The banging doesn’t stop. The talking does not cease. The noise levels are deafening. Night and day make no difference in this place, except in the amplification of noise.
The androgynously masculine guards joke and guffaw, inmates the brunt of their jokes. If they ever knew what it was like to be thoughtful or considerate, they do not show it. Several hundred female inmates attempt to sleep behind locked doors in the cacophony of harsh sounds. Sacred space is not to be found here. As they joke and swear, telling stories in deep voices, the sounds bounce off the cinderblocks, reverberating through the walls.
Under normal circumstances, these are people to I would avoid when walking down a darkened street, the last group I would turn to for help. They are the heyenas of this jungle, keeping everyone in line by pouncing on weakness. Their callousness leads me to wonder to the time in their lives when someone treated them with such distain and shame that they would enjoy this kind of job. The cycle of pain continues here, metered out with a different kind of victim.
It’s 4:00 AM on Mother’s Day and as this particular holiday goes, it’s the last place I ever expected to spend it. As far as surprises go, this one is a doozy; far above and beyond anything my children could have envisioned for their Momma.
I’ve just arrived. Tired, and in shock over the chain of events that led here. For the first time in five hours, I’m able to rest and contemplate.
I daydream of previous Mother’s Days, each one different and yet the same. Of two cherubic cheeked, blue eyed little boys proudly bringing breakfast to their Momma in bed, accented with freshly picked wild flowers. There is no breakfast in this particularly confining resort, no chocolate French toast with whipped cream, no orange juice on today’s menu. Remove generosity or acknowledgement for the hardworking, sometimes exasperated young mother that I was. No praise for the mother of two self-propelled boys that I am today. None of that found in this particularly confining resort.
Surrounded by cold cement walls, only a thin sliver of 3 inch wide window gives any indication of a world outside. Two inches of stiff vinyl-covered ‘mattress’ separates my sore body from the cement floor. Ignoring the pain shooting through my limbs, I lay on the mattress in the only way possible, counting the dozen inches between my feet and the open commode. Although my preference would normally be to lie where I can see outside, the close proximity to the toilet intervenes. For now I prefer to face the steel orifice, my head 3 inches from one of two permanently placed steel stools. The irony is not lost here. My life is in the toilet.
The bedding ensemble is as harsh, perhaps left over from the Civil War. A dark scratchy gray blanket absent of flowers, fluffiness, or softness is my covering. A small hand towel rolled up under my neck serves as a pillow, the cement wall behind me supports my back. I lay sideways, close my eyes and rest in an attempt to acclimate to this environment and sleep in such a place. A thin gray blanket, and a sewn together sheet resembling a huge pillow case completes the ensemble in this bare place. The comfortable nest I normally sleep in is far away from here, yet I too far to climb into. Instead, I bring it to mind, sinking down into soft pillows, the sound of the ocean and sleep.
To drown out the deafening noise, I let my dreaming take me to previously happy Mother’s Days. Longing for home, my imagination takes me to a bathtub filled with hot water, Epsom salts and essential oils. My children are respectful, quiet, tiptoeing around the house as I sit in my womb-like room. Candles burn, instrumental music plays. I savor this, knowing that at any moment a dimpled little hand will knock lightly on the door, and a sweet baby boy voice will say, “Mommy, breakfast is almost ready!” Closing my eyes, gratitude for sweet moments as these begins to flow and I am able to doze.
Other Mother’s Days flood my memory. I savor the sweetness of golden moments held forever in time. My mind sifts through each one like a lost treasure. I smile, remembering my first, the joy of knowing a belly full of new life, fluttering about like a lost bumblebee in my womb. The sweet moments when tiny hands reached for my face, laughing blue eyes reaching into my heart while a rosy mouth pulled the milk from my breast. Of misshaped pancakes made by busy little hands, fresh picked wild flowers adorning a tray brought to the bedside. Of awkwardly wrapped presents and lovingly scribbled cards scrawl-signed in bright crayon. Of the most recent, when my grown boys/men drove two hours alone to award me with the gift of time out of busy school schedules to present me with an inflatable raft. None of us had a clue that the journey I would take would bring me to this place.
