The thrill of going commando lasts only so long. It had been five days since I last wore underwear.
The Friday before, three guards and a lieutenant led me into the Restricted Housing Unit, depositing me on the maximum security side of the housing unit. Cells here look like dungeons and house only one inmate.
When staffers bring an inmate to Restricted Housing, or “seg,” they lead her in, hands cuffed behind her back, one guard holding each of her arms; a lieutenant and a cameraman trail the inmate-guard trio. Once in the seg unit, they put the prisoner through a strip search and confiscate her clothes—including underwear and bra—replacing everything with a set of scarlet scrubs, cotton pants and a V-neck shirt. The inmate should receive her underwear and bra back once the medical and mental health staffs decide that she will not use them for self-harm.
People on the outside rarely see the danger in undergarments but inmates will try to use anything to hang themselves. I once witnessed an inmate’s chin resting on a teal sports bra in a suicidal gesture.
After the strip search, one of the unit counselors is supposed to retrieve the prisoner’s underclothes from her property, belongings that have been packed by the prisoner’s former cellmate and staff members from her last housing unit. Because the panty chain of custody is often weak and inmates go for days, even weeks, without underwear, women who know they’re headed to seg wear several pairs, one layered over another, so that they have a week’s worth of underclothes when staff hands them back their incoming clothes.
I did not expect to land in seg that Friday because I went not for misconduct but a capital “I” investigation. So I wore only one pair of panties at the time.
Speaking to my father on the phone, I noticed staff remove other inmates from the hallway and then head to me.
When the squad walked me in a few minutes before shift change that Friday in December 2010, my original underwear never found its way back to me. Weekend staff pleaded “business hours” when I asked for personal underpinnings. Monday, they promised, would arrive with my Hanes Her Way collection from my property.
Tuesday morning brought undergarment desperation. Zoo animals don’t wear underwear when they are confined. When a woman is caged against her will, one of the nods to humanity, one thing that separates her from flora and fauna is that she can wear normal clothing.
One Guard’s Approach
The animosity between guards and prisoners is as old as the concept of captivity itself. Correction Officer Jeffrey R. Johns (his real name) was one of maybe three guards (out of hundreds) who dissolved this tension. He was kind, fair, and limitlessly patient when inmates dunned him with requests. Mr. Johns toured restricted housing that Tuesday morning to take a head count.
“Mr. Johns, I’m sorry to bother you because I know you’re busy…” I called through the crack of the cell door.
“No problem. What’s up?”
“I have no underwear. Like none. I’m not even wearing a pair.”
“How long have you been in?” he asked. He looked at the orange magnet on my door that announced the date on which restricted housing took me in. His eyebrows went up as he calculated 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th ... “Why didn’t they get your property for you?”
“I’m not sure. I came in sort of near shift change last Friday, so maybe people forgot as they were leaving for the weekend?” I offered, trying to downplay what Officer Johns knew was either incompetence or negligence on the part of the unit counselors in the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario was that the staff was intentionally screwing with me.
“But it’s Tuesday and no one’s given you anything. Let me call property and see what’s going on.”
“Thank you, Mr. Johns.”
He descended the steps to my tier a few minutes later. His timing told me that he had made calling for me a priority when he returned to the control desk.
“They’re saying that they’re searching your property for an investigation and they can’t release any of it until it’s done. And anything you wore in is not upstairs where it’s supposed to be.”
“So I can’t have panties?”
“I guess not, Bozelko. I’m really sorry.” Mr. Johns always apologized for not being able to do more to help an inmate; administrative directives constrained his consideration for us.
“Thank you, Mr. Johns. I appreciate what you did. Don’t apologize; you already went above and beyond.”
I lay down on my bed for a nap with the seam of my extremely used, red cotton pants going right up my ass, unfettered.
Baby New Year
The double thud of the opening trap door woke me. Each cell door in restricted housing has a smaller trap door through which guards hand us meals and mail, so that the guards never need to open the entire door and expose themselves to airborne feces, flying fists or Styrofoam cups filled with urine spilled on them. Through the small opening came gleaming white cotton, bunched and waving.
“What size are you? Can you wear a size 10?” Mr. Johns asked me, offering four new pairs of underwear.
Because I was not considered an “indigent inmate”—meaning that I had more than $5 to my name in the past 90 days—no one would give me new underwear. I would have to buy the size 5 underwear I needed, a purchase that was not even possible for me from restricted housing. Still, Mr. Johns went over to Admissions and Discharges to secure for me the underwear that no one wanted me to have.
“Thank you, Mr. Johns. Thank you so much.”
I tried on the Size 10s. They were so oversized on me that the elastic waistband came up over my boobs. I looked like Baby New Year returning to his old diaper after a 30-day crack binge. But I had panties and could lie on my bed with 100 percent cotton protecting my ass from encroaching seams. I needed to double about nine inches of the white cotton fabric over the waistline of my red pants so that the crotch would not hang so low.
When Mr. Johns toured my tier later and a flash of white clothing around my hips (where there should be only red) caught his vision, he stopped.
“Oh no, Bozelko. Oh. Those don’t fit,” he lamented.
I feared he would tell me to take them off, that the white overhang was interfering with my red uniform’s ability to signify that I was, at least allegedly, a bad inmate.
