The next morning I and eight other new arrivals reported for a day-long orientation session, held in the smallest of the TV rooms. Among the group was one of my roommates, a zaftig Dominican girl who was an odd combination of sulky and helpful. She had a little tattoo of a dancing Mephistopheles figure on her arm, with the letters JC. I tentatively asked her if they stood for Jesus Christ—maybe protecting her from the festive devil?
She looked at me as if I were completely insane, then rolled her eyes. “That’s my boyfriend’s initials.”
Sitting on my left against the wall was a young black woman to whom I took an instant liking, for no reason. Her rough cornrows and aggressively set jaw couldn’t disguise the fact that she was very young and pretty. I made small talk, asking her name, where she was from, how much time she had to do, the tiny set of questions that I thought were acceptable to ask. Her name was Janet, she was from Brooklyn, and she had sixty months. She seemed to think I was weird for talking to her.
A small white woman on the other side of the room, on the other hand, was chatty. About ten years my senior, with a friendly-witch aspect, straggly red hair, aquiline nose, and weathered creases in her skin, she looked as if she lived in the mountains, or by the sea. She was back in prison on a probation violation. “I did two years in West Virginia. It’s like a big campus, decent food. This place is a dump.” She said this all pretty cheerfully, and I was stunned that anyone returning to prison could be so matter-of-fact and upbeat. Another white woman in the group was also back in for a violation, and she was bitter, which made more sense to me.The rest of the group was a mixed bag of black and Latino women who leaned against the walls, staring at the ceiling or floor. We were all dressed alike, with those stupid canvas slippers.
We were subjected to an excruciating five-hour presentation from all of Danbury FCI’s major departments—finance, phones, recreation, commissary, safety, education, psychiatry—an array of professional attention that somehow added up to an astonishingly low standard of living for prisoners. The speakers fell into two categories: apologetic or condescending. The apologetic variety included the prison psychiatrist, Dr. Kirk, who was about my age and handsome. He could have been one of my friends’ husbands. Dr. Kirk sheepishly informed us that he was in the Camp for a few hours each Thursday and “couldn’t really supply” any mental health services unless it was “an emergency.” He was the only provider of psychiatric care for the fourteen hundred women in the Danbury complex, and his primary function was to dole out psych meds. If you wanted to be sedated, Dr. Kirk was your guy.
In the condescending category was Mr. Scott, a cocky young corrections officer who insisted on playing a question-and-answer game with us about the most basic rules of interpersonal behavior and admonished us repeatedly not to be “gay for the stay.” But worst of all was the woman from health services, who was so unpleasant that I was taken aback. She firmly informed us that we had better not dare to waste their time, that they would determine whether we were sick or not and what was medically necessary, and that we should not expect any existing condition to be addressed unless it was life-threatening. I silently gave thanks that I was blessed with good health. We were fucked if we got sick.
After the health services rep was out of the room, the red-headed violator piped up. “Jesus F. Christ, who peed in her Cheerios?”
Next a big bluff man from facilities with enormously bushy eyebrows entered the room. “Hello, ladies!” he boomed. “My name is Mr. Richards. I just wanted to tell you all that I’m sorry you’re here. I don’t know what landed you here, but whatever happened, I wish things were different. I know that may not be much comfort to you right now, but I mean it. I know you’ve got families and kids and that you belong home with them. I hope your time here is short.” After hours of being treated as ungrateful and deceitful children, this stranger showed us remarkable sensitivity.We all perked up a bit.
“Kerman!” Another prisoner with a clipboard stuck her head into the room. “Uniforms!”
I was lucky to arrive at prison on a Wednesday. Uniform issue was done on Thursdays, so if you self-surrendered on a Monday, you might be pretty smelly after a few days, depending on whether you sweat when you are nervous. I followed the clipboard down the hall to a small room where uniforms were distributed, leftovers from when the place had been a men’s facility. I was given four pairs of elastic-waist khaki pants and five khaki poly-blend button-down shirts, which bore the names of their former wearers on the front pockets; Marialinda Maldonado, Vicki Frazer, Marie Saunders, Karol Ryan, and Angel Chevasco. Also: one set of white thermal underwear; an itchy boiled-wool hat, scarf, and mittens; five white T-shirts; four pairs of tube socks; three white sports bras; ten pairs of granny panties (which I soon discovered would lose their elastic after a couple washings); and a nightgown so enormous it made me giggle—everyone referred to it as a muu-muu.
