In the first of a two-part discussion, Sean Beaudoin and Meg Worden attempt to open a dialog about the way we view (and ignore) the realities of the penal system in America. Meg is an author and activist, who was previously incarcerated.
SB: So how much time did you spend in jail, and for what?
MW: I did twenty-three months for Conspiracy to Distribute Ecstasy. I carried five thousand pills from New York City to Springfield, Missouri. I spent five weeks between county jail and the federal holding facility in Oklahoma City before I finally landed in Bryan Federal Prison Camp in Bryan, Texas.
SB: Why Texas and Oklahoma? Do you have the sense that those locations were preferable to others, or that it was extremely bad luck to end up there instead of, say, Connecticut?
MW: So, Oklahoma City is/was the singular transfer facility for the entire Federal System. All traveling inmates stop there first before their final destination. It’s not much different than county jail. Really transient with no amenities or exercise, its own little culture. Since people are mixed security levels, the whole unit is locked down at all times. Even the windows were blacked out. I ended up in Texas because, ostensibly, they place inmates as near to family as possible. The majority of my family — my son, my mother, as well as my conviction — were in Missouri. It was that proximity that was taken into account, in addition to my qualifying programs. There were two programming options that might cut time off of my sentence. One was the Residential Drug Program — an entire unit devoted to drug treatment, or the (now defunct) Bootcamp Program. That one was exactly like it sounds. At my sentencing, the judge asked which program I would like to use, but, that was the first time I’d heard of either. The pretrial services people, my lawyer, no one really knows much about what’s actually going on inside the prisons. They function as a separate entity. So in the extremely intense moment right after the hearing, when I would be leaving for incarceration, I didn’t have the information to make an informed decision. The prison in Texas was the second closest to me but only one with the bootcamp. Had I chosen the drug program, I would likely have ended up in Illinois. But I had no idea. I actually had no idea where I would be or how long I would be there until I arrived in Texas. And, it turned out, I didn’t do either program. I served my entire time in general population.
SB: It’s insane that you, or anyone else, would be forced to make such a momentous decision on the spot with zero information. Do you think that’s a matter of indifferent bureaucracy, or an intentional component of a system of control that relies on randomness, imbalance, and a lack of transparency?
MW: Then, I would have said it was indifference. Now, whether intentional or just supported by a self-sustaining system, I wholly believe that it’s about control. Whether or not it began as an intentional practice, it exists as one. In fact, I recently read an article about prisons withholding feminine hygiene products as a means of repressing self-esteem in inmates, shrouded in a pragmatic budget watch. I experienced and witnessed acts like this all the time. It was a truly contracted environment where I often had no idea what was happening, even once inside. We were ordered to do things constantly without explanation. Indifference and oppression are pretty tightly enmeshed. I imagine it’s a combination.
SB: How exactly did you end up with 5000 tabs of ecstasy? Was part of it for personal use? A transaction among a small group of friends? Or was it more formal, a calculated financial decision? Were you completely aware of the risk, or sort of oblivious and just hoping for the best?
MW: My partner at the time had some heavy-hitting drug connections in New York City. In case that last sentence didn’t imply that the relationship was dangerous, I’ll confirm it in this one. So, once again, I had moved away to try and clean up near my family in the Midwest. While I was away, attending cosmetology school to try and stay gone, I didn’t get cleaned up at all, only partied harder. It was a pretty dark time, maybe the point where I was most lost. I met some small-time dealers there. In what was likely a last ditch effort to find some kind of a landing, someplace known, however unstable, to rest my escalating sense of dysfunction, I brokered a deal between the people in Missouri and my partner in New York. This was the idea that fueled my transition back to New York City where I would engage in the year of cross-country drug sales, watch the Twin Towers fall, get pregnant, find sobriety, and meet my first DEA agents. While the 5000 wasn’t intended for personal use, I absolutely dipped into it.
SB: How were you caught?
