Orange is the New Black, Alice’s Story, part five

Before Orange is the New Black  was published, author Piper Kerman asked me if I would give her permission to use my real name in her memoir. I said yes, it was OK. She wanted to tell the story of my unfortunate experience while working as a tutor in the education program at the Federal Prison Camp in Danbury, Connecticut. This unfortunate experience resulted in my being sent to the segregation unit in the main prison (the Federal Correctional Institution). In the book, once I am taken away to segregation (called the “Special Housing Unit,” the SHU, or “seg”), I am never mentioned again, almost as if I have fallen off the face of the earth. But, alas, nothing quite that dramatic occurred to me, so here is my story.

Synopsis of yesterday’s episode: I was trapped in the SHU and I began writing details of the unfortunate incident on paper that I found underneath my bed.

The world that I was to know after getting turned loose from the
SHU.

Shortly
after I finished writing, the teacher’s supervisor came to see me. She asked me
what happened. I told her about what had happened.


“And
where are you now?” she asked.

“I am
in a little cage,” claustrophobic alice said.

I
offered her the written story and she took it, thanked me, and left.

Shortly
afterward, a C.O. came to take me out of my cage. I thought that he was going
to take me to the recreation cage. He showed me a set of handcuffs. The routine
in the SHU was that you stand with your back to the door and place your hands
behind your back and in front of the grate where the food was placed. The C.O.
would then handcuff you and would open the door. The first time that I was told
that I would be handcuffed while still in the cage, I said, “You’re not going
to handcuff me to the gate, are you?” I visualized myself swinging back and
forth as the gate was opened and closed, sort of like a horror movie scene. “Oh,
no,” said the C.O., “we do this all of the time.”

This
C.O. said, “Levantase sus manos. Raise your hands.” I didn’t know why he said
the same thing in two languages. I did what he told me, and he handcuffed me very
tightly. He walked me down one flight of stairs. I tried holding onto a rail
but, with hands handcuffed behind my back,  that turned out to be a very difficult feat. The
C.O. walked me to an office without a door and left me there. I was not going
outside. There were two men in the room, one in uniform and the other wearing a
suit. The man in uniform told me to come in and sit down. He did not offer to
remove the handcuffs.  

The man
in the uniform said that he was a lieutenant and was the unit manager of the
SHU. The other man said that he was a psychologist. The lieutenant questioned
me about the incident. He asked the same questions as the other lieutenant. I
wasn’t sure about why I needed to be questioned twice about the same incident.
I was never informed of my rights. Before long, I wasn’t thinking about my
rights or about answering any of the questions. The handcuffs were so tight
that I thought that my circulation would soon be cut off and my hands would
fall off. I also knew that my fear of my hands falling off made little to no
sense.
The
psychologist then evaluated me. The lieutenant just sat there and listened,
which I thought was odd.

“Do you
want to kill yourself?”

By this
time, while I wasn’t obsessing over my diminishing circulation to my hands, I
was feeling inordinately pleased with myself over the whole incident with that
teacher from you-know-where. Even if I was not ready to pat myself on the back
(if only I weren’t manacled, which made self-back patting impossible), I wasn’t
going to give anyone the satisfaction of my unfortunate and self-inflicted
demise.

“No,” I
said.

“Are
you feeling anxious or depressed?”

“No,” I
lied. When you are claustrophobic and you’re stuck in a little cage, you will
feel somewhat anxious. I decided not to share that information with the psychologist.

All
interviews were over. I was informed that I would be in the SHU for 72 hours. I
was returned to my cage and the handcuffs were mercifully removed.

Later
in the day, I was told that I was going to return to the camp that afternoon.
In preparation for my departure, I was taken to another cage and was told to
remove my pumpkin orange costume and put my regular uniform back on. The second
cage in which I found myself had both bars and plexiglass. It was completely
enclosed. My claustrophobia kicked itself into high gear.

The
women in these cages apparently were considered to be the most severe behavior
problems.

“What
is SHE doing here?” someone said, as I was escorted into the Claustrophobic’s
Nightmare Cage. The women of these cages resumed their shouted conversations.
It seemed to have something to do with a failed affair between two inmates. The
impression that I got was of feeling terrorized by the toxic tunes of torment.
The women used swear words that I had never heard in my life, even more lurid
than the teacher’s demonstration of foul language.

“Wow,”
I thought. “New vocabulary.”

Ten
minutes after leaving the SHU, however, I managed to forget every last foul
word that I heard and, thus, have no memory of the conversation.

When
the counselor came to bring me back to the camp, he said, “We decided that it
is not necessary for you to stay at the SHU. The shot (the charge against me)
still stands. We have decided that you are not able to handle the SHU.”

He was
right, but I wasn’t going to tell him about constantly being on the verge of a
claustrophobic panic attack.

Later,
Betsy told me that there was fear that, if I stayed in the SHU for the entire
weekend, there would be a riot in the camp. The warden had come while I was
away for her regular visit to the cafeteria. Women could address their concerns
and make requests while she stood there. That day, there was a long line of
women waiting to see the warden. They all said, “The teacher used foul language
and yelled and he put the tutor in the SHU!”

Betsy
said that she had never seen so much unity in the camp among the women.
I
returned to the camp and was given a warm welcome.

The
following Monday, I found out that I had a new job assignment.

Grounds
maintenance.

I was
told by one person that the counselor was using a job assignment as punishment, that “grounds maintenance” was not considered a plum assignment, as was “education.”

I got
to ride a bus to work. I was given a backpack blower to blow the newly mown
grass off of the streets and sidewalks in the “staff housing” area. It was
great fun. I felt happy.

Not
long afterward, some of the women who worked in the greenhouse asked me to work
with them there. I learned how to propagate plants in the greenhouse. We
traveled to the flower beds where I pulled weeds. I was happy.

I learned
how to prune shrubbery.

My “punishment”
work assignment changed my life. I realized that I could work outside and that
I could enjoy my work.

It made
me into the gardener that I am today.

I learned
that life is good and that people are stronger than the challenges placed before
them. I learned not to fear. I had experienced the worst that the prison system
could throw at me, short of execution, and I had come out, better than when I
started.

I am
thankful for the support that I received from the other women in the federal
prison camp in Danbury. I was grateful to be surrounded by strong women who were
so resilient. They taught me a lot about life and about never giving up.

There
are other stories and other adventures.

Life is
an adventure.

And it
is good…

The end
(for now)



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