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Letter From A Priest: Ricky’s World: Frog Gravy 60

10:38 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

The music for this post is Perpetuum Jazzile- Africa
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Tulips and notes, jail art

Tulips and Frog Gravy notes by CraneStation on flickr. Jail art. Notes are from Ricky’s World.

Roadrunner, Turtle,   Bluebirds, prison art

Roadrunner, Turtle, Bluebirds, “Do turtles really have eyelashes” Prison art by CraneStation on flickr.

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

Fulton County Detention Center [Ricky's World], Hickman Kentucky, May 21, 2008.

I have not seen a flower since last year sometime, and so I draw a picture of tulips and send them to my family in Seattle, where there is a tulip festival every Spring.

I do not yet have any work. There are no classes. There is an outdoor cage that is less than twenty steps around. We sometimes go out there for an hour of recreation- a dozen or so inmates crowded into a tiny, filthy space. We are not allowed to use the toilet while ‘outside,’ so we often squat and urinate on top of the drain in the concrete floor.

This jail limits toilet paper allotment, to force us to buy toilet paper from commissary at an inflated price. When I run out of toilet paper, I use a prayer book that the priest gave me because the pages are tissue-thin, like the Phone Book.

A couple of other women on their periods were using floor rags, because they did not have pads, nor could they afford them; the jail sells ten menstrual pads on canteen for four dollars.

The cell I have been moved to is a tiny, six-person dank cell with no view even to the hallway. The shower is slick with black mold.Thankfully, the lighting is dimmer in this jail than it was in McCracken County Jail. Also, this jail actually turns the lights off at night. I can draw here because the jail allows colored pencils and so, this jail is an improvement over McCracken County Jail.

The women in the cell are all State inmates- we are segregated from county inmates. This segregation eliminates some of the acute mental illness and noise. However, the women are very mean. It is a level of mean that I do not understand, and have never been exposed to. Unlike McCracken County Jail, where women frequently beat the hell out of each other, the meanness here is of a female backstabbing variety, which is, to me anyway, the worst kind of mean.

Another inmate in this cell, a nurse, of all things, is mean to me because I am a nurse, and she busies herself talking behind my back nonstop, to the point that I am in tears. A guard offers to move me to a different cell. I tell her I will be okay because the woman will go home soon, but that I am not accustomed to this level of hate, and I do not know what to do.

Other inmates tell me to be mean in return, to confront and start stuff, but I am not like this. Plus, I do not want to get an assault charge, so I stay on my bunk and try to write and draw, and make up my own Sudoku puzzles, which sometimes works but usually not, because I can never fool myself into forgetting the answer grid that I made up.

Six months ago I lost a crown on a bottom incisor tooth. I told the judge and asked if I could get it fixed before starting a sentence, but he refused and ordered me to begin my sentence immediately after my trial and before ‘final sentencing.’ I have quit eating solid food and only eat a little commissary cereal and cookies. There is no dairy, or fresh fruit or fresh vegetables here because some inmates like to make hooch and so, I order a few things I can break apart. I have diarrhea, I guess from the malnutrition or the starch and grease, although I am not sure of the cause.

My husband brings me some clothes. He brings shorts and sweatpants and white t-shirts and shoes and socks. They do not issue shoes or socks here.

I sleep on a steel bunk.The television is on 20 out of 24 hours a day and sometimes more. It goes off at 4 AM and comes back on at 8 AM.

I quit attending the church services because the attendees are so hateful, and I just work one-on-one with Father Al, the priest.

I also quit attending because some of the things I have seen and heard confuse me. One of the churches (I will not name it) puts money onto inmates’ books and then takes them out back, to a horse trough to be baptized after they are saved. I have also heard that, according to the Bible, everyone who is saved will have a chip implanted underneath their skin, by the government. In order to buy groceries or get gas you will be ‘scanned,’ but only if you have been saved and house an implanted chip, can you live in society. All others will be considered to have ‘the mark of the beast,’ which means they are damned because they are sinners and so, they are condemned. Condemned to what I wonder, but I never ask, because I am already in Hell. A trip to Hell, marked with the Beast would be redundant, I think.

