Elizabeth Hawes was awarded first place in Drama in the 2020 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.

This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.

SUPERNOVA (Excerpted Pieces)

Supernova is a series of monologs/scenes that speak to women’s experience in prison. It touches on the role of poverty, abuse, violence addiction, mental illness, and mothering from behind bars. It is ultimately about the rights of children if the mothers are incarcerated.

The play opens with all cast members on stage, present but still. As people speak, they come forward. Everyone remains on stage until the last monolog. The stage then clears, and a young girl (elevenish) stands in a spotlight alone and reads her letter.

Mental Illness/Memphis: A1 Sauce

Today I ate seven blueberries out of a muffin, three Al steak sauce packets, four cups of coffee, ten pork rinds and a hotdog without the bun.

Overhead Announcement: Assembly one and two will not start until nine o’clock. Assembly one and two will not start until nine o’clock.

I’m always hungry. I have a problem with a lot of food textures. Like with pork rinds, I can only eat the fluffy ones or I think too much about what I’m actually consuming. Yesterday I choked on one and when I could, started yelling “I’m choking on dried skin! “I’m choking on dried skin! (coughs) It was horrible. (coughs)

I don’t eat much in the chow hall—that place is nothing but carbs on a tray—but I will eat the egg salad. It runs through, so that’s only a few calories. Al sauce is made from raisins, so that’s a lot of iron. I also buy egg whites because they sell them on canteen now. I sprinkle hot sauce on them. Not bad. Or sometimes I will eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the bread.

When I was a teenager I would vomit daily. Which I know is really bad for you. Now, I just don’t eat. It’s healthier. But it’s harder. It takes a lot of discipline.

Mother/Bobbi: No Control

I love my mom. But she is a difficult person. I worry a lot about her and the care of my children.

I worry about my mom’s financial state and way she responds to issues surrounding my siblings, especially my brother, who is an addict. I disagree with how she parents; how she gets when she’s mad. She yells. Is a name-caller. Has no awareness about how hurtful her words can be.

She watches my oldest, who is 13. He feels displaced. My son won’t lie to me, but doesn’t want to tell me what my mom said to him because he knows it will make me upset. He is not happy where he is now, feels that it’s not normal. On the weekends my mom often watches all three of my kids: 13, 7, and 3. I always have to ask for her to bring the kids to visit me.

Our relationship is strained. We don’t talk about it, but in the undercurrent of our arguments she’s like: “Stop taking all my free time.” And I’m like: “Stop ruining my kid.

Resentment on both sides.

My biggest frustration is that I have no control. There is little I can do about her behavior or decisions.

My mother will say things like: “I hate my life. Get off that fucking game you little bastard and go to bed.

I would never speak to my child that way. I would do things differently.

Overhead Announcer: Anthony to meds and dinner, Anthony to meds and dinner

We are all waiting for the day when I am free.

We are all waiting for the day when I am free.

Ensemble/TJ, Nelle, Roxy, Angel (Medical): HOFed & County Jail

Four prisoners seated in medical lobby, holding laminated numbers as they wait to see a nurse.

TJ: Who got Hofed out?

Nelle: Mesh. Carla from the kitchen. Vicki Anderson. Melissa with the stars on her neck, I don’t know the fifth.

Roxy: I think the fifth was the Native girl who hangs out with Shawna.

TJ: Oh, she’s super nice. That sucks. They never take the bitchy people.

Angel: What’s HOF’ed?

Nelle: “Housing off-grounds.”

TJ: (To Angel) It’s when they ship people out to county jail because there’s not enough room here.

Nelle: (To Angel) They pluck people that don’t have violent crimes and aren’t a problem. It’s like you get punished for behaving. If you’re a shit-starter you’re safe.

TJ: My friend Hannah was taking a college class, in the parenting program, in groups, getting regular visits from family…doing everything you were “suppose” to be doin. When she got shipped out, I knew that no one was safe. Except for people with a lot of medical problems, cuz county doesn’t want to deal with em. I think I should be okay because of all my heart shit.

Roxy: Carla was crying hard.

Nelle: Don’t blame her. No programming, no activities. It’s hard time, you just sit there for a year. Just sit.

