Last week, I started writing about the stories and experiences I get to see from the front lines of working in the jail and on the outside with women who have been victimized, marginalized, and shoved to the outskirts of society. After I decided I wanted to start a blog series on these stories, the internet went out at home so I have been writing a lot in my head in hopes that I don’t forget a single thing to share with you.
The women in jail really have to trust each day to people and a process they don’t know or understand. If you haven’t seen the new documentary “The 13th” yet, stop reading this and watch it on Netflix. You will not only learn about our country’s problem of mass incarceration, but you will also learn about how powerless the men and women are who have been charged with, yet not even found guilty, of alleged crimes.
My friend in jail, we will call her Betsy, recently told me a chilling story about her first experience with the justice system. Betsy was arrested for allegedly assisting in a violent crime. After spending some months in jail awaiting trial and formal charges, she was approached by her attorney with a plea deal that would send her to prison for quite some time.
Many of the women in jail don’t know how the justice system works. Many attorneys are public defenders, who are well meaning people, but inmates don’t know the people representing them if they can’t afford an attorney of their own. Many of the women I know in jail never finished high school, much less educated in how to navigate a criminal trial.
Imagine waking up each day, at a time decided by someone else, sitting on your cold, hard, metal bunk until someone gives you permission to go to the bathroom. You don’t change clothes, because you only have one set. Your arms are cold, but you can’t cover them with socks because this would be considered contraband (an item altered from its original purpose). Then you return to your bunk bed until breakfast arrives. This can happen any time between 3 and 10am. After you eat, you wait for someone to tell you when you can go to the bathroom, when you can watch television, and when you can talk. You may get the chance to go outside and visit the narrow concrete space with wires across the top. You can walk around the rectangle, or sit against the wall, or walk around the rectangle in the other direction. When you come back inside, you are pat searched to make sure you didn’t obtain anything you weren’t supposed to have in the first place. You may attend a Bible Study or a class on how to turn your life around, but the cycle repeats through the day of eating when food becomes available, peeing when given permission to do so, and showering – if the showers are open that day.
You may get to watch television at some point, but you don’t get to pick the station. The television is small, old, and hanging about 20 feet up in the air with some more metal. You trust that someone will let you go to the bathroom. You trust that a family member or friend may call. You trust that your attorney is doing what he or she said he or she would do. You trust that someone is going to put money on your commissary account so you can get some shampoo – you ran out days ago and no one is sharing this week. You trust that the kitchen staff is serving watered down, powdered noodles again for the fourth day in a row. You trust that you will be able to sleep tonight in spite of the woman throwing up next to you because she hasn’t had any heroine in two days.
A lot of trust has to happen in jail. If there isn’t trust, there is fear, and where there is fear there is violence. You can’t express fear in jail, because that makes you vulnerable to attack. You can’t express sadness, anger, happiness, or grief because then you will get placed in a solitary holding cell for two hours as punishment.
So you learn to trust in someone or something: God, your attorney, self, another inmate, a pen pal, or maybe even nothing at all.
So as my friend Betsy told her story of being manipulated and finally learning how the system works for herself, I realized that there aren’t many things in my life that require a lot of faith. Even in the midst of my crazy living situation, I KNOW where I will be sleeping each night. I KNOW what my next meal is going to be and who is preparing it, I KNOW what my friends and family are doing, and I KNOW I can go to the bathroom whenever I need to go.
Living in jail really is a matter of trust. It’s just a question of in who, or what, that trust is placed.