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Elizabeth Hawes was awarded Second Place in Memoir in the 2017 Prison Writing Contest. Hawes is currently incarcerated at Minnesota Correctional Facility.

Every year, hundreds of inmates from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On November 28, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading, Breakout: Voices from the Inside. Participants including 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award-winner Lisa Ko and 2010 National Book Award-winner Terrance Hayes will read from the prize-winning manuscripts.

Monday, August 1                                                                                                                                                                       Day 2,841

Today I started my new job. It’s in “Institutional Services,” which sounds like a commercial cleaning company, but is actually where they create the quarterly newspaper, The Echo, and make copies of forms for everyone in prison. The office is a glorified broom closet containing two desks, three chairs, a recycling barrel, and a copier the size of my bed. With air smelling of warmed plastic, there is a high probability I will die from mesothelioma due to poor ventilation before my release. Adjacent to the broom closet is our supervisor’s office, just as manila-folder sterile, but cloying with coffee. The supervisor is Ms. Vanderud, and it is clear she will more likely die from caffeine-induced heart palpitation than meso.

I work with two other women, Krystal and Steph. A perfectionist with more college degrees than anyone I’ve yet to meet in prison, Krystal struggles with several mental issues, as well as lupus. She is 44. Steph is sweet natured, has a degree in communication, and has spent the last 12 years of her life in and out of county jails and treatment programs because of her addictions. She is 32. Their education levels are rare here, but apparently you have to know what you are doing when you make a lot of copies. The job load is divided between the two of them. This quarter, Krystal is in charge of the copying of all institutional forms (the office end), and Stephie is in charge of editing The Echo (the newspaper end). Next quarter they switch.

I’m interning. I’m in charge of squat.

I have 73 weeks left of prison, and if I pass the two-week probation period, I plan to ride it out here, even though the copier frightens me.

Krystal left early to go to medical—hopefully it’s not Zika.

 

Twins won. Crappy lunch. Received a card from Viva. (John’s done with chemo.)

 


 

Tuesday, August 2                                                                                                                                                                     Day 2,842

Today I learned 501 ways to copy forms—printing with or without color, with or without staples, one to two sided, two to two sided, on “auto,” which is plain paper, or on colored paper (which is from drawer number two). It’s like rocket science + paper = copying.

When asked, Krystal confirmed that she was indeed without Zika (but they did take a blood sample when she went to yesterday’s appointment, and I find that highly suspicious).

Stephie talks in a high voice, is easily distracted, and hyperactive. It’s like working next to an animated squirrel. This morning she was blocking out the background of a picture taken at book club. She loves book club. I only once, to discuss the book “Racing in the Rain,” about a dog with a passion for fast cars. Usually the stories chosen are super depressing. I’m already in prison. Why would I subject myself to more sadness? It’s like buying tickets to the Irish History Theatre—you’ve just agreed to sit for three hours to watch unwed mothers being shunned by society, living homeless, and starving in the snow. It’s a hard sell even with those charming accents.

My afternoon was spent making bookmarks for a squad that is in a sentence-reducing prison boot camp. Featuring black wolves and a quote from someone who seemed to love boot camp, this was more complicated than it sounds, involving clip-art, word-art, text boxes, the alignment button, and spell check. And the laminating machine. And the paper cutter.

Seriously, it took me two hours to make eight of them.

 

Twins won. Crappy lunch. Received a letter from Kourtney. (She starts at Augsburg in two weeks.)

 


 

Wednesday, August 3                                                                                                                                                              Day 2,843

Today I started to make 79,000 copies for Mr. Douche’s remedial GED fundamentals class and broke the copier. I’m not a fan of Mr. Douche—whose name may, or may not actually be Mr. Peterson—because he mimics people in hopes of being funny. It is 2016. If you are still mocking someone with a speech impediment, or that is unable to walk smoothly, you’re a straight up asshole.

Krystal showed me how to replace the toner with what looks like nuclear waste. If I’m glowing tonight, I’m suing.

Steph was trying to edit someone’s story submission so that is will fit onto one page. It’s written by a woman who has been back here four times. I don’t get it. How hard can it be? But I’m not an addict. Addiction isn’t logical.

Ms. Vanderud left early to attend a meeting that may or may not have been about sexual violence. No one likes to talk about where they are going, or anything they are doing. Everything is in code. Even if the staff wanted to tell us something personal, they aren’t supposed to—which makes for stifled conversation. “My alleged children are off of school today—teacher’s conference.”

Hmmm. Sneaky.

 

Twins won. Crappy lunch. No mail.

