The Little Prisoner
I was one of the luckiest prisoners ever because I’d done eight months in prison and I don’t remember a single second of it. I was spared the hardship and grief most suffer in prison. I know it may sound crazy but time meant nothing to me. I hadn’t been introduced to it yet because time doesn’t exist in the womb. Yes, I was baby number 09344-027. I was born in prison.
Having been born in prison isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s not like my mother was lying on a steel bunk in a dank cell, covered with the standard issued, itchy green, waterproof army blankets. Or it’s not like correctional officers were standing around with rubber gloves strapped to their elbows, waiting to shake me down for contraband—God forbid I bring anything into this world I shouldn’t have.
Technically, I was delivered in a hospital but my mother was still a prisoner. Being in a hospital didn’t relieve her of her oppressors. She had no control, no rights. Had I died during delivery or days after, she wouldn’t have been able to attend my funeral. She would have hopelessly tried, being spun around by her case manager, counselor, unit manager all the way up to the warden, each one passing the buck, claiming it was so and so’s responsibility. She wouldn’t have given up but in the end she’d prove no match for the ultimate spin doctors.
This is her story.
* * *
I hope you don’t mind my calling you Diary when you’re only a pad of paper but I’ve never written to a diary before, or a pad of paper, and Diary just sounds more official. It was my counselor’s idea. I wasn’t going to take her advice because she sincerely doesn’t care, but when she offered me a free notebook to use, it was enough of an incentive.
Earlier, my bunkie said, “I wish I was pregnant.”
“Why,” I said, thinking if she says so she can get a free notebook, I’m slapping her.
“So I can get a bottom bunk restriction.”
I did feel like slapping her but I let it be. I have not only myself to look after now. She’s a hoe anyway. She’s playing a girl in Alpha unit and one in Echo unit. When one finds out about the other, she’ll get hers.
I’m new at this prison stuff. I’ve only been here a few weeks but I’ve got the basics figured out. Mind your own business and avoid getting sucked into other people’s drama. Because most of these women are walking tornados, destroying everything in their paths, leaving behind a trail of broken homes and injured people. My goal is not to become another one of their casualties. Prison is like the board game SORRY; it’s all about making it home without getting bumped off. And I’ve got two pieces to get home now.
I called him today, and, after that whole spiel about not getting an abortion, he’s changed his mind and wants nothing to do with the baby. I asked him why. He doesn’t have a valid reason. Sometimes I question his humanity. I’m not going to stress over it. It’ll be his loss. I can’t force him to stay.
I saw the prison OB doctor today. He saw no reason to remove me from general population and said I didn’t need any prenatal vitamins. It was my first slap in the face with reality. I’m bringing a child into this world from prison. And I’m doing it alone.
I’m not calling you Diary anymore. It’s not as personal. It’s like talking to the wall—or my bunkie. So I’m calling you Baby. I can now sense you inhabiting me. Borrowing from me what nutrients are available, zapping my energy. It’s okay though, I wish I could give you more but I can only give what I have. I’m showing some. But if you didn’t know better, you’d just assume I put on weight from the starchy, carb loaded prison diet. I’m amazed by some of these women’s eating habits. I wonder what their men would think to see what I see. My bunkie woke up last night, shortly after three A.M. count, and ate two Snickers. Sometimes it’s half a bag of potato chips. There’s nothing secretive about her compulsion. Can one possibly be that hungry? It’s like go back to sleep, breakfast is in a few hours. And she wonders why she’s broke and resorts to using government issued soap.
I spoke with my unit team today. Because my due date is long before my outdate, foster care was the topic of the day. I was reminded of a bird I read about that lays its egg in the nest of a certain other bird because it knows that other bird is generous enough to raise it as its own. I don’t want to be that bird. I don’t want to deliver you into the hands of a stranger. I’m sure the state would select a wonderful couple, good people. The type of good people who won’t want to hand over the adorable baby they’ve nurtured all those months to a stranger. An ex-con. I wouldn’t blame them. It’s a two sided coin.
You never dream of this type of situation until you’re in it. Who would think that anywhere in the world, especially America, it would be considered humane to separate a baby from its mother, against her will, immediately after birth. Their excuse: I was in possession of cocaine. A substance. Break it down to its basest level and it’s composed of atoms just like anything else. I didn’t put it on this planet. I just ended up with it. This is their justification to separate mother and child. I could understand if I was a cartel member responsible for bringing large quantities into the country or a major trafficker, moving pounds or ounces from state to state into the communities but I was a petty dealer and user only looking to support my own habit. I’ve known addicts to smoke in one binge more than the 5 1/2 grams I was charged with. Five and a half grams. Had I been a celebrity, rehabilitation would have been the answer. But I was just a plain, tax-paying American citizen with a drug problem. Punishment is the only acceptable answer. A casualty of war. A war as senseless as Vietnam. The war on drugs.
