Kitchen Job In Ricky’s World

December 13, 2013

by Crane-Station for Frog Gravy
sunset

Sunset, jail art: magazine ink, colored pencil, ink. cranestation on flickr.

Author’s note: Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account in Kentucky jails and in prison in 2008 and 2009.

The name Ricky is real. Others have been changed.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

Ricky’s World, Fulton County Detention Center, Hickman, KY, August, 2008.

Tonight I dress strategically for my job in the kitchen. I have arthritis. This privately owned jail charges one dollar per tablet for canteen Advil. So I put on a sports bra. A sports bra will accommodate packets of sweetener that I plan to smuggle from the kitchen. This will right a tiny wrong, at least in my mind.

So, I have the right clothes on.

Penny, Jesse, Linda and I head to the kitchen for work. We are the jail’s designated prep crew, evening shift. We cut vegetables, fill butter and jelly cups and make KoolAid.

Turns out I am really, really good with knives. I cut vegetables like a manic Cuisinart. This makes Penny crazy. She absolutely hates, and I mean she cannot stand that I am really, really good at cutting. And I’m fast. And so, Penny spends a good deal of the evening trying to slow me down.

It goes like this:

We get to the kitchen and I check out two knives, both pieces of shit but, between the two I usually get the job done. I grab a cutting board and say to the others, “I use two knives. You guys need to check out your own knives.”

Two more knives are checked out. (Not enough for my vegetable-cutting World Cup, I might add.)

“I’m cutting,” I say.

Linda peels off from the pack to make fifty gallons of KoolAid.

Penny with the first shot across the bow: “I’m going to have you rinse all the cucumbers, and I’ll get started cutting.” Like she runs the place.

She wants a head start.

But that does nothing to my work product, so then she predictably wants one of my knives. I have prepared for this. I give up my piece of crap yellow-handle filet knife, and keep the Farberware semi-serated, plastic handle, butcher-knife sized, made-in-China yard sale knife. Penny wants this also, but I refuse to give it up.

Then Jesse wants my knife, to cut butter, of all things, a job I could have completed from start to finish with time to spare, in less than ten minutes. I refuse. She wants my cutting board. I give it to her. Penny gives Jesse the knife that I just gave Penny, the filet knife with the yellow handle. Penny gives me a piece of crap slab of wood cutting board that inmates have used for so long that there is a trench the middle, so the board looks like a boat.

I turn the board over.

My productivity is yet unhindered even though my handicap includes an instrument that somehow passes for a knife, although I doubt it would kill anyone (I’ve pondered it); to cut butter you have to run the knife under hot water first.

Penny goes nuts. She says, “You can’t use the back of the board!”

“Why not?”

“It’s…It’s…got…mold.”

There is no mold on this board. I say, “Where?”

“Right there!” She points to wood.

“On the back side?”

“Yeah, you can’t do that!”

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Penny by now, without knife and board, is not cutting. Actually she is eating. And annoying me.

I turn the board back over.

Penny is a nut farmer, of course, but I say nothing because it’s not worth it. This is not, as they say, the mountain I want to die on. Besides, my productivity remains unhindered.

After cutting something like a billion cucumbers and a whole bunch of okra, I have a good case of arthritis in my shoulder and wrist. My hand will be swollen.

The guard comes in and takes her share of vegetables for home and remarks that she should bring her entire garden in for us (me) to process. The guard is sincere, and this is meant to be a compliment, and that is how I take it.

We are supposed to make sixty-three cents a day for labor, full time (about twenty dollars per month). I have worked like an animal since May, and saw my precious twenty dollar check for the first time, in August.

I return to the cell, to the hate. I make a note to get new earplugs because the old ones have worn out.

There is much excitement in one corner of the cell, screams, yelps. A mob of inmates have found a spider and they are torturing it. Tearing off its legs, spraying it with bleach, beating it. There was a time in my life when I questioned the presence or absence of evil, but I no longer do.

I say a prayer for the spider.

Author’s end note: I saw a lot of these sorts of incidents. They broke my heart.


The mother, her baby and the man

October 25, 2013

When Parrots Go Bad

by Crane-Station for Frog Gravy

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction account of incarceration in Kentucky, in jails and in prison, during 2008 and 2009, and is reconstructed from my notes.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

Inmate names are changed, except for nick names that do not reveal identity.

The mother, her baby and the man

McCracken County Jail Cell 107, sometime in February, 2008.

Before my trial, my husband, a retired criminal defense attorney with thirty years of experience, actually tried to help my court-appointed local attorney, who was about as useless as a cat with side pockets.