Although I am not Catholic, Father Al becomes my weekly counselor. He helps me to navigate the hate and the arbitrary nature of tragedy. He helps me to find and appreciate gifts in the worst of society’s places. When he is unable to visit, he writes. In July I receive a letter from Father Al. It reads:

…I have a large group of men that I visit and this keeps me busy. I have only had one opportunity to visit with you after 3 PM…

I had a man the other day who came to see me in the night. I was finishing some yard work on my day off. He has spent 14 years in the US Army, and with the fireworks of 4th he was having some real pain and wanted to go to confession. He has and will continue to have his difficulties in adjusting. The adjustment to that lack of freedom is torture for anyone…

The letter continues. I say a prayer for the man who lives with real pain, brought about by war.

We Can Do This: Frog Gravy 59

2:45 pm in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

You can click on this music, and listen to it while you read the post-you do not have to focus on the video, although it is quite nice.
Enigma-Return To Innocence

Ducks. jail Art

Ducks, jail art by Crane-Station on flickr. Colored pencil and magazine ink.

Wild Turkey. Jail art.

Jail art by Crane-Station on flickr with comment:

For Dad. Wild Turkey. We have these beautiful birds here. I was not really able to finish, because they turned the lights out, and because I do not have the correct colors (such as rust). Turkeys have been nearly wiped out by unrestricted hunting and land development. Some programs are bringing them back. They roost in trees, but like to run on the ground.

note: Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

McCracken County Jail, Cell 107, early 2008

The social worker tells me that I am angry, and that I need to not be angry, and that I need to accept my situation like every one else does, and I need to stop writing, because no one reads anything that I write anyway, because no one cares. She is referring, I assume, to the many letters that I write regarding jail conditions. I listen to her for a bit, and then decide that I would rather be back in the cell. I end the meeting. I continue to write.

I keep my writing to myself and I quit talking about the letters.

In the cell I wear a towel on my head and babble to myself endlessly, in my mind. Maybe the towel keeps others from hearing these conversations. The other me, the one I babble to, is elegant and strong and graceful, and says all of the right things to all of the wrong people. Things such as ‘I respectfully disagree,’ and ‘No, thank you,’ and ‘I am sorry but I cannot support you and your commissary habit in here,’ and ‘I will continue to write because it gives me meaning and purpose at the moment,’ and ‘Excuse me, do you think you could quit screaming for just a few moments, because I am finding it difficult to concentrate.’

However, it is not the other me that is in jail. It is me.

“Never take anything to trial in McCracken County,” says the new arrival, Sirkka, to me, after introductions. “Everyone knows that.”

Sirkka is tiny, just 4’8,” and she drives me nuts in an endearing, pathetic sort of way. I want to hug her. I want to kill her.

She does not want to put clothes on and strolls about the cell half-naked, in bra and panties, talking at an indecipherable speed. Sirkka has an eating disorder. It reminds me of what I used to be and so, maybe this is why she annoys me. Her behavior is actually good for me because it reminds me of the horror of food binges and scamming for food at every opportunity. For a while, she convinced the staff she was pregnant because pregnant women get extra trays, but when the staff figured out that she was not pregnant, they placed her in the hole for a bit, and then back in the cell.

Today at breakfast, before I even sit down, she says, “Are you gonna eat that?”

“Here. Take the whole thing,” I say.

Down the hall, Harry screams from his isolation cell, “Somebody help me! Pleeeease! Let Me out! HELLLP! HELPmehelpmehelpmehelpme, PLEASE!”

Sirkka collects six sausages, five pieces of toast, two milks, and three servings of Fruit Loops. At lunch, four corn dogs, two helpings of corn, and three pieces of cake. The only thing I asked her for was one serving of applesauce but she would not give it up. She weighs 105 pounds, and has gained 30 pounds to get there; that is a 30 pound weight gain in a month. At this rate, she will be obese by May. That can happen in here. I met an inmate who gained 150 pounds in a year in jail. She had given up.

