NORTH CAROLINA CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION FOR WOMEN
In March of 2020, I attended volunteer training to prepare for my role as oral historian for the prison ministry. It took place in a double-wide trailer that served as both classroom and church for the minimum-security prison for women. The Hope Center sat on the edge of the prison campus near several dormitory-style buildings with similar siding.
Walking across a patchwork of grass and earth, I happened to spy, through a sliver of a window in one of the housing units, a socked foot resting on an upper bunk within arm's reach of the bunkbed beside it. It looked both casual, like summer camp, and suffocating to imagine that many adults crammed into an open stall of a room.
"I am . . .
a survivor of many traumas."
Climbing the wooden steps to the Hope Center, I noticed a small bronze statue of hands holding a butterfly at the base of the stairs. Once inside the trailer we were told by a woman in a bright yellow sweater and neat bun to find a seat . She had a librarian look about her, but her militant style and sense of exasperation with us quickly dispelled my initial impression.
For two hours we sat in uncomfortable plastic chairs while the trainer hammered us with rules and regulations from the makeshift pulpit used by the prison chaplain on Sunday mornings. From the simple wooden table, IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME etched into the apron front, we reviewed a slew of thou-shalt-nots in our paperwork packet, including:
Direct all questions to staff members; DO NOT ask an offender!
DO NOT BECOME OVER FRIENDLY OR FAMILIAR WITH THE OFFENDERS. Be confidential with your personal information, you wouldn’t want to give out too much information.
Be careful about physical contact.
A series of handouts that needed signatures peppered the training, and then we segued into what felt like the star of the evening: PREA training. The Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law enacted in 2003, is designed to protect incarcerated people from sexual abuse and rape inside correctional systems. A necessary topic to cover, it was a particularly disquieting part of the training. We were introduced to new concepts like “undue familiarity” and fed examples of red flags that we as volunteers were supposed to a) personally avoid, and b) report if observed in others.
We were told, over and over, that what starts out innocently enough between offender and free person often ends up a felony.
The evening’s training was jarring in a way I hadn’t expected. Through a dizzying number of thoughts and feelings, my biggest confusion was how we were going to build rapport and connect with the women, human to human, if we had to be hypervigilant about familiarity. Perhaps this explains why, as we left the trailer at the end of training, I tripped down the last few steps and fell to the ground.
Landing on the dirt near the butterfly statue with a thud, a reflexive “shit” escaped from my mouth. I wasn’t hurt and I wasn’t sure what had caused my fall. I picked myself up, only slightly embarrassed, but feeling dazed as I walked back across the yard to the gate. An inexplicable sense of dread was with me, following me to my car and drive back to the hotel, and I hadn’t even met the first “offender” yet.
"Clothes afford us a certain shield, but to stand there naked . . ."
I met Jean at an IHOP on an overcast morning in early March. She was waiting for me when I arrived, at least I thought that was her. We gave each other that awkward “are you the one I’m supposed to be meeting?” look, said a brief hello to each other, and were quickly whisked to a booth.
“I like your hair,” said the waitress to Jean when she came to take our order. It was bright red, and I couldn’t decide if it was naturally stick-straight or freshly flat-ironed. She wore a clean bob, parted in the middle, and had a softness in her unmade-up eyes that shone through her glasses.
Our breakfast meeting had been set up by the prison ministry, and Jean was one of several interviews I had slated that day. She had been a recipient of their services while she was incarcerated at NCCIW several years ago and now serves as a board member for the organization. We ordered diet coke and juice, and then embarked on a multi-hour conversation that could have gone on much longer but for the next interview I had to rush off to.
“You are stripped of everything when you come to prison,” said Jean. She told me that prison is designed to humiliate you. “They strip it all from you, and that’s their intention, so you won’t feel bold.”
Before being incarcerated Jean was in the Army, spending time in both Germany and Bosnia as a signal support systems specialist. She left, in 2003, after six and a half years because of the difficulty of staying connected with her three young children (a daughter and twin sons), and because of the looming uncertainty in a post-9/11 world.
A precipitous downward spiral followed her messy divorce a few years after leaving the Army. She said she was involved in a series of toxic romantic relationships, and by 2010 she had landed in jail where she spent the first 18 months of her seven-and-a-half-year sentence.
Jean served the bulk of her prison time at NCCIW, also known as “Big Raleigh,” and like all newbies to the prison her first home was in the Cardinal Unit for reception. Reception is the glossy name for the multi-week holding tank that all new residents of the prison pass through when they first arrive in the system. It’s more of an evaluation than an orientation, and it’s a terrifying time designed to break you according to Jean’s assessment of things. It can last up to 30 days and is brimming with uncertainty and stress as you settle into the reality that this is your new life.
