I readjust in my metal bunkbed. I toss and accidentally hit a locker, sending shooting pain into my elbow. Nine hours earlier, my best friend had dropped me off at the maximum-security state prison. Regrettably, I had driven after too many beers a few months earlier, and was paying the price, serving my four-day sentence.
After seven long hours alone in a room with a toilet and a security camera pointed at me, I was finally moved into a tent with nine other women. Drugs have taken over many nearby towns, leading to other crimes, causing the inmates to overflow into tents scattered inside the electric fencing.
In the tent, a few women were already watching TV. (I hadn't expected to see a TV in prison, that was a nice surprise.)
I waved at the women. A few rolled their eyes and the others ignored me.
"There's no fucking room," said one.
Another woman started talking about how mean they were to new inmates, as though I wasn't there.
"Who cares how new people are treated?" said another inmate. The she looked right at me. "I hope your four days are fucking hell, white bitch!"
An older lady finally showed me to my metal bunk. I sighed with relief, and thanked her quietly.
My first night in the tent, I tried to listen and learn. These ladies were much, much, rougher than I. They yelled and talked about "beating ass," while punching random things for emphasis. I like yoga, inspirational anything, and get really upset when I encounter even fictional violence. I felt very out of place.
The conversation moved to Oxy, specifically the challenges of smoking it from a toaster, and I realized I wasn't going to have anything to contribute. I put my face to my elbow and tried to meditate. Alas, a quiet, centered peace was not in the cards for me that evening. I kept having panicked thoughts about prison, worries about what people were thinking about me, and what might happen to me in that tent.
I eventually dozed, then awoke to a light on my face. A huge prison guard who my fellow inmates ironically referred to "Little Princess" was counting inmates. He seemed to love the attention. "You know you love me" cooed an inmate as he counted aloud.
I feel asleep again and awoke hours later with the sense that people were talking about me ... to me? To me. It was time for breakfast. It's mandatory, someone said. I slipped on my prison-given socks, put my feet into the prison-appointed shoes, and tied my dirty hair into a knot. We moved out of the tent into slightly fresher air, tinged with the port-a-potty scent.
After a meal I can't even describe (meat?) that left me both hungry and bloated, we returned to the tent. I tried to dive into the novel I'd been lucky to get my little hands on, and eventually got distracted by the TV, where The Big Bang Theory was playing. I was cozy in front of the screen for a whole 20 minutes before someone abruptly changed the station to see if a cage fight was on.
I crawled back into my bunk and spent the next few days trying to be quiet, mostly observing my fellow inmates. One woman was constantly on the phone with her girlfriend. She had been cheated on, and with a man. She screamed about "dirty dick," while crying quietly.
A woman in her mid-20s called her boyfriend often, and also cried silently, gripping the phone. I later found out that she had been a heroin addict as a teenager, but had cleaned up years earlier. She'd had an awful miscarriage and failed to report the non-narcotic medication to her parole officer. For that, she was serving seven months in prison.
At one point, a girl picked up a book from my bed, Spirit Junkie, by Gabrielle Bernstein, and laughed.
She stared suspiciously at the cover. "I've been a junkie all my life, maybe I should try being a Spirit Junkie!" She laughed. Then she looked at me. "Pussy ass little bitch," she said. I bit my tongue and refrained from saying, I've heard great things about that book, and reading it would serve you more than smoking crack. Why not give it a try?
I wondered what could happen if these women were convinced them that they could have better. That they deserve better. That being angry at the world only makes it feel like the world is angry at you.
But bit by bit, I got to know these women. They talked about fights they'd been in. Drug busts. How they miss drugs. What they've done to get drugs. Who they'd harmed, or stolen from, along the way. The children they can't care for. The abuse.
On my last night, I finally felt comfortable enough to tell some random party story, and angry yelling turned into laughter.
The most violent woman turned to me. "Seriously? You're fuckin' funny? You've been fuckin' funny this whole time and weren't fuckin' talking? Daamn, dude, not cool!"
I laughed and wondered what the experience would have held had I been truly unafraid the whole time.
The next morning, my time was up, and I realized I was actually going to miss these women. I said so, to which the violent one responded, "Even fuckin' me?"
"Yes, even fuckin', you."