It is possible to be soundly imbedded in a harsh reality and yet find some facets of that experience to be unreal, or at least, not as they seem. It is reality I must face as something wakes me up while I lay in bed number fifty-four, a single iron bed in the last row of four rows of fifteen beds each. The beds are identical, ordered like soldiers in straight lines between two rows of bunk beds. There are nearly one hundred and forty beds in this room, filled with nearly one hundred and forty sleeping women, give or take a few on any day as beds are moved from dorm to dorm depending upon need. It is 3:00 a.m. again. My vision is slow to focus, due to the lingering sleep refusing to dissipate, and the darkness that is broken only by three rows of three widely spaced, equally dim lights. My bed is toward the front of the room, and when I turn my head and look towards the back, I can see the bright lights of the two bathrooms. Staring at those lights, what my mind’s eye sees are two ghostly square eyes with two swinging doors making pupils. If I stood behind one of the doors, they would cover me from my shoulders to my knees.
It takes me a minute to remember where I am, and as the realization attacks, I squeeze my eyes shut again, hoping I really am only having a nightmare. A nightmare would be a blessing compared to reality. While my eyes are shut tight, I pray it will not be there when I open my eyes again, and I will once more be sleeping peacefully in my own bed, under my own covers, in my own room and in my own house.
It is as quiet as it ever gets. By itself, that statement is not particularly informative. But in a room that sleeps one hundred and forty women, quiet times are rare and brief. When I say “quiet,” I am describing the noise level you would hear in a bus station in the middle of the night. The laundry compressor going on and off outside the window, the whispered conversations of women and loud talk of officers, and the hall public address announcements give a definition to quiet. I have learned to sleep through much of this constant racket, so I could not understand what keeps walking me up at this ungodly hour of 3 a.m., when I should be taking advantage of the relative quiet to get desperately needed sleep. The kitchen workers are up and getting ready for their early morning shift, but they make very little noise. I thought I had taught myself to sleep through their ministrations, but here I lay in my bed, once again awake. I struggle to quash the feelings of desperation that wash over me regularly—carefully contained despair that is always seeking an outlet.
The prison kitchen workers must get up in the middle of the night to dress for work. The unfortunate women assigned kitchen duty as their “state job” labor until 10 a.m., whereupon they return to their bed that is numbered like mine. What I do not understand is why they get up, go to all the trouble of getting ready for work and then lie back down. I know they do this, because when I awake in the middle of the night, I see them streaming out of the bathroom and then returning to their beds. It is about this time my eyelids close of their own accord as welcomed sleep overtakes me once again. Maybe someone gets them back up in time to report to work, I think, as I return to my dreams of life outside the walls.
I have been here almost six months and it took some time to develop my routine, such that it is. Competing for space, showers and quiet time are not easy tasks when living among, not only the one hundred and forty women in this room, but amidst the other seven hundred within the walls of a prison originally built for five hundred women. I currently live in Mary Johnson’s Prison for Women, an elegant sounding name for the only women’s prison in this state. It is old and decrepit like the system that sends women here by the hundreds. It is also constantly overcrowded with faces changing daily. My living space consists of one single bed, 6 feet by 2 ½ feet wide. The comparison to a grave is hard to resist when I consider the dreariness of my surroundings and the futility of existence in this place. There are one hundred and forty graves, covered not by brown dirt, but by blue blankets. There are one hundred and forty identical spaces, holding one hundred and forty identically dressed women, who have one hundred and forty identical looks of despair. Because of the misery penetrating the whole facility, when my eyes open at 3 a.m., I am annoyed that I must face my current reality against my will. On the other hand, it is only in the middle of the night that there is any change of finding a few minutes of relative quiet so a lady can think undisturbed.
Everyone living here has a “state job.” They call it a job no matter what task we are assigned. Some consider themselves lucky and get a job requiring little effort or time. I never understood that attitude, because all we have is time. Deborah has such a job. She is “South Yard Worker,” which entails picking up cigarette butts twice a day for 10 minutes each time in the exercise yard. We do not get to go out often despite what the logs show, so many days there is not much to pick up. Deborah gets called to work by a loud disembodied voice over the P.A. system screaming, “South Yard workers report to the South Yard and DO your job—NOW!” I could see Deborah’s bed across the room. She would be slowly putting her boots on so she could report to work. Ten minutes later she is back, whereupon she promptly lies down on her grave and resumes reading a book.