On one of the rare occasions that we do get to visit the outside cage for recreation, I cannot believe this, but Ruthie and I are the only ones who want to go outside.

Christie and Joyce both claim that going outside briefly is actually more depressing than staying in the cell. I am worried about Christie. She stays on her bunk and cries all the time now. She says, “I just can’t help it, I just feel so bad inside.”

“Come on Christie, let’s just get out for a minute,” I say. “You’ll feel better. Tina, you too. Come on you guys. We’re going out. It’ll be all right. You’ll see. When we get back we’ll watch ‘Lost.’ I’ll even comb your hair Christie. Come on, we can do this.”

We go. In the outside cage Sirkka strips down to her bra and stands at the door, hoping a Class D male will walk by. Christie sits in a chair, silent. Tina takes a book and seats herself next to Christie. I stand in a corner and look up. The sun is shining. I shield my eyes.

I listen for a bird.

Lt. John ‘Pepper’ Pike vs Mt Rushmore And More

11:36 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

Pepper Spray Can Cop vs. Mt. Rushmore

photo by electricspacegirl on flickr under creative commons

by eyeliam under Creative Commons on flickr:



My versions. Inspired by:

from this:

Also by eyeliam:



My versions. Inspired by:

from this:

by bigiain under Creative Commons on flickr:

Lt John Pike - The Pepper Spraying Cop

Lt John Pike – The Pepper Spraying Cop

To ensure the safety of that child, I’m going to have to pepper spray him!

from under creative commons on flickr:

Davis Occupy pepper spray cop Lt. John Pike now a meme (imagery may offend)

Davis Occupy pepper spray cop Lt. John Pike now a meme (imagery may offend)

We must keep our communities safe! Don’t mess around. Build your own backyard Justice Shed today:

You Paid The Price But It Couldn’t Be Bought: Frog Gravy 58

10:27 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

“Freight trained!”

“Only with a bull it’s worse…”

Before you read this post, take a look at this letter from DOC and bear in mind that I have an eight-year sentence:

Kentucky Warehouses Class D Inmates

Roxi, my sister’s Cocker Spaniel, jail art by Crane-Station on flickr:

Roxi, The Cocker Spaniel

McCracken County Jail, after the hole, January 2008

“You have to understand that you’re in jail,” says Garrison, a high-ranking McCracken County Jail officer. Garrison is wearing a crisp, white shirt. His good looks have probably assured him status in all the right cliques, from high school (football I assume) days to the present. Garrison’s soft-spoken, understated manner makes him an effective officer, I think. His demeanor commands wide-spread respect from inmates.

I have requested placement into one of the smaller cells at the back of the jail rather than one of the large overpopulated ‘population’ cells, and cited several psychiatric diagnoses to support the request.

He says, “Now, if you didn’t want to be here you shouldn’t have done all those crimes, I read the charges. This ain’t the Marriott, this is jail, and we don’t make special exceptions for anyone. We provide a safe environment with three meals a day and TV and that’s a lot more than a lot of people have on the streets…”

He is going to place me in a large population cell, and my heart sinks because I am not sure I can handle dueling screaming asylums: one in my head and the other in the environment around my head. The synergistic pitch alone could lead to a violent hemorrhagic event that would leave me bleeding from my eyeballs.

There are many Garrisons out there, who wear white shirts, because they are in the business of pest control. Where to warehouse and entomb the vermin? Where to stash society’s lower companionship? Such decisions.

However, God smiles this day, and guard Sally leads me to Cell 107. What a blessing. My prayers are answered.

I begin writing down everything I see and hear. Most of what follows is verbatim, from my notes, pages 9 through 14.
(Private joke: God divided by zero and got my notes.)

The cell is the size of a tiny garage. The bolted steel door has a hinged metal flap that is opened from the outside. After the steel door closes, I notice that a previous occupant/artist has penned three verbs that make newcomers feel cozy and right at home: “Kill. Fuck. Die.” in no-shank pen block letters. Below that a verb, then an article, then a noun: “Fuck The World.” As I have explained, the artist then outlined the small window in the door with a border to make the window look like a TV, and even added a rabbit-ear antenna. The ‘volume’ knob is labeled “valium,” and the maximum setting is labeled “10 mg.”

