Just Another Death
I sit on my bunk as the minutes tick by. The count should have cleared over half an hour ago. Something’s up. In a place where timing and routine and schedule are the axis upon which the world revolves, remaining locked for so long past the standard count time sends Morse code through the heart of every inmate. All receive the same message: something on the compound is wrong. Unfortunately, right now there is no information. Everyone’s locked, so the jail grapevine hasn’t had a chance to wrap its tendrils around the latest juicy event. I hear the C/O tell my neighbor, “Get comfy, we’re going to be down for the night.” Shit. Whatever the cause of this lockdown is, it’s serious. I’m resigned to spending the evening reading and watching TV. I don’t fathom that what I hear tomorrow will be enough to send me reeling to the toilet, puking and crying, and wishing to God I was a better person.
The next morning it’s business as usual and I go about my morning routine with no more than a thought or two about last night’s mysterious lockdown. Why bother, someone’s bound to fill me in sooner or later. That’s the thing about jail gossip—everyone’s dying to get their hands on it, but they are even more anxious to give it away.
My hypothesis is correct; it takes little more than an hour after mass movement before the big news reaches my ears. “Can you believe it? That girl used a damn garbage bag to kill herself with. Ain’t that shit crazy?”
Someone I hardly know has (intentionally) weaseled over to me as I pass through the prison’s Grand Central Station—the Medical Unit lobby/waiting room. A heavyset Puerto Rican woman of indeterminable age, she has made a career out of ferreting out every morsel of jailhouse scandal and circulating it with Internet speed. She scrabbles over the wretched details of the previous night’s tragedy with the excitement of a carnival rat in the popcorn machine. Her beady, black eyes search over my face, hungry for my reaction.
“Wow,” I stammer, trying desperately to push the awful visualization from my mind. “Who was it?” My acquaintance leans in conspiratorially and proceeds, for the benefit of all around, to raise her voice 50 or 60 decibels. She drops the name of an old friend and I feel my heart crumple like a wad of used tissue.
The linoleum floor ripples out in front of me and hot, salty pressure throbs behind my eyes, a warning that I’ve got about seven seconds to hightail it out of here before I’m guilty of a jail misdemeanor—Crying in Public.
Crying in Public is considered a nasty little transgression in prison. Don’t get me wrong—there are indeed women who Cry in Public, some of them daily. But it is a well known fact that tears come with a purpose: sympathy from inmates or staff, handouts, favors, a way to sidestep disciplines, or to avoid the wrath of someone they’ve undoubtedly screwed over. But in a world of Professional Con Artists, Public Criers are considered obvious, small-time manipulators, their scamming pathetic, even gaudy. This belief is so steadfast that any tears, no matter how genuine, are automatically suspect, subject to jokes, sneers, eye-rolling, and out and out insults. To not be perceived as a Public Crier, true grief and pain must be hidden and unleashed only in total seclusion, usually within the confines of one’s own cell or shower stall. So far away from my housing unit, I bolt to the nearest bathroom.
Before the tears have a chance, my stomach bullet trains in reverse. I’m not able to reach the toilet and my uniform’s covered in lunch’s corn chowder. As I kneel on the dank bathroom floor, I cradle my sweaty forehead in the crick of my elbow and let the streams of snot and spit and tears swirl together and mix in the bowl. My hair is stuck in the grimy condensation on the outer rim of the toilet. At any other moment in my life this would send me reeling in disgust; right now I don’t bother to lift my head. I don’t save my hair, just like I didn’t save my friend.
Three years ago I was in the middle of Not Anywhere. I was not halfway through my eight-year bid. I was not friends with the clique I’d spent the past three years with—but I was not not friends with them either. I pinballed through the days without incident. Jail routine sucked away my interest in any specific day. On another rainy, grey afternoon, a bony, stray girl slinked up to me.
