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: The impromptu editing lesson that Merry Lee and I shared with the class had repercussions when the teacher took it as an attack on his authority. He then tried to force the students and tutors to sign a behavior contract. While explaining the behavior contract, he crossed the line into sexual harassment by using offensive language and explicit sexual commentary.
|In prison, we walked in circles around a track. Everything in prison seemed to be about going around and around and around in circles and not getting anywhere...|
Each person we spoke to agreed with us in our assessment that the teacher had engaged in sexual harassment. The counselor with the growly voice told us that, if this sort of behavior occurred in a public school, the teacher would have been fired for cause. But this was a prison and, because the students were criminals, it was hard to get rid of prison personnel on the basis of student complaints. We had reported sexual harassment. I remembered the orientation. The warden said that there was a zero tolerance policy toward sexual harassment. We left the offices with no feeling of satisfaction, however. We wondered if anything would be done about this teacher, who had told us one day, “I don’t care if the students ever learn that two plus two equals four. I get paid for eight hours of work each day.” He was the same teacher who had ordered the students to buy composition books from the commissary. When the students told him that they could not afford the composition books, he said, “You don’t expect me to give them to you for free, do you? Why should the taxpayers have to provide school supplies to a bunch of inmates?”
That afternoon, I had a pre-release class to attend, and I went. When the pre-release class ended early, one of my roommates, Jane, told me to come into the dining room so that the teacher would not see that I was out of the pre-release class and would order me to get back into his class. I went into the dining room, sat at a table, and folded napkins until it was time for the afternoon count of the inmates.
The inmates were counted five times a day.
I also had a pre-release class scheduled for the evening.
That pre-release class was canceled. That was when I was told that the teacher had fired Merry Lee.
“Did he fire me,” I asked Merry Lee, hopefully.
“No,” she said. “Just me. What the heck? I’ve never been fired from a job in my entire life.”
I, on the other hand, had been fired from various jobs, mainly due to my failure to understand or to follow verbal directions. After dinner, Jane asked me if I was going back to the class.
I would like to say that this was the point where I had a sudden attack of courage. I would like to say that I went to the class and told the teacher that his behavior the day before had been unacceptable and even criminal and that abusive behavior should never be tolerated, even in a prison. But I didn’t. I decided that I just wanted the teacher to fire me. I decided to fail to show up for work as a way to entice the “YOU’RE FIRED” roar from the teacher. I told Jane that I was going to walk on the track.
I went outside and walked in circles. I looked at the trees with their soft, tiny springtime leaves. I saw the rabbits run across the track. I was alone with my own thoughts. I usually didn’t like to be alone with my thoughts, and this time was no exception. I kept hearing the voice of the teacher in my head. I wondered how many students he had discouraged from ever going on with their education. I started to jog. I decided that I could not go back to the classroom because, if I sat next to the teacher while he uttered his diatribes, I would be tacitly approving of what he said.
As I continued to walk and to think, Sister Ardeth Platte walked up to me and told me that the C.O. was looking for me. The C.O. for that day was a very pleasant young man, who helped me out when I had managed to forget the combination of the lock on my clothing locker. I went up the 66 steps from the track to the camp building with Sister Ardeth. Her presence was very calming. She had been an inspiration and a mentor for me.
I went to talk to the C.O. and the unit manager and the teacher. The teacher told me that he knew that I snitched on him. He said that I was going to the SHU but, if the unit manager didn’t want me to go, I wouldn’t. I giggled nervously. The teacher told me to stop laughing at him, which only encouraged the nervous giggles to continue. I wasn’t amused, just a bit panicky.
He sent me back to the C.O., who told me that a lieutenant would soon be there to question me about the incident. My roommates tried to assure me that I would not go to the SHU because I was just out of bounds. It wasn’t a charge that would normally get someone sent to the SHU.
But to the SHU I went.
And I wrote the entire story on paper with a golf pencil.Shortly after I finished writing, the teacher’s supervisor came to see me.
(to be continued)