FLUFFY WAS A surprise. An aging seventies throwback with piles of teased blond hair and too much makeup, she was older than Denise Russell, past her prime perhaps, and sad, but not frightening, not threatening at all. Denise had never been in prison before. Thirty-two years old, with long dark hair, high cheekbones, and the kind of body that only rigorous exercise can maintain, she’d expected to be confronted by the kind of crazed and violent criminals she had always seen portrayed on TV. But Fluffy had been helpful when Denise first moved into her cell. Motherly almost. She had explained, if in a sometimes showy, desperate way, how Denise should store her papers and valuable canteen snacks in the lockable one-foot cubby, and how to climb up onto the top bunk by straddling the pull-out chair and then leaping onto the corner of their shared metal desk. Originally designed for one, the ninety-square-foot cells had long served as doubles. There wasn’t enough room for a ladder.
Every once in a while Fluffy did manage to startle Denise with a sudden burst of frantic exuberance. She sang hippie love tunes off-key and belly-danced around their cell and out onto the unit itself, down the corridor to the officer’s glass-walled office, or “bubble” as it was known, and around the airless dayroom. Most of Fluffy’s time, though, was spent lying around on her bunk, watching soap operas and dreaming of her triumphant return to Han Lan’s, the divey Chinese restaurant where she’d ruled the roost before being sent away on a three-year mandatory for drugs. Her stories about the place were long and often dull, but as long as Denise indulged them the two managed to share their cell with relative ease. Fluffy was kind, that was the thing. Open-hearted. Denise had known women like her all her life.
Life in a women’s prison was full of surprises like this. Not that MCI-Framingham was a pleasant place to be. The housing units were crowded, dark, and noisy, and the aimless vacuum of daily life there often made you want to curl into yourself on your thin little bunk up close to the ceiling and cry. But it was nothing, nothing like Denise thought it would be. There were the locks, of course—including, most impressively, the one to her own cell—to which she would never hold a key. And there were the guards and continually blaring intercoms, which controlled the smallest minutiae of her everyday life. There were full, bend-over-and-cough strip searches both before and after a visit, and random urine checks, and cell searches, called raids, which left her prison-approved personal items (mostly letters and drawings from her son, Patrick) scattered all over the floor. She’d heard there were punishment cells too. Dismal, solitary cages with nothing but a concrete bed and a seatless toilet, to which women sometimes disappeared for months.
Despite all this, Framingham seemed more like a high school than a prison. Some of the guards were rougher than teachers would ever be, of course. Dressed in quasi-military uniforms and calf-length black leather boots, a few also flaunted their power, making irrational demands simply because they could. For the most part, though, Denise found it easy to keep out of their way. No, it was the inmates, not the guards, who reminded her of her days at Wecausset High—as did the unfamiliar experience of being with so many women. Framingham girls were older, and so lacked the freshness that graced even the plainest girls back at Wecausset. They were tougher too. Some had scars stretching across cheeks, jagging up from lips, or curved around their necks. Others, when they smiled, revealed the telltale toothlessness of crack addiction. But the overwhelming majority were mothers, as well, their walls decorated not, as she’d imagined, with images of muscle-bound men but with photos of their kids and sheets of construction paper scrawled over with crayon—valentines and birthday and Christmas cards saved year after year.
There were some unsavory types, and a smattering of women who seemed plausibly threatening. But even the handful in for murder looked more defeated than frightening. Most were long-term victims of domestic abuse who had killed their spouses, and though one or two of them did have an unnerving deadness to their eyes, they pretty much kept to themselves. Lifers, like everyone else at Framingham, were a cliquey lot, by turns supportive and undermining in the manner of, well, high school girls. As a group, they sat firmly at the top of the hierarchy—no matter how meek they appeared, they were, after all, in for murder—while the real social maneuvering took place in an ever-shifting universe of less powerful cliques beneath them.