Of course, there are those who work all day too, some harder than others. The prison has invented a myriad of jobs to keep us all busy to some degree, and let’s face it, to keep payroll as low as possible. For every job an inmate does, that is one person they do not have to hire. Prisoners earn nothing, which I am sure you believe is fair. The problem is that we must buy our own shampoo and snacks and soap and toilet paper, if you need more than 6 rolls they allot a month. The soap they give us is best used for washing underwear and T-shirts, done by hand in the shower in buckets. But I stray from my story. The point I was going to make is that, if an inmate is lucky, she got a state job in an air conditioned office, because there is no air conditioning in the dorms.
I am one of the lucky ones. My job consists of tutoring other inmates enrolled in the G.E.D program. Every morning, Monday through Friday, at 7 a.m., I walk down a long hall, periodically answering a correctional officer’s (they do NOT like to be called guards, though that is a better description of their duties) barked question, “Where are you going?” “To work, sir.” I politely answer, looking down at the floor so there is no question of arrogance or lack of submissiveness. Once I arrive at the prison-ground school, I spend the day in air conditioning, happily teaching math and science, answering questions and generally counting my blessing that I am not a laundry room attendant or much worse, a kitchen worker.
At the end of my working day, I walk back down the long hall, answering the same barked questions I responded to that morning on my way to work. I spend these moments dreading entering the dorm where my blue blanketed grave waits for me. The hall, being enclosed, stays relatively cool, but not so the dorm. Crossing the threshold was like stepping from purgatory into hell. The damp heat grabs me like a childhood monster with clammy paws, pulls me in, smothers my body and makes it hard to breathe. I sweat profusely from the humidity and laugh inwardly that women pay good money at spas for such steamy air. I will get not relief for the next 16 hours. I am home.
It is easy to feel sorry for myself, until I remember the kitchen workers. They have the worst job in the facility. I may have to temporarily live in this Southern, wet female jungle, but at least I get a reprieve for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. The kitchen workers must work in hell and then return to Dante’s Inferno to get their rest. It is not just the heat that makes their job so terrible. The kitchen workers endure a constant barrage of verbal abuse, throughout their shift, from the stewards and the correctional officers and even their fellow inmates. The stories are atrocious and disturbing, they make me clutch at my throat for air and shake my head in disbelief. In this country, in this year, how could such a job still exist, even in prison?
The descriptions of the working conditions for kitchen workers are graphic. They talk of humid kitchens reaching almost 100 degrees, while standing at stoves stirring 100-quart pots of boiling food. They tell of screaming officers, thievery by inmates, verbal and physical abuse by stewards. They speak of fist fights in the dishwashing room, spurred by the intense heat and stomach-wrenching sight of discarded state food. There is not air conditioning in the kitchen, of course. The workers display the burns on their arms, the cuts on their fingers, and the blisters on their feet from ill-fitting state work boots. I see them limping with ankle sprains, holding their backs from lifting poundage only a man should attempt and wrapping knees that are strained from working hours on a concrete floor in cheap, ill-fitting work boots with improper support. I see the exhaustion, day after day, that etches lines in their faces and makes women age three times faster than normal. When I go to eat, which is a ten-minute affair at best, the workers’ clothes are soaked with sweat and tempers flare often and easily. Kitchen jobs are punishment jobs, whether the additional punishment is deserved or not.
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, “These women are criminals and deserve no kindness.” I only hope that if you feel that way, you able to adequately explain to God, when you go to church on Sunday, your lack of forgiveness and mercy and humanity. I also hope it is never your daughter or niece or sister who becomes a kitchen worker. And if one of them does, I pray they are not in hell due to an aberration of justice. There are plenty of women here who do not belong. There are innocent women, women who are victims of domestic violence and mentally insane women filling the halls.
So, at night, we all lie down on our graves and try not to move too much. The tiniest movement creates more sweat. Some cover their blue blankets with their oversized white cotton nightgowns so their bed is not so hot. It is hard to sleep, but exhaustion eventually claims us all: exhaustion from working, exhaustion from the heat, but mostly exhaustion from struggling to get through another day in prison unscathed.
I was naturally surprised the first time I woke in bed number fifty-four at 3 a.m. and saw them—the kitchen workers. I usually take some comfort in the darkness and quiet when I wake in the middle of the night and will lie there not moving. That is what I did the first time. But this time, I sat up to see if I could figure out what was going on. Any unexplained movement in prison is instantly suspicious. The women who are walking are indistinct, like shadowed figures tend to be. I could make out their outlines and enough details to determine they were kitchen workers. I can see they have hairnets on by the shape of the heads, and only kitchen workers wear hairnets. Besides, only kitchen workers are allowed to get up in the middle of the night. But the women I see look as if they are not physically whole. My mind turns to whimsy. Perhaps when we are forced to wake before sleep is complete, our spiritual element is not quite aligned with our body. Like dawn is neither light or dark, we are neither fully body nor spirit.