MW: So my charge was Conspiracy. That means I didn’t actually get caught. It means that I was arrested with the testimony of someone else which cast enough guilt to indict me. The option of pleading guilty or going to trial is a no-brainer as trials are expensive and complex and if you’re found guilty by jury you’re given the maximum sentence allowed by federal sentencing guidelines. It’s daunting and, for ordinary people, cost prohibitive. Pleading guilty is encouraged and there is a token promise that your sentence may be reduced on account of your cooperation. The guidelines in my case called for a six-year sentence. The sentence was reduced to two because I “assisted” the government in the prosecution of my partner who was a level up from me on the indictment. He did not assist (give names) on account of the risks to our lives, and served six years. There were sixteen people on our indictment and he and I were at the top. We were considered the “New York Wing of Operation Exposed.” It was a huge drug bust for Springfield, Missouri and swept up a few handfuls of small-time dealers. I only knew the guy I dealt with, but in a small town, drug people are connected, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to create a “ring.” I’m not sure exactly how they found me, because they didn’t tell me and I had no contact with my connection by the time I was arrested. What I’ve been able to reconstruct — mostly from a chance encounter with a stranger on Conair that happened to be on my indictment. Weird, right? –is that a fed-up girlfriend called the cops on her dealer boyfriend and that guy was the roommate of my connection. When the police raided his house my guy had drugs (not our drugs; over a year had passed) that started an investigation that lasted another year and stretched backwards to our involvement.
SB: It seems that prison is one of those particularly American experiences that tend to either be a defining component of our lives, or one that we participate in only through television and film. There is no middle ground. Cinematic portrayals may have some elements of truth to them, but I think most Americans either can’t, or won’t, imagine what it’s like to be entirely under someone else’s control. With no outlet or recourse. Except to sit and wait. Until you’re told, often arbitrarily, that you no longer have to. My sense of the process of the judicial system, and the experience of being incarcerated itself, is one of almost unyielding boredom. The Great Prison Film might be a sort of Andy Warhol/Empire thing, where it’s just one six-hour shot of a bunk bed. Or a cement floor. Or a food tray.
MW: Unyielding boredom. Yes. So much of that. I laughed out loud at the accuracy of the Great Prison Film. And then there were layers of experience beneath the boredom. It was an interesting microcosm of adapted culture and could be really inspiring. (Inspiring maybe because I’m a nerd and was so bored I had to do something with my own brain.) People will figure out a way to amuse themselves, to connect, to re-frame, to reconcile, to make a home in the most unlikely of places. I may have laughed more, and harder, there than anytime in my life. (Also, cried. Also, raged.) The process of the whole thing (according to Viktor Frankl) follows the stages of grief. It was fascinating to watch that go down over and over with new arrivals. Once you reach surrender, there is some psychological space. And for the people who had access, there were really interesting shifts of perspectives and growth. One last thought here on the film: the six-hour shot of the bunk would be interrupted every few minutes by screaming over a loudspeaker. All day long, man. All day long.
SB: I’ve read that constant noise is the great unsung punishment. Screaming, crying, yelling between cells. The loudspeaker. Guards. Whistles. Singing. Moaning. Radio and television. The gibbering madness. Apparently the fluorescent lights do sometimes go off, but the noise never ends.
MW: Snoring, praying, puking. Earplugs are everything.
SB: Okay, so let’s try to confirm or debunk some of the obvious stereotypes. First off, how much physical danger did you feel you were in at any given time? Were you able to mind your own business, or were there conflicts?
MW: To be clear, the threat of violence in prison is very real. I’ve mentored guys who have been in maximum security institutions that have told me of incidents between guards and inmates, or inmates and inmates, that result in traumatic injury or death. However, I was in a women’s prison camp — the lowest security style of all the institutions. There was some fighting, but not much, and someone was usually quick to the scene to disperse the tension. It was usually a jealousy issue involving a love affair between inmates. Male and female psychology is different and the power dynamics could be insidious, but they were subtle. The most afraid I ever was for my physical safety was alone in an office with a male guard making sexual advances. Once with a male X-ray technician. Both times I held my own and managed to stay unharmed.
SB: That’s amazing that the worst threats came from a guard and not another inmate. Although I suppose unsurprising in the long run. Were there many female guards? Was there tension there as well? Also, is consensual sex just sort of accepted and ignored, or are there actual protocols to try and intervene?
