For the past month, I have been looking at the legal file from my own case, and researching how it was possible to be convicted of, among other things, a DUI, when the blood test results showed no alcohol or drugs. I have read hundreds of Court of Appeals cases, and looked up information on all topics relating to my case. The entire floor of one room is covered with stacks and boxes of papers. Sometimes, several days pass when I have not gone outside, or even looked at the news. What I have learned is shocking, even for me, and I thought I had ‘seen it all.’ When the time is right, I will write a series of essays, because I am not just talking about my case. The vast majority of people plead guilty, never dreaming, because their lawyer failed to tell them, that they would do their time in the hell of a county jail, or that the evidence was exculpatory, or that the science was junk science, or that they would have to serve a longer sentence than they were led to believe.
Our country locks up more people than Stalin’s Gulag. Kentucky is one of the nation’s leaders for jailing children for status offenses, which are non-crimes like missing school. In Oklahoma, a pregnant woman went to a hospital because she was in severre pain. The staff called the police, the police searched her purse and found two pills for which she did not have a prescription; she was removed from the hospital, where she died.
One of the practices I find most appalling and offensive is locking up the mentally ill, including the elderly. ‘Harry’ was a mentally ill man who was in the jail at the same time I was. He was in a tiny isolation cell, without a book to read, a pencil and paper, or anyone to talk to. During the entire time I was there, he was denied recreation time outside his cell. We never knew who he was or why he was there, and we suspected he knew no more than we did, regarding his situation. I have shared this before, but since I believe that ‘Harry’ is so common and so heartbreaking, it is important for people to be aware of how the mentally ill are treated. I apologize in advance, because I cannot stay for very long today, as I need to get some sleep, before going downtown for an appointment.
I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.
McCracken County Jail, Spring, 2008
Christie has been denied drug court for her nonviolent drug-related charges, and issued a 24-year sentence. Her treatment denial was based on one of three counties wanting her to do time, rather than engage in the rigorous monitoring of drug court.
Drug court is not a joke, nor is it a get-out-of-jail-free card. The person must be employed, and available for drug testing on the spot, at any given time of the day or night. The person calls on the telephone, twice a day, to report to a counselor. In-court meetings are required, as are, I believe, twelve-step meetings. Drug court is time-intensive, and heavy with documentation. In order to be considered suitable for drug court, the candidate must plead guilty to her crime, and must agree to serve a lengthy sentence if, for some reason, she fails to follow the rules to the letter.
Here are ten essential components of drug court, from wiki:
The 10 Key Components
Drug Courts integrate alcohol and other drug treatment services with justice system case processing.
Using a non-adversarial approach, prosecution and defense counsel promote public safety. Participants must waive their due process rights to a speedy trial and sign a pre-emptive confession before being allowed to participate.
Eligible participants are identified early and promptly placed in the Drug Court program.
Drug Courts provide access to a continuum of alcohol, drug and other related treatment and rehabilitation services.
Abstinence is monitored by frequent alcohol and other drug testing.
A coordinated strategy governs Drug Court responses to participants compliance.
Ongoing judicial interaction with each Drug Court participant is essential.
Monitoring and evaluation measure the achievement of program goals and gauge effectiveness.
Continuing interdisciplinary education promotes effective Drug Court planning, implementation, and operations.
Forging partnerships among Drug Courts, public agencies, and community-based organizations generates local support and enhances Drug Court effectiveness.
Drug court is notable in the inmate community for what happens to inmates who relapse. They can end up serving more time than they ever possibly imagined, more time than killers, even. For this reason, some inmates who truly want to get clean and sober, but who have a tendency to slip and slide during this process, will choose to do the time instead. I have seen some spectacular drug court failures. Inmates who get served out on a sentence behind drug court failure consistently report regret.
There are also some wonderful drug court success stories. Here is the site with more information. People who successfully complete the rigors of drug court often become mentors in the recovery community.
Shortly after Christie was denied drug court, she was shipped to prison, and while I was happy that she was going to a better place than the jail, her departure broke my heart. Never in my adult life had I been close to women, but in this disaster situation, I came to love Christie (and Tina) like sisters. Later on during my incarceration, after my fake release on parole, Christie, Tina and I will spend time together in prison, at PeWee Valley KCIW.
I cried when Christie left. Such is the nature of incarceration. You exchange the most intimate details of your lives with each other and then….poof. They’re gone. After a while, you learn not to get too close to anybody. People may think that you are arrogant, but really, it is a simple matter of self-preservation.
After Christie leaves, I keep to myself and write. This morning, I did some standing-in-place exercises. Then I read Wisdom 3:1-12. For breakfast we had eggs, one slice of toast, cream of wheat, sausage and half a banana. I write everything down, inane, meaningless stuff, to keep from coming apart with grief. For lunch we had chicken, one slice of bread, corn, peaches and cole slaw.
Harry is screaming for help from his isolation cell and I am having difficulty focusing on my notes.
One time, Christie and I fashioned chess pieces out of scavenged paper scraps from the cell. We drew a chess board onto the steel table with a bar of soap, and then we played chess. That made my day.
A while after Christie departed, she wrote me. Inmates are allowed to write each other, but I have not been allowed to contact Christie since my release on parole (I asked my officer about this). I miss her, and so I have her letter, and I read it over and over, even now.
She starts with: “What the hell? How come you haven’t wrote me yet?”
I have an answer. The answer is, it is just too painful. All of this. It’s just too much.
Anyhow, I did get a kick out of her description of some of the men who responded to her trick ads:
…some interesting individuals- one in Oregon, NM, Colorado, Maine- is very interesting. He is a marathon runner. Speaks Italian and French- very smart. One from Texas. He looks like he came straight out of that movie “Revenge of the Nerds…”
In prison, Christie, Tina and I discussed Frog Gravy at length. This memoir would not exist without these two wonderful women. Disaster brought us together. Disaster taught each of us a little more about love, and how it feels to lose something that matters to you. It is probably safe but sad to say that disaster taught us each a little more about being women. And I am grateful for the lesson.