Finally, the guard who was silently handing me the clothing asked,“What size shoe?”
“Nine and a half.”
He pushed a red and black shoebox toward me, containing my very own pair of heavy black steel-toed shoes. I hadn’t been so happy to put on a pair of shoes since I found a pair of peep-toed Manolo Blahniks at a sample sale for fifty dollars. These beauties were solid and held the promise of strength. I loved them instantly. I handed back those canvas slippers with a huge smile on my face. Now I was a for-real, hardened con. I felt infinitely better.
I strutted back into orientation in my steel-toes. My fellows were still there, their eyes rolling back into their heads from the endless droning. The nice man from facilities had been replaced by Toricella, the counselor who partnered with Butorsky and had allowed me to call Larry the night before. I came to think of him as “Mumbles.” His walruslike visage rarely changed; I never heard him raise his voice, but it was difficult to read his mood, beyond mild aggravation. He informed us that Warden Kuma Deboo would be gracing us with her presence momentarily.
Suddenly I was interested: I knew nothing of the warden, the big boss, who was a woman, and one with an unusual name to boot. I had not heard a word about her in the twenty-four hours I had been in prison.Would she resemble Wendy O.Williams or Nurse Ratched?
Neither. Warden Deboo sailed into the room and took a seat facing us. She was only ten years older than me, tops, and she was fit, olive-skinned, and good-looking, probably of Middle Eastern extraction. She was wearing a dowdy pantsuit and hideous costume jewelry. She spoke to us in an informal, faux-warm fashion that instantly reminded me of someone running for office.
“Ladies, I am Warden Kuma Deboo, and I am here to welcome you to Danbury,which I know is not an ideal scenario for any of you. While you are here, I am responsible for your well-being. I am responsible for your safety. I am responsible for you successfully completing your sentences. So, ladies, the buck stops here.”
She went on for a while in this vein, with some mention of personal responsibility (ours) thrown in, and then she got down to the sex part.
“If anyone at this institution is pressuring you sexually, if anyone is threatening you or hurting you, I want you to come directly to me. I come to the Camp every Thursday at lunch, so you can come up and talk to me about anything that is happening to you. We have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct here at Danbury.”
She was talking about prison guards, not marauding lesbians. Clearly sex and power were inseparable behind prison walls. More than a few of my friends had voiced their fears that in prison I would be in more danger from the guards than the inmates. I looked around the room at my fellow prisoners. Some looked scared; most looked indifferent.
Warden Deboo finished her spiel and left us. One of the other prisoners tentatively volunteered, “She seems nice.”
The bitter violator who had previously been locked up at Danbury snorted, “Miss Slick. Don’t expect to see her again, except for fifteen minutes every other Thursday on the line. She talks a good game, but she might as well not be here. She don’t run this place. That zero-tolerance shit? Just remember this, ladies . . . it’s gonna be your word against theirs.”
New arrivals in Federal prison are stuck in a sort of purgatory for the first month or so, when they are “A&Os”—admissions and orientation status.When you are an A&O, you can’t do anything—can’t have a job, can’t go to GED classes, can’t go to chow until everyone else goes, can’t say a word when ordered to shovel snow at odd hours of the night.The official line is that your medical tests and clearances must come back from whatever mysterious place they go before your prison life can really start. Nothing involving paperwork happens quickly in prison (except for lockups in solitary), and a prisoner has no way to get speedy resolution with a prison staffer. Of anything.
There are a dizzying number of official and unofficial rules, schedules, and rituals. Learn them quickly, or suffer the consequences, such as: being thought an idiot, being called an idiot, getting on another prisoner’s bad side, getting on a guard’s bad side, getting on your counselor’s bad side, being forced to clean the bathrooms, eating last in line when everything edible is gone, getting a “shot” (or incident report) put in your record, and getting sent to the Special Housing Unit or SHU (aka Solitary, the Hole, or Seg).Yet the most common response to a query about anything other than an official rule is “Honey, don’t you know you don’t ask questions in prison?” Everything else— the unofficial rules—you learn by observation, inference, or very cautious questioning of people you hope you can trust.
