Seraphic Disclaimer: This post contains some language that is a bit, actually, a lot more graphic than is normally found in Seraphic Secret. So if you are young, under 18, religiously modest, or secularly modest, the following, which deals with life in a women’s prison, might not be appropriate reading matter for you.
In Which We Meet Cindy the C.O., Who, In Spite of Her Status As a Guard In This Most Maximum of Female Prisons, Reminds Your Faithful Screenwriter/Correspondent/Memoirist of One Memorable Fictional Character, Daisy B.
“Why should we trust you Hollywood guys?”
On the prison yard, I’m with Cindy, 26, a Corrections Officer, sitting at one of the picnic tables. While doing research in this woman’s maximum security prison for Within These Walls, I’m not allowed to go anywhere by myself. A C.O. has to be with me every minute of every day. Thus, Cindy is assigned as combination guide, baby sitter, and bodyguard.
The yard is vast, teeming with hundreds of female inmates. In progress is a vigorous basketball game. Several players are outstanding: dribbling between their legs, hanging in the air for soft jump shots, and hard, slashing drives to the hoop executed with the graceful aggression. Cindy tells me that the prison has a few crack athletes—bad pun totally intended—former high school stars brought low by bad drugs and badder men. In one corner of the yard, clusters of inmates pump iron. I have to squint to assure myself that the women are, ahem, women. Their bodies are so buff they seem chiseled from blocks of Renaissance marble.
“Thing is,” says Cindy the CO, “the movies always make these cons look like Mother Theresa.”
“I know, I know,” I mutter.
“You gonna do that to us, make us the heavies?”
I’m about to give Cindy a mini lecture about prison movies and the requirements of the genre, but on second thought, I decide to keep it personal, and by the way, make Cindy my accomplice.
“Cindy, look, you got this program, the inmates train dogs for the disabled. Is it a good or bad thing?”
Cindy bites into her ham sandwich. She’s a small woman, barely five feet tall, thin as a stalk of wheat. She nibbles her food like a bird.
“It’s a good program,” she concedes, “a real good program. I been with it since the beginning, six years—the ladies do good in the program. So do the dogs.”
Silently, I chalk up two points.
Ten yards from us, two women covertly suck face. Cindy yanks her stick from the scabbard on her belt and—
Raps on the table—sharp as the flat crack of rifle shot.
“Heyyyy! What’s this, audition for Mr. Hollywood? You ladies chill or I write you up.”
The inmates pry themselves apart like sticks of gum and get all apologetic, but they’re grinning—it’s a game and the cons enjoy seeing what they can get away with. Cindy coolly waves off their excuses.
Cindy’s about to bite into her sandwich again when she notices that I’m not eating. Graciously, she offers me half her ham and lettuce and white bread. I thank her, but decline.
“You a vegetarian, that’s like a Hollywood thing, right?”
“It is and I’m not. Already ate. Thanks.”
Actually, I’ve been eating apples, carrots, melons and nuts. When traveling and kosher food is not available, that’s my typical diet. And this prison is located in rural America, the closest kosher restaurant is, um, a thousand miles away.
I ask Cindy if homosexuality is common in the prison. She looks at me as if I’m the biggest moron in the world.
“Robert, I doubt there a chick who doesn’t go to Mexico while they’re incarcerated—sooner or later.”
“They get lonely, huh.”
Cindy cracks up and gives me a friendly punch in the shoulder.
“Lonely. Listen to you, Mr. Sensitive.”
Your faithful correspondent is feeling dumber by the minute.
Cindy continues: “Lonely, maaaaaybe. But definitely frisky. The inmates who aren’t straight-up dykes might like men in the world, but hey, friction is required. And of course sex, rape and whatever is a weapon.”
I decide not to ask Cindy what whatever covers. I’m pretty sure it’s stuff I really don’t want to know about if I want to get a decent night’s sleep. On the other hand, don’t I have a professional obligation to conduct thorough and in-depth research?
“I thought sexual intimidation is more common in male prisons.”
“You don’t get out much, do you?”
“I like to stay home and watch Sesame Street.”
Actually, I like to stay home and watch silent films, screwball comedies, movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, but this probably isn’t a great time to reveal the full extent of my lunacy.
Cindy chuckles: “I got a news flash for you: women are big-time vicious. We got a handbook of rules for the inmates—eighty-six iron do nots—and lemme tell you, sex and everything that goes with it is mentioned more than anything else. You wouldn’t believe the problems we have with stuff like secret marriages. The jealousy that gets loose is in-sane. With chicks it’s a lot worse than with male inmates and I’m speaking from personal experience.”
Turns out this is Cindy’s second hitch as a CO.
“My first gig was in a male prison.”
I can only stare in mild disbelief. Cindy is so tiny. And quite lady-like for a woman who carries a scary wooden baton and plastic flexcuffs.
“Guess what, Robert?”
“I’m beyond guessing anything in this place.”
“The men’s prison was an easier hitch. Much.”
“Get out of town.”
She shakes her head. Her hair is strawberry blond, cut in an attractive Colleen Moore Dutchboy. Freckles are sprayed across the bridge of her nose. Adorable and bright, my every instinct tells me that Cindy will play a big role in my movie.
“Here’s the thing about men: they got a beef, they go at it. It’s bloody and it’s awful and someone might end up mutilated or even flat-out dead, but the thing is, it’s played out; it’s over. Everyone is chill.”
“There were these two inmates. They got in-to-it over, I swear to G-d: their nails. One accused the other of stealing her,” Cindy claws quote marks in the air, “artistic style.”
Cindy shoves the remains of her sandwich into her nylon lunch sack, sips bottled water, and continues her story. Cindy’s voice is surprisingly deep for such a diminutive woman. In fact, she sounds like an oboe—think Tallulah Bankhead—and perhaps with proper training, Cindy could make a living doing professional voice-overs.
“Anyways, the ladies go at it on the yard. Punching, pullin’ hair, scratchi
n’ eyeballs, biting like dogs. Chicks fight dirty. We pull ’em apart and throw ’em into solitary, both of ’em for ten days. Then keep ’em on separate blocks. It’s all good. Two years later, I’m sittin’ right here, right in this very seat and all hell breaks loose. I run over and Jesus H. Christ, one of the chicks is lying on the ground with a home made knife in her spine. No more nail copycats.”
Cindy waves her forefinger in my face like a first grade teacher making a point to a particularly slow student.
“Chicks: they never forgive and they never forget.”
My eyes wander to the yard. Tight groups of hard-eyed women press their faces together and urgently whisper. I’m pretty sure they’re plotting my assassination.
I want to go home to Karen.
I want to hug my children.
I will never let them go.
“In high school,” says Cindy, “there were always these chicks, boosters and cheerleaders, the girls who wore different outfits every single day of the week; chicks who made you feel like crap; and they enjoyed your misery. You know something, Robert? Prison is like being back in high school all over again.”
“For the inmates.”
Cindy drags her fingers through her hair, a habitual gesture. Then she looks at me, as if she’s not quite sure she should say what she’s going to say, and I’m not even sure she says it, but what she does say and the vulnerability that informs her voice is quite startling. And her face, as F. Scott Fitzgerald describes Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, is “sad and lovely with bright things in it.”
“Yeah, Robert, for the inmates… absolutely.”
To be continued…