Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account in Kentucky.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language. Do not read this post at work.
Inmate names are changed.
McCracken County Jail, Cell 107, sometime in March, 2008
In the news, we learn that a health screening day was held at Walmart. Among other things, the screeners were testing body fat. Seventy percent of those screened were obese or markedly obese. I empathetically and privately note that Ruthie, who is 5’4″ and over 300 pounds, fits into this category.
Around Ruthie’s middle, an apron of fat hangs lower than her orange khaki shirt hem. Enormous breasts hang down and rest on the apron. She has difficulty breathing, and each night she snorts and snores.
We are kind to Ruthie, because she has cognitive difficulties that some summarize as not being quite ‘right.’ Ruthie has shared with us that her biological mother used drugs during the pregnancy, and that Ruthie was raised in foster care, where she was abused. Also, Ruthie met her biological mother for the first time when Ruthie was eighteen, and both of them were residents in this jail. Like many other inmates here, Ruthie has frequent-flyer-in-jail family members. We also know that she has been abused by various men in her adult life.
During the news, we can hear Harry shouting from his isolation cell down the hall, “PLEEEase!! Help me! Let me out! HELP! HelpmehelpmeHelpMeHELLLP! Somebody! Please!”
Ruthie receives a little more than $600 each month from the government for disability. She has two mixed children. They are in foster care. Ruthie prefers black men; her current boyfriend is black. She struggles cognitively but she also struggles with a drug addiction. McCracken County courts have determined that the most healing, productive environment for Ruthie and her children, is Ruthie’s placement in this jail cell with us.
While Ruthie articulates with great difficulty, she is adept at street slang.
At night, she lies on the floor next to the steel door, and shouts underneath it, to Creighton, a black drug dealer who she slept with on the streets. Creighton is housed in the cell next door (cell 111).
“Fuck you, Creighton! Herpe-boy, herpe-boy. Fuck y’all. Your dick smells like yo ass! Fuck you!”
Creighton replies, “Fuck you! Your pussy smells like sardines!”
“Huh-uh. This pussy smell good. You just mad ’cause you cain’t have any ‘o ‘dis pussy. You just jealous ’cause I done fucked Mississippi. He is fine. His dick bigger than yours.”
“Your breath smells like yo ass, bitch!”
“Wash yo mouth out with soap, herpe-boy, herpe-boy, fuck you,” sing-songs Ruthie. “Yo dick ain’t thick like Mississippi!”
“I heard yo mouth is a sperm bank!”
Ruthie turns to us and says, “Mississippi done got a thick dick, ’cause he beats hisself all the time. He done love playing with his wee-wee. They say that if a man play with hisself, he get a thicker dick.”
Tina says, “If that were true, every man would have a hundred-foot thick dick.”
The guard comes by, kicks the steel door and shouts, “Cut it out!”
Startled by the kick, Ruthie actually levitates off the cement floor. I wonder how this is physically possible.
I say, “Get up, Ruthie, or they’ll take our TV. Plus, they won’t allow Class Ds onto the walk anymore. And we won’t have anything to look at.” The ‘walk’ is the hallway outside our tiny cell, that Class D nonviolent male offenders sweep and mop.
I ask Ruthie, “Who’s Mississippi?”
“Black dope dealer with a thick dick,” replies Ruthie. “He done went back to Mississippi.”
When the guard leaves, Ruthie is back on the floor, yelling. “That’s right, herpe-boy, he done had a bigger dick than you! I fucked ‘im every night, smoked all the crack I wanted, shore did! I didn’t want for nuthin’! You jes jealous ’cause I’d rather suck a glass dick than yours!”
I say, “Shut up, Ruthie. They’ll take our TV.”
Ruthie gets up, giggling.
Like so many people in jails and prisons, Ruthie is mentally disabled. She draws simple pictures for her wall. Her stick-figure drawing features a man and woman, happy, smiling. The man wears a baseball cap and is smoking a cigarette. The woman wears a dress. The sun is a child’s sun, full, with stick-rays. There are two clouds and a tree. The house has a front door and two windows.
Ruthie uses magazines and deodorant, to rub color into the pictures, then hangs them on the wall with the universal jailhouse glue: toothpaste.
Ruthie came to our cell because her cellmates in her other cell were always mean to her. She smelled horrid when she arrived, like a vaginal infection. We urged her to go to the nurse and get STD tested and get medicine. She did, and she smells better. We try to be good to her. She did not understand that she would have to sit in this cement cell for six months for seven contempt of court violations.
We explain legal things to Ruthie, because no lawyer has explained anything to her.
We also help Ruthie to read, write and count.
Ruthie’s 49-year-old mother just died. She lived alone in a trailer. No one checked on her the entire weekend. She was found Monday, sitting next to the air conditioner, with an inhaler in her hand. The air conditioner was off, so the skin on the body split open and turned colors; the funeral will not be open casket.