TJ: Every damn thing about county jail is bad. Locked down twenty three a day. All phone calls fifty cents a minute. You can’t bring none of your things so you have to rebuy everything. You can’t buy a TV. The books are shit; missing a lot of the last pages. I hated that.

Nelle: Yah, I know a girl who just bought a TV here, and was shipped out a week later. What a finger flip. What a waste of money.

Overhead Announcement: Computer lab at one and two are canceled.

Roxy: (groans) It’s been canceled all week!

TJ: No one wants to be HOF’ed to county, but we don’t got no extra beds here.

Roxy: I think this prison was made for 250 people. We are at 660-something.

Nelle: They gotta stop sending people here that have such short sentences. I’ve seen people come in on a Friday and leave after the weekend.

TJ: They should have at least three months.

Roxy: Three months? Try a year.

Nelle: It’s not about logic. It’s about the money. It’s always about the money.

Angel: I hope that I don’t get shipped out, I have two years left; I want to get my GED.

TJ: No one wants to be HOF’ed to county

(Door opens and a voice vells “number four.” Nelle gets up and leaves.)

Roxy: I’ve been to five county jails.

Angel: Shit, whad’ya do?

Roxy: Drugs. I didn’t have charges in five counties; they just had no place to put me. I’ve spent time in Clay County, that’s in Moorhead, then moved to Polk County in Crookston, Otter Tail in Fergus Falls, then Douglas County in Alexandria, and then was moved to Wilkin County jail in Breckenridge, where I spent a month alone cuz there were no other females. I would get shipped back and forth each time I had a court appearance.

TJ: Good use of DOC money.

Angel: I’d hate that. I have anxiety.

Roxy: I had constant anxiety because I didn’t know where I would be. I had charges in two counties, not five! At Polk County, my family had to visit me through a TV monitor that half the time didn’t even work. Or the sound would be out. They were driving two hours one way for a visit that didn’t even seem real.

(Door opens and a voice yells “number five.” Roxy gets up.)

Roxy: See ya.

TJ: Smell ya.

Angel: Bye, have a good day.

(Roxy leaves.)

(TJ and Angel sit in silence.)

Angel: I’m sort of freaking out.

TJ: Why?

Angel: I’m scared to be HOF’ed.

TJ: You can’t spend time worrying about things you don’t have control over. Don’t put energy into what hasn’t happened. Things change. Things change here. People weren’t always HOF’ed because of space until they brought CIP down here and took over an entire building. We lost a lot of beds.

Angel: I want to go to CIP. I want to go to boot camp.

TJ: I’m not saying CIP is a bad thing, I’m just saying we lost about fifty beds. You should go if you are able to go, it will take time off your sentence and hopefully give you more tools to manage your life. To change your thinking.

Angel: I need that. I’m scared that I will use when I leave and I’ll come back here. I don’t have a place, a sober place, to go when I leave. My county of commit is full of all the people I did drugs with. I’m scared that I’ll use if I go back there.

TJ: A lot of people feel that way. It’s not easy—I know of women who have been to treatment multiple times—like seventeen times. Something is not right about that. All you can do is make the best choices you can every day, whether you’re in prison or out of prison.

(Door opens and a voice yells “number six.” TJ gets up.)

Angel: Thanks for talking to me.

TJ: Yeah. Take it easy, it’ll all work out.

(Angel remains seated and bites her nails. Blackout.)

Violence/Katelyn: Love x4

I had my first real boyfriend at fourteen. We were together for four years and he beat me nearly every day. He was ten years older than me and my family hated him. I believed him when he said he loved me. A passionate, controlling love. We had two children together.

We broke up when I attacked him. I didn’t want him to hurt our two sons the way he hurt me.

I grew up in an abusive culture, where fighting was normal. Everyone yelled at each other in the neighborhood and the house. My dad was physically abusive to my mom-I think he was schizophrenic. Did a lot of LSD. Drank. I have a clear image of him putting a scissors to my mom’s neck.

She left him after about ten years or so and took us with her.

I became a dancer when I was 18. I danced for ten years. It was the only time in my life that I wasn’t being beat up. I paid all my bills by myself. I never did drugs. I danced and went home to my sons. We had a nice apartment. I wasn’t ashamed of what I did, I looked at it as art.

