Anna M. Vanderford was awarded an Honorable Mention in Fiction in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people 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 September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.

Double Time / Borrowed Time / Time’s Up

Double Time—Hustling—Part 1

I shouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think that I know what you think, because you certainly don’t know what I think. However, I have heard that people in the free world believe that prisoners have it too easy.

So let me tell you about how I got to be a criminal, then about “a day in the life of” what is considered a CRIMINAL and recidivist.

It all started out simple enough, I was in 6th or 7th grade and my mom thought I was sleeping with her boyfriend. I was. It was such a slow initiation, he was giving me money and I didn’t realize the full scope of how it would affect my life and world. When my mom confronted me and I said yes, instead of being rewarded for the truth, my mom slapped me, called me a slut, and kicked me out of the house. The funny thing about being “poor white trash” is that no tells you that you are. I guess one day you wake up and find out that you are, but by that time it may be too late to do anything about it.

I can’t remember exactly HOW I survived the first night as a homeless teenager. I probably didn’t sleep. I do remember wandering aimlessly around many inner city blocks. It gets a lot colder outside at night than anyone that hasn’t been homeless can imagine.

I do remember feeling ashamed and grimy. At first, I would wait until there was no one around and dig in the dumpster for leftover food. I never had a cat as a pet, but I found I didn’t like cats because they became my biggest competition for “dumpster food.” I would step on previously smoked cigarette butts and slide them over to myself, saving them up to make something worth smoking. Smoking always made me feel grown and warmer on cold days and nights. At least getting a light was a way to have quick human interaction. Living on the streets there was a whole litany of personal hygiene issues.

I was starting to get a routine down. I would start off in the morning, stopping at a fast food restaurant to use their bathroom to wipe off the “pits, tits, and slits.” Thank goodness, my monthly (Aunt Flow) was more like a quarterly event, because that meant spending money at the Salvation Army for the cheapest, most absorbent clothes necessary. Next on the list was to find some grub. Eventually, you see the same people in the same areas. I guess it’s like life in general, some are mean and greedy and some nice. There was a nice lady, Crystal, that started saving me snacks and the best trash. “Good Trash” is edible food, anything you can redeem for money, or is useful (may keep you warm, dry, or healthy—people’s old antibiotics).

After breakfast and gathering is the selling and trading, or seeing if anyone has any work so that you can make a little money. Most legitimate businesses can’t and won’t hire runaway minors and the homeless. We don’t have experience, dependable housing, an alarm clock, or anything really.

The best kind of work is the day worker groups: You’re not alone, you get picked up and taken out to a rural farm, they tell you what’s expected, and usually give you lunch and money at the end of the day. If you do a good job, you’ll get picked up by the same employer for as long as the season lasts (like raking up pecans).

The ideal work was in the suburb: shoveling snow, raking, and cleaning private yards. What one lady called rotten pears that she wanted off her lawn was the best day in my life. I collected the pears, ate the pears, traded them to my friends, and sold them. The downside was that there was not transportation out there, no lunch, and no repeat work. However, she paid me well for the day, and the pears created a financial windfall that made up for the rest.

In the winter, after a full day’s work, one of the worst things to face is trying to find a warm place to sleep. The best place is if you can find a long bus route to stay on. If you have a really good financial week, you could go to the movies, and—it used to be—stay and watch it from the first showing to the last. It would be cheaper and cleaner than some of the seedy motels.

Motels were a real luxury. I did pool my funds with Crystal a couple of times, so we could bathe and sleep safely. When we split a room, we talked and she wondered why I didn’t go home. I tried, but it didn’t work. I was too grown to be home but too young to really deserve to be on the streets. Crystal was old enough to be my mom and was a mom at one point. While we didn’t get too personal, it seemed she was too old to be a prostitute and she advised me against it. It can be so dangerous on the streets and I really didn’t want to have sex, for fun or for money.

