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This summer, in partnership with Chicago Books to Women in Prison, we distributed a short survey to incarcerated women across the country, inviting them to tell us about their experience of living in prison. We have published a selection of those responses here with the respondents’ permission.

Dana L. Aikens
WCRCF – Greenville, Mississippi

What is your day-to-day schedule like?

My day-to-day schedule begins at 3:30 a.m. with prayer, then exercising for about an hour. I then get in the shower (at 5 a.m. wake-up call) and prepare for my day. I teach ABE/GED Math, Basic and Advanced Computer and administer TABE testing, so my day is 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. I am also the choir director and we practice three times a week, an hour each.

What’s the most difficult thing about living in prison? What gives you comfort or hope?

The most difficult thing about living in prison is the fakeness and the ways of those that I am housed with. Knowing that my children, family and church are with me gives me hope.

What has been the most surprising thing to you about being in prison?

My learning of new material and adventures relating to growth and maturity have been very surprising to me. The ability to attend college and earn college credit astonished me.

What is prison for?

Prison is for reform, redirection, revamping my mind frame, restoring and rehabilitation. It is removing the wrong attitude and perception of the world and my life.

Do you feel you’ve changed in prison? How?

Yes, I have changed a lot. I no longer make rash decisions or act on impulse. I also am no longer a people-pleaser. I think rationally and with wisdom. I take the road less traveled and stand up for what is right no matter who else doesn’t. I am a better person all around.

I am glad that I was able to experience this experience. I was able to become a better daughter, sister, mother and grandmother. My family can now really depend on me and not wonder if my addiction to money is a problem. I no longer have to lie, manipulate or cheat. I allowed this experience to totally transform me.

Edwina Robins
CMCF – Pearl, Mississippi

What is your day-to-day schedule like?

Monday through Friday: Individual Prayer to God 5 a.m. Shower 5 to 5:30 a.m. Breakfast 6 to 6:30 a.m. Vocational School Devotional 8 to 8:30 a.m. Apparel and Textile Vocational School 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Weekend: Individual Prayer to God 5 a.m. Shower 5 a.m. to 5:30 a.m.
Breakfast 6 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. Shaun T Exercise Videos 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Horror Action DVD videos 10 a.m. until ?

What’s the most difficult thing about living in prison? What gives you comfort or hope?

a.  Not being able to see my children daily
b.  Taking a shower with other women
c.  Being confined

1.  Can’t go outside when we want to
2.  Eat when officers tell us to eat
3.  Having to be a witness to a huge mass of lesbian relationships

God brings me comfort and hope.

What has been the most surprising thing to you about being in prison?

Cosmetics, hair straighteners (flat-irons), hair dryers in prison
School
Using phone to call home

What is prison for?

Prison is designed to basically do one thing which is to help rehabilitate criminals. Generally, over time change occurs. There is a fifty-fifty chance it will make prisoners better or worse.

Do you feel you’ve changed in prison? How?

Yes, I feel I have made a tremendous change, and I feel great. How? I don’t want to be the same person I was outside these walls. I lied to my family, friends, etc., to get money for drugs. I cheated people out of their money for me to purchase drugs. I was a bad parent because I was never there for my children because I was too busy supporting my drug habit. I became addicted to drugs at sixteen years old, and now I am four years clean even though there are drugs inside these walls. I overcome them all every second of every minute in this godforsaken place, and I win because I put God first who gives me the benefits and tools to do it with, so now I’m great through His power and Spirit.

What else, if anything, would you like to tell people outside the walls about your experience?

Prison is not a good place to go or be. Prisoners are treated unfairly and unjustly. Prisoners don’t get the medical treatment they need in a timely manner. For instance, someone has a bladder attack. A prisoner would have to put in a sick call to be seen. It will take about a week, maybe two weeks, to be seen by a doctor. That is a sickness a person can die from. Whether a prisoner gets called out to see the doctor or not that prisoner is charged $6 even though they presently are prisoners in state of Mississippi custody.

Secondly, as a prisoner, my living conditions here at MDOC are inhumane. I am currently living on 1A Yard in A Building, a building that has been condemned since year 2011. The sewage system backs up and comes up in the bathroom and shower drainage flooding the entire A Building with sewer water where 144 women, including myself, are housed. Mississippi Department of Corrections is using a gas-powered sewage pump to siphon, remove and dispose of sewage that passes off a foul, rotten, loathsome odor offensive to the senses in which all 144 women inhale—today marks fourteen days this has been going on instead of getting a plumber to fix the problem. Where is the Mississippi Health Department?

Lisa Barboa
CDCR – Corona, California

What is your day-to-day schedule like?

My day-to-day, I’m up at 5:30. I’ll turn on the news, make my coffee, get my stuff ready for shower. While I wait for the doors to “pop” I’ll wipe down my bed, table, walls, lockers, toilet and sink. The doors pop from 6:15 to 6:30. I’ll go shower, come back and get ready. Going to breakfast is an adventure. One never knows when the yard will go down. If you don’t go to breakfast, you don’t get your premade lunch.