My husband advised the following:

1. Never ask a question that you do not know the answer to. Each and every question has a reference-at-the-ready in the transcript, wherein the deputy previously testified under oath. He did not quite go so far as to suggest my attorney to say something like, “So. Were you lying then? Or are you lying now?” But it was pretty close.

2. Never allow the witness any wiggle room. Only ask questions that can be answered “yes” or “no.”

Had my lawyer been even marginally competent, and had he any integrity whatsoever, I may not have been given the opportunity to sit in this cell and write this. My husband describes Chris McNeill’s performance as “abysmal.” I believe this is too kind. I believe the man was actually working with and for the prosecution, and at least one Frankfort attorney that I know of does not deny this possibility.

For some reason, I now wear a towel on my head at all times. I have spent hours planning my hat for the Kentucky Derby, still months away, but I will wear jail-issue underpants on my head for the event. Wrapped just right, they look like a white do-rag, and they go quite nicely with the cornrows I am also planning.

I also have a solid plan to obtain an extra pair of socks, and I tell Christie, “Check this out. My sock has a big hole in it, right? So, I ask the guard for new socks, but I wrap the ones with holes into the rest of my laundry. She brings me new socks. I take the elastic threads from the old pair and make them into hair ties. Come to Mama!”

“It won’t work,” says Christie.

“What do you mean it won’t work? This is the rock-solidest plan I’ve ever had. I got this.”

“She’ll take them. She’ll take them home, sew the hole, and bring back the old pair.”

“Who the hell does that shit?”

Sure enough, this is exactly what the guard does. She brings the old, now-sewn socks back. She has a male Class D inmate in tow to do some work in the cell, and they begin a conversation about drug court.

The guard says, “All I know is that drug court is really hard.”

“Drug court sucks,” says the Class D.”I got kicked out. Two of us got five years on one check. I was clean. I am a contractor on the outside. I was called for a UA when I was working in Murray. I told them I’d go to the hospital or the jail in Murray, and give them a urine, and pay for it myself. They refused. they sent me to rehab. The day I was discharged I missed an appointment they never told me about, so they violated me. I’ve got eight years on the shelf.”

“Huh,” I say, adjusting the towel on my head. “Funny. I asked for drug court and they denied me, and just gave me eight years without all the bother. Drug court is a scam though, I agree. They probably did me a favor, denying me drug court. Come to think of it, I should have just killed someone. I’d be doing way less time.”

“So, you took it to trial then,” says the Class D.

“Here it comes,” I say.

“Never take anything to trial in McCracken County,” says the Class D. “Everybody knows that.”

“She didn’t know. Not from here,” Christie offers.

Lea says, “Drug Court’s a buuuunch of bullshit. I got kicked out and now I’m doing a nine-month flop in this hole.”

Down the hall, Harry shouts from his isolation cell, “HELP! Let me OUT! HelpmehelpmehelpmeHELP!”

Sirkka, the 4’8″ 105 lb self-described crack whore is, at times, oddly stuck in infancy, and she asks Lea to rub her legs and burp her like a baby. Lea snaps, “You ain’t no damn baby. You are a grown woman!”

The guard says, to Lea, “Well, I guess McCracken is better than Hickman.”

Lea says, “Fulton’s worse. Ricky’s World.”

“Hickman’s worse,” says the Class D.

“Yeah, Hickman,” says the guard. “It’s a dungeon. My sister was there and they feed you, like hog guts, what’s that called?”

“Chitlins?” I offer.

“Tripe?” says Tina.

“Tripe. That’s it.”

“Is that a gland?” I ask.

“Rub my legs,” says Sirkka to me.

“You need to quit. I’m not a pedophile. Really.”

Lea says, “I never shoulda done drug court.”

Later in the day, I find comfort in writing because I find my friend Tina’s case so upsetting that I do not know what else to do.

As near as I can tell, Tina met a man and moved in with him three weeks later, with her two-year-old son. Over time, the child showed various bruises, but she was unconcerned because “of course he had bruises. he was an active little boy.” At some point, there was a bizarre story about the man doing the Heimlich maneuver on the boy. This resulted in a spleen injury, but it seemed to Tina anyway to be the result of a good-faith effort to prevent the boy from choking.

The man was the boy’s caretaker while Tina was at work. One morning in August she went to work at 6AM and received a call at 10 AM, that the man had called 911. He initially reported that he was wrestling with the baby and there was an accident.

The baby was flown to Vanderbilt (the nearest Level One trauma center), where he was later declared brain dead, with “global” brain injury, a broken neck, a bruised intestine and a damaged spleen. He was removed from life support and became an organ donor.