Then I got married and my husband beat me. I was scared of him. He cheated on me. I found this out when I contracted chlamydia. The police were called many times. He’d say, “If I can’t have you, no one will.” Passionate, controlling, violent.

I thought that was love.

My third boyfriend beat me the most. I had my third son, but he died before his first birthday, and that changed me. Broke me.

During this time, my fourth relationship started. This man never beat me, but was mentally and sexually abusive. This scared me the most. He used coke and drank a lot. I started using too. He controlled me a lot through drugs. I was lost and humiliated. Mental control is a thousand times worse than physical beatings.

I’m here because I stabbed him close to his heart.

I hurt from how people loved me.

I love differently now.

Overhead Announcement: Mothering on the Inside is canceled. Mothering on the Inside is canceled

Overhead Announcement: Westwood Bible Study is canceled

Violence/Terra & Jayda: My Grandparents, My Baby

Terra: I was beat up a lot at home.

Jayda: By your parents?

Terra: No, my grandparents.

Jayda: Why?

Terra: They couldn’t help it. They were sent to state-run schools where people rammed Qtips in their ears and put soap in their mouths for speaking Ojibwa.

Jayda: So…hitting you was their normal?

Terra: Yeah. Hitting, kicking, throwing, pulling hair.

Jayda: Where were your parents?

Terra: My mom died when I was nine.

Jayda: Oh I’m so sorry. When did you leave your grandparent’s house?

Terra: When I was 17. My violent childhood did not ruin my life. It wasn’t pretty or normal or easy but it didn’t kill me.

Jayda: What did?

Terra: I had my son when I was twenty. And I buried him when I was twenty-one. No one should have to do that. (sigh) I threw my life away when he died. I didn’t care about anything, I wanted to die too. No one should have to bury their baby.

(Jayda and Terra sit in silence.)

Jayda: You know, I think that’s the one piece that’s never talked about much—but is front and center to why many women are here.

Terra: What’s that?

Jayda: This place is full of mothers who have lost their children. A child has died, or a child was lost to custody.

Terra: Were you here last December?

(Jayda shakes her head no.)

Terra: The chaplain held a Blue Christmas service for mothers who had lost a child. Anyone could go, but it was for women whose children had died. And it was packed.

Jayda: How sad.

Terra: It was sad. But oddly enough, people felt better after going. It was like there was comfort in sharing pain, in knowing that other people were hurting too. That others understood the pain.

Jayda: Did you go?

Terra: Yeah. I felt like I was honoring my son. Honoring in remembering.

Jayda: Good

Mother/Rena: Loss of Parental Rights

When I became incarcerated I was stripped of my custodial rights because I had an open CPC, a child protection case. I got a CPC because I had a drug charge, and the father of my twins choked me in front of the kids. My daughter told a teacher. At the time, she was five and the twins were three and a half.

My daughter now lives with her dad and my sons were put into foster care and adopted out. I’m not able to see my boys. I’ve written letters to them but never hear back. Their adoptive mom told me that she is putting the letters and cards that I’ve sent in a box, and will show them “when it’s time.” I have to accept that but I don’t know what’s really going on. I hope that they are well taken care of. I hope that we will have contact after they turn 18. I’m supposed to have contact with my daughter but her father won’t let me see her. He had told me that he wouldn’t keep her from me as long as I was sober. Well, I was sober for five years and never saw her. Not once.

Where is the incentive to stay sober?

My only thing is, someday, I want my kids to be proud of me. To see that I can be sober. I want to be able to say, “Look, I can do good things.

Overhead Announcement: Movement is open. All offenders please report to your count areas. All offenders please report to your count areas.

Addict/Phyllis & Erin: Peeing in a Cup

Erin: When I was on probation I was on “color-code” and had to make a daily call to an automated call center that said a color. If they said my color, green, I had to come in for a pee test. They chose colors randomly, like from a spinner from the game Twister, but with about a dozen colors. I ended up peeing in a cup a few times every month. If people were frequent violators, like super naughty and frequently failing their drug tests, they were pink or ivory and their chance of being chosen was high.

Phyllis: How ironic.

Erin: They had to pee-test all the time.

Phyllis: I was a pink.

