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.
Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account in Kentucky.
Inmate names are changed.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language. Do not read this post at work.
KCIW, PeWee Valley Women’s Penitentiary, Winter, 2008-2009
Fancy thinking the beast was something you could hunt and kill…You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go. Why things are what they are.
William Golding Lord of the Flies
We are in the noisy day room of Ridgeview Dormitory, playing Spades. As usual, my hillbilly friend in the wheelchair, Sandy, is my partner. She loves to talk, and I love to listen. She explains the characteristics and tendencies of humans to me, as would a college professor, in a lovely eastern Kentucky drawl.
Sandy explains, “…You put a pussy on a man, he gonna take it. This don’t take no damn rocket scientist to figure out; people start fuckin’ at thirteen.”
The TV is blaring. Everyone is talking. The faucet in the kitchen area sink is cut on to full stream, because everyone has given up the battle of turning faucets off, after the OCD inmate’s hundreds-of-times-a-day hand washing routine. The washer and the dryer and the microwave are all running. Several groups of four other than our group, are seated at tables, playing Spades. Since the OCD inmate’s canteen Nike tennis shoes are in the dryer, there is a loud, regularly irregular ka-ka-kunk, ka-ka-kunk sound coming from the dryer.
LaDonna, the bipolar inmate who is chronically manic and laugh-out-loud funny, stops at our table and says to Sandy, “Well, I see you got you a crazy-ass Spades partner again.”
LaDonna and I are friends. She robbed a bank at gunpoint and stole a car, then evaded police, and got less time than me, seven years, a fact that she is proud of, and rubs in. She says, “I’ma sing you guys a song, do a little dance.”
She raises her hands and, snapping and clapping and stepping, sings, “…In-house, out-house…” (clap. clap-clap clap) “…Crack-house, whore-house…” (clap. Snap-clap) Then, something distracts her and she leaves.
LaDonna will be shipped to CCA-owned Otter Creek. There will be a medication error. LaDonna will fight for her life on a ventilator, but we do not know this yet.
I ask Sandy how old God is. She replies, “Older than dirt. Balls hang lower than his knees.”
We are called to line up outside, if we are enrolled in night class. Tory comes to the table, books in hand and says, “Time to go.”
I tell Sandy, “Gotta run. Hey, what’s a hundred yards long and has three teeth?”
“KCIW Med line!”
She laughs, and as we are leaving, she says, “Bird Lady. Them Bluegrass people. They ain’t no joke.”
“I know,” I say.
On the way to school, Christie hands me a letter and two photographs and says, “Here. Put this in your book.”
The letter is from a male inmate to someone who arranges prison pen pals. He is young and nice looking. In one photo, he poses in a tank top in front of a weight set. He wears a gold watch and a gold chain. Sunglasses hang from the front of his tank top. He has a chest tattoo from a parlor on the outside.
“Nice,” I say.
“His balls just dropped,” says Christie.” He is looking for someone to write sex letters to. I know him. He really is very nice.”
The penmanship is neat, meticulous cursive. Every line is filled out on the lined paper. Photocopied, hand-drawn roses and vines outline the letter. It says (names changed):
My name is Anthony Acree and my inmate number is #XXXXXX and I’m looking for a pen-pal to write if you could please hook-a-nigga up one time- “then good lookin.’” She can write to me at Northpoint Training Center PO Box 479 Burgin, KY 40310)
Once she writes, her and I will take it from there. I’ve enclosed two photos of myself. “Look” real talk in a good nigga to write, and I am going to keep her mind in the mist. But at the same time I want to get her drunk and in the back seat of my truck about 2:17 AM in an alley, sucken da dog shit outa dat pussy, I will lick her wet and suck her dry, ya dig. And as she holds on for dear life I will slide dis cock in dat A22 and fuck dat perm out her muthafucken head.
Fuck wit a nigga, Brick
“Dang,” I tell Christie. “He writes better than most of the legal profession around here. What’s with the 2:17 AM”
“I know.I wondered about the 2:17 myself.”
Tory says, “Bird Lady, you’re brave, writing about this stuff.”
“I have nothing to lose,” I say.
In night Biology class, Mr. Burke tells us that his choice to teach this class, here in this prison, is one of the most enlightening and delightful things he has ever done and that, other teachers refuse to do what he does because “they do not know what they are missing.”