The man later admitted to the murder, and claimed that he himself was a “sociopath.”

Tina, who was at work that day, is charged with complicity to commit murder.

I become close friends with Tina, here and later in prison. I know her as an artist, a deeply religious and spiritual woman with a sense of humor and capacity for love and caring. She was not only crushed by the violent death of her son, but now she is forever marked as a violent criminal. Exhausted and grief-stricken, she often resorts to balling herself up in the corner of the shower, to moan and cry. For court appearances, the jail staff chains her onto the same chain gang as her son’s confessed murderer, and when she returns to the cell in tears, we console her.

Tina’s public defender, who is useless, allows the Commonwealth to threaten her with 60 years if she does not take a plea. Tina tells me one day, “I can’t fight them. I am done. I am out done.” She takes a plea for seven years on lesser charges, and she will serve 85% of that.


The $45.00 Garlic Ice Pack [with jail art]

October 10, 2013

by Crane-Station for Frog Gravy

Bird drawing  by Crane-Station

Birds, drawn in jail, by Crane-Station. Colored pencil, magazine ink.

Author’s note: Frog Gravy is a depiction of daily life during incarceration in Kentucky in 2008 and 2009, first in jails and then in prison, and is reconstructed from my notes.

This post is from jail.

Names have been changed, except in this post, the name Ricky is real.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

Ricky’s World, Fulton County Detention Center, Hickman, KY, 7-31-08

Ricky’s World is a vast improvement over McCracken County Jail,contrary to inmate urban legend. Some would strongly disagree with me. Ricky runs a tight ship. His is, for the most part, a jail that serves as a prison for Class D non-violent drug offenders. Men outnumber the women, and the jail is overcrowded.

Almost everyone is offered work, since nearly all of the inmates are “final sentenced” State inmates. There is one 12-step meeting each week. A caring priest, who is like a counselor to me and many others, visits each week.

The library is actually quite good. When family members send books to us, we are required to donate them to the library, and then check them out. One of the first books I checked out was The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom. There are history books, some educational materials, and children’s books. Since I love Mother Goose, I occasionally check out nursery rhyme books. I also become a fan of Sudoku. We can check out board games as well.

We are actually offered legitimate recreation for one hour each day. The outside cage is tiny, but it is outside nonetheless, and if you crouch and peek through the keyhole in the steel door to the outside world, you can see a cemetery.

There is another view to the outside, through a small window in the kitchen. You can even see some trees.

Lights are actually turned off at night. During the day, they are not quite as burning to the eyes as the lights are in McCracken.

We are allowed real pens. But the best part is the colored pencils. We can get them from canteen. I begin drawing nearly every day. I mail the drawings to my family. I combine colored pencil work with colors from magazine pictures. If you rub deodorant onto some toilet paper and then rub that onto a magazine picture, the ink comes off nicely and you can use it for art work. It also makes nice makeup. I find all sorts of pictures, in magazines and books, and I spend my spare time drawing, and experimenting with various items in the cell that serve as art supplies.

My hands are still raw from my first job here: washing inmate dishes in the kitchen. I am transferred to a different kitchen job: prep crew. In the evening, when the clean-up crew is finished, we go to the kitchen and fill butter and jelly cups and make Kool-Aid. Then we cut fresh vegetables.

We fill 250 butter cups, 250 jelly cups, and make 50 gallons of Kool-Aid. Then we cut hundreds of pounds of vegetables; Okra, cucumbers, and squash. Most of the cut vegetables are used in inmate meals; guards occasionally take home sacks of the cut vegetables.

There is no screaming man in an isolation cell, and the guards are very nice, for the most part. Some are older; we call one elderly woman “Miss Granny.”

At night, I try to invent ways to minister to my swollen hands. They are shiny, red and blistered. The guards occasionally bring me a bandaid. I carefully slice the it into two strips with a tiny scalpel that I have made from my disposable razor. Two bandaid strips last me most of the day.

I make the scalpels by stepping on the plastic razor carefully, breaking the plastic away from the blade. Then, I fold the blade until it breaks into two parts. I leave some plastic around the ends of the blade. I use the tiny instruments for sharpening pencils and separating elastic sock threads to make hair ties.. However, since they are considered contraband shanks, I keep them carefully hidden.

Bandaids are not sold on commissary; the jail wants you to fill out a “protocol.” A protocol is also known in some circles as a “medical kite,” a request form to see the medical department. When you fill out a protocol, the jail takes $45.00 off your books, and sends you to an office where you have a conversation with someone who tells you there is nothing they can do, or, it is not their department.

