The Woman Who Moved During Count

November 29, 2013

by Crane-Station for Frog Gravy.

Frog Gravy depicts daily life during incarceration in Kentucky in 2008 and 2009, in jails and in prison, and is reconstructed from my notes.

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

KCIW PeWee (pronounced Pee Wee) Valley Women’s Penitentiary near Louisville, KY, a few days before Thanksgiving, 2008

We are meticulously counted, every four hours or so. For the count, which we refer to as “count,” or “count time,” we must be in our room, at our bedside, not moving and not talking.

During one of the evening count times an officer strolls the floor, looking into each room, pointing to each inmate, and counting to herself. A pregnant inmate, who has been having contractions for some time now, informs the officer that she is in labor. She is housed in the room across the hall from me. She is very restless and she cannot sit still during this count.

The officer accuses her of faking labor and playing a game to mess up the count. The woman talks back to the officer, saying, “I know when I am in fucking labor!”

The officer escorts the woman away. A little while later, two officers come to the pregnant woman’s room and pack all of her belongings into boxes. The rest of us, who witnessed the incident during count time, assume that she went to the hospital to have the baby. We were wrong. The officers had handcuffed the woman and taken her to cell block: the hole.

There is actually a jail within the confines of the prison, and it is a building that we call “cell block.” It is a brick building with isolation cells that are nearly identical to “hole” cells in the jails. The holes are tiny cement cells. “Isolation” cells in the jails sometimes have television, whereas the “hole” cells do not.

You may or may not have a mat. I think you do get a mat here at PeWee, but I am not sure because I have never been in the hole at PeWee. One blanket is issued at 11 PM and then taken away at 4 AM. The cells are ice cold. When I was in the hole in McCracken, I had arthritis so bad from the cold that I wrapped my legs in toilet paper strips. I had no socks or shoes.

The hole is perhaps best known for the 24/7 fluorescent lighting, that is disorienting as well as blinding. Also, holes are punishment cells known for sensory deprivation and time distortion. There is absolutely nothing to do but count cement blocks or look at the hairs in the floor drain, if you can see them; they do not allow you to have glasses in the hole.

Food is delivered through a slot in the steel door. This is the only way to know the approximate time. There is no view to the outside. There is a tiny window to the hallway, but the hallway side of the window is covered with a hinged steel flap that can be opened only if an officer decides to open the flap and peer into the cell.

There is no way to wash your hands in the hole. The push-button spout points upward and issues a tiny upward stream for a second or two, but the stream is certainly not continuous. After a bowel movement, therefore, you must simply hope for the best, because if you plan to eat, well…there is no bar of soap, and there are no paper towels. There are no real towels either. No washrags, no sheets, and certainly no pillow.

When inmates die in cell block nobody really cares because they were just inmates. The pregnant woman in labor was handcuffed and walked to cell block. Cell block is about a one-quarter mile walk from Ridgeview Dormitory. I hear the rest of the pregnant woman’s story from another inmate, who was there when she arrived. The woman telling the rest of the story spent 30 days in cell block for having cigarettes.

The woman in labor cried and pounded on the door, but staff ignored her, so other inmates tried to talk to the woman, because there was nothing else that they could do. The inmates talking to the woman were also mothers, for the most part. The nursing staff showed up briefly and told the woman in labor that until her water broke there was nothing they could do, because she was not really in labor, unless her water broke. The pregnant woman told the nursing staff that her water had broken.

They left her.

According to the woman telling the story as she observed it, although cell block staff is supposed to perform half-hourly checks on cell block inmates, they only checked on the woman in labor twice.

At about 3 AM, the pregnant woman exclaimed, “Oh my God!” Other inmates heard “like a pop, and then we heard a baby cry.”

It was a boy.

According to inmate witnesses in adjacent cells, the mother was “passed out, with the baby attached.” The staff refused to open the cell door until an ambulance arrived.When the ambulance arrived, the mother was handcuffed.

Had the baby not cried, it is likely that no one would have opened the flap to check on him or his mother.

Author’s end note: The woman and her baby survived. The baby was subsequently cared for by Amish women, through a program called The Galilean Home, where Amish women care for babies born into captivity, until the mother’s release.

The mother returned to prison. The day staff in cell block apparently refused to take her back, so she returned to population. The woman was serving time for non-violent drug offenses.


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.”


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