A fellow inmate—a mother of two—approached me for help. The state accused her of violating the terms of her probation by obeying her probation officer’s order for her to work. The problem was that she worked in Rhode Island and crossed state borders without permission every time she clocked in.
PP, I will call her, had been informed by her attorney that, if she admitted to violating her probation, she would be sentenced to 20 months of incarceration, which would be offset by eight months she had already served, unsentenced. The actual time she should have had to stay in jail was one year, except that the prison decided not to honor the eight-month prepayment, and all 20 months stuck.
She asked me for help.
I wrote a sentence modification application for her, typed it and paid for the requisite copies myself. I handed it to her with postage prepaid envelopes and an instruction to mail it in soon.
When I saw her a few weeks later I asked: “You sent it out? Have you heard anything?”
“Nah. Never mailed it.”
“Why not?” I questioned. I was too stunned by her first answer to think straight. Was oppression taking this much of a toll on these women that they wouldn’t give a bid to leave prison early a shot?
“I got a girlfriend in Zero Building. She don’t want me leavin’.”
Five months later, when the girlfriend left, PP decided she wanted out then, too.
“I need you to write me a modification,” she informed me on the prison walkway.
“I wrote you one, remember? I typed it, copied it… Just send that one in.”
“I didn’t keep that shit. I need another one,” she explained flicking her wrist like she was chucking detritus into the trash.
So far in my sentence, my education and bleeding heart indentured me to the other inmates, and that was not a good thing.
“Listen… I… I’m busy doing my own stuff, okay?”
PP continued to pressure me to rewrite the sentence reduction plea, sliding her paperwork across tables in the prison library like Tony Soprano pushing an envelope of cash toward someone who still owed him a solid. I always slid her paperwork in reverse, until one day when PP left before I could slide it back.
One paper, PP’s “timesheet”—the most important document to an inmate, because it is the one paper containing an inmate’s docket number, controlling charge, entry date, parole date and, most importantly, the day she can leave unencumbered—had been left with me.
Inmates receive one timesheet; a lost one will not be replaced, as I learned when I misplaced mine.
Fearing that PP would not get another, I tucked her timesheet in my papers and headed toward my cell, only to be called to a halt by a guard notorious for pat searching inmates on the facility’s walkway. I had no fear of Officer Harry, because I had no contraband. She snatched my legal papers and paged through them.
“You PP?” she asked.
“Of course not,” I replied. PP is almost 6 feet tall, black with glasses. I am 5’1” when the DMV is feeling generous, and white with 20/20 vision.
Harry confiscated PP’s timesheet; I thought she was doing me a favor by returning them to PP for me, but this was free-person thinking.
My favor turned into an “investigation.” Harry found me in my cell later.
“You typin’ up a modification for her or somethin’?”
“Well, she says ya are so… why are you lying?”
“I’m not lying to you. I am not typing or writing anything for her because I already did that five months ago,” I retorted, but to no avail. A Class B disciplinary report floated under my cell door hours later, alleging that I provided “false information”: that I had lied when I denied writing and typing another motion for PP, even though neither the typing nor the writing could land me in any trouble.
Forget the assaults, the drug-smuggling, the rapes; correctional institutions insist on penalizing good deeds.
Still thinking like a free woman, I pled not guilty to the ticket, knowing that I had witnesses to my work and copies from months before as evidence that I hadn’t lied.
A typical prison disciplinary report hearing usually takes about three minutes, just enough time to read the report aloud and allow the hearing officer to say “guilty;” facts and probity are irrelevant to such proceedings.
My hearing on this ticket lasted an hour, approximately 20 times longer than other hearings. The proceeding was continued for further investigation.
It then lasted another hour; now they had invested 40 times more time into this ticket than others they heard in the last several years.
I did not want to ask: Are you out to get me? The answer came anyway when, finally, I was cleared of providing false information but convicted of possessing contraband—PP’s timesheet.
The Hearing Officer sanctioned me with lost recreation time for ten days.
Everyone on the outside of a prison knows the word contraband to mean “stuff that’s not allowed.” But in prison, the concept of contraband really lets the guards’ interpretive powers loose, because the definitions of contraband are kind of wobbly.
The contraband biggies, the Class A illegal imports, are weapons, drugs, booze, tattoo guns (bent staples attached to motors of electric razors) or wireless communication devices which can be used to send messages that the prison cannot monitor and censor.
The lower contraband in Class B includes not only unauthorized items as one might expect but also “excessive” items—nudie pics or “authorized items that have been altered.” Alteration once meant “change” to me, but in prison it means “used in an unintended way.” For example, the authorized pastel crayons sold by the prison commissary, when used for eye shadow rather than art on a state-issued piece of paper, become contraband. Guards make inmates close their eyes to examine their lids; the beige crayon blends so seamlessly that it might go unnoticed. When guards deliver magazine subscriptions to the inmates, they’re authorized. But when an inmate rips pages out and makes collages from the shreds, that’s contraband because the intended use of a magazine is reading, not paper crafts.
I dashed off several written request forms—prison communication—and offered up several metaphysical and formalistic questions to dispute the finding of guilty of possessing contraband. What I wrote was: “What are the intended uses of timesheets? Can’t an object have more than one intended use? If PP gave me the timesheet, how is my possession of it unauthorized? Further, why is helping someone—admittedly grudgingly—a ‘ticketable’ offense?” What I wanted to know was: “Didn’t I do right? What would you have done?”
“I would have left that doggone paper on the table,” a senior guard whom I trust told me when I recounted the story to him.
The model prisoner disregards the other women with whom she is penned in like factory farm animals. Every time I re-learn this lesson, recovery takes root. I wonder what I will be like when rehabilitation finishes its course.
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, 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