I recently had a reader write to me and ask me why I don't talk more about my daily prison experiences. I was asked what my day-to-day life is like -- is it like Orange Is The New Black? They wanted to know more about the inmate drama and what the women are really like.
Until now I have written mostly about the bigger issues I have to deal with. This is primarily because I find it very difficult to truly describe what this experience is like.
But, I am going to try.
I am in prison and I live in a special housing unit that is home to the Federal Government's Residential Drug and Alcohol program. The program is called RDAP.
As I wrote, in my very first xoJane blog post, I developed a physical addiction to the prescription pills that my doctor was prescribing me for anxiety and insomnia; Xanax, Ambien and Seroquel, to be exact.
Other than that, I have not used hard drugs and I rarely drink. However, that is enough to qualify me for this program (please do not get me started on what a poorly run colossal waste of money this program is -- that is for a different post).
And now I live in a housing unit of 200 women. The majority are long-term meth addicts. No one else is here for prescription pills but we do have about 15 people who are deemed addicts for having medical marijuana cards, which is legal in California, where I am in prison, but still federally illegal.
What I go through on a daily basis is so awful that it's almost comical.
If I was on the outside reading this column and not fully understanding dope fiend mentality, I would feel sad and compassionate for these women. And a good portion of the time that is exactly what I feel.
However, it is exceptionally difficult to live in this environment without getting angry or becoming enraged at the incredibly rude, manipulative and irrational behavior that goes on here.
This place is a nonstop stream of chaos and sometimes I wonder if I can survive this prison rehab.
Every day I struggle to maintain my compassion and to not let my heart become cold to these women who so obviously need help... but, it's extraordinarily difficult when you are living in it.
The daily toxicity of this environment is often painful and I feel an extreme amount of loneliness by being around so many uncaring people.
Sadly, creating friction, stress and turmoil are fundamental parts of this program.
We are a therapeutic community (TC) which is a treatment model designed to put you in immensely stressful situations so that you learn the tools to deal with the issues you face as a sober person (the entire goal is so stress you out to no return so that you learn how to handle it).
It also means that we are a community and forced to interact with each other all day, every day, and take an active role in each other's treatment. There is no real oversight to this program because our DTS (Drug Treatment Specialists) are only here part-time and our main DTS is a push-over and does not hold anyone accountable for anything and it's really the inmates that are running the show.
So, let me start off this new, more personalized writing style with a story about "Big" (not her real name).
Big is one of the most disliked inmates in this unit. In fact, she is one of the most disliked inmates on this entire complex and has been kicked out of 3 other units before this one.
Big is in constant manipulative and hustle mode. If you mistake her kindness as real and have problems standing up for yourself then you will end up getting conned and owing her a ton of money.
In appearance, Big is an intimidating-looking inmate. When I first arrived in this prison, Big was sitting in the lobby of this unit cooking. She came up to me and welcomed me and offered to help me if I needed anything. She said she could assist me in finding a choice room with good bunkies and had some shoes I could wear until I shopped. She said she had extra toiletries and even offered me some of the pizza she was making empathizing with me on how hungry I must be after spending 10 hours on a bus from the Pahrump, NV holding facility.
Although I was new, I recognize a hustle when I see one. Big seemed like more of bully and was intimidating, so I did my best to avoid her.
But I did need shoes and rather than wait 4 weeks for this facility to order them, I bought them off another inmate. When Big saw that I gave my business to someone else, she dropped the act and confronted me. She made numerous demands that I pay her since she said she went out of her way to offer me help and was owed an “advice fee.” When I firmly said no, she called me ungrateful, cussed me out under her breath and walked away.
Unfortunately, one of the girls that came in with me, another newbie, was not so lucky. She fell for Big's feigned kindness and got totally taken advantage of.
Big told her how to get a room, showed her some of the forms we have here, gave her a tour of the complex and told her how to go about finding herself a job.
Big offered to let her borrow a pair of shoes until she got money on her account and could shop. And one night when Big was cooking she brought the newbie some spaghetti and a piece of cheesecake.
The newbie assumed that Big was helping her out of an act of kindness. Most of this "help" is actually stuff we can do for ourselves. Getting a room means simply walking around the unit to see where there is an unmade bed and talking to the current bunkies. The forms we have are hanging from a side wall. The complex is 4 buildings and takes 3 minutes to walk and the jobs are assigned by our unit counselor after orientation.
Big never asked for anything in return and it seemed logical that she was just trying to help.
However, 2 weeks later when the newbie finally had money on her account and was getting ready to shop for the first time, Big handed her a bill for $40; $10 for the room, $10 for the job assistance, $10 for the shoe rental and $10 for the food.
And the newbie paid. She paid because she was scared of Big and because there is no one to turn to in here.
This type of manipulative taking advantage of people happens all the time in unit. It makes me very upset and there is nothing I can do about it because prison is not the place to fight other people's battles. To do so would be a liability to me. I would get labeled as "messy" and messy inmates are often retaliated against.
And even though this behavior infuriates me, I can't help but step back and think that this is so horrible that it's almost ironically funny.
From the outside looking in it seems like an awful comedy. Seeing inmates like Big set-up shop in the lobby, plotting to hustle newbies or watching the Iran nuclear negotiations that happen inside here over control of the TV remote or living next door to a crazy meth addict that sings in a high pitched baby voice all night. The daily craziness of it all.
But perhaps the punch line is that, this is my life..for now.