I am a P.O.W.
Dear Baby Inside Me,
I decided that baby was too general of a term so I am now calling you Baby Inside Me. It’s more intimate. Today, speaking with my bunkie, I discovered what sets me apart from the other women here.
“You know what bothers me the most about this place?” my bunkie said. “It’s like I’m never alone but I’m alone all the time. Does that make sense?”
I rested a hand on my belly. I heard her but I wasn’t paying attention.
“You awake down there?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, softly patting my belly.
“See, that’s exactly what I mean.”
I’m not alone. I have you right here inside me. So close but so far away. We’re in this together. I don’t ever want to let you go.
I keep thinking they’re going to come to me and say, “You’ve been humiliated enough. Surely you’ve learned your lesson. After all, you are pregnant. Giving birth is sacred. It’s what continues our race. It would be disgraceful to punish a pregnant woman for such a petty offense. Besides, it was only a little cocaine. We know Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan and Amy Winehouse are all doing it and we love them for it. In that sense you’ve been over-punished, so you’re free to go and have your baby in peace. Raise your baby to become a productive member of society so we can stop the cycle of drug abuse. Then, when your baby’s grown and we’ve rounded up all the murderers, rapists, and terrorists and we run out of people to wage war on, we’ll keep you in mind. However, in the meantime, we’ll be watching you.”
But if there’s one thing this experience has taught me: Justice is truly blind. It doesn’t care who it’s bending over as long as it’s getting served. I’m strangely reminded of him. The sperm donor.
I’m not totally sure but if you’re a boy you’ll be Andrew or Paul, if you’re a girl you’ll be Hailee or Kaylee. I’ve been watching the callout sheet for a medical appointment, but nothing. I’m beginning to wonder if they’ve forgotten us.
Goodnight my love.
Can you believe I went my entire second trimester without a check-up? One trip to the warden at mainline settled that. I’ve also got good news. I’ve talked my mother into taking you so I don’t have to fight the state to get you back from foster care. It’s such a relief but also I worry because my mother is an alcoholic. Then again, she raised me and I’m still here. I’d rather you be with her than strangers. At least I know she’ll be delighted to give you back. And we’ll always have something in common, having been nurtured into this world by the same woman. We’ll be sisters of sorts.
What scares me the most is that you won’t want to be around me when I come home. That you’ll be so attached to my mother that you won’t want to come with me. I’ll be the stranger I didn’t want to see you with. My only solace is you’ll be too young to remember any of it and since I believe everything happens for a reason, I know that when it’s all said and done, this prison experience will have made me a better person, allowing me the opportunity to appreciate the things in life people take for granted daily, thus enriching the quality of my life. I’m already beginning to learn so much about myself and the more I learn about me the more I love about me. And the more I love me, the more I can love and be a better mother to you. And that’s all that matters.
You are the driving force behind every positive step I take towards becoming who I need to be for you. What a beautiful cycle. It’ll be you that carries me through the emptiness that surely awaits me. The time will come for us to part and the days will be long and the nights dark but you’ll be the guiding light at the end of the tunnel.
I wrote this poem for you today. I know it is simple and quite elementary but it’s how I feel.
Distance apart, could never depart
The feelings I feel in my heart.
Today is Thanksgiving. My bunkie and some of the other women on the range filled a whole table in the T.V. room with a jailhouse nacho. They’ve covered the table with clear garbage bags and emptied upon it several bags of nacho chips. Beef logs and pepperoni slices were cut up as well as onions, green peppers and tomatoes stolen from the chow hall by packing down the disabled girl’s wheelchair. A few pouches of chili were bowled up to pour over the nacho along with a few bottles of squeeze cheese to top it off. It looks delicious but I’m not hungry.
It’s so hard to feel as if I have anything to be thankful for. You are gone from me now. No other emptiness compares. It’s like death, I always knew it was inevitable but I always avoided the thought of it as though not thinking about it would delay it or make it go away. I really should be thankful you’re healthy and safe at home with my mother but it’s like being thankful for having found the family photo album in the rubble of a tornado-demolished home. The type of thankful you don’t begin to appreciate until the home’s been rebuilt—or at least the foundation’s laid.
