Before Orange is the New Black was published, author Piper Kerman asked me if I would give her permission to use my real name in her memoir. I said yes, it was OK. She wanted to tell the story of my unfortunate experience while working as a tutor in the education program at the Federal Prison Camp in Danbury, Connecticut. This unfortunate experience resulted in my being sent to the segregation unit in the main prison (the Federal Correctional Institution). In the book, once I am taken away to segregation (called the "Special Housing Unit," the SHU, or "seg"), I am never mentioned again, almost as if I have fallen off the face of the earth. But, alas, nothing quite that dramatic occurred to me, so here is my story.
Synopsis of yesterday's episode: I was trapped in the SHU and I began writing details of the unfortunate incident on paper that I found underneath my bed.
|The world that I was to know after getting turned loose from the|
“And where are you now?” she asked.
“I am in a little cage,” claustrophobic alice said.
I offered her the written story and she took it, thanked me, and left.
Shortly afterward, a C.O. came to take me out of my cage. I thought that he was going to take me to the recreation cage. He showed me a set of handcuffs. The routine in the SHU was that you stand with your back to the door and place your hands behind your back and in front of the grate where the food was placed. The C.O. would then handcuff you and would open the door. The first time that I was told that I would be handcuffed while still in the cage, I said, “You’re not going to handcuff me to the gate, are you?” I visualized myself swinging back and forth as the gate was opened and closed, sort of like a horror movie scene. “Oh, no," said the C.O., "we do this all of the time.”
This C.O. said, “Levantase sus manos. Raise your hands.” I didn’t know why he said the same thing in two languages. I did what he told me, and he handcuffed me very tightly. He walked me down one flight of stairs. I tried holding onto a rail but, with hands handcuffed behind my back, that turned out to be a very difficult feat. The C.O. walked me to an office without a door and left me there. I was not going outside. There were two men in the room, one in uniform and the other wearing a suit. The man in uniform told me to come in and sit down. He did not offer to remove the handcuffs.
The man in the uniform said that he was a lieutenant and was the unit manager of the SHU. The other man said that he was a psychologist. The lieutenant questioned me about the incident. He asked the same questions as the other lieutenant. I wasn’t sure about why I needed to be questioned twice about the same incident. I was never informed of my rights. Before long, I wasn’t thinking about my rights or about answering any of the questions. The handcuffs were so tight that I thought that my circulation would soon be cut off and my hands would fall off. I also knew that my fear of my hands falling off made little to no sense.
The psychologist then evaluated me. The lieutenant just sat there and listened, which I thought was odd.
“Do you want to kill yourself?”
By this time, while I wasn’t obsessing over my diminishing circulation to my hands, I was feeling inordinately pleased with myself over the whole incident with that teacher from you-know-where. Even if I was not ready to pat myself on the back (if only I weren’t manacled, which made self-back patting impossible), I wasn’t going to give anyone the satisfaction of my unfortunate and self-inflicted demise.
“No,” I said.
“Are you feeling anxious or depressed?”
“No,” I lied. When you are claustrophobic and you’re stuck in a little cage, you will feel somewhat anxious. I decided not to share that information with the psychologist.
All interviews were over. I was informed that I would be in the SHU for 72 hours. I was returned to my cage and the handcuffs were mercifully removed.
Later in the day, I was told that I was going to return to the camp that afternoon. In preparation for my departure, I was taken to another cage and was told to remove my pumpkin orange costume and put my regular uniform back on. The second cage in which I found myself had both bars and plexiglass. It was completely enclosed. My claustrophobia kicked itself into high gear.
The women in these cages apparently were considered to be the most severe behavior problems.
“What is SHE doing here?” someone said, as I was escorted into the Claustrophobic’s Nightmare Cage. The women of these cages resumed their shouted conversations. It seemed to have something to do with a failed affair between two inmates. The impression that I got was of feeling terrorized by the toxic tunes of torment. The women used swear words that I had never heard in my life, even more lurid than the teacher’s demonstration of foul language.
“Wow,” I thought. “New vocabulary.”
Ten minutes after leaving the SHU, however, I managed to forget every last foul word that I heard and, thus, have no memory of the conversation.
When the counselor came to bring me back to the camp, he said, “We decided that it is not necessary for you to stay at the SHU. The shot (the charge against me) still stands. We have decided that you are not able to handle the SHU.”
He was right, but I wasn’t going to tell him about constantly being on the verge of a claustrophobic panic attack.
Later, Betsy told me that there was fear that, if I stayed in the SHU for the entire weekend, there would be a riot in the camp. The warden had come while I was away for her regular visit to the cafeteria. Women could address their concerns and make requests while she stood there. That day, there was a long line of women waiting to see the warden. They all said, “The teacher used foul language and yelled and he put the tutor in the SHU!”
Betsy said that she had never seen so much unity in the camp among the women.
I returned to the camp and was given a warm welcome.
The following Monday, I found out that I had a new job assignment.
I was told by one person that the counselor was using a job assignment as punishment, that "grounds maintenance" was not considered a plum assignment, as was "education."
I got to ride a bus to work. I was given a backpack blower to blow the newly mown grass off of the streets and sidewalks in the “staff housing” area. It was great fun. I felt happy.
Not long afterward, some of the women who worked in the greenhouse asked me to work with them there. I learned how to propagate plants in the greenhouse. We traveled to the flower beds where I pulled weeds. I was happy.
I learned how to prune shrubbery.
My “punishment” work assignment changed my life. I realized that I could work outside and that I could enjoy my work.
It made me into the gardener that I am today.
I learned that life is good and that people are stronger than the challenges placed before them. I learned not to fear. I had experienced the worst that the prison system could throw at me, short of execution, and I had come out, better than when I started.
I am thankful for the support that I received from the other women in the federal prison camp in Danbury. I was grateful to be surrounded by strong women who were so resilient. They taught me a lot about life and about never giving up.
There are other stories and other adventures.
Life is an adventure.
And it is good…
The end (for now)