Sometimes, but not very often, a Tylenol is given. I have seen inmates pay as much as $90.00 for a single Tylenol tablet. I prefer Advil anyway, and it sells for $1.00 per tablet on commissary, so sometimes I splurge and get some Advil. The jail makes hundreds of dollars each month from this alone.

One woman I work with also lives in my cell. Her name is Colleen. She must weigh at least three hundred pounds, and she is very sweet. Inmates take advantage of her and make fun of her. Her hair is thinning. So is mine. I wonder about some nutritional deficiency causing accelerated aging in everyone.

Colleen is accident prone, and one day in March of this year, she slipped and fell, while working in the kitchen. She may have broken her arm, but no real doctor ever looked at it.

Now it is nearly August, and her arm is still swollen, shiny, red and painful. It looks like a great big shiny ham hock. She wakes up crying at night.

The jail will not allow Colleen to have a bag of ice without a protocol. Colleen filled out the required protocol. She paid the required $45.00, met with some staff, and returned to the cell.

The staff did not want Colleen to open the bag of ice and use the ice in her KoolAid, so they put garlic, salt and spices all over the ice and then delivered the whole mess to the cell, not realizing, I assume, that salt melts ice.

In the middle of the night, the bag leaked garlic-spice-salt water all over a couple of bunks and the whole cell reeked of garlic. Colleen got no benefit for her $45.00 bag of ice because the salt melted the ice, and Colleen was left with a plastic bag that looked like a used condom.

“What do you think?” she asks me, as she tries to wiggle a puffy, sausage-sized finger.

“I think you need to see a doctor,” I say.

Colleen tries to tell the staff that she cannot work, and they threaten to put her in the hole if she does not work. Somehow, she fashions a sling from a t-shirt, comes to work, and asks me to whip the jelly for her, so that the jelly will be liquefied and she can use one hand to dip the jelly into jelly cups.

Meanwhile, I fill 250 butter cups and begin slicing cucumbers with another cucumber-cutter, named Fiona.

Fiona has some psychiatric issues that I have narrowed down to either borderline or Munchausen’s; I have not decided yet.

As we are cutting cucumbers, Fiona says, “I don’t know why they let me have knives. I put a butcher knife into my mother because she wouldn’t let me watch Rin-Tin-Tin on television.”

But she has a severe speech impediment, so the sentence comes out, “…I put a butchow knife intow my mothow…”

And I think, I am living in an insane asylum.


We Can Do This

September 28, 2013

by Crane-Station for Frog Gravy

Ducks. jail Art

Ducks, jail art by Crane-Station on flickr. Colored pencil and magazine ink.

Wild Turkey. Jail art.

Jail art by Crane-Station on flickr with comment:

For Dad. Wild Turkey. We have these beautiful birds here. I was not really able to finish, because they turned the lights out, and because I do not have the correct colors (such as rust). Turkeys have been nearly wiped out by unrestricted hunting and land development. Some programs are bringing them back. They roost in trees, but like to run on the ground.

note: Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

McCracken County Jail, Cell 107, early 2008

The social worker tells me that I am angry, and that I need to not be angry, and that I need to accept my situation like everyone else does, and I need to stop writing, because no one reads anything that I write anyway, because no one cares. She is referring, I assume, to the many letters that I write regarding jail conditions. I listen to her for a bit, and then decide that I would rather be back in the cell. I end the meeting. I continue to write.

I keep my writing to myself and I quit talking about the letters.

In the cell I wear a towel on my head and babble to myself endlessly, in my mind. Maybe the towel keeps others from hearing these conversations. The other me, the one I babble to, is elegant and strong and graceful, and says all of the right things to all of the wrong people. Things such as ‘I respectfully disagree,’ and ‘No, thank you,’ and ‘I am sorry but I cannot support you and your commissary habit in here,’ and ‘I will continue to write because it gives me meaning and purpose at the moment,’ and ‘Excuse me, do you think you could quit screaming for just a few moments, because I am finding it difficult to concentrate.’

However, it is not the other me that is in jail. It is me.

Sirkka is the new arrival. After introductions, she says to me, “Never take anything to trial in McCracken County. Everyone knows that.”

Sirkka is tiny, just 4’8,” and she drives me nuts in an endearing, pathetic sort of way. I want to hug her. I want to kill her.

She does not want to put clothes on and strolls about the cell half-naked, in bra and panties, talking at an indecipherable speed. Sirkka has an eating disorder. It reminds me of what I used to be and so, maybe this is why she annoys me. Her behavior is actually good for me because it reminds me of the horror of food binges and scamming for food at every opportunity. For a while, she convinced the staff she was pregnant because pregnant women get extra trays, but when the staff figured out that she was not pregnant, they placed her in the hole for a bit, and then back in the cell.

