Friday, May 10, 2013

BAD AND GOOD NEWS



THE BAD AND GOOD NEWS: THE POWER OF NAMING

Current heated arguments about background checks as part of gun control have added to the already muddied thinking about those labeled “the mentally ill.” My concern here is not about gun control. It’s about the prevalence of stigmatizing language. When speaking of “the mentally ill,” pundits and others fall into what is, at best, careless language, at worst mean spirited attacks. Some try to soften their language by adding “dangerously” as a modifier.” Others qualify their stereotypes by referring to people “deemed” dangerously mentally ill, that is, those given an official psychiatric label. This unholy marriage of popular misconception and professional power may have dire consequences for those who are stigmatized that way.

The power of the “mental illness” industry, specifically the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) joins with the insurance industry, which makes it impossible for most people to find affordable psychotherapy. Paula Caplan’s voice (http://www.paulajcaplan.net/) is one of the few raised against the DSM system. Her 1995 book, They Say You’re Crazy: How the World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal,” is still the most valuable guide to all that’s wrong with the DSM. From inside the system Caplan describes it’s many deficiencies, providing examples of its unscientific processes and biased judgments, especially damaging to women.
SO WHAT’S THE GOOD NEWS? As the DSM goes into its fifth edition, it is finally confronted with a challenge from another power house. The NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), a major funder of research on mental health has announced that it will be “re-orienting its research away from DSM categories.” NIHM director Thomas Insel says the organization will “begin to develop a better system,” which for patients, means “(W)e are committed to new and better treatments…by developing a more precise diagnostic system.”
The easiest way to learn more about this change is to Google Insel NIMH TED. Insel says the research now needs to be pretty much all about the brain. To which I say hurrah! True, that change in who will qualify for NIMH research funding may result in new problems. But for now we can be grateful that the lock on who gets to categorize people is bent if not broken. The door is open to new thinking.  

Thanks to Carolyn Hale, I’ve just been introduced to: the website for Circle of Friends for Mental Health: www.cofmentalhealth.org The site provides valuable ideas about how to stop stigmatizing and stereotyping people labeled “Mentally Ill”.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

TRAVELING SOLO



         RATIONAL MIND OR WHISPERING INTUITION: WHICH TO FOLLOW?
San Pedro, Guatemala 1993
"Stay on the boat,” Jaime urged. “I will show you where the hotel is. We will go to the next dock, just a minute away."
The next dock? I was sure the boat captain had said this was the last stop, the end of the line. But Jaime lived here, he should know, shouldn’t he?  Had I misunderstood the captain? Maybe I had misinterpreted Jaime. I had talked to him only during the hour and a half boat trip, so I didn’t know how to evaluate his invitation. I had been glad to find a seat on the bench next to him. His articulation was clear, even above the din of talk and the radio music blaring from the captain's cabin. We were having a real conversation in Spanish, I told myself. I hoped that was not merely an illusion, and that my months of Spanish lessons had finally begun to kick in.
Jaime smiled. Fine sunshine lines splayed from the corners of his eyes, but something like sadness seemed not far beyond his crinkly-eyed smiles. His weathered mocha brown face reflected myriad feelings as he spoke of his life and ambitions. If I had been with a friend I would have had the advantage of checking out my perceptions with her. Our pooled perceptions would have given us a workable hypothesis about whether Jaime could be trusted. But this was one of the times when I had given up that luxury in favor of meandering solo.
In unfamiliar terrain I especially appreciate casual connections with locals such as Jaime. When it comes to following the advice or responding to invitations of local people, my head and my gut feeling are often at odds. Confining itself to facts, my rational mind weighs the pros and cons of taking some questionable action, It leaves it to my intuition to say whoa, when appropriate. In that case I might slow down because an indefinable something seems is off kilter. But such a warning wouldn’t necessarily come in the form of words. It might be a stomach rumble indicating “this is risky; back off.” But it could just as likely be delivering an alert to a trivial concerns such as, “you’re supposed to turn left.” On the boat, my intuition apparently had no message to impart, other than its apparently complacent silence, implying, no problema. I interpreted that as “Trust Jaime and see what adventure develops.” But, veering back to my mind again, I ticked off reasons for caution: the contradiction between Jaime’s statement and the captains’ about the last stop; puttig my trust a man I had just met; following him to a place I’m not familiar with, and finally the question of why was he eager to have me stay on the boat? What was his hidden agenda? Should I listen to the mental bean counter, or to the silence of my intuition?
San Pedro is one of the tiny pueblos that circles Lake Atitlan in central Guatemala. As we neared the dock, my watch said it was still early evening. But darkness had blackened the sky, and obscured the shoreline. Peering out the open sides of the small boat, I could locate nothing resembling hotel lights. I had heard that San Pedro offered tourist rooms in two or three small hotels, and I had my fingers crossed that one would be waiting for me. It could be great to have a local person guide me around town. I looked at Jaime. His dark, dark eyes and soft, musical speech had drawn me to him from the start of the trip, and I concluded once more that he intended me no harm. I reviewed what I knew about him.
At the beginning of our boat trip from Panajachel, he had begun a friendly conversation with the usual questions, starting with, “Where are you from?”
“Seattle,” I said, “but I live in Mexico half the year. Do you live her in San Pedro?”
He said he lived in San Pedro with his wife and child, and was forty years old. His next comment was a surprise. “I am a painter,” he said. “I own an art gallery.”
