They say that God doesn’t give us anything more than we can handle. If that’s true, then I must be stronger than I thought because I don’t know if I can survive this Hell. I lie awake at night praying that this is a dream; that I will wake up and find myself back in my dorm room stressing about my upcoming exam in Statistical Analysis. I would welcome that anxiety right about now. But it will never come. At least not for 11 months, 17 days, 6 hours, 22 minutes….. My name is Jaime York. I am 19 years-old and currently incarcerated in a local women’s prison serving a two year sentence on charges of drug possession with the intent to distribute. The first few months I was here I tried to think of what I could have done to prevent this. What if I had not answered the phone that night? What if I had been honest and said I didn’t feel like going out? What if…? What if…? These questions are useless. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The night that changed my life forever was in late October, a week before Halloween, and I had planned to spend my night sequestered in my dorm room cramming for three exams I had the following week. I had just come home and taken a hot shower, slipped into my sweats and a cup of licorice tea when the phone rang. It was Jordan, begging me to go with her to an “awesome party” that Mark, her latest crush, had invited her to. I should have said no.
Jordan has been my best friend since we were five, and our nickname was “JJ” because we were joined at the hip. We grew up in school together and it was just a natural assumption that we would go to the same college. Jordan was a little more sheltered than I was growing up, and in our first week of school, I saw a side of her that I never knew existed. She dressed differently, partied hard, and frequently experimented with drugs. But she was my best friend and I would do anything for her, and her for me – or so I thought. I now know that my best friend sacrificed me for her own freedom and the sad thing is, she would probably do it again.
I met Jordan at the party as promised and the moment I walked in the door I could see immediately that this was not a good idea. The awful stench of cigarettes and marijuana filled the air and empty beer and liquor bottles covered the tables. On the dance floor, I could see pills passing back and forth between couples and my zombie-like classmates finding it difficult to stand on their own two feet. Jordan and Mark were sitting in the corner with their feet propped on a small coffee table covered in white powder; they were both high – I could tell – and if I’d had the nerve, I would have turned around and walked out. But I didn’t; I walked over, and tried to do my best to fit in with this new phase of Jordan’s life. I’ve always been a follower, not once have I ever been a leader, and when Jordan begged me to try the cocaine, when she told me it would give us something else to share, the child in me, the one longing for approval, gave in.
I heard the sirens, but didn’t react. It was bedlam as everyone ran for the door; Jordan grabbed me and I heard her yelling, “Where’s your car? J, where’s your car?” Mark was gone, and Jordan and I ran to my car and jumped in. As I put the car in reverse, a police car pulled up behind me preventing me from moving. The officer jumped out of his car, gun in his hand, and screamed, “Out of the car! Hands in the air!” We did as we were told, raised our hands and watched as the officer walked toward us. The metal clink of the handcuffs frightened me and it was at that point I realized what was happening. When my car was searched, I knew it would be okay – I had nothing in there except a few empty water bottles and candy wrappers. When the officer opened my glove box and pulled out three Ziploc bags full of white powder, I was dumbfounded. I looked at Jordan – and saw a tear falling from her eye as she mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
We were taken to the local jail that night and held until we could be arraigned the next day. We were fingerprinted, photographed and strip-searched and placed in a ten by ten cell with about twenty other people. Jordan never spoke to me, never looked at me and I spent that night curled up in the corner of the cell crying; I didn’t sleep, I watched and prayed and begged God to be with me. Looking back on that night, I think a part of me thought I would get through this one night, be released and go back to my life. I had never been in trouble before, and usually with a first offense, any punishment was minimal – or so I thought. As I watched Jordan stand before the judge the next day and receive a fine and community service, I was hopeful. I prayed that I would be as lucky. But because we were caught in my car and the drugs were in my glove compartment, it was me who was sent to prison. It was me who was sentenced to two years in this hellhole.
I was no longer Jaime York; my new name was D37645 and I would be known by that name for the next two years. The night I was brought to my new home, I and the other ten women on the van with me were taken to a room filled with a dozen or so showers. There was no privacy in this room; the stalls had no doors, the showers were filthy, and the guards in the room never took their eyes off of us. We were told to take off all our clothes and place them in the paper bags on the table. All rings, necklaces, watches, even dentures were to be removed and placed in the bag. I saw one women, probably in her sixties, with worn leathery skin, weighing ninety pounds soaking wet, open her mouth and remove a plate that contained her two front teeth. I could tell she had been here before, and she must have felt me staring because she turned and grinned at me showing her worn, red gums. I quickly looked away.