I’m still searching for the blueprints.
I knew I was going into labor before it actually happened. I had been having minor, irregular contractions all that weekend. I knew you were coming but I was trying to hold out as long as possible because I didn’t want you to leave me.
On Sunday night I had a dream that I gave birth to you in my bunk, quietly, only my bunkie knew. We were passing you back and forth from top bunk to bottom. You were laughing and playing. We hid you during count and fed you Reeses Peanut Butter Cups. At daybreak my bunkie helped me stuff you back inside of me for the day. Then I birthed you again at night. A strange dream indeed. If only it were possible.
I went to sick call that Monday morning. They walked me to R&D, dressed me out and cuffed me. At the hospital, when the doctor told me I was definitely in labor, I started crying. I was losing you and I was totally helpless to do anything about it. The epidural only covered the physical pain. At least they uncuffed my hands—after shackling me to the bed. I was shackled to the bed during delivery. I later found this to be a mistake but I was grateful for it because it offered the C.O.’s guarding me enough comfort to respect my privacy by leaving the room during birth when they weren’t supposed to.
I stayed in the hospital with you for two days, shackled to the bed the entire time. I was shackled and watched during bathroom use and showers. I barely slept. I didn’t want to lose a single second with you. You’re the prettiest baby I’ve ever seen. I still can’t believe you’re mine. However, it doesn’t feel so. You’re like the Christmas present a mother immediately takes away to stash for safe keeping because it’s not a toy and shouldn’t be played with. Giving you up was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It was like saying goodbye before having the chance to say hi. They wouldn’t even let me see my mother. The nurse came and took you to her. I ended up having to hand you over to a stranger, anyhow.
I was taken back to the prison and dressed in. The only relief was being unshackled. I’d never been shackled for so long a time ever. I could still feel the phantom shackles hours after they’d been removed. My mother brought you to visit me at the prison one last time before traveling the five-hundred miles home. Over half of the federal prison population is housed more than five-hundred miles away from home. It’s how they effectively regulate the numbers in their visiting rooms. So even if by chance your family can afford to come visit, it’s such a hassle that it won’t be often.
Leaving the visiting room that day is a moment I’ll never forget. I’d never been so sick in my life. It’s easy to see how surrogate mothers frequently renege at the last moment or after the fact. It’s worse than being dope sick. I would have done anything to have you back.
Dazed with shock, I stumbled back to the unit in a drunken reverie. I suppose how a soldier would after having left an arm or leg on the battlefield, desperately wishing to go back and retrieve it but realizing there was no turning back. I laid in bed for a long time. I cried and slept. Cried and slept. I felt so light without you. Devoid of substance I was nearly floating. The doctor pressed me to consider anti-depressants as though the cure could be found in a pill. How about letting me go home.
That’s the cure.
I can’t muster the energy for anything. Even eating is a task. I’m doing my best to avoid human contact. Everybody is a stranger. I don’t know these people. Conversation seems so meaningless. There’s nothing worth talking about. I finally understand the meaning of talk being cheap. There’s nothing anybody could say to make it better. All I want is you back in my arms. Until then, there is no meaning.
I’m not sure how long it’ll be before this sickness and heartache subsides, or if it ever will, but anything I do from now until we’re together again won’t be significant enough to write about. I should be ashamed for having subjected you to the perils of this mundane prison bullshit. Nobody should ever have to experience this, first or second hand. As a matter of fact, I hope you never ever read this. I’ll destroy it first.
* * *
My mother’s journal stopped there. Nobody but her will ever know how the following 18 months treated her. It’s something—not unlike most P.O.W.’s—she prefers to keep to herself. I don’t press her. We don’t talk as much as I’d like anyhow. There’s nothing bad between us. She’s just so busy with her work, saving the world and all, that we hardly make time for one another.
Knowing my mother’s story helps me appreciate her. I’m proud of what she’s become. She’s a dedicated humanitarian, responsible for the opening of privately owned and operated prisons designed specifically for pregnant women. She’s implemented numerous programs in preexisting prisons allover the country for the purpose of strengthening the bond between mother and child before and after birth. Sometimes I feel neglected, her being so busy helping others, but it helps knowing I’m her inspiration. She’s a real hero. She’s my hero. And superheroes are famous for sacrificing the ones closest to them for the goodness of mankind.
In her case womankind.