Erin: I would go to this place called spruce tree that was in an office building in St. Paul right off of University Avenue. After signing (my name, my agent’s name) I go into this bathroom with some random female that works for the county. It’s her job to watch me pee.

Phyllis: I’d love to see that job application. Watch people pee. Great benefits. No experience necessary.

Erin: I have to show her my stomach to show that I’m not holstering any extra pee-don’t have any tubes with clean pee attached to my person. (Demonstrates) And I circle around, then sit down and hold a cup, pee in it, set the cup on the counter, flush, wash my hands, lid cup, and hand over. To avoid a dirty UA, to get around this pee system, I usually have some clean pee on hand. Keep it in the freezer.

Phyllis: Pee on ice.

Erin: Usually I thaw it, pour it in a pill jar and put a plastic bag over the opening and shove it in my pee-hole.

Phyllis: Can we just say “vagina?”

Erin: When I’m being tested, as I’m holding the cup, I pierce the bag with a fingernail. This usually works well.

Phyllis: Did it all the time.

Erin: But once when I was at my friend Lacey’s house, I called and they said green so I had to go in, but I was like, “Shit, I have no clean pee.” I had been up for three straight days-high as could be and I was screwed. Then Lacey, and I know this was wrong, asks her twelve year old daughter, Bethany, if she would pee in a cup for me. Bethany loves me but didn’t understand why I needed pee except that if I didn’t have it I’d go to prison. So she peed for me. And I put it in a pill bottle, covered it with plastic and shoved it in my (looks at Phyllis) VAGINA. And all is well and I go in to take the test.

Except this time, as I’m sitting there holding the little cup, I can’t pierce the plastic. I don’t know what kind of industrial plastic wrap Lacey was buying, but it would not break. So I tell the random county lady, “I can’t pee.” So I can leave, but have to pee before eight o’clock. It was 7:30pm. So, I’m in the entry way of the office building when the bag starts leaking and I’ve now got Bethany’s pee cascading down my leg and I’m wearing flip flops and jeans and it looks like I’ve wet my pants. I now have urine on my flops.

I go the car and change my clothes. Thankfully I always keep an extra set of clothes in the truck. I panic. What can I do? I NEED PEE. I’m screwed.

Phyllis: I’ve been there my sister.

Erin: Across the strip mall is a GNC. I go in, and inside I find fake pee that has crystals in it that you shake up. This heats it up to body temp. The pee ran about 24 bucks, and that was six years ago.

Phyllis: Great deal.

Erin: So I bought it, shook it, put it in my pill bottle, plastic-bagged it and shoved it in my

Phyllis & Erin: (look at each other) “VAGINA.”

Erin: And I go back in and pee. It worked, and all was well.

And I learned a very important lesson.

Phyllis: What was that?

Erin: God does not want us using children’s pee for drug testing.

Phyllis: Touché.

Ensemble/Posey, Amie, Kristin, Misti, Margaret: Rides

Posey: The biggest thing is distance.

Amie: No shit.

Kristin: How far to get Jamie here? Amie: Four? Four and a half hours? And that’s just one way

Misti: Mine is three hours.

Margaret: Three and a half.

Posey: Five.

Margaret: It’s too long of a trip when they’re little.

Amie: It’s too long of a trip when they’re big!

Kristin: Yeah, but at least they can play a game on their laptop.

Amie: True.

Overhead Announcement: Walk by Faith Bible Study will be held in the chapel

Kristin: My mom gets really stressed out to drive near the cities. There is always traffic and she’s not used to that, ya know? She is seventy eight years old. It’s too much. Too much.

Margaret: My mom’s taking care of my ten year old son and also watching his three cousins, all under the age of four, because their mother is in treatment. My mom’s in a wheelchair cuz she has a bad hip and fibromyalgia; I don’t want to ask her for another thing. She is willing but not able to bring my boy to see me.

Misti: I don’t have anyone willing to bring my kids. My ex doesn’t want to raise a finger if it helps me. He doesn’t seem to care that it will help them.

Posey: I don’t know one sober person that has a working vehicle and is not on parole. I don’t know who to ask.

Amie: When a dad goes to prison, it’s usually the mom that brings a child to visit. When a mom goes to prison, the caregiver is usually a grandma, and she is just treading water with caregiving. It’s hard to get a visit.