We were given five minutes to shower and were told we would be subjected to a full body cavity search. As I pulled the chain above me to release the trickle of cold water, I thought of the small but cozy bathroom in my dorm – it wasn’t much but it was mine and I could close the door whenever I wanted and escape from the world for just a little while. But there was no escape for me now.
If you have never been through a body cavity search, fall to your knees right now and thank God – or whomever you happen to pray to. I’ve heard the term on my favorite police shows, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have to live through it. The snap of the rubber gloves as the guards get ready, make me think that they enjoy this process a little bit too much. They were all male guards, and I could see in their eyes that this was their favorite part of the day. As we got out of the shower, the guards told us to line up along the white chalk line on the floor. We did as we were told, and as the guard approached us we were told to bend over and spread our legs. I became part of an assembly line as one guard conducted the anal search, followed by another who searched me vaginally. The smell of alcohol permeated the air and when the guard finished with me, I wretched and threw up right in front of him. “Clean it up,” I was told, as a roll of paper towels was thrown at me. It took me a long time as I realized that in addition to cleaning my vomit on the floor, I was also wiping up my own tears.
The cell I was taken to, my home for the next two years, was six foot by six foot with a cot bolted to one side of the wall and a metal sink and toilet bolted to the other. The mattress on the bed was less than an inch thick and the sheets and towels they gave me were nasty and smelled of mold. The door to my cell slammed shut and the guard’s voice was monotone as he gave me the schedule I would be forced to live by while I was here. “Wake up is at six a.m., meals are at seven, twelve and six. Get there on time or you don’t eat. You will be working laundry detail Monday, Wednesday and Friday and kitchen detail on Tuesday and Thursday. Group meetings for drug and alcohol abuse are held on Saturday and Sunday and you will be required to attend a minimum of two each week. Lights out at ten p.m.” As he turned and walked away, I yelled, “I don’t belong here! I’m not a drug abuser!” The guard turned on his heels and looked at me in a way I will never forget. He shook his head and said, “then why did you have cocaine in your car?” He stared at me, as though he was waiting for an answer he knew I didn’t have, and as he walked away, I curled up on the bare mattress and cried myself to sleep.
There were very few female guards in this prison and the ones we did have were rarely assigned to our block. I learned very quickly that the guards control our every move and you must do what you are told, no questions asked. On my third night here, as I and the other inmates were being escorted back to our cells, I was pulled out of line by the same guard that searched me when I first arrived. “Where are you taking me?” I asked. He didn’t answer, but escorted me to a room with a small cot and a chair. As I was taken away, I heard the other women snicker, for they knew what was in store for me. I was pushed into the room, as he turned and locked the door and took off his belt. I backed away from him, crying and begging him to stop, but all he could say was, “I need to complete your body cavity search.” He raped me over and over again that night, and when I was finally taken back to my cell, I was broken and bloody. This guard never realized what he took from me that night; I was a virgin when I walked through these doors, but not anymore. I learned later, that all the women faced this type of initiation, and that each guard earned points for the number of women they “had.” So far, my guy was in the lead.
It’s funny how quickly you learn prison lingo. I never imagined a whole other language existed behind these walls and you quickly realize you have to talk the talk or be alienated. After my first few weeks in prison, I was put into the “gen pop”, i.e., general population and when I wasn’t working or attending meetings I was allowed outside in the yard with the other inmates. I was one of many “base heads” – cocaine addicts – in this facility and as I walked through the yard each day I realized I could tell what each person’s crime was by the area of the yard they stood in. I and the other base heads would hang out in a corner on the far side of the yard. Those into “chiva” – heroin – would be on the other side, and those whose drug of choice was “crank” – methamphetamine – would be in the middle. The trick to surviving is pretending like you belong here; never show fear or weakness. The other inmates prey on that and I’ve witnessed it first-hand. That’s how I was “introduced” to Martha. She was in the yard that first day and saw the look in my eyes as I got off the van. I was “fresh meat” and it was she who continued my initiation into prison life.
The other inmates did her bidding, and knew it was the norm for her to single out someone new. They ignored my black eyes and bloody lips and my difficulty walking, as they were thankful it wasn’t them. I belonged to Martha for the first few weeks I was there, and I, too was thankful when the prison van pulled up with a new load of prisoners, and she moved on to someone else. I see Martha in the yard every day now, and she doesn’t bother me anymore; I suppose because I survived.
