Friday, January 28, 2011

Minimum Security

I recently visited the women’s minimum security prison and found it to be much more disturbing than the maximum security prison. For one thing, the space is much smaller, it’s just a narrow room with no windows—it is two floors with a very high ceiling allowing the women to divide themselves into different groups by level. Bizarrely, the bathroom is on the second floor at the top of the spiral iron staircase. It’s dark and damp, making me shiver during my entire visit with J. At least in the maximum security prison there is a huge courtyard where the women could roam free and soak in the sunshine.

S. and I went to visit J. who was arrested for stealing a cell phone. Actually, her boyfriend stole it but somehow escaped the police. J. wasn’t so lucky. As an accomplice, she is serving a month sentence. S. and I arrived with shopping bags filled with items her boyfriend had collected: toilet paper, a toothbrush and toothpaste, lots of packaged food like chips, cookies, tuna, etc. He even packed clothes like warm socks and underwear. I was surprised by his thoughtful care package as I’ve never seen his tender side. In fact, I resent him because last spring he broke J.’s leg in three places. I brought J. a lunch to-go so she would have fresh food for the day. Little did I know that when J. dug through her package, her boyfriend had tucked away some marijuana into one of the socks. I was even more surprised when J. rolled a joint and smoked it right there in the open room of the jail cell. Again, I am shocked by the lack of supervision in all the prisons I have visited. It reminded me of my visit to the men’s minimum security prison (housed in the same building as the women’s minimum, in a different section), where they also consumed drugs openly. Guards were stationed outside the men’s cell but didn’t “notice” or care about the drug use. They are often paid to keep quiet and are usually the traffickers who “smuggle” the drugs into the prison in the first place. Perhaps they also use drugs themselves.

J. and her women friends went crazy over the marijuana. They fought over who would get the next hit. J. uses much harder drugs like crack and coke so she was thrilled that we had brought something to dull her cravings, even just a little bit. There are no beds, just blankets spread out in different parts of the room. S. and I flopped ourselves on J’s blanket, which didn’t provide much comfort from the cold, cement floor. I couldn’t imagine sleeping under those conditions—I need two pillows or I can’t sleep at night! J. explained that she slept just fine—that it was comfortable and warm. I guess compared to the other places she has slept the prison floor might be an improvement.

The other visitors, who included boyfriends visiting their partners, all sat in rowdy groups around the floor. Everyone brings care-packages and food for their loved ones and women who don’t receive visitors look on with yearning and envy at other women’s gifts. J. introduced me to all her new “friends” in prison, all of whom had committed petty crimes and would be staying for less than a month. One woman was reading the Bible, another, a crime novel. Another woman seemed to be deeply disturbed, perhaps trembling and nervous as symptoms of withdrawal. S. my friend who I accompanied to visit J. knew many of the women and went around greeting them. The women without visitors kept to themselves, either sleeping on their bare blankets or staring off into space.

The space itself was incredibly dirty and dark. Perhaps they keep it unkempt because the women serve sentences of less than one month. The maximum security prison is much cleaner and comfortable perhaps due to the fact that the women serve much longer sentences (years at a time). It still seems shocking to me that there are no beds—the only bedding one might have is what visitors bring in. But I seemed to be the only person disturbed by the lack of comfort. For J. it was a safe, comfortable place to rest for a month. She didn’t complain about the lack of infrastructure or about the terrible food. She seemed surprisingly content. When in prison her boyfriend treats her well, sending her care-packages almost daily. It’s not a bad deal, considering that when she’s on the outside with him he beats her instead. No wonder J. was satisfied in prison. No beatings, passable food, the occasional joint and a safe space.

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