Being an A&O that February—a leap year, no less—was a strange combination of confusion and monotony. I prowled around the Camp building, trapped not only by the feds but also by the weather. With no job, no money, no possessions, no phone privileges, I was verging on a nonperson. Thank God for books and the gifts of paper and stamps from other prisoners. I couldn’t wait for the weekend, and the prospect of seeing Larry and my mother.
Friday, there was snow. A worried-looking Annette woke me by wiggling my foot.
“Piper, they’ve been calling the A&Os for snow duty! Get up!” I sat up, confused. It was still dark.Where was I?
“KERMAN! KERMAN! REPORT TO THE CO’S OFFICE, KERMAN!” The PA boomed.
Annette was bug-eyed. “You have to go now! Get dressed!”
I tumbled into my new steel-toed shoes and presented myself at the correctional officers’ office, totally disheveled and with unbrushed teeth. The CO on duty was a dykey blond woman. She looked as if she ate new fish like me for breakfast after her triathlon workouts.
“I called the A&Os a half-hour ago. There’s snow duty. Where were you?”
“I was asleep.”
She looked at me like I was a worm squirming on the sidewalk after spring rain. “Oh yeah? Get your coat on and shovel.”
What about breakfast? I put on my thermal underwear and the ugly stadium coat with the broken zipper and headed out to meet my compadres in the whipping, icy wind, clearing the walks. By now the sun had risen, and there was a gloomy half-light. There were not enough shovels for everyone to use, and the one I used was broken, but no one could go back inside until the work was done. We had more salt-scatterers than shovelers.
One of the A&Os was a little Dominican lady in her seventies, who barely spoke a word of English. We gave her our scarves, wrapped her up, and put her out of the wind in a doorway—she was too scared to go inside, although it was insane for her to be out there in the cold with us. One of the other women told me over the wind that the old lady had a four-year sentence for a “wire charge,” taking phone messages for her drug-dealing male relative. I wondered what U.S. Attorney was enjoying that particular notch in his or her belt.
I worried that the weather would prevent Larry from driving up from New York, but I had no way of knowing, so before visiting hours began at three p.m., I tried to pull myself together. Freshly showered and wearing the uniform that I thought was the least unflattering, I stood in the fluorescent light of the decrepit bathroom and looked at the unfamiliar woman in the mirror. I looked undecorated and to my eye unfeminine—no jewelry, no makeup, no embellishments at all. Someone else’s name was on the breast pocket of my khaki shirt. What would Larry think when he saw me now?
I went to wait outside the big recreation room where visits were held. A red light was mounted on the wall of the visiting room. After a prisoner saw her people walk up the hill and into the Camp building, or if she heard her name called over the PA system, she would flip a light switch by the side of the room’s double doors, and a red light on the other side of the doors would go on too, alerting the visiting room CO that the prisoner was in place, waiting to see their visitor. When the CO felt like it, they would get up, go to the doors, pat down the inmate, and allow her into the visiting room.
After an hour or so on the landing next to the visiting room, I began to wander the main hall, bored and nervous. When I heard my name called over the PA system—“Kerman, report to visitation!”—I racewalked up to the landing. A female guard with curly hair and bright blue eye shadow was waiting for me on the landing. I spread my arms and legs, and she skimmed her fingertips along my extremities, under my collar, below my sports bra, and around my waistband.
“Kerman? First time, right? Okay, he’s in there waiting for you. Watch the contact!” She pulled open the visiting room door.
For visits the large room was set up with card tables and folding chairs. When I arrived, they were about half filled, and Larry was sitting at one of them, looking anxious and expectant. When he saw me, he jumped to his feet. I walked as quickly as I could to him and threw my arms around him. I was so grateful that he looked happy. I felt like myself again.
Hugging and kissing your visitors (no tongue!) was permitted at the beginning and end of the visit. Some guards would allow handholding; some would not. If a guard was having a bad day, week, or life, we would all feel it in that bleak, linoleum-floored visiting room. There were always two prisoners working in the visiting room too, assisting the CO, and they were stuck making small talk with the guard for hours.
