In 2003, there were more than 100,000 women in federal prisons and an additional 80,000 women in local jails. (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003)
When I close my eyes I see their faces; young and old, brown and white, pretty and plain. The women of Block 12 are always with me, forever woven into the fabric of my life, members in a growing family of those for whom I pray.
Amber is tall and slender, 19 years old with the face and body of a super model. She is part African American, part Native American, "Cherokee," she tells me, and she thinks she's ugly.
Savannah has masses of blond curls that bush out around her pale blue eyes and rosy pink complexion. She's the all-American girl-next-door who is drinking herself to death.
Nasim is from the Middle East. Her cellmates tell me that she speaks no English and is being held for her alien status. They wrap their arms around her when she cries and comfort her with soothing voices. As a sign of acceptance, they have braided her thick brown hair into cornrows. She is one of them, for now. Nasim does not know what will happen to her American born children when she is extradited to her homeland.
Tina's sweet pixie face is pale and drawn. "I just finished chemo," she says, self-consciously running her fingers through short wisps of new brown hair. "I have lymphoma."
Shandra is tiny with smooth, chocolate skin. Her cornrows are tipped in gray. She lowers her head and peers at me over clear acrylic half-readers (a gift from the jail ministry).
"I like your purple specs," she says. We laugh together and share the names of our grandchildren. She will not see hers again until they are grown.
Block 12 houses an ever-changing population of drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, and the mentally ill. A temporary residence in our local jail, the women who live there are non-violent offenders incarcerated for driving under the influence, possession of controlled substances, domestic violence, and petty theft or fraud. While some call Block 12 'home' for a few weeks or months, others may stay a year or more. These inmates are in a state of waiting; waiting for trial, waiting to be moved to another jail or prison, waiting to go home.
The block holds fourteen 'females', the term used by jail personnel to identify the inmates. Officers of both genders shout a variety of messages through metallic sounding intercoms.
"There will be ten females attending your group this evening."
"Visitors may leave the classroom; females, please be seated and wait for transport."
"Females will be checked for contraband before returning to the block."
"Females are not allowed to have pencils with erasers on them."
The women refer to themselves in a more personal way using the terms 'women' or 'ladies' in their conversations.
I have been told it is an honor to live in Block 12, the right being earned by good behavior. Since there is limited space, a person who has achieved Block 12 status may have to wait weeks or months to be transferred from another block, and her turn may not come until after she is released or moved to another facility. Once on the block, an inmate may attend GED classes, Bible studies, one Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting per week, Alcohol and Other Drug Addictions (AODA) education groups, and worship services. Twice a week she can go for a walk in the gym, if the guards choose to take her (outside exercise is available only to male inmates). Other amenities include a pot of hot water to make coffee or cook ramen noodles, which may be purchased from the canteen. Our jail ministry provides luxury items such a television, DVD player, movies, board games, puzzles, and soft-cover books.
Over the past six years, I have met several hundred Block 12 women, eight or ten at a time. We gather on Wednesday evenings in the barbershop-turned-classroom on the main floor of the county jail to read books, write poetry, share our lives, and worship together. Week after week, the women file into the tiny concrete room, dressed in orange two-piece scrubs with peach undershirts, peach socks, and tan plastic sandals. (I wonder if peach is a fashion statement or the result of washing white underclothes in hot water with orange suits.) The room holds twelve chairs, and when everyone is seated around the table, our shoulders are touching.
The women are bathed and their hair is clean but a faint smell of locker room mustiness enters the classroom with them. Stripped of their jewelry, hair spray, body lotions, and perfumes, there is a false aura of innocence about them. No secrets here. No hiding behind Maybelline lips and Cover Girl eyes. Each face is revealed, scrubbed clear down to the blemishes, exposed like their lives to public view. I search their faces seeking familiarity and wonder if I have shopped with them at the mall.
As teacher and mentor to these beautiful women, I have come to love every one of them. I am invariably surprised by their similarities to the 'normal' people around me. I am touched by their kindness and sensitivity. And, most of all, I am ashamed that I thought it would be any other way.
I look into their eyes and see all women, my sisters, my neighbors, my friends. Robyn's eyes are sad, the big round eyes of a beautiful child in the face of a thirty-something woman. She wears navy blue scrubs, the uniform of a trustee. This honor is extended to a select few in the block. Robyn is allowed to work off some of her sentence, one hour at a time, cleaning floors late into the night. Her straight brown hair hangs below her shoulders and she looks very tired. Robyn is working her Twelve-Step program with an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. "I've been an addict since I was fourteen," she admits. "I've done this before, but I avoided some of the hard parts. I never wanted to do a fearless moral inventory where I told my sponsor everything about my life. This time I'm going to make it." Robyn writes about the block:
We all live in an L-shaped room with fourteen metal bunks stacked two deep. At the back of the room there is a glass textured wall and door that opens into the two-stall, two-shower bathroom. Each stall has a metal toilet (no toilet seat) and attached metal sink with two buttons mounted on the side of the basin to push for hot or cold water. The water comes out of a drinking-fountain-type spout at the top of the sink. One hand must be used to hold the water button down and the other can reach the water. Having hot and cold water at the same time and washing two hands at a time are a thing of the past once you are incarcerated. The hot water is controlled by the guards somewhere outside of the block and is typically turned on only during shower time - 9:00 p.m until all fourteen women are done, or 10:30 p.m. - whichever comes first.
There are no secrets in Block 12. Fourteen women are crowded together and the stress is high. There are so many different personalities and you're in a setting where you cannot be alone. In addition, there is the strain of being incarcerated. The things that the average person holds the most private are out there for public ridicule and scorn. The guards come to the door and yell, "Who's going to AODA class?" The nurse yells your name and has any and all conversations about your personal conditions and medications in front of the others. Once a week, a large bucket with community underwear is pushed into the block and fourteen women compete for the cleanest pairs shouting things like, "Who needs a 34 C bra?" I feel really sad that the people who make the decisions of who is held here and for how long don't know the conditions. Sometimes, I get on my bunk and pull my semi-clean sheets and musty wool blanket over my head and just cry."