MW: Shortly after I was released, four of the correctional officers at my prison were convicted. Which is really an amazing thing. Usually the women who complained (or had proof) would be moved to a different institution. That happened frequently during my stay. As far as consensual sex, there is technically no such thing. Once you are in custody, you lose all rights except the freedom to pray. This means that you, and your body, are owned by the government and you don’t have the right to consent. So all sex is illegal, but it is up to the particular institution how they want to manage it. Different prisons can be completely different depending on what the staff inside them chooses to focus on. Where I was held, catching women having sex was the Bastion of Justice. The officers would hide in bushes or dark windows doing nothing else but waiting to catch women kissing. They would come barging into the showers to see if we were in them alone. There was a “lesbian book” in the lieutenant’s office so they could monitor “known couples.” It was a bizarre world of total overkill. I’m still not sure how anyone was “protected” by all of that energy. And, of course, being humans and all, sex happened. The inefficacy of officer energies was maddening. Yes, there were female guards. And yes, there was tension there as well. Often more. Sometimes there were competitive vibes. The women were harsher. Quite a few of the guards were married to each other, causing a lot of uncomfortable dynamics between the officers and the inmates that their husbands would be most enamored with. So, for some inmates, they would be getting double the insult. Or would be inciting it.
SB: I have to ask, because a large number of people reading this are no doubt silently wondering: do you watch Orange is the New Black? If so, does it reflect your experience at all, or is it as completely full of shit as it often seems to me? (Even though, as entertainment, I enjoy it. At least parts of it.)
MW: Pal Joe Loya wrote this article after the first season of OITNB. I love what he says about prison being much more a home than a not-home, with as many different facets as a real family you didn’t choose. Having a criminal record in common is nearly as random as sharing DNA. You live with people you are forced to get along with, and the resulting surrender is a marvelous testament to human integration. So far I’ve seen two of the three seasons of the show. It’s even comforting in its realism. There is this whole thing I went through that no one I know understands, and when I watch that show it feels like a shared experience. Art is amazing that way. What surprises most people that ask me about it (and, yes, everyone asks me about it), is that the most ludicrous scenes that seem super Hollywood are the most realistic. Jenji Kohan took Piper Kerman’s book and really nailed it.
SB: Did you make connections/friendships with any of your fellow inmates that have lasted since you’ve been out? Do you still communicate with anyone inside?
MW: I don’t have anyone on the inside anymore. It’s been ten years since my release and people don’t stay that long in camps. I do count two people who I made really deep and lasting connections with. We’re all busy with life in different parts of the country, but we definitely stay in touch. The invention of Facebook has also been interesting. I have a pretty decent handful of people I did time with as friends there. It’s pretty interesting to see them pop up occasionally and be able to see what they’re up to. I always think, “Alumni!”
SB: How did your family react to your arrest and subsequent prosecution? Were they supportive during your prison time?
MW: That was pretty rough. They were supportive and outwardly very kind, but it wasn’t easy for them. The arrest was a year and a half after the crime and in that time I’d had a baby. He was only two months old. I went to prison another sixteen months after that, when he was a year and a half. The thought of leaving him was unimaginable. Actually leaving him was an amputation. His well-being trumped any real concern about mine, by both myself and my family, and that was fine. My mother took care of him the two years I was away. Many women’s children were shuffled into the foster care system and the horror stories are more than this paragraph can handle. My son was loved. I talked to him every day. My family brought him the twelve-hour drive three times for visits. The only negative comment from a family member was, “Well you’ve really ruined your life, haven’t you?” I answered, “It’s not over yet.”
SB: Do you feel guilty? I mean in the judicial sense. Did you commit a crime that warranted intervention by the State, and did you deserve to be imprisoned for it? Also, do you feel guilty in a more objective moral sense? Did your time in prison make you think differently about the risks and ethics of transporting 5000 tabs of ecstasy? Finally, are you, in any way, reformed?