One night I was walking and, out of nowhere, a guy shoved me against a wall in an alley. He pulled a knife. As I was trying to open my mouth to scream or speak, I felt the tip of the knife digging into the roof of my mouth. The guy said “give me all your money.” As it happened, I didn’t even have any money. I remember thinking that it was ironic because I was glad not to have any at that time. I could taste my own blood in my mouth, as the guy expected me to rustle around to get the money for him, but I was trying to tell him I was homeless.

Like a superhero, but in slow motion, some other guy came up yelling, and my attacker took off. I stood there stunned and this hero introduced himself as Scott. He asked if I was okay and had a place to stay. I just nodded, I didn’t have much to say. I felt like I had a lot to think about. It’s really surprising that I hadn’t been a victim of violence or rape before this. I guess, I didn’t even care about being raped because I had sex at such an early age. Still, I was in shock. I ended up going to Scott’s place, which was like a studio apartment.

It seemed like a huge warehouse of a room, with a boxspring and mattress on the floor against one wall, a kitchen in a different area, and a bathroom area separated by room dividers. Other mismatched chairs were arranged in an attempt to wall off the bed. Scott said I could sleep in the bed with him (and there would be no hanky panky) or on the couch. He offered an extra set of clean clothes and a meal. He said—since I didn’t introduce myself or have anything to say and was skittish but I followed him home—that I reminded him of his cat, so he would call me “Cat.” He also commented that his cat thinks that because he is hiding under a table and can’t be seen, he really is invisible. So, Scott reminded me to be safe. I remember I ate, slept in the bed fully clothed, petted his cat, and jetted out of there before he got up.

It was a routine day for me when I heard someone yelling “Hey, Cat!” I knew it was Scott and since he’d been a gentleman and saved me, I had nothing but a good feeling about seeing him. He asked me where I’d been and if I wanted to stop by and see him before work. It turns out that Scott was a bartender and slept most days and worked at night. He even offered me a place to stay. And so it was that I cleaned his place and had a roof over my head. It wasn’t a palace, but it sure seemed like it. It was fantastic, no bugs, a shower, clean food.

I would do anything for Scott and as it turns out I would get a chance to prove it. Scott had a small-time drug habit. He would buy then use heroin, and he never hid it from me. He never sexually or physically abused me. A few times when Scott was irritated he said I needed to pull my own weight, but if I looked like I might leave, he’d quickly shut up. Everyone has ups and downs, Scott had become like a surrogate family. Who doesn’t want to be loved, needed, and included?

When Scott was sick, I took care of him. I’d go “cop” or get his drugs if need be. I learned to cut or add soap, salts, or “stretch” the drugs and re-sell them. I learned to make something out of nothing. I’d pose as pregnant at the soup kitchen so I could bring home food. I’d sell weak drugs for food stamps and food stamps for a T.V. Scott and I were hand-to-mouth hustlers. Scott said he finally was going to hit the big time. Scott was supposed to have cassette tapes of drugs sent to his workplace. I was supposed to stop by the bar and pick them up so they weren’t there.

I would hustle double-time, and I was used to the hard work. It was so constant that it never reached my conscience that it was all illegal. Scott got the drugs and lolly-gagged getting them to me. Then I got busted picking them up. I eventually would get sentenced “double-time.” The legal system threw everything at the wall and everything stuck.


Borrowed TimeDeath RowPart 2

I went from being homeless, to being a small time drug gopher, to serving a life sentence in prison. I never understood how someone that had not committed murder could end up serving life sentences in prison, but it is fairly common. There are a plethora of technicalities. If a person commits a felony in the commission of another felony, it qualifies as an upper echelon of crimes and time.

I never really held it against Scott for blaming me when he was interrogated, letting me take the fall for all the drugs, and abandoning me. It’s not like we were married, and when it comes to being busted, it seems it is “every man for himself.” Plus, “three hots and a cot” was a step up for me from fending for myself, wasn’t it?

