[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1936365502″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41sdSInRUwL.jpg” width=”212″ alt=”Inside this Place” ]I am a big fan of the “Voices of Witness” series, and this volume is essential reading for Women’s History Month…
Inside this Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons
Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi, Editors
Paperback: McSweeney’s, 2014
Buy now: [ [easyazon-link asin=”1936365502″ locale=”us”]Amazon[/easyazon-link] ]
“Inside This Place, Not of It is essential reading for anyone interested in the stories of women who compel us to see their humanity, tenacity, and value as people. That the woman who share their stories here have lived within the vast U.S. criminal justice system reveals a hidden and heart-wrenching reality. Their voices insist that the civil and human rights abuses that take place daily behind the walls of our prisons and jails must be out in the open to be recognized and remedied.”
–Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black
Here’s one story from this important book:
45, currently imprisoned
Excerpted from Inside this Place, Not of It edited by Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi. Published by Voice of Witness Books.
Irma spoke with us while still in prison. A woman who looks much younger than her age, Irma had her dark brown hair pulled back in a braid, and she wore a prison-issue white baseball jersey and blue denim pants. The prison garb did not hide all of Irma’s tattoos, which mark significant experiences in her life: her past loves, her gang affiliation, the daughter she had at fifteen. Irma has spent much of her life in and out of prison, mostly on drug-related offenses. During that time, she went through several rounds of rehab for her drug abuse, and has now been clean for over three years. In 1990, while in prison, Irma was misdiagnosed with HIV, and for the next seventeen years was treated with extremely toxic drugs that were contraindicated for her other illnesses. She spoke to us of the discrimination she experienced as an HIV patient, the effects of the HIV medication on her health, and the prison’s refusal to accept responsibility for her misdiagnosis.
Using Drugs Seemed Normal to Me
One of the first things I remember was when I was five years old. This big blue car pulled up to the trailer where I lived with my mom in LA, and a lady with a big old hat came and put me in the car. She was from Child Protective Services, and she took me away with her. Later I found out that someone had called Child Protective Services because of my stepfather, Luis. He never molested me, never touched me. But he was a heroin addict. I remember smelling burnt matches all the time as a kid. I still hate that smell.
That day, Luis had gone out to cop some dope and left me alone in the trailer with the outside of the trailer door tied shut. A lady in another trailer saw that and called the police. Luis was just getting home when the police arrived, and I’ll never forget that feeling. I was so scared that they were going to arrest him, and that they were going to take me away. And of course they did. Child Protective Services took me to court, and the judge didn’t let any of my immediate family members have me. I remember screaming, but it didn’t matter. I went back and forth between my grandparents and my godparents for a while, but finally the court agreed to let me live permanently with my grandparents.
My mom would try to get me back, but she was an active heroin addict—Luis had turned her on to the drug—and the court wouldn’t give her custody. She tried hard, even getting herself on a methadone program. And she was doing good, she always kept jobs. I remember her going in for her methadone treatments. They’d give her a lockbox for her take-home medication, and it looked just like a lunch box to me; I remember I wanted one like that for school. But all her efforts made no difference to the court, and they wouldn’t give me back to her. In the end, my mom got hooked on pharmaceutical meds—Valium, codeine, anything that was a downer.1
My grandparents tried their best with me. My grandma was a cafeteria dietician and my grandfather was a janitor. He did floors, she cooked, and they supported me to the best of their abilities. But even so, I didn’t have too much of an affectionate childhood. I wasn’t hugged a lot, I wasn’t nurtured I think the way I should have been. My family just didn’t know how to do that.
My grandfather couldn’t read or write, but still he expected respect. When the social workers visited, he thought that it was the most disrespectful thing for the government to come knock on his door and expect to just come in. I remember after the social workers left he would be so angry and offended. But he was scared, too, of the courts and of Child Protective Services. His guard was up, and he treated me like a princess because he was afraid they’d take me away. He’d say to my grandma, “Don’t touch her, don’t yell at her. You just give her what she wants.” In the end, though, I think I would have been better off disciplined instead of enabled with toys and candy and ice cream.
My grandmother tried to teach me that to be the best person you can be in society, you just have to do what’s right. But my grandfather had no education; he just rolled with the punches, ditching and dodging. So I had two different kinds of nurturing, good and bad. In my case it just happened that the bad nurturing outweighed the good nurturing. Soon enough, I started learning how to manipulate. If I didn’t get what I wanted, I knew that all I had to do was scream, and I got it.
In second grade I started having visitations with my mom on the weekend. At the beginning I never really wanted to go with her. I didn’t trust her. But in sixth grade, when I started developing, things began happening. I started wanting to smoke, I wanted to pluck my eyebrows, I wanted to do all sorts of stuff my grandparents wouldn’t allow. And at my mom’s house I could do anything I wanted because she was hardly there. I’d have boys over, I could leave and not come back until the next day, and she wouldn’t question it. She’d yell, but all it took was a pill and a glass of Kool-Aid to keep her quiet.
In seventh grade I ran away for four days. My grandparents finally gave up on me. They couldn’t control me any more, so they gave me to my mom for good. By that time, the courts were already out of our lives, and the only person we had to worry about was the welfare social worker. That was nothing; we just had to go in, dress nice, and show that I was in school. That was it, and we got our checks. Once I was back with my mother, it all started: the cigarettes, the drinking, the hanging out with gangs and going out with boys. I even became a prostitute, and I started using drugs. With my mother already living the life of an addict, it seemed normal to me. My mother did it and my stepfather did it and everyone else out here was doing it. I’d walk outside my mom’s apartment and there were gang members drinking and smoking and whatever.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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