A night in jail offers a change of venue to explore issues of control.
I’ve slept on floors that were softer than the mattress in my cell. The pillow was hard enough to knock someone out in a pillow fight. Standing on tiptoe, I could look out the window to see the sky – and the razor wire fence. As long as I held my hands just so, the cuffs were only moderately uncomfortable. These were some of my observations during a night in jail.
A strong sense of place is important to my writing, and I need to be able to visualize the places I write about. I don’t have plans to include a prison in any of my stories, but you never know. So when the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women built new facilities and opened the doors for the community to get a taste of prison life before they move women offenders in, I signed up for “Slumber in the Slammer.”
Lately I’ve been considering the issue of control: how much do I need, what would it mean to lose it, how do people cope. What better place to explore those questions than in prison.
The warden and her staff crammed as much of the prison experience into an overnight stay as they could. When I checked in on Saturday night along with close to 100 others, I could only bring clothes for sleeping and a change for the next day. No cell phones. No cameras. We were issued a hygiene kit, including toothbrush, toothpaste and soap. We ate prison food, stood inside our cells for head counts, took personality assessments, wore restraints, tried to pass GED tests.
As much as our brand new cell block reminded me of a dormitory, the reality of life there is quite different. Offenders have little control of their lives in prison. They eat when someone says its time. They sleep when someone says lights out. They go outside when it’s their turn. If they’ve earned the privilege. They can buy a limited number of items in the commissary, but the officers determine whether they can keep the stash or not.
A panel of women who’d been incarcerated for 2 to 15 years told us about their lives inside. Until they move into the new facility, four women are housed in each 8’x10′ cell because a facility built to house 450 women now holds more than 600. They use toilets in the cell, in full view of each other, and they shower with no privacy. It is no wonder that constipation is a problem for many.
Lack of privacy was the hardest aspect of prison life for one woman to adapt to. For another it was the separation from her two-year-old child, now being raised by the child’s grandmother. The new prison allows for individual showers and toilet stalls. The new visiting area includes play areas and toys for visiting children.
In this highly restricted environment, offenders look for areas they can control. Prison staff demonstrated ingenious recipes developed by offenders and made from items they buy in the commissary. “Convict Cheesecake” includes graham crackers, cream cookies, dried lemonade mix, a salted nut roll and water. Packets of instant oatmeal, peanut butter, and half a Snickers bar become “No Bake Cookies.”
Throughout the stay, I gauged my own reactions. I chaffed at the regimentation, at others who were too loud, at the lights that brightened my cell throughout the night. I did not get comfortable on the plank they called a mattress. I was annoyed there was no fresh fruit and no sweetener for coffee. A hundred times I wanted my phone and my camera. These are picky, I know, but I am used to being able to control these small elements of my environment. And in the morning, I could walk out.