MW: My incarceration is an insane outcome for my offense. The cost to my family and use of tax dollars when I was sober, healthy, working, and parenting, is unjustifiable. Drug laws are draconian and both racially and politically motivated. From a moral standpoint, I also feel no guilt. MDMA, like other pharmaceuticals and plant medications, have their place in social circulation. This creates a need for sophisticated conversations with my son, but I prefer that challenge to the rote collective narrative of “I made a mistake and got caught.” Life is more complex. Drug use is more complex. We all have something to learn from further investigation into our legal system. I had incredible reformations in prison. But most of that happened in spite of, rather than because of, the system in place. I was fortunate enough to access some quality psychological care, but I was one of a small handful of inmates that did. On account of the various ways that I am racially and culturally privileged, I was able to locate and engage what I wanted and needed.
SB: How much of your experience is part of your son’s life now? I never told anyone that my father worked at a prison, although in retrospect it seems like the kind of thing I might have done as a teenager to drum up some fake street cred. I don’t think I was ashamed, it just seemed like something that was none of anyone else’s business. It felt serious in a way that none of my friend’s father’s jobs were.
MW: Aidan has a few memories of visits, and remembers me coming home. He and I have been engaged in a conversation about the justice system that has become more sophisticated over the years. He understands things about drugs, drug laws, and incarceration that probably don’t come up for a lot of children. Part of that conversation has been navigating which parts of the story are mine, and which parts are his. It’s been my intention to help him articulate his experience as separate from mine to minimize any projected guilt or shame. I want him to feel free to tell that story and in order to do that, he needs to be able to fully articulate it. I’m pretty sure he tells friends selectively. He loves to come with me when I give talks, and once came to New York with me to talk to members of a start-up incubator for previously incarcerated people. And, someday, he will be more fully in a world where his people are more aware of things I’ve written on the Internet. So, yes, it’s a decent part of his life. It just has a pretty low charge if that makes any sense.
SB: How much does having a record impact your life now? Is there still some stigma in terms of finding work, or developing relationships? Do you get stopped at airports and questioned?
MW: More than I’d like it to. In addition to having some weird sensory input/PTSD from the whole experience, I have to check the felony box on just about every application in existence. It’s one of the primary reasons I’m self-employed. The process is really degrading. It’s also on all rental applications, which is a huge problem, especially in a tight housing market. I am also not allowed to travel many places where a visa, in addition to a passport, is required. Or, like Canada or Australia, an entry questionnaire that includes that felony question. There is some legislation to “ban the box” being passed around the country to protect applicants from what is, essentially, legalized discrimination, but there are still many places where my record is a legitimate factor of consideration despite the fact that I have completed my sentence. I don’t get stopped at airports, no. And when I get pulled over by the police there are no flags on my license or anything, thankfully. Interaction with law enforcement is always kind of traumatic.
SB: I had arguments (debates?) with several people after Michael Vick was released from prison. They were insistent that he not be allowed to play football ever again because of his involvement with a dog-fighting ring. It made them furious that he signed a multi-million dollar contract as soon as he was released. My contention was that a personal love of dogs is not a sufficient reason to be selectively outraged by one horrible crime, as opposed to nine dozen others. More importantly, if you believe in our justice system at all, and you go to bed every night without having picketed the latest execution, or working for overall reform, aren’t you obligated to trust that he was properly tried and sentenced? If Michael Vick served his term (which he did in full), why was he not now free to resume his life and career? The venality of his crime has no bearing on the options available to him in post-prison life. Or if it does, the system is not only a complete failure, but a sham.
MW: I’m absolutely on board with everything you said. This is actually a point that illustrates so many areas of injustice. Because the system is a complete failure and a sham. It’s selective. Michael Vick was allowed to resume his life because he is valuable to some white dude. Trust and believe it wouldn’t have been the case if he were “just” someone’s husband or father. Also, yes, he should be allowed that right. The problematic piece is that millions of others aren’t given the same right.