 


 

Thursday, August                                                                                                                                                                      Day 2,844

Today I changed the tape in the laminating machine and made 16 “DO NOT LIVE IN FEAR AND DARKNESS” posters—which gave me both fear and darkness. They hang these posters up by all our phones in the hallway and dayroom. In both Spanish and English, they inform us where to phone for help if we are being sexually harassed or assaulted. If you are Hmong and being sexually harassed or assaulted, apparently, they don’t care and you’re screwed.

I would just like to say for the record, “harassed” is a funny word.

It rained all afternoon, and Ms. Vanderud seemed edgy about the weather. She sensed hail, and, allegedly, she may or may not have a new car.

A copy-machine maintenance man wearing a nametag of “Phillip” came in to fix the copier. I think his real name is “Super Stoner that Probably Shouldn’t Be Working with Tools,” but I didn’t get a chance to ask him how he talked some “Phillip” into switching tags because we had to stand in the hall while he worked in our broom closet. A dark trail of toner followed behind him when he left, and Steph will soon acquire Black Lung Disease, as it is thickest around her desk.

I finished Mr. Douche’s 79,000 copies.

Steph worked on more bleak articles about book club.

Krystal did complicated things in her computer.

Ms. Vanderud had another meeting, which may or may not have been about weather damage.

 

Twins lost. Crappy lunch. No mail.

 


 

Friday, August 5                                                                                                                                                                        Day 2,845

Today I dropped off the 79,000 Douche-bag copies to his classroom, where he questioned who I was and why I was behind his desk. The correct response should have been, “I just ran a 100-yard dash in the rain with your 15 pounds of categorically simple math equation sheets that broke our copier two days ago, and put them down on your chair as it is the only available clean surface in this room,” but said, “Institutional Service. They are your papers. Where would you like them?”

I find it’s better to simplify when dealing with people who openly mock those with mental and or physical challenges.

When I returned, I made 50 “Books on Hold” sheets for the library on the wrong colored paper—they were supposed to be on blue, not canary yellow—and learned how to make labels for food supplement bags. They need a lot of labels because anyone that’s pregnant, just had a baby, on a high protein diet, is gluten-free, a diabetic, needs iron, has a severe allergy, or has a full-blown eating disorder has one. I’m really the only person who doesn’t, and I’m a vegetarian—you would think I should get something.

Steph spent the morning on her computer, obsessed with reducing the stomach on a picture of a volunteer with a body shape of a Dolores sloth. I didn’t understand why—maybe if he saw how fat he had become, he’d exercise. Besides, it’s a prison newspaper. How good do you need to look? God love Steph for trying.

I’ve noticed that Ms. Vanderud seldom wears socks.

I’ve yet to see the cleaning person all week, our room is now overflowing with trash. I fear that the recycling barrel is actually just a blue waste can.

 

Twins won. Crappy lunch. Postcard from L.C. and a New Yorker mag.

 


 

Monday, August 8                                                                                                                                                                     Day 2,848

There is a new, fake teacher across the hall, substituting for Ms. Rockholtzer—who usually teaches a GED prep class, but today may or may not be at an education conference. The new, fake teacher looks like Ms. Sonderson from the computer lab, if Ms. Sonderson just ate a lemon and hated people.

Today I made 2,000 kites—the main form of communication between prisoner and staff. Any request, concern, or exchange of information is put into writing, and sent through in-house mail. Kites are made on canary yellow. I now feel that I am personally responsible for all regional deforestation. Two thousand kites will last for about four days.

Ms. Vanderud was eating cat food for lunch. She said that, allegedly, it may or may not be shrimp scampi, but my Olive’s Fancy Feast in a can smells less rank. I felt like I was developing toxoplasmosis just by scent exposure.

Both Steph and Krystal left for a “Positive Peer Culture” meeting. I’m not a member, which I guess means I’m not a positive peer. They’ve been going for two years and the only things accomplished is creating little laminated cards that people in “Positive Peer Culture” can attach to their clip-on IDs. On one side, the cards read “Values” and lists thing slike “accountability” and “balance.” On the flip, it says “Positive Principles” and lists statements like “Right thought, right speech, right action,” and “Set/reach achievable affirming goals.”

Sounds like a Mao Tse-tung cult.

The group might want to focus on that last one and actually accomplish something rather than talk about accomplishing something. For my money, if you need a card to help you fly right, you need more than a card.

 

Twins won. Crappy lunch. Kite back from Ms. Sonderson. (Computer lab next Thursday at 3:30PM.)

 


 

Tuesday, August 9                                                                                                                                                                     Day 2,849

Today I learned how to alter pictures, which may or may not be legal. I can now make backgrounds, skin conditions, and stains on shirts disappear. It’s amazing.

Minncor Mike dropped off a box of toner labeled “Magenta,” but that was lies. It was black toner. This is obviously how people sneak things into a prison—in big boxes labeled “Magenta Toner.”