I blink quickly to wash the sleep out of my eyes in the hope the images sharpen, but no one who is moving comes into clearer focus. They came out of the glowing bathroom, one by one. Expecting the workers to continue walking down the aisle to the hallway outside the dorm, they walk instead to their beds. They appear to drift down and blend into their graves. All is quiet again except for the hum of one hundred and forty breaths and the other noises I described earlier in my story. I am curious: Why do so many get up in the middle of the night at the same time, only to go back to bed? This is my last thought as exhaustion once again overcomes me. I do not drift off to sleep, so much as get pulled into a pit of darkness, landing with a solid thud.
The next day after work, I return to my bed in the late afternoon, refreshed from hours in cool air-conditioning. I watch the second shift of kitchen workers struggle back into the dorm after eight hours of strenuous, hot work. As it so happens, the lady in bed number 49, which is in the row of beds next to mine, works in the kitchen. They call her Peaches, and she is shaped like one—very round with an indentation here and there and a pony tail reminding me of a stem. Normally, I keep strictly to myself, uninterested in striking up a conversation with the thieves and drug addicts and murderers that sleep in the beds surrounding mine. I choose to be “alone” in the middle of the masses, convincing myself I can stay safe that way. But today I want to find some answers.
Using local vernacular for “Hello,” I say to Peaches, “Hey. I bet you’re glad to be out of the kitchen for a while.” I continue. “Yep,” she responds, “I hate this job.” I don’t say anything while I watch her take off food covered work boots. I hear her muttering at the same time that she wishes could at least get a band-aid for the blisters on her feet. I decide she isn’t going to keep on talking, but once I begin a quest, I can be stubborn to the end. I really needed to solve my mystery so I force myself to start chitchatting—something I am not good at doing usually.
“What hours do you work?” I ask, deciding to take a direct route to my conversation destination.
“Usually 2 a.m. to 9 a.m., but they made me stay for the day shift because they lost a lot of workers yesterday. A bunch of women were shipped out of state to the Louisiana prison where Alabama rents beds.”
“Ah-ha!” I thought to myself. This is really not much of a mystery at all.
“So you have to get up in the middle of the night, don’t you? That’s too bad. But at least it’s a little cooler in the early morning hours.”
“Yep, I drag myself out of bed at 1 a.m. just so I can be treated like a damn animal. But because it be cooler, it’s okay gettin’ up so early—for now. But it’s hard gettin’ any sleep during the day with the heat and noise,” she replied.
“There’s no escaping the heat in this place. You have to either work in it or sleep in it. Or in your case, both,” I sympathize.
She suddenly takes an interest in me. “What’s your state job?” she asks. I reply, “I’m a GED tutor, so I am lucky I get to be in air conditioning for a few hours every day. But I have to fight for a shower every evening and you don’t.” For some inexplicable reason, I always feel the need to try and make people feel better about themselves or their situation.
When I tell people my state job, conversation usually ends. I have to watch my speech patterns when I talk to people in prison. It is not that I think I am better, but I am educated and many of them are not. I tend to speak formally, even in normal conversation, and words over 2 syllables might as well be in a foreign language as far as my current neighbors are concerned. When they discover I am a math tutor, I can see the lights go out in their eyes as they try to comprehend anyone who could actually do math, much less enjoy teaching it to others. This time was no different.
Peaches wraps up our conversation by saying, “Yep, I never get a break from the heat. But I like bein’ able to shower while everyone else be working their state job. Only kitchen workers are allowed to take a shower during the day and most of ’em do.”
At that point, one of her friends come over to visit and they start talking about street life, a subject I have no interest in learning. I retreat back into my own private world, thinking about how foolish I had been, believing there was a mystery to be solved. I lie down on my grave once more, close my eyes and hope I will fall asleep quickly, even though it is only late afternoon. Every hour I sleep is an hour of blissful unawareness of my surroundings.
Just as I begin to find that level of unconsciousness, my brain jolts me awake. The thought that tugs at me is this: if most of the kitchen workers take their showers in the afternoons and they have to be at work at 2 a.m., who are the women I see walking out of the bathrooms every night at 3 a.m.? They can’t be kitchen workers I have assumed them to be all along. By 3 a.m. they would have been at work at least one hour, and in prison, you are not late for work. Officers make sure of that. There are so many women I see drifting to their beds in the early morning hours. I look over at the woman I had just talked with, planning on asking more questions, but she is already asleep. Even in sleep, I can see the weariness worn like a mask, hiding the woman has laughed and loved and lived a whole different life before coming here. The kitchen leaves a permanent mark. My questions will have to wait for another day.