At 4 AM, the lights go on in our tiny cell, and a guard opens the steel door. Next to the guard, in the hallway, are five full 30-gallon black garbage bags.
“Well come on,” says the guard. “Help me with these.”
We drag the bags into the cell. The bags are heavy. There is one full bag for each inmate in this cell. The bags contain ears of corn that male inmates picked, from the jail garden. Our assignment is to shuck the corn, and be finished in time to go to work in the kitchen.
I get paid sixty-three cents a day for working in the kitchen but I do not get paid for the corn work, and neither does anyone else. Inmates who merely prepare vegetables for the whole jail never see a paycheck. On the days that we work, we may or may not have time in the outside cage for rec, because we are told that work counts as recreation.
We stare at the bags of corn.
Christina says, “You’ve got to be fuckin’ kidding me.”
“You ain’t never shucked corn?” says Monica. “And you from the country?”
“Well,” I say. “I’ve shucked corn. Just not at four o’clock in the morning.”
The irony is, that if this place, in Hickman Kentucky is not country, I do not know what country is. We are in the middle of nowhere, someplace near Tennessee, seven miles or so from the now-swollen Mississippi River.
I enjoy shucking corn and I enjoy work, but being forced to work with Penny in the kitchen after we shuck this corn is, I think, a little over the top, as far as punishment goes.
During our walk to work in the kitchen, where we will work unaccompanied by any guard, Penny engages in some transparent brown nosing of the guard, that includes ratting out the previous guard for various petty non-offenses. Penny’s brown nosing is usually more pronounced on the nights that she plans to steal stuff from the kitchen, because in her way of thinking, solidifying a chummy relationship with a guard on the way into the kitchen will elicit a less-than-thorough strip search on the way out.
While I have often joked about attempting to smuggle packets of this or that from the kitchen, I cannot imagine stealing while in jail, and so I refrain from it, and I refuse to ‘hold’ stolen items in my things, back in the cell.
In the kitchen, we pass the large ovens that sometimes have the porn magazines stashed behind them by male inmates who also work in the kitchen at staggered times, and I go to get a hair net, while Penny tries to hustle the guard out of food for consumption during work in the kitchen. Penny’s modus operandi is to spend as much time as possible eating, hoarding, snooping around the place off camera, and stealing stuff, while pausing to look up Bible passages, criticize my work, question my faith in God and conclude that I am most likely a non-believer on the fast-track to Hell.
Penny locates a bible and I locate the work list for the night. Penny says something to me about how, according to the Bible, God allowed the holocaust to happen, in order to make the world a better place, and I say a silent prayer to the God of my own understanding to please not allow me to kill Penny with my bare hands, on the spot.
The rate-limiting step will be the onion/pickle packs, which take forever, even with two people, but while I begin this task, Penny takes out 1/4 pound of margarine, and fries up an enormous plate of onions for herself. While Penny is eating, I make the KoolAid, then do the butter cups, then slice the onions, and then begin assembling the packs.
All told, I completed 240 of the 250 onion/pickle packs, while Penny berated me for using and recording the allotted amount of Equal that I used for the KoolAid, instead of fudging the paperwork, and stealing the sweetener. This annoys me. While I have joked around about taking stuff, the fact is, that in the cell, in my things, I have commissary receipts and matching sweetener packets for every teaspoon of sweetener I have had in my possession. In my mind, I am not going to risk parole denial over theft of a teaspoon of sweetener.
For refusing to participate in petty jailhouse theft, Penny tells me that I really need to read James.
In the cell, Penny and I get along better, and one day, she tells me that she wants my help in preparing her for her GED, and I am thrilled because I love to teach. However, I realize, early in this process, that Penny never learned her times tables. I make some flash cards and say, “Okay. Let’s begin with the twos.”
Each day, we tackle a few more flash cards, and Penny begins to make progress.
I begin to re-think my initial harsh judgments of Penny. I had known nothing about her, or her life, or her struggles. I conclude that Penny is utilizing the same ineffective coping skills in jail that she used on the outside, because those skills are the only skills she has.
We become friends.
Later on, Penny asks for my help with a letter she is writing to a treatment center. The letter says:
To whom it may concern:
My name is Penny Stenson. I am in jail at Fulton County Detention Center in Hickman, KY
The reason for my unfortunate stay is my alcholism I am writting in hope of getting information about your program I would also appriciated a admittance application I only hope to get treatment for my sickness
Im look for a 30day inpatient program
I have three children that need there mother to be clean.
They are on there way to foster care by Decmber if I dont recive help. I am willing to go any were that will give me a bed date right away. I am willing to tr…
She hands me the letter and asks, “Can you help me with this?”
I read the letter. I feel the tears forming, and the hitch in my throat.
Please watch this Cannes Film Festival under-a-minute film:
In jail I had a dream that I retrieved a porcelain doll from a dumpster and sent the doll to my mother, because she loves dolls. The dream came true after my release from prison, nearly two years later. It is called a Granville House doll. Here is a photo of the doll and the accompanying certificate of authenticity (FWIW, I also sent my mother a dumpster-rescued Lladro 1993 limited edition egg in perfect condition, but I did not photograph the egg):
Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.
Inmate names are changed.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language.
McCracken County Jail, Cell 107, Spring, 2008
“There is an internal landscape, a geography of the soul; we search for its outlines all our lives.”
I have now been in this cement grave for 135 days, with no end in sight. My body hurts so bad from the cold and from the lack of activity that I do not know if I will ever walk right again. To me, Hell is not hot. Hell is cold. Hell is a cold, mean hateful place where people read the Bible.
