Voices in Time
by Salome Chasnoff

 prison-life  public-policy

From Feminist Studies: The Prison Issue,
Summer 2004, Volume 30, Number 2: pp. 382-393
Photographs by Salome Chasnoff, Kelly Noah, and Sung Youn Lim.

As we inhabit out homes, so they inhabit us. In the Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard lyrically recalled the ways, in which his earliest domestic space, his beloved childhood home, imprinted itself in the deepest nooks and crannies of his psyche and served as the gateway to his imagination. He valued inhabited space as “the non-I that protects the I.”

But what if the inhabited space is not a protective one? If the site of Bachelard’s childhood had been instead, a chamber of horrors, a place in which he experience trauma, abuse, and deprivation? How do homes of pain mark us? How can we recover our imaginations for dreaming?

This essay looks at Voices in Time, a multimedia installation that artistically recreates a furnished prison cell, echoing with women’s stories. It was featured in Beyondmedia Education’s ’30 Days of Art and Education on Women’s Incarceration” and continues to tour Chicago and surrounding areas. Voices in Time incorporates first-person narratives of currently and formerly incarcerated women and girls in diverse forms: video interviews, handwritten letters and stories, drawings, and a women’s prison quilt sewn from remnants of prison experience. The installation interviews these narratives with statistics and other information on the issues surrounding women and prison. Three monitors inside the installation feature interviews with ten former prisoners. Hand-stamped o the ‘brick” walls of the cell are their words.

Prison cells are human cages. In most societies, it is taken for granted that denial of space and movement is an appropriate, rational response to a criminal act. This assumption is rarely if ever questioned because access to space signifies privilege. When people inscribe their stories onto the very walls of the cage and fill the space with their voices, breaking the silence with previously unspoken accounts of their lived experiences, the permanent power of the prison system over the prisoner’s body is challenged, the narrative rewritten.

These images are photographs and video still of the installation. Voices in Time. The accompanying quotations are excerpted from six hours of interview footage with former prisoners that screens nonstop on the three monitors positioned in the re-created cell. ~Salome Chasnoff “The cell is all cement, painted cement, gray, beige, whatever, with a metal support or frame for a plastic cot. You get one scratchy blanket and a flat pillow. That’s it. Toothbrush, toothpaste, I guess a bar of soap.”—Hilda Berghammer

“In Lincoln, it’s a room with 20 women. There are bunk beds. The room is so tiny and you got these little boxes underneath your beds that you keep everything in there that you own. That place broke me down. To be in a room with 20 women, that wasn’t my issue. My issue was the way that you’re talked to and the way that you’re treated in a place like that. The things that the officers are allowed to do, to be in the dormitories when we’re changing - that it so humiliating and that’s something that I will never forget for the rest of my life: to be naked and exposed to a stranger. The way it made me feel, nasty, because he was able to stand there and watch and there was nothing I could do about it. There was nothing that I could say. I just had to deal with it.”—Diana Delgado

“We had to live out of boxes. Everything goes in these boxes: our food, our underwear, and our shoes. Shoes you walked in the street with all day you had to put in the box with your food and your underwear. The smaller box is for paper, letters, stationary, and books. If you have food in the stationary box they will take it. If you have letters in the big box, they will take them.”—Pamela Thomas

“The living quarters are so tiny that two people can’t be standing at the same time. One’s gotta be in the bed. You cannot both be standing up at the same time in your living space. There is no escape, even just to think by yourself. You sleep together. You shower together. You use the bathroom together.”—Diana Delgado

“This is a cage. I’m fixin’ to be locked down like an animal and that’s how I felt.”—Donna Henry

“The brick is what we saw everyday. When we go to sleep this is what we see, and when we wake up this is what we see. The bricks get hot in the summer time and they get cold in the winter time, so there’s never really comfort there. If you complain about the temperature, if you tell them it’s too hot, they’ll turn the temperature up. If you tell them it’s too cold, they’ll turn the air on. So it’s best if we learn not to say anything and improvise. After a year or more of looking at these bricks you kind of feel like a caged animal.”—Pamela Thomas

“If you put something on the wall you’d get a ticket. Like if I get a card from my mother, I might want to stick it on the wall. But if the officers see it on the wall, they’d take it down, take your card away, and then you’d get a ticket. You can’t really have pictures on the wall.”—Iyrania Hill