Today at breakfast, before I even sit down, she says, “Are you gonna eat that?”

“Here. Take the whole thing,” I say.

Down the hall, Harry screams from his isolation cell, “Somebody help me! Pleeeease! Let Me out! HELLLP! HELPmehelpmehelpmehelpme, PLEASE!”

Sirkka collects six sausages, five pieces of toast, two milks, and three servings of Fruit Loops. At lunch, four corn dogs, two helpings of corn, and three pieces of cake. The only thing I asked her for was one serving of applesauce but she would not give it up. She weighs 105 pounds, and has gained 30 pounds to get there; that is a 30 pound weight gain in a month. At this rate, she will be obese by May. That can happen in here. I met an inmate who gained 150 pounds in a year in jail. She had given up.

On one of the rare occasions that we do get to visit the outside cage for recreation, I cannot believe this, but Ruthie and I are the only ones who want to go outside.

Christie and Sally both claim that going outside briefly is actually more depressing than staying in the cell. I am worried about Christie. She stays on her bunk and cries all the time now. She says, “I just can’t help it, I just feel so bad inside.”

“Come on Christie, let’s just get out for a minute,” I say. “You’ll feel better. Tina, you too. Come on you guys. We’re going out. It’ll be all right. You’ll see. When we get back we’ll watch ‘Lost.’ I’ll even comb your hair Christie. Come on, we can do this.”

We go. In the outside cage Sirkka strips down to her bra and stands at the door, hoping a Class D male will walk by. Christie sits in a chair, silent. Tina takes a book and seats herself next to Christie. I stand in a corner and look up. The sun is shining. I shield my eyes.

I listen for a bird.


Ridgeview Dormitory

September 23, 2013

by Crane-Station for Frog Gravy

Author’s note: Frog Gravy is a depiction of daily life during incarceration in Kentucky, during the years 2008 and 2009, reconstructed from my notes. Some entries are from jail; others are from prison, such as this one.

I have changed the names, except in cases of nicknames that do not reveal identities.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

Ridgeview Dormitory (aka The Ghetto), PeWee (pronounced Pee Wee) Valley Women’s Penitentiary, near Louisville, KY, 11-19-08

Dayroom

I am sitting at a table in the noisy “dayroom,” of the Ridgway Dormitory at PeWee Valley Penitentiary, talking to two fellow inmates, Cindy and Wheels Jimmy. Cindy is a 46-year-old woman in a neck brace who looks thirty years older. She was in a bad accident, has had several neck surgeries, and requires more neck surgery. Her voice is hoarse from all the surgery. She has no teeth and hopes to get dentures from the State, for $188.

Cindy, like many other War on Drugs inmates, mostly older, disabled women, is in prison for buying or selling her pain medicine, either to get pain relief or make ends meet by paying the winter heat bill or other necessary bills.

Kentucky views women like Cindy, who can barely walk, and women like Wheels Jimmy, who is wheelchair-bound after breaking legs and arms, her hip, knee and back plus four or five ribs, and women like me as threats to society. So, toothless Cindy, Wheels Jimmy and I sit in a penitentiary dayroom and chat. Taxpayers are paying $26,000 per year room and board plus medical, dental and eye care for each of the three of us to sit in this dayroom and have this conversation, because if we sit here, in wheelchairs, toothless, with neck braces and talk at great taxpayer expense, the community at large will be much safer (than say, for example, if the likes of George Zimmerman were to be sitting here.)

I am talking to Cindy. I only understand about 50% of what she is saying in her hoarse, toothless Kentucky drawl.

Cindy leans over to me, conspiratorially, and whispers, pointing to another inmate, “She can make sounds, like a chipmunk.”

However, I did not hear her quite right and I thought she said, “She can make a sow suck a chipmunk.”

Therefore, I answered Cindy and said, “Well then. So she’s a hustler.”

Cindy says, “Uh-huh. And that girl there…” She points. “That one barks like a dog.”

At this point, my mind is still processing the sow-chipmunk scene: The chipmunk has a litter of chipmunk-ettes somewhere, so she must have mama’s nipples, right? Moreover, the gigantic sow is somehow suckling from the chipmunk when suddenly there is a dog barking. Wait. Could the sow be sucking a chipmunk dick?

My hand to God, I am thinking these things.

So I say, “Really?”

Cindy says, “Yeah, she sounds just like a chipmunk and she sounds just like a dog.” She points.