While there may be minor variations, entering any prison as an inmate is generally the same. You get a delouse shower. A “fish” kit (hygiene kit and bedding for new arrivals). You’re assigned a cell, which seems to come with a gnarly state-issued convict/bunkie. I imagine it’s like being in high school or the armed forces. You’re at the bottom. You’re lucky if you can make yourself invisible and not get picked on. The beginning is harsh and all about survival. In the prison where I am, the life prisoners are in with the inmates serving “life without the possibility of parole” and the Death Row inmates. There are so many of us, it’s not some little row, but a large complex, a prison within a prison. We’re all out and about, we have contact with general population all day, and we’re locked into our own complex at night. It is only if you can’t function in the prison society that you will get locked in Security Housing Unit (SHU). Which is a 24-hour lock down.

I had the typical humongous, black bunkie; her last name was Wiley. I imagine that’s why they called her “Coyote.” It’s almost another unspoken rule that no one in prison goes by their real name. I don’t know if it is to prevent officers from keeping up with new criminal activity while incarcerated, but it reminds me of a bunch of truckers with a special handle and their own code language and secret traveling close-knit society.

One would think that the death penalty convicts would be the worst, but even though they are living on borrowed time, I guess it’s like anyone else, their true spirit eventually comes out. You have nice ones, mean ones, and favorites. My best friend was Hull. She seemed kind of clueless, a clown of sorts. Truth is, Hull was barely an adult and was engaged to a dentist. She walked in on him cheating then raced to the night stand and shot her fiancé and his lover. (She didn’t run after she committed her crime but wandered out to the beach and was found curled up in the hull of a boat, hence her nickname.) Hull is a naturally attractive young woman and comes across as friendly, easy-going, and seemingly normal. Maybe she’s just at peace with how her life is progressing. We also have another close Death Row friend, Taxi. (She was a prostitute sick of turning tricks, got in the back of a cab to rob the driver, and it all went bad fast.) The weird thing about female murderers and felons is that they typically don’t run from the scene of a crime. I suppose because they don’t PLAN their crimes, they work from EMOTIONS.

My first job was to clean showers. It’s a nasty and vulnerable job, IF you don’t mind your business and make some fast friends. The showers are a high traffic business area, because it is an area that there’s presumably some privacy. The male guards aren’t supposed to be in there, and the female guards don’t want to be around all those stanking and sagging bodies. Interestingly, you have an officer as a boss, but you also have an inmate as a boss (because the officer delegates it). Coincidentally, Coyote was my convict boss and my cellie. I did a good job on the showers, never said much, and, frankly, thought nothing of it. As fate would have it, it would bode well for me in my prison life. I started off with a good reputation. Actions speak louder than words and a good job speaks for itself, so I was covered with my work. And in prison all you have is your word, so your word is your bond. I’d made no boasts or promises, so I was solid. Coyote would supervise, collect, and pass stuff, and my main job was actual cleaning and keeping my mouth shut. But because I was so constant, I would get “gifts” just for NOT saying anything.

One would think that being in prison, you would be bored and have nothing to do but eat, read to your heart’s content, maybe work out, and be served food. Oh how wrong you would be! You work for pennies and have to spend those collective pennies to shop at the canteen for writing materials, rain gear, and necessities. Even in prison, money talks; maybe I should say especially in prison, money talks. The rich convicts run the common offenders like me. In fact, for a can of tobacco, you can get someone shanked. Sad to think, a life in prison is worth about $10. Kind of reminds me of the commercials to sponsor a third world child, except there’s no pity and no one to save you if you get on a hit list. (Well, unless you’re affiliated with a gang.) It doesn’t cost a penny to get someone harassed or raped with a broom or curling iron: that usually happens to the child molesters, free of charge.

Prison is not for the faint of heart. Aside from cleaning showers, as low seniority, I was in charge of cleaning our cell too. The conditions are horrendous. It’s always too hot or too cold, and the shower water is guaranteed to be the opposite. When you are homeless, you don’t actually live with vermin, because the vermin wander. In prison, the vermin are gangsters. You have to buy Vaseline to try to keep the cockroaches out of your bed and ears in the summer. You will inevitably eat or drink ants and flies, as they get into all of your food. It is a common occurrence for women to come from county jails with lice or scabies. It seems the population as a whole is always going through an epidemic, and they’re always giving us shots.