Larry and I took our seats at the card table, and he just stared at me, smiling. I felt suddenly shy, and wondered if he saw a difference in me. Then we started to talk, trying to cover an impossible amount of ground all at once. I told him what had happened after he left the prison lobby, and he told me what it had been like for him to have to leave. He said that he had talked to my parents, that they were holding up, and that my mother was coming to visit tomorrow. He listed all the people who had called to try to find out how I was and who had sent in requests to be approved as visitors. I explained to him that there was a twenty-five-person limit on my visitor list. Our friend Tim had set up a website, www.thepipebomb.com, and Larry was posting all the relevant information (including an FAQ) there.
We talked for hours (visiting hours were three to eight p.m. on Fridays), and Larry was curious about every detail of prison so far. Together at the card table, I could relax the taut watchfulness and caution that had governed my every move for the last three days and almost forget where I was, even as I shared every discovery that my new life offered. I felt so loved sitting there with him, and more confident that someday I would be able to leave this horrible place behind. I reassured Larry countless times that I was okay. I told him to look around—did the other prisoners look so bad? He thought they did not.
At seven forty-five it was time for Larry and the other visitors to leave. My whole heart clutched up. I had to leave the bubble of love around our card table. I wouldn’t see him for another week.
“Did you get my letters?” he asked.
“No, not yet, no mail. Everything here is on prison time . . . slow motion.”
Departures were tough, and not just for us. A toddler didn’t want to leave her mother and wailed as her father struggled to get her into her snowsuit. Visitors and prisoners shifted from one foot to another as they tried to say goodbye. We were all permitted a final hug, and then watched as our loved ones’ backs disappeared into the night. The more experienced prisoners were already unlacing their shoes, getting ready for the strip search.
This ritual, which I’d repeat hundreds of times in the next year, never varied. Remove shoes and socks, shirt, pants, T-shirt. Pull up your sports bra and display your breasts. Show the soles of your feet. Then turn your back to the female prison guard, pull down your underpants and squat, exposing yourself. Finally, force a cough, which would theoretically cause any hidden contraband to clatter to the floor. I always found the interchange between the person who has no choice but to strip naked and the guard who gives the order to be brisk and businesslike, but some women found strip searches so humiliating that they would forgo visits in order to avoid it. I would never have survived without my visits and so would grit my teeth and rush through the motions. It was the prison system’s quid pro quo: You want contact with the outside world? Be prepared to show your ass, every time.
With my clothes back on, I walked back out into the main hall, floating on air and memories of everything Larry had said. Someone said, “Hey Kerman, they called your name at mail call!” I headed straight to the CO’s station, and he handed me sixteen wonderful letters (including Larry’s!) and a half-dozen books. Somebody out there loved me.
The next day my mother was due to arrive. I could only guess at how awful the last seventy-two hours had been for her, and I worried what she would think when she saw that razor-wire fence—it evoked a primal fear. When they called my name on the PA, I could barely stand still for the pat-down. I flew through the doors of the visiting room, scanning for my mother’s face. When I saw her, it was as if all our surroundings faded into a distant background. She burst into tears when she saw me. In thirty-four years I couldn’t remember her ever looking more relieved.
I spent most of the next two hours trying to reassure Mom that I was okay; that no one was bothering me, or hurting me; that my roommates were helping me; and that the guards were leaving me alone. The presence of other families in the visiting room, many with little kids, was a reminder to me that we were not the only ones. In fact, we were just one of millions of American families trying to cope with the prison system. My mother fell silent as she watched a little girl playing with her parents at another card table. The strain on her face wiped away any complaint or self-pity I might have had. She was putting on a brave front, but I knew she would cry all the way to the car.
The hours I would spend in the prison visiting room were among the most comforting of my life. They sped by, the only occasion at the Camp in which time seemed to move quickly. I could completely forget about the human stew that lay on the other side of the visiting room doors, and I carried that feeling with me for many hours after each visit was over.
But I could see how awful and scary it was for my family to see me in my khaki uniform and get a tiny taste of what I was experiencing, surrounded by guards, strangers, and powerful systems of control. I felt terrible for exposing them to this world. Every week I needed to renew my promises to my mother and Larry that I was going to make it, that I was okay. I felt more guilt and shame witnessing their worry than when I stood in front of the judge—and it had been terrible standing in that courtroom.
The Camp had distinct rhythms of frenzied action and lulls of calm, like a high school or an ER ward. In bursts of activity the polyglot of women came and went, clustered in groups, hurried, loitered, very often waited, and almost always chattered in an overwhelming rush of noise, accents, and emotions mixing into swirling eddies of language.