I don’t know if there is such a thing as a model prisoner, but I tried my best to be one. I did what I was told, mostly out of fear, and attended my required meetings. I think the meetings were the scariest part, as all of the women in that room were hard core drug users. These women would sell their first born for a fix and one of them actually admitted to giving her daughter to her dealer for a night just so she could get a hit. I was repulsed; I was not like these women, I was different – I knew I was. But not in the eyes of the shrink who ran the meetings. To her, I was just another junkie serving my time. These meetings are supposed to rehabilitate us, and make us fit for society, but in all honesty, if I was a drug user, all the meetings taught me was other ways to get high. I worked days in the laundry or kitchen, depending on the day, and my nights were spent in my cell or in the “tv room”. The “lifers” were in control of the television and we were forced to watch what they did – mostly sports shows and news programs. The only thing that helped me stay sane was knowing that I would not be spending the rest of my life here and that one day I would be going home – wherever that might be.
It is now the night before I’m due to be released – early parole they call it, and as happy as I am to get out of here, I am equally scared to be going home. At my hearing, I was told I was being released into the custody of my parents and would be required to live with them and obtain “gainful employment.” For the next year, I am forbidden to drink, be around drugs, or associate with anyone who is around drugs. I must report to my parole officer twice a week, I can be tested for drugs at any time, and if I fail, I will be sent back to prison. As I sit here in my cell, I realize that my life is no longer my own, and hasn’t been for a long time. For the next year, at least, my life belongs to the state and it is they who will dictate my actions.
What scares me the most is facing my parents; I’m ashamed of my time here and what I have put them through. As much as I hate this place, I’d almost rather spend the last year of my sentence here than to see the look in my mother’s eyes. Mom and Dad barely made it through high school and I was supposed to be the first one in my family to go to college. Because of my felony conviction, I was “asked to leave” campus and now at twenty years old, with only a high school diploma and my record, I have to face the outside world. I guess it’s true that you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone.
The next morning, the guard responsible for my “initiation” comes to my cell and brings me a large paper bag. Inside are the clothes I was wearing the night I was arrested. He tells me I have five minutes to change and gather my things. The clothes I wore that night now hang loosely on my body as I have lost quite a bit of weight this last year. The guard comes back for me, unlocks my cell and escorts me to the administration building to have me processed out. As we walk, I see all the women who came before me, and those who came after, and I can actually sympathize with them as they face the days to come. Many of them will spend the rest of their lives behind these walls and never see their families again. For the first time, I have hope.
I am given an envelope with $25.00 and placed on the same van that brought me here. I am taken to a bus stop a few miles away to catch the bus that will take me to the home I grew up in. I spend most of the two hour drive staring out the window; as we get closer to my home town, I see how much has changed while I’ve been gone. It was then that I pulled out my purse that was taken from me that night. My wallet had been brand new so long ago, but now it had a musty smell and a few cobwebs in the fold. The first face that I see when I open it is Jordan’s. I pull out the picture she gave me our senior year in high school and on the back is written, “To J, my BFF. When we are old and gray, we will make it through the day, as long as we have each other. Love always, J.” My tears began to fall on her sweet face, and as angry as I was with her for what happened that night, I miss her so much. Jordan is gone now. She was found in an alley a few months ago with a needle in her arm and her pants around her ankles. The police believe she was killed by her dealer, but because she was just another junkie, they didn’t work too hard to close the case. She’s at peace now and the saddest part, is that she had to die to find it. Even after the hell I have lived through this last year, I now realize that I am the lucky one.
As the bus pulls into the station, I look for my parents, hoping and praying that they are there waiting for me. I don’t see them when I get off the bus, and I wander to the front of the terminal in the hopes that I see their faces. As I reach the door there is a tap on my shoulder, and I turn around and look into my father’s eyes. He gathers me in his arms and holds me so tight I can hardly breathe. I hear him tell me it will be okay. My mother is coming up behind him and she, too puts her arms around me and squeezes me tight. Any fear I had about facing them was wiped away in that moment as I realized no matter what I did in my life, I would always be their little girl.
I have been out of prison for six months now and each day gets a bit easier. I managed to get a job at a local bookstore, courtesy of my mother’s friendship with the owner. Each day as I get ready for work, I realize that I truly am a survivor. I’ve never spoken about my time in prison, although my parents have tried to talk to me about it. I think a part of them know what I went through, but they honor my wishes. Life after prison is in some ways harder than the time itself. The looks I received from the people I used to know almost broke me, and I have had to rely on my own strength to get me through. For the last few weeks, I have been volunteering at the local youth shelter and it is my goal to help these kids get on the right path. In a strange way, they help me too, for I see myself so long ago, in their faces. I still go through weekly check-ins with my parole officer and I know that it is neither his responsibility nor that of the prison to prepare me for the outside world. It is mine and one I welcome with hope.