“So, how’s it going?” The girl, a good head shorter than me, shifted foot to foot ungracefully, and scratched at her miserable acne, a combination of rhubarb and custard. Coke bottle glasses magnified hungry, dark blue eyes. They darted around the room searching for something to suck up and spit out as conversation. I murmured something non-committal as I looked through her. Content in my loneliness, I wasn’t looking to be engaged by anyone, and I certainly didn’t feel like hanging out with someone so unbearably geeky. She was “Carrie” without the special powers. Before I could walk away, she dashed in front of me and made a second stab at dialogue. She asked me if I had any good books she could borrow, and when I mentioned that my books were on eastern philosophy, her spotty face lit up.
We chatted away the afternoon and talking with her was instantly easy and comfortable. Long hours of conversation soon became our standard. Without the normal jail pretenses, we discussed everything from our kids to politics. She was open about a rough childhood and her roller-coaster relationship with her mother. I related on that subject, too. As we talked one afternoon, I began styling her long, blond hair.
“Why don’t you take better care of yourself in here, Keena? Your hair is just awful.” She looked like she’d spent the better part of the afternoon curled up underneath a car engine. “Maybe we could try a little makeup sometime.”
“I want to look nice. But I know I’m not pretty. Do you know how to do makeup?” I immediately started pulling out different colored pencils, eyeliners, and hair products. The apathy of three years melted away as I made this girl my pet project. We experimented every day for weeks trying to find ways to tame her mangy appearance. We bonded over eye shadow and hair gel. Keena basked in the attention of being my Eliza Dolittle. She became giddy from the interest taken in her.
One morning, as I started trying an updo on Keen I’d seen in a magazine, I noticed a gruesome burn on the back of her neck.
“Jesus Christ, Keena! How the hell did you get burned like this?” I ran my fingers over the ghastly purple and peach scar. The welt was at least the size of a silver dollar.
“Oh,” she tittered, knocking my hand out of the way to grab the wound. I got a tattoo, my girl’s name. I found out she was cheating on me, so I burned it off with a curling iron. I had to leave the iron on for a long time before her name came all the way off. I put her name back on when we got back together. See?” Keena yanked up her pant leg and exposed another ugly jail tattoo on her ankle.
Keena participated in one of prison’s most popular pastimes—the Jail Relationship. Relationships in jail are almost never about Attraction, Affection, or Love. They are about Control, Manipulation, and Loneliness. Women who have spent years trading their bodies for drugs, alcohol, clothes, and cars have a hard time stopping a behavior that has worked so well. Once in jail, girls “bodyswap” for food, sneakers, and almost anything else of value. Women will even swap their own girlfriends for commissary. Other women fall into the Jail Relationship out of boredom, or because facing oneself alone is too horrible to bear.
Keena fell into the latter group. She had struck up a friendship with another inmate, and their involvement quickly escalated into a typical dysfunctional Jail Relationship. Keena’s girl was a regular in the Mental Health Unit, known for stunts like trying to slice the arteries of her wrists with a pair of nail clippers and smashing numerous TVs to cut herself on the shards of glass. Their on-again off-again relationship was a constant source of drama, and thus a remedy to the daily ennui. Three times a day Keena ran to the dining hall as fast as walkway rules would allow. She repeatedly risked serious trouble by entering buildings without permission to meet up with her girlfriend. In letters and in fleeting encounters, the two declared their undying love for each other, then cursed each other to the ends of the earth. During off periods, Keena often enlisted my help to rankle her girlfriend.
Keena had dropped her girl for cheating on her, again. Many times a day we passed the housing unit where Keena’s partner lived. The girl’s cell window looked straight out onto the walkway.
“Please, Chris, when we go past, pretend I’m saying something really funny, really great, okay? Start laughing and stuff. I want her to know I don’t need her; I’ve got other people in my life now.”
“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me, Keena! How junior high can you possibly get?” Annoyed at her foolishness, I brushed her off. I looked back to see her teary, pleading face. “Please,” she murmured, “I just want her to know I’ve got friends.” So we laughed like lunatics at nothing, five or six times a day.
The last day of our friendship was a Sunday. Keena purred as I fixed her hair for church. “When she sees me, my girl is gonna drop that other chick, I know it. She’s going to come back to me for good this time.” She checked and rechecked her appearance in the mirror, an object she normally avoided. For extra luck, I lent her my nicest pair of jeans and best sweatshirt.