I try various psychological tactics to keep from disintegrating in irreversible fashion. I try to trick myself into believing that I am in a coma, and that one day, I will emerge from it. But, this trick does not work. I then try to schedule my days just like work days, where I write for eight hours each day with two ten-minute breaks and a lunch. This works a bit better.
I came in here the world’s gentlest person. Now, I have disturbing and gruesome fantasies and thoughts. I want to be mean to some people. Not to the mentally ill or to the children or to the elderly or to the sick. Just the corrupt ones.
I want to seal them in a cement tomb and leave them there to die. But I want to torture them with light and noise and cold and lies and sleep deprivation and insults and crushing joint pain and laughter. I want to beat and pound, and pound and beat on the coffin. I want to feed them rat hairs and filth so that their teeth will rot. I want the inside of their coffin to be full of pee and semen and snot and black mold and hair and pepper spray and dirty water and feces.
God help me, God save me from these thoughts, I cannot help them. I try and try and try to escape my tomb, and I pray for help.
I keep writing, and I ask for God to help me with this. I write with no-shank pens. I water down the ink to make it last. Without ink, I believe, world commerce would collapse, social intercourse would cease, and a lot of people would get hurt.
God currently has me writing about the ‘dog men’ that Christie speaks of. These are some men she knows in town, who, among other seedy business ventures, fight pit bulls, and abuse them, and kill the ones that do not win fights. I also jot some notes about the young boys about town, who look up to and practically worship, the ‘dog men,’ and who aspire to the same entrepreneurial path(s) as them.
Leese, who has completed one poem and is working on a second, has lost her pen and she says, “Where’s my pen? I had two pens and now I don’t have a pen!”
“Did you check under your mat?” I ask.
“Yeah. And I fuckin’ cleaned my bucket.”
“Well, Leese,” says Lea, “It’s not like there’s a fucking pen thief up in here.”
Lea says, “Every time this fuckin’ pen thing comes up I’m the one ends up without a pen.”
“Why don’t we just get some pens from the guard Sally and be done with it?” I say.
Christie says, “Sally can’t remember what she’s doin’ when she walks down the hall. Took the bitch three weeks to get pens last time.”
When Leese leaves, we find the pen under her bunk.
Meg complains about Leese.
Lea confronts Meg and says, “You sure didn’t have any problem playing up to her to get tobacco. I don’t give a fuck how much tobacco comes under that door, I’m not kissing anybody’s ass for it, Meg.”
“I’m not kissing anybody’s ass for nuthin.’ I paid more for tobacco than she ever did. Bitch took the lighter after she left too, go figure.”
After Meg leaves we are all relieved, and the cell dynamic becomes more peaceful and positive. Meg will last exactly four days before her next arrest and detention, which will amount to a brief bump in the road before she is out getting her boasted-about “dick,” and getting pregnant with her tenth child, who will be born in captivity.
Even though Meg ‘ran’ the cell while she was here, we all voice concern for her after her departure.
Meg has no home. She stays in motels with a man who supports her in exchange for sex. Her twins, the youngest of nine children, at six months old, also live in a motel with another couple. Had the other couple not agreed to take the twins, they would have gone to the State. We do not know if Meg intends to ‘do right’ and regain custody of her children, but we all voice our wishes that she do so.
I look at my notes and realize the vapid nature of the conversation about pens. But then again, we have many such vacuous discussions, because, well, they are all we have, and we can control our discussions, but nothing else in our lives.
At night I dream that I am putting on some nice clothes, but even in the dream I know it’s a dream.
Birds drawn at Ricky’s World by Crane-Station. Sorry if you have seen this. I have more jail art, but am having a temporary camera issue, that will be resolved soon. Thank you for your patience!
When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.
Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.
Inmate names are changed.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language.
McCracken County Jail Cell 107, winter, 2008
I am turning into a bat.
I wear a cape to fend off the cold. I am going blind from the fluorescent lighting. I wear a towel on my head. I speak very little. I have hair on my face and on my body that I have no way of controlling and it embarrasses me.
My cape is my greying thin sheet. Sometimes I put the grey square scratchy wool blanket on top of the sheet, but it itches me because I am allergic to wool. When I asked for a cotton blanket, the jail staff refused because I was unable to provide documentation from an outside physician stating that I am allergic to wool.
I am in the toilet trying to brush what is left of a tooth that lost a crown. I have asked to see a dentist for more than a moth now, to no avail.
I have just taken a shower. The cell has no toilet paper, and so, when you have a bowel movement, you have to cup your hand underneath your crotch, and make a run for it, out of the toilet area and through the cell to the shower stall. Someone must stand guard, because the inside of the cell is visible to the hallway occupants. The hallway occupants are usually working Class D men, because Class D women are not allowed to work hallway jobs. No one wants the working men to see them running through the cell naked with shit and piss cupped in one hand, and so we look out for each other. In the shower, you use the other hand to depress the push-button spout that issues a ten-second spray of cold water. Some inmates use rags after they pee, but after a bowel movement, you really have to do the shower thing.
In the cell, YaYa works on a grievance about the lack of toilet paper and we all sign it. It says (picture coming with update- we currently have a nonworking camera):
We have been without tissue paper for 8 hours or more and the 2nd shift is telling us to get it on the 1st shift, they are too busy now. We are without tissue and no guards will bring us any.. We’ve asked and still no tissue. The jail gets money for state, federal and county inmates. There is no reason we should have to drip-dry. We are not animals.
The response reads:
You are given allotted amount of t/p and feminine products. You must use them accordingly.
Meanwhile, in the cell, Meg says to Lea, “I have pinkeye. Isn’t that contagious?”
“It’s incredibly contagious,” says Lea.
