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NO LADY, prison didn't improve me none by CarolJean K. (1971)

(Editors Note:This account of life in prison came from Black Maria, a magazine published by a group of CWLUers. Dwight Prison was the Illinois facility where the CWLU Prison Project did its work with inmates. )  

No Lady
Prison didn't improve me none.
There was ten of us girls in the county jail
five white, five black awaitin' trial for sellin shit
The white girls, they all got probation.
Us black girls, we all go to Dwight. Me, three months
An I ask myself sittin on them concrete benches in
the county.
How come? How come me an my sisters goin to jail
An the white girls goin back to college?
Their mothers come in here an weep -they get probation.
My momma come in here -nose spread all over her face
-she weepin too.
But I goin to Dwight.
An I think about that -But I don't come up with no
Ain't got no money for a lawyer. Hell, I couldn't
even make bail.
Met the defender five minutes before my trial
An I done what he said. Didn't seem like no trial to
Not like T.V.
I didn't understand none of it.
Six months to a year they give me.
They ride us out there in a bus.
My Lord, we rode -I thought we was goin to the ends
of the earth in that jumpitty bus
An then we get there -to the "campus" an Miss
An two hunred rules sayin mostly what you can't do.
An the warders wanta punish you all the time.
See me playin the game -goin to charm class an the
body dynamics (to learn my Feminine Role)
An I take keypunchin, and I do real well.
My boyfriend, he come to see me twice, and then he
stop comin'
An when I have the baby, I give it up,
Weren't nothin else for me to do.
They give me twenty-five dollar when I get outta
An I wearin my winter clothes in July, and everyone
know where I comin from
Six months I try to find a job, make it straight.
But every door I push against closed tight.
This here piece of paper say I'm a first-class key
But the man who give the job, he say I flunk the test
Sheeit man, I didn't flunk that test.
You think I'm a criminal.
I done my time, but you
ain't reclassified me.
I always be a criminal to you.
So I use some of the other things that prison taught
That charm course made a darn good looker-hooker.
Three years later I back again. But I ain't takin no
charm courses.
No Sir, I been that route.
You call me "criminal", an I guess I am.
one of the counselors say I mentally ill.
I needs treatment. Two hours a week they give group
The other hunred and fifteen -they lock me up like
an animal.
An I ain't go no neurosis noways. Sheeit, it's this
place make you ill.
All them white warders they so superior.
All the time tellin you "Don't give me no sass,
Squat! Use your pot!
Down on your black ass, girl!
other night, I took sick with the cramps;
There weren't no doctor til mornin.
He poke me in the sore spot an say, "Girl -
You jus wanta go to the hospital. Get you some tea
an toast."
Tea an toast!
My girlfriend -she die of diabetes, before they do
anything for her.
She come outta here in a box. Looks like it won be
no different for me.
That's how it is, Lady.
No. Prison didn't improve me none.

To visit Dwight Penitentiary is to be made aware of the dichotomy in society's professed atti tudes of rehabilitation for the "fallen woman," and the punishment philosophy which still characterizes much of the program, even when the administrators sanctimoniously deny it.

Once you get past the administration building (faithfully modelled after a bastille,) the physical facilities aren't too bad. Some of the cottages are in better repair than others, but, in general, this women's prison is more comfortable than most men's. The psychological degradations of prison life, however, are felt acutely by the inmates. There are, for example, many pregnant women who come to Dwight. These women may keep their babies until they are seven months old, and then, if the mother has not been released, she must find a place for the baby on the outside. The long bus trip from Chicago, the expensive taxi ride to and from the prison, and the lack of a nursery with toys keep the woman's family from bringing older children to see their mother. Thus, family ties are weakened, and both the mother and the children are punished.

There are 115 women at Dwight. (Another nine are in the work release program, housed in a separate facility.) The youngest woman is 18, and the oldest is 67. The women have the following educational opportunities: grade school, high school, T.V. college, secretarial school, or beauty culture school. In addition, women are assigned to industry (the sewing room,) the laundry, or the greenhouse. Thirty-nine per cent of the inmates were convicted of murder or manslaughter, and thirty-five per cent are known addicts. Most of the others (who may have been arrested for an offense such as prostitution,) are probably supporting a drug habit. The inmate herself is rarely allowed to decide with which program she will participate. (Indeed, the inmate makes no decisions at all while incarcerated. It is not even permitted to stay away from a meal. One is forced to go through the cafeteria line.) The education and work programs are arbitrarily assigned. The secretarial program is a case in point. This is a pilot program operated by Joliet Junior College under the supervision of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Because the program was started only a year ago, the sponsors are anxious that it appear to be 100%. successful. Therefore, they do not accept all applicants, but administer a "secretarial aptitude" test. Of the 44 applicants, only 15 were accepted at the school; the rest were channelled into less desirable programs.