Three bullet-proof glass windows face the hallway. The rest is standard fare for a kennel: six people in a four-person tomb sharing one steel toilet; a lingering smell that is typical of jam-packed humans; no view to the outside; so little room that you can only do a few standing-in-place exercises or push ups against the cement wall; fluorescent lighting 24/7; ice cold that re-triggers traumatic arthritis; maniacal laughing and shouting all hours of the day and night; a man screaming, “PLEASE!!! Help Me! Let Me out!! HELPmehelpmehelpmehelpme Help!” all hours of the day and night, with the whole Daliesque, grey cement landscape dotted with focused, albeit narrow, religious pamphlets, bibles and study guides.

slεεp oƒ thε paranoıa-crıtıcıst rhızomε . .

photo by jef safi (writing) under creative commons on flickr with the explanation:

slεεp oƒ thε paranoıa-crıtıcıst rhızomε . .

Dream Caused by the Feverish Flight of a Concupiscent Pigeon Around a Daliesque Girona’s place One Second Before the Nightmare of Awakening.

I can hear in my mind, horsemen on the horizon, Ka-ka Kunk, Ka-Ka Kunk, Ka-ka kunk.

I spot an ice water thermos on a cement ledge at the entrance to the toilet. I get a drink of water. I see an M and M bag that seems to have been abandoned. I pick it up, empty out what is left of the M and Ms and eat them.

A while later, Leese is in the toilet and there is an ear-piercing shriek: “Who took my M an Ms!!! Oh my gawwwwwd, my M and Ms, they are gone, they were just here!” Leese is hysterical, on the verge of tears.

“Um,” I begin. “Man, I am so sorry, I ate them. I did not realize they were yours.”

“You fucking old-ass bitch!” she shouts. “They were my makeup! You ate my fucking makeup!”

A round of snickers in the cell.

Color me Scarlet Letter. I am now, officially, the lowest of the lowest of the low and much less. In a record-breaking ten minutes I am close to being voted off of Inmate Island. Another way of putting it, in urban slang: I am going down.

In time, we heal the relationship. I replace her Max Factor M and Ms. One day, Leese hands me a poem she has written. The poem is four pages long. She says, “Here. Put this in your book.”

The poem is titled, You Paid the Price, But it Couldn’t Be Bought.

It reads:

Sick of the darkness, sick of the light
Sick of the day, sick of the night.

Sick of the quiet, sick of the noise
Sick of the games, sick of the toys.

Sick of the shoes, sick of my feet,
Sick of the cold, sick of the heat.

Sick of being happy, sick of being sad,
Sick of doing good, sick of being bad.

As I read, I can feel tears form. The tears are warm. They drop onto the cement. And the poem continues…

Central City Concern Letty Owings Center

9:22 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

If you drive past the Letty Owings Center in Northeast Portland, Oregon, you may mistake the house for any other vintage neighborhood home. However, for the women and their babies residing there, the home is the beginning of a new life.

Co-founded in 1989 by retired English teacher Letty Owings and tireless advocate Nancy Anderson, the Letty Owings Center is a treatment center that is unique, in providing both long-term addiction treatment and living skills to pregnant women and women with children.

Mothers in the community mentor mothers at the center. Mothers in the center learn to cook, plan meals, clean house, and engage the children in age-appropriate play. Here is the website.

As of this writing, the Letty Owings Center has changed so many lives for the better that the second generation, the children, are themselves becoming advocates. Take a look at this:

Central City Concern employees work

collaboratively with inter and intra agency partners on the provision
of services needed in all life domains to promote recovery and self sufficiency, and ensuring services are
delivered in accordance to organizational policies and procedures, ASAM criteria, ISSRS, county, state
and federal contract requirements, and other pertinent standards.

We need more programs such as this. Co-founder Nancy Anderson, who has dedicated her life to changing lives, has made a substantial difference directly in the lives of more than 1000 women who would otherwise be locked up or dead, and also in the lives of the children, who would likely become motherless, or themselves addicted, incarcerated or dead.