“Knock ’em dead!” I cheered as she left for services. Strutting out the door, she threw me a Cheshire-cat smile. An hour later the C/O called a lockdown. Everyone shuffled into their individual cell. I strained against my window to see what was going on. Finally someone with a better view called out that Keena was handcuffed and being dragged away backwards, surrounded by guards. My heart plummeted. At church she jumped her rival and smashed the girl’s skull open against a metal pillar. “Oh man, why’d you do that, Keena?” I muttered. “Yeah,” smirked my cellmate, “You’re never going to get your clothes back now.”
“Oh shut up,” I snapped, aggravated that I had been caught thinking exactly that.
Keena’s nasty little stunt earned her a two-week trip to Segregation, and a smattering of fame. Suddenly, everyone on the compound knew about the scrappy blond. Although she had jumped the girl from behind, Keena thought she was respected. She became drunk off the shot of notoriety she received. Keena and I didn’t see each other too often after “the Big Fight.” I saw her in passing, surrounded by a swarm of parasitic people, who hookwormed themselves to her and her newfound “rep.” Keena didn’t want to talk about Buddhism anymore, she now only read The Source. No longer did my friend hum Nickelback songs to herself while lost in thought. Her vocabulary had shrunk to include words like “ho’s,” “yo,” and “dap.” Eliza Dolittle had drowned in her popularity.
At one point she left jail, only to return a few months later, earning her “Frequent Flyer” status. I had moved on, both literally and figuratively. Our last conversation was in the Medical Unit. Keena was alone, stripped of her former celebrity. She was grotesquely thin, a dead giveaway as to her activities while on the outside.
She was crumpled up in the corner of the lobby, all the former bravado gone. In this sad state, I finally saw the Keena I’d first befriended. Unfortunately, I was still intensely angry with her for never contacting me after she left prison. “Welcome back,” I sneered. “What d’ya come back for this time?”
“Ohmigod, Chris, I’m so glad I got to run into you. I missed you so much. I’m telling you, I was doing so good out there. Honest. I just ran into some old friends and one thing led to another . . . ,” she slumped. “I really tried this time.”
“Yeah, well, I hope your ‘old friends’ take care of you while you’re here. When you came in, you were all about recovery and getting your life together. Then you left, and totally forgot about the people who took care of you—before you were cool. You never even wrote to me when you left. I know you wrote your girl even though she’s been seeing somebody else for months. How do you think that makes me feel?” Keena’s mouth started words, but no sound accompanied them. Her eyes fell to the floor and became permanently glued there. When I saw no answer or explanation coming from her, I stomped off, my rage vented. We never made amends. She left prison again a short while later. I found out she was back only when she died.
Keena killed herself on the evening of June 21, 2006. It was a Wednesday, and the longest day of the year. Life here hasn’t changed because of her violent death. I still do my dishes in the sink above my toilet. I still worry about the next shakedown. I wear the same clothes I wore when I met Keena; they are the same clothes I wore the day she died. The compound is no different either. The day after Keena’s death a new girl was sleeping in her bed and wearing her uniform. There was a memorial service, but I didn’t go. From what I hear, it consisted of roughly three sentences. Her girlfriend is long gone, as is most of the crew she hooked up with during her “thug” phrase. There is no one left to speak for her or remember her. Keena is just another death. The prison swallowed her up, like a vast, black ocean. I know that only two weeks from now the memory of her will vanish as well. Still, she is part of every woman here.
I walk her path every single day. I stand in the same chow hall line, order the same commissary, and I look out on the same compound day after day. I am herded like a sheep from one area to another, just like she was, just like every inmate is. I’ve owned her despair and her loneliness. There are days when I avoid the mirror just as she did. At night I sit alone and I must face myself, and sometimes it’s more than I can take. I know what her desperate thoughts were in the moments leading up to her death—I’ve been there too many times to count. I’ve choked back the same hopeless sobs at two in the morning. So what made her do it and not me? What thought ultimately pushed her hand that night and will it one day push mine?