He inspires me to want to return to the prison and teach someday. If they would ever let me back in, that is. Every student in the class loves Mr. Burke. No one is ever late or absent, unless she has been involved in an altercation unrelated to school.
During break I tell Tory, “Check this out. Here is a way to memorize that list of elements he wants us to know.”
We discuss the mnemonic device See Mag Men Mob Cousin Hopkins’ Nice Clean Cafe: C Mag Men Mob CuZn Hopkins NiCe Clean CaFe.
Tory asks, “What else do you think we should know?”
“That is a really good question,” I say. “And a tough one.” I think for a moment, What one thing, if I know it, will help me to figure out everything else?
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:
The music for this post is Perpetuum Jazzile- Africa
You can click and listen while you read, or open in another tab and read.
Tulips and Frog Gravy notes by CraneStation on flickr. Jail art. Notes are from Ricky’s World.
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.
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!
Ahem. Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account that contains graphic plants.
I would like to give a shout-out to Miss Heavren, the amazing JCTC Horticulture instructor for her stellar teaching and saint-like patience, as well as her dry sense of humor. One of her sayings remains with me: “Well, in a perfect world…”
This post is for Stan.
Barn. Jail art by Crane-Station on flickr. colored pencil and magazine ink.
Daffy. Jail art by Crane-Station on flickr. My favorite cartoon character. Colored pencil, ink, magazine ink.
Pine Bluff Dormitory Study Room, KCIW PeWEE Valley Women’s Penitentiary, Summer 2009.
I am in the study room of Pine Bluff Dormitory trying to design a soccer field for one of my Horticulture classes, and my friend Lindsay is helping me.
Lindsay is serving out a sentence of fifteen years and will be released in 2016. She is a delightful woman, full of energy and really smart. Lindsay is an honor inmate who is now a literary braille translator working on maps (this may be called tactile translation) and, since she already completed the Horticulture program and remembers the content of the classes, she is invaluable to me.
I am trying to design a soccer field, which pales in comparison to one of Lindsay’s previous golf course projects, and I am jealous of her, floored really, in the same way that Patrick Bateman is floored when Paul Allen’s business card is shown in the American Psycho business card scene.
Turns out that golf courses involve complicated design and maintenance, particularly the green, but even the fairway, which is why golf course superintendents make a lot of money.
I have chosen a soccer field because I love soccer, and played on two indoor and three outdoor teams in Seattle at one time. Old People’s Soccer is a sport for heathens who dish out a stunning variety of bad behaviors on a nightly basis, and then, the next morning, show up for work and blend in with the passing public. I used to carry an extra ACL knee brace in the trunk of my car, to the brutal coed indoor games, so that someone else could borrow it.
As an aside, I think that Old People’s Softball may be even more brutal than Old People’s Soccer, if that is possible.
I want a grass field because turf makes the game so fast. Lindsay helps me with the drainage design.
After a long stay in Ridgeview Dormitory, I requested the transfer to Pine Bluff Dormitory because Pine Bluff, which houses honor inmates and others serving lengthy sentences, is quieter and softer on the psyche. I miss my roommate from Ridgeview, Miss Pat, and I did not really want to leave her, but I was beginning to slide into depression at Ridgeview just because of the constant chaos.
I do not qualify to apply for honor status because I go up for parole at the end of the summer, but still, being housed with inmates in the honor dorm is much better. The study room we are in, for example, is quiet, and I can concentrate. While I earned A’s in Horticulture ultimately, it is a wonder I did not flunk out of school while I was living in Ridgeview Dormitory.
After we study, Lindsay goes to a bookshelf and retrieves an encyclopedia and opens it to the topic of The Riviera.
She explains to me that she has a male pen pal who is also in prison, and they write each other about all of the wonderful imaginary trips that they take, all over the world, on a regular basis. To take a trip, Lindsay uses the encyclopedia, and writes to her pen pal, the details of the coastline they see, the food they eat, and the side trips they will take.
Lindsay’s imaginary trips make an impression on me because she is so happy when she describes them, as if she is actually in these various beautiful places.