Come back to the building, I’ll stop and pick up the broom and mop stick to finish my floor. You wait to hear what classes are closed. I go to group on Thursday mornings and work five days a week, 2 to 9 p.m. In between all the hours, ducats for medical, dental, etc. may change your day. The only consistent thing day to day is to wake up and go to sleep. That’s always about the same time.

What’s the most difficult thing about living in prison? What gives you comfort or hope?

Being away from my children and grandchildren because of my own dumb choices. Missing so many milestones in my kids’ lives, memories they’ll have. Just being away from them.

I know that one day I’ll be home. Laws are changing all the time and BPH is finding people suitable for parole. I know I have worked hard to change and will be found suitable.

What has been the most surprising thing to you about being in prison?

How such violence occurs. The treatment that I have seen amazes me. How the officers disrespect, abuse, mistreat, assault so many women, as well as the men. If an inmate were to do the same, charges would be filed, of course, after. You’re beaten, pepper-sprayed. So many unjust things I have seen and heard. You don’t speak up in fear of retaliation, them tearing up your pictures, mail, opening and dumping out all your food onto your floor, or having pieces of legal mail or court transcripts go missing, taken during a “cell search.”

What is prison for?

It is a human warehouse with little to no rehabilitation. You cannot have any write-ups to participate in these programs, so people continue to get into trouble. There are not very many vocational classes. The ones they do have, have long waiting lists. I also believe it’s a way to cover up for the lack of money management in each state: blame it on the people in prison.

I am a nonviolent offender. I would not testify against my codefendant so they made my three years into seven to life, for gang enhancement and being a “habitual criminal.” I was arrested in 2002 and for this case in 2013. This is my first time in prison. How am I a habitual criminal?

Do you feel you’ve changed in prison? How?

Yes. I have changed a lot. I have learned so many positive things from teaching myself and my children how to express anger in a positive way, to teaching some of these young women about cooking, laundry and how their choices affect not just themselves. I have also changed when it comes to being around people. I used to like being around people. Now I would rather stay in my room. You have loud, rude women who feel they have something to prove. I am trying to go home, not stay here longer. I don’t trust people anymore.

What else, if anything, would you like to tell people outside the walls about your experience?

Not everybody here is a bad person. About 50 percent of these women are here on nonviolent crimes who were given extended sentences due to allegations, enhancements or for not testifying against a codefendant.

About 40 percent of the women here are in this situation because of a man. They were either used, very codependent, or threatened into the crime. They were probably offered a deal but it involved testifying against him. Not knowing what “unhealthy” relationships are, they really did believe he would do the right thing. As she now sits in prison.

About 5 percent committed a murder by their hands. Maybe against an abusive spouse, in a domestic violence relationship. The other 5 percent, well, they are the ones who have hurt a child. Unforgivable.

So if you own a business just know we need a hand up. A chance at proving ourselves to our communities. Who knows—we may teach you something. We are hard workers. We have more to prove to ourselves, family and community.

I had three jobs to be able to provide for my children.

Venus Rountree
San Quentin – San Quentin, California

What is your day-to-day schedule like?

My day to day schedule is: get up at 3 a.m. and stretch my arms to loosen my back. Put hot water on for coffee first. After stretching my arms I twist my neck about ten times, then I stand on my tiptoes to stretch my back for thirty seconds. Then I squat and stretch my lets and crouch about fifteen times. Next, I get on my back and pull my legs under me in a yoga asana and put my arms forwards, honoring God, my higher self, all sentient beings in the physical and spiritual world and all families including mine, my victim’s family and my best friend’s family… Next, cup of coffee, four different spiritual readings, wash my face, shave, lotion, get dressed for chow with makeup on.

Go to breakfast, go to work in the scullery. Come back, rest, get ready for my college class, go to school, come back from school, eat dinner, take a shower, go to bed after a small reading or a little TV. I always brush my teeth before bed too! Say prayer of thanks to God. Typical day.

What’s the most difficult thing about living in prison? What gives you comfort or hope?

The most difficult thing in prison for me is to trust God always despite the negativity of the environment and the people. I have been attacked and almost killed a few times over my 37-year sixteen-to-life sentence. Trusting in God is the only sane and safe thing to do for me. I wonder what else God wants me to learn before, or if, I get out. I wonder if I have paid my karma for my crime or if I will have to reincarnate again. Knowing after a near-death experience in 1976, on the streets, that only the body dies, I am not the body, but an immortal soul and consciousness is my greatest comfort and living hope.

What has been the most surprising thing to you about being in prison?

That it is part of my spiritual path. My sentence gave me time to learn, grow, change and become a better person. After many years, I came out, started hormones and am supposed to get a sex change in December 2018. I used to have relationship problems, drug, alcohol and tobacco problems. Now I have none. I am celibate and sober.

What is prison for?

I believe prison at one time was designed by society to punish and rehabilitate people who could be rehabilitated after they committed a crime. Some could not and were put to death. Nowadays, I believe it is a business for politicians and others to benefit from under the illusion of punishment and rehabilitation. But, as all lessons of life, I believe wherever one is, that is where God wants us to learn and grow.

