Love As Contraband

“You got a girlfriend, Bozelko?” AP asks me. AP is my work supervisor at York Correctional Institution.

“Come on, AP. You know me better than that,” I huff.  “I don’t like women,” I announce proudly, like heterosexuality is an achievement.

“All right,” he approves.“Good girl.”

That female prisoners enter into liaisons with other women is a deafening, rhythm-stopping reality in prison. Correction officials discourage romantic relationships not out of homophobia or cruelty but because they have learned from their own lives that love makes people do crazy things. Some are crazy in the extreme, like killing a cheating spouse, and others only slightly crazy, like tattooing your crush’s name on the skin atop your jugular. Both types of craziness are well-represented in any correctional facility; prisons don’t need any more crazy because, especially in an overpopulation crisis, we have quite a stash.

Because wardens see too many prison romances disintegrate into the self-canceling chaos that cripples an inmate’s successful reentry into society, relationships are prohibited as much as love can be legislated. Lieutenants relocate women who become romantically involved both to strain their emotional connection and to prevent the physical manifestations of love between felons: holding hands, entering each other’s cells, showering together, fisting.

It is not just the lovers who need to be kept apart. Part of prison security is preventing aggregation in public spaces; ideally an inmate would have little to no contact with other prisoners because when inmates congregate and coagulate in groups, they find accomplices, victims, messengers with bulletins about which officer is working where—highlighting areas on the compound ready for misconduct—and girlfriends. Regulation and contact oppose each other in prison.

To this end, the prison’s housing units are released in a staggered schedule, and being separated in two different units makes it almost impossible for one inmate to see or touch her girlfriend without employing the levels of creativity and treachery usually reserved for airstrikes or presidential campaigns. The walkway, the prison’s main artery, sees the most turmoil when each of the prison’s housing divisions is released because it is the only place for love in the form of exchanges of words, kisses, illegal feels, “kites” (small love notes, folded, unsurprisingly like mini-kites). If the two women fail to coincide on the walkway, they stomp and reel at the missed opportunity for romance.

“If you really loved me you would have been the first one out of your unit!” shrieked an inmate to her girlfriend. The shrieker had sashayed in slo-mo when her housing unit was released for a meal, anticipating that love would propel her girlfriend out of her building when it was released next. The style of her girl’s emergence, mid-pack and at an average pace, betrayed her, made her florid with rage.

Another woman screamed at a guard she was going to be late for her “college algebra” class; he was either inattentive or illiterate because he let her out of the housing unit carrying her alleged textbook, “Oz Clarke’s New Essential Wine Book”—an oblivious donation to the prison library—to a class that does not exist. She hoped to run into her sweetheart when the woman’s housing unit spilled onto the sidewalk.

The reason matters of the heart pump chaos around the prison compound.

For staffers like AP, accepting all walks, and walkways, of life is the necessary result of working with the female gang members, con artists, drunk drivers and prostitutes of the State of Connecticut. That is how I know that AP, a senior food supervisor at the prison for almost 20 years, bears no particular grudge against lesbianism or even sexual experimentation when he asks me if I have a girlfriend. A former Navy man who has been trained to eliminate mess and muddle, AP abhors disorder, and love in prison necessarily entails a level of upheaval that people on the outside never see because, unlike prisoners, they have things to do and the freedom to do them. The idleness of incarceration nurtures rashness and nerve; while incarcerated, prisoners do things we might not do otherwise.

Seven-day-a-week prison jobs like mine in the prison kitchen can distract and settle inmates; that is, if their romance doesn’t bleed into the kitchen. To get anything done, AP needs his workers unfettered by the problems that accompany prison love: disciplinary reports for being ‘out of place’ (prison-speak for trespassing) at a “wife’s” housing unit, crying jags brought on by a “stud’s” silent treatment or unauthorized leave through the kitchen’s back door to catch a kite. If I had told AP “Yeah, I have a girlfriend,” such disclosure would sound silent alarms to him that I am about to do something stupid. Denying a relationship makes AP think that the prison walkway will never suffer infarction because of my romantic antics and falsely assures him that I am totally immune to heartsick hysteria.

No reports, jags or kites today; the event that occasions AP’s question to me is the inescapable crisis that disrupts the pulse of prison love. A Code Blue has been announced on AP’s radio, which means that there has been a fight between two warring girlfriends who matched paces and collided on the walkway. One heard a rumor that the other had written a kite to another inmate, a neighbor in her housing unit, and the prison expectation that the “closest gets the mostest” has triggered jealously, epithets, bloodshed.

