The incarceration of addicts and many other non-violent is Human Trafficking in its’ lowest form. Money is being made, billions of dollars through “legal means”. Prisoners in Texas work in these camps for no pay, in businesses that profit from the goods or services produced. They have no choice, they are held captive. They routinely are tortured, beaten raped, abused …
I want to let you know why I was sent to prison before you read this. I want you know what crime I was guilty of. I was in a car with many people and we were pulled over. The police officer found a miniscule fleck of crack cocaine on the floorboard where I was sitting by spraying the carpet with an agent that renders this drug blue. The piece they found was no bigger than the head of a pin. Texas sentenced me to six months state jail for this heinous offense that in other states would not even warrant a misdemeanor charge. Texas deemed it felonious…
I was, admittedly, an addict. I know I needed help. What I was not is a criminal. I am now drug free but I must tell you I will never be free from the memories of surviving a corrupt and dangerous system that exist to profit off the flesh of the addicted, the poor and the broken.
Arriving at Plane State Jail
After being held for twenty-four hours in a freezing, over-crowded Harris County Jail cell, we were roughly hand-cuffed in pairs and loaded onto one of the many Texas Department of Correction buses. We bumped endlessly down the road to, what my imagination and several had told me, Hell. I watch the familiar scenery of my forty years fly by through the meshed window, mourning the beauty of the sunrise and thought “will I ever see my home again?” As we moved into unfamiliar scenery I began to doze off, not only exhausted from the ordeal of the holding cell, but needing desperately to escape the reality of my existence. I pulled my coat warmly around me and gratefully tumbled into the arms of Morpheus.
I woke when the bus came to a stop. We had arrived. This was the infamous place that stole your name and reduced you to a number. This was the place where you could just as easily die at the hands of an inmate as at the hands of a prison guard if you made a wrong move. This is where I would be spending the next several months of my life and I was deeply afraid. The Constantine barb wire that ran endlessly around the fences might as well been wrapped around my very soul.
I stepped off the bus carefully so I didn’t trip the woman they had cuffed me with. I felt tender towards her and was especially careful to be gentle. She was of a simpler mind than me and often appeared confused and lost. One of the prison guards freed us from our handcuffs. She looked at me with swollen, tear-filled eyes and simply wandered off to the sidelines. Then, unbelievably, we were ordered to take off our coats. As I obeyed, I was immediately knocked senseless by a huge gust of icy wind. Even though I had tried to brace myself against the impact of the wall of cold, my breath caught and my tears of pain and fear froze on my face. I watched helplessly as they took each woman’s coat and threw them back on the bus. Fearfully I watched two male prison guards with shotguns pace back and forth in front us, screaming obscenities at various women. As I watched what little warmth left in my body escape as frozen breath, I thought, “This is me. This is all that is left of me and even IT is leaving me, freezing and dying in this terrible moment. The guards forced us to stand on a line beside the bus. I watch in wonder as more buses arrived and more women stood bleak and coatless beside their bus. Over one hundred arrived that day.
After about half an hour in this frigid, surreal reality, we were allowed to enter the large steel and cement structure that housed the yet unknown prison administrative process, inoffensively called “Intake.” While the building itself provided little relief from general cold, it did shield us from the bitter winds. I was unprepared, though, for the emotional and psychological effects this process was designed to inflict.
“Intake” was both terrifying and humiliating. Already under tremendous physical and emotional strain, we were required to form a long line and strip naked in mass. Many of the women cried out loud, others wept silently, all covering their bodies as best they could from foreign eyes and to guard against the bone chilling cold. Most of us looked down and away in shame. Concentration camp movie scenes had nothing on this. As for me, I stood erect, stepped out of my clothes and folded them neatly, laying them at my feet. I quietly comforted the young girl beside me who was close to hysteria. I made eye contact with other women to show them quietly that they need not be ashamed. “Stand up straight, keep your head up, this is only a moment and it will be all right” I whispered to the weak and to the fearful. Some actually did, others managed a small smile, crying, but still a smile. I think I needed it more than they did.