“I feel like I have lingering PTSD from reception as much as from any part of my prison experience,” said Jean.
Jean said you are quarantined with the other newbies as you await things like medical and mental health screenings and participate in a massive intake process assessing your social background, education, and job skills. By the end of reception, you are classified in one of five custodial levels listed in descending level of public threat: Close, Medium, Minimum I, Minimum II, or Minimum III.
“Clothes afford us a certain shield, but to stand there naked…” her voice trailed off.
Strip search: Lift your tongue for a check of your mouth. Next, they’re checking behind your ears. Now, squat and cough three times – that should be enough to expel anything from your vagina. Next, bend over and spread your butt cheeks. Wider.
Pelvic exam: A male doctor who did not greet her, did not gently encourage her to scoot down a little farther, a bit more, ok, almost there, just about one more inch – a universally female experience that often includes nervous laughter and eyes pinched shut – did not slowly with both lubrication and narration insert the metal speculum and ever so gently widen the blades. “He just jammed it in there,” she said, and flung the instrument fully open as Jean laid on the cold table weeping.
As she explained the process, I was both growing increasingly uncomfortable with what I was hearing and keenly aware that I was causing her to relive a ghastly experience by asking her to tell me about it.
The residents of reception were segregated from the main population ostensibly for their own protection, but Jean said the experience was alienating. You can’t talk to anyone other than fellow newbies who are equally terrified and disoriented. “Reception reminds me of Basic Training. You find out what you’re made of. But Basic Training was never dehumanizing,” she said.
“OPUS number _______ is forever burned in my brain,” she said referring to her prison identification number. While not tattooed on her forearm, this number is hers for life. (Including if she were ever to return to the system.) Called only by her last name, when any name was used at all, “What’s your OPUS number?” seemed to play on autoloop for her during those years.
"Reception reminds me of Basic Training. You find out what you’re made of. But Basic Training was never dehumanizing.”
On rare occasions Jean would interact with a guard in a humane way, maybe engage in a shared laugh. But this was an exceptional thing in her time there, she said, and often tied to Mother’s Day or other holidays when the guards tended to show a modicum of compassion. She tried to imagine how difficult the job was and speculated that these folks likely brought in their "own stuff" from outside and took it out on the women, but she felt it was wrong that no connection of any kind was allowed between the guards and the women.
“They were always like, ‘What do you want now? You’re getting on my damn nerves’ anytime we asked a question,” said Jean. The guards were their only conduit to any semblance of self-agency, yet they often mocked and shamed the women for asking questions or making requests.
Days were unbearably long and boring, so Jean felt lucky to get her first of several prison jobs early on. She was paid $1/day for her eight-hour shift in the laundry room. She felt pride in her work and quickly became a preferred laundress by her fellow residents. “People were willing to pay me to do their laundry for them because they knew I took good care,” she said.
Side hustles in prison are common, many are harmless, and very few are completely off the radar of prison staff, said Jean.
Jean said that peanut butter and Sweet’N Low were the two main delicacies in prison. The going rate for a stash of peanut butter, about the size of a baked potato, was three dollars. And five bucks could score you 200 packets of sweetener, which was a hot commodity, given the crappy coffee and the one packet of real sugar that came with it.
Certainly, rules were broken in service to side hustles, but the smuggling of peanut butter carefully scooped into plastic wrap and artfully tucked under the large breasts of a woman for safe transport out of the stockroom and into the hands of women who could pay for it struck me as entrepreneurial, self-governing, and a way to have comfort food at the ready.
Jean’s next job was in the kitchen. Not to be deterred by a chronically broken mixer, she started making biscuits and cakes for almost 200 women daily, all by hand. Later, an apprenticeship in a test kitchen outside the prison walls, also at $1/day, honed her natural gift in baking.
Living in an un-airconditioned prison in the South was hard enough, but working in the prison kitchen was sweltering and unrelenting. Jean said it was so hot that the service dog training program at NCCIW was shut down in the summers due to concerns for the wellbeing of the animals.
“I didn’t have a relationship with God before I came to prison, cliché I know, but it’s the truth,” said Jean.
Jean decided to attend church services at The Hope Center just as something to do, but it wasn’t long before she noticed solace in being there and flickers of hope for a brighter future. During one of the Sunday services, something wholly new to Jean was unfolding before her eyes: liturgical dance. She didn’t feel like she had the words to speak about God, or the singing voice to praise God that way, but when she witnessed these women ministering through dance something ignited within her. Jean said she broke down and cried like a baby. "That’s how God reached me,” she said.
