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.”


Frog Gravy: Let Them Eat Cake

August 25, 2013

Boiling Frog
artwork by DonkeyHotey on flickr (creative commons)

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

This post is about cost-cutting measures in prison, and it is not comprehensive because the topic is broad. I will discuss education and treatment cuts for Class D inmates as well as elimination of other programs, in another post.

PeWee (pronounced Pee Wee) Valley Women’s Penitentiary (KCIW), near Louisville, KY, 1-7-09 (my father’s birthday)

Kentucky is laying off teachers during the holidays.They take jobs away from teachers so they can keep funding incarceration for War-On-Drugs inmates like me, Carol, KC, and my roommate Janelle. Carol had her heart attack this morning and she is in the hospital, toothless and disabled. KC had her heart attack last week and just got out of the hospital. Janelle can barely walk, is a borderline diabetic and has asthma, requiring oral medications as well as rescue inhalers.

Kentucky would rather lock up a kid than educate him or her. Kentucky would rather lock up a non-violent minor drug offender parent than educate the child that is left behind.

I am always looking at pictures of kids in Iraq. Ginny’s 19-year-old son is in the meat grinder in Iraq, posing in front of this blown up building and that one, while Ginny sits in this prison for a personal-use possession charge, showing us pictures of her son who is not old enough to drink, posing in front of blown up buildings.

The media will never tell the passing public that the children at war in Iraq are taking smiling photographs of themselves in front of blown up buildings in foreign countries and then sending them to their mothers in prison, to lessen the emotional burden of the mothers, and make them proud.

When the children are killed, the media will never show the coffins.

The media will never tell the passing public that when the mother gets out of prison and the son comes home from the bogus war that they will reunite and exchange sincere, empty blank stares with each other.

Seems like all the money goes to wars and prisons and then more wars and more prisons.

I am working landscaping, raking leaves and placing them into bags. I work this job in the bitter cold because I cannot stand to be inside after a year in the jails where I never saw a blade of grass. I wear several khaki shirts and two pairs of khaki pants, and a khaki jacket and a stocking cap that is called a toboggan. My eyes are beginning to heal from the harsh fluorescent lighting in the jails, where my body could not process Vitamin D, because I so rarely was allowed to be in a cage that was located outside in the sunlight. I put a towel over my head under the toboggan, but am told to remove it, because if my face is covered, I will be charged with felony escape, a charge that carries another five years.

I cut the toes out of my socks and wear the socks on my arms as arm warmers, and I cover them with my jacket sleeves so that I do not get a write-up. In here, a write-up is like an arrest on the outside, complete with an arraignment, a plea, legal representation from the ‘jailhouse lawyer’ department (which has inmates that are better ‘lawyers’ than the one I had in McCracken, I might add), a negotiation, and either some disciplinary action or a dismissal of the charges.

I remove the towel because it is not worth it. There are far too many other worthwhile risks. Like getting food to the birds, which is strictly forbidden and carries stiff penalties such as cell block time (time in the hole). I have priorities. That is why they call me Bird Lady in here.

At the end of the day, for the benefit of all workers in various jobs, the new cost-cutting measures are posted. Cost-cutting rule violation carries stiff penalties, of course. The list tell us:

1. We will be allowed only one glove, to clean the toilets.

2. On landscape, trash bags will be rationed and buckets will be used in lieu of bags.

3. Kitchen staff is to save and re-use their disposable hair nets.

4. Cookies, cake, slices of ham, patties and other food items will be counted and accounted for.

5. State-issued Kotex pads are rationed.

6. State-issue bath soap is rationed.

7. State-issue toilet paper is rationed.

8. No more Styrofoam cups in the kitchen.

9. One-half of the prescribed amount of soap and sanitizer will be used to wash inmate dishes.

10. Kitchen workers will carry their own toilet paper to work.

11. Only one paper napkin per inmate. This will be controlled by hand-to-hand issue of napkins.

12. No refills on KoolAid. A guard will be assigned to the KoolAid dispenser to enforce this.

13. If an inmate uses the restroom labeled “inmate restroom” in the kitchen, she will receive a disciplinary write-up.

14. Applesauce will no longer be available as a substitute for iced cake and cookies, without a doctor’s order.

15. Snacks are only issued to insulin-dependent, and not diet-controlled diabetics.

I make an appointment with medical and see the doctor about the applesauce. (Rule #14)

At the appointment, I cite a lengthy and painful history of bulimia, state that I am in my twelfth year of abstinence, and report that iced cake and cookies are a trigger for me, and I do not want to relapse. I request the applesauce substitute.