Letty Owings, who is now elderly, voices concern about the center. Funding cuts may mean that the center will someday be closed. If that happens, many of the clients, totally without resources, may likely be reincarcerated, separated from their children or worse. Letty states, “How would this save any money?”

Put simply, the Central City Concern Letty Owings Center is a home of hope and documented mutli-generational success. It is a wonderful alternative to incarceration and cyclic multi-generational incarceration that is so known to be fraught with recidivism and tragedy.

If you live in the Portland area, please take a moment to learn more about the Central City Concern Letty Owings Center and join six-year-old Zoe in supporting it.

note: Letty Owings is my mother. She is not only larger in life to me. She has been a mother and teacher to many. Letty grew up in poverty, on a farm in Missouri. At age 12, she left home to pursue her education. She is the most amazing teacher I have ever had in my life.

She taught at Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego for many years, the best years of my life. To this day we reminisce. The world was different back then.

Razor Side Of The Balloons: Frog Gravy 57

11:45 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

Rose, heart balloons and crane

Rose and heart balloons by Crane-Station on flickr. Jail art: colored pencil, ink and magazine ink.

In the end of The Red Balloon, the balloons all come to the boy, and take him away.

note: Frog gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

KCIW PeWee Valley women’s prison, mid-Spring, 2009.

What beauty! The sky is filled with hot air balloons. A festival of piloted spinnakers with magnificent colors and patterns. A parade in the air!

We are locked down. Because we contaminate the air. Razor wire and balloons will never mix.

There, in the air, are colorful symbols of freedom, of innocence lost, of escape. From maddness and war and inhumanity and pain.

So close I can read the letters, of corporate-sponsored inflated symbols. Symbols of a life I once had but lost. Of failure I can almost retrieve and take back.

I step into the store of my mind and say, “Put this on my insanity tab.”

Comes the reply: “Your credit is good with us.”

I pay and enjoy the ride in the Red Balloon.

Saturday Art: The Color Blue

7:47 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

A photograph by digitalART2:

Hyacinth Macaw

This beautiful photograph is under Creative Commons on flickr: attribution, noncommercial, no derivative works.

The magnificent Hyacinth Macaw is the largest of all parrots. This bird is endangered. From wiki: Read the rest of this entry →

Why You Cannot Divide By Zero: Frog Gravy 56 [UPDATED]

9:46 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

Bone with a bow

Bone with a bow, hand-drawn copy of caricature by Crane-Station on flickr. Prison art, colored pencil and ink.

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

KCIW PeWee Valley, Winter, 2008-2009.

Wherever you go, there you are, and you just hope that God sets you down someplace and leaves you with a really good story. Kentucky courts bend over backward to help with this.

I love prison. It is helping me to discover who I am and who I am not. I never realized this before, but I really, really enjoy tutoring, particularly in the subject of basic math.

Growing up I had the best of all teaching worlds. My mother is an elderly retired high school Honors English teacher who taught me to write. If there is a better writer in the world than my mother, I would like to see it. Without her, I could not write my way out of a sack. To this day she helps me. My father is an elderly retired chemist and pathologist who ultimately founded a medical laboratory in the Pacific Northwest. He took his training at Emory, and I have yet to meet a more intelligent, methodical and ethical physician of his word. When I was young I often visited him in the basements of hospitals. Ironically, my mother went on later in life to found a center for addicted and incarcerated mothers to obtain treatment and skills needed for transition to a better life, on the outside. The center is in Portland and it is named after her: The Letty Owings Center. Both of my parents are gifted teachers.

I never thought of myself as gifted at anything. But in jail, and particularly in prison, I discover my penchant for teaching.

Tory is a mother of two who never completed the tenth grade. She loves school and wants to sit for her GED. She is enrolled in Algebra and has asked me to help her.

We sit at a table in the crowded, noisy day room of Ridgeview Dormitory, and begin our lessons.