At 6:30 am, the noise levels increase markedly. Dawn in jail is not celebrated with a quiet change from dark to light, only by an amplification of noise. My cellmates sigh and toss in their beds, getting ready to rise. Mary heaves herself down from the top steel bunk, scratches, stretches and peers eagerly out the window of the closed door. In white boxer shorts and sports bra sans underwire, her femininity is about gone. It’s hard to be polite first thing in the morning, but she is. She both introduces herself and excuses herself for having to use the commode. As she lowers herself to the seatless commode, she nods at me, sizing me up in two words, “First time?”
I nod, looking away to give her a semblance of privacy. “What are you in for?” she asks. “Suspended license.” “How’d they get you?” “I didn’t use my turn signal on Sullivan’s Island.” I reply. Incredulous, she counters with, “Vultures.” I am relieved that she is as bewildered as I am. She informs me that breakfast will be soon. Moments later, the buzzer sounds, doors unlatch and swing out as women begin lining the halls waiting their turn.
Mary cranes to see out the door what today’s breakfast is. “Looks like oatmeal today,” she says just before leaving the cell. Both cellmates leave the cell, and I take advantage of the moment of privacy to use the commode before venturing out to see what lies in store.
The line of women forms around the top floor and weaves down the stairs. Like a flock of gray, weary geese, they move forward toward breakfast, plastic shower shoes shuffling on the concrete floor. Talking in low voices, some of the women at the back of the line nod to me briefly, without pausing their conversations. Social moments are precious here, so I observe in silence. I want to remember this long enough to write about it later.
The brief moment of privacy has cost me, for I am last in line as it snakes down the stairs. I take a moment to absorb the surroundings, noting the less hardened faces, the wan smiles among the bunch. Some look as if the life has been drained from them; others wipe sleep from their eyes. A few hardened ones appear to be in their natural environment. Again, I retreat to my imagination, pretending we are in a spa dressed in fluffy, soft white robes, sipping mimosas, waiting for breakfast and coffee. Instead, we are lined up like grey geese, waiting for our share. Finally it’s my turn to accept a tray, and begin the search for a table. Most are filled. This is worse than high school.
The food is as appetizing as dog vomit. Whatever smell it may have begun with, now is gone. I wouldn’t give this stuff to anyone, but then I’m a raw foods connoisseur who associates serving a great meal with loving those it’s served to. Anything cooked in my book is devoid of nutrient value, but this stuff is truly awful. Mushy, without form or texture, it can only be eaten with a spoon. “Breakfast” is oatmeal and something that seems like ground mystery meat, served with potato chunks swimming in lukewarm water. Maybe it’s an attempt at hash browns, but it looks more like congealed potato glop. Doughy, dense cake/bread and milk are the remaining components of the meal. All jokes aside, there is not a single school cafeteria lunch that could ever be this bad. The employee rejects from the cafeteria must work in the jailhouse kitchen. It’s so far from my usual diet of yogurt, granola and fruit – also food that can be eaten with a spoon – yet light years ahead in nourishment value than what I’m faced with eating now.
Hot coffee is noticeably absent, although the guards all have a huge cup. They know the aroma taunts us. Perhaps the really good cooks here can make the coffee taste something close to the real thing, but I’m comforted by the fact that they probably don’t make the coffee any better than the rest of the meal. I picture my plastic, 6 ounce cup of water as a steaming cup of hazelnut coffee with the perfect blend of hazelnut cinnamon creamer and a dash of sugar. I have a great imagination, but this leaves a lot to be desired. Jesus turned water into wine. I was really hoping to make that work with water into coffee.
As I take my tray to the table, the other women are shoveling this stuff into their mouths as fast as possible. There are 10 minutes to complete the process of standing in a long line, finding a table and eating Stomach growling, I push food around on the thick plastic tray. I wonder how many people have been forced to eat this pitiful excuse for a meal. The digestive consequences of eating this glop will far outweigh the short term hunger of the moment, so I decline to eat most of the meal. Two bites of doughy cake and a sip of water is all I can stand. I can’t seem to stomach the idea of it. Just as I work up the courage to take a bite, the 20 something girl looks right at me and asks if I’m going to eat what’s on my tray. I am relieved to let her have my share. I hand her my tray, but another girl cautions me to just spoon mine out into hers, for if the guards notice the absent tray, its back to the cell early for my generosity.
Heaven forbid I have to return to the cot on the cement floor for even one minute longer than absolutely necessary.
The 20 something girl has finished eating my oatmeal. She thanks me, mouth brimming full of it. I want to throw up at the way these women are reduced to less than animals in this place.