Even though the skirmish is nothing impressive—hair-pulling and face scratching—this sidewalk aneurysm still arrests our schedules; none of the kitchen workers can leave at the end of our shift because prison guards disallow any walkway traffic while they respond to the incident, blue uniforms flooding the gray cement stripe we use as lover’s lane. The stoppage forces AP and his workers to watch the fracas unfold through the dining hall’s windows.

When I leave work on every other day to return to my housing unit, I transmit my heterosexuality by walking quickly, constantly and alone. I have no need to linger or dash on the walkway because I have no one to wait for, no one to catch up to. I am the least lonely that I have ever felt in my life because counterfeit superiority has replaced any feelings of isolation; I remain fluid, free in prison because love has not caused me to behave badly.

But I congratulate myself too early because I am both a victim and a perpetrator of chaotic relationships myself, only with men. Thinking that I am above the madness caused by inmate love connections is like an alcoholic congratulating himself for refusing a cocktail cut with sewer water instead of sour mix; it’s really no accomplishment to reject what you do not want. If I were attracted to women, maybe I would no longer please AP but instead distract him to search for me in the back area of the kitchen, trying to catch me in some illicit romantic behavior. Maybe I would be clogging the walkway, looking to collect my kites from potential boyfriends if men were confined here, too. Without men on the compound, I can’t really say. My thinking is much different when not tugged by temptation.

I admit that I have been pulled by desire for affection myself, employing the “closest gets the mostest” rule myself, just using different words and better grammar, suspecting boyfriends of developing feelings for women in their workplaces. No kites flying in my skies outside the prison, I admit that I have invaded his privacy and looked at a boyfriend’s phone to see what a recent text really said and possibly intercept an incoming missive.

I have lied to get out of obligations—serious ones like a family funeral—to meet a man. If regulation opposes romance within a correctional facility, then integrity opposed it for me. I did things—pathetic, dimwitted shit—of which I am not proud in pursuit of feeling a certain way about a guy, about myself. I can scoff at these women, but I am no different from them; as the inmates say, I just don’t do girls. I have never been in a fight here in prison or on the outside, but I admit that I could be three Labatts and a break-up short of one with a man, an altercation that I might start. If I were attracted to women, maybe I would be beneath the scrum of guards and inmates we watch through the dining hall’s windows: a pile of grunts, direct orders and handcuff clicks that now slowly pulls apart.

Rehabilitation takes many forms; any correction is only as good as its implementation upon an inmate’s release.  Now that I see myself in the other women here, I worry whether I will trade my sobriety for starry-eyed desperation when men walk by me, near me on a city sidewalk.

As the two fighters are led away to solitary, the walkway’s clot dissolves and AP’s radio crackles with the announcement that the compound is clear again for transit. I am now free to walk my line, flowing separately and swiftly, chest puffed because I think I am above it all. Evidence of the fight whisked away, no indication remains of the heartache and reprisal of moments before. Each woman goes about her business until the next walkway obstruction.

“We can go now, right AP?”

“Go ahead, Bozelko. Stay out of trouble.”

Chandra Bozelko is an inmate at York Correctional Institution in Niantic.

Previous prison diary entries:
The Sandusky-Komisarjevsky Connection: Today’s Victim Is Tomorrow’s Killer
Inmate’s Court Journey: Dump-Dumped & Probed

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posted by: nero on September 6, 2012  4:37pm

Chandra Bozelko can write. Thanks, not just for the unique insight into prison life, but also for the sheer delight in reading the words you patch together into such a rich, brilliant quilt.

posted by: Charl on September 6, 2012  5:08pm

Gritty, rated R stuff. Thank you, Chandra for your insight into this awful aspect of society.  It really is impossible to capture the hostile, ugly environment that is prison in the United States through words or pictures.  It is the most bleak area of our society, which we cherish as the greatest in the history of mankind.

Chandra deserves praise for turning a truly awful life experience into something positive, through these glimpses into her daily life. 

Also, thank you NHI for publishing these tales.

posted by: Abdelnoir on September 6, 2012  8:40pm

I love to read Chandra’s essay’s.  I guess what I am wondering is whether or not she can see the replies that are posted here.  If not or even if so, I would like to write to her.  NHI can you inform us of whether or not Chandra is privy to these replies?  Thanks.

[Editor: Not sure. Your best bet would be to write to her at the prison, though her family is keeping track of the stories for her.]

posted by: jayfairhaven on September 7, 2012  10:04am

this series is fantastic.

posted by: Edward_H on September 8, 2012  1:10am

This title is misleading to say the least. Love is not contraband in prison. You can love whomever you want in prison. The authorities have no ability to stop you. Physical contact and