In my mind, however, I am not in prison. I am in a town called Lake Oswego, Oregon, on the deck of my childhood home with my father. He is patiently teaching me math. I learn math in a place that God created called the Willamette Valley, in the shadow of pre-1980 Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and Mount Hood, and with the Willamette River so close you can hear the water ski boats.

My father demonstrates, in a humorous way, that dividing by zero is not allowed. He starts with allowable math, and then slips in the zero, underneath the dividing line and I fall for it. My father is laughing and I laugh too, because I have been tricked. I will never forget that you cannot divide by zero. I will draw a pastel picture of Mount St. Helens, not knowing its fate.

In prison I try to be my father, but I cannot remember the sequence of equations and letters and lines that he set before me, all those years ago and so, I am a poor imposter.

I say to Tory, “Rest assured. This question will be on a test. Look at the answer choices. If there is ever, anywhere, a zero underneath a dividing line, eliminate the answer choice. Here. Try it on the calculator. Pick any number and divide it by zero.”

Tory punches in some numbers, and the word “error” appears.

“Why is this?” asks Tory.

“It’s just one of those things that is not allowed. You cannot divide something by nothing. You can come close. If you divide something by something small, very close to zero, the number will be very large. But divide by zero and there is no number. There’s not even nothing, because it is just not allowed.”

My explanation is insufficient on its face and I know it. I have insulted my father and I am ashamed.

The lesson continues and I say, “Here is another neat trick. Pick a number. Any number in the world. By the end of this lesson you will be able to multiply and divide any number in the world by ten. You will be able to eliminate some of the answer choices this way. And eliminating multiple choice answers is half the game on a test. The process of elimination will increase the chances that your guess will be right. Are you penalized for guessing on that test? Do you know?”

Tory tells me she will find out.

We continue. I explain how to call an unknown number by the letter ‘x.’ “The object of the game,” I say, “is to get the x onto one side of the equation and get everything else onto the other.”

Turns out Tory is a natural at Algebra. She quickly understands the beginning steps to every problem, no matter how convoluted it looks on paper.

At the end of the lesson, Tory says, “God divided by zero. And he got the universe.”

I begin to wonder if someday, when all of this is behind me, I can return to prison, to teach.

note: Tory was shipped to Otter Creek Prison, just one class shy of sitting for finals and completing her coursework. I received a thank you letter from her while I was still residing at Ridgeview Dormitory. Her spirit was not broken; Even though her schooling had been interrupted and she had to start all over, after she was shipped, she immediately looked for classes to enroll in, at the new location.

Update: Here is what my father taught me all those years ago. I spoke to him yesterday on the phone for Thanksgiving, and he walked me through it. I would like to share it with you here, because of all of the explanations and demonstrations and teaching tricks I have seen and heard, this is the best one.

This is a gem, and if you are teaching algebra to your children or to others, you may want to jot it down.

Let’s start with a simple equation. The quantity on the left is equal to the quantity on the right.

a = b
What we do with one side of the equation, we must do to the other side, so let’s multiply both sides by a:

a squared = ab

Subtract b squared from both sides of the equation:

a squared – b squared = ab-b squared

Now, we can factor this. Here is what that looks like:

(a-b)(a+b) = b(a-b)

Now divide both sides by (a-b):

a+b = b

Okay, now let’s assume that a is equal to b, and substitute:

b+b = b

Well, b plus b is 2b, so:

2b = b

Now, divide each side by b:

2 = 1

But wait! This does not make sense. What is wrong here? It appears mathematically sound, right? Well, our answer tells us that the problem is not mathematically sound, and that there is a fallacy or a false statement somewhere.

The two starting quantities are equivalent, and so a minus b equals zero.

The flaw occurred when we divided by a minus b, or zero. When we did this, it was downhill from there.

One way to teach this is to present the problem like this:

a = b
a squared = ab
a squared – b squared = ab-b squared
(a-b)(a+b) = b(a-b)
a+b = b
b+b = b
2b = b
2 = 1

And simply ask the student what is wrong with the problem.

A round of applause and gigantic hat tip to my father for helping me remember this fun math problem!