I say, “Oh that’s so funny,” but Cindy has no idea how funny it really was and I never tell her.

I am reminded of that comedian that attended some function with then-President Bill Clinton, and the comedian could have sworn that Clinton leaned over and whispered, “Bet they’s some bitches in here.”

We moved to our new home- Ridgeview Dormitory- on Friday. Ridgeview is a large dorm, with four wings. This dorm is the farthest away from the dining hall, library, and main building. Everything is about a quarter to a half-mile walk. After the horrific year in the jails, I appreciate the walk, but for the many disabled women in wheelchairs, navigation about the property is difficult.

Wheelchairs line the front patio of Ridgeview Dormitory. At first blush and absent razor wire, one might mistake Ridgeview for a gigantic assisted living center for the mentally ill. With inmates doing all of the assisting.

Ridgeview does not house inmates serving lengthy sentences for violent crimes, for the most part. These inmates are generally housed in Pine Bluff Dormitory, unless, for some rare reason they lose their “honors” housing status. Long-term inmates are generally more stable and well behaved, and they hold jobs in industries, the guide-dog training program, or the Braille translation program.

For example, an inmate must be at least five years away from parole eligibility to apply to be in the guide-dog training program. When the dog is a puppy, it is assigned to a specific inmate and lives with that inmate 24/7, never leaving the inmate’s side during its years of training. If a dog has a vest on, which is most of the time, other inmates do not interact with the dog by touching or petting it.

The Braille translation program has similar eligibility requirements due to the length of time it takes to learn Braille and then to apply the language to translate maps, for example.

I include this information for the online community because I am not sure how many folks are aware that inmates train guide dogs or translate Braille.

Ridgeview Dormitory is fairly new, very clean, and has the look of an institution. There are two people to each room. Each wing shares a common dayroom, with TV washer/dryer, microwaves and phones, and there are four wings.

A central, windowed, elevated security/control area houses officers in an aquarium. Officers see all from the aquarium, and they announce, summons, lecture, scold, and berate, pretty much all day, every day, usually because they must, or the place would come apart at the seams. Hence, Ridgeview Dormitory is also known as “The Ghetto.”

On my first night in Ridgeview, an officer announces from the aquarium, “There will be no bull-dyking tonight.”

note:
For those who have not seen the CEBU dancing inmates, this is well worth the watch. They are in the Philippines. Of course, there are no such programs here in the states, because the US prison system is designed to ruin, and not to improve people.


How Frog Gravy Got Its Name

September 23, 2013

by Crane-Station for Frog Gravy

Boiling Frog

“Boiling Frog” by Donkey Hotey on Flickr

Author’s note: Frog Gravy is a depiction of daily life during incarceration in Kentucky, during 2008 and 2009, in jails and in prison.

Names are changed, except for nicknames that do not reveal identity.

This post is from prison.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

Early April, 2009, PeWee Valley Women’s Penitentiary (pronounced Pee Wee), near Louisville, KY

In Horticulture class one morning I am ear-hustling (eavesdropping) on a conversation between some fellow inmates.

“The problem with my case is,” says Carla, “that the judge didn’t get his dick sucked the night before I went to Court. That’s the problem with my legal case.”

“Bet he takes his teeth out at night and sucks his own dick,” replies Renada.

The teacher, Miss Heavren, overhears the exchange, and reminds us all that we are strictly forbidden to speak about our legal cases during school. The conversation shifts to an acceptable (by school rules) subject: retrieving and preparing road killed animals, for consumption.

Julia says, (I swear to God) “I don’t really go for all that suckin’ the brains out stuff but I do eat the tails.

I am reminded of the scene from A Fish called Wanda, when the sadistic Otto says, as he is eating goldfish from a tank, “Avoid the green ones. They’re not ripe yet.”

When ‘sucking out brains and eating tails’ sinks into my psyche, I focus on my deadpan, indifferent expression that betrays none of the horror that my mind conjures up because I have long ago mastered the Prison Face. The conversation continues.

“…but we got there at the same time and were about to fight over the body but it turns out he just wanted the head and I just wanted the body so we decided to go ahead and split it…”

Like the poker face, Prison Face misleads with just the right lack of expression that conveys understanding, non-judgment, empathy and concern, much like the doctor’s expression on x-ray discovery that a bowling trophy is lodged in the patient’s rectum. Deadpan, as if one sees this every day, but with empathy, in the deadpan.

“…even though the head on the deer was missing when we found it…”

“Oh yeah. Didn’t you know that? People are always stealing the deer heads.”