Jean joined the dance team, telling me it was a highlight of the time she served in prison. Ultimately, she was tapped by Chaplain Sarah Jobe to serve as team leader. The spiritual and creative outlet of dance coupled with the ability to stay busy in her various jobs offered Jean focus and purpose. But it was the 16-week journey called JobStart that “changed everything” for her, she said.
A transitional education program, it was designed to help women reunite with their families and transition back into the community upon their release. Jean said it was run by a “tough love, no crap, will-call-your-shit-out woman” who taught the participants that making internal changes was akin to waging “spiritual warfare” with oneself.
Jean said she felt like JobStart was a second chance for her, but not one she felt she had earned or even deserved. Her intense self-loathing made her feel unworthy of the program, but over time she began to realize that she wanted better for herself and wasn’t going to allow guilt to keep holding her back. Part of the program connects these participants with outside employers, and in her final year of prison, Jean landed a nearly full-time job assisting the outreach director at a local church. Finally, she was paid minimum wage.
As we parted ways in the IHOP parking lot Jean reached in for a (pre-COVID) hug. It was a natural end to the several hours we had spent together, and I am a hugger. But in that moment, I hesitated, and gave her an awkward half-hug with the invisible threat of “undue familiarity” looming from the training the night before. Driving away I wondered with regret if she’d noticed my hedge. I also wondered if that rule was even applicable anymore given that she was now a free woman.
“When we learn to see the shocking beauty of God in another person, we learn to see their immeasurable worth.”
Chaplain Sarah Jobe
"I did not go out much after that . . . "
“They may have locked my body up, but I’m free. I’m protected.” This was how Regina recounted her 16 years in prison to me, in the present tense when we first met over Zoom. She, too, had been a recipient of the hope offered at the Hope Center. It was a songwriting class there that had allowed her to process her feelings and tap into her creative side. But there was much for Regina to endure before finding the solace of songwriting.
Dread and despair filled her early, dizzying days in prison as she experienced one indignity after another. Each a painful reminder of how her abuser had vowed that, dead or alive, he would always control her life.
When she arrived at prison, she said she shut off all her emotions. Due to her sentence length, she started out isolated from the other women as was the policy for people with sentences of 15+ years. She was in segregation (“seg”) for 30 days and had no contact with any other women in the prison during that time. She said that women are sent there upon arrival “to see how you were gonna do” and once your 30 days was up, they “kicked you out to the wolves.”
Regina spent the first two weeks in seg without any recreation time. She’d heard she would have her first breath of fresh air on her 15th day and was brimming with anticipation. The day of her outdoor time finally arrived, and she was led in shackles to what looked like a dog run at the kennel. Crestfallen, she paced back and forth for her allotted half hour until it was time to go back to her cell.
“I did not go out much after that, even though I wanted fresh air I could not elude the feeling of being treated worse than any pet I had ever had,” she wrote me in an email.
When I asked her how she maintained her dignity while incarcerated she didn’t hesitate with an answer: “Jesus.” She said she had become a Christian before she went to prison and that she followed his example, loving and caring about others, staying busy and staying in the bible. “I had no trouble maintaining my own dignity,” she said.
This is not to imply Regina is unscathed by the time she spent locked up. She said she has anxiety she didn’t use to have and is afraid of the dark now. She has PTSD from her years as a domestic violence survivor and calls her time inside prison its own “low-level, mini PTSD.”
Fast forward a decade and the ultimate privilege arrived: the ability to hold a job outside the prison walls. Her most infamous assignment was at the Governor’s Mansion. A coveted assignment, it is granted to only two women in the entire North Carolina prison system. One must be tapped, there is no ability to apply, she said The vetting process is extensive, including psychological testing. Regina said that many women were enraptured by the “celebrity element” of working at the mansion, but for her it was strictly a means to an end.
She was employed as a house cleaner, which consisted primarily of washing and ironing clothes, and cleaning the facility. She cleaned both the second floor (the Governor’s quarters) and the third floor (the administrative offices) of the mansion. She said that incarcerated men worked there, too, mainly cooking, serving food, and doing yard work. All for $1/day.
Regina said she took the job because she thought it would make her eligible for a home pass. Women with pristine prison records are eligible for passes in their final year of incarceration. (A home pass is defined as either a single 24-hour pass or two nine-hour passes.) Always focused on opportunities to see her family or to move closer to where her family lived via prison transfer, she was desperate to secure a home pass to visit her dying father. “He was my heart,” she said.
