Trying to "Slumber in the Slammer"

By Carol / November 18, 2013 /

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.

Razor Wire, Iowa Women's Correctional InstitutionA 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.

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  1. Shirley Hershey Showalter on November 18, 2013 at 8:48 am

    Wow, Carol. What an experience. I’m sure it will give you empathy for anyone behind bars for whatever amount of time it is. Our prison system seems broken in many ways. And the place you were in would probably be a Hilton compared to some others.

    Have you read or watched Orange is the New Black? Interested in your response. I can only take a few episodes at a time.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 18, 2013 at 8:59 am

      Empathy is exactly it, Shirley. The stories were powerful. The youngest woman told about being beaten by another woman. She held up her hands to protect her face but didn’t fight back because she didn’t want to be sent to “the hole.” She has permanent scars from the injuries she incurred in that beating.

      Yes, this place would be a Hilton. There were lots of windows and lots of light. Important to me, but from every window I could also see the razor wire. You would never forget where you were.

      I haven’t seen Orange is the New Black. I’ll have to look for it.

  2. Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living on November 18, 2013 at 11:34 am

    What an interesting experience. I would have signed up as well. My husband was working in a maximum security prison as a guard when we met. I’ve heard so many stories about how inmates can make weapons out of paper, etc.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 18, 2013 at 11:44 am

      My husband thought I was crazy for signing up, but then he often thinks that! I expect with enough thought (something inmates have plenty of time for), almost anything can be made into a weapon. I admire the work the guards do. It’s not an easy job. I’ll bet your husband has endless stories he could tell.

  3. Pat on November 18, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Fascinating experience. I am sure that it impacted the way you view the freedom to walk out the door.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 18, 2013 at 12:10 pm

      It certainly did, Pat. I hope never to take for granted how lucky I am to be able to make my own decisions to come and go as I please.

  4. Kathleen Pooler on November 18, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Carol, there’s nothing like the “lived-experience” to get us in touch with the realities of a situation such as imprisonment. It also most likely helped you feel even more grateful for your life outside those prison walls. What an interesting and eye-opening experience.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 18, 2013 at 4:55 pm

      You’re right, Kathy. Nothing quite like living a situation yourself to develop empathy for others and gratitude for your own situation. As a writer, I find that lived experience to be critical. Before this, it would have been unlikely that I’d have even thought about writing about a character in prison. Now I can’t get it out of my head.

  5. Michele Shriver on November 18, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    What a neat opportunity.I wish I’d known about, as it sounds like a once-on-a-lifetime opportunity. I think I would have gone stir crazy without my laptop and phone, though. Oh, the things we take for granted.

    Thanks for the write up!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 19, 2013 at 9:07 am

      The prison does group tours but the opportunity to stay overnight was unique. We do take so much for granted. Getting a cup of coffee whenever I want one. Going out for a walk at any time of the day or night. Phone. Laptop. Experiences like this keep me mindful of gratitude. Thanks for commenting, Michele.

  6. Mary Gottschalk on November 19, 2013 at 8:19 am

    As commenters above noted, it was an amazing experience … and gives some insight into why recidivism is such a problem.

    How did you find out about the “opportunity”? What was the motivation behind offering it? Were there any particular criteria for the individuals allowed to participate?

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 19, 2013 at 9:14 am

      The Altoona paper carried an article on the event, Mary. They held Slumber in the Slammer as a way to let the community know more about the new prison and as a fundraiser for the Mitchellville elementary school. About 100 people participated. I had to fill out an application and they approved me. I wondered how many people voluntarily show up to go to prison!

      Recidivism is a complex issue and we spent only a tiny bit of time on that. The prison encourages offenders to get their GEDs and offers many classes to help prepare them to be successful when they get out. They can’t require offenders to participate, however. And if the community they’re released into isn’t supportive, their chances of success are limited.

  7. Sharon Lippincott on November 19, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Gutsy move, Carol. How do you think the knowledge you only had a few hours there affected your view? Sounds like it would have been a lot worse if you had no open door the next day. Bravo for seeking this experience!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 19, 2013 at 3:03 pm

      I’m sure the knowledge I could get out at any time affected my view considerably, Sharon. I kept trying to visualize myself in there without knowing the end. The cells full of people I didn’t know and couldn’t trust. Confined in one of the “acute mental” cells with padded walls. Waiting my turn to breathe fresh air in the yard for however long they’d let me. I’m sure it’s impossible to get the real picture without being in there for real, but this one night gave me a small chance to imagine it in the real space. Powerful even for what it was.