Prison Face says, ‘I can relate. I am just like you.’ You do not have to study or practice Prison Face for very long. If you are institutionalized for long enough, Prison Face becomes a sincere, apathetic blank expression.

“…I would have done the same thing with the body….”

I have seen Prison Face on the outside. I once worked with another nurse who was African. He told me of his early childhood memories, where he, at age five, watched public executions on a nearly daily basis. At the time, I did not know about Prison Face. I just thought he was ‘stoic’ and ‘hard to read.’ He was always quiet. He was actually a nurse’s aide, and he was always saving our butts when things got too busy. He never received due credit for his quiet yet passionate work with patients and staff. I always thought of him as a nurse, because he was better at nursing than many nurses I had encountered over the years.

“…Oh, yeah, my dad used to bring home the turtles off the road all the time… Ever had turtle soup?”

In our class, Horticulture Lab, really, we are planting tiny marigold seedlings into blister packs that resemble ice cube trays, a tedious task that is like trying to separate and plant thousands of spider webs. Marigold seedlings have long, threadlike roots, and we are using popsicle sticks to untangle them, but also to plow under dozens of those monstrously rooted little seedlings and dispose of them quickly and secretly when the teacher is not looking, because if we don’t, we will never finish this lab. We do not formally plan nor do we speak about the mass marigold murder with each other. It is a silently understood and agreed upon activity.

The popsicle sticks remind me of the psych wards that I have been locked up in after various suicide attempts, and for reasons that I do not fully understand I make a mental note to make a birdhouse out of the popsicle sticks when I get out of prison.

Then, when I think I understand the significance of the birdhouses as safe houses for free creatures, designed and constructed by a damaged human that is not free, and am allowing this epiphany to sink in, the conversation in the foreground shifts to the subject of frog legs in an iron skillet.

Julia says, “And what you gotta do is, you save the crispy frog skins in the iron skillet and you pour off the frog grease, and use your frog drippins to make you some frog gravy. And girrrl, I ain’t lyin’, them frog drippins in that frog gravy is dope!”

My eyebrows jerk slightly, ruining my Prison Face. With sudden clarity, I envision my hero, the frog.

Coincidentally, I have just finished a book from the prison library about frogs and their race to extinction. Populations of deformed frogs have been discovered, with extra limbs and digits, or with limbs missing in the right places, not unlike the Thalidomide babies. Although the consensus is that a fungus is killing the amphibians, the book points out that frogs are literally permeable, making them an environmental indicator for our planet.

I read the book because I love frogs. In fact, some of my fondest childhood memories involve frogs. I remember walking creeks and going to ponds as a child, to look for the gelatinous egg masses, and I remember the frogs’ beautiful yet haunting chorus during camping trips, a chorus that now seems eerily absent from any given evening, when I can hear the rhythmic buzzing of cicadas, but not the songs of many frogs.

I have never eaten a frog. In fact, I have rescued many a frog, after the rainstorms, by stopping my car in the middle of the dark road, getting out, and moving the doomed frog to the side of the road. I also rescued three frogs once, who were trapped in a plastic garbage bag that I found in a dumpster.
I suppose I could eat one, but only if it were already killed in the road.

I decide that I will immortalize the frog.

On my notepad that I carry everywhere, I write the words “Frog Gravy,” and circle them.

The iron skillet, in addition to being a murder weapon, is as much a part of the South as racism is in this prison. Fried apples. Fried green tomatoes. Fried okra. Cornbread with buttermilk and bacon. What is cornbread after all, without bacon grease and buttermilk in an iron skillet? My parents are from Missouri, but spent a good deal of their early-married life in the South and so my mother made fried apples, cornbread, and other Southern dishes in an iron skillet. I can almost smell it now.

Later in the evening, I discuss my plan for the book title with Tina and Christie, two of my closest friends that were in Cell 107 with me in McCracken. They both know that I have been writing things down since the beginning, and they have encouraged me to write the whole story someday.

“I have a name for it. You’re not going to believe this,” I say, “but I am going to call it Frog Gravy.”


Frog Gravy: Penny

August 26, 2013

Frog Gravy is a nonfiction incarceration account.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

Inmate names are changed.

Ricky’s World, Summer, 2008

At 4 AM, the lights go on in our tiny cell, and a guard opens the steel door. Next to the guard, in the hallway, are five full 30-gallon black garbage bags.

“Well come on,” says the guard. “Help me with these.”

We drag the bags into the cell. The bags are heavy. There is one full bag for each inmate in this cell. The bags contain ears of corn that male inmates picked, from the jail garden. Our assignment is to shuck the corn, and be finished in time to go to work in the kitchen.