Ultimately, she was denied the home pass, and as soon as her father died, she asked to get out of her contract at the mansion in Raleigh. She wanted to be housed in a prison closer to her family even though it was too late to ever see her dad again. When she told her case manager that she wanted to quit Regina was met with: “Do you not know what a reference from the Governor means?”
A heartbroken and worn-down Regina countered, “Do you not know what time with my family means?”
Regina wrote a song about her father while she was still in prison. Musician and songwriting workshop leader, Susannah Long, recorded it for her and performs it here. (4:52)
“How do I live without my heart? You’re gone and it’s torn apart.”
Having been housed in several different prisons during her 16-year sentence, I asked her which of them felt most like her prison home – though I immediately apologized to her for using that phrase. Graciously, she helped me rephrase the question and said her most “fulfilling time” was where she completed her GED and took several college-level courses and stayed busy. Regina said she felt “more human and less of a number” in that facility and found that the majority of that staff was “kinder, more understanding, not so ‘out to get you.’”
Her goal during prison was to work as much as she could and take classes where she could. She wanted to be as productive as possible in her time there and to keep her nose clean, she said. She wasn’t involved in “the drugs, the card playing, the girlfriend, or the drama.”
“I am not nobody’s state mama” was a common refrain of Regina’s, and one she held onto tightly, especially when she sensed someone was fishing for that kind of relationship. Over the years, women sought her counsel as a wise and compassionate elder. She said she always responded with both gentleness and a call to action. She recognized how down on themselves the women were and said her goal was to help them “realize their worth.”
Over time, though, something shifted as Regina began to understand that many of the women seeking her nurturance had mothers who were absent, addicted, and/or abusive. One day a woman told Regina that she had been more of a mother to her than her own mom had been.
“I left with four women who call me mom,” she said with proud mama energy.
" . . . there is that natural need to nurture and parent."
I met a woman who was arrested at 18 and spent her tender twenties housed at NCCIW. She has been free for almost two decades now and is married with two children. Her life is stable and joyful, but she remains burdened by the shame of what is still a secret to many of the people in her life: “I want to keep that part of my life from my kids for as long as possible.”
She told me that the thing she most appreciated after getting out of prison was the ability to walk on the grass. It was all she wanted to do, and to this day. I assumed she meant the feel of her bare feet on earth’s luscious carpet, or some other sensory experience. Instead, she told me it was the self-agency of not keeping off the grass that was so alluring. Having always been told to stay on the sidewalk while moving about the prison campus, she now walks on the grass whenever she can, because she can.
Here is RW, in her own words:
I don’t know if I really, healthfully preserved my humanity and dignity while inside. I just knew not to rock the boat. I knew to stay in my lane, not to snitch, not to do anything intentionally to hurt others or cause them to get angry. Out of the entire 11 years, I was only in two fights.
I had a state mom and a state dad and state siblings. I had friends who would fight for me and buy things for me and keep my secrets. I was very fortunate. I didn’t think I was fortunate at the time. I remember feeling desperate and always like there was something more that I wasn’t being given. However, looking back, I really was fortunate.
The purpose of state families is community. Because we are all women, there is that natural need to nurture and parent. And we all wanted family ... no matter how we were able to get a family. Most of us didn’t really have a family (or at least not a normal one) in the free world. So, our state family became our family.
I had an “up” on most women in prison. I wasn’t a drug addict. I wasn’t an alcoholic. I didn’t have children. I was intelligent. I had family that sent me money. I didn’t come from white trash. I took advantage of the opportunities in front of me: schooling, college, courses, activities, whatever. This made me different than many of the women there … and it made me more like Andy from "Shawshank Redemption."
A few of the long termers that were there were also like this. They knew that this was going to be life for a long time. Therefore, they stayed to themselves and took advantage of opportunities. They wanted to be better. And that “desire” to be better was kind of like our little shovel we used to dig our way out of prison (figuratively speaking). It took YEARS … and it took swimming through some shit (mostly the shit in our heads) … but most of us that were like this made it out and we are safely on the other side of our old lives. We will never go back.
I cannot imagine (now) how hard this was (would have been) for women who had children. But for folks like me, it was easy to make the switch. The inside became my world. I knew the right things to do … how to cook special meals with canteen goodies ... which officers would allow certain activities, and which were impossible to deal with … how to get stuff to make hooch … who to borrow money from … who to be friends with. And I had good friends in there. I don’t have these friends still because when I left, I let go of that life to find my new life.
The only real enemy I had was myself. And I am still working on that relationship. Prison saved me from myself. I believe that if I wouldn’t have gone to jail or prison at the age and time I did, I would either be dead or an addict. I was so young when I was arrested. But my life before being in prison/jail was horrible. It was much more of a prison than actual prison.