Orange is the New Black: Alice’s story, part one

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.

Prison isn’t that confining. This is actually a picture of a Utica Crib that I drew for a book by Lorna MacDonald Czarnota, titled Erie Canal Legends, Lore and Secrets of Western New York.   The Utica crib was used to calm down people in mental hospitals. It is now considered a barbaric practice and is no longer used.

Here I am, five feet tall and wearing thick glasses, just as I am described in Orange is the New Black.

It was early in the morning, and I couldn’t sleep anymore. My bed was as hard as a steel shelf. In fact, it was a steel shelf with a thin blue mattress on top. I was wrapped in an old blanket with holes worn in it after years of use by multitudes of inmates. Slowly, I got up and and  stretched. My bones felt creaky after a night on such a hard surface. I rubbed my eyes and put on my glasses and my orange shoes, which I guessed were a size five or five and a half. Unfortunately, I wear a size seven, and the shoes fit me like sausage casings. They came off at once.
I had been delivered to the SHU the previous night by a lieutenant who seemed to not really want to take me there. As we walked down the hill from the prison camp and toward the FCI, he asked me what I had done to earn my time in federal prison and for how long would I be there. I told him that I had crossed a fence at Fort Benning to protest a military training school that taught its Latin American students military tactics. It was alleged that some of the military tactics included torture, assassination, the finer points of how to plan and carry out a coup d’etat against one’s own government, etc.  Of course, no one knew if the school had done this training, even though a “torture training manual” had been discovered, because there had never been an independent investigation of the training offered at the school or of the conduct of the school’s graduates after graduating from the school. The school used to be called the “School of the Americas” and was later re-named “Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation” or WHINSEC. Some people called it School of the Assassins (la escuela de los asesinos).
I did not, however, tell the lieutenant all of that. I just briefly mentioned the fence crossing and my ninety-day sentence. I also did not tell the lieutenant that my classmate from my two months in an intensive Spanish language school in Guatemala in 1987, a young Ursuline sister, had been kidnapped and brutally tortured by Guatemalan military while attending a religious retreat two years later, in 1989.
The people who tortured the young Ursuline sister were never punished for their crimes.
The U.S. citizen who was allegedly in charge of the torture was never punished for his crime.
I chose to make a dramatic statement by crossing the Fort Benning fence. I ended up by making this dramatic statement three times in four years before I realized that the government was not going to take responsibility for its actions and that I did not have to be punished for the government’s crimes.
But that’s another story for another time.
I was living in a little cage, dressed for success (in Guantanamo). It was morning. Breakfast was delivered to my cage and pushed through a grate. Oh, not bad. Room service. OK, so the accommodations looked somewhat medieval, but getting room service was pretty cool. Unfortunately, when I opened the containers, I realized that I was having trouble identifying the food. I was hungry so I ate it anyway. I think that there might have been some sort of pancakes. Or French toast? One of them. I think.
The other women in the SHU started to wake up. There was only one way for them to communicate with their friends and that was by shouting at the top of their lungs. It was too loud for my sensitive ears. Hyperacusis, alas, does not turn itself off because it is inconvenient, and this was one of those times. For more information about hyperacusis, read the hyperacusis network website. Well, technically speaking, I don’t have hyperacusis; I have hyperacute hearing, which is a condition common to people with autism (which I don’t have). I was born with my sensitive ears. Hyperacusis is an acquired condition, which results in its sufferers losing the ability to tolerate noise. So I stuffed toilet paper in my ears to try to dull the roar of the screaming.
I heard someone yelling to a woman named Bree. I remembered that, when fellow line crosser Betsy and I first arrived in Danbury, we were placed in the SHU because there were no medical people available to check us in and we were considered to be “not safe to be in general population.” We were put into a cage together. By the time that I was attired in bright orange, thus resembling an overfed pumpkin, and was taken to my “new home,” Betsy was already stretched out on the lower bunk. Not having her feet on the floor was a good thing because there was a layer of water on the floor in our cage. When the correctional officer who was delivering me to my new home saw this, she got a SHU orderly to mop up the mess. After the mess was mopped up, my handcuffs were removed, and I was escorted into the cage. We found out later that the water on the water was courtesy of Bree, who was mad about something  and who decided to take out her frustrations by flushing the toilet over and over again until it overflowed. After the floor was dry, she pushed some books from her cage to our cage. She said that she did that to apologize for creating that little disaster.
The next morning, Betsy and I were taken outside for “recreation” in an outdoor cage. Bree was in the next cage. She seemed to recognize us as the unintended victims of her pique of irritation. She told us that she was from California and was going back to a federal prison there. She had been sent to Danbury to participate in a mental health program.
Betsy asked her, “Are you cured?”
“No,” Bree said, “but I graduated.”
“Congratulations,” we said.
The correctional officer walked by the outdoor cage and said to Bree, “It looks like you will be with us for quite some time.”
Two months later, Bree was still in the SHU in Danbury, Connecticut, a few thousand miles from home.
My ears hurt and I was bored.
I reached under my bed to see if I could find something there. I needed to distract myself so that I could forget that, not only do I have hyperacute hearing, I am also highly claustrophobic. Fortunately, I found a stack of writing paper and a golf pencil. I guess people who live in little cages could do evil things with erasers. Hence pencils without erasers.
It was almost like hitting the jackpot, except without the money. That was OK that there wasn’t any money because money is contraband in prison and I was already in the SHU and the last thing that I needed there was contraband cash, with no where to spend it.
I decided that I would write about the events of the past few days, the events that resulted in my being shooed to the SHU…
(to be continued)

2 thoughts on “Orange is the New Black: Alice’s story, part one”

  1. Thank you for sharing your story! I am fan of Orange is the New Black and I find the most fascinating part of the show is the back stories. The choices each woman made that resulted in her incarceration.

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