Ruthie seats herself next to me at the steel table. With a no-shank pen and paper, she starts to write a letter to a treatment center:
“I’m writeing to see if I could get into your program
Im really own drugs bad especily crack cocane I started using when I was 12 years old and it was pot then I started dranking at 16 then started snorting cocane at age 17 then about 19…”
“How do you spell snortin’?” asks Ruthie.
“s-n-o-r-t-i-n-g,” I reply.
She thanks me and continues:
“…then about 19 crack cocane I stop using drugs there for awhile when I found out I was pregnet I had 2 little girls did good for awhile unlike the father of my kids, my old man, went to jail for about 2 years at first I stayed clean about 4 months after he got locked up.”
This is the first and only period in the letter so far. She continues:
“then things got hard for me, like paying bills, supporting my kids, just life in general, and everyone around almost did crack cocane, so I look for that for an axcuse, to start back smoking crack-cocane, I started smoking crack-cocane for about the first 6 months then started doing it all almost, But I never really been addicted to pills, like I’ll have a crack pipe and a meth pipe goin at the same time and my old man wuz sellin dope and doin weekins in jail…”
Ruthie giggles and says, “A crack pipe and a meth pipe at the same time, that is high, don’t you thank that’s high?”
She continues writing:
“…my reasons I looked up to my sister when I wuz a child is my sister took care of me when my mom wuz in and out of jail and on drugs.”
Ruthie never knew her real mother, the one that just died, until Ruthie was 18, and they met each other here in this jail.
Until that time, Ruthie had a last name and a social security number given to her by her foster parents. Then, her real mother gave her a name and a social security number, since the foster parents had been sexually abusive.
I ask, “What about your father?”
“Oh, he was murdered,” replies Ruthie. “I got a tattoo of him right here, on my arm. Yeah, he was murdered. It was in the news.”
“What happened to him?” I ask.
“Oh, it was over money. They done hung him with his own belt buckle. This man and this lady.”
Sally says, “Well fuck me runnin’.”
“They tried to stuff him into the trunk of a car, but he was too big, so they done drug him back into the house. I saw his body. He’d been dead for a week. He was split open, and there was maggots everywhere. Seein’ that changes you. I ain’t been right after seein’ that. Don’t you think it changes you, Rachel?”
“I cannot imagine that,” I say.
Down the hall, a guard yells at a white man in an isolation cell to “stop acting black,” and further down the hall, Harry yells from his isolation cell, “HELP! Let me out! Helpmehelpme help. HELP!” The mailman comes and retrieves Sirkka’s outgoing trick letters that she has written in hopes of receiving some commissary money.
Ruthie says, “And Mama’s body done swolled up and busted. They cain’t have no open casket. They say the smell was awful.”
Sally asks, “Where did your mama live?”
“The trailer park out Twin Oaks Road by the church and down by the liquor store.”
I note that everything in Kentucky seems to be in relation to a church, a jail or a liquor store.
Ruthie says, “Yeah, and you know when that lady came by the cell with Brother Phillip?”
“She had me sign some papers to say they could sell Mama’s trailer, and car, and all her things, so they could bury her. They said that that burial insurance wasn’t no good.”
“Oh jeez,” I say. “It was probably a scam.”
“Now I ain’t got nowhere to go when I git out,” says Ruthie. “I ain’t gonna have nothing.”
Christie says, “You signed something?”
I ask, “Do you have a copy?”
“No,” says Ruthie. “I shouldn’t a signed it, huh?”
Christie says, “Ruthie! Don’t ever sign anything when you don’t know what it is!”
In the next day or so, Ruthie leaves the jail in handcuffs, to spend ½ hour at her mother’s funeral. One of the jail guards knew Ruthie’s mother and sent flowers; they were the only flowers that anyone sent.
The day after the funeral, guards come by and get Ruthie again, and she returns to the cell in tears and in hives.
She has been charged with two new felonies, each carrying a potential additional five-year sentence: giving a false name and giving a false address.
The address is false, because the trailer was sold, to pay for the mother’s burial.
The name was false, because Ruthie provided both her foster care name and the name that her real mother had given her.
Ruthie was 9th-grade special educated and did not understand the forms. She is on disability and cannot even work a cash register because she cannot count back change. She is obese, because she does not know anything about nutrition or diet. She does not understand her own drug addiction, and she does not really even understand her original charges.
We again admonish Ruthie for signing forms that she does not understand. We tell her to go before the judge and explain her inability to comprehend, her education level and her learning disability.
I feel a terrible sense of guilt, because Ruthie had initially asked me for help with the forms, and I told her that it was inappropriate for me to see her private information and help her with legal documents.
I honestly thought that an appropriate person such as a public defender would help Ruthie.
I was wrong.
I sit at the steel table with my notes. Leese likes to write poetry. She hands me one of her poems and says, “Here. You can have this for your notes.” I begin to transcribe Leese’s poem.
Sick of getting my hopes up, sick of being let down
Sick of the sky, sick of the ground.
Sick of the water, sick of the dirt
Sick of feeling nothing, sick of being hurt.
Sick of being wrong, sick of being right
Sick of not seeing, sick of having sight…