting people where they're at.  And it is a beautiful gift to offer.

Kelli and I have kept in touch through the months following our stay in Hennepin County.  Our stories are similar. We decided to go to the Driving With Care class together in downtown Minneapolis, and we talk about our experiences on a regular basis.  The conversations are raw and stink of truth. I am thankful for every one of those conversations.  They have saved me from bitterness and restored my faith in people.

She was released shortly before I was called down to talk to a Probation Officer about a Conditional Release.  We stood at the window just before her son came with the bail money.

Me: Kelli, promise me something and I'll make the same promise to you.
Kelli: What?
Me: After all we've been through since Friday, promise me that when you walk out that door, you will leave behind the shame and the guilt. We've paid a huge price for our choices. Now all that's left is to walk through the consequences.
Kelli: You promise, too? You people are going to be judgmental.
Me: I do. It's not going to be easy.  I sort of hate myself.
Kelli: Me too. Let's promise to call each other when it gets bad.
Me: Deal. I don't know how I'll get through the night. Somehow it's been easier knowing you were there.
Kelli: I know. You'll be okay.

And, she was right. 
I've been okay.


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