Other times the place was still and silent . . . sleepy during some hours of the day, when most of the campers were off at their job assignments and the orderlies had already hustled through their cleaning assignments and gone off to nap, crochet, or play cards. At night, after ten p.m. lights out, the halls were quiet, haunted by the occasional woman in her muu-muu heading to the bathroom or the mail drop box, navigating by the distant light from a common room where someone was sitting, perhaps illicitly watching after-hours TV.
My understanding of the causes of these patterns of movement— meals, mail call, work call, pill line, commissary days, phone time— was still tenuous. But I learned more every day, filing away the information and trying to figure out where I fit in.
Letters and good books—an overwhelming number of good books—started to pour in from the outside world. At mail call almost every day the Gay Pornstar would bellow “Kerman!” and shove a plastic bin overflowing with a dozen books toward me with his boot, half disgusted and half perplexed. The entire population of the Camp would watch me claim my mail, with the occasional wisecrack— “You keeping up?”
On the one hand, folks were impressed at this evidence that people on the outside cared about me. On the other hand, the literary avalanche was proof that I was different, a freak: “She’s the one with the books.” Annette and a few other women were delighted by the influx of new reading material and borrowed from my library with abandon (and permission). Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, and “Alice in Wonderland” definitely served to fill the time and keep me company inside my head, but I was really lonely in my actual physical life. I was cautiously trying to make friends, but like everything else in prison it was tricky; there were too many places where a newbie like me could easily misstep. Like the chow hall.
The chow hall was like a high school cafeteria, and who has fond memories of that? A vast linoleum room filled with tables with four attached swivel chairs, it was lined on two sides by windows that looked out toward the main back entrance to the Camp, where there were parking spaces, a handicapped ramp, and a forlorn and unused basketball hoop. Breakfast was a quiet affair, attended by only a fraction of the prisoners, mostly the older ones who appreciated the almost meditative peace of the morning ritual at six-thirty a.m. There was never a wait at breakfast—you grabbed a tray and plastic cutlery and approached the kitchen line from which food was dished out by other prisoners, some blank-faced, some chatty. It could be cold cereal or oatmeal or, on a really good day, boiled eggs. Usually there was a piece of fruit for every person, an apple or banana, or sometimes a rock-hard peach. Big vats of watery coffee sat next to cold drink dispensers filled with water and something like weak Kool-Aid.
I got in the habit of going to breakfast, where I would sit alone peacefully, not drinking the terrible coffee, observing the other prisoners come and go and watching the sun rise through the east-facing windows.
Lunch and dinner were altogether different: the line of women waiting for their food stretched the length of the wall below the windows and sometimes out the door, and the noise was tremendous. I found these meals nerve-racking and would cautiously advance with my tray, darting my eyes around for someone I knew near an empty chair, or even better, an empty table that I could grab. Sitting with someone you didn’t know was a dicey proposition. You could be met with the hairy eyeball and a resounding silence, or a pointed, “This seat is saved.” But you could also be met with a chatterer or a questioner, and when I ventured afield, I was often nabbed after the meal by Annette: “You wanna stay away from that one, Piper. She’ll be after you to buy her commissary in no time.”
Annette had a maternal instinct that was a force of nature and helped me navigate the official rules, like remembering the counts, and the PAC numbers, and what day I was allowed to bring my clothes to the laundry to be washed. But she was leery of most other prisoners who were not middle class and white. It turned out that early on Annette had been gamed by a young girl who had gotten the older woman to buy her lots of commissary items, playing on her pity. The girl was in fact notorious for her hustles of new prisoners, so Annette felt burned, and her caution was outsize. Annette included me in endless Rummy 500 games with her set of Italians, who grudgingly tolerated my poor play. The black women played far more boisterous games of Spades a few tables over; the Italians sniffed that they all cheated.
Annette introduced me to Nina, a fellow Italian, who was my age and lived a few rooms down, and she also took me under her wing. Nina had just returned from a month in the SHU (she had refused to shovel snow) and was waiting to get put back in the Dorms. Annette seemed scared of most other prisoners, but not Nina, who was Brooklyn street-smart, and just as wary of others as Annette: “They’re all wackos—they make me sick.” She had lived a tough life and was prison-savvy, funny as hell, and surprisingly tolerant of my naïveté, and I followed her around like a puppy. I paid close attention to her advice about how not to get rooked by another prisoner. I was definitely interested in figuring out who the nonwackos were.