Christie says, “I can’t afford to get pinkeye in my eye socket. I can not afford to get pinkeye.”
I say, “Write a note to the doctor.”
Tina says, “Wash your hands.”
“I do wash my hands,” says Meg.
“They won’t do nuthin,’” says Lea. “They want you to get full-blown pinkeye, so everybody in the mutherfucker’ll get it. I’ve been here when everybody in the place had it.”
Down the hall, Harry shouts from his isolation cell, “PLEEEEASE! Somebody,HELP!!”
On the television news, the Amish men, six or seven of them, are in court in neighboring Graves County. Their hats are off and they are quiet. Displaying a large reflective orange triangle on their horse-drawn buggy does not coincide with their religious beliefs, and they are opposing the charges. Graves County is eager to accommodate the Amish in their county jail, and so the jail has pre-ordered dark gray outfits for the men.
I am actually sort of an autistic bat. I speak little, because I want to avoid conflict. It does not help that much. Inmates make fun of me anyway, because I am not from here, and because I took my case to trial. But it is okay that they make fun of me, because everyone is in pain anyway.
I write because there is absolutely nothing else to do but listen, write down what I hear, readjust my towel hat and my cape, and fold cranes out of paper scraps. For breakfast we had applesauce, sausage and cereal; for lunch we had a hamburger patty, corn, an apple and green beans, and for dinner we had a hamburger patty, sweet potatoes, carrots and cake.
I wander to the hallway window and read a new sign that is posted there, regarding a new clergy visitation policy. The letter is from the jailer, and it is lengthy. It says in part:
Clergy Visitation Policy
The staff at McCracken County Jail recognize the importance of one-on-one clergy visits in the rehabilitation of inmates…
However,to ensure the safety of…
The gist of the lengthy letter is that the jail will now limit clergy visits to entombed inmates by narrowing the times that clergy can visit, and increasing the red tape for both clergy and inmates to coordinate such visits.
-Clergy must now show their theological licensing credentials and documents to the jail staff, and the staff must approve the credentials.
-Hours for clergy visits will be limited to:
8:30-10:30 M-F (no weekends)
(11:30-4:30 M, T, Th,F (no weekends)
-No more than 30 minutes per visit.
-No lay clergy will be allowed. (So much for the laity! ie: nuns and deacons)
-No more than 2 visits per week.
-Clergy must be listed on a visiting list and the visiting list must be approved by the in-house jail chaplain. In other words, if you are not from the area, or if you do not happen to know any clergy in the area, you are shit-out-of-luck.
There are 450-475 inmates warehoused in this jail at any given time. Non-religious texts and educational materials are banned. The only materials allowed are specific types of religious materials. Okay. So now, we agree to get to know God better, and what does the jail do? They limit clergy visits.
To insinuate that clergy, many of whom have ministered in this jail for a long time, somehow compromise inmate safety during brief visits over the phone behind bullet-proof glass is insulting to the clergy who dedicate ministry to this jail.
Meg leaves and vacates her prime real estate and we all rotate our positions in the concrete and steel cell for four, that will soon house six again, as soon as Meg’s replacement arrives. I am in line for a choice spot on a steel bunk next to the cement wall. I started at the beach, between the toilet and the shower on the cement floor. Then I moved to the mountains on a top bunk where the lights were in my face, but now I am hoping for a cave before I lose my eyesight.
In my cave I reflect on the clergy visits and surmise that if I were to ask for a Shaman or a Unitarian, I would be deemed a witch and burned at the stake. Eventually, I dose off.
barn at winter by Crane-Station on flickr. jail art done at Ricky’s World.
In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.
Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.
Inmate names are changed.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language.
McCracken County Jail Cell 107, winter, 2008
Meg announces to the cell that she is on her period.
“So?” says Christie.
“So, I get out in two weeks, and I can get some dick!”
Meg lives in a motel on the outside, where she trades her body for drugs. She has nine children; many of them were born while Meg was in jail. After Meg is released and after she gets her ‘dick,’ her tenth child will be born in prison, but we do not know this yet.
She has made the comment about getting some ‘dick’ to be mean, because she knows that the rest of the cell occupants are serving lengthier sentences than she has ever had to serve, and that we will be unable to know a man’s touch or have sex, and she will.
When the announcement about dick does not elicit much of a response, Meg starts in on Christie, who, having been denied drug court and now faces 24 years for nonviolent drug-related charges, is desperately depressed. Christie stays on her bunk all the time now, crying.
One of Christie’s felonies, by the way, is for a cold check in the amount of something like one dollar and seventy-two cents, whereas Meg, who will walk out of the jail and get some dick and get pregnant two weeks from now, has a lengthy history of theft and possession charges that, for some reason, she has never had to worry much about, in terms of serving any time.
Rather, during her frequent yet brief accomodations in the McCracken County Jail, she busies herself with the passive-aggressive practices of constant manipulation and torment of fellow inmates who will be serving lengthy sentences entombed in cement with no hope. Each time, Meg leaves, and gets some dick, among other things.
Meg says to Christie, “I think you are overreacting.”
“I can’t help it,” says Christie. I’m not overreacting. I feel really, really, really bad inside. People notice that there is something wrong. I can’t quit crying. I don’t mean to be such a bitch about it. I just don’t know what to do about it. I sleep 15 hours a day now. I can’t handle this.”
“It’ll be all right,” says Meg, who, two weeks from now will be having sex.
“You don’t know that,” says Christie.” I’m sorry. This isn’t me, but I just don’t know what to do.”
Down the hall, Harry yells from his isolation cell, “HELLLLP! PLEEEEASE! Somebody! Let me out! Helpme helpmehelpme helpmehelpme Helllllpp…”
Sally is on the phone, calling her mother “a fucking whore.”