The mice are the worst. They climb the concrete walls, and you have to take your tape from your maxi pad to hang your food from the ceiling. It’s the only area too smooth for the mice to get to. One winter, I stuffed my door with a blanket trying to keep the mice out. When I shook it out, a whole family of mice had been hatched there. All the baby mice ran off but one, which I put in a jar and called PD Pablo because he squealed and cried but really didn’t run much. I found it humorous that Big Ole’ Coyote was afraid of a mouse, but she said as long as she never woke up to PD around her, I could do as I pleased with him.

Eventually I let PD roam the cell at will, and he never associated with the other mice that would come in. The gangster mice often had only three legs, no tails, fur missing from parts of their faces. The gangster mice had chewed off their parts and left said parts on the sticky pads placed to catch and kill them. I never really taught PD anything, except to get in his jar at night, because I was afraid I would smoosh him or Coyote would kill him. PD wasn’t a prisoner as far as I was concerned, just good company. Hull was too much of a girly girl to appreciate PD. Taxi thought I was nuts to have a pet mouse. Still, the girls banded together to help me keep my secret friend.

Prison has little pity as time marches on. Nubs was a big, black woman in a wheelchair. She didn’t start off in a wheelchair. She came in with a drug sales, trafficking, and possession, like me. Nubs was a diabetic with a sore on her foot that the medical department let mutate into gangrene. Eventually they had to amputate her toes, then foot, then to her ankle, then knee. Nubs was constantly talking about her lawsuit against the Department of Corrections and the millions she would be paid for her troubles, but Nubs could barely fill out a medical form. We all knew Nubs would be lucky to get someone to push her wheelchair to the chow hall to get fed daily. She sure liked PD though, and I’d often let her babysit.

So my first prison job, cleaning showers, doesn’t sound lucrative, but there are some that have family that just can’t imagine their loved one would end up in prison. You know the type, the prissy college girls that snorted all their college tuition. The Tiffany, Brittany, Bella, we’ll call her “Barbie.” Barbie got busted and had a high-priced attorney. Truth is, she will get her sentence reversed and end up in rehab, but no one wants the press to know. So, she was initially sent to prison, but everyone knows she won’t be here long. Well, everyone but the public knows she won’t stay in prison, and I don’t know if society cares. Anyway, I have a bunch of Barbies that are too good to scrub a shower that pay me to do their jobs.

So you wonder what one does with money in prison. Every month, as an indigent inmate, I get a bar of soap, toothpaste, deodorant, a couple rolls of toilet paper, and a bottle of shampoo. I still have to purchase the luxuries like lotion, clothing detergent, and coffee.

It’s not like my hustling put me in the lap of luxury, but what they feed us is “dog food.” I’m used to dog food, but I thought investing in some hearty food would keep me alive. I used some funds to buy the good food straight from the kitchen workers. I also invested in extra stuffing for my bed mattress. I figured rest and easing my aches would help in my entrepreneurial endeavors. A major purchase was some used tennis shoes; it’s not just a status symbol, but you need sure-footedness if you have to fight

After working all day, cleaning showers, eating, showering myself, I have to wash my clothes, maybe get to read, and definitely pass out. Instead of years of doing the exact same thing, there’s a corporate ladder, even in here. Any job that makes your life easier and which you can get customers to charge on the side, is considered a “good” job. Clearly, the kitchen is considered a “good” job, with obvious perks. There’s also laundry or any kind of clerk job (that may have insider information or access to “good trash,” which I have experience in.)

Prison has a lot of inconsistent, pointless rules and regulations. The female prisoners are not allowed to have or wear makeup. The administrators want the women to act like ladies, but treat them like dogs. If a woman escapes, I promise you they wouldn’t look like the zombie on their identification. The prison guards do searches regularly and confiscate things like colored pencils, which are allowed for drawing but used for makeup. My friend, Hull, uses coffee and baby powder for face powder. On one hand, while I think it is ridiculous, I have to commend her for the gumption she has to care. After working about a month to pay for extra mattress stuffing, I probably got a year’s use out of it before it was confiscated by a guard during a search. You have to hedge your bets in prison, figure out what’s important to you and whether it’s a worthwhile investment.

