I was free and I saw their faces everywhere on the streets of New York. Full lipped, heavy lidded, high cheeked, drawn, vibrant, painted, wan, changeable faces. Bertha is reading The Wall Street Journal balancing on the A train. And Susa gave up crack and is selling chocolates wrapped in colorful foil, shaped like bunnies for Easter. That woman walking her baby in Central Park looks like Lucia, but her baby would be bigger now. But these are not the women I knew in prison. I want to ask these women: “Can you possibly imagine what it’s like not to have a choice? To wake each day to count same hour after same hour? To feel minuscule and helpless against something you cannot control?” But I am afraid. I am afraid they will say, “Yes. I know.”
Why I Keep Going Back To Prison
No talking, no whispering, no signals in the hallways of the detention center. The women wear orange, the size of their sad-fitting uniforms prominently marked on their backs. S, L, XL. No secrets, no Mediums and no individual expression outside of hair cut and color and whatever tattoos they came in with.
We walk silently through the buff-colored halls with mirror-shined floors. The silly squeaks of the women’s rubber-soled shoes inspire giggles. No giggling, either. We are watched. Doors open as we approach, and we look both ways before rounding a corner, vigilant for men in ridiculous cliché green and white striped jumpsuits pushing laundry bins between pods. Women and men don’t cross within several yards of each other. This sterility and regimentation throw me off.
It was looser, grittier back in Ixcotel, where incarcerated men and women shouted and whistled, hissed and hooted at any little thing, including the guards. Prisons don’t get as much funding in Mexico, and there, we wore our own clothes. Natalia wore the same sweater for weeks at a time, as she only had two and the other had a hole in the sleeve. Flor’s flamboyant persimmon pumps, hoop earrings and mini-minis gave her a certain degree of freedom, at least as far as she saw it. We had daily excursions down open-aired concrete corridors laced with concertina wire, to the men’s courtyard where hands met between bars and sometimes exchanged packets of pumpkin seeds or love notes.
Conjugal privileges were available for every little holiday and your birthday. Kids (who were allowed to stay with their moms until they were two-and-a-half) rambled across the courtyard of the women’s compound, kicking a ball into the shade, out of the shade. Those were the choices. Into the shade, out of the shade. The same choices we had for moving our stackable white plastic chairs, on any of the just-another-boring-days in our same circles.
Some women singing, some mumbling gospel, some pulling red thread through peony-stamped tortilla napkins or crocheting sparkle-yarned purses or stitching soccer balls, thumbs pushing thick needles through tough leather hides. Into the shade, out of the shade. Some crying, some cursing, some chatting, some snacking on peanuts or popsicles, some spitting dashed hopes on the ground. Me? Writing.
After that time spent without choices, after being unjustly imprisoned on invented charges for 33 days in a dark prison in Mexico, after sweeping the floor four times a day, cleaning latrines and hoping away the rats by day and by night –- why do I continue to walk the silent halls of prison? Because prison is always there. It doesn’t go away. And it makes most sense when the outside matches my inside. It was the reason I was in Mexico in the first place.
Seismic, explosive Mexico is accustomed to colliding with herself. This is why I fell in love with her. She matched my insides. Mexicans live in a land that has never been at rest in her skin, a land where friction and upheaval are commonplace, and they have adapted. In Mexico the earth is not quiet, and in the 17 years I lived and listened there, I perfected my own wobbly equilibrium, learning the dance, learning to live and love with some clear certainty that everything will change tomorrow.
When I wrote about prison in “Blackbirds in the Pomegranate Tree: Stories from Ixcotel State Prison,” I thought I was freeing myself and freeing, in some degree, the stories of the women I met inside. In Ixcotel I lived alongside a disparate group of women in community and solidarity that may have been inevitable in such a limited context: we were all there, without choices, without more than the occasional visit and each other. A crack addict, a social studies teacher, a teen accused of kidnapping her own child, a bank robber, a car thief and mother, a social activist, the daughter of a prominent rug weaver, a shamanist woman who spoke only Chinantec, the wife of a man who tended a marijuana field, me … and one hundred other miserably imprisoned women.
Writing after my release, amidst the harsh, confusing noise of my new space in New York City, I discovered that prisons are abundant:
Prisons are abundant, and some we make ourselves. Searching “prison of my own making” picks up 75 million results in a half a second on Google. What set the women of Ixcotel apart from the women I met on the street every day, was the imposed, enforced and absolute impossibility of our leaving. Lack of choice to the nth degree. There is no way to explain this to someone who has not been imprisoned. I have felt the dead stony weight of wanting to break free of a long-held but damaging relationship. I have gritted my teeth and pulled out my hair over my inability to give up chocolate. But I knew those things were within my power to affect. Though I haven’t yet given up chocolate (by choice), I was ultimately able to leave my bad relationships.
But no amount of collective or individual resolve would ever open a hole big enough for us to walk free from Ixcotel, and we knew it*. That is what set us apart and what bonded us to each other. We woke every day to sweep the gray courtyard again, knowing that the similarities with the day before were too many to count, but maybe Bertha would make me laugh, maybe Concha and Natalia would make up after their fight about the rat. (Concha shouldn’t have stomped it to death with her foot.) Maybe the impotence we felt with each breath would fly with the blackbirds nesting in our one lone tree, a pomegranate, and take wing over the mountains. Maybe.
Resolve wouldn’t break us out, but we had something. It was hope, however nebulous and slippery. It was each other. It was their needles always moving, my pen always scraping across the page. I remember. And I walk the silent halls of prison now, to participate in writing workshops and be with these other imprisoned women who resolve to create. I believe in creativity when faced with walls. We write: “These hands have held a child. These hands have put down a bottle. These hands have hurt so many.”
I return to prison again and again, working post-production with an Emmy Award-winning [and highly polemic] documentary on the Mexican justice system, reading manuscripts for the PEN Prison Writing Project, consulting with a Mexican nonprofit on their project to assist women leaving prison, writing every Wednesday with the women detained in the Larimer County Detention Center, writing a book. Though I have put my own prison in a place, I cannot forget prisons. I cannot forget the indescribable choke and sputter of not having choice.
We write: “I can be…” Change the prompt if you want to. Change the tense. Change the subject. Hell, change the world if you want.
*I do not, however, underestimate resolve. Particularly that of the fierce and devoted tribe of friends and family on the outside who moved every muscle they possessed to lobby for my release. This, in the end, (and the straightest lawyer on the planet) was what ultimately shortened my own sentence.