There were the popular girls, who tended to be prettier than the rest and confidently rule-abiding at Framingham; the repeat offenders; the “intellectual” college crowd; the rabble-rousers; the hard workers; the butches; the femmes; and the group of untouchables—baby beaters mostly—whom nobody wanted anything much to do with. Most of these groups were self-segregated along racial lines, but those in parallel ranks often intermingled. Popular black women like Charlene Williams, a mother serving fifteen years for her first (nonviolent) drug offense, spent a lot of time with Marsha Pigett, a striking redhead and longtime victim of domestic abuse who was also in for drugs and who pretty much ran, for a time, the popular white set. The language barrier often made things more difficult for what everyone called “the Spanish women,” but they too were measured and graded and sorted into type, and a handful of Dominicans, Central Americans, and, separately, Puerto Ricans shared the ability to break free from stereotype and mix it up with the in crowd.
At first, none of this was clear to Denise. For months she could not tell the difference between a potential ally and a troublemaker when they stood next to her in line for meals, or for count, or for what they called “movement,” which were the only times in the day inmates were allowed to walk from one area of the prison to another. Besides, she wasn’t that interested. She didn’t belong there, she still believed. It was just as good to subsist quietly in the small shadow cast by Fluffy and to cradle there as much of her old life as possible.
But roommates are just one of the myriad things over which inmates have no control. While violence is the main concern in a male prison, at Framingham it is the creation of intimacy that most worries the authorities. For this reason, the population is kept fluid. Women are not allowed, officially, to hold the same job for more than six months, and roommates are routinely moved around.
So it was that one day Fluffy was gone, replaced by an elderly, drug-addled woman, the kind who steals extra chicken from the dining hall by hiding it in her bra, and who then pulls it out sometime later in the day to eat in her cell. Her name was Sonia, and like so many women in Framingham, she was a heroin addict serving time for drugs. Sonia’s age made her seem more damaged than most—she was old and worn both inside and out. Denise tried hard to be nice at first, leaping to her feet to help like the obedient grandchild she had, in fact, always been. But after a couple of weeks Sonia’s fragility began to wear her down and the reality of her own powerlessness in prison began, at last, to congeal.
IT HAD TAKEN a surprisingly long time for this to happen. The first few weeks had been terrible, of course, frightening and degrading and completely unnerving. “Just try to imagine it,” she told me. “Everything was gone. My son, my home, my family, my car, my friends, my cigarettes, my alcohol, my drugs, my clothes, my makeup, my dishes, my paintings, my socks, my glasses, my bills, my life—not to mention my dignity and my self-esteem (which wasn’t much anyways) . . . everything.”
She could see, however, that in a way the shock and anxiety of it all had protected her back then too. One minute she’d been at home, packing her son Pat’s brand-new Nintendo and his smart new clothes into the case he’d bring with him to her mother-in-law’s house, the next she was inmate number F24447, being stripped naked, checked for STDs, and asked if she felt depressed by someone in a uniform on the other side of a desk. This last question seemed the cruelest of all because it wasn’t as if she cared, the nurse or whoever she was. She didn’t even look up from the checklist in front of her when she asked. And how was Denise supposed to feel anyway, facing five years and a day in this place?
She cried all night, every night, that first week. She didn’t know, yet, how expensive collect-call rates were from prison, so she spent hours on the phone with her mother and her son, and endlessly marched around the yard, the headphones of her prison-bought Walkman tuned to heavy metal because she knew enough, even then, to stay away from anything in the least bit emotional. It only made her cry.
Then, two weeks after she’d arrived in August, just as her fixed daily routine had begun to numb her, three correctional officers unlocked the door to her room in the middle of the night. “Denise Russell? Denise Russell?” they asked, shining their flashlights in her face, so that even before she was fully awake, she knew something terrible had happened.