One day, after a grueling day of showers, Hull told me how I could earn and spend more money I didn’t have, get a visit, and eat vending machine food. She said I could clean up and she could set me up with a guy and at least I could be Queen for a Day. It sounded really good, and I wanted to take a vacation from my life. So the day came that my name was called over the loudspeaker for a visit. There was a man that looked 100 years old dragging an oxygen tank, and he introduced himself as Wilbur, Hull’s friend. Wilbur was a really accomplished older gentlemen. I was bored as hell, listening to how life was back in the good ole’ days. But as it turned out, I learned a lot, and Wilbur truly expected nothing but company (a pleasant exchange of information) during visiting hours. Wilbur purchased me a soda, candy, a burger, the types of treats that only Barbies had access to. I became genuinely interested in who and how he was. Granted we would never be more than good friends, but one could never have too many friends and honestly, I’d never had a friend before.

Prison is a bizarre world. The prison had a preacher that preached against the gays but was busted in a park trying to solicit sex from little boys. One of our doctors was serving out his sentence for his drug abuse by working at our prison. Many of the guards had been busted for various crimes and fired. But I truly could understand. If a guard brought in one pack of cigarettes which cost him $5, and had 20 cigarettes in it, each cigarette was broken into 3 rolled pinners and sold for $5 a piece. Well, that comes out to much more than a day’s wage.

One time, I remember Coyote asked me with her big ugly self if I thought the guard would bring her a cigarette if she flashed him. I was ready to roll on the floor and laugh out loud, but—while I knew I wasn’t a beauty queen—she was SERIOUS! Who knows maybe the guard was freaky or would just have pity on her. Not everyone could make money the same way. As a matter of fact, for as long as I knew her, how Coyote made money was collecting unpaid drug debts and receiving a commission. Wilbur had no idea, but he saved my life many a time. I would tell him I needed information about the Civil War, and he would tell me or send me printed info from his computer. I would write a paper and sell it to those going to school. Wilbur gave me info about mice when I was concerned about PD. If mice for pets would’ve caught on for a business, I could’ve made a million dollars. But even prisoners aren’t that desperate for company. I purchased creamer, lotion, a winter hat, socks, and gloves that way! As I said, not all of us can hustle in the same way.

Many people die in prison, some of natural causes. We had a whole unit of the terminally ill, from AIDS to cirrhosis. You can’t imagine the rest of the horrific scenes. Unfortunately, one becomes quite anesthetized to it all. Of course there are a few suicides, but not as many as you would think. One of the reasons that so many die in prison is that the guards get paid the same whether they respond to a fight or not. So you better figure out early on that you are on your own. If you end up fighting, you better go for the gusto, the response time will be until you’re tired or dead. One woman owed so much for drugs that instead of waiting to be beat up, she jumped off the top tier. She survived, and I heard an inmate orderly complaining about having to wipe her useless ass. (But at least the inmate was doing it, because let’s face it, the nurses weren’t going to.)

Most deaths are over lovers, drugs, bad deals over the aforementioned, and, occasionally, over turf. Surprisingly, but perhaps it should be expected, the mentally ill do well in prison. Most people give them a wide berth. I was talking on the yard one day and everyone started moving. I looked behind me; a woman had stripped down and was taking a piss, like it was an everyday event.

There are also tons of pregnant women in prison, which I imagine we could attribute to hormones. But they get very little sympathy in prison, as women will remark what a horrible mother you are to start out in prison and they have to fight because they are not pregnant in the face! I guess it stands to reason if they don’t care about themselves that no one else does.

Prison is cut-throat both literally and figuratively. Another time I was talking with Taxi, and a person in our circle grabbed another woman by the throat. Taxi pulled me away. As I looked back, the woman’s throat had been cut. Taxi told me we didn’t want blood on us, or to be witnesses. It’s always better NOT to be involved, even if you know and see everything.