Sally calls her mother every five minutes or so, and treats her like a disobedient child. She says, at maximum volume, “I love you! Shut your fucking mouth, you’re nuthin’ but a lazy whore.”
Sally’s mother shouts back. Sally also screams at her 17-year-old son on the phone. She holds the receiver and says to us, “He ain’t got his books for home school yet. Can you believe that shit? My mother ain’t even got his books! She ain’t nuthin’ but a useless whore, don’t do nuthin’ but lay on her back all day.”
The son is supposed to be homeschooled by Sally’s mother, who is addicted to Vicodin and who never completed the eighth grade, because Sally is in jail.
The son is also apparently very sick, with some kind of severe illness that Sally cannot define. Munchausen by Proxy I think to myself, although I never say it. I think this to myself privately because Sally also self-reports severe, undefined illness in herself, and the mother is dysfunctional, and there is too much collective severe-yet-undefined illness in a young group of closely connected people. Sally looks healthy and robust. It is Christie, crying on her bunk, unable to get up, that I worry about.
I like Sally, and we get along well. I do not agree with how she speaks to her mother or her son, but Sally is amicable to fellow inmates, and she has a delightful sense of humor.
Meanwhile, Meg has come back to the cell from a brief visit to the jail library. The library is a jail cell with mostly paperback romance novels and religious materials, and a remarkable dearth of literature. Meg sets an arm load of romance novels onto the steel table, and then starts gossiping about YaYa, who was in the library, gossiping about Amy. YaYa is not here to defend herself.
Meg says, “I just wanted to hit her.”
I say, “She’s pretty big. Maybe that is not such a good idea. You know, hitting her.”
“The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
Meg taps on the wall to the cell next door, to arrange for her delivery of drugs for the evening, in the form of the inmate-next-door’s psych meds. Everything went okay for her first delivery, and I secretly hope that everything will continue to go okay, because when Meg is on someone else’s psych meds, she usually shuts up.
They make some arrangement.
Later, I am doing exercises on the floor next to the steel door when the steel door flies open, nearly hitting me, and there stands Tiffany, the sergeant, and she is irate. She says, “Who got the note from Carter!?”
“Who’s Carter?” I say.
“Who got that note from Carter!?”
Just then, we realize that Meg’s drug arrangement has not gone as planned. Carter, the inmate next door who was on psych medication, had wrapped two pills in paper and ‘fished’ them underneath her cell door and into our cell, under the door. But it did not work, because the note got stuck.
Tiffany leaves. Meg goes off on Carter. “Dumb bitch, she shoulda knocked.”
Meg smiles, giggles, and laughs, as though she had nothing whatsoever to do with the note or the pills in the note. She dismisses the whole incident, and gets on the phone to make arrangements with someone on the outside to smuggle cigarettes into the jail. Later, she tries to get me to make an appointment with the nurse and lie about some ailment, so that Meg can get Tylenol pills, or any pills. I refuse.
When I refuse, she makes fun of me, of my trial, of my conviction, of my lengthy sentence, and of the fact that she will be getting dick two weeks from now and I will not be getting any dick until it is too late for me to have sex, because I am too old.
Guards come to the cell next door, remove Carter, and take her to the hole. She will lose her psychiatric medication.
In my mind I try to come up with reasons for meanness and lack of empathy among warehoused humans in the same predicament, and I wonder if people in the train cars during the holocaust were mean to each other. What is it, exactly, that brings out such hate? Perhaps it is overcrowding or demeaning, dehumanizing treatment, or lost confidence in ‘the system,’ or female jealousy, mental illness, lack of stimulus, or hormones, or frustration and separation from love, touch and family. Maybe it is a combination of everything.
I fold my cranes out of scavenged paper. I move them around. I adjust the towel on my head. I go into the bathroom and climb onto the steel toilet and look through the slit to the dumpsters outside.
I return to the steel table. I put the tiny cranes with the big cranes.
Hint: “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mom. Your mouth is working for the prosecution.”
Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account in Kentucky.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language. Do not read this post at work.
Inmate names are changed.
McCracken County Jail, Cell 107, sometime in March, 2008
In the news, we learn that a health screening day was held at Walmart. Among other things, the screeners were testing body fat. Seventy percent of those screened were obese or markedly obese. I empathetically and privately note that Ruthie, who is 5’4″ and over 300 pounds, fits into this category.
Around Ruthie’s middle, an apron of fat hangs lower than her orange khaki shirt hem. Enormous breasts hang down and rest on the apron. She has difficulty breathing, and each night she snorts and snores.
We are kind to Ruthie, because she has cognitive difficulties that some summarize as not being quite ‘right.’ My best guess is fetal alcohol syndrome as possibly exhibited by her difficulties with thinking, expression and social skills. Ruthie has shared with us that her biological mother used drugs during the pregnancy, and that Ruthie was raised in foster care, where she was abused. Also, Ruthie met her biological mother for the first time when Ruthie was eighteen, and both of them were residents in this jail. Like many other inmates here, Ruthie has frequent-flyer-in-jail family members. We also know that she has been abused by various men in her adult life.
During the news, we can hear Harry shouting from his isolation cell down the hall, “PLEEEase!! Help me! Let me out! HELP! HelpmehelpmeHelpMeHELLLP! Sombody Please!”
Ruthie receives a little more than $600 each month from the government for disability. She has two mixed children. They are in foster care or with family. Ruthie prefers black men; her current boyfriend is black. She struggles cognitively but she also struggles with a drug addiction. McCracken County courts have determined that the most healing, productive environment for Ruthie and her children, is Ruthie’s placement in this jail cell with us.
While Ruthie articulates with great difficulty, she is adept at street slang.
At night, she lies on the floor next to the steel door, and shouts underneath it, to Creighton, a black drug dealer who she slept with on the streets. Creighton is housed in the cell next door (cell 111).
