When I first arrived in prison, an overzealous guard yelled, “Show me pink! More! More pink!” We were bending, spreading, coughing.
“Do what?” asked one woman, shocked. Even though she had been charged with prostitution and presented her pink every day for profit, this order offended her.
She and other inmates complained, and the administration removed the “Pink Lady” guard from conducting strip searches for being too invasive. Now the guard listens to our phone calls instead.
But due process for prisoners still means that when we are due in court, guards process us.
Processing us for hours like bologna or a pile of government paperwork, officers inspect, separate, break down, recombine, and dump us out at the other end of the criminal justice system.
I dress for court at 3:30 a.m. Court does not require anyone to appear before 9:30 a.m., but the system needs all six intervening hours to thresh us.
I have tripped to court over 75 times, so my prep has become rote. Two pairs of socks to prevent the shackles from chafing my ankles, long thermal underwear under my pants, not for warmth, but to prevent transport officers from seeing three years of growth on my unshaven legs. Shoelaces removed because they can be used to strangle someone or escape using the tapered plastic end as a makeshift handcuff key. Four different shirts: white tee, red tee, thermal shirt, grey sweatshirt. The thermal will warm me when I remove the sweatshirt to make a cushion to buffer my butt from a cold metal bench.
Prison movies like The Shawshank Redemption depict the smuggling of contraband into prison, but contraband is a two-way sneak. Smuggling out probably proves more difficult because guards do not want to be accused of missing something that had been imported without their knowledge.
Because of this, outgoing inmates endure no simple search. Each woman at York Correctional Institution must strip off all her clothes, open her mouth and raise her tongue as proof that she isn’t cheeking something. Those of us with long hair or large breasts lift our assets to establish that we have hidden nothing underneath. After a 180-degree turn, we lift our feet to bare our soles—nothing underfoot.
“Bend, spread and cough,” comes the command. We bend at the waist, spread our buttocks, and emit, only slightly, a malingerer’s cough. Nothing inside.
When the pink moons of the morn have set, correction officers snap shackles around our ankles and confine us with “belly chains,” long handcuffs wrapped around our waists that keep our arms crossed, straitjacket-style. Women grouse.
“If you don’t like it, then don’t bring your dirty asses to jail!” barks one of the guards, as he waits for us to bound, while bound, up three 16-inch steps into a windowless bus. I never know if the lack of windows prevents inmates from seeing out or the free world from seeing in, thus witnessing piles of women mummified by metal chains.
“93.7, asshole!” screeches one woman, dictating to the bus driver which radio static she wants to crackle in our ears.
We arrive at the basement of a police department, the site of the official hand-off to the judicial branch.
Tethered to ourselves, we wait in cinematic stereotypical cells—metal bars, metal toilets—until judicial marshals will scatter us across the state’s courthouses.
We overhear the marshals’ conversation. Prison guards, they say (as opposed to judicial marshals), are at the hind end of the peace officer pecking order. Prison guards don’t know any courtroom procedure, and they wear polos instead of the marshals’ button-down shirts, thereby making the guards the sediment of the security-guard mix.
Incarceration resembles almost none of the prison movies; it’s more like Saturday Night Fever, in which John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, complains that everyone, at every level, is always “dump-dumpin’” on someone else. No one can live in, work at, or associate with a prison without dump-dumpin’ on someone else.
Before the judicial diaspora, marshals remove our shackles, not to free us, but to snap on another pair officially owned by the judicial branch, not corrections; they are not allowed to share.
Female marshals search us again—a benign, benevolent pat search. From behind me, a marshal claps her palms around my calves, my thighs, my torso, and my arms. Her fingers trace the cups of my bra. I laugh to myself about the Transportation Safety Administration’s brouhaha during Thanksgiving 2010 when holiday travelers balked at being searched before boarding planes. A viral video showed one man warning a searcher off his “junk”—his groin. My junk and I have been touched so many times in the past three years that neither of us recoils at paws or probes anymore.
Chandra Bozelko is an inmate at York Correctional Institution in Niantic.
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