When I Think Back
community prison-life relationships
When I think back to my first months in prison, I most remember meeting J, a woman who I became particularly close to. Another friend I'd made in the county jail, O, came to La Vista and was released before I got here. Before she left, O told a few women to look out for me. Within the first couple weeks of my arrival, I was introduced to J and was accepted instantly.
Being welcomed into her "family" circle like this meant a lot at the time because I was shy and was younger than most of the population. Also, I was coming to terms with my sentence and convictions while trying to settle into a new environment.
From the start, I clung to J, who included me in everything, like going to meals in the chow hall and spending time together as a group in the unit. She made efforts to help me adjust to prison life and provided me with basic things I didn't have. J's reaching out played a huge part in enabling me to emerge from that dark time.
I was dealing with severe depression and anxiety and was mentally and emotionally unstable. I sought services from La Vista's mental health department multiple times, but received not one counseling session that they'd supposedly scheduled. When I went through a mental breakdown, my urine was analyzed to see if I was using drugs and I was interrogated about being "bullied." After a five-minute meeting with one counselor, I was told the breakdown was just PMSing.
For over a year, J patiently helped me to work through my thoughts and feelings as much as she sat in silence with me when talk was overwhelming. I can honestly say that I don't know where or how I'd be right now had J not extended herself through care and support.
Developing our friendship was one experience that showed me how significant it is for us women to reach out to each other and build our community in a prison setting.
We share common hardships and are able to relate to each other. We are sensitive to one another's needs for support and encouragement and are ready to counter the harshness of common prison experiences. Like being belittled or abused by officers as they flex their authority, being told that we are unfit to rejoin the rest of society by parole or community boards, or having our children ask us why we are not with them. We may have to look over our shoulders to hug and we may feel paranoid when we exchange common gestures of human touch because we can be disciplined for sexual abuse if we are "caught." And, yes, we risk punishment when we help each other out by sharing what few things we have.
Still, we do these things and they lighten the weight pressing against us and foster a sense of community.
By design and function, prisons aim to keep prisoners divided and to limit our contact with one another. This points to the strength in building community to change our surroundings. Our care for each other enables us to recognize when a sister is violated. If we can recognize the violation of another, we can also recognize our own mistreatment and this awareness is the initial catalyst in pushing for change. Our sense of community promotes change as we validate one another because when we feel valuable again, we reclaim our worth and humanity and are able to come together to challenge oppressions.
Every day our networks of support do have individual and collective influence, and they do counter oppressive, dehumanizing and traumatic conditions. Besides lifting each other up with encouraging words and birthday and holiday get-togethers, we come together to help each other with filing grievances, taking legal action to assert our rights or fight cases, addressing a staff member's abuse, writing letters and doing what we can to actively oppose these conditions- As long as there is oppression, there is an urgent need among the oppressed to form alliances and strengthen community. As long as there are forces seeking to prevent our connections, there are counter-actions among the oppressed, both as a means of survival and to improve our world.
This is what women in prison do.