Silently the officers escorted her down linoleum-tiled corridors and through clanking metal doors to the Health Services Unit. There a nurse asked her to sit down, then told her that her son had just threatened to kill himself. He’d walked into her mother-in-law’s living room with a knife, she said. They needed her permission to have him admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
Pat was her little just-nine-year-old boy, and right then he was in the admitting room of a state-run psychiatric hospital up in Maine someplace, while she, his mother, was in the Health Services Unit of MCI-Framingham, flanked by guards, and hundreds of miles away. Someone passed her a phone, and she found herself speaking to a nurse up in Maine who tried to assure her that Pat would be well taken care of. Denise felt that she had no choice. She gave her permission for him to be admitted, handed the receiver back to the prison nurse, who had a few words with her counterpart in Maine, and then hung it back in its cradle. After that there was nothing to do. It was hard to fully conceive of, but there was nothing in the world Denise could do then to help her son. She felt like throwing up.
Time slowed after that. She no longer marched around the yard—even that much activity threw her impotence into glaring relief. Sometimes she held her breath. She called her mother. She called her father. Then she called her mother again, over and over, because it was a terrible place where they had Pat, she was discovering. The prison wouldn’t let her visit, of course, but they did allow her to call once a week, and Pat almost always came to the phone sobbing. He missed her. That was all, he said. And he worried about her and he’d even tried to come and find her, but they put him in restraints when he did that—in four-point restraints, he said.
The messages she got from her own parents didn’t help. Her mother went to visit and came back horrified; her father told her he thought it looked like a fine place. Neither was able to take Patrick in. They had both remarried and had their own lives to lead. Patrick’s father, Alan, was willing to have him, but Denise couldn’t even begin to think about the consequences of that. Alan was a lunatic—a self-styled Christian with a history of violence and manic depression. And besides, he’d moved to Hawaii the year before, and Denise would lose all contact with Patrick if he moved out there.
She took the pills that Psychiatric Services had prescribed and tried to sleep. But she’d known something like this would happen, that was the thing. She’d done her best to avert it. She’d set up her mother-in-law’s house as best she could with a TV, a VCR, and a brand-new Super Nintendo she’d bought for Pat with some of the proceeds of the furniture sale she’d held before “going away.” She’d even arranged his Beanie Baby collection, creature by creature, so he’d feel more or less at home in his new room. But what, really, could she do to make up for her sudden and disastrous absence? Pat was nine. His mother was in prison. His father was in Hawaii. He was, suddenly, unprotected. She took more pills.
THIS WAS THE nature of life in prison, Denise knew now, having to shut down whole parts of yourself, to compartmentalize. Over 60 percent of the women at Framingham were on some kind of psychotropic drug to help with this process. And though this internal division of the self into a series of solitary, isolated cells seemed like a further incarceration, it was, for some, the only way they could begin to tolerate their complete impotence in the world.
Most, it has to be said, had spent their lives reaching for medication at the first sign of discomfort. Across the nation more than nine out of ten incarcerated women are drug addicts, and a full half are
actually drunk or high at the time of their arrest. The addicts in
Framingham divide into two main camps, the crackheads and the smackheads, and there is very little difference in the way they detox in prison. Unless you’re pregnant, when the stress to the baby is deemed too dangerous, you go cold turkey. Framingham has two entire wards for women who come in high. Each year, nine hundred women use these twenty-nine beds to get clean. The rooms reek of the vomit and the green liquid feces they release in all-night convulsions, along with the last traces of drugs from their bodies. Residence in these wards is so dreaded, in fact, that women in the know do everything they can to avoid being placed in them, and there are often one or two inmates in the mainstream residential units detoxing on their own. Sometimes there are illegal drugs in Framingham too, but very rarely, nowhere near enough to sustain an addiction, and mostly the women are forced to make do with fermented Jell-O juice when they want to get high. Wine, they called it. Jell-O wine.
FOR THE FIRST few weeks Denise allowed herself to believe that the outside world was still her realm. Frantic in confinement, she somehow managed to stand for inmate count four times a day, to march through corridors at the appointed times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and to sit down quietly on her bed as she was locked into her room every night. But somewhere deep down, she persisted in believing that this mindlessly repetitive and passive routine was only some kind of dream, or mistake, or bizarre experiment even, that would end soon, prompting everyone to step out of their roles and smile, perhaps just a little bit abashed by all they had subjected her to, before sending her on her way.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A World Apart by Cristina Rathbone. Copyright © 2005 by Cristina Rathbone. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.