“Fuck you, Creighton! Herpe-boy, herpe-boy. Fuck y’all. Your dick smells like yo ass! Fuck you!”
Creighton replies, “Fuck you! Your pussy smells like sardines!”
“Huh-uh. This pussy smell good. You jes mad ’cause you cain’t have any ‘o ‘dis pussy. You just jealous ’cause I done fucked Mississippi. He is fine. His dick bigger den yours.”
“Your breath smells like yo ass, bitch!”
“Wash yo mouth out wit soap, herpe-boy, herpe-boy, fuck you,” sing-songs Ruthie. “Yo dick ain’t thick like Mississippi!”
“I heard yo mouth is a sperm bank!”
Ruthie turns to us and says, “Mississippi done got a thick dick, ’cause he beats hisself all the time. He done love playin’ wit his wee-wee. Dey say dat if a man play wit hisself, he get a thicker dick.”
Tina says, “If that were true, every man would have a hundred-foot dick.”
The guard comes by, kicks the steel door and shouts, “Cut it out!”
Startled by the kick, Ruthie actually levitates off the cement floor. I wonder how this is physically possible.
I say, “Get up, Ruthie, or they’ll take our TV. Plus, they won’t allow Class Ds onto the walk anymore. And we won’t have anything to look at. Who’s Mississippi?”
“Black dope dealer wit a thick dick,” replies Ruthie. “He done went back to Mississippi.”
When the guard leaves, Ruthie is back on the floor, yelling. “That’s right, herpe-boy, he done had a bigger dick than you! I fucked ‘im every night, smoked all the crack I wanted, shore did! I didn’t want for nuthin’! You jes jealous ’cause I’d rather suck a glass dick than yours!”
I say, “Shut up, Ruthie. They’ll take our TV.”
Ruthie gets up, giggling.
Like so many people in jails and prisons, Ruthie is mentally disabled. She is very childlike, and draws simple pictures for her wall. Her stick-figure drawing features a man and woman, happy, smiling. The man wears a baseball cap and is smoking a cigarette. The woman wears a dress. The sun is a child’s sun, full, with stick-rays. There are two clouds and a tree. The house has a front door and two windows.
Ruthie uses magazines and deodorant, to rub color into the pictures, then hangs them on the wall with the universal jailhouse glue: toothpaste.
Ruthie came to our cell because her cellmates in her other cell were always mean to her. She smelled horrid when she arrived, like a vaginal infection. We urged her to go to the nurse and get STD tested and get medicine. She did, and she smells better. We try to be good to her. She did not understand that she would have to sit in this cement cell for six months for seven contempt of court violations.
We explain legal things to Ruthie, because no lawyer has explained anything to her.
We also help Ruthie to read, write and count.
I sit at the steel table with my notes. I continue to transcribe Leese’s poem.
Sick of getting my hopes up, sick of being let down
I found this in my notes this morning. This is a letter that I wrote to Governor Beshear in March, 2008, regarding McCracken County Jail conditions. I sent copies to various agencies in Frankfort and Washington DC.
Note what I say about the pregnancy-disaster-in-jail baby’s early brain scan. I initially reported that the baby suffered no detectable oxygen deprivation following his traumatic birth. The subsequent scan, however, revealed some sort of potential deficit (ischemia or otherwise) according to the mother’s report.
At some point after this letter, I did receive an antidepressant in the jail.
I was removed from McCracken County Jail for my letters.
This may fix the prevailing fantasy that warehoused nonviolent inmates spend 23 hours a day in the cement cell. It is 24/7 for months on end.
To: Governor Steve Beshear
700 Capitol Avenue
Frankfort, KY 40601
Dear Governor Beshear:
On 3-19-2008, I was sentenced to eight years in prison for DUI, possession of 0.144 grams of crack cocaine and tampering with evidence. I had no drugs or alcohol in my blood, nothing illegal on me or in my car, and exhibited no bad driving. Yet, I was convicted of all three. Inmates have subsequently told me never to take anything to trial in McCracken County, because everyone is convicted, but I did not know this, because I am not from here.
1. Since January 23, 2008, we have been outside our cell for recreation exactly one time. We have been to the filthy gym for recreation, exactly twice. We wait up most of the nights, hoping to get outside the cell for rec, at night. The only two times we went to the indoor gym were between 1:30 and 2:30 AM. In the night, guards go up and down the hall, banging on the hallway windows and doors yelling, “Rec, rec!”
Each night, they do this. We say we want real recreation, not recreation in a tiny chapel. The guards mark this in a book as a “refusal.” They submit the book to Frankfort, so it looks like the inmates all refuse rec every day. We get maybe one hour of rec per month if we are lucky.
2. The jails such as this one are overcrowded defacto prisons. I may be here until I meet the parole board in 19 months, because I am a nonviolent State inmate.
3. The only reading material allowed is certain types of religious materials. My family sent letters and literature that were returned because they were Catholic in nature. Only after my sister called the jail chaplain and said, “Are you all anti-Catholic? Because if you are, I am calling the Governor,” did I receive a Catholic bible that the guards make fun of.
4. No educational materials are allowed.
5. No AA or NA meetings are allowed.
6. There is no dental care.
7. I was not allowed to continue my anti-depressant medication, even though the conditions are extremely depressing.
8. A social worker tells the NPs what psych meds to prescribe. She is not licensed to prescribe anything, yet they defer to her on dosage and type.
9. The lights are on from 5 AM to 11 PM.
10. First, they said that family could send in paperbacks, news magazines, and newspapers. Then, they refused to give these items to us.
11. First, they said that family could send in self-addressed, stamped envelopes. Then, they refused to give these items to us. Then, they threatened to reseal the empty envelopes, and mail them back to family, instead of placing them in property.