I got along well with some of the women in my A&O group (plus I could remember their names): the tattooed Latina from my room, who was doing just six months for getting caught with six keys of coke in her car (made no sense to me); the salty redhead, who was still going on about how much better the prison in West Virginia was than Danbury, “although there’s more of us northerners here, if you know what I mean . . .”
Then there was little Janet from Brooklyn, who was slowly warming up to me, although she still seemed to think I was strange for being friendly. She was just twenty years old, a college girl who had been arrested on vacation as a drug mule. She had been locked in a Caribbean jail for an entire harrowing year before the feds came to get her. Now she was doing sixty months—more than half of her twenties would be spent behind bars.
One day I was joined at lunch by a different Janet, who was fifty-ish, tall, fair, and striking. I had been watching her and wondering what her story was—she reminded me of my aunt. Janet was like me—a middle-class drug criminal. She was doing a two-year sentence on a marijuana charge. As we made conversation, she was friendly but never pushy, explicitly respectful of other people’s space. I learned that she was a world traveler, a classic eco-peacenik intellectual, a fitness fanatic and yoga expert, and a devout Buddhist possessed of a wry sense of humor, all incredibly welcome attributes to encounter in a fellow prisoner.
Institutional food required a Zen outlook. The mess hall lunch was sometimes hot, sometimes not, the most popular meals being McDonald’s-style hamburger patties or the ultimate, and rare, deep-fried chicken sandwich. People went crazy for chicken in any form. Far more often lunch was bologna and rubbery orange cheese on white bread and endless amounts of cheap and greasy starch in the form of rice, potatoes, and horrible frozen pizzas. Dessert was wildly variable, sometimes really good home-baked cookies or cake, sometimes Jell-O, and sometimes bowls of pudding, which I was warned off of:“It comes out of cans marked desert storm, and if there’s mold on the top, they just scrape it off and serve the rest.” For the few vegetarians, there was texturized vegetable protein. TVP was a repulsive reconstituted soy powder that someone back in the kitchen would fruitlessly try to make edible. It usually looked like worms. Sometimes if they had added onions, you could choke it down. Poor Yoga Janet was a vegetarian and resigned herself to a subsistence diet most of the time.
Both lunch and dinner featured a salad bar that offered iceberg lettuce, sliced cucumbers, and raw cauliflower. Only certain women, like Yoga Janet, were regulars at the salad bar. I said hello to them shyly, my sisters in roughage. Occasionally other vegetables would appear on the bar—broccoli florets, canned bean sprouts, celery, carrots, and very rarely, raw spinach. These would quickly be raided and spirited out of the dining hall for prisoners’ cooking projects, which went on in force in the two microwaves near the Dorms. The only food available was what we got in the dining hall and what prisoners were able to buy from the commissary.
A constant presence in the dining hall was Italian Nina’s former bunkie Pop, the imposing fiftyish wife of a Russian gangster who ruled the kitchen with an iron fist. One evening I was sitting with Nina as the dinner hour was drawing to a close, when Pop sat down with us, clad in her customized burgundy kitchen smock adorned with pop over the heart in white yarn, à la Laverne and Shirley. I, knowing less than nothing, began maligning the food. It didn’t occur to me at that point that anyone would put any pride into their prison job, but Pop did. When I made a joke about a hunger strike, that was it.
Pop fixed me with a ferocious glare and a pointed finger. “Listen, honey, I know you just got here, so I know that you don’t understand what’s what. I’m gonna tell you this once. There’s something here called ‘inciting a riot,’ and that kind of shit you’re talking about, hunger strikes, that kind of shit, that’s inciting a riot. You can get in big trouble for that, they will lock your ass up in the SHU in a heartbeat. Now, me, I don’t care, but you don’t know these people, honey. The wrong one hears you saying that shit, she goes and tells the CO, you’re going to be shocked how quickly the lieutenant is coming to lock your ass up. So take a tip from me,and watch what you say.” And with that, she left. Nina looked at me, silently telegraphing, You asshole. From then on I stayed out of Pop’s path, ducking my head to avoid her eyes on the chow line.