Overhead Announcement: Property window is cancelled.

Addict/Phyllis & Erin: Peeing in a Cup II

Erin: But then came the dark days, when the pee

Overhead Announcement: Property window is closed. The property window is closed the remainder of the day.

Erin: When the pee

Overhead Announcement: Forgiveness is canceled.

Phyllis: (To overhead voice) Really?

Overhead Announcement: Forgiveness is canceled.

Phyllis: Does God know?

Erin: The pee (She looks up and waits to be interrupted again and then continues) tests changed by 2013.

Phyllis: They smartened up. They were on to you.

Erin: Instead of us holding a cup while we peed, they gave us this upside down cowboy hat looking thing container to set on the toilet. No hands allowed under you to puncture pee bag.

Phyllis: Screwed.

Erin: Screwed.

(Black out. From all corners of the theatre come susurrus voices that overlap. Cacophony wall of sound audibly choreographed to crescendo.)

You’re stupid. Why can’t you be normal? You’re an embarrassment. I’m through with you. You’re a loser. Never going to change. Guilty as charged. You have no place to go. What a burden. I will never forgive you. Those kids are better off without you. We don’t want you here. Shame on you. Stupid bitch. You’re so ugly. Never going to get it. You were born a slut. No one ever wanted you. You’re not welcome.

Jen/Poverty: Homeless

Seven more days and a wake-up call and I out the door. Hasn’t really hit me yet. Everyone like “You excited? Excited to go?” To be honest, no. Ain’t got no ride. Don’t know who’s gonna pick me up. Ain’t got nobody; nobody with a valid license, off parole. You’s going to work release; you gotta place. You’s going to treatment; you gotta place. You’s got kids; you gotta place. I ain’t got no place. Don’t know where I going. I be told when you leave homeless and spend a night in a shelter, you’s automatically put on the top of the list for services. What services? Don’t know. Leaving with 132 bucks. It cold out. I got nothing. I going out to nothing.

(Shrugs) I gots to figure it out.

By the age of five I know what I gotta do with my mom’s boyfriend if I want lunch.

I’s figure it now. I’s figure it out.

(Black out. From all corners of the theatre come susurrus voices that overlap. Cacophony wall of sound audibly choreographed to crescendo.)

You’re stupid. Why can’t you be normal? You’re an embarrassment. I’m through with you. You’re a loser. Never going to change. Guilty as charged. You have no place to go. What a burden. I will never forgive you. Those kids are better off without you. We don’t want you here. Shame on you. Stupid bitch. You’re so ugly. Never going to get it. You were born a slut. No one ever wanted you. You’re not welcome.

Abuse (Violence/Mental Illness) spliced

Ceci: I always felt something was wrong. Nothing was ever good enough. Alcoholics, my parents often gave me vodka punch and foam off their beers. There are many photographs of me strewn out drunk under the dining room table. I was five.

Val: Jimmy wasn’t violent at first. I can’t remember when it changed, but I do remember the first time he sent me to the hospital. We had been drinking…I blacked out, and woke up in ER. He kicked my teeth through my lip. I still have the scar. Beatings became more frequent. More deadly.

Ceci: My dad and uncle molested me from around this same time. I started to put on a lot of weight from the age of eight to eighteen. I ballooned up to almost 400 pounds.

Val: Once I had stopped at a bar to drink and play pool with friends. He burst in yelling and started pulling my hair. Bouncer kicked him out. When I left, Jimmy was waiting was waiting outside and threw me against his truck. With his friend in the driver’s seat, Jimmy grabbed my hand and rolled it up in the passenger side window. They started driving fifty miles an hour down the highway, dragging me.

Ceci: Years later, I found out that my grandfather had molested my mother. I was shocked. I loved my grandfather; he had never hurt me like that. When I told her about what had been done to me, my mom got really angry-at me. She hasn’t talked to me since; it’s been over ten years. I apologized to her—although I still don’t know what for, but she hasn’t budged.

Val: When he undid the window, they slammed on the breaks, sending me flying. I landed on a large hook on the hood of the truck. It ripped my thigh wide open. I was lying in a bloody pool on the tar during rush-hour. A lady gets out of her car and was screaming. I kept saying, “I’m okay. I’m fine.”