I get paid sixty-three cents a day for working in the kitchen but I do not get paid for the corn work, and neither does anyone else. Inmates who merely prepare vegetables for the whole jail never see a paycheck. On the days that we work, we may or may not have time in the outside cage for rec, because we are told that work counts as recreation.

We stare at the bags of corn.

Christina says, “You’ve got to be fuckin’ kidding me.”

“You ain’t never shucked corn?” says Monica. “And you from the country?”

“Hail no.”

“Well,” I say. “I’ve shucked corn. Just not at four o’clock in the morning.”

The irony is, that if this place, in Hickman Kentucky is not country, I do not know what country is. We are in the middle of nowhere, someplace near Tennessee, seven miles or so from the now-swollen Mississippi River.

I enjoy shucking corn and I enjoy work, but being forced to work with Penny in the kitchen after we shuck this corn is, I think, a little over the top, as far as punishment goes.

During our walk to work in the kitchen, where we will work unaccompanied by any guard, Penny engages in some transparent brown nosing of the guard, that includes ratting out the previous guard for various petty non-offenses. Penny’s brown nosing is usually more pronounced on the nights that she plans to steal stuff from the kitchen, because in her way of thinking, solidifying a chummy relationship with a guard on the way into the kitchen will elicit a less-than-thorough strip search on the way out.

While I have often joked about attempting to smuggle packets of this or that from the kitchen, I cannot imagine stealing while in jail, and so I refrain from it, and I refuse to ‘hold’ stolen items in my things, back in the cell.

In the kitchen, we pass the large ovens that sometimes have the porn magazines stashed behind them by male inmates who also work in the kitchen at staggered times, and I go to get a hair net, while Penny tries to hustle the guard out of food for consumption during work in the kitchen. Penny’s modus operandi is to spend as much time as possible eating, hoarding, snooping around the place off camera, and stealing stuff, while pausing to look up Bible passages, criticize my work, question my faith in God and conclude that I am most likely a non-believer on the fast-track to Hell.

Penny locates a bible and I locate the work list for the night. Penny says something to me about how, according to the Bible, God allowed the holocaust to happen, in order to make the world a better place, and I say a silent prayer to the God of my own understanding to please not allow me to kill Penny with my bare hands, on the spot.

The work list says:

-make 50 gallons KoolAid.
-make 250 butter (margarine) cups.
-make 250 onion/pickle packs.
clean vent hoods.
-clean bathroom.

The rate-limiting step will be the onion/pickle packs, which take forever, even with two people, but while I begin this task, Penny takes out 1/4 pound of margarine, and fries up an enormous plate of onions for herself. While Penny is eating, I make the KoolAid, then do the butter cups, then slice the onions, and then begin assembling the packs.

All told, I completed 240 of the 250 onion/pickle packs, while Penny berated me for using and recording the allotted amount of Equal that I used for the KoolAid, instead of fudging the paperwork, and stealing the sweetener. This annoys me. While I have joked around about taking stuff, the fact is, that in the cell, in my things, I have commissary receipts and matching sweetener packets for every teaspoon of sweetener I have had in my possession. In my mind, I am not going to risk parole denial over theft of a teaspoon of sweetener.

For refusing to participate in petty jailhouse theft, Penny tells me that I really need to read James.

In the cell, Penny and I get along better, and one day, she tells me that she wants my help in preparing her for her GED, and I am thrilled because I love to teach. However, I realize, early in this process, that Penny never learned her times tables. I make some flash cards and say, “Okay. Let’s begin with the twos.”

Each day, we tackle a few more flash cards, and Penny begins to make progress.

I begin to re-think my initial harsh judgments of Penny. I had known nothing about her, or her life, or her struggles. I conclude that Penny is utilizing the same ineffective coping skills in jail that she used on the outside, because those skills are the only skills she has.

We become friends.

Later on, Penny asks for my help with a letter she is writing to a treatment center. The letter says:

To whom it may concern:

My name is Penny Stenson. I am in jail at Fulton County Detention Center in Hickman, KY

The reason for my unfortunate stay is my alcholism I am writting in hope of getting information about your program I would also appriciated a admittance application I only hope to get treatment for my sickness

Im look for a 30day inpatient program
I have three children that need there mother to be clean.
They are on there way to foster care by Decmber if I dont recive help. I am willing to go any were that will give me a bed date right away. I am willing to tr…

She hands me the letter and asks, “Can you help me with this?”

I read the letter. I feel the tears forming, and the hitch in my throat.

“Sure,” I say. “Of course I will.”


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