“No, they’re good. They’re perfect. They’re just fine,” I blurted out so I could keep the undies.
“If you can handle them,” he said, “then so can I.”
If any place in God’s creation drives home the saying “little things mean a lot,” that place is a prison. Nothing required this guard to go out of his way to bend over tubs of women’s panties to find ones for me. He did it, anyway, to be kind. Other guards would have done nothing but laugh at me. Mr. Johns never, as the inmates say, “got it sideways,” which means disrespected inmates. Nor was he “sometimey,” which means inconsistent. Jeff Johns was ethically upstanding all of the time.
About six months later, when I was well out of seg, Mr. Johns worked in my unit. He stood watching as another officer served my cellmate and me disciplinary reports for “Unsanitary cell conditions” because my cellmate had left her 14-year collection of correctional tchotchkes improperly stored.
Later that night, I was on the phone warning my family that I would not be able to call them for a week. Through the glass walls of the tier, Mr. Johns raised his arms at me and mouthed: “What the hell is going on?”
I thought he wondered why I was using the phone after just receiving a “Loss of Phone” sanction.
I hung up on my mother and alighted the stairs to where Mr. Johns sat behind the housing unit’s control panel.
“I thought that my sanctions didn’t start until tomorrow,” I said, hoping to preempt any scolding by him.
“I don’t give a shit about that,” he responded. Then he motioned for me to hand me the copy of the disciplinary report.
After he read it, he told me: “OK, so loss of commissary doesn’t matter because you work in the kitchen and you can eat all you want there. Loss of rec, when I’m on, don’t worry about it. Today’s my Monday [York-speak for the first of his five regular workdays, even though it was a Friday]. So I’ll be here for four of the seven days. You never come out of your cell, but if you want to rec when I’m here, go ahead.
“I won’t post your sanctions on the board,” he continued, which meant that other officers who worked when Officer Johns was gone might not know of my troubles unless they really went looking for them and I could leave my cell without risk of reprisal.
“As for loss of phone, I don’t know how they do it, but go ahead if they don’t turn your access number off,” he continued. “This ticket is bullshit. You’re doing a good job, Bozelko, so I don’t want you to be punished for her stuff,” and he handed the paper back to me.
Mr. Johns had no power to stop the disciplinary report. But he did what was within his power to delete any interdiction lodged against my name.
“Thank you, Mr. Johns.”
Mr. Johns was working outside the gym this past September when my housing unit filed in for our strip searches. I saw an older inmate lean over to him:
“Thank you Mr. Johns,” she told him, “for what you did for me.”
A relapse dragged this woman into York after she fatally stabbed a man. She needed an AA meeting.
One might expect a prison that runneth over with drug devotees would impose 12-step meetings on everyone whether they want them or not. But prisoners must apply, sit on a waiting list and wait for official written acceptance to attend an AA meeting; it’s easier to get into Cornell than to attend a recovery meeting here at York Correctional Institution.
Because the older inmate was a relatively new admission to the prison, she was not an approved addict. A guard denied her entry to an AA meeting here on the compound.
Mr. Johns sat and talked to the woman, allowing her to vent and get out what she would have said at the meeting. Mr. Johns ended their two-person conference by joining the inmate in the Serenity Prayer.
As we filed out of the gym after bending, squatting and coughing, Mr. Johns leaned back toward the older inmate and whispered: “Thank you for telling me that.” That too, was Officer Johns: grateful to someone else when she was grateful to him.
A New Guard Post
Alas, Correctional Officer Jeff Johns passed away during the first week of October. The other officers seem stunned; they are as sad as the inmates are at his loss. “We always lose the good ones,” echoed everywhere for the week after his death. We miss him.
Women in prison attend religious services for one purpose: to talk everyone around them to death. Church in prison is loud. At the Catholic mass on Oct. 5, one of the prison chaplains, Deacon Dennis Dolan, asked us to pray for Jeff Johns.
For the first time in five years, I heard all of the inmates fall into silence voluntarily and remain there while they offered prayers of thanksgiving that York employed Mr. Johns and prayers of petition that God send another guard like him.
During every mass, Deacon Dolan asks us to pray for all of the prison’s staff members that “God may uphold them in all the good that they do.” The not-entirely-subtle implication is that there are some not-so-good behaviors belonging to the guards. Looking down from where he is now, Jeff Johns will keep his colleagues upright, consistent and, hopefully, striving to be as decent a person as he was.
Thank you, Mr. Johns.
Chandra Bozelko is an inmate at York Correctional Institution in Niantic. Readers can write to her at:
York Correctional Institution
201 West Main Street
Niantic, CT 06357
Previous prison diary entries:
• Behind Bars, 2 Reasons For Thanksgiving
• In Prison, Sandy Packed A Different Punch
• A Favor Turns Into An Investigation
• Behind Bars, Colors Complicate Halloween
• Earthworm vs. Inmate Evolution
• The Power Of The Pen
• The Sandusky-Komisarjevsky Connection: Today’s Victim Is Tomorrow’s Killer
• Inmate’s Court Journey: Dump-Dumped & Probed
• Love As Contraband
• Why I Faked A Suicide Note
• This Seat’s Not Taken