An art gallery?  Here? I might have expected my intuition to kick in at that assertion.  The San Pedro population hovered around five thousand, and until very recently had attracted few tourists. It had a reputation for still being relatively free of us gringos, which was good news for some of us seekers of off track places. But those facts also added to my distrust of Jaime’s claim that he owned a gallery here. How could he sell enough to keep such a business afloat? But I needed more information. Maybe it was in some more fashionable tourist town.
“Really?” I said. “Where is it?”
“Here. Right here in San Pedro.” Jaime sat up straighter, and smiled his pleasure at my surprise. “You can come and see it.”
But he must have sensed my skepticism because his smile quickly faded. “I support my wife and my daughter by working in the fields,” he said. After a brief pause, he added, “Will you give me your Seattle address?”
“Why Seattle?” 
He said he might visit me there. My mind added that odd request to the list of negatives. But I figured Jaime wasn’t likely to get to Seattle, and if he did, I wasn’t likely to be there. So I found some paper, and we exchanged addresses.
As if trying to paint my identity into his mind, Jaime focused intently on my questions and comments. He leaned toward me to peer into my eyes with a warm appreciation that disarmed me. Once again I asked myself if I should take up his offer to guide me to a hotel at the alleged next dock? If I had consulted with sensible friends, they would have warned me not to trust this man. They might well have been right, but if I had listened to “sensible” friends, I would have missed a lot of adventures. I still didn’t want to dismiss Jaime’s invitation without weighing the pros against the likelihood of a con.
Earlier that day I had met Paul, a thirtyish British architect on a bus where we pooled our ignorance about San Pedro. Now he sat in front of me. I tapped him on the shoulder and invited him to join me in staying with Jaime. I figured that old maxim, “safety in numbers,” would resolve my ambivalence. Slowly Paul scrutinized Jaime and hesitated. The captain had already cut the motor, and just then the boat lurched into the dock. Half a dozen young boys came aboard to offer services as guides and baggage carriers. Paul nodded to a muchacho, withut a word turned his back on Jaime and me, and was swallowed up in the disembarking crowd. What, I wondered, had his intuition whispered to him?
I glanced back over my shoulder. All the benches were being vacated. Everyone was abandoning ship. I asked myself one more time whether I wanted to follow a strange man to a never-heard-of port at some dock I couldn't even see in the dark with only the boat captain as witness?  The scenario included a shade too much of the unknown.
I hastily stood, scrambled into my backpack and said no thank you to Jaime. Straggling after the last of the passengers, I hoped to catch a muchacho-guide before the last of them disappeared into the blackness. But I was the last to reach shore, and Paul and the other passengers had all disappeared.
The boat pulled away from the dock. I could barely discern a hill straight up what appeared to be a dirt road. Here and there, mostly near what I assumed was the top, a dozen scattered lights gave me hope. I tried to beam my gaze out into the terrain but could distinguish neither buildings nor any form of life on the hillside.
Before I had time to worry, a small boy hurried toward me, and said he would show me to a hotel. I handed him my extra bag and followed. My instinct was to trudge up the hill toward those lights that indicated at least a bit of life. When I made that suggestion, the muchacho, whose name was Pedro, said, "No, we walk this way.” With apparent confidence, he turned left. I fell into line behind him. We plodded along parallel to the water, which I couldn't see, but sensed was about a hundred yards away. As we made our way along the path I heard rhythmic clapping. My heart quickened at the possibility of an indigenous ceremony or fiesta.
"Que es?" I asked. “What’s that?”
"Los Evangelicos," answered my guide.
So much for romantic assumptions about the indigena.
The thin sliver of the moon was of no help as I picked my way along the narrow, dark, rocky path. I stayed as close to Pedro as possible. Our single-file positions didn't lend themselves to extensive conversation. But seven-year-old Pedro asked, in the tone of a professional guide, the usual questions about where I was from, how long I would stay and where else I'd visited.
The clapping Evangelists’ presence faded away. A dog barked. Otherwise, the silence of the night was broken only by the soft pad of our two pairs of feet on the dirt and the occasional clunk of a kicked rock. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness. I could make out buildings here and there, yet I couldn't shake the sensation that we were moving farther and farther from the center of the village. Pedro had become my security blanket and without him I wouldn't even have known a path existed. In rejecting Jaime’s offer I had prudently erred on the side of caution. And here I was, at the complete mercy of this seven-year-old, who claimed he could guide me safely through nearly invisible territory to a destination that remained obscure.
As I was becoming discouraged again, Pedro and I approached a small wooden building with a sign I was sure indicated a hotel, and I pricked up my optimistic ears. But no. It was only a comedor, a small eatery. At least I knew where I could find food the next day, assuming I could locate it in the light. It was about then that I realized I might as well accept the fact that this walk would simply take as long as it would take, and I began to relax. An Anglo man, about fifty, skinny and bearded, emerged from out of the dark. When I asked if he knew of a hotel nearby, he cheerfully assured me I was close to it.
Pedro and I hadn't walked much farther when he led me through a wooden gate which he said was the entry to a hotel. In the low light that seeped out from a window, I could make out a spacious yard of barren dirt. Half a dozen plants stood here and there. Rows of low buildings I guessed to be of cinder block made a U formation. Pedro led me to the office, but the manager waved us away saying he had no singles. My shoulders drooped for only a moment before I was inspired to ask the price of a double. The equivalent of about two dollars and twenty cents, the man said. This place was definitely upmarket compared to the one I had earlier rejected at a dollar forty.