Presumably, graduates of the secretarial program and beauty culture school will be able to find employment on the outside, but one wonders what a woman who spends three years working in a greenhouse, and who then returns to the ghetto, is equipped to do. one of the wardens told me that no matter what the eventual employment opportunities, she thought it was "nice for a woman to know how to arrange flowers." Also, I called various florist shops to inquire about possible employment for former prisoners, and I learned that most of these shops are family-owned, and as of last week, there were no openings in this area. Even more insidious is the labelling of the laundry room as employment-oriented rehabilitation. Most commercial laundries are non-union sweatshops which have been exploiting black women for years. And no special training for these hellholes is required. It would be more honest of the Dwight officials to state that the laundry was a needed service of the prison, and let it go at that. Calling work at the laundry "rehabilitation" is an example of the way in which we change the name of programs, but not their character.

Since prison officials are not anxious to have the public scrutinize their operations, they make it quite difficult for interested persons to talk to inmates. Thus, it is not easy to make concrete recommendations about what people on the outside can be mobilized to do. The answers must come from ex-convicts who have undergone the prison experience. (Some answers are already coming from movement women, who never expected to see the inside of a county jail or prison, but are there because of their political activities.

Prison officials want to keep a "smooth surface" on the face of their operation, but we should insist on our right to interview our sisters, and to see what might be done to lessen the effects of this "house of misery".

One example of the reluctance to grant information came in an interview which I had with the superintendent a few weeks ago. When I asked her about the treatment of lesbians at Dwight, she responded stiffly that there was no such thing as homosexuality at that institution, because the cottages had single rooms! (True, and a bible rested on every pillow...)

Many of us in the women's movement find it impossible to be comfortable on the outside, knowing that our sisters are behind bars. Ale are aware that our "good" lives are cushioned by generous allowances and nice homes. A white-skinned woman who has never known a moment's deprivation is hardly entitled to feelings of superiority for never having stolen anything. She has had no need to.

Sister on the Outside

Bright, intelligent eyes glinting out of a clever face, proudly framed by an Afro: This is Toni, currently the successful manager of a suburban boutique. Two years ago, she was at Alderson (a federal prison for women in West Virginia) doing time for possession and sale of LSD, and she gleaned valuable insights from the experience. While maintaining that some people will always have to be locked up for the protection of society, she questions the rehabilitative value of the institution. "The wardens grade your behavior on your adjustment to prison life. That means you have to act like an adolescent in order to adjust. Take your social worker, for example. When you go to see her, you're always in a begging position. I was supposed to be sent to a halfway house, and she wouldn't give me the slightest bit of information about when or where I was to go. It was a form of mental torture, really." If we don't allow inmates the slightest measure of control over their lives during their incarceration, how can we expect a successful adjustment to the myriad complexities of life on the outside?

Toni spent ten days in Cook County Jail, shortly after Winston Moore became warden. "If I ever do anything again, it'll be a federal rap... I'm afraid of Cook County Jail." This is understandable, since she developed a severe case of colitis, for which she received no medication, and the condition was aggravated by the oily, heavy carbohydrate diet. "There was supposed to be a doctor once a week, but it was hard to get to see him. Sometimes we had doubts that there really was a doctor-When you get there, they give you a mandatory shot of penicillin, too bad if you're allergic."

Little attempt was made to separate inmates, and women is all stages of drug withdrawal were put in the "kick cell". "It's frightening," Toni remembered, "you're in a cell with someone who has absolutely no control at all." And while she was there, "they brought in a woman who was very obviously insane; she was attacking people every minute. She was so dangerous they should have put her in a mental hospital." How were fights handled? Toni laughs wryly. "They brought in the men guards--the 'goon squad' we called them. They just beat whoever was fighting into submission."

The tedium of the days was the worst thing about Cook County. "I was so bored, I began washing the windows." The principal occupation of many of the women was "to talk down the air vents to the fellas. There were some great love scenes going." True Confession and comic books were all that was available in the way of reading material. For Toni, a voracious reader this was one of the main deprivations, and she read every comic at least three times, for want of anything else.

The boredom and absence of male companionship often leads women into the gay scene. "You have to watch who you go into the shower with," Toni reports. "Once, as I was coming out, this girl, six-foot-two, a real bruiser, said to me, 'Do you play? Well you're going to.' Luckily, I was rescued by a girl who claimed I was her brother. But it's a tough thing to avoid; especially if you don't have money, you become sexually dependent on someone. And most of the butches are very chauvinistic -they want their partners to do the housework."