Ceci: My husband died of a heart attack when my kids were in grade school. My youngest found him. Things quickly spiraled and we became homeless. My children were placed in foster care. I was put in a psych ward.

Val: When I woke up in ER. I wouldn’t tell them who did it. It would be weeks before they took the staples out of my leg.

Ceci: Both my sons have mental illness. My oldest is schizophrenic. When my youngest son carved “I love my mom” into his stomach, I moved him out of the group home he was in.

Val: Weeks later Jimmy caught me in Wisconsin and threw me into a friend’s car. Punching and punching. I finally grabbed a screwdriver that was on the floor and plunged it into his side.

Ceci: At thirteen, my oldest was molested for eight months by a man who threatened to kill our family if he told anyone. My son was different after that. Closed off, in pain. In and out of trouble, juvenile court. I was devastated when he finally told me. We pressed charges but his predator got little punishment because we took a plea deal. I took the deal because I didn’t want my son to have to stand trial.

Val: When they pulled over, I jumped out, ran to reach a call box. No one stopped to help. He caught me. Back in the car. Punching and punching.

Ceci: My son was full of shame.

Val: They drove to our old apartment and he pulled me up the stairs by my hair and beat me for four hours, reopening my leg and putting my head in the door and slamming it over and over.

Ceci: I’ve tried to kill myself four times. Always the same way, pills. This last time my youngest son came to the hospital after they revived me and asked, Can we be done with this now, mom? I promised him I wouldn’t do it again. Now when I feel like dying I remember that day and that promise and I force myself to think other thoughts.

Val: By morning I was unrecognizable.

Ceci: My oldest is now a meth addict and is in and out of prison.

Val: His fingerprints were all over my skin. My tears were blood. I held up my hands and said, “I have to go to the hospital.

Ceci: Whenever my oldest is not locked up he is in treatment. He stays for a while until it gets too uncomfortable and runs away. Too painful to talk about the past. And then he uses again, gets picked up again and goes back to prison. He is twenty nine.

Val: I was in the waiting room for two hours. No one talked to me but a little boy, who asked me if I was okay. I finally called 911. Cops came. They took a lot of pictures. Days later they brought me to a women’s shelter.

Ceci: My youngest now works full time and has an on again off again girlfriend that has one child. He takes good care of the child and his girlfriend regardless if they are fighting or not. He struggles with his weight like I do.

Val: One day Jimmy showed up at my work. As I was calling 911, he grabbed me by the neck. Cops came. My neck was black and blue with his prints, but they didn’t do anything to him, saying, “It’s the weekend, come by on Monday and fill out a report.

Ceci: I’m in prison because my boyfriend died while using my fentanyl patches. That’s second degree manslaughter.

Val: I lost my kids because of the abuse. Months later when I went to court for custody rights, my ex-husband brought in a photo of me all beat up. He says, “Look at you; you can’t even take care of yourself.

Ceci: I’m on a lot of medication. For my paranoia, my ADHD, depression and anxiety. To sleep. To keep from harmful thoughts. Every day, prison or no, has hurdles.

Val: A year later, when I got the charge that put me in prison, I was asked why I didn’t go to the police for help.

Why would I go to you for help? You guys do nothing for me.

Ceci: The hardest thing is to not worry about my sons especially my oldest. He’s back in prison. He’s joined a gang there because he feels he needs protection.

Val: The hardest thing is to be away from my children, even if they’re adults now. I can’t get back all the years I’ve been gone. All the birthday parties I’ve missed. All the Christmas mornings I was never a part of.

Ceci: If I sit in a space of constant worry, I drain myself of all that is good in my life and feel depressed. And that’s a danger for me.

Val: When I’m released it will be a dance of boundaries. Of building a new life for myself and to reconnect with my children and grandchildren.

Ceci: I’ve learned to compartmentalize and only sit in worry for short periods of time. I pray for my sons every day and trust that God will take care of them. I pray that my oldest won’t be killed.

Val: I am grateful my children are not living with violent people. I don’t want them to have my life.

Ceci: I don’t want him to kill himself, like I always tried to do. I don’t want him to have my life.

