Leisa's Prison Journal Print
early May 2004

In such tight quarters, his voice bounced off the walls of the old army barracks office, ?If you don?t do it, I promise I?ll drag your naked body behind my truck down the street?oh, and I?ll wait till the asphalt is really hot.?

She smiled and giggled a little, then trudged off to begin seven hours of weed-whacking. At least she wrapped her black braids. It would help keep some the debris out. One afternoon last week she had just stopped working. When the heat got so oppressive she couldn?t stand the work, the heat, the hill ? and all for 12 cents an hour ? she just stopped working. He threatened to put her in the SHU (the hole in the main prison, euphemistically called the ?Special Housing Unit.?) How special does it make a woman feel to be locked down twenty-three hours a day with her meals shoved through a slot in the door? All her meager prison possessions taken away, often left without anything to read or do, without any voice but her own, and no one to listen to her complaints. What does that do to a woman?

I started a new job last week. So far my boss hasn?t attacked me verbally, I?ve only seen it done to others. For being three minutes late he ordered me to drop and give him twenty push-ups, but I didn?t ? I did twenty-one pushups for me.

Three days ago, when my dear friend Suzette and I first met our new boss, he came close to her face, eye-to-eye really as they both stand about 5?10?. He barked at her, ?So do you belong to me, now??

?No,? she lilted in her soft, strong, steady, slow voice, ?I work for you, but I don?t belong to you.? I knew then that Suzette and I were going to be great friends.

He turned to Iyako and said, ?I want you to assign her so close to me I can smell her.?

He?s not breaking Suzette. She knows where she?s going after this ? she?s got a college degree and is planning on real estate work to support herself and her three children back in LA. She has faith & hope in her future. That?s rare here, extremely rare.

A friend of mine outside gave a talk this week at the university and joked about my work here in prison. He mentioned my Classic Literature book drive, my almost daily written requests to prison staff to add a program or change a procedure. He said, ?They should know better than to put an organizer behind bars ? all she?s going to do is keep organizing.?

I have been waking up every morning with ideas to work on. Besides the library we?re building here, and the mother education class I designed and still don?t have permission to teach, I offered to dig a dirt path around the paved one so inmates could run off the pavement. No permission. I spoke to the doctor about getting raw vegetable sticks in the salad line for women who want to quit smoking (many), or lose weight (most, since most women gain weight in prison). Her response was, ?You better be careful making these suggestions. You could end up spending more time here, or going to the SHU.?

When I described to her how impossible it is for women inmate here to earn enough money to buy anything other than the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) steel-toed army boots to exercise in, she glibly popped back, ?Well, they should have their families send them some.? She actually seemed surprised to learn that we are not allowed to have anything sent to us except books. Still, she warned me against trying to change things.

The sense of hopelessness is even stronger in my sister inmates.
?Leisa! Leisa! Stop it!? Jennifer?s loud, high-pitched voice was so angry, it took a moment to realize she was speaking to me. Angry, profane outbursts are very common, but not directed at me, the pacifist. I had been babbling on about some idea.

?Don?t you get it! They f--kn? aren?t going to let you do s--- around here. They don?t want to rehabilitate us. They just want to keep us down.? As she got louder and more profane, no one tried to argue. This is the reality here. This is their experience.

There?s Gigi, with her long thick black hair and Latin sway. How many times has this strikingly beautiful and passionate young woman told me that her life and the lives of her two children are hopeless? She was born in El Salvador. Her father, an engineer, was killed after being tortured by a US- trained death squad. She was seven years old in 1980 when they found him in pieces. ?He came back in pieces, pieces is all! I know about your school of assassins. I know all about SOA. My mother brought us here when they swore to kill every member of our family. What hope do we have now? What hope for my children??

She came to America, was soon molested, and fell into poverty and powerlessness. Now she shares the old army barrack turned federal prison camp with me. She told me about her family. ?My mother is old now, but I?m lucky to have her. She shares her small bed with my two children (11 & 13 years old), so I can?t stay there when I get out. How am I going to make it? I never graduated high school, now I?m a felon. Who will hire me? It?s hopeless, hopeless? and what do my children know? Hopelessness! They learn only about prison life; they lose hope before they?re twenty-one, and it?s all over.? The sad thing is that I had little to offer in argument.

In order to cut a year off their sentences, most of my sisters confess a drug/alcohol problem that they may or may not have. If they go through treatment, it takes a year off their down time. They all try. They want to get back to the children most of them are trying to raise alone.

When they do get out, the next step is usually to a halfway house. Two such places promoted here are located in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco while another is in East Oakland. Inmates are required to sign a contract that promises 25% of their gross salary while working on the outside to the halfway house for room and board. The deal is this: the halfway house gets 25% of your gross, no matter what your take home pay is, for the whole six months. You have 24 hours to make the payment upon getting your check, or you?re back in prison. You have to put 20% of it in a savings account and buy your bus pass to work and all your laundry, cleaning supplies and hygiene costs. If you make $500 gross you pay them $125 off the top, then $100 to savings, then with all the deductions normally taken out of a paycheck you are lucky to be able to pay $40 for a bus pass. But everyone takes the deal.

They get to see their kids sometimes, and they get to be free from prison. They either stay here that last six months, without freedom, working at 12 cents an hour, or they contract to spend those last six months in the halfway house. Not a hard choice. The problem is that they are committed to pay for the whole six months. If they are good and work hard and follow the rules, the halfway house can recommend their release to home confinement. They jump at the chance to be living with their children again. The next problem is that the contract with the halfway house still has to be paid for the whole six months.

It benefits the halfway house to bump you free because they get paid no matter what. But, what happens to a woman who doesn?t have a place to go, who may not want to live with the guy who helped put her here in the first place and has no home of her own? She?s out on the street with a dead end job (she?s a felon after all), no scholarship for school money (she?s a felon after all), completely disenfranchised, literally, she can?t even vote (she?s a felon after all), trying to provide shelter, food and clothes for shell-shocked children on a minimum wage salary while she pays off the debt to the halfway house.

How is she going to make these expenses? Gigi?s right; it seems hopeless. With even worse conditions than those that pushed her into crime the first time, where is her relief? Where is hope? Along with the risk of re-arrest come the terms of probation. Since going through the drug/alcohol treatment it is a term of probation that will send her back to prison if she is even found in the company someone having a beer for five years. How realistic is that? No freedom, no job, no school, no hope. No wonder she feels she will end up spending her life in prison. But she came to America. She fled the American-trained torturers to come to the land of the free.

As the disparity between the rich and the poor grows wider every day, as I hear about what our soldiers are doing in Iraq to extract information, as I read about the piles of tortured bodies burning in the fields of the US ?liberated? Haiti ? I look for hope.

I wake up in prison because of my fight for peace and justice, but I cling to hope. Those of you reading this may not be disenfranchised; you may still feel you have a voice; you may be driven to speak out. Send us books, vote for prison reform, call Congress to urge passage of HR 1258 (close the SOA). Give a dollar to the woman at the corner; keep caring, speaking to people with respect, building peace in your own lives. I believe we can do it. I believe in the power of the growing masses of working people to awaken one morning and say, ?I?m not believing the hype any more. I believe in that morning as well as I can see the sun rise on this one. We can do it together.

Cling to hope, fight for justice, pray for peace,