One night, I tapped the jar to the floor and PD didn’t show up. I was so tired and Wiley didn’t seem to notice, so I thought I’d deal with it the next day. The next day, as soon as I got a break, I made it to my cell and tore everything apart. Had PD been taken during a search? No, I would’ve heard. Had Nubs decided to pick him up? I made a mental note to check. After cleaning everything, checking everything and with Nubs, it was two more days without PD and I awoke to his flattened body between my face and his jar. Apparently, he had crawled in my mattress and I’d squashed him after all. He came out to die and I stroked his little body till he turned cold, then I flushed him. I realized that day that prison had taken its toll on me. I couldn’t name five people on earth that I cared for more than about PD. Of course, I don’t know if there are five people that care for me. I mean, Wilbur, Hull, and Taxi are at the top of my list, but am I at the top of theirs? I was once someone’s lovable kid. What had happened to my life?

It seems like the holidays are the only time that the homeless and prisoners matter to anyone, and it’s usually the super religious. There’s nothing like breaking out the news camera and heading to the soup kitchens and prisons to watch them eat their once-a-year turkey. Hey, I’m happy for it. I definitely believe in God and thank him for breathing every day. If I had to ask Him for something (like pray for a wish, like the list you make to Santa Claus), I’d pray for a better start. I’d pray that I’d wake up a kid in a nice home and that I had a teachable, grateful spirit and to have the knowledge that I have now, so that I could really help people, like the current me.

What happened to my life? I guess I lived it the best I could so I could tell people like you to go easy on the poverty stricken, the ignorant, the downtrodden. Some people really don’t know any better. Prisoners do not have it too easy. If you really think so, see if you can find anyone to swap out with them.

I am content with my life. When it comes down to it, I guess this is supposed to be my life. I mean we have to thank God, we are all living on borrowed time.


Time’s Up—Execution—Part 3 

I don’t know how I can ever feel sorry for myself. As I said, the inmates sentenced to life, life without possibility of parole, and Death Row inmates are all housed together. My best friends have death dates. When an inmate scheduled for execution gets down to a year of their death date, they are put in “the cage.” The cage is an actual row of cells that is caged off from the rest of us. No one has ever explained to us why, but my guess would be that it’s because Death Row inmates don’t have much to lose at that point and the system doesn’t want to be responsible for absolutely no-holds-barred behavior. I mean, what would you do if you were in a general population prison setting with a year to live? Anything you damn well please!

So the day came that Hull was told she had to move to the cage. We hugged, we cried, I told her nothing would change. I mean, it was located on the unit, and I could still go to the cage and talk. But we were naïve, it did change. It was like putting a shock collar on a dog. Hull’s trips and visits outside her cell and talking to those of us outside the cage diminished. We all went to our respective jobs and by the time we came back, most in the cage were in their dismal cocoon. When I did see Hull, I wouldn’t dare tell her, but she looked like death. I suppose the protracted stress of knowing her death date was sucking the life out of her. Hull never said she didn’t deserve it, but I suppose there was a degree of fear that even she couldn’t articulate.

We had about 300 women on our death unit, but only 24 in the cage. When their execution day came, there was not equipment to execute them at the women’s prison, so they were transferred to the men’s prison about a week prior. When I talked to Hull about her last meal, she said she loved hot dogs, especially Chicago dogs, with diced tomatoes, a thin slice of kosher dill pickle, and a sprinkling of celery salt. Truth be told, I don’t think Hull was going to be able to eat anything. I wonder where the last meal tradition ever came from?

Hull was an only child, her dad had passed away long before her crime. Hull’s mom, Pat, visited regularly. I said “hi” to Pat, when I was in visiting to see Wilbur. We all sent greetings when we weren’t headed to visiting. We all were in a level of denial about Hull’s execution. Pat lived for Hull. It is theorized that when a spouse dies, typically the remaining spouse’s days are numbered, but it is exponentially increased when it is a child.

Hull was executed, I don’t know if only prisoners mourned her, or if she had former classmates. Pat passed away within the year (from an accumulation of ailments, angina, emphysema, etc.)

We are all just blooming where we are planted, making the most of our time and lucky to be alive.