SB: On the cynical side, because he was still of use to rich owners, of course he was given options that almost no one else ever has. But the thing I couldn’t get across to those people was that Michael Vick isn’t a cartoon, he’s a man. He’s not the convenient link for a PETA pamphlet, or outraged tweet, he’s someone who did twenty-one months in Leavenworth, lost his contract and all his endorsements, and came out of jail bankrupt. A lot of people think he deserved exactly that, and I’m not arguing they’re wrong. The point is that if people think even a football star doesn’t deserve the ability to resume their life after “paying their debt to society,” what person does? And if that’s the case, all sentences are basically life sentences, no matter what your crime, because the discriminatory impediments placed in the way of anyone with a record almost ensures that they are unable to re-assimilate once released. Which, for people with no good options, nearly guarantees that they return to criminal behavior.
MW: I couldn’t agree more. Discriminatory impediments are real. The prison business model actually relies on a revolving door. Also, mob mentality is fascinating and an interesting topic that isn’t at all separate from why the impediments exist. It’s a nasty cycle of money, fear, and politics.
SB: When I was attending (pre-Internet) college, I didn’t watch television at all for close to three years. At the time I didn’t think anything about it, there was too much to read and study and be arty about instead. But after I left and moved to San Francisco, I had this bizarre sensation that things had passed me by. Music and movies and politics. Supreme Court decisions and tragedies and scandals. I wonder if you felt that way while in prison, that the world had forgotten about you, or was evolving in your absence. If so, did you sense it at the time, or only after your release?
MW: Yes. That happened. It was a weird sense of lost time. Like I’d been abducted or something. The further I got from the gates, the more surreal it all felt. Everything seemed so bright and strange and people were just carrying on as if nothing had even happened. They were buying so many things they didn’t need. Mostly the time stuff was centered around my kid. Birthdays and summers and firsts that were missed. My mother recorded so much of it for me on video. I imagined I would watch them over and over to consume the lost time, absorb what I missed back into my cells. But, here’s what’s weird: I didn’t. To this day I haven’t been able to stomach it. It wasn’t actually an empty space at all. My experience was anything but a void in my life or his. It seemed so much more useful to just pick up where I landed and carry on.
SB: Was there a noticeable technology gap?
MW: I got out before iPhone, right about when iPod 1G was released, so I managed to be out by the time things got super computerized in terms of pocket tech. And since I only spent two years inside, I didn’t have too much to catch up on. I know guys inside, through my work, who can barely conceptualize the Internet, let alone apps.
SB: Tell me about the day you were released.
MW: Waiting hours to be processed out then getting into my mother’s car and just driving away. We stopped so I could change clothes and the new clothes felt like the wrong skin. I drank a dozen chai lattes on the twelve hour drive home to her house, where I would stay with my son for the next year. Reuniting with him late in the night. He ran outside so fast he fell. I scooped him up, he buried his face in my neck until we were both drenched in each other’s sweat. “We don’t have to cry about missing each other anymore, Momma,” he said. “Now we can cry about other things.” My family looked at me and smiled a lot, but I didn’t really know what to say. What to ask. I felt like an animal and started to get a migraine. That night I showered without shoes on, and crawled into a bed so soft I couldn’t sleep. I curled up on the floor beside it. When I woke in the night, my boy was next to me, his back curved into my heartbeat. I wrapped the blanket around us both and we slept long into the next day.
SB: How long did it take you to feel like you were living a normal life again?
MW: I have been profoundly and permanently altered by the experience. I will never be normal. In some ways for the better, and in some ways I have to work extra hard to overcome. It took a pretty good chunk of time to feel comfortable doing basic adult things. The fabric of time is woven entirely differently inside than outside.
SB: Do you typically have a waiting period after meeting someone, either as a friend or romantically, to mention that part of you past?
MW: Since I write about it all over the internet and use it as base story for talks I give, it’s usually known pretty soon after meeting people if not before. It’s easier that way and I prefer it. Fuck it being some big announcement like telling people about an STI. I’m actually guilty of casually throwing it into conversation to create mystique and add street cred to my pretty basic-faced game.
SB: How often are you asked really stupid questions about it?
MW: I live in a bubble of really smart people. So, not often. I actually find most people are too scared to ask me anything about it. I kind of appreciate any and all questions. It gives me a chance to feel witnessed.