Do you feel you’ve changed in prison? How?

Yes, I have changed. I was 22 when I first got to prison, I am 59 now. I was a young hippie with abandonment and rejection issues. A flowerchild in prison for killing their own spouse. How utterly shameful. Yet, my wife’s spirit has taught me forgiveness and love with God’s help in ways I could not have imagined. I learned to love and forgive myself and came out as a woman myself. I would have never imagined it. I quit smoking and gained greater faith and confidence in myself than ever before.

What else, if anything, would you like to tell people outside the walls about your experience?

I learned that to hate or dislike strongly only hurts oneself. We all need love. Those of us who have committed crimes need love, not hate. We need love and understanding to get well, not mean, uncaring punishment. We learn with open eyes and heart to return to innocence, and regardless of faith, creed, gender, upbringing. Be ye like little children again—the kingdom of light is real.

April Capsel
Logan CC – Lincoln, Illinois

What is your day-to-day schedule like?

My day-to-day schedule is getting up once morning count is being done which is approximately 7:30 a.m. I make my morning coffee and get ready for the day. I am on the drug unit (Westcare) so from 12 to 3 p.m. we have group the whole time. Lunch is before group, around 11 a.m. After group I usually read, write, study paralegal studies or watch TV. I go to yard Tuesdays and Thursdays, and sometimes I will work out or be a jailhouse chef.

What’s the most difficult thing about living in prison? What gives you comfort or hope?

The most difficult thing about living in prison is the COs or other inmates disrespecting you or making you feel less than because they know you can’t do anything about it unless you want to go to segregation. What gives me comfort is that through all this hardship my son is waiting for me. I know I still have people that want me to get out and prosper and still have my back through my hard times in here.

What has been the most surprising thing to you about being in prison?

I don’t find anything surprising in prison because I have been in and out all of my life. What surprises someone else is just another day for me… but there was a lady in segregation who took out her own eyeballs and said the devil made her do it and now she has an aide to walk her around.

Actually, justice surprises me because we do not get much of that here. Like when the wardens (we have five or six of them) do what they say they are gonna do. I had a ticket dropped, which I was surprised about, but I had to use the chain of command and go through the grievance procedure and everyone told me I had no chance and to leave it alone, but I am a fighter and I won’t ever give up until I feel like I have justice.

What is prison for?

Prison is supposed to be for rehabilitation, but it’s all about money and politics—like how taxpayers are paying for prisoners. The companies that the prisons are vending from are making them rich. The more of us here means the more money in the suppliers’ pockets. I was a drug dealer, now I just have to be legit.

Do you feel you’ve changed in prison? How?

Prison has made me more humble, better at dealing with BS. I wouldn’t say it changed me because I will always be me, but I am wiser and have more patience. I am mentally and physically stronger. I think each prison sentence makes me more insane in the head, but I’m learning not to act on things and that time is valuable and that I am not going to waste it outside of here.

What else, if anything, would you like to tell people outside the walls about your experience?

I think if someone has a loved one locked up, even if it’s just an acquaintance, try to do everything you can for them. There are ways to be there that don’t involve money. A lot of people need emotional support and don’t have no one. It gets lonely in here and I’m lucky to have the ones I got in my corner. A card, a letter, picture, money, email (most joints have emails now, but it has to be set up by a person on the outside), books (it’s hard to come across good sources of information here). Or just find out what the prison lets you send. You can send religious necklaces, prayer rugs, bras to female prisons.

I just want people to put themselves in others’ shoes before they go out and judge others because anyone could land themselves in here! Accidents happen and sometimes people do what they can to survive and once you get an X on your head your options are limited and you can only survive on them streets.

I’ve also enclosed a poem:

Why when I walked into this place at disgrace about nine out of ten had a drug case. Why did some of the staff make it perfectly clear that they seen some of the same people come back more than three times in one year and they really act like we wanna be here and they’re mad at us because we show no fear.

Why is it they want to keep the poor without our basic needs. State pay ain’t even enough to cover our basic hygiene. Why is it the COs can treat us like crap but it’s segregation if we say something back. We can’t even practice our faith without discrimination. I’ve been in Logan, Decatur and Fox Valley ATC and all I’ve seen in female prison is hatred.

Why is it that females don’t stick together while men go on hunger strikes. A lot of women are too worried about their girlfriend, kites, Honey Buns and Oatmeal Creme Pies. While they think that’s their girl, they’re playing in someone else’s cream pie.

Why don’t you open up your eyes while you’re still alive, while some are here being a passenger in a driveby. Don’t sit and cry because you snitched on your homie to get less time. Justice don’t mean the bad guy goes to jail, it just means someone pays for the crime, but keep hope because we will prevail. They ask me how do I do all this time, set up, cuffed up, thought I could trust a hype but put myself on the line. Why do I have to sell drugs to get by because I have an X on my head from the system, but I will never give up because I have Allah as my witness.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


This survey appears in issue 17 of The Point
as part of our “What is prison for?” symposium.
Subscribe today to read this and more in print.

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