The Embarrassing Conversation: Frog Gravy 55

7:55 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

Cartoon bird with flowers. Prison art

cartoon bird with flowers by Crane-Station (as masonbennu) on flickr.

Frog Gravy is a Kentucky nonfiction incarceration account.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

KCIW PeWee Valley Women’s Penitentiary, my dad’s birthday, 1-7-09.

I finally got glasses. They are not the right strength but they will do for now. After nearly a year in the jails, in the constant fluorescent lighting, my vision, both near and far, is compromised, but with each passing day in the sunlight, my eyes are healing. I am not yet sure what my baseline vision will be.

Since I left the recycle job to attend school, I notice that the cardboard boxes that I used to break down have been piling up and piling up, into a huge mess. Another inmate that I used to work with tells me that the boxes area never looked such a mess when I worked there, and this is true. Not only do I enjoy work, particularly outdoor manual labor, I am also curious. When I worked with the boxes, I wanted to see where each box label came from, and so I always completed the pile of boxes set before me, no matter how large it was.

I mailed quite a few cardboard box labels directly to my family in Seattle for safekeeping, with notes that said things like, “You won’t believe this. This beef comes from Brazil,” and “The commissary handkerchiefs that inmates use in America are made by other inmates in other countries.”

I ask my former boss, Officer Osborne, what happened with the recycle area, and why it is such a mess, and he says, “A little of this. A little of that.” Which means that someone was fired, or sent to cell block (the hole) or both.

I miss seeing Bob, the fat friendly possum. But now I have my birds.

I spend most of my time in school now. Horticulture is a wonderful, diverse and fascinating field. My dream bird-sanctuary-of-all-time has now evolved into an aviary/ornamental horticulture dreamland. Maybe someday my dream life with birds will be fulfilled.

Since Kentucky is footing the bill, I decide to take full advantage of it. I am in school every day from 8 AM to 3:30 PM, and I am taking a wonderful night Biology class. I sign up for mammogram. I visit the eye doctor, the psychiatrist and the dentist. I draw and write. I visit the state-of-the-art gym and do aerobics. I speed-walk the ball field and talk to birds. I attend Sunday mass. I read Mother Goose and Space Books and everything else I get my hands on. I read The Adversary: A Story of Monstrous Deception by Emmanuel Carrere, which is the best true crime book I have ever read; I check out Naeem Murr’s The Boy(from inter-library loan) , which is the most hair-raising, poetic commentary on good and evil I have ever read, and read that twice. I make friends. I play cards.

I do not have to worry about the bills. Life is good. Writing about it is even better.

As I am leaving school one day, I encounter an inmate who is from McCracken County, where I am from. She says, “You’re from McCracken, right?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Small world, you know. I took my case to trial and lost.”

“Never take anything to trial in McCracken County,” she says. I have now heard this from many inmates, in various unrelated settings.

“Oh, that,” I say. “Hey, no worries. I love to write, you know, and…”

“So I heard. You’re the inmate that writes.”

“Yeah, and I mean, McCracken is the gift that keeps on giving. Did you hear about the inmate who got pregnant in the shower stall of her own cell? I thought that was effing hilarious.”

“Oh I heard all about it.Uh Huh. That was my husband, that got her pregnant.”


“Yeah. The guy that was having sex with her in the shower is my husband.”

“Oh my God, I am so sorry, I had no…”

“It’s okay, it’s not you,” she says.

“Man. That’s tough,” I say.

“Yeah, and wanna know the kicker?”

“You mean there’s more?”

“Oh, yeah. I get here, to PeWee, and the bitch finds me. She comes up to me and points to her pregnant belly and says, Your husband fucked me in the shower and now I am carrying his baby.”

In my mind, aside from the image of two people having intercourse in a jail cell shower stall, I collect some sociological data: a husband and a wife and a husband’s girlfriend and an unborn baby, are all locked up. Wow.

“Man, I am so sorry. I did not mean to hurt you even more. What an awful story.”

I feel terrible for saying what I said to this woman. I want to take my words back. I want to disappear.

