A Small World: Four Years in a Women’s Prison

Posted on August 3, 2011 by

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by Alissa Fleck

The Mitchellville Penitentiary Maximum Security Prison for Women is the most notable establishment in the city of Mitchellville, which occupies parts of both Polk and Jasper counties in central Iowa. The facility rises up—near majestically—against a backdrop of bungalows, train tracks, and desolate-looking cornfields. It is the largest structure for miles around, but tucked well away from Interstate-80, which rolls east-westward through the heart of rural Iowa, punctuated by the occasional truck stop or bright, sprawling casino.

Despite the meticulously planned location of the prison—far from the bustle of “civilization”—my recollections of the four years I spent teaching creative writing to the incarcerated women of Mitchellville have little to do with its geography or physical presence. When you enter the Mitchellville institution—when the manured aroma and undulating landscape of rural Iowa disappear—you could be anywhere. It was not this illusion however that made those years so memorable, but rather the small daily facts of the women’s lives—facts at times noteworthy or unusual in their ordinariness—in a place where fresh fruit and spiral-bound notebooks are forbidden, where hundreds of identical white sneakers pervade the halls, and where hairstyles are more effective in deciphering mood changes than body language.

I learned that as someone who got to return home at the end of each day, as someone who was set apart from the inmates only in being restricted from wearing blue jeans on the premises and encouraged to keep my trunk locked at all times, I never asked and further, I never aimed to figure out what brought anyone to that place. I never tried to understand another person’s position; I never insulted someone enough to put myself in her shoes. At the same time I had to know. I had to know because it has been so deeply ingrained to search for connections to others, to explain and to rationalize the behaviors that caused the women—however forcibly—to converge on that small, confined world.

***

The old news articles said that Roz* used to model, posing nude for college-level art classes. The years she’d been imprisoned before we met had done nothing to tarnish her faultless figure, distinguishable still beneath the grey-blue, prison-standard sweats I saw everywhere—with only minimal variance—in the halls. Her hair was an expansive, frizzy mass, her eyes dark and childish, her nose curved slightly upward and spattered with age-faded freckles.

There was a guilty excitement to poring over the sensationalist accounts of what Roz* had done to the older, wheelchair-bound man who attempted to seduce her in college. I struggled not to read Roz’s biographical narrative—the painstaking, even “yellow journalism” descriptions of her crime—as a book about someone I had never met. Afterward, she had taken his credit cards and gone shopping, an alarmingly recurrent detail in the accounts of many female inmates’ crimes. I scolded myself for bringing this ethical struggle upon myself in the first place, for pushing into a friend’s sordid past without her permission, even for living vicariously. I also couldn’t stop myself from giving in to the overwhelming curiosity.

Roz always stood out to me with her wise earnestness, coupled with an ability to fit in with her surroundings when it served her. She transitioned smoothly from banter with the stoic guards to playful jeering with the other women. Roz was also the best writer I encountered in my time at Mitchellville, likely thanks in part to the beginning of a college education, a foreign concept to many incarcerated individuals. Despite a certain obvious naiveté which inevitably accompanies spending one’s youth in prison, I admit to being guilty of thinking she was too smart to be there, and frankly too good-looking. She possessed a certain comforting wholesomeness, almost a motherliness to the other women and me. There are many mothers in prison, but Roz, a lifer with no possibility of parole, would never be one of them.

***

At Mitchellville, there is a transaction system reminiscent of an introductory money management game at an elementary school. The women’s accumulated funds translate into points which are redeemed for necessities like shampoo or tampons. When the necessities are taken care of, additional funds—if existent—go toward candy or fast food. All I want for Christmas is a box of tampons, an inmate once memorably joked with me, with a hint of pleading desperation. In prison, every cent you possess could go to quelling the calamitous, womanly inconvenience that is menstruation.

Kentucky Fried Chicken Day at Mitchellville was an annual affair of no small significance to the women. When KFC Day rolled around, it was all-you-could-buy for thirty dollars and all-you-could-keep for twenty-four hours. The women would show up to class, giddy, fried chicken sandwiches in hand. Even in prison there are big days which rouse the utmost excitement among the women, and KFC Day was always one of them. Fast food is more than a delicacy in prison; it’s essentially worth living for. When the smoking ban was instated on public property in Iowa and the women could no longer smoke anywhere on the premises, fast food and junk food became even more crucial.

***

In her writing for my class, Stella, a short, sturdy redhead with dark, snaking eyebrows, a golden cross digging into her throat, and strong opinions on self-pity of which we were all made aware, explored the complexity of sexuality and sexual hierarchies at Mitchellville. Stella first rooted in me an understanding of how sexuality can be redefined in the lives of incarcerated women—romantic and platonic relationships between inmates flourish and flounder.

Stella wrote about making love to other women behind the washing machines on laundry duty. She wrote about the thundering of the machines and the sounds of gang violence she had known. Like Tanje, who had been molested by a plethora of men her whole life, she always felt a bit safer on the inside. Stella expressed her concern that when Evie was paroled, she would forget Stella, a lifer, and everything they fought to sustain at Mitchellville. When Stella came to class in a bad mood, she’d lay her head on the desk for the length of the hour and a half period, occasionally lashing out at the women in a way I learned not to see as threatening. Evie was eventually released.

***

Liz killed her grandmother on Thanksgiving and made no effort to hide this from any of us. The news stories I culled for information mentioned huffing duster with ne’er-do-well boyfriends and amateurish, clumsy logistics. On good days she was eager to show off pictures of her girlfriend, whom she would soon marry. It was unclear whether Liz’s girlfriend was on the inside or the outside, and I did not ask. Liz always came to class wearing blue eye shadow. She never looked as though she had not made an effort on her appearance.  She talked about how hard it was to face Thanksgiving every year. It never gets any easier, she explained. It never gets an easier is thrown around a lot in prison.  Heavier sentiments like this often coincided with a necessary playfulness and childish pettiness—the occasional “give me the blue one—I’m in for life.” Ironically, Mitchellville was a place to have a childhood. It was often hard though to separate the genuine and heartfelt moments—small glimpses of reality—from the lies the women had learned and been conditioned to tell. When Roz was again denied the possibility for parole at her commutation hearing, it was because she was accused of being willing to say anything to get out of prison. This notion forced me to reevaluate my relationship with her.

***

In prison, whatever the multitudinous motivations for putting inmates to work, responsibility restores some of a person’s dignity and sense of purpose. The women were excited about their jobs—where they earned mere cents a day—and relished any opportunity to work this part of their lives into conversation. In class they frequently relayed their work-related triumphs and frustrations: how hot the kitchen was, how terrible the food, how so-and-so could not come to class because she showed up to work late, how another woman got to work with computers and used e-mail for the first time to the envy of all the others. The majority of my students were as eager and serious about this part of their lives as they were about class; about homework; about volunteer banquets and craft fairs; about the opportunity to eat Flamin’ Hot Cheetos at the end-of-the-semester party.

***

I went into Mitchellville to teach about writing and I have wondered ever since how to write about being on the inside myself. I know this might only be the beginning, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the ambiguity may never fade, giving way to clearer impressions of those years. The experience was alternately and simultaneously disappointing, heart-wrenching, uplifting, impressive, unimpressive, thrilling, and dull. It was confirmed over those four years, as it is time and again, that people will always surprise you with their humanness. You will continue nevertheless searching for, making, and failing to establish connections.

*All names have been changed.

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