February is Black History Month, and someone had festooned the dining hall with posters of Martin Luther King, Jr., George Washington Carver, and Rosa Parks. “They didn’t put shit up for Columbus Day,” groused a woman named Lombardi behind me in line one day. Was she really objecting to Dr. King? I kept my mouth shut. The minimum-security camp at Danbury housed approximately 200 women at any given time, though sometimes it climbed to a nightmarishly cramped 250. About half were Latino (Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian), about 24 percent white, 24 percent African-American and Jamaican, and then a very random smattering: one Indian, a couple of Middle Eastern women, a couple of Native Americans, one tiny Chinese woman in her sixties. I always wondered how it felt to be there if you lacked a tribe. It was all so very “West Side Story”—stick to your own kind, Maria!
The racialism was unabashed; the three main Dorms had organizing principles allegedly instituted by the counselors, who assigned housing. A Dorm was known as “the Suburbs,” B Dorm was dubbed “the Ghetto,” and C Dorm was “Spanish Harlem.” The Rooms, where all new people went first, were a strange mix. Butorsky wielded housing assignments as a weapon, so if you got on his bad side, you would be stuck into rooms.The most physically ill women in the Camp, or pregnant women like the one I had seen when I first arrived, occupied the bottom bunks; the top bunks were full of newbies, or behavior problems, of which there was never a shortage. Room 6, where I lived, was serving as a sick ward rather than a punishment room—I was lucky. At night I would lie in the dark in my bunk over the snoring Polish woman, listening to the thrum of Annette’s breathing apparatus and gazing past the sleeping top-bunk shapes out the windows, which were level with my bunk. When there was a moon, I could see the tops of fir trees and the white hills of the far valley.
I spent as many hours as I could standing out in the cold, staring to the east over an enormous Connecticut valley. The Camp sat perched atop one of the highest hills in the area, and you could see rolling hills and farms and clusters of towns for miles over the giant basin of the valley below. I saw the sunrise every day in February. I braved the rickety icy stairs that led down to a field house gym and the Camp’s frozen track, where I’d crunch around bundled in my ugly brown coat and itchy army-green hat, muffler, and mittens before heading into the cold gym to lift weights, almost always mercifully alone. I wrote letters and read books. But time was a beast, a big, indolent immovable beast that wasn’t interested in my efforts at hastening it in any direction.
Some days I barely spoke, keeping eyes open and mouth shut. I was afraid, less of physical violence (I hadn’t seen any evidence of it) than of getting cursed out publicly for fucking up, either breaking a prison rule or a prisoner’s rule. Be in the wrong place at the wrong time, sit in “someone’s” seat, intrude where you were not wanted, ask the wrong question, and you’d get called out and bawled out in a hurry, either by a terrifying prison guard or by a terrifying convict (sometimes in Spanish). Except to pester Nina with questions, and to theorize and trade notes with my fellow A&O newbies about what was what, I kept to myself.
But my fellow prisoners were in fact looking out for me. Wormtown Rosemarie brought me her Wall Street Journal every day and checked on how I was.Yoga Janet would make a point of sitting with me at meals, and we would chat about the Himalayas and New York and politics. She was appalled when a subscription to The New Republic showed up for me at mail call. “You might as well read the Weekly Standard!” she said with disgust.
One commissary day—shopping was twice a week in the evening, half the Camp on Monday, the other half on Tuesday—Nina appeared in the door of Room 6. Still without money in my prison account, I was washing with loaned soap and was deeply envious of the other prisoners’ weekly shopping excursions.
“Hey Piper, how about a root beer float?” said Nina.
“What?” I was dumbfounded, and hungry. Dinner had been roast beef with an eerie metallic-green cast. I had eaten rice and cucumbers.
“I’m gonna get ice cream at commissary, we can make root beer floats.” My heart soared, then crashed.
“I can’t shop, Nina. My account didn’t clear yet.”
“Would you shut up? Come on.”
You could get a pint of cheap ice cream at the commissary—vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry. You had to eat it right away, because of course there was no freezer, just a big ice dispenser for prisoners. Woe to the inmate who stuck a pint into the ice machine and got caught by another inmate! You would get yelled at for being disgustingly unsanitary. Like many things, it just wasn’t done.