The manager showed me a space enclosed by four gray walls containing three beds: an unmade single and two doubles. I didn’t ask why it was called a double. Feeling like Goldilocks, I sat on one of the doubles and concluded the mattress had been constructed of leftover concrete. The other one was soft, but lumpy. The manager pointed toward the communal bathroom, about fifty yards away and I checked it out. It was clean but there was no toilet paper. "You buy it at the restaurant, right there," said the manager. He pointed to an area with tables and chairs set off by a bamboo fence. I caught myself viewing the situation as if I were cruising a mall for the best deal. But Pedro made it clear this was the only deal, and suddenly it looked better. I snapped it up.
I treasure my ability to sleep under conditions most agemates deem impossible. But I was afraid the lumpy mattress would present too great a challenge. I chose the concrete bed. Tired, and relieved finally to be settled somewhere, I stretched out and. eager to find a hint of what San Pedro would offer me, I opened the Lonely Planet. But it only took a moment for it to slip onto the floor as I fell sound asleep.
At dawn I was startled awake by a couple of querulous parrots screeching at two caged monkeys about injustices in their universe. Grumpily, I opened my door, but immediately the scene a few dozen yards away wiped out my embryonic irritation at being rudely awakened. The lake had become a red sea reflecting the flaming sky. I strolled toward the shore and lazily watched women duck into the shallow water. They soaped and then finger-combed thick blankets of hair that glistened black in the sun. Another group of older women scrubbed brilliantly woven clothing on the rocks. Perhaps fifty feet away from the water, men in white, delicately embroidered pants raked coffee beans. The rich ocher color of the beans was enhanced by its contrast to the deep brown of the earth. In the distance a few small boats were silhouetted, their noses lifting out of the water like optimistic porpoises. A sleeping volcano loomed over the lake.
Although I wanted to continue drinking in the shifting pageant, another desire rudely ran its fingernail along the blackboard of my serenity. That alleged art gallery of Jaime’s nagged at me. Did it exist or not?  Had I been right to trust my rational judgment that advised me not to stay on the boat alone with Jaime? Or should I have relied on intuition, which had discerned no reason not to trust him? I expected the manager to laugh at my question about whether there was an art gallery in San Pedro. But he surprised me by just pointing down the road.
I followed his direction, and the farther I walked, the dustier the road and the fewer the buildings. Tiny, one-story houses appeared here and there. They looked more or less alike, some of them neatly whitewashed, others with gray clay crumbling from the walls. It seemed ludicrous to think anyone could sell paintings from such an obscure, unlikely location. But just as I began to consider turning back, I noticed an open door to one of the well kept houses. I could catch only glimpses of the inside, but dramatic splashes of color peked my curiosity. A girl stood in the doorway, as if waiting for me. I moved closer and beyond her I saw paintings on the walls. In answer to my question, the girl said, yes, this was the art gallery. She motioned me inside.
The room was bare of furniture except for a small table and two chairs. Brilliantly colored paintings covered the four whitewashed walls. The girl summoned her mother who emerged wiping her hands on a red and white checked apron.
"I'm looking for Jaime Gomez," I said.
"This is his house. I am his wife," she said in clear Spanish. "My name is Rosa." 
I told her about meeting Jaime, and she said he was at work in the fields. As she talked about his paintings, I viewed the art that surrounded me. Soon Jaime arrived. A huge smile showed his delighted surprise that I had shown up.
The gallery displayed the work of his two brothers as well as his own. The men were self-taught, and the paintings mostly featured portraits of women in indigenous dress in dignified poses, some with deeply creased faces. I was drawn to the na├»ve quality, strong lines, bold color and sharp definition in Jaime’s work.
He entreated me to buy. I waffled. I was short of cash, and the hotel manager had told me San Pedro had no bank. I didn’t want to disappoint Jaime but I hadn’t budgeted for art, and I didn’t look forward to adding a cumbersome painting to my baggage for the rest of my trip. Still puzzled about his invitation to stay with him on the boat, I was wondering how I cuold politely ask for an explanation when Jaime brought up the topic himself. He said he perfectly understood my hesitancy to stay on the boat. Then he explained that the captain usually docked near his house for the night, and took Jaime home on the way.
He had been telling the truth. Had I decided to trust Jaime I would have had only a ten-minute walk to my hotel. I'd have been spared–or deprived of–the uncomfortable walk along that narrow path in the dark with Pedro. My intuition that Jaime was not a dangerous person had been sound, but my mind had also been correct about one thing. He had hidden at least part of his agenda. Now I was certain one reason he had urged me to stay on the boat was the hope that he could sell me a painting.
            And he did.

THE BACK STORY: THE GARTERS OR THE BOMB?



SEATTLE-KING COUNTY JAIL: LESSONS LEARNED
THE BACK STORY:  THE GARTERS OR THE BOMB?  
1964 Bangor Missile Base
In the introduction to Seeing for Myself, I wrote about my role as “on-the-ground director of what in 1968 was the biggest peace walk the local American Friends Service Committee had ever mounted.”
Alongside the band, Country Joe and the Fish, I stood on the back of a pick-up truck, directing the crowd to take their places. I was armed in the super-respectable uniform I always donned for political demonstrations: a black double-knit skirt with matching top, two-inch heels and hose, a faux fur black hat, and a long string of fake pearls. If I was going to be called a “Commie,” I would be a properly attired, ladylike Commie.
The rest of that story didn’t make it into Seeing for Myself, but if it had, it might have been titled, “What to Wear to a Revolution”–or, at least, “What to Wear When Committing Civil Disobedience.” In the early 1970s I still dressed “like a lady” for demonstrations, including one at the Bangor Missile Base to protest the mounting of nuclear warheads on submarines scheduled to be housed there. A couple of dozen of us activists had gathered at the entrance to the base to support three members of our group who would try to enter the base illegally.
The three men approached the gate, attempting to enter the grounds. But guards immediately moved in, tackled the protestors, carried them a few feet away from the entrance, and unceremoniously dropped them onto the dusty ground. Clunk!  We supporters collectively winced. Our colleagues, of course, were trying to commit an illegal act of trespassing but, did the guards have to be so rough? Were our friends hurt? Evidently they were not. They picked themselves up, slapped the dirt off their clothes, and with quiet deliberation, headed once more for the gate.
I was impressed with the men’s fortitude. But the warheads were obviously as much a threat to women as to men. The campaign against their installation was my cause as much as the men’s. So, why, I wondered, had none of us women been willing to take the risk of disobedient action? I ruminated about that, as the men continued determinedly walking toward the entrance, where guards intervened and dumped them on the ground again. I shuddered with each thump, and my discomfort grew. My body twitched with the urge to join the three, and for a moment I thought I would do exactly that.
Then an image kicked in. A couple of newspaper photographers were present, and they would probably be delighted to take a photo of a woman being dumped on the ground. In my mind’s eye I could see it clearly. A guard would grab me, my skirt would hike up, and–oh, no! My garters would show. A camera would click. There I would be, garters and all, on the front page of the Post Intelligencer, “in front of God and everybody.”
It was much later that I asked myself, “So, you would rather risk nuclear bombs than the embarrassment of a pair of garters exposed?” Apparently the answer was “yes!”
I EXONERATE MYSELF
            By 1976 nuclear warheads had been installed in Trident submarines at Bangor Missile Base, and activists at the pacifist center called Ground Zero mounted another nonviolent resistance action. Though I had never forgiven myself for my previous cowardice, I was still not willing to go beyond the role of witness to others’ civil disobedience. A couple of dozen activists were committed to the symbolic act of cutting the barbed wire fence that surrounded the base. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I wasn’t ready to commit civil disobedience. My previous self-imposed demonstrators’ dress code was no longer warranted; the days of garters holding up hosiery were long gone―for many of us feminists, anyway. So if that had ever been a worthy excuse, it surely wasn’t this time. I wore a comfortable Mexican dress and sandals. No hosiery. No hat. No string of pearls. But my attire wouldn’t matter anyway, since I had no intention of committing disobedience.
            This time several women were among those determined to symbolically destroy part of the Bangor base fence. I watched them and a few men approach the fence, and cut just enough of the barbed wire to enter the premises. If my body could have talked, it would have said, “This time I can’t just stand here, perfectly safe, while others risk arrest.” My body reacted before my mind. I walked away from my group of supporters and headed toward the fence. Someone handed me a pair of clippers, and I joined the others in cutting just enough of the wire to create a hole I could step through.
In planning the action the group had followed the usual principle of openness by informing the base commander of our intention to enter the base. Now, as we crossed onto the sacrosanct military grounds, we were intercepted by a patiently waiting guard who pulled our hands around to our backs and placed plastic handcuffs on our wrists. Next we were steered to a paddy wagon, and taken to jail, where we spent the night.
Finally, I had exonerated myself from my previous failure to stand up for my beliefs in a meaningful way, and I laughed as I said, “This time, I would even have risked having my garters photographed, if I thought it would contribute to a tiny possibility of stopping the threat of Trident submarine bombs.” A few weeks later I was sentenced to sixty days in jail for destroying government property. 
       
      SEATTLE-KING COUNTY JAIL: LESSONS LEARNED:LEARNING THE ROPES
As a jail inmate I hadn’t expected to encounter an unwritten rule about proper female attire. When I checked in at Seattle-King County Jail I had to submit to an exam to prove I wasn’t carrying any contraband. In a crisp tone, a middle-aged admitting matron alerted me that she would have to lift my shirt. I nodded in compliance. But the moment she hiked it up, she snatched her hand away, as if from boiling water. All but shrieking, she gasped, “You have no bra.
“Well, no,” I said, “I stopped wearing a bra years ago.”
            So far, I had learned what to wear to a demonstration, and now I would learn what to wear to jail. My stay there would teach me additional lessons.
            The phone is brought to each cell in the women’s jail for an hour twice a day. Each prisoner has ten minutes each time to contact the outside world. That may not sound too bad. But if you divide the time between lover and child, for instance, the time will whizz by so fast it feels like just seconds. Or you might use several precious minutes dialing your parole officer or lawyer, only to endure six minutes of busy signals and operators who put you on hold as if you had all the time in the world. Such disappointments can build up so much frustration that it sometimes spills over in a two- or three-minute call to the people you most care about. When you reach them, you might unintentionally rant about the problem of reaching a lawyer, and then listen to their interruptions with suggestions, such as, “Why don’t you call early in the morning before court starts?”
You try not to be surly. You try not to say, “Because I don’t get the phone unless they feel like bringing it. Don’t you think I have sense enough to figure out that’s the best time get him?”
The father of your child comes on the line. He complains about how hard it is to work and take care of the children all by himself. He says he’s afraid of losing his job, and you say to yourself, “I‘m using my precious phone time for this?”
“Let me speak to Sally,” you say abruptly, knowing you’re hurting him but hoping your ten-year-old will cheer you. You want to salvage something from these minutes you waited for all morning. The clock ticks away your time and your cellmates are telling you your time is almost up as Sally is being called and you hear her casual, “Just a minute. I have to see what Mr. Spock says.”
Doesn’t she know the seconds are ticking away?  Can’t she understand that you are more important than Star Trek?  No. No, of course not. Even most adults can’t seem to grasp how it feels to cram everything you’re feeling and planning and experiencing into this scrap of time. They all seem to talk in slow motion. They use too many words to say too many trivial things. By the time they get ready to say the important things, like whether they talked to your parole officer, arranged for your mother to take care of the childrenor “I love you.” Long before you’re ready, it's time to hang up.
And talking to the children is especially frustrating.
“What are you doin’, Honey?” you ask in your most cajoling voice.
“Nothin’. “
“Playing?”
“Yup.”
“What are you playing?”
“Oh, nothin’,”
“Well, are you…”
Can’t she understand that this is no time to play Twenty Questions? You try to suppress your anger and explain that you have to hang up. And then, with a cell-mate reaching for the phone or the matron warning you that the whole cell will be deprived of the phone next time unless you hang up immediately….Then your child starts a barrage of questions: “When are you comin’ home?”  Where’s my pink shirt?  Why are you in jail anyway:”
You get out a few quick sentences rat-tat-tat: “I can’t talk to you. I have to hang up.” You hang up feeling angry, frustrated, hurt, guilty and wondering why you called at all.
THE INMATES
You don’t have to go to jail to know that it infantilizes and dehumanizes people. But it helps. Sixty days in King County jail helped me understand things I felt I knew about people in jail and what it does to them. Eighteen or fifty, everyone here is called “girl.” Matrons defend the usage by saying, “Most of them are girls. They are just so immature.” And it’s true. Most of the inmates are scarcely out of their teens. The primary crime the inmates are charged with is prostitution, though a few inmates have committed credit card forgery. Prostitutes, it should surprise no one, tend to be especially personable.
T affects an ultra-nonchalant shuffling walk that emphasizes her full hips. She carelessly tosses her curly hair, with its orange-peroxide tips, over her shoulder. She has a style and a humorous way of coping that draws people to her. She entertains us with tales of escapades in Job Corps, of police entrapment, and of her wonderful, kind, loving man whom she will keep happy forever. She is making him a satin heart-shaped pillow embroidered with one of Erica Jong’s poems. We can almost imagine this couple as every girl’s first long-term romance until she reminds us she has only known the guy for one week prior to coming to jailand that he has three other prostitutes in his stable.
After entertaining us at length T talks about her childhood. “My dad used to always say, ‘I could retire on the money you girls could make.’ He and my brothers used to agree to take me to the store if I’d do stuff.” It is clear to all o f us what the “stuff” was. But no one asks how this connects with her life-style, or whether hurt, shame or grief lie hidden under her amusing story-telling voice. It is the mode in jail to accept your fellow prisoners’ statements at face value.
E is a truly classic beauty, a natural blond who has the wit not to dilute her innocent blue eyes or creamy young skin with make-up. She is one of the few prisoners who speak middle-class “standard” English. She seems unaware of her ambivalence toward the parents she describes as “good people, who take in foster children.” I wonder what it is like for them for E to be incarcerated for prostitution when they perhaps dreamed of their Golden Girl walking down the aisle in white.
When the cell is unlocked, E alternates games of solitaire with pacing up and down the hall. But then she pauses to talk about her “hopelessly square” mother and her parents’ righteous anger after each of the runaways that began at thirteen. “How dare they send the police after their own daughter!” At eighteen, she feels she has cut her ties with her parents forever.
E has just come into jail, and her restlessness begins to dissipate. Awkwardly, she kneels on a bench, then curls into a near fetal position, and I have the urge to rock her. She is so sure she will be bailed out by her man within a couple of hours that she doesn’t even get her bed ready for sleeping. When the telephone is brought to our cell we let her have it first so she can call him. It is a drama I hear re-enacted many times listening to other women. Her voice is a soft blanket flowing thorough the wires to envelop her man in comfort. From the one sided conversation, we learn that he is having trouble raiding bail money for her. He could use the Eldorado she bought him, but the bondsman would take the key, and his life would be very inconvenient without transportation. E coos her understanding of the problem. She tells him she has faith that he will think of something. Along with my cellmates, I resist voicing my opinion that she had better not count on him, but E gets the message anyway.
Two days later, her man comes with the bail. She says to us silent skeptics, “See?  I knew he’d take care of me.”
M, in contrast to other inmates, disapproves of prostitution. She turns up her nose in disgust at any sexual behavior other than intercourse for the purpose of “having babies.” After almost two months in jail waiting for trial, she is one of the more obviously troubled inmates, anxious about what will become of her, confused by guilt and resentment. As nearly as anyone can tell, her crime grew out of a momentary whim to coerce an acquaintance into giving her money. As her story unfolds, she reluctantly says she did threaten the woman if she refused to give her money.
But M never expected to be caught, and even if that happened she couldn’t imagine being charged with anything more serious than extortion. She never imagined being charged with armed robbery or kidnapping, which is what’s happened. She is a tiny woman, whose short hair, angular body and open expression give her an impish, boyish look. Each time M tells a new arrival about the charge, the newcomer hoots in disbelief at the idea that this girl Peter Pan could be physically or psychologically capable of such a crime. The new people assume some bizarre miscarriage of justice has taken place. One or two other black women say it’s a prosecutor’s racist plot. They persuade M that she must have a bad lawyer and she ought to fire him. M says little but seems to go along with that assessment.
Over the next few days something like the truth gradually surfaces. M admits some of the accusations and seems mainly upset, and alternately embarrassed or outraged, about what the charges are called. They do not fit her image of herself. She passes around a sheaf of legal papers, asks if we think the prosecutor has any kind of case. I say, “It looks pretty bad to me.”
“I know,” she says, and I’m surprised she agrees so readily. We talk over the fact that it will be M’s word against several witnesses. She spends most of that afternoon in uncharacteristic silence on her bed. Within the next twenty-four hours she decides it is, after all, not the lawyer’s fault that the prosecutor won’t lower the charge, and that she won’t fire him. She comes close to deciding to plead guilty if the prosecutor will ask for a shorter sentence.
Then D comes into the cell. She reads the charges and is outraged.
“That woman says you told her you had a gun? Now why would you do a foolish thing like that? She says she was scared of you? All ninety pounds of you? Who would believe her?”
C joins in and soon the case is being constructed all over again that M has been framed, victimized, mistreated by an incompetent lawyer, and in fact she has committed no crime at all. C elaborates on the situation. “It is all the fault of that white girl (the victim) who came around just to find a black man for herself. Then her parents found out what she was up to and she had to make up this story so they wouldn’t know she was messin’ with Niggers.” (Though it is now standard usage to avoid that word, substituting “the N word,” I have chosen to keep the language used here by the inmate, as well as below by me in the original version of this article.)
I am privately angry at these women who, posing as M’s friends, contribute to the clouding of her sense of reality. I know they see themselves as supportive, but surely they cannot help her this way. Still, I have to weigh the fact that I’ve never experienced similar circumstances. I’m not constantly flirting with incarceration. My persistent search for the voice of realism rests on the idea that if I know what’s happening I can do something about it. In jail, that doesn’t hold true. I soon begin to learn the limits of my personal power. What I don’t pick up quickly, the matrons soon teach me.
THE MATRONS
My sister-prisoners agree that some matrons are “nice” and others “mean.” Most of us agree that S is one of the worst. It has surprised no one to learn she has had a career in the armed services. She barks orders, and we don’t know from day to day what those orders will be. For weeks we inmates have broken a rule by spiriting extra blankets into our cells for protection against the cold steel benches and the light weight cotton uniforms. S has pretended not to notice. Then one day she suddenly “reminds” us of the rule that each person may have only two blankets. She strips the beds of extras and we’re left to shiver. Or she suddenly decides that the cards and pictures we have taped to the bars must come down. They are our only break from the monotonous green, and the one way we can express our individuality.
G has an opposite style. She fancies herself every inmate’s chumwhen things are going her way. She seems to see herself as a self-sacrificing rescuer who loves young people. She has a house full of children and has taken in the neighbor’s too. She talks about sponsoring prisoners at the state prison so they can get out sooner. G puts so much energy into being Best Liked that she becomes outraged when someone questions that image. Like a melodramatic parent, she seems to be saying, “Look at all I have done for you…worn my fingers to the bone, and this is the thanks I get.”
When we are waiting for the phone to be brought to our cell, tension is high. A timer in sometimes available to help us divide the time fairly, but it is kept in the booking room. So one day we ask G to bring it with the phone to our cell, which she has often done for us. But this day she refuses, saying, “My advice is just to be considerate.”
“But,” I quietly point out, “we have no way of knowing whether we’re being considerate or not.”
The Best Liked persona disappears as G turns righteous, and screams: “I don’t have to bring the phone. You should be grateful I give it to you at all. And if you can’t behave better than that, I might just decide to only let you call your lawyer.”
W is one of the rare matrons who allows nothing to ruffle her. She argues that the poor and non-white can improve their lives with a bit of self-discipline, and refuses to acknowledge that racism does significant damage to people. Yet she relates to each person in a warm, fair way. She admits that some of the rules are senseless, and she bends them when she can. She also knows when she is being conned and chooses to set clear limits, rather than to punish afterward.
Several matrons are blind to certain of the prisoners’ activities, perhaps because they don’t want the trouble that might follow a confrontation. Matron F enters our cell and L and I become nervous because our cellmates R and N are in the shower-toilet area, behind a sheet draped across the opening. They are obviously up to something secret. It would not be at all unreasonable to guess they are shooting a little heroin, and later I learn that they were doing exactly that.
R peeps over the sheet and explains to F that she is washing N’s hair. F doesn’t question the fact that R isn’t in the shower. She chats a few minutes and goes on her merry way. Soon she returns and finds the same scene. R talks even faster this time, rattling on about her crocheting, while F sits patiently on the bed waiting, perhaps unwittingly, for her to finish shooting up. She is the same matron who tells us, “Everything is all right,” one night when the cellblock is thick with tension.
Physical attacks are uncommon but a woman has been beaten up. The scuttlebutt is that more of the same is being planned, and after lights out, we are all locked into our cells. Everyone seems to feel anxious and helpless. Matron F believes cell #604 is secure. But prisoners have put paper in the door jamb so they can open it at will to admit the inmates in #605, who are planning another attack on a woman in #604. F tells us, “We know the door to #604 was open, but it’s locked now.” As she says that, one of my cellmates looks through our tiny window and sees an inmate in #604 open the door.
The matrons set a tone which has a great influence on how prisoners feel about themselves and each other. The system, however, requires that even the best matrons contribute to the demoralization of everyone locked behind bars. The background of clanging, yelling, rattling, banging, radio music and TV chatter that goes on from six in the morning to ten-thirty at night is the only thing I find truly difficult to endure.
But I see no signs of it bothering the matrons. Their job is challenging at times, though it’s not steady hard work. Often there is plenty of time chat with each other in the booking area, though inmates are discharged and others check in, at unpredictable times. Sometimes the jail is too short-staffed to efficiently handle booking new people, coping with hostile or violent prisoners, and battling a computer that scrambles information. At such times matrons will often stay away from prisoners and their barrage of requests and questions: “Please open the window.” “Will you call the nurse back here?” “What time do we get out of the cell?” “Please get the radio now.”  “Is there ‘rec’ today?”
The matron may cope with this verbal gauntlet with a casual, “sure, just a minute,” which may immediately be forgotten. Or with “I don’t know,” delivered as if the question had only the remotest connection with the matron’s job. The prisoners may be reduced to passive waiting, or to shouting like clamoring children and banging on doors to obtain “minor” legitimate conveniences that through frustration have taken on immense importance.
THE SYSTEM
No matron can compensate for our lives confined in cages; for the arbitrariness and punitive aspects of the rules; for the lack of adequate health care, or for the deadly sameness of each day. Matrons and nurses often respond with equal indifference to minor complaints and requests for essential health care. Women are sometimes deprived of medicine for ulcers or asthma. They can’t get medically sound diets for gout or ulcers. One woman brought directly from a car accident is not examined until, hours later, she collapses onto the concrete floor.
My first impression is that jail time is easy. Women immersed in street life meet old friends, cousins, aunts, friends of friends, and at times a cell will sound almost like a class reunion. I am surprised to find myself a participant in that, when a couple of new women arrive and are assigned to my cell. Suddenly, their laughter and loud whoops reverberate throughout the jail, and they shout in amazement, “Miz Crow! What are you doing here?” (My name was Crow then.)
 Other cell mates gather around, puzzled. A few years earlier, as a social work intern, I had persuaded a judge that these two women, F and N were ready to reform their lives of prostitution and should be let out of jail. I join in the hilarity and say, “What are you doing here? I got you out of jail!  Everyone finds this situation spectacularly funny, and it certainly breaks up the boredom of the day.
The old hands often go to bed immediately upon arrival, staying there most of the time for three or four days as if it is the only rest they are likely to get for a very long time. But eventually, all fall into the jail routine: a little TV and reading, a lot of gossiping, casual complaining and waiting. Waiting for the next meal, waiting for the cell to be unlocked, for the phone, for recreation, church services, health clinic. We wait for commissary night, for Sunday visitors. For the mail, the lawyer, the bail money, the trial, the sentencing. Waiting for the nurse to make rounds in the faint hope of relief from pain or from the sleepless nights or from the anxiety of not knowing where the “old man” is, whether the children will be placed in a foster home, or an eviction notice served. We wait for anything at all to break the monotony of life in what feels like a cage.
Certain social class privileges operate to reduce some of the tedium of the daily routine, and I am one of the beneficiaries. One of my lawyer friends visits me, not just on the designated Sunday hours, with it’s strict timing and awkward exchanges through a thick window. She shows up whenever it is convenient for her, presents her lawyer credentials and we are admitted to a comfortable spacious room to chat for as long as we please. She hasn’t had to lie because the matrons assume she is my attorney for my case, not just a friend who happens to be a lawyer.
What passes for a schedule can change without notice or reason and being told we can expect the phone, the cell being unlocked or an exercise opportunity is of little or no value. There is no way to know for sure whether it will happen at the announced time. The opportunity to plan one’s own time would be a tiny bit of autonomy in a sea of powerlessness.
I decide to stop playing the waiting game, their game, and to get onto my own schedule. I find in the library a novel so good I can concentrate fully despite the radio, TV, yelling clanging. I settle down on the bunk bed and start reading. For ten minutes I’m delightedly engrossed in someone else’s life, and I’m feeling good about doing what I choose to do.
But, Clang!  The cell door is flung open, forcing me to shift my attention. The pleasure of choosing for myself how I will spend my time is suddenly muddied by opportunities offered by the system. With the cell unlocked, I can walk in the hall for exercise, take a bath, use the pay phone to call a friend long distance. I can visit other inmates in their cells. None of those items are on my list of desires right now, but if I am to do anything at all outside the cell, this is my last chance for an unpredictable number of hours. If I resolutely stick to my own schedule and not theirs, I will be deprived of all those out-of-cell “freedoms.” The system of arbitrarily locking and unlocking cell doors seems designed to foster helplessness and dependency.
Grudgingly, I put my book aside and go out to the booking area to call my friend in Tucson. This may be the only opportunity for a couple of days or longer, so I’m surrendering to the power of the system again. Matron Y doesn’t look up from her paper work. I adjust my attitude to avoid sounding as if I’m begging or demanding. I ask, “Is it all right if I use the long distance phone?”
“Why do you need it?” she asks. I hesitate, trying to think of what answer she wants. I feel a sudden empathy for my former students who were wedded to the Right Answer technique of dealing with teachers. I had scrupulously encouraged them to use their reason to arrive at answers that made sense to them, but they persisted in coming up with whatever they imagined I wanted them to say.
            In my usual life I would have explained to Y that she had no right to invade my privacy and that phone regulations should be posted. In short, I would try to make her understand that even prisoners have rights. But in the jail world my rights are both dubious and limited. More to the point, I’m willing to give Y the answer she wants if I can figure out what that is. I hear myself mumbling about “calling someone who’s writing something…uh, well… never mind, it’s too complicated.” All that’s missing is a shuffle.
            My “explanation” is quite incomprehensible. But Y is satisfied that it is not a frivolous call, not for pleasure. Matron S is the only one who says it out loud, but the unwritten rule does seem to be, “You are here to suffer, and if you are indulging yourself in pleasure, then we cannot allow it.”
I surreptitiously glance about and dial “collect” to reach my Tucson friend. I am circumspect because this call is probably not “legitimate.” I instinctively hunch down, so that matrons at their desks won’t notice me. I’m soon talking to my friend, and we’re laughing together. But then I see a matron coming in my direction, and I surprise myself by immediately cutting short my laughter and looking down at the floor, as if I might become invisible..
I have always looked people directly in the eye. Is this how people become “shifty-eyed, untrustworthy, criminal types”? I think of the stereotypical southern black person studying his shoes when a powerful white person speaks to him. I recall white girls in the ghetto school where I taught telling me why they avoided eye contact with certain black students. It was a useful survival technique, and I thought I had some understanding of how they felt. Yet, I had thought it would be worth the price for them to work out a straightforward way of dealing with a difficult problem. Now in the jail I discover that trying to seem invisible is a small price to pay to avoid having a phone call cut short.
I’m learning something about an economy of scarcity, too. Whether the scarce commodity is phone time or blankets or healthy, tasty food, the problem is not so much that there is not enough, as that I have no control over getting more of whatever it is. So I take what I can get, whether or not it is something I want at the moment. Only once do I turn down an offer with a polite, “No, thank you.” That’s on my second day in jail when a trustee offers me an extra milk, and I realize just too late, that I should have taken it for later or for someone else.
I begin to understand why my cellmate tried to help me out on my first commissary night by trying to convince the matron she shorted me on stamps. I begin to see why prisoners “borrow” stamps or cigarettes no matter how many they have stashed away. It amazes me that there is apparently very little intra-prisoner stealing.
I have learned to value the virtuosity of invented reasons for using the pay phone for “emergency” situations. And I understand why there is an endless parade of sickness scenarios whenever the nurse arrives with her wares. I know, now, why that results in the nurses doing so well at protecting themselves from the “con” that they have stopped believing pain is real. All that is part of the motivation for the jail’s constant gaming–to get as much as possible, as soon as possible of whatever is available. There isn’t much of whatever it is, but there may be even less tomorrow.
But there is more to it than that. On the most superficial level, the gaming is fun, even for me. I would normally do almost anything to avid being manipulative. But with no other entertainment or challenge available, gaming becomes attractive. For instance, “double-scrub” day is a weekly event. Every Wednesday we are directed to scrub walls, bars, toilet and sink, as well as to put out of sight nearly everything not in use at the moment. Then our cells are inspected and “forbidden” materials such as extra blanket or books are likely to be removed.
            An argument sometimes takes place over dealing with this and other demands of the matrons. There are the “good Niggers,” the obedient people who try to ask for virtually nothing, which would risk the indignity of being turned down or ignored. They try to anticipate and comply with every demand. This method is almost hassle-free. It results in few confrontations and it is possible to enjoy the illusion that one is acting autonomously.
            At first, anyway, I belong to the principle-upholders’ school of “bad Niggers” who say “there’s no good reason the matron should object, so I’ll ignore the rule until someone insists I do it differently.” Some in this category gripe to the matrons about what is unfair, and the matrons generally act as if they are registering those complaints, even when they are shouted in anger. It is as if they consider it normal for us “girls” to be a little bratty. I am more likely to explain why I think a rule is unjust and unnecessary, or a violation of my rights. My manner, which I strive to make respectful, seems to irk them more that the teenage style of antics of other inmates.
A third way to cope is to con. To my surprise, there comes a time when, to ensure that I’ll be warm enough, I fold two blankets together to look like one. Next, I feel as if I have made a significant change in philosophy when I start gaming the system on “double scrubbing day.” I fill the scrub bucket with water and Lysol and bring it to the cell, not to use, but so the matron will believe we’re obediently “double-scrubbing.”
            After about six weeks I’m surprised to realize I have evolved from a “principle-upholder” to a “Bad Nigger,” and then to a “con artist.” I wonder how long it would take for this form of adaptation to become permanently embedded in a person’s character. As a civil libertarian, I am irrationally surprised that no one here shares my concern for the importance of a jail “constitution”–a clear set of rules and routines posted along with penalties for infractions. I persist in asking questions such as, “Where is it written that I can’t use the extra mattress as a pillow?” “How can I be expected to know how much time I’m allowed to spend with each visitor?”
The other prisoners more often insist that writing the rules might make things worse. The matrons might feel obliged to enforce them. And after a couple of weeks, I have learned the games to play with each matron, and have accumulated a stack of books. Though that is against the rules, there has been no repercussion but a half-hearted, “You’re not supposed to have more than two books in your cell,” I realize that I will be grateful if no opportunity arises to stand up and fight for my principles, and perhaps lose little advantages I have gained.
            And so, despite unhealthy, bad tasting food, body tension that comes from having nowhere to sit but the bunk or the backless, cold steel bench, jail time comes to seem not so bad. I am eager to be home in my own bed, yet feel sad at leaving my cellmates.
Many of my jail mates are nineteen or twenty, and the young seem endlessly adaptable. But at what cost! Cultivating passivity, dishonesty and dependency are unlikely foundations for “reform” or for effectively taking charge of their own lives.