Heather/Addict: Black Caddie

I’m not particularly crafty, but I once created a patio set by combining a mosaic-tiled table from the Goodwill with two wicker chairs that I found at a garage sale and had painted and added cushions. It looked super cute. My neighbors stole it off my deck four days after I got arrested. Four days! That is so ghetto. My mother and I used to argue about the ghetto-ness of my neighborhood. I said it couldn’t be ghetto-it was St. Paul for God’s sake. She countered with “Your car was shot-up in front of your apartment three weeks ago Heather, its ghetto.” She was right about my car. The morning after it was attacked, I didn’t even recognize my own vehicle. I walked right past it and thought, “That’s too bad, somebody’s car was shot up last night,” and proceeded down the sidewalk with my car clicker, pointing to the line of cars on the street. When the shot-up car responded with a beep beep, I turned and looked at it, stunned and thinking, “That really IS too bad, MY car got shot up last night.” Broken glass and two dozen bullet holes in my black Cadi. I loved that old car. It was roomy. I had to call the police and report the damage. My boyfriend, Duane, hates the police. Doesn’t trust them. I made him open the door when they arrived at the house. They took notes and bullets. Later that day, Duane and me went to the Wal-Mart and bought some black duct tape with Batman logos on it to patch over the holes and big chunks of open window. Which made it look very… turf-war. We got pulled over all the time after that.

What’s going on here?

My car was in a shootout. We already reported it, look it up.

If they asked me any more questions, I told them they were racially profiling.

Overhead Announcement: Gym will be open for A [through] K at 3:00

Cassandra: But Heather, you’re white.

Heather: True. But I have a black boyfriend—and not the cocoa-mocha-barely-black-Alex Rodriguez-honey-tan that everyone seems to be comfortable with, but dark black. Believe me; a lot of people are still not at ease with that. And hey, just because I wear a white wrapper does not mean that on the inside, where it matters, I’m not Black to the bone. Booya.

Addict/ (cell) Phyllis & Erin: Future Dreams & Jack Nicholson

Erin: Hey, Phyllis?

Phyllis: What?

Erin: If your appeal goes through and you get an out-date, what are you going to do?

Phyllis: Dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.

Erin: Jack Nicholson, Batman.

Phyllis: Yup.

Erin: I’m being serious here.

Phyllis: The truth?

Erin: Yup.

Phyllis: You can’t handle the truth.

Erin: Um. Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men.

(Erin looks at Phyllis and throws a pen at her.)

Phyllis: (Phyllis blows out a breath.) Probably cry. Call my grandmother. And then… I’m going to do everything. Get a pedicure and walk around in the grass. Wear some bright colored dresses. Buy a dog-one with long legs. I always feel sorry for those corgis?-never able to jump on a couch with dignity. Maybe I’ll join a circus! Can you see it? Step right up to the greatest show on earth-right here, right now-have a front row seat!

Erin: Um. I don’t think there are circuses anymore Philly.

Phyllis: What?

Erin: I don’t think there are circuses anymore. Animal rights against dressing animals like paper dolls and shipping them around the country in boxcars sort of policy. Sorry, Buddy.

Phyllis: Well, that puts a kibosh on that. Maybe I’ll get a job wearing one of those sandwich boards. I can walk around on the sidewalk in front of a deli to drive up business. “Hurry in and eat the sandwich of your dreams-we have the freshest tomatoes that you have ever tasted and use real mayonnaise! Our special today: free pickle with any chip purchase!”

Erin: Why do you want jobs where you are yelling at people?

Phyllis: I don’t know. Maybe I just want to be heard.

Erin: Touche.

Mother/Beth: Custody

I have not been able to hold her for over five years. The last time we had contact, Lula was four years old. I had full custody then. Her father would see her on the weekends, sometimes more. Never married, we had an understanding that we’d both be in her life. Thais abruptly changed when I got a drug charge. I also initially got charged with manufacturing too—which wasn’t true, never proven, eventually dropped. But stuck with me through our custody battles. We went to court three times. It seemed to be more of a power thing to hurt me than a love thing for her. He had a lawyer. I didn’t have any representation. (They said that Lula got quiet whenever “Mom” was mentioned.) Of course she got quiet! Every time she had talked about me with my parents, her dad cut them off from visiting her.

