author’s note: Frog Gravy is a depiction of daily life during incarceration in Kentucky during 2008 and 2009, and is reconstructed from my notes. Because a single essay would be too lengthy, I am telling the story in serial form. This is the fourth entry. Frog Gravy contains graphic language. Names have been changed.
Jail cell 107, March, 2008.
There is a lot of turnover in the cell. Aside from Christie, Tina and I, who will remain friends in the coming years, the passing parade usually includes women that have had prior incarceration experience. Sometimes, inmates that cannot get along in any other cell in the jail end up here.
Sirkka is a new arrival, and her mental challenges are grossly apparent. She is tiny- about five feet tall and ninety pounds on a good day. She talks non-stop, in manic, run-on sentences, her speech a slurred and urgent volley, such that I cannot understand much of anything she is saying. Her arrival feels like someone has thrown a grenade into the cell and I want to yell, “Fire in the hole!”
Ruthie, another new arrival, is a young mother of two. She has a difficult time of it, being an inmate, because she is mentally slow and painfully aware of it, yet people make fun of her in ways that remind me of bullies at recess when I was a kid. I want to protect her somehow. Ruthie has the affect of someone that may have suffered fetal alcohol syndrome in infancy. She is loving and trusting and sweet, yet carries a sadness identical to an abused animal that presents a defensive posture. She has asked us what she should do in her legal case, and we do not know what to tell her, so one day, unbeknownst to us, she signed a guilty plea for a six-year sentence. She does this because she is assured probation, but she does not fully understand that she cannot return home and smoke a little pot once in a while.
Years later, I will notice that Ruthie will be locked up again.
One day, the chaplain comes and removes Ruthie for a brief moment. Her mother has died. Ruthie is inconsolable. We take turns holding her, combing her hair, saying prayers.
Sally is serial-calling her mother again, demanding bond money. She slams the phone again and says, “Yeah, she’s lazy. A lazy whore bitch, don’t do nuthin’ but lay on her back, we just wasted a phone call talkin’ about what a lazy whore she is.”
Sally slams, redials, slams, redials, and says, “Oh, my gawd. She hung up on me.”
Sirkka says, “You’re not actin’ very Christian.”
Sirkka is naked, on her belly on the floor, yelling under the steel door into the hallway, things about her tight pussy. She is directing this obscene soliloquy in the general direction of the men in the isolation cells: Curtis, who stuffed a DVD player in his pants at WalMart, ran from the cops, fell and broke his leg and is now in a cast; Austen, who is HIV positive and was attacked and beaten in a bloody fight in population; Henry, who yells “HELP! Helpmehelpmehelpme HELP ME! all hours of the day and night.
An irate guard approaches and slams the cell door open and yells at Sirkka, “You yell under that door one more time and you lose everything you got.”
Sirkka skitters backward across the floor like a cockroach, trying to keep the towel around her waist intact, looking sheepish. She is fortunate she did not go straight to the hole.
I try to keep writing but the distraction is overwhelming. Sirkka asks me if I want to trick write. I politely decline.
Trick writing is pretty much how it sounds. There are a great many men who specifically seek out and correspond with incarcerated women. These men send money, large amounts over long periods of time in some cases, in exchange for dirty letters from locked up women. Some men go onto jail and prison web sites and write women they see there. There are other web sites specifically designed for uh “pen pal” relationships. Some women in prison, I will find out later on, never want for anything because they have hundreds of dollars on their books from trick writing. Some men expect sex at some point, but many do not. Sometimes, true and lasting friendships develop. Nonetheless, these men are known as “sugar daddys” in the biz.
In retrospect I am glad I declined trick writing. Aside from the fact that it felt like cheating (although many do not feel that it is) I found out much later that if I had too much money on my books I would have been denied in forma pauperis, and I would not have been able to proceed with an appeal. We had no money at all and I was assigned an attorney on appeal based on my indigent status. Money on my books, no matter where it came from, could have been viewed as me being able to afford private counsel, and I would have been committed to trick writing for a good long time. Here is an example of how that works, from a random case, names deleted:
“PETITIONER FILED MOTION TO PROCEED IN FORMA PAUPERIS. TENDERED PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS. ###COPIES TO JUDGE AND AG **PETITIONER HAS HAD THE SUM OF $916.20 DEPOSITED TO HIS INMATE ACCOUNT DURING PRECEDING 6 MONTHS. THIS IS AN AVERAGE MONTHLY DEPOSIT OF $152.70 PER MONTH. ###D.16.PB”
“PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS IS DENIED.”
Above person will have to hire a private attorney because he or she is making too much money to be considered indigent.
Trick writing aside, since Sirkka is a bona fide prostitute her tricks are real, and since she cannot stop talking non-stop, she tells us about them: Max, a fat car lot owner who likes butt toys, Jack and Geoff, old men who like freaky letters, and C.W., aka Santa Claus, who likes his dick sucked and works at Pine Ridge apartment complex.
I go to my drug class and learn that I have very nearly been voted off the island because I have steadfastly refused to plead guilty to my charges, and because I have been to college. I rehabilitate myself by assuring the group that I have had plenty of drug issues, so just because I am maintaining my innocence in these particular charges does not mean that I cannot contribute and participate in this group. They take a vote and allow me to stay, and I am tripping on the fact that I nearly got kicked out of drug school in a jail.
When I return to the cell, the conversation focuses on animal cruelty, but to my amazement and horror, no one sees it that way. The talk is joking, jovial, punctuated with giggles and laughs. The talk is about hanging hogs from trees up side down and slitting throats and slicing abdomens and watching guts splash to the ground, throwing puppies into the fire, and killing pitbulls that lose dog fights, killing birds and baby mice, breaking legs, mangling eyes, torturing racoons and possums and kittens. Slicing the testicles from boars.
Just when I think I am going to get up and start screaming, Ruthie breaks the levity of the sickening conversation and says, “That’s how they found my Momma dead, just like that.”
We look and Ruthie has her mother’s picture. She strokes the edges of the picture, as if stroking it provides comfort somehow.
“See. She was settin’ right here, next to the air conditioner, and she had her inhaler in her hand. But no one found her and…”
Tears stream down Ruthie’s face.
“You know no one found her right away…”
Tears stream down my face. For Ruthie’s mother, who died alone by the air conditioner with her inhaler in her hand and no one noticed.
And for the animals. Tears stream down my face for the animals.