My applesauce request is denied.

A friend of mine, Rosie, works in the kitchen, and I find her, and we set up the following long-term arrangement for bootleg applesauce: I will supply her with coffee and creamer, acceptable currency in the prison 15th-century black market bartering economy, and she will supply me with applesauce.

She even gets me fresh fruit on occasion.

And that is way more than I would have been allowed with a doctor’s order.

The heart attack inmates, however, will continue to eat iced cake and cookies because calories are cheaper than nutrition in this country. This state will continue to pack inmates into jails and prisons and then pack calories into the inmates, while sons and daughters are blowing up buildings in foreign countries, in wars that they cannot possibly understand.

There will be no media mention of inmate mothers with enlisted children. There will be no mention that these children had little choice but to enlist, because the family was broke, with one or both parents in prison.

While inmates eat iced cake, the sons and daughters in the wars eat Meals Ready to Eat (MRE’s), provided by the military.


Pop the Socket FAIL

August 24, 2013

by Crane-Station with Author’s note: Frog Gravy is a nonfiction account of incarceration in Kentucky, first in jails and then in prison, during 2008 and 2009, and is reconstructed from my notes.

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

Frog Gravy contains graphic language.

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

Horse

Horse. Jail art by Crane-Station on flickr. Colored pencil, magazine ink.

Pop the Socket FAIL

On the way out of a 15-minute weekly visit with my husband (behind bullet-proof glass), I stop in the booking area to wait for a guard to take me back to the cell. On the wall in this area is posted a laundry list of jailhouse offenses that can get us more time than we already have. I scan the list. Then I see an address in Frankfort for grievances.

My hand flies to my pocket, and I fumble for a no-shank pen and paper. I jot only crucial numbers, street names. I commit the Frankfort zip code to memory, quickly.

The guard approaches and says, “What are you doing?”

“Nothing.”

“Are you writing the address to Frankfort?”

“Yeah.”

“They don’t do nuthin’ for you.”

“I want to get to PeWee as soon as possible.” (PeWee, or KCIW is the penitentiary for women in the Louisville area)

“I mean, even if you work for them they won’t do nuthin. C’mon now, let’s go.”

“…next bus. PeWee…”

“PeWee? You been final sentenced?”

“Yes.”

I think the guard was concerned that I might write a grievance to Frankfort, explaining some of the jail conditions. Which is exactly what I do. There is absolutely nothing else to do, in fact, but write Frankfort. I write everything down, names, times, dates, events, including the pregnancy disaster, and run it all in to Frankfort.

In the cell, back in my own insanity, I fix the towel back onto my head. I find myself in a very unusual situation. I am all alone in the cell. And I have tobacco. And a lighter.

I am so gonna smoke.

In honor of one of the religious in-cell handouts that pictures a multi-headed beast and labels it “The beast of Revelation 13:1-10 symbolizes the papacy,” I have chosen, from a pocket-sized book of rolling papers labeled “The New Testament” and placed in plain view on the windowsill, a page from St. John’s Revelation, to roll the tobacco in and smoke it.

The Beast of Revelation

I am seated at the steel table alone, with a towel on my head, surrounded by notes, papers, and origami cranes. Some of my notes are just random, the sort of thing that an insane, entombed person might write:

“Purest of gold walks through the hottest of fires.”

and

“Israelites’ journey in the desert has to do with poisonous snakes, their bite caused death. People complained to God. He told Moses to fashion a bronze snake- anyone bitten who looked at it would be cured. Modern symbol of medicine.”