“I remember the strip searches, when they come in there and just rip everything apart in there and you have to strip down and squat. They take everything that’s contraband, so any little thing that you may have accumulated while you were in there is gone. Then it’s just the humiliation of being ordered around all the time. There’s no personality in there. Everybody is the inmate. It’s like everybody is one inmate. There’s not much difference between one inmate and the other. It’s us and them. You’re so helpless in there and there is nothing you can do. You’re cut off from everything and everybody unless they allow you to have contact. And if they don’t allow it, you won’t have it.”—Hilda Berghammer

“The rooms I’ve been in were two bunks and a toilet and a little bitty sink. Having to use the toilet in front of somebody is pretty degrading, kind of primitive, like an animal. You may as well just squat anywhere.”—Hilda Berghammer

“The toilet was big, real hard, made of rusted iron. Ain’t no fixing that up. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night and have to sit on something metal to use the bathroom, and you flush it and it’s like your whole body is being suctioned in. You could drop bread in there and it would go straight down.”—Donna Henry

“The toilet is a very valuable item in prison. Not only do we use it for human waste, but this is where we get our air when it is too hot in the cell for us to breathe. When you flush it, it gushes up and a lot of air comes up and that was relieving in the summer time. The toilet was also our refrigerator. We have to be creative in there because we have nothing and we can’t get anything - so we have to come up with our own techniques for survival. A lot of times we would put food items in plastic bags, or pop or juice, and we placed it in the toilet and it would stay cold in the water. And also the toilet is right next to the bed. The cell might have two or three or four or even six people, depending on how big the cell is. Usually it’s big enough for you to stretch your arms out and touch each wall. But whoever is using the toilet, it’s like you’re using it too because you have to smell whatever is coming out.”—Pamela Thomas

“When I hear keys I think of prison, ‘cuz of the way that they used to jangle. Keys and radios. Officers calling in different codes. I couldn’t sleep at night, I guess maybe because I just wanted to hear normal sounds, noises from my kids.”—Diana Delgado

“The noise. . .most of the noise that you hear is steel doors opening and closing. Keys going into locks, unlocking doors and then slamming. Lots of steel doors slamming. Guards walking down the hallway. Other than that, it’s people shouting orders all the time, the guards. It’s people coming to your room, knocking on the door for a room check. Floor head count. You have to get up or shake you leg or something to let them know you’re alive. As far as the inmates, you always hear someone calling for a guard because they need something, they want to ask a question about this or that or they’re sick, they’re in pain. But nobody listens. Nobody responds.”—Hilda Berghammer

“There were phones ringing all the time. It just seemed like it anyhow. There would be officers on duty out at the middle part and if they were on rounds or not there, it would just ring and ring until somebody got it. Sometimes it would just ring and ring and no one would get it. And you could never touch a ringing phone. It was this really weird thing, after I got out of prison, when I had my own phone and it would ring, it was this big hesitation. I had to remind myself, ‘Okay, this is your phone, you need to answer this.’ There were months that I was afraid of the phone. Just not used to it.”—Joanne Archibald

“There’s people complaining about toothaches all the time, abscessed teeth. There were women on my tier that had surgery, or that had cancer, in fact, and when they go to the hospital they literally get no pain medication while they’re in there. One lady was in there, she had her breasts removed, a mastectomy. Then she came back on the tier. It was very painful, but they didn’t even allow her to recuperate and lay in her cell. When it’ s time for everybody to come out, you still have to come out. And when it’s time to stand in line, you still have to wait to go eat. Either that or you don’t eat.”—Hilda Berghammer

“I was heavily sedated. When I was asleep, I thought I was awake. I believe I was hallucinating, because I would see a guard and an inmate standing at the door, but they were this high off the floor. I was asleep, but yet I was awake. So I was hallucinating a lot. I seen serpents in my room. Someone was having sex with me. Everything that I experienced always terrified me and I was under so much medication, I was sometimes a walking zombie. But it was mandatory that I took the medicine.”—Linda Adams

“I went to seg [segregation] for six months. They take your TV, your radio, your fan, whatever you got, they take it. So, when they took all that from me, I was crazy. I just felt like I was crazy ‘cause you stay in your room for 23 hours a day and you come out for one hour. You got one hour to take a shower, wash your clothes if you got some clothes that need washing, comb your hair, you got one hour to do just some of everything. Then after the one hour’s up, you’re back in your room twenty three hours, no TV. If I got some paper, I write letters to my girlfriends or something, try to find a way to get it out. And then just sit there and think and go crazy. I used to cry a lot because I wanted to get out of seg. Seg ain’t good for nobody. I remember writing to my girlfriends that I missed them, I wish they’d go get in trouble and come to seg with me so I could talk to them through the chuck hole. Yeah, I remember those days.”—Iyrania Hill