  8. Elfrieda Schroeder on November 19, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    Carol, your topic reminded me of Carol Kent’s experience. She is a Christian motivational speaker from whom I learned a lot about public speaking. Several years ago her only son was sentenced to life in prison with no opportunity of parole for shooting and killing his wife’s ex-husband who had just received visiting rights to their children, even though he was known to have been abusive toward them. The shooting was an emotional act, performed during a time of extreme mental duress. It changed their lives forever. Carol writes about life in prison and her and her son’s ministry in the prison where he is incarcerated. She now spends her whole time supporting this ministry.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 19, 2013 at 3:20 pm

      Thanks for mentioning Carol Kent’s book, Elfrieda. I’ll look for it. It’s easy to stand outside and lump all offenders together, but there’s a unique story for each person. I came away from our meeting with the three offenders feeling empathy for each of them. As a writer, I wanted to know even more about their stories. As with Carol Kent and her son, the story is not only what caused him to commit murder and the fact that he will spend the rest of his life in prison because of his actions but also what he’s doing with his life going forward. It’s inspiring to hear that they’re working to make some good come of a sad situation.

  9. Michele Shriver on November 20, 2013 at 9:32 am

    I would definitely think that the knowledge of ‘It’s only one night’ would impact the view of the whole thing. The uncertainty of when/if you’ll get out, however, would completely change the perspective. There are worse places to spend a night than a new prison facility- after all, you were safe and warm, which is not something everyone in the world has every night.

    That safe (with the acknowledgement that not all prisons are safe, of course) and warm and having regular meals aspect is one reason why prison isn’t the worst thing for many people, and contributes to the recidivism rate. Some people become ‘institutionalized’ and lack the life skills to succeed outside that razor wire fence.

    Did you actually get to see the ‘acute mental’ cell?

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 20, 2013 at 12:10 pm

      Absolutely, Michele, my ability to know my departure was assured affected my view. I’m sure the assurance of “three meals and a cot” is appealing to some. The assurance of safety, even in this new facility, is more tenuous. The warden emphasized repeatedly that safety for staff and safety for offenders is a priority. I got the sense that open fights and more subtle retaliation happen with some regularity. A single guard will not attempt to break up a fight until reinforcements arrive. It wouldn’t be safe. Even if it only takes minutes for those reinforcements to get there, offenders can inflict serious injury on each other.

      I did see the ‘acute mental’ cells and went inside to try to imagine myself confined there. The walls are not harder or softer than the mattress in my cell. The toilet in the cell is in front of the window so the guards can see when the inmate uses it – I presume to prevent an offender from trying to drown or otherwise harm herself in/on it. The window to the outside in these cells is only three inches wide. The door is heavy steel with an opening to pass food trays in and out. An offender will also have restraints applied through this opening before she is allowed out. This is serious space.

  10. Grace Peterson on November 20, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Riveting, Carol. You are one gutsy gal for taking them up on the offer. What a brave, poignant thing to do. Prison life is no picnic, that’s for sure. Maybe this should be required teaching for all high school students. Bravo my friend.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 20, 2013 at 1:32 pm

      It was certainly eye opening, Grace. My reaction to this night in jail is similar to my reaction to visiting a third-world country some years ago. I now have much broader understanding and empathy for the people who live there all the time. And I am infinitely more grateful for my every day life.

  11. Sherrey Meyer on November 21, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    Carol, this must have been an amazing and disconcerting experience at the same time. I think I’d have joined you. It is hard to imagine losing all control over your life and being at the beck and call of prison guards. To do so brings a perspective for those on the inside, especially those who may not be guilty of a crime and erroneously imprisoned. Thanks for sharing your prison experience with us!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on November 21, 2013 at 3:00 pm

      Until you mentioned it, I hadn’t been thinking about the wrongly convicted, Sherrey. At least the rest know they’re in as a result of their own actions. Thanks for adding a new facet to the discussion!

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