I feel like he is trying to erase me.

I’m supposed to have contact—she should be able to get phone calls and letters, but her dad doesn’t allow it.

There was a time, a dark time, when I’d think Lula was better off without me. That maybe it would be easier just to die. That it would be easier for her to say that I’m dead rather than say my mom is a drug addict. The only thing that kept me going was hope. I can’t explain it. Someone said, I don’t remember who, said that maybe I didn’t deserve her, but she deserved me. That helped me.

Last year my parents streamed about ten minutes of one of her visits with them. I had to be quiet: no one could know I was watching; that I was there. I could see her in real time. (Quiet sob) I could see her nose and hear her voice…she told a joke about an Easter Bunny hiding eggs because he wanted to mess with a chicken and was laughing…

My mother told me that my daughter keeps my photograph in her desk.

Mother/Dawn: 1/28-1/9

I watch the actions our country has taken towards immigrants and their children. I think how it reflects on what has been done to Native peoples: my ancestors, and brown and black-skinned people throughout time in this country.

I think about all the moms and dads in prison that have had their parental rights terminated. Who aren’t allowed to see their kids. You don’t think there is damage done to these children? The lady that runs our parenting program says that one in twenty eight American children and one in nine American children of color will experience a parent’s incarceration. That’s a lot of trauma.

I’ve read that kid’s brains grow the most between the ages of one and three, and the trauma that happens at these ages affects how kids relate to others for the rest of their lives. Trauma affects how they speak and ability to learn.

I look around this prison and I see so many mothers who have been stripped of their children.

Most women that are in prison have PTSD. The current system passes this down. What are a child’s rights? Where are the rights of children in the sentencing process? How many futures of children are systematically fucked by the DOC? What is our country doing—methodically, persistently—to children?

Mother/Meg: My Daughter

(Stage is dark except for a warm spotlight on mother.)

I came to prison when my daughter was five months old. She is now ten and unless I have success with my appeal, I will be here for seven more years.

I mother from prison.

What helps is we have a lot of contact. I call her every day, she visits every week, and I am involved, have daily awareness of what is going on in her life. I know who her friends are, I talk to them on the phone too. I talk to her teachers at school. I try to expose her to many things—she has taken dance and gymnastics and karate. She has gone horseback riding and camping and skiing. YMCA day camp. Brownies.

I am here because I was in a bad relationship with a controlling, violent, sick person who did something horrible, and I was there when it happened. I have to live with the consequences of that. I was beaten and felt trapped. I didn’t reach out to others because of pride. Because I didn’t want to bother anyone. I don’t want that for her. My priority is for her well-being; physically, mentally, spiritually. I try to install self-confidence and goodness in her. Make sure she knows who to turn to. Give her the tools to succeed. I try to lead by example. I am consistent. I volunteer and an active in many programs here. I try new things that are way out of my comfort zone. I will be getting my AA degree this fall. I have great expectations for the both of us. I let her know that she can tell me anything.

Overhead Announcement: Monahan to meds and dinner Monahan to meds and dinner

I survive here by not over-analyzing. I don’t dwell on what I can’t control. I take one day at a time. My priority is my daughter.

Overhead Announcement: Five o’clock movement is open. Movement is open.

(Black out. Actor leaves stage.)

The Child

(Tight bright spotlight on the center of empty stage. A girl walks alone into the spotlight and looks out rather blindly into the audience. She holds a piece of paper and reads from it.)

I’ve never been kissed good night by my mom. Or walked with her to the bus stop on the first day of school.

I’ve never seen her face in attendance at my basketball games, or roller-bladed with her to the park.

I am apart from everyone else. I have pieces of my life missing.

The one person who is always there for me is not there. I feel that I face the world alone. I stand on the outside: I’m not like the girls on TV or the movies, or at girl scouts or school.

I feel that I am the one who is punished. When I lay in bed I often ask God, What did I do? What did I do wrong?

My mom tells me there is an answer in every question, for any problem. Well, how long do I have to be punished? How many times does she have to say I’m sorry?

I want to belong. To make a pancake. To plant a flower. To walk a dog. With my mom.

(Black out.)

Further Reading