“At boot camp, first they take you on this bus and they cut off all you hair. You have to hold your hands up like this and you can’t let your hair touch the floor. Now how are you going to stop your hair from falling on the floor? They get you up at 4:30 in the morning and make you work until 9:30 at night. If they know you are a size 8 boot, they gave you a size 6 or 6-1/2, at least one shoe size too small. I had been in a wheel chair and my feet were killing me and I couldn’t let them know that I was getting hurt ‘cause I wanted to get back. People working had hands bleeding and they couldn’t sit down. We had to get permission to sit down. If you wanted to ask permission to use the bathroom, you would also need permission to speak first or you were in trouble.”—Pamela Thomas

“One lady, she had a lot of time to do. Her daughter would get locked up on purpose so she could see her mother. That’s deep. She wants her mom coming home so she would go out and commit a crime so she could be with her mother. It’s sad in the night, so many people crying. You can hear people out in the yard during the day being tough but at night all you can hear is crying. People want to go home. They miss their family. But they ain’t never going home ‘cause they don’t have a family and all you can do is cry with them.”—Pamela Thomas

“When you go to prison you can’t sleep. The beds are extra hard. They feel like stones, like you sleeping on a car hood. So you seldom sleep, and all you hear at night is the clanging of the doors. And the mattress is about that thin, so whenever you are laying down you can feel the springs, and more than likely there is a board slapped under there so you can feel that through the mattress too.”—Pamela Thomas

“When I was arrested I used to keep a dream journal and they, of course, took all my things though they did end up giving them back to me after I got out. My suitcase, everything that they took, they marked with a case and evidence number. Just thinking that they had gone through this journal, somehow looking for clues, was so invasive that for a long time it made me really hesitant because I had this feeling that nothing was mine anymore. They could take whatever they wanted. There was no privacy, and that lasted a long time before I was comfortable expressing what I really thought—even on paper, without worrying. I sort of put on my own sensor because I knew they could take it and what might somebody think about this. It took a really long time to not feel like this.”—Joanne Archibald

“When I was out there using, I use to have dreams about jail. Well, they’re getting up right now, they’re popping the doors now, they have to come out now, they’re going to breakfast, you know what I’m saying? They’re popping the doors now, it’s 9 o’clock, to take their showers. I used to think about it all the time when I was out in the street. I use to pray I’d get locked up. Yes, I did, I use to pray all the time about jail. I was tired. I was really tired. When I got to jail I got really comfortable. I got my three meals a day, you know what I’m saying, I got my mail, all that, all that was some good stuff for me. I guess you call it institutionalized.”—Yolanda Mills

“It’s like going to the zoo. No privacy. It’s nasty, unsanitized. You got no shower curtain, just like slavery with the water hose and they spraying you down…They got a mirror right there, for they can watch.”—Donna Henry

“A lot of times we put our towels under our robe when we go to the shower because the showers are right in front of the officer’s desk. And that’s the officer’s favorite spot because he can see in the showers, and he’s there watching you naked. We wrap ourselves in our towels when we sleep also, to protect ourselves. It’s not much that we have, just a towel, a sheet, and a scratchy blanket. A lot of young girls come in and they can’t stand the pressure so they take the sheets in some type of way and they rip them up, they string them up, and this is what they use to hang themselves. They don’t tell people about those, but the majority of us that have been in there, we’ve seen them cut people down from the sheets. A couple of pregnant girls. A lot of times it’s the young girls that can’t stand the lockdown or the incarceration. Because a lot of the time you be hungry in there and by them being pregnant they were extra hungry and they wouldn’t feed them, so they chose to hang themselves.”—Pamela Thomas

“I got so used to being there, I guess I was institutionalized. It was like I was at home. I was so young when I went there so I couldn’t wait to wake up to go to the rec yard, to go meet my friends. I had gotten institutionalized. That was home to me for 10 years. It was just a home away from home to me because I was so young when I went.”—Iyrania Hill


References Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon P, 1994), 5.

Beyondmedia Education is a Chicago-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to equip under-served and under-represented women, youth, and communities to tell their stories, articulate their identities, and organize for social justice through the collaborative creation and distribution of alternative media and arts. They also conduct workshops in media literacy and production in community-based organizations and schools that could not otherwise afford these programs or the educational and outreach media that result: videos, web sites, multimedia exhibitions, handbooks, graphic arts, and live performances. Finally, they offer technical assitance and media services to other nonprofits, providingvital support to their communication needs. Beyondmedia has partnered with over ninety comunity-based groups to produce media arts on subjects ranging from children’s literacy to queer youth organizing to women’s incarceration.