When I asked about the gay scene at Alderson, Toni sighed. "First of all, you have to remember that in prison you have different values. The free world is just an abstraction. The federal prison wasn't so bad, and yet it was bad. Everyone there hopes that a butch type will be coming in. They made a really funny mistake on my name. They changed the "e" to an "ill. So instead of Toni Keller, it looked like Toni Killer! They were all expecting a real tough butch," laughed Toni.

Toni feels that many girls go to prison because of badly developed mother images. "One day, my friend, who was pregnant, came running up the hil. She was really happy, because her mother had just been admitted to the penitentiary! Three generations!"

Toni thought some more. "But it isn't just a bad mother image, it's the whole society, which is based on material acquisition. I think that the only solution is to have a society which respects people for what they are."

"With me, You Know What's For Sale"

Shelley is a prostitute who has just been released after eighteen months in a state penitentiary.

" I went to the joint because they got me on a drug charge; it was just a little grass, but they used my past record against me -which they're not supposed to be allowed to do. The judge called me a confirmed recidivist. You know what that means? It means that I come back a lot. This game's been my main thing since I was eighteen. I'm thirty-two years old now, and five of my working years I've spent behind bars -most of the time at Cook County Jail. I'm not looking to go back, but I figure that getting busted is what they call ... an occupational hazard. But it doesn't get to me personally. I never committed any crime--a crime is when you do something to hurt someone; but me, I never hurt anyone. Sure, I broke the law, but it's a dumb law, isn't it?

You were talking to me about liberation? Well, I was liberated before you ever knew what it was and way before it got to be a popular thing... I never swallowed any of that stuff about Love -except for once when I got married and I thought that that was going to be it--but it didn't last. And I don't believe anyone who says she's loved the same man fifteen-twenty years. It just isn't true.

(How are you liberated?) Well, as I said, I don't believe in Love, but I do believe in sex and I don't mind selling it because that's honest. You housewives it's hard to tell what you're selling. But what I have is right out on the counter

(How did you spend you; time in prison?) I did easy time. I always do easy time. The best thing you can do is to stay real loose. In the joint I was in you had to play rehabilitation games. If I ever go back, I'll get to be a college graduate because I've got a lot of credits from the T.V. college now. But what I use doesn't need a college education! If I describe the place, it won't sound so bad because you have to stay there and get treated like a child. I was lucky to have some money coming in to me, but there were a lot of girls who got sexually dependent just to get some cigarette money, and that's a bad scene. I used to share what my mother sent me. It was funny-he once sent me this note that said: 'Dear Shelley, I've written to the warden to tell her that she'd better release you right away, because we can't afford to keep you there anymore!

I had one real bad thing happen. They don't gas white women having Negro men coming to visit--and they kept cutting my visits short with this one man I've been tight with about two years. I don't think they gave me all his letters either. And that's one place where your letters are your only contact with the outside, so it's important.

When I came in, I had a yeast infection--and they immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was syphilis. So they gave me this really massive dose of antibiotics and told everyone to stay away from me. It was real embarrassing, and it wasn't even true, as they later found out.

Some of the guards were all right, but a lot of them were piggies, and they all had their little favorites. Me? (she laughs) Now I was never anybody's favorite prisoner. I didn't play. (What do you mean?) I mean, I didn't go with other chicks and I didn't get tight with anybody. There was one girl I used to talk to sometimes, but I wouldn't say it was a close friendship.

'Me all went to group therapy once a week because it was something to do, and you think maybe you'll learn something about yourself. (Did you?) No, because they say the same thing to everyone just about. They said that I was immature and didn't want to accept the responsibility of being a woman. (How did you feel about that?) I feel -like I don't want to play their games. They don't like my main thing and I do. They want me to stop doing it; so group therapy is their hustle and sex is mine. But it was better than sitting around all the time. The boredom is the worst part of it all.

The only hustle that was worse than therapy was the religious hustle. I know girls who used to change religions every week--just so they's get early release. And it's true. The ministers and priests are always in there pitching for their favorites. But that's one thing that was even worse than sitting in your cell--going to chapel.

One thing I know about myself is that I'm tough-really tough. Nothing in the joint ever really got to me. But I wasn't there too long. The one way they try to break you is by not letting you take any pride in yourself and pride's what makes you real--you know what I mean? (How about now?) Well sure, I'm self-supporting, aren't I? Nobody ever got me for any less than I'm worth. I sell my body. But as I said, I keep what I'm selling separate from what's not for sale. So, don't talk to me about liberation."

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