Goldilocks Goes to Jail, Part IV — Broomsticks & Bibles

    Part of a continue series of posts sharing my recollections of the time I went to jail for 24 hours as a journalist…

    By the time the lunch trays have been cleared away, the thaw I sensed has frozen over again. Most inmates ignore me, but the one who yelled at me for sitting in her chair — Ms. Fat Bottom — tosses me a few angry glances, her friends doing the same.

    While they go back to talking, the TV drones on.

    “Shut the fuck up!” one of the TV watchers shouts. “We can’t hear!”

    “Fuck you!” one of the women at the table shouts back.

    That’s what I like to see—people listening to one another and working together for the common good.

    I start to notice things I hadn’t noticed before, perhaps because my adrenaline level has settled down a bit. One of the cells remains closed, a woman periodically looking out the window at the rest of us. Some inmates stay in their cells with the door open, talking. Somewhere, one of the women is crying.

    Then the woman to whom I confessed my homicidal tendencies jumps up from her spot in front of the TV and begins pacing the dayroom, an angry look on her face, seeming to talk to herself. Actually, she is talking to herself. I hope for her sake that it’s a good conversation.

    Then the door to the unit opens and a young woman with long brown hair walks in, her arms full of personal items.

    “Hey! I thought you were out of here!” one of the women calls to her.

    She laughs. “I thought I was, too. Got picked up last night.”

    Squeals go up from a few of the other women, who seem delighted to have their once-free friend back in the pokey with them.

    This strikes me as patently absurd, and something of my feelings must show on my face.

    “They’re friends,” says an older woman, who appears at my side.

    Yeah, I got that part. What I don’t understand is why they’re happy to see her, rather than bummed for her sake.

    The older woman, who says her name is Renee, asks me why I’m there.

    I give up the murder ploy and, in keeping with my new vocabulary, say, “Just some shit.”

    She accepts that and tells me she’s waiting for a spot in the state women’s prison. It seems she’d once been a registered nurse but had gotten in the habit of writing prescriptions for narcotics for herself — a serious felony. She’s already served a couple of years in prison, she tells me. She was out on parole until she tested hot on a UA, a situation she blames on her father, who used to sexually abuse her and who drove her to drink this past Thanksgiving when he showed up at her door. I can tell it’s upsetting for her, and I wonder if that’s why she was taking narcotics.

    I listen to her story, walking with her as she makes her way to the upper level. We sit on the floor, looking down at the dayroom below. While she talks, a guard comes in and opens what looks like a broom closet. And inside is, indeed, a broom, but it is padlocked in place.

    “Why is the broom locked up?” I ask.

    “Broomstick parties,” she answers.

    “Broomstick parties?” I’ve never heard the term before.

    “That’s where a bunch of women gang up on someone they hate and rape her with the broom handle.”

    For a moment I really can’t say anything, the image in my mind so revolting I don’ know what to think. I’ve heard of male inmates assaulting each other, but never female inmates.

    “That could kill a woman,” I say when I find my tongue again.

    “Yes,” she says, explaining that lifers especially get away with that kind of thing.

    I am appalled.

    Then from beneath us, a young woman is led forward by two guards. She’s very young and wearing four-piece restraints, her wrists and ankles in shackles.

    Before I can ask, Renee tells me that the girl is 17 and that she was brought in on a minor offense, but was now facing several major felonies after going berserk one afternoon and beating the crap out of guard. She was now on lockdown, free to leave her cell for only an hour each day. I think of the cell that was closed and the shadow I saw inside the window and realize that this is the person I saw.

    “She jumped on the guard’s back and just started pounding on her,” Renee says.

    “Why?” I ask.

    “No one knows.”

    The young woman looks around, says hi to a few people and is led toward what I now realize is a shower. I stare. The shower is visible to everyone on the upper tier.

    The guard leads her through a door that looks like a saloon door in an old Western movie — a door that might as well not be there — unlocks her restraints and then steps aside to give her the four minutes she’s allowed to wash her naked self.

    From all around come the sound of catcalls and shouts, as some of the other women gather on the balcony to watch.

    “I don’t think I’ll take a shower,” I say, blown away by the sight and sound of women acting like frat boys.

    “After a while you don’t mind it,” Renee tells me, laughing at some of the more outrageous calls of “hubba-hubba.”
    I look at the broomstick and can’t find it in me to feel amused at all.

    * * *

    The afternoon drifts on. The young woman is now back in her cell, her hour of mobility passed. Then the red door opens again and a guard shouts, “Bible study!”

    “What’s that about?” I ask, watching as a handful of women line up near the door, as if they think they’re going somewhere.

    “Bible Betty,” Renee tells me. “Let’s go.”

    If it means getting a break from the boredom and noise of the women’s unit for a while, I’m all for it.

    We head down the stairs and join the line, and soon we’re locked inside what looks like a conference room — a big table surrounded by chairs. But this conference room is surrounded by walls of Plexiglas. The air is fresher and much, much quieter. A nervous tension I hadn’t realized I was holding inside seeps away.

    Across the table from me sits a little woman with a strong Texas accent. She welcomes the women by name, then looks at me.

    “What’s your name, honey?”

    “Pamela,” I say.

    “Hi, Pam,” she says. “Pam is here because she wants to learn about God.”

    Actually, I’m there because I’m a journalist, but I don’t say this.

    Betty’s hands are gnarled by arthritis. With fingers that can’t straighten, she opens an envelope and begins sorting out crosses made of crocheted string that she herself has made for the inmates. The women, most of whom are in their twenties, squeal with delight.

    “Who wanted the pink one?” Betty asks. “What about the blue and white one?”

    Soon the crosses are distributed and placed in envelopes with the women’s names on them. Unable to take them back to the unit with them, the women will have to wait until the guards inspect the little crosses before they’re distributed.

    A black cross laced with green, blue, yellow and red string is left over. Betty puts in an envelope for me.

    She gives the women updates about friends in other facilities.

    “Cindy’s doing much better,” she says, referring to a woman who’d recently shot and killed her allegedly abusive husband. I remember the headlines, remember the articles in the newspaper, none of which I’d written. “She’s getting the help she needs.”

    The women constantly interrupt Betty and one another, often not even following the train of conversation, their energy strangely frenetic. But nothing seems to irritate Betty. She remains patient and jovial long after I want to shout, “Shut up!”

    Then Betty passes out paper and pencils and asks us to outline our hands. Feeling like I’m in first grade again, I do as she asks. Then she tells us to write a reference from the Bible on each finger, distributing various Bible verses written on note cards. As the inmates work on this project, they begin to settle down, some of the tension dissolving into camaraderie. And I realize that they need this time as much to get a respite from one another as they do relief from boredom.

    “I know you don’t have a lot while you’re in here,” Betty says as the lesson draws to a close. “But you do have hands. And when you’re sitting around and you see your hands, I want you to pray.”

    The thought of human beings reduced to having only hands to divert themselves strikes me suddenly as very tragic. My throat tightens, and I find myself fighting tears. Betty asks us to fill out index cards with the names of people we’d like her to pray for. Pretending to be engrossed in my own handwriting, I blink the tears away and write down the names of my two sons.

    Then the lesson is over. Betty gives everyone a hug and tells them she won’t be back for two weeks. The disappointment this brings is palpable. Then the guards lead us back across the hallway and in through the red door again, locking it behind us.

    [To be continued…]

    For more on my time in jail or on Unlawful Contact, my April 1 release which was inspired by a decade of reporting on prisons, go to, or search this blog.

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