The female guards picked up bras and panties, dropping each set back at the feet of the woman to whom they belonged after a thorough inspection. A tall, thick prison guard commanded us to take our orange county uniforms and throw them into a pile across the room. All of us naked, many still crying and as always, freezing, we complied and reformed our pathetic tear-streaked line on a long wall. I began to notice that all the guards had on very warm coats, while we were naked. Another heavy-set one began to scream at us to stop covering ourselves. That it wasn’t THAT cold. She stood face to face with several girls and leaned in so close she almost touched her nose to theirs and shouted for them to stop crying. She shouted into their eyes that they were no good stupid bitches. She shouted into their hearts that they deserved what they got. She shouted into their souls that they were so bad nobody loved them anymore. I watched in silent horror as this evil being shouted these wounded, broken spirits into Sheol. Several broke down and became hysterical, but still she forced them to stand up and look at her by threatening them with a night stick and stun gun. She bellowed to all of us that we needed to be afraid, that we belonged to the State of Texas now and she could do whatever the hell she wanted to us. We all stood stock still, arm at our sides, the basic need to warm ourselves lost to the terror of this woman. As if staged, suddenly, one very young girl fell to the ground in a seizure. I moved to help her but was shoved roughly against the cinderblock wall. Every offender looked on in horror as the naked woman-child convulsed violently on the floor. My attention was riveted to her painfully contorted face and sightless eyes as they moved in and out of view. I watch in horrid fascination as she skittered across the icy floor. I silently prayed for her as she unknowingly performed this strange and terrible dance, each part of her private self exposed then gone, exposed then gone. The only sound echoing through the room was the THUD… THUD… THUD… of her head striking the cement floor. At last, mercifully, her body lay still. The terrible drumming stopped. The prison medics arrived and dumped her unceremoniously unto a stretcher, her battered body twisted, arm under her back, legs askew and head lolling partially over the side. I noticed there was no blanket to cover her. Were they going to transport her to the hospital exposed like that for everyone to see, I wondered? As they carried her out a back door, an older female prison guard walked up to the stretcher and gently covered the girl with her own coat. Bless this woman I silently prayed, bless this woman for her compassion.
Still lined up against the chilly wall, naked and freezing, we stood utterly lost in our own horror. The screaming guard demanded that we turn to face the wall, squat and cough. We did so one at time as she slowly passed each one of us. Stand up end over at the waist and spread your butt cheeks was the next command. We each in turn performed this most embarrassing task while a brutal rubber gloved women inspected our most intimate parts with a flashlight seeking contraband. Being forced to display ones’ self, regardless of our feelings, to a power that would cause us harm if we refused, was like being raped. Finally, what we thought must be worst, was over and we were allowed to turn around and put back on our bra and panties. Relief spread through each one of us as we covered ourselves in haste. A few even cracked a quiet joke here and there and others giggled gently.
We walked in line into a nearby holding cell to wait for processing, clothes and coats. We sat on steel benches in our thin panties, the freezing cold relentlessly assaulting us. When we attempted to huddle together for warmth, we soon learned that this was against many as yet unknown prison policies. There was one particularly nasty guard, constantly screaming that we would go to “the hole” if we continued to “touch each other.” She used the words “fucking queers” quite often in our direction as she happily paraded back and forth in her warm down coat, hat, gloves, and winter boots.
We waited like meat in cold storage as they called us out one by one. Each girl would walk up to the metal desk and a box of their personal items was presented and dumped aggressively on the table. Each thing was held up by the guard and as the woman looked longingly at it she was told she could not have it. They asked if she wanted it thrown away, mailed home or someone could pick it up at visitation. Pictures of children and lovers and letters all hit the garbage with regularity when woman confessed over and over for all to hear that she had no money for stamps to mail it home, that she had no home to mail it to, that no one would be visiting her.
Many, many women watched helplessly as what little they had left in the world was thrown unmercifully in to the trash. After each was stripped of any and all personal items that arrived with them from county jail, they were handed an official looking yellow paper that declared that they are now chattel of the State of Texas and have been renamed offender number such and such. At that time each was advised to memorize it, because no longer did you have a name, you were a number.
My turn finally came and I stepped to the metal desk. I watched gratefully as they boxed up my personal letters and photographs, my art and my poetry. I had the money to mail them home, I had a place to mail them to and I had a mother who would visit me regularly. I felt nothing but resolve as they handed me the horrid yellow paper that took away my name. Only after all of us had been reduced to offender were we led away to our temporary housing assignment. I marched along in this silently long bitter line of hopeless, nameless women. Our hands clasped behind our back, heads down and eyes forward, as prison procedure demanded. All I could do was wish that I could shove my hands in the pocket of the puke green coat they provided me during intake that was riddled with huge holes with all of the stuffing pulled out. And pray as our ill-fitting plastic sandals slapped out a haunting rhythm that echoed through my head like a march of the living dead.
Written by: Barbara Rhyne-Tucker
Edited by: Rhonda McLearen