I held my fellow kitchen workers at York Correctional Institution in rapt attention, not because my lesson was so good, but because we were all finally allowed outside.
The rain had stopped; we were supposed to be stacking crates of milk.
Twelve heads gathered in an amphitheatre around me, staring at two earthworms wiggling in the watery gloss left by an earlier storm. One worm propelled himself quite quickly towards the edge of the sidewalk, a cliff that would drop him back into grass, earth. The other gained no ground; a wave of energy pumped through him, forwards and back, but otherwise he remained stationary.
“We call these guys earthworms, but scientists call them lumbricus terrestris. They’re nematodes. Do you think there are more worms like him?” I asked pointing to the mover. “Or like him underground?” pointing to the stationary one.
Every now and again, I drop bits of my $250K education to see which inmates will gather to devour them.
The point of this tutorial was to teach a lesson in adaptation, that there were probably more “mover” worms underground because they were smart and healthy enough to remove themselves from the danger of being scrunched underneath a pair of factory-reject Reeboks from the prison commissary.
“More like him because they lazy and they stayin’ in the house. And they ain’t no toads,” opined a slight inmate, choosing the still worm.
“No, nematode. It’s their phylum,” I corrected.
“How about there’s more movers down there because they get out of the way fast so we don’t step on them?” I suggested, pointing to the grass
A wave of nods rippled through the stadium of faces. Progress.
Lessons like this one on natural selection posed more complex difficulties for me than those of any high school teacher. Each body in the circle surrounding me bore some scar, some mark that both warranted rejection but telegraphed resilience. Track marks from IV drug abuse. Large diagonal knife wounds spanning their cheeks called “buck-fifty’s” because they usually require 150 stitches. Scars. Lazy eyes from being punched too hard in the head. When the Gestapo foraged the Polish countryside in search of “perfect” children that would be made German in service of creating a master race, none of us would have been in any danger of being seized. Even though most women in prison have survived abuse, they are the ones who did not get out of the way; they didn’t adapt properly, otherwise they would not be incarcerated. When Darwinian principles play out in courtrooms, they do not acquit if you’re not “fit”—your body, your life, must be blemish-free in order to avoid prison.
“Which one would you go out with?” I asked, venturing into sexual selection. More so than by drugs, these women’s lives had been ruined by dudes, the predators and parasites they attracted. I hoped I was nudging them into an introspection that would improve their next selection.
I smiled as looks of hard thought spread across their faces. This is working, I thought.
Out came our supervisor.
“Lesson’s over. Did she lay some science on ya?” he asked derisively as his workers filed past him inside.
“No, she think we attracted to worm,” said a Dominican woman awaiting deportation as she rolled her eyes.
Those looks of hard thought were just confusion at what they thought was my bizarre suggestion of cross-species hybridization.
The supervisor looked at me quizzically. I started to explain, then retreated, shrugged. I had caused enough evolution for one day.
Chandra Bozelko, who attended Princeton University, 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:
• 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