I watch the other women and find myself filled with gratitude for my ability to choose fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. My active imagination kicks in, taking me from women shoveling gruel into their mouths to the finest ladies enjoying high tea. I listen to women around the table and glean their stories. One by one, I make eye contact, break the rules and ask their names. They are helpful, matter of fact, and full of information as to what to expect. We have 10 minutes to shovel this slop into our mouths, stand in line at the water fountain to refill our plastic coke bottles and get back to our cells. As we line up at the water fountain, the androgynous guards yell at us to hurry up. Evidently, their joking is important, and we’re interfering. It’s acutely clear that if we don’t hurry and get into our ‘rooms’, there will be trouble.
We line up, taking the trays back, and filling up water bottles at the fountain. Any dawdling or talking or social activity is seen as misbehavior. A woman coughs violently as she holds herself over the trash can; her meal coming up with flem. A guard berates her for not making it to the toilet in her cell. She coughs with the deep hacking of someone with pneumonia. There is no compassion from the 300lb guard, only ferocity and hate. I wonder what cruelty s/he endured as a child to bring job satisfaction in this moment.
I don’t belong here, yet here I am. Thanks to a lack of providing a turn signal.
After breakfast, we talk in the cell. My cellmates are confident that I’ll be released today or tomorrow. I notice a Bible in Mary’s stash, and ask for pen and paper. A golf pencil is removed from a hidden compartment in a deodorant container. I write, so I can remember this later.
“Mary” begins by telling her story, one that has been told repeatedly. My curiosity is growing by the minute about these women I’m confined with. What I discovered is that there is more kindness in jail between inmates than there ever is coming from those in the jail’s employ. The ones who are locked up are the ones who are the most polite and considerate. Imagine that.
Mary ends with a vehement vow to never return to the Holy City. Her bitter perspective is a reflection of her experience in the system. She mentions that more women are in South Carolina jails for Domestic Violence, Mental Illness, and Substance Abuse than for anything else. The combination of all three is her downfall. Mental illness is tough enough to deal with (depression), combined with alcohol (a depressant) and a man with a penchant for communicating with his fists rather than his words. She has been her 20 times in 22 years. According to her statistics, when she calls the police for domestic violence, both parties are always arrested, because she no longer allows him to wail on her. She fights back.
Her cell mate, Vanessa, age 21, is here for leaving her 8 month old son in the car while she paid for gasoline on a 50 degree overcast day. I’ve done that with my own kids without needing jail time. In fact, my oldest son was accidentally locked in our running van at the post office for an hour on a 40 degree day in Atlanta. I shudder to think what could have happened if there weren’t people to assist me with breaking back into my own van. Perhaps she is in need of a parenting mentor instead of jail time away from her baby on her first Mother’s Day. Her eyes speak of longing for her baby, a precious little bundle of energy and joy who undoubtedly wonders where his mother has been for the last two months.
As for my reasons for spending time in the jailhouse spa, surely you’re wondering. It’s like this: Unbeknownst to me, I was driving with a suspended driver’s license. It was suspended as of 6 days prior to the date of the arrest. I had no idea that it was even in jeopardy of being suspended. This harkened back to a speeding ticket (10 miles over) in Wahalla, SC on a trip from Dahlonega to Flat Rock, NC. The state doesn’t give a damn if you can pay the fine or not.
So after the bluegrass gig on Sullivan’s Island, the vultures with badges were waiting. I was unclear on which direction home was when the blue lights came on. Failing to use a turn signal, is what started this whole mess. When Officer Mast ran my license and discovered the suspension six days prior, I had no clue how much trouble that meant.
Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to tickets. I’ve not received a speeding ticket in 15 years, so the chain of events that spawned this reality was a rude awakening. Never in a million years did I imagine spending Mother’s Day in jail, but here I sit.
The moment an officer pulls you over, he is checking the list in his head of all the possible things that you are already doing wrong. It’s his job to cast the widest possible net so he can bring you in.
Reading Orwell and experiencing it in the flesh are two different things. Technology is keeping tabs on us, yet modern day technology does not come with this attitude. You are a non-person the moment you are in handcuffs. Finding you at fault is their job.
When the officer asked for my license and registration, he was as nice as could be. When he asked me to step out of my car, he was any Southern gentleman, opening the door for a lady. That was the end of it however, because the moment the handcuffs were on, in his mind I was guilty. They did not rough me up, but they did not want to hear anything out of me, either. When my legs wobbled, and I stumbled, standing against the car, I was gently escorted to the back seat of a cruiser. It was that simple, and that fast.