Nina bought vanilla ice cream and two cans of root beer. My mouth was watering as she prepared our floats in plastic coffee mugs, the foam a luscious rich brown. She handed me one, and I sipped, wearing a foam mustache. It was the best thing I had tasted since I got to prison. I felt tears pricking behind my eyes. I was so happy.
“Thank you, Nina. Thank you so much.”
At mail call I continued to be blessed with an avalanche of letters, every one of which I savored. Some were from my closest friends, some were from family, and some were from people I had never met, friends of friends who had heard about me and taken the time to offer some solace with pen and paper to a total stranger. Larry told me that one of our friends had told her folks about me, and her father had decided to read every one of the books on my Amazon wish list. In short order I had accumulated, via the mail: beautiful postcards from my old coworker Kelly and letters written on my friend Arin’s exquisitely decorated writing paper, which were a treasure in the drab ugliness of the facility; seven printout pages of Steven Wright jokes from Bill Graham; a little book about coffee, hand-illustrated by my friend Peter; and a lot of photographs of other people’s cats. These were all of my riches and in fact my only valuable possessions.
My uncle Winthrop Allen III wrote to me:
Your Web page was well received. I forwarded it to a few of my friends and acquaintances, so don’t be surprised to get bundles of old books from unknown sources.
Enclosed is “Japanese Street Slang.” You never know when you’re going to need just the right insult. Joe Orton, he needs no introduction, but there is one in the front of the book, anyhow. Parkinson was an amusing old duffer, inventor of Parkinson’s Law, which I kinda forget. No, I remember now, it’s about tasks expanding to fill the available time.When you are finished getting your group therapy sessions, safe-sex lectures, and 12-step sermons, you may be able to test the hypothesis.
“The Prince,” Mach’s my all-time fave. Like you and me, he’s forever maligned.
“Gravity’s Rainbow,” all my literary friends consider this the greatest since “Under the Volcano.” I couldn’t finish either of ’em. I enclose a couple of posters so that you could get a start on decorating the digs before Martha shows up with all her bundles of frou-frou.
Regards, Winthrop, the Worst Uncle
I began to receive letters from a man named Joe Loya, a writer and a friend of a friend back in San Francisco. Joe explained that he had served over seven years in federal prison for bank robbery,that he knew what I was going through, and that he hoped I would write him back. He told me that the act of writing literally saved his life when he spent two years in solitary confinement. I was startled by the intimacy of his letters, but also touched, and it was reassuring to know that there was someone on the outside who understood something about the surreal world I now inhabited.
Only the nun got more mail than me. On my first day in the Camp someone had helpfully informed me that there was a nun there—in my side-smacked daze, I vaguely assumed they meant a nun who had chosen to live among prisoners. I was correct, sort of. Sister Ardeth Platte was a political prisoner, one of several nuns who are peace activists and served long federal sentences for trespassing in a nonviolent protest at a Minuteman II missile silo in Colorado. Everyone respected Sister (as she was known to all), who was sixty-nine years old and one tough nun, an adorable, elfin, twinkling, and loving presence. Appropriately enough, Sister was Yoga Janet’s bunkie— she liked to be tucked into bed by Janet every night, with a hug and kiss on her soft, wrinkled forehead. The Italian-American prisoners were the most outraged by her predicament. “The fucking feds have nothing better to do than to lock up nuns?” they would spit, disgusted.
Sister received copious amounts of mail from pacifists around the world.
One day I got a new letter from my best friend, Kristen, whom I had met in our first week at Smith. In the envelope was a short note, penned on an airplane, and a newspaper clipping. I unfolded it to reveal Bill Cunningham’s “On the Street” fashion column from the Sunday New York Times, February 8. Covering the half-page were over a dozen photographs of women of every age, race, size, and shape, all clad in brilliant orange. “Oranginas Uncorked” was the headline, and Kristen had noted on a blue stickie, “NYers wear orange in solidarity w/ Piper’s plight! xo K.” I carefully stuck the clipping inside my locker door, where every time I opened it I was greeted by my dear friend’s handwriting, and the smiling faces of women with orange coats, hats, scarves, even baby carriages. Apparently, orange was the new black.
From the book “ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK” by Piper Kerman. Copyright © 2011 by Piper Kerman. Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.