DRUG WAR TALK: FEELING THE PAST IN THE PRESENT
I remember as a young girl in Catholic school being shown films of Nazi Germany and the concentration camps. In the films I saw few guards and thousands of skeletal prisoners. The lessons secretly etched their way into my soul.
I remember asking the teacher, "Why would those people go into the gas chambers or even stay in the camps when there were so many of them and not many guards?" The teacher's answers weren't satisfactory.
I told my mother the things I was told and saw - and asked her what she thought. She brought up the fact that the guards had guns. I reasoned that there wouldn't be enough bullets. She said they were all very sick and weak, that they just couldn't fight. I knew that couldn't be all there was to it either. I remember my young and arrogant response: "No matter how weak and sick I was, I'd fight."
At various times as my life progressed, I momentarily thought about those people and wondered - Why?
Upon starting my time in FCI Tallahassee, I was pulled to books on people and government. I read things on Vietnam; American Indian and African American tragedies; JFK, and books that make one wonder just who is running this country. I read the Third Reich biography of Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, the list goes on and on. Rarely do I read a book now that does not pertain to that WW II era. I do not understand the obsession, but I am beginning to find the answer to that question from long ago: Why did so many Jews submit to Nazi death? For me the answer wasn't found in books. It had to be felt. I feel the answer - here in Fluvanna.
Books taught me that during the WW II era anti-Semitism was rampant, not only in Germany but everywhere including the good ole U.S. of A. Now I compare the sentiments of those anti-Semitics to the views of many present-day Americans on Drug War prisoners. I've heard callers voicing their opinions on radio talk shows, etc. "Anyone in prison deserves to be there, and whatever happens to them … well, they shouldn't have committed the crime to start with."
Some guards and staff in every institution treat us as humans, some even as sisters, but most see us as low-life rubbish that society hates - so it doesn't matter how we're treated. All of us prisoners are subjected to this, some more than others, and we can play it off as if it doesn't bother us, but at least sub-consciously we feel dirty, inadequate.
The treatment I and others received since finding our names on the list for transfer from Tallahassee to Fluvanna has been callous, demonic and inconceivable torture.
Through stress and anxiety I lost 10 pounds in just the 14 days between finding my name on the list and the actual transfer. I was in panic with the reports of the horrible living conditions in Fluvanna flooding the compound in Tallahassee. The reports warned us to do whatever we could to get off the transfer list to the maximum security state prison. They called it "hell" and "death row."
Tallahassee and BOP officials played a sick game of cat and mouse with my family who desperately made phone calls trying to get my name off the list. My unit manager in Tallahassee wouldn't admit that she had the authority to remove names from the list. It was later confirmed that she did. She gave me the name of a woman in a regional office and said that maybe that woman could help me get taken off. The woman had my family call another person in Tallahassee. For nearly two weeks this went on. My family must have spoken to every regional office personnel and Tallahassee staff there was. No one would claim responsibility - everyone passed the buck. This senseless game-playing added to my loved ones' stress as well as mine, and was very costly in phone bills for a family that has little money already.
The week before transfer my unit manager called me into her office and laughingly told me to give it up, quit fighting because I can't win. After I reminded her I am from Florida and will be almost completely cut off from my family if transferred, and therefore I must try, she told me it was hopeless. I, my middle-aged arrogant self, told her, "I am a child of God and one thing I believe is there's always hope!" She laughed at me and said she'd bet I'd be hoping all the way to the steps of the transfer bus. And that I was.
Before leaving the Tallahassee compound, we were strip-searched, given travel clothes, and then handcuffed. We waited two hours in a cramped and cold holding cell, most of us sitting on the cold cement floor, before being taken to the bus.
On the 12½ hour bus ride a male officer was at arm's length of the open toilet we had to use. Only a screen, thinner than chicken wire, divided us. An inmate had been getting sick off and on from the moment she entered the bus. The officer did not tell the orderly to clean it up. There was no sink.
The bus was dimly lit. I went to use the toilet with my hands cuffed. The cuffs were also bound to a waist chain to restrict movement. I struggled to get my pants down in a hurry, being embarrassed with the male officer right there. I tried to squat over the toilet as I was going to the bathroom, but with the bouncing of the bus I fell back off the seat. After I got up, I struggled to get my pants up as quickly as possible to end the humiliating scene.
Sitting back down in my seat on the hot bus, my thighs and buttocks started to burn. I knew I had fallen into something on the toilet seat and hoped that at least it was cleaning chemicals. Not until weeks later when the inmate commented on the many times she got sick on the bus did I realize what I had actually sat in. The acid from her vomit is what irritated and burned my skin through the extensive bus ride and the 7-plus hour intake procedures at Fluvanna, before I could finally shower.
The bus ride was so excruciatingly hot that sweat rolled down the back of my neck. The girl next to me had sweat forming on her face and forehead. The seats sat in an uncomfortably erect position, and angled forward at the neck and head area which made it impossible to sit upright for any length of time. I had a thick T-shirt under the travel shirt. I had gotten to the point that I felt like a torture victim, falling asleep for a short period of time and waking in misery from the exhausting heat and burning skin, never fully awake or asleep. My neck, back, and legs hurt from the cramped space of the seats. My sinuses and mouth were so dry that it was agonizing. I was afraid to eat the bagged chicken sandwich and chips. They had expiration dates almost a year old stamped on them. I was afraid to drink anything for fear of having to use the toilet again.