We speak for a few more minutes and then go our separate ways. I never see the woman again.

Sometimes I wonder what the world would be like without birds.

cross-posted at

Bird Lady: Frog Gravy 54

8:53 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

African Grey Parrot

Nikko, our Humane Society rescued African Grey Parrot, by Crane-Station (as masonbennu) on flickr.

Prison art

Teddy Bear, Bee, Bluebird, Snowflakes. Prison art by Crane-Station on flickr.

note: Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

KCIW PeWee Valley women’s penitentiary, 1-20-09.

The birds know me. The inmates know that the birds know me, and everyone calls me Bird Lady.

As if by unwritten rule, many prison inmates are assigned nicknames; most often the names are apt. Pickles, Bam-Bam, One-Tit, Wheels. You can sort of get an idea where the name came from, if you know the inmate. I suppose fellow inmates changed the gender of the Bird Man of Alcatraz, dropped the Alcatraz part and left it at Bird Lady. At any rate, this is my name at PeWee. Many people will never know my real name. Since I am an ‘older lady’ by prison standards, some of the inmates combine a respectful Southern greeting with the name and call me “Miss Bird Lady.”

The incarceration experience is a bit like being a passenger on a train, in that people enter and exit my life like ghosts. I will learn the most tragic and intimate details of women’s lives, and they will learn mine, but then they are gone, and I will wonder if I imagined the whole thing. The woman whose nineteen-year-old son died in a boating accident and she attended his funeral in shackles. The woman who moved during count and was taken to the hole, where she labored alone and birthed a baby son. The passing parade of women in the overcrowded jail cells, who sometimes spent years warehoused in cement. Lasting impressions. Fleeting.

Over and over I am told to ‘do the time, don’t let the time do you.’ The prison birds, who do not have to be here, help me with this.

Starlings are very smart, and when I come up the path at 5 PM every day I whistle at them. They must know my walk or something, because they come when they see me, but not other inmates. Lately it has been bitter cold. When I come up the path the birds wait on the fence for me. They wait on a stretch of fence topped with coiled razor wire that serves no purpose.

The fence is a wall within the walls of the prison. You can walk around the end of it to get to the other side. The razor wire on top of this non-barrier barrier adds to dramatic effect and reminds me that I am in prison. If the fence could talk it would say, “You are a scumbag. Haha, of course no one would ever dream of climbing over an open-ended fence. I am here to snag the occasional bird, and remind you that you are a scumbag.”

The birds on top of the purposeless yet dramatic non-fence fence say different things to me. They say, “Bitch, look. We are here to show you that you are one of God’s children, but dangit, we’re hungry. Toss us some crumbs and we’ll show you a good time.”

A mockingbird who has graduated to the top of the utility pole gets my attention when he shouts, “Ebert!! EbertEbertEbertEbertEbert. Eeeee-bert!” He launches himself into the air like one of those cliff divers, does a perfect back flip, and returns to his perch. He acts as if this day in prison is the happiest day of his life.

Acting as if. As if life is good. As if all of the world is a perch, to dive from. I have heard that if you suit up and show up for long enough and act as if, that sooner or later your attitude will change, and you will be in the heaven of possibility and not in the hell of your own making. (I heard all of this on the outside, in twelve step meetings. In here, I am unable to attend meetings.) I begin, in earnest, to look for the good in people, and examine the irony that tragic events often bring out the good in people who would likely never mix in any other setting, or at least the sense that such events are an effective leveler.

My birds help me find my own humanity, but at the same time they must eat like everyone else, and so other inmates bring cornbread crumbs and other treats to the central distribution hub: the waistband of my khaki pants.

Starlings work together in a cunning glossy flock. Crows plot and plan and also work together, although they post up separately and communicate. Sparrows are my sweet scavengers; cardinals are the royalty; mockingbirds are the clowns; bluebirds are shy; woodpeckers act like they own the pole.

None of them have to be here, and all of them contradict the message of the fence.

Worth the watch. Nature By Numbers with hat tips to Kelly Canfield and Mary McCurnin:

[cross posted at]