The Lives of Women Behind Bars (Pt. 6): From county jail to prison
By Jennifer (Taycheedah Correctional) (WI)
Forward By Christopher (Madison Correctional) (OH)
One of the things every prisoner remembers is their experience incarcerated at the county or city jail as they awaited conviction. County jails are filthy and unsanitary places. They’re rough. They’re unfriendly and they’re the first glimpse of a life to come.
By comparison state prisons are pleasant. By the time you arrive there you are thankful that the abuse of county time is behind you. Oftentimes just being able to walk outside, breathe fresh air, and act on you own volition is rewarding enough. Of course, prison has its own challenges ones that reveal themselves over time.
The journey from county jail to prison is an entirely different experience for women than men. Few jails are properly equipped to handle female prisoners, and few take into consideration their special needs. The end result? Female prisoners are far more likely to be shuffled from jail to jail as counties attempt to juggle their female prisoners, resulting in a dehumanizing and stressful experience.
The Lives of Women Behind Bars (Pt. 6): From county jail to prison
If you have never been incarcerated you really don’t know what it’s like. If you have never done time and if you heard someone say they were excited to get to prison you would wonder what was wrong with them. What would you think if you heard them say they were happy when they finally get their chains off and became state property? I was one of these people.
My journey started 9 1/2 years ago, was my first time ever being arrested and I was almost 30 years old. I would spend just shy of two years in (county jail) orange before I got my (penitentiary) greens. I am also a female. In county you get treated like a guy.
I came from a county where the jail holds about 60-70 men and only 7 females. In time the females would get relocated to a different cell block that only held 5. My county was decent for the most part. We got orange (uniforms) and whites (underclothes). The food came from a nursing home so it wasn’t that bad. We could even shower and use the bathroom mostly in privacy. However, I was only there a few months. My first time in jail was an experience I will never forget. I got a mini tour of northeast Wisconsin.
I would spend most of my time in one of three county jails. I only saw my home county for court for the most part. These jails were the real deal. There was no such thing as privacy. Taking a shower or going to the bathroom was hard to get used to. Anyone who came into the bathroom area could see you. In one county, one of the cameras point in a direction that you couldn’t not get caught naked when you showered. For meals we either got slop or mush for every meal. Other counties did not provide whites for you either. But your people could drop them off for you. Each time I went back to my home county they would confiscate mine. Thankfully I had someone to keep bringing me new whites. As a female, whites are very important. Even more so once a month. We had to buy any “supplies” we needed for that also.
Those were things all 4 counties had in common. Your shoes were your shower sandals. Yes, you need to wear them in the shower. Creatures came out of those drains! Leech looking things and flying bugs we called “sewer bats”. You were not treated like a person; you were treated more like an annoyance. Visits were all through glass. In county you had to yell to be heard through the glass, no phones to connect you to your visitor. The sounds of keys, metal door, and traps slamming. They all had windows that let some light in but you couldn’t see out of them.
I saved the best for last. Anytime you enter a jail you get strip searched. For a female this is very dehumanizing. Depending upon your cycle you would have to remove certain female “supplies” from your body. No sink, no replacement “supply”, it was the worst. I was averaging 4 strip searches a month. No one should ever become numb to stripping and doing the ‘bend and cough’ in front of anyone.
Not all of county was bad. I learned so much. I learned how to commit crimes, make drugs, and how to make food from random items from commissary. I met so many people from so many places. Most importantly I learned about prison. That was where I knew I was going to end up when all was said and done, no question.
Why am I telling you so much about county? Remember at the beginning of this I said I was excited and happy. I had just spent almost 2 years in a pod or cell with no sun, no fresh air and no recreation. My choices were television (standard stations), read or sleep. County time is hard time.
Wisconsin has 3 prisons for women. One is all custody levels the other two are minimums. The men have so many more prisons and many more options for classes. When the county van pulled up at the gate I was excited, I was nervous, I was happy. The place looked like a college campus with razor wire. It had several buildings, grass, flowers and sidewalks. There were inmates outside!
Intake in prison is much like county jail. You strip, show them your tattoos and scars, then you wash your hair with lice shampoo. Yes, lice shampoo, county is gross and dirty. Then I saw a nurse and a psychologist. Over the next few days I would also see a doctor and an eye doctor. I was living large! We were given 5 pairs of pants, 5 smocks, 3 t-shirts, 2 night shirts, one robe, 6 panties, 6 pairs of socks, 5 bras, mittens and a hat, 2 towels and 2 wash cloths and a pair of shoes. All this came in our laundry bag. We were given shower shoes at the time of strip search. I had shoes! They are ugly but they were amazing!!
I felt like a person again. I was walking around with out a CO a few feet behind me. I got to open and close doors by myself! After spending most of the day in intake what I was chomping at the bit for was about to happen. The other intakes and myself were going to walk to the max security building, I was going OUTSIDE! No chains, no cuffs.
I stepped out the door into fresh air. I could smell the trees the flowers, the grass and the dirt. I was on sensory overload. I saw the sun. It hurt my fluorescent trained eyes. It was marvelous. I felt the warmth of the sun on my skin. By this time I was almost translucent. You could practically see all the veins in my body. The colors of everything were so brilliant. Have you ever noticed all the different colors of green in the grass? Or the richness of the colors in flowers? I was like a newborn being brought outside for the first time. I was amazed by the things most people take for granted.
We entered the max building. An intimidating building. The officers seemed okay, there were 6 at the desk. Now we were a last name and that would be the only way any staff referred to us. We were given bedrolls a pillow and sent to a cell. Cell contained a bunk, cabinet, desk, and a sink/toilet combo. Didn’t seem like much but it was better than county. The cells only held two people, that was nice.
The commissary in prison is far better than county. We could get soda, ear plugs, Q-Tips and even makeup. I was also able to buy personal property. Such as shorts, sweatshirts, real bras, hobby items and so much more. The prison even provided female supplies. I felt like I was at the Hilton not some run down motel.
In time I would get to walk in the rain and the snow. Never realized before how much I took for granted. Prison will never be home, but it could be a whole lot worse. My time in prison has been going by fast. I’ve worked various jobs and am working on my bachelors degree. County had become a bad memory. I felt I could move forward now.
Jennifer (Taycheedah Correctional Institution) (WI)