Steph likes to hum, whistle, and sing very unpopular music. I don’t mind until “My Sharona” or “She’s Got Betty Davis Eyes” gets stuck in my head. Then I’m bitter.

Copier broke again and Super Stoner made another office call and once again applied a layer of soot to our desks. It’s the gift that keeps giving. Like herpes, or glitter. Or perhaps glitter-herpes.

Our office is next to The Transitions Center, where women go to work on their resumes, or look for brochures about different services available to them when they leave. A lot of the information revolves around housing, or treatment, or housing with treatment. Transitions needs a lot of copies because people often don’t have a place to go upon release. There are two women who work as transition clerks—Cece and Megan. They both really love Jesus and wear ponytails. They have two tan and bubbly supervisors—who if they were a sport, would be tennis.

I got to know my co-workers a little more while we waited for Stoner to put in yet another temporary filling into the copier. I learned: Steph’s friends are all in prisons, or about to be, and that Krystal was beat up in 3rd grade for being good-looking.

 

Twins lost. Lunch was finally grilled cheese. No mail.

 


 

Wednesday, August 10                                                                                                                                                            Day 2,850

Today I made a lot of copies for “Cortland,” the unit that all the newbies go to when they first arrive. There are always a lot of returnees.

I inventoried the forms in the “form closet” and then went with Ms. Vanderud to retrieve more copy paper. We broke our spines carrying the paper but were not able to grieve about it on the proper kites made for this exact purpose because we were out of the green grievance forms.

Across the hall, Ms. Rockholtzer is back from her alleged education conference. I don’t know what happened to the people-hating lemon. It’s an enigma.

Krystal is working on a supplement to the next Echo publication. It’s called “Most Wanted Cookbook,” and features tasty treats from horrible ingredients. We are limited by what we can order from canteen—nothing—and can only microwave. People are very food-creative. I am not. I always combine three ingredients or fewer; it’s limiting. My friend Youa is Hmong and is an amazing cook. She once told me that I was not a bad cook, just impatient—and in order to make great tasting food, you had to cook with love and patience. I could barely hear because I was yelling at my cup of tea to boil faster.

Krystal, Steph, and I were talking about narcissists when Ms. Bell, one of the tennis ladies from next door, dropped in and interjected, “I’ve been called that before.” We said nothing. So then she adds, “I am not a narcissist.”

Okay.

 

Twins lost. Crappy lunch. Card from Viva. (John feeling better, but only drinks protein shakes.)

 


 

Thursday, August 11                                                                                                                                                                    Day 2,851

Today the copier had a paper jam in a new spot that I didn’t even know was an option to get a jam in, and I made books in the copier made out of ledger paper. It’s much cooler than run-of-the-mill “auto” paper.

I altered more pictures. I like the names of the icons that do the altering—“Healing Brush,” “Lasso,” “Star Wars Circle,” “Radiation Alarm,” “Dazzling Sprayer.” Some of them I renamed.

Most of them.

In the afternoon, Krystal had to go to medical and Steph had to go to choir practice, so I was left to fly solo with 50 pounds of copies to make for the Transitions Center. And left to my thoughts.

It’s the small slights that rub you. This morning I got a copy of my mother-in-law’s obituary notice; it was mailed from my husband, Bill. It said that she died peacefully, blah blah blah, and was survived by her husband blah blah, her daughter and her husband and granddaughters blah blah, and Bill.

No me. No wife. Like I’m dead.

It shouldn’t bother me, but it does.

 

Twins lost. Crappy lunch. Letter from Bill w/ his mom’s obituary.

 


 

Friday, August 12                                                                                                                                                                       Day 2,852

Today I worked with a new machine called G. Heat 4000. It is a heated laminator and fills the air with toxic fumes. I am sooo developing sarcoidosis. I had to laminate 80 positive peer culture badges for the positive peer cult. Ironically, positive peer culture will be the death of me.

Ms. Vanderud had to go to a meeting which may or may not have been about education planning, so the tennis lady that is not a narcissist said she would keep an eye on us. I felt this was code for: if they find us on the floor suffering from active sarcoidosis, she has agreed to do the paperwork. Her name is Ms. Ronny, and she uses a lot of hair product.

I wrote an article about tattoos for Steph’s latest edition. I don’t have any ink,(because I’m indecisive about placement and can barely stand to have my eyebrows waxed), but most women (and the guards) have a lot of body art and would find it an interesting read. If I were to get a tattoo, I would get a recycling symbol. It’s much more sporty than a compost pile.

I have passed the two-week probation, or as I like to call it, “Double Secret Probation.” Now I can only be fired if I do something noticeably bad, like steal the copier, or can’t do my work because I’ve caught a severe, debilitating illness, like pneumococcal pneumonia.

So that’s awesome.

 

Twins lost. Crappy lunch. A New Yorker mag, and a card from Kourtney.