I have spent the last seven years healing from Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue. My body is in constant pain all the time, and that level of pain increases markedly in stressful situations. If being arrested isn’t the most stressful situation I’ve been in, I don’t remember what was. I’d spent the last seven years of my life on disability, making ends meet with selling art.
I’d spent the better part of nine months traveling between Gainesville and Asheville, staying with friends or house sitting to regain my financial balance. The ticket in Wahalla, SC for 10 mph over the speed limit was a foreshadowing of what was to come.
That’s what brought me to the back seat of the cruiser. There I was, shutting down in the officer’s car. My mind is focused on attempting to meditate and relax the muscles that are crying out for relief from this stuck position with my arms handcuffed behind me. The banjo picker knows my physical dilemma and pleads with the officers to allow me to be re-handcuffed from the front. His request is ignored. They say to hang on, we’ll be there soon enough. And take an eternity to get through the paperwork.
There is no one in Charleston that I know to call to help me. My cell phone is in the car. I am so out of luck here. Unless I can remember at least one person’s phone number, it’s likely that I’ll be in jail awhile.
My car is loaded with inventory, art and CD’s of my online radio show. A week prior, I’d just made the trip back to Georgia in to restock inventory to sell it at the City Market. Friday night’s sales netted exactly $10. Not enough to pay for the $12 booth. But I digress. To say I was in the hole financially would be an understatement.
At this point, my inventory is being sniffed over and walked upon by a German Shepherd, who is not leaving any nooks or crannies uninvestigated. He steps on all the paper art, putting weight on things that are supposed to stay protected in plastic containers in the car. These cops have turned a simple thing into a complete circus, at the expense of my livelihood. The inspirational cards I create are being trampled by the dog, his handler, and the other over zealous cops that surround us. Instead of protesting, I make myself small and still in the back seat of the police cruiser.
One of the officers asks his captain over the radio, “Aaaah, Sir? How are we going to inventory this?” Inside, I am frustrated about their total ignorance of how to handle art, and crying over my misfortune simultaneously. My hand made cards are being destroyed here and now, because these guys are bored. I want to scream with frustration at their flagrant violence of my sacred space, and my livelihood. I am humiliated, in pain, and now a good portion of my worldly possessions and means of income are being destroyed by a police dog. He’s in places that Cisco has never been allowed to be in, for his place is only in the front seat, away from paper that can be crushed or stepped on and ruined.
Welcome to Sullivan’s Island. Boredom must be high here in the Sullivan’s Island PD. I learn that they are in position by 10:00 pm, lying in wait like hyenas on the hunt for weaker target. I’m determined to never return to this place except on official business.
A trip across the Ravenel Bridge, brings us to Leeds Avenue. New to Charleston, I’m normally eager to look out the window when crossing this beautiful work of architectural wonder, especially at night. Tonight is a different story. Bent forward, I attempt to ignore the bumps in the road and the pain shooting up my arms, shoulders, and back. I’m imagining being on a sailboat, free, off the proverbial grid of the watchful eye of Big Brother. I’m not a criminal; I just enjoy the freedom of privacy. It has been violated in every way imaginable on this night.
Privacy is not something one has in jail. At best, when you are handed a ‘new’ set of clothes, and a few moments and a small space to change, with someone watching at all times. The toilets are never behind a wall – only open, with no seat or paper to speak of. It’s either get familiar with the porcelain, or hang low. I suppose in the sewn up sleeping sheets, one could have privacy, you could wiggle a toe without anyone knowing. But for someone who relishes sacred space and respect of others, this is quite a rude awakening.
I can’t remember how many times I’ve told a domestic partner, “Look, no matter how bad it is, I will never ‘go’ in front of you.” Even with a history of kidney stones, I keep my dignity and privacy there. In jail, this rule goes out the window. The privacy I get is while my other two inmates have gone outside the cell for breakfast; sacrificed for a long wait in line for blended slop.
For someone with a heart for those in prison, it’s most ironic to find myself here. A few inmates in Gainesville, GA considered Tribal Vibe (my radio show) the best spiritual food available. Now I know why they liked it so much, and it was not because of my midnight radio voice, although I’m sure in this rough place, any softness or kindness is appreciated. I can only imagine how it must be for the men if the women are treated this way.