I scan the hallway for traffic as though I am about to rob a bank, and seeing no one, I flick the lighter. Nothing happens. Flick flick click click flick click fuck FUCK.

My memory banks kick in. I recall bits of some early conversations in the cell about how to light things.

“…two double A batteries on a steel table and…”

Nope. No batteries.

“…ghost lighting. Guys do it all the time. Just roll the lighter backward….”

Here I sit, in an orange jail suit with a towel on my head, trying to roll a lighter backward on a steel table to create a spark, only the little roller thingies are stuck and they don’t even roll, forward or backward. I hold the lighter up to the light, turn it upside down and focus. There is no fluid in this lighter.

This is starting to suck.

“…pop the socket. Just take a piece of foil, or metal, hold it with tissue, stick it in the socket, and it creates a spark….”

I am a madman. By miracle, I find a paper clip and straighten it out.

“…or you can unplug the TV a little, then touch metal to the metal on the TV cord. See how the TV plug is damaged? Some jails paint the plate but not this one…”

Just about the time the TV wall socket plate parallaxes into my insane view and I begin to formulate a plan, the steel door opens and in walks Ruthie.

I look like the cat that ate the canary. She says, “What are you doing?”

I spit out a canary feather, adjust the towel and ask, “Do you have any idea how to pop the socket? Because if you do, I’ll share this with you.”

Ruthie is beside herself with giddy excitement. “Hell yeah I know how to pop the socket I seen it before! Hahahahahaaa, we gonna smoke!” She runs to her bunk, gets a cup, then goes to the toilet and fills the cup with water, brings the cup to the steel table, sets it down, and says, “Here. You’ll need this.” She also produces a length of toilet tissue and says, “and this. You’ll need this too.”

I ask a question that made sense at the time: “What do you do with the water? I mean, I don’t really think it mixes too well with electricity.”

Ruthie says (I swear to God): “Yeah. You wrap the paper clip in tissue, then dip it in the water, and then jam the wet part into the socket!”

I think I am actually living inside of a Roadrunner cartoon, where there is always something that you want but cannot get, so you are always hungry and pissed off, and in the end there is always an explosion where you die and everyone laughs. The steel door opens again. In walks Christie and Tina. Christie says, “What are you guys doing?”

“We were just about to pop the socket.”

“Rachel! God dammit, I thought you were smarter than that! Y’all are going to kill yourselves!” says Christie.

“Don’t ever use God’s name like that again,” snaps Tina.

“Yeah, Christie,” I say. “Use motherfucker instead. It’s more polite.”

“I can’t believe you guys,” she says.

“Well, quit runnin your dicksucker and show us how to do this right, then,” I say, “Before two more people walk in and then we gotta share this thing with six people. This is not a six-people cigarette. And I’m not cutting it with banana peels again, so don’t even go there.”

“Okay,” she says. “But keep the water. You’ll need it.”

“What for?”

“The explosion.”

“What explosion!?”

Christie addresses me as if I am a child. “When you pop the socket, it creates a huge spark. You catch it on a Maxipad. The pad catches fire. You will need the water to put the fire out.”

“You cannot possibly be serious.”

She is.

“And stick that paper clip into a plastic no-shank pen sleeve,” she adds. “To keep from getting electrocuted.”

We partially unplug the TV, lay the clip across the prongs and there is, quite literally, a huge popping sound, a spark, and a Maxipad fire.

But there is more. We have knocked out the television to all of the cells in the hallway for the entire weekend and, of course since everyone knows who the idiots were, the guards were not at all amused, so they just went ahead and left our TV off for ten days.

The yells start coming from the other cells: “MotherFUCKER!! You bitches knocked out our TV!”

And Harry, down the hall in his isolation cell, “Let me out! Helpmehelpmehelpme HELP! SOMEBODY!! Hellllllp me!”

While the TV is off and I am coming up with insane plans because there is nothing else to do, I decide that a TV show called, “How To Survive Jail Hellhole.” Today we will discuss all of the uses for toothpaste, tomorrow, we will make dominoes out of toilet paper, and the next day we will be popping the socket.


%d bloggers like this: