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Archive for September, 2017

Big News In Arizona. We’ve had a Presidential Pardon. It made international headlines and gave me a very bad dream. This Pardon brought back memories I can never forget.

On July 19, 2002, I entered my first jail, in Maricopa County, Arizona. I was a well-educated fifty-seven years old woman suddenly face to face with another world. I was afraid; I was shocked; I was very, very sad.

I was also very sick. In February I’d been diagnosed with stage 3B breast cancer and told my survival odds weren’t great. I’d already had six sessions of chemotherapy, with all the accompanied nausea. I wanted to curl up in a fetal position with a cozy blanket, soft pillows and crackers. Instead I got handcuffs, a thin plastic mattress, sickening food and vomiting.

The first time they handcuff you is a shock. Some guards make them so tight they cut into your flesh at every move. Shackles are worse. They serve their purpose; they restrict your steps and are heavy and cruel on bare ankles. The holding cells are filthy, and there are only hard concrete benches and one open toilet. At some odd hour, they bring baloney sandwiches, but no trash bag so everyone just piles the trash in a corner for the mice. Thirty-two women are crammed into an 8×12 tank. It’s desperately hot. There is no more room to sit or move so some women just stand, looking dazed. The theory is that this inhumane treatment will inspire people not to come back. It doesn’t work. It just succeeds in dehumanizing them so they have no dignity or hope left.

I was kept there for twenty hours, waiting to be processed. The noise, the heat, the smell, the meanness of the guards all contributed to a feeling of fear and despair. I didn’t know such a place could exist in the United States of America —  the beacon of civilization for the rest of the world. I didn’t want to believe that a human being could create this hell and others were willing to work in it.

Finally, we newbies were moved out to Estrella, the woman’s jail. There our clothes were taken, we were strip searched and given uniforms of black and white stripes. Then we were escorted to the dorms. I could feel the heat all the way down
the hall. When we walked through the door at the end, it felt like Dante’s Inferno. One hundred seventy-eight women in racks of bunks three tiers high.

Eight showers that didn’t drain and eight toilets, all without doors. One sheet, one thin blanket, no pillow allowed. One uniform, one bra, one pair of panties, one pair of socks. Anything else is contraband. Anything else is country club.

Everyone sweats and smells and struggles to stay clean. The evaporative coolers had been broken for two months. Mid-July and 115º outside, but no repairs in sight. Of course, office air conditioning was fixed quickly, and the offices were freezing.

The lights were kept low to ease the heat. Too dark to read, my only respite. Time felt upside down. The meals added to that. Two meals a day, always the same. Breakfast at mid-morning, always a sack with baloney, six slices of white bread, two slices of fake cheese, one old orange and crackers. In the late afternoon, 
dinner of unrecognizable mix and smell served on a brown tray. The windows were small and very high so there is no feeling of time.. Meals are irregular and time is twisted.

It felt like a 21st century concentration camp and, because of the heat, we were living in the ovens. Everyone in black and white stripes. Everything done to denigrate, debilitate and demoralize. It’s big business designed to create a revolving door of job security. Most inmates are poor. No one cares.  Once behind those walls, you become a distant memory to the world.

The first night in the dorm, one of my neighbors literally vomited her insides out all night long, completely ignored by the guards. Heroin withdrawal. I’d never heard such suffering and agony. How could anyone survive that?  It was my first exposure to drugs and I was horrified for her. But despite my inexperience with drugs, and with a huge age difference, the kindness of these drug-addicted women overwhelmed me.

These young women shared their meager possessions with a generosity unseen in the world I’d known. I was profoundly sad and frightened and they embraced and comforted me.

“Don’t worry. You’ll be safe. We respect our elders.”

I was there six months. The time was filled with sleeplessness, constant shaking, incessant noise, terror, the men in black and tears. I’m ashamed to say I cried enough to float the damned place away. Yet It’s Still There.  Add to that, nine indescribably rough trips to both court and the hospital, each one twenty-four hours of agony and exhaustion.

In the middle of this, I had my mastectomy. They told me I was the first woman to ever have a mastectomy while there. The medical staff didn’t really know what to do with me so they mostly did nothing. I’ve been a patient with cancer and an inmate with cancer. There is an ocean of difference between the two. The feelings of despair and loneliness were overwhelming until the women rallied around me. In that wretched, cruel, unfeeling place, these women comforted me and surrounded me with love. Society saw them as addicts, thieves, prostitutes and murderers. I saw them as victims of incredible violence, too often raped and beaten by  fathers, uncles, brothers, boyfriends, husbands and pimps. One woman told me she was glad she was there. She felt safe. Her husband and her son couldn’t touch her there or beat her up. At first, I thought she was an anomaly but she wasn’t. There were so many like her.

I can never forget those women whom society shuns and ignores. I can never forget that place. When THE PARDON was announced, all those memories flooded back, as vivid as if it was yesterday. Ironically, I remember that time more clearly than the morning my beloved husband died. The noise, the clanging doors, the jingle of chains, the terror of the men in black, the intimidation, cruelty and horror of the place all came flooding back.

It was created with pride by “the toughest sheriff in the country.”  Not only did this man and his crew terrorize our Latino population, violating a court order in doing so, his lack of basic human decency caused the death of too many inmates and racked up millions of dollars in law suits paid for by tax payers who didn’t seem to mind and continued to vote for him. . .until they didn’t. And now we are here, looking at a man found guilty of only a criminal misdemeanor, only that. So many crimes against humanity, heart-breaking and unconscionable. Yet they cannot be attributed only to him; the staff, the guards, the voters are also culpable. There is blood on the hands of everyone who cheered him on. And now he has been pardoned.

I thought I would feel more, more pain and more outrage. Instead I feel nothing except a great sadness for all the people who have experienced his hell. But I won’t let his cruelty destroy my hopeful heart. There is no hope for him and people like him. There is, however, hope for our world if passionate, clear-minded people pay attention, speak out and work for change. “Enough is Enough.” Enough denigration, humiliation, cruelty and lack of accountability.  Our country is better than that. We are better than that.

To those who read this and feel the need to attack me and defend the sheriff, first remember America is the Incarceration Nation. One in three Americans now has a criminal record. We incarcerate more people than Russia or China! It’s easier than you imagine. Our jails and prisons are indeed over-populated with minorities, but that is changing with the opioid crisis. We are criminalizing everything and you could be next. Then suddenly you’re inside in black and white stripes, and you are horrified, outraged and very empathetic. Funny how that works.

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