Actually, I’ve never wanted to hear my own radio show so much myself. I am thankful for this experience, for it gives me a glimpse of what they live in on a daily basis. Most of the listeners are in for DUI related crimes, and I wonder how much recovery can actually occur in this place. How many people actually belong here? How many were contributing members of society, working for their families? How many lives were put on hold to come to this place? Jail is not a place for recovery, of that I am now certain.
At lunch, it’s the same routine of grey geese lining up to see what’s on the tray. Good nutrition is just not here. I take my tray and sit beside a woman who is eating a vegetarian meal. When I ask how she got it, she says, you have to be here 36 hours to place an order for it. She shares her navy beans with me, and we talk. She is an artist too, a painter. While she waits for her trial, her husband is at home doing the work of two parents and supporting the family at the same time. It may arrive in 3 months or 6, she does not know. Her children are not making a pancake breakfast for their mommy today, either.
At 1:00 pm, “Bell” comes clanging through the speakers. “Go see the guard,” Mary says. An officer is here to take me to a bond hearing. Shaking with cold in the over sized gray garb, my silk slip is the only thing that helps me stay warm. I am to be taken to the hearing. At least this guard is a true male, and he is actually showing signs of humanity as we walk down the hall. Still, I must walk quietly on one side of an orange painted line. I am so sore it is difficult to walk, like trudging through 10 foot high dunes of sand, yet I know that each step brings with it a possibility of freedom.
Others wait in the hearing room. It’s a video hearing, with the judge in another place. Smart man, as this jail is most depressing. Anyone who would be here on purpose must have questionable sanity. My name is called, and I step up to the camera. The judge is kind. He releases me on my own recognizance, and sets a hearing date. I am to report to court on Sullivan’s Island.
As I wait back in my seat for the guard to drum up paperwork I hear the stories of other women as they talk with the judge. One is here for shoplifting peanut butter, presumably to feed her children. Another is here for crack cocaine, still another for domestic violence. She has no one to call, she was totally dependent on her boyfriend when she chose to fight back. She will stay in jail awhile, as will the others. I feel lucky to have been let go.
The stories are all similar, despair bringing people to do things they otherwise would not do. I’m the only one here that is different, or so it seems, yet I am human as they are.
An hour later I’m riding in a cab. Heading to a party on John’s Island, held by the backers of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. The less than private jail shower at 4 am had to serve as preparation, for there is no time to change or prepare for meeting the highest class of Charleston society. They don’t seem to notice, for they welcome me with open arms, offer a glass of chardonnay and show me a fabulous Low Country boil buffet.
This is more like it for Mother’s Day. My children are still miles away, but at least there is good food to be had and a party atmosphere. Sunshine and blue sky with a hint of thunderstorm on the horizon, I’m in a beautiful garden on a lovely John’s Island estate. I marvel at the ability to see all this beauty, to breathe fresh air, to inhale the scent of flowers and delight in the blooms. I am grateful for my release and appreciative of the simplest things as never before.
As I shoot photos of the event, I do my best to blend in. Forever changed after this experience, I am never to be the same. I am free, and wondering about how to make payment of $924 bail. Perhaps my articles will sell, or my art. According to the paperwork from the jail, my hearing is set for August 14, at 5:30 pm, so there may be time amid day to day survival to create the income. I am a survivor, learning more about my own ability the longer I stay in this state. Now I leave behind a sorority of women who are doing their best to survive and keep their dignity in a place where there is none. The best I can do is write about it, write to encourage my former cell mates and pray they are released soon.
I’ve only spent one Mother’s Day away from my children, and that was my choice. I’ll never knowingly spend it without them again. Last year, the boys gave me a raft, a yellow and blue, sunshine and blue water boat, an indicator and foreshadowing of the journey I was about to undertake for the next year.
Next Mother’s Day, I plan to be on a sailboat. My kids will have to come visit me wherever I’m anchored. Secretly I’ll delight in their presence, and make up for time lost. We’ll have chocolate pancakes and OJ for breakfast, and go snorkeling afterwards.
For hundreds of women behind bars, there won’t be a Mother’s Day. Only more of the same life with no hope, no way of getting out, no chance to see sparkling baby blue eyes and dimpled cheeks, no honoring the tireless job of mommies all over the world. I will not forget these women, for spending Mother’s Day with them has been an experience I will remember forever.
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