I decided that I would set my internal alarm clock for 3 a.m. so I could observe more carefully the ethereal procession. Maybe I could get the answers I desire by going right to the source. The problem is that when the dorm lights are turned off, we are not allowed to visit with, or talk to, other inmates. So even if I jump up and try to catch one of the kitchen workers before she lies down again, I will have to pretend I am on my way to the bathroom. Any talking will be whispered and quick.
Unfortunately, my mental alarm clock is unreliable at times. Each night I fall into a self-induced exhausted sleep—exhaustion brought upon myself purposely to insure I sleep through the night. So despite my good intentions, I sleep soundly each night the next week. Then it all starts again. I am abruptly awake at 3 a.m.!
When I awaken like this, I am initially disoriented in the near darkness. Lying on my back, I try to focus on the dim lights that burn 24 hours a day. Slowly, the concrete and iron around me comes into focus and I remember once again where I am. I sit up and look towards the back of the dorm. There they are! The kitchen workers are silently walking back to their beds. They make no noise and create no disturbance. I look to the front of the dorm, and the officer is sitting in the hall outside the dorm door. Normally, I am timid in this environment, not daring to break rules. I do not like to give officers any reason to speak to me, but curiosity rules in this situation. It is time to pretend I need to visit the bathroom.
Quietly leaving my grave behind, I begin to walk down the long aisle towards the back of the dorm. I can barely make out the line of women. It looks like some limp in the darkness. Others have heads down as if too tired to hold them up. I can now see they are dressed for kitchen duty, so I was right in believing they are kitchen workers. My curiosity grows with each step. Then the strangest thing happens! As I peer into the shadows, the women become fainter, not clearer, with each of my steps. They seem to be slowly fading away. I being to hurry for I really want to speak to one of them. Quickening my steps, I am almost there. Hurry! Hurry! But where are they? Gone! Evaporated! I stand where they walked and there is no one! How could it be? As I look around in the dark, I can feel a soft brushing against my skin. I sense the despair and the grief. I am filled with the utter weariness until I can barely stand. I feel myself beginning to sag like them. I inhale sorrow. I experience physical pain, feeling the cuts and strains and bruises. I cannot bear it, so I begin to hurry back towards my bed. Instead of a grave, I now see it as my haven!
Collapsing on my blue blanket, I am out of breath. I lied down and try to calm my breathing and my mind. I need to make sense of what just happened. Could I, though? I decide to roll over and try to go to sleep so I can avoid the mental effort. I just could not face the reality of the unreality right now. I want to tell myself I am just tired. I want to believe that this prison has traumatized me. I want to convince myself I have imagined these night moves. So determined am I to ignore the whole event, I actually fall asleep, telling myself that, like Scarlet, I would think about it tomorrow.
The next night, I wake again at 3 a.m. Do I dare look? Yes! And there they are. Women, kitchen workers, filing quietly to their beds. I do not get up this time. I think about these nightly apparitions and what they mean. There are ghost rumors, of course, throughout the prison. Never though, had I heard of any kitchen worker ghosts. The ghosts the women talk about are always death row inmates, or women who were insane and had died at Tutwiler. Yet, I saw the kitchen workers.
I can speculate all I want and never know if I am just imagining the procession. I don’t dare tell anyone what I see on any night I am awake at 3 a.m. I would be labeled “crazy” and given drugs I don’t want and have never taken before in my life. That is how they control the women they believe are mentally unstable—with drugs. But I will tell you what I believe. I think I see the kitchen workers because of my intense sympathy and unexplained empathy for what they must endure at their state jobs. I believe they are the women who have served their time doing hot, dirty, scarring work in the prison. They are the women who have been physically assaulted, verbally abused, screamed at by the officers, all the while lifting and stirring and cleaning masses of food for other inmates.
When you endure experiences that test your very soul, perhaps an imprint is left where you survive. Maybe it is possible to have times in your life where the trauma causes the spirit and the body to be permanently out of sync. Maybe these women I see each night are not whole. They are walking imprints—trapped in a place that captured their very essence—a place that never lets go.
I decide right then and there that I would not become one of them, I would not be spiritually entombed in this hell on earth. I would not let them do that to me. I would fight back emotionally and mentally and prove, once I walked out, that I took all of me through the gates. I would not let this prison keep my essence.
The kitchen workers still walk the aisles each night. But now when I look at them, I see reminders that it is up to me to persevere. I silently grieve for the women who have left even a small piece of themselves behind, for it means they cannot be whole again. Sentenced to eternity, they will never be released.