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- PEN America Prison Writing Award Winners: 2022
Elizabeth Hawes was awarded an Honorable Mention in Nonfiction Memoir in the 2022 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.
I am reading Simone Beauvior’s The Woman Destroyed. All the protagonists are angry. My friend, Jen, sent it to me along with some other books for my birthday. She told me that she hadn’t read it but liked the cover. It did have a cool cover–a bright fuchsia and green backdrop with a woman’s red lipsticked pout in the corner. I’m having a hard time focusing on the story. I heard sad news today.
I was in Medical because a cap popped off my tooth a week ago. I saved it in hopes that the prison dentist could glue it back on.
The dentist was off the week after New Year’s so I had to wait nine days to be seen. She is from India and pulls a lot of teeth. I try to avoid her for this reason. Her assistant looks like she is from another country too but sounds Midwestern. They are both pleasant. The assistant gives me X-rays with no protective safety vest. They glue my cap back on, and it looks great. When they are done, it’s count time, which means I have to stay in the medical lobby until count clears. We are counted throughout the day.
It’s a small room. There is always one new person with a hundred questions, one person who thinks they know everything, and one unwell-looking person who you hope is not contagious. A guard sits in front of a computer behind a Plexiglas window. He checks people in like a receptionist with limited social skills. No greeting of “Good morning, how can I help you?” or “How are you today?” It’s very off-the-boat Ellis Island. “Name? Take a seat.”
Usually, the medical lobby chairs are filled; the overflow goes into another waiting room across the hall. People wait for lab work, the dentist, sick call, flu shots, and gynecology appointments, for help with migraines and chronic pain, allergy concerns, blood pressure checks, pain management, physical therapy, panic attacks, and skin irritations–the whole gamut.
If I have to go to Medical, I try to bring a New Yorker. Reading is a challenge. There are a lot of conversations. Everyone is open about why they are there and what is happening in their lives.
“Are you next?” asked a woman in a blue kitchen worker shirt.
“I’ve been here since 7:30,” acknowledged a non-moving person with closed eyes.
“Are guys all here for labs?” The Blue Shirt was here for lab work.
“No. Sick call,” said a woman I’d never seen before.
“No. Dentist,” my friend Tammi added. Upon closer inspection, her face looked a little puffy.
“Nikky’s back. Saw her yesterday. I had thought she was doing good,” came from a tall, informed person slumped in the corner.
“Apparently not,” said Deb, freckled with reddish hair.
“She looks horrible,” added Cyn, my friend who works in the library.
“What did you do to your leg,?” blurted a twenty-something with black braids to the woman next to her.
“Wiped out when climbing down from my bunk. I bruise easy.”
We all looked at her left leg. Her calf was bruised and swollen.
“God, my stomach hurts,” said a chubby woman named Sammy, bent over at the waist, arms crossed around her middle.
“Maybe you have an ulcer,” guessed Cyn.
“Did you get into Revelation Fitness?” the reddish-haired woman asked the woman with a big pony-puff next to her.
“Yeah, can’t wait.”
“It’s so fun–you’re going to love it. The next day, you can really feel it.”
“What’s for lunch,?” asked the woman with the bruised leg.
“Cookie. And a hamburger,” said the woman I didn’t know.
“It’s always hamburgers,” bemoaned the tall one in the corner.
“I’m so pissed. My shoes are ripping at the heel–they’re only six weeks old; I bought them last month,” said Pony-puff.
“What brand,?” inquired Twenty-something.
Deb asked, “Why were we locked down last night? I was supposed to call my granddaughter. I told her I’d call her at seven and then couldn’t call. My heart just sank.”
We are charged five dollars every time we sign up to go to Medical. Prisoners are the only population of American people entitled to free health care, so I don’t understand why we pay anything. Many of us make about two dollars a week.
As I was waiting, my friend Jemma walked in. She had been out of prison for about three years and just came back. She relapsed and drank in mid-December. The 15th. She had gotten a kidney stone and was in agony. The pain was the reason she drank again and was back. Parole violation. I told her I had heard kidney stones were very painful. She said she would be leaving next week and going to chemical dependency treatment again. ShHe wanted to go to treatment and was grateful her judge gave her that option.
A fitness bunny, Jemma is buff with long, black hair and tattooed eyebrows. Her lips and breasts are surgically amped. Alabaster-pale, her skin looks paper-thin. She’s 5’4” tall. Tattoos cover her hands. I know the rest of her body is heavily tattooed too, but today you can’t tell because she is wearing her state-issue jeans and blue coat.
I wished her well and said I hoped treatment would be successful for her. She appreciated that and said she did not want to be an alcoholic. I nodded. I imagined not.
We have a mutual friend named Daisy who served time for drunk driving and was released two years ago. Daisy is small and Nordic-pretty with a smile that competes with the moon. Really generous, smart, and kind. She was the first person I made friends with when I got locked up. That was twelve years ago.
For months, Daisy and I had stayed in contact until she abruptly stopped writing. In a non-prison scenario, it would be easy to assume that when someone didn’t write it was because they were busy. But for someone with an addiction history, you worry. Is she safe? Is she sober?
Five months later, I got an email. Daisy finally wrote me to say that she hadn’t written because her ex, Ryan (father of her daughter, a man who has a history of extreme violence towards Daisy), kept her as a hostage at his house for the last five months. Broke her phone. Broke her face. Pulled out her long, blonde hair.
She recently had four facial reconstruction surgeries for broken bones. Bruised all over. Ryan was charged with assault.
Two months later, Ryan was sentenced to Work Release with a contingency of “Don’t do it again” hanging over his head.
Daisy and I wrote each other over the summer. She was hanging out with a new guy. ShHe was going to treatment in September. She told me she would give me her new address once she was out of treatment in October and had one. I wrote her in mid-October. “Just checking in, I hope you’re doing alright.” Never heard back.
Jemma looks away when I ask her about Daisy. She says Daisy is a friend and she didn’t want to say anything. I tell her I am concerned. Jemma looks away again and whispers, “Daisy is hanging out with bad people.”
“What do you mean bad people?”
Jemma repeats, “Bad people.” Says that Daisy never made it to treatment. That she was not allowed to visit her daughter because the last time she did, she showed up drunk. That she weighs close to nothing. That her hair was super short because it had been pulled out earlier that year. That she was using meth.
Jemma said that after she relapsed, she called Daisy and said, “I’ve relapsed but not willing to turn myself into my [parole] agent yet.” Daisy said to come on over. They drank for five straight days. Jemma said that Daisy had several boyfriends that she slept with and was dependent upon for money. Two nights here, three nights there. She rotated.
My dear friend was now a meth-using prostitute. Not the kind that stands on a corner, but the kind that drives a Lexus and gets Botox treatments.
She is killing herself.
It is now 4:41PM. The sun has gone down. I make a cup of tea and pick up The Woman Destroyed.
Purchase Variations on an Undisclosed Location: 2022 Prison Writing Awards Anthology here.