12. The woman next door, six months pregnant, started bleeding. The guards ignored her. All three back cells pounded and shouted. They told us to shut-up and get to bed. They did nothing for more than one hour, then walked the pregnant woman, cuffed, out of the jail. Her placenta was 75% abrupt, she nearly lost her uterus. The baby was breached; his foot was through her cervix, she required an emergency C-section, and the baby was flown out of state. His brain scan does show potential future deficits.
13. The same woman has an incision that is infected now. The jail won’t giver her gauze. They make her use maxi-pads. But, she is on pad watch now. She is allowed three pads per day, including the pus pad.
14. They would not allow us to attend church service on Thursday night, saying that it was 12-step. When we said we were here on drug offenses, they would not let us go to the service.
15. The cells are always cold.
16. In addition to maxi-pad rationing, they now ration toilet paper. Several times, we have had to use our washcloths, or the shower, after toileting, because we have no toilet paper.
17. We get watered down disinfectant to clean the cell.
18. In the morning we get exactly two individual paper towel squares, to clean the entire cell.
19. They have put new restrictions on clergy visits.
20. No textbooks, educational classes, crosswords, number puzzles, logic puzzles, arts or crafts are allowed.
21. In the hole, medical watch, suicide watch, there is no way to wash hands, shower, or brush teeth.
22. The only time we received materials to clean the filthy cell walls and vents was because “the state” is “coming to inspect.”
Author’s note: The rest of the letter concerns Judge Craig Clymer’s behavior and actions during sentencing, trial, and on various documents. I will cover this in separate blogs.
As I explained, our parrot knocked the camera out of my hand and broke it. I have located a new digital camera in a dumpster, but until I get a memory card into the thing to photograph documents and art, here is some Cyanide and Happiness: Spartacus.
Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account in Kentucky.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language.
Inmate names are changed.
Cell 107, McCracken County Jail, Winter, 2008
Breakfast this morning was strange, because to me, just listening, it sounded like locusts devouring a biblical country. Jail eating is not normal. Inmates gobble, hoard, smack, belch and fart. They yank and choke down food, slurp, slobber and grunt. The binge symphony is punctuated with the words Are You Gonna Eat That?
Here is what that looks like:
There is much trading, spooning, shoveling and hoarding and the handing back and forth sporkfulls of food. The binge symphony lasts for ten minutes and then guards and working Class D males pick up the trays.
Binge and sleep, binge and sleep, occurs three times a day, not including commissary days. On those days, some inmates binge before the binge.
For the women of this jail, there is absolutely nothing else to do except eat, watch TV and sleep. Only five Class D female final sentenced state inmates even work a job, and none of the female jobs involve outdoor or even hallway work. The remaining Class D final sentenced female inmates are revenue units for the jail and nothing more.
For these women, the days turn to months and then to years, and then they are released into the community and the street, with nothing to show for the time spent but massive weight gain and the thousand-yard stare.
Many of them will return.
I am seated at a steel table wearing a terry cloth towel equivalent of a tin foil hat on my head, looking at some papers. The first one is a Kentucky Jail Ministries (US 42 Florence KY 41042) church handout. It says:
I once read: God does not call the qualified, He qualifies the called. The world might say there are many reasons why God wouldn’t want to use you or me, but don’t worry:
Mark was rejected by Paul
Hosea’s wife was a prostitute
Amos’ only training was in the school of fig tree pruning
Solomon was too rich
Abraham was too old
David was to young
Timothy had ulcers
Peter was afraid of death
John was self-righteous
Naomi was a widow
Paul was a murderer
So was Moses
Jonah ran from God
Miriam was a gossip
Gideon and Thomas both doubted
Jeremiah was depressed and suicidal
Elijah was burned out
John the Baptist was a loudmouth
Martha was a worry-wart
Samson had long hair
Noah got drunk
In the cell, things go from bad to worse.We are already on ‘double secret probation,’ and are without phone and TV. We lost these things because Ruthie was on Sirkka’s bunk, getting her hair curled, for her mother’s funeral the next day. We lost these things for longer for Ruthie’s mother’s funeral than we did that time when the whole cell got busted smoking cigarettes.
Sirkka becomes progressively more infantile, manipulative, sexual and annoying, until finally she and Joyce get into hurling verbal insults at each other. Sirkka writes a note to the guards to get moved out, to a suicide cell. They move her. We do not know if she will return or not; she is running out of options and will soon have on her list of past addresses, every female cell in the jail.
I am relieved for the temporary quiet. While I do not want to attack her personally, because I like her and think she has a good heart, some of the things she did enraged me. Her food binges, for example. She would start grabbing at, asking for, and hoarding food until she had just a sick amount of food in front of her. Meat patties; four, five or six slices of bread; two, three or four helpings of mashed potatoes; mounds of cake and pudding. I had not even thought of my own struggle with bulimia in years, but having someone binge-eat in front of me several times a day, bothers me.
On top of that, she managed to eat and drink everyone else’s commissary, and talk people out of phone time, stamps, envelopes, paper, and anything else she could get. If you were away from your bunk, she took your blankets, or worse, demanded that you take your blankets and cover her up”like a baby,” and rub her back until she falls asleep “like a baby.”
In her waking hours, Sirkka walked around the cell half naked, screaming, yelling, giggling, and showing tits, ass and crotch to the Class D men working the hallway.
Her latest love interest on the outside is a crack-smoking married guy with four or five kids, that she had been sleeping with for drugs. When she leaves we all welcome the quiet. Turns out everyone hated the food binges. Plus, everyone hated her using their shampoo, soap, deodorant, hair brush, hair ties, and blankets.
At the same time we were all so annoyed, we felt sorry for Sirkka. We suspected that she came to our cell during a manic phase of a bipolar cycle. She was unmedicated. We dealt with her situation the best we could, and tried to remain kind.
All psychiatric medication was prescribed by a social worker, if it was prescribed at all. Perhaps an MD or ARNP was signing off on the prescriptions, but these people never laid eyes on the inmates, nor did they perform a single assessment. Given this deficiency in medical care, I had little hope that Sirkka would ever receive proper medical intervention during her stay in this jail.
I adjust the towel on my head and make my selection from the church handout before me:
Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account in Kentucky, during 2008 and 2009, in jails and in prison, that is reconstructed from my notes.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language and descriptions.
Worry not; I got the proper permission before I wrote this over-the-top, hella fuckin’ balls-to-the-wall post.
We figured what the heck, everyone knows everything else about our private life anyway…
The Gift That Keeps On Giving, McCracken County Jail, Paducah, KY, shortly before my transfer to Ricky’s World, Winter, 2008
As you can see from this reply letter that I received from the State of Kentucky, McCracken County Jail is classified as a ‘Class D’ facility, which means that Class D nonviolent, final-sentenced State inmates qualify to serve their entire sentences in such a facility.
The jail receives money for housing Class D nonviolent offenders. There are supposed to be programs, such as work, education and treatment, but in reality, when I was there, I had no work. I even got kicked out of drug class for writing letters to everyone I could think of in Frankfort, Washington DC, and other places complaining about jail conditions and the warehousing of Class D female offenders. Ironically, Frog Gravy would not exist, had I had a job. But since I didn’t, and the men did, I had a glorious opportunity to get a good look at the occasional penis that wandered by the window to the hallway, belonging to a Class D working male who happened to be pushing a broom or a mop.
One such male, let’s call him Greg, had sort of a crush on me, and so one day he wanted to show me his wares. He paused his mopping for a moment at the hallway window, garnered my attention, glanced at the cameras, and then yanked down his orange jailhouse khaki pants a little ways to reveal a very nice, circumcised erection.
By the way, those hallway cameras do not show the sides of the hallway. Or the floor next to the cell doors. In fact, I wonder what they actually do show and who watches them, because we got to see quite a few penises off camera. The guy in the broom closet down the hall, for example, who had a crush on Christie, and who was also a talented author, penned the following description for Christie and swept the note with the description under our door, off camera, in case she missed the view. It said:
Make a fist with your left hand. Okay, now make a fist with your right hand. Place your right fist on top of your left fist. Now, extend your right thumb straight up into the air. That’s how long it is. And the fists? That’s how thick it is…
“Nice,” I said, when she showed me the note. “Corn fed and nuclear-plant bred.”
So anyway, Greg is at the window showing off his erection and I say, “Hey Christie, check this out.”
“Nah, he’s got the crush on you, not me,” she says.
“Okay, but check it out. This guy isn’t even in the ballpark with my husband. Limp, even. Not even close. Thickness. That too. Look him up on Google Earth when you get home.”
So now, we are both looking and smiling but Greg does not know why we are smiling; he is just glad that we are.
On the subject of cameras, next time you visit WalMart, count the cameras. WalMart has more cameras than a prison. I swear to God. Probably not as many erect penises, but I wouldn’t bet the ranch. If I had a ranch.
So I got kicked out of drug class in jail. Can you even imagine such a thing? But it’s true. For writing letters. I was told that no one cares, and no one reads the letters, and I was kicked out of jail drug class. But it turns out they did read the letters, because one day, a woman visited from Frankfort to speak to us in our cell about jail conditions. I will not print her words, but she was serious. Maybe it was the pregnancy disaster letter. I am not sure.
Because of my letters, my days in McCracken were numbered. One day, a woman from the judge’s office arrived with some paperwork. She handed me the papers as if she were handing something to a coiled rattlesnake. She smelled like cigarettes. She said, “I am giving these papers to you because you do not have a lawyer anymore and you are going to be going to Fulton County.”
Apparently, the judge had taken away my legal representation. It was just as well because my lawyer, Chris McNeill, was about as useless as a screen door on a submarine, but still.
The woman says, “I spoke to your husband.”
“Well good!” I say. “He’s nicer than me. When is the brief due?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yeah, you do,” I say.
You may be wondering what sort of letters would cause people to do such things with an inmate?
Well, here is an example. This one is to Professor Robert G Lawson at the University of Kentucky College of Law. Governor Beshear and others received the same or similar letters. Blockquoted due to dead camera batteries; I will take a photo when I can.
April 26, 2008
Robert G Lawson, Professor
U of KY College of Law
620 S. Limestone
Lexington, KY 42003
Dear Professor Lawson:
I have written before, regarding inhumane conditions in jails and regarding corruption in courts.
While we had a very nice chat with Tracey Montardier (Frankfort), nothing has changed. Only 5 women are working in this Class D designated facility. Only FIVE. Only in laundry. No women work outdoor jobs. “Understaffing” is the excuse. Class D women are nothing more than warehoused revenue units. We rarely leave our grave-like cement cell.
Had I killed someone, or committed a violent crime, I would have all the privileges of penitentiary state inmates. But, because I am nonviolent and because I am female, I am punished harder than violent inmates with greater likelihood of reoffending.
All I want is to work and/or attend classes, and maybe go to the outside cage for recreation once in a while.
McCracken County Jail should not be receiving Class D funds from the state for any more than 5 or 6 women. They should not receive revenue for any more. This is a men’s Class D facility. Anything else is fraudulent theft of state funds.
Any thoughts are appreciated.
Sincerely, Rachel A. Leatherman
One good thing did happen.
Pregnant inmates in Kentucky are no longer housed in county jails. They are housed in ‘G Dorm’ at KCIW PeWee Valley women’sprison, and this is a very good change, for women and for unborn babies.
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