A few days later, I check out from the prison library The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. It is, without a doubt, the most poignant and inspiring memoir I have ever read. Author Jean-Dominique Bauby was working as the editor of the french Elle style magazine, when he suffered a devastating stroke that left him with a rare condition called ‘locked in syndrome,’ where a patient is fully aware and awake but cannot move or talk.
If ever there was a prison, this author was in it. He could communicate only by blinking one eye. A speech pathologist constructed a chart of the French alphabet, in order of the most-used letters first. A communicator would point to the letters as they appeared and Bauby would blink at the letter that he wanted to use, and so, letter by letter he wrote his story.
In his story he takes trips to beautiful places where he tastes his favorite foods, all in his mind, and he is thus freed from his devastating physical incarceration.
After release I obtain my own copy. Lindsay’s imaginary trips and Jean-Domonique Bauby’s memoir will change my view of prison.
That is, there need not be walls to make a prison, and there are no walls in the mind.
If you are newly diagnosed with blindness and wish to read a book, menu or map in braille, who was the translator for the book, map or menu?
If you are in need of a vested service dog to assist you at all times in your daily living, who trained that dog?
Who are the men and women caring for babies born in captivity to inmate mothers in Kentucky?
Three programs at KCIW PeWee Valley Women’s Penitentiary are worthy of mention: the braille translation program, the Paws With Purpose program, and the Galilean Children’s Home.
In association with the American Printing House for the blind, KCIW inmates translate print materials into braille. I had a fascinating conversation with an inmate who was involved in braille translation; she had advanced her expertise such that she was currently working on map translation.
There are about thirty such programs nationwide. At KCIW, some of the women are certified literary transcribers through the National Library Service of the Library of Congress. If you come across a braille textbook, there is a chance that an inmate did the transcribing.
To qualify for admission into the braille program at KCIW, an inmate must meet honor status, but also must be quite a ways from meeting with the parole board. The learning-intensive program takes time and so, inmates participating in the program are serving lengthy sentences.
My eight-year sentence was so long it was absurd (my judge sentenced a knife-point cab driver robber to less time than me), yet not long enough to gain admission into one of the learning-intensive training programs. In other words, my sentence length was problematic because it was too long for some things and not long enough for others, leaving me in a void. Hence, it is actually possible to be jealous of people serving lengthy sentences. I really admired the women in these programs.
The Paws With Purpose puppy prison program is another wonderful intensive program, where women train service dogs. Barkley, the doodle, was one such dog, too cute for words. The dogs stay with the inmate trainers pretty much around the clock during the week. Sometimes the dogs take breaks to go into the community with volunteer program trainers, so the dogs can be exposed to traffic, malls and the like. Usually the dogs-in-training on the KCIW campus are vested, which means that inmates other than the trainer are not allowed to touch, pet or play with the dogs.
Again, an inmate must be something like two to five years to the parole board (I am not sure which) and must have attained honor status. Honor status is achieved through good behavior over a long period, and has perks such as desired housing in Pine Bluff Dormitory, as well as eligibility to apply for admission to programs such as Paws With Purpose of the braille translation program.
The Galilean Children’s Home (video above) is a wonderful program, supported by private donation and non-profit, that was founded by Mennonite couple Jerry and his late wife Sandy Tucker.
Babies born to inmate mothers at KCIW are often cared for in the Angel House division of the large Galilean Children’s Home, which also houses and cares for other orphaned children.
Each week, the women of the Galilean Home, which is located in Liberty Kentucky, Casey County, bring the babies to a visiting nursery in the chapel at the prison, for a bonding session with the inmate mothers. Please have a look at the video, as I believe this program is unique to Kentucky.
We need more programs such as these, but unfortunately they seem to be disappearing. Kentucky is turning jails into prisons, in the name of money, and warehousing Class D nonviolent offenders in cement with no programs, so they return to the community with nothing but a new criminal skill set in hand. Would it not make more sense to have inmates parole to the community with job skills and references in hand? Would it not make more sense for a Class D nonviolent offender to be able to state, proudly, that she had given something back to the community during incarceration? That she had put some thought and work into goals and planning for the second part of her life?
One of my goals is to get books into jails and prisons, but this will be difficult because some Kentucky jails ban educational materials outright, as I have previously mentioned. It makes absolutely no sense to ban education to the largest incarcerated population that will parole into the community the soonest: Class D nonviolent offenders.
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