The lieutenant was engaged in conversation and ignored repeated cries to turn off the heat. I decided I was going to die if I didn't get the T-shirt out from under the travel shirt. I'd lost so much weight in a short amount of time, and dehydration was beginning. I knew the T-shirt could easily be pulled out from under the other shirt and over my head with the help of my friend sitting beside me. Then we worked one side of the shirt through the cuff and around one hand. As we pulled it back through the cuff, it got lodged. Evidently, the irritation from its sliding through the first time caused my wrist to swell. My circulation began to be cut off as we frantically tried to pull it back through. My wrist swelled so full, the shirt wouldn't budge.
I approached the lieutenant with the problem, and all hell broke loose. He screamed and yelled at me. He told me to sit down. I was trying to explain that my circulation was cut off and I needed help. He said he didn't care - sit down! The female officer he'd been talking with earlier came over and looked at it. She told him it needed to be loosened. He made her stop helping me until another officer had his pistol ready. (I am probably the "lowest custody" inmate in the fed system. All the years at Tallahassee, I never had one incident report, no trouble ever.)
The wrist had swollen so much that it took several tries to get the cuff squeezed tighter into my flesh before it would release the pressure on the lock for the key to function properly. After the lady officer loosened the cuff, she took her turn yelling at me and threatened me with even more restrictive restraints.
In orientation here in Fluvanna, I was called a liar when I mentioned that I and another inmate had gotten sick on the uncooked chicken served recently. It was bloody in the center. Chicken here is usually undercooked. We were told we didn't know what we were talking about.
I was called a liar because I denied the stereotype statement yelled at all of us. The guard said he knows we come from abusive relationships with men we don't love and have children we don't want. I told the man I've been married for 19 years to my husband who is my best friend, and we weren't lucky enough to have children. "Liar!" he yelled, pointing at me. He said if any of us say that, we are lying.
He told us, "You can go ahead and start law suits for being held here, but you know what? You're gonna lose, because who do you think anyone out there is going to believe - you, a bunch of convicts, or us?"
He threatened that he can put us in the segregation unit any time and he doesn't need a reason. He said if he gets suspicious, he'll "flag" us and then every piece of mail going in or out and every phone call will be monitored by him.
The female warden told a group that we feds are spoiled and demanding, and she was going to "break" us.
I'm afraid to eat in the kitchen. Hepatitis and AIDS victims work there gloveless. Some girls from the Virginia state system have made it known they don't like us. Fingernails have appeared in fed inmates' food. We also find hair in our food. Often when we feds are served, the soup tastes like dish soap. I mainly live on commissary, which means Ho-Ho's, candy bars, chips, and Ramen Noodle soup.
My hair was below my belly button when the natural curls were pulled straight. I had an inmate chop it off above the shoulders, so I'd be in compliance with the rule about short hair.
I have been told my face is getting thin, like many of the state girls here. People tell me I have lost a lot of weight since being here. I see the weight loss in my friends. Many have large dark circles around their eyes. We experience more than normal hair loss. My body is falling apart. I sleep on a metal slab with a mat over it. My knees and ankles are so bony now, I have to put a blanket between them when I sleep because my bones are sore.
I've had no visits, and wouldn't want anyone to travel to see me for one hour one day a week (up to three hours if approved for persons traveling over 200 miles). Phone calls are so expensive I can make only a fraction of the calls I made in Tallahassee.
The BOP has written us off. They don't seem to care how we are treated - like on the bus trip here. (Most if not all inmates in the federal system are transported on federal transport planes.) Not only do we not have the benefits of BOP policy in regard to everyday, civilized living - for example, toilet seats, mirrors, and sufficient toilet paper and paper towels - but we are told we won't have half-way house time and a year off for drug program completion. Virginia apparently does not believe in the half-way house system. We also are not eligible, as state prisoners are, for 50 per cent good time credit for inmates sentenced before 1995. We are federal prisoners doing time in a state prison, having the worst of both worlds.
With the lack of religious services for those in the Catholic faith, just when I am most in need, my faith in God began to falter. I couldn't call my family without crying. I still do not have contact with my husband, who is also incarcerated, because this maximum security facility has yet to approve it. The enforced idleness, with no job or access to television or outside news media, keeps my mind locked into the conditions at hand.
Through all this, and the ignorance displayed in American legal and political circles, and the self-righteous attitude of the American public, I feel the sorrowful answer to that question from so long ago. Why did so many of the Jewish people submit to Nazi death? Because if escape were even possible it would have meant facing an uncaring public, who could stand by and allow atrocities while they sleep in comfortable beds. Because to die would at least bring peace and rest, if perhaps an end to existence.
After the first few months here in Fluvanna, in what now feels like my old-aged arrogant self, I have to say that I would have followed those prisoners of Jewish descent straight into Nazi death. And welcomed it. I sometimes wish Fluvanna had death available and am surprised they don't.
But I praise God that my misery is not equal to the brutality of the concentration camps, though the pain and suffering may feel as great. America has not yet taken the final step. With the help of friends who speak out for justice and the cause of righteousness, I have recovered some of my faith and hope.
Still I ask why history has to repeat itself. Why is the Nazi past not being remembered?
I fear for the future of the United States. Read at least one book on the Holocaust and the most evil period of modern history. Read of the conditions suffered by helpless, non-violent people. Gather the facts and decide on which side you stand in today's War on Drugs. Waste no time. You will be touched by it soon, if you have not been already - every American will.
With federal prisons overcrowded from the influx of prisoners of the War on Drugs, the Bureau of Prisons ships federal prisoners to state prisons like this one in Fluvanna, conveniently forgetting its responsibility for what happens to us once we are here. I ask you to speak out. Vote with your conscience and elect officials who will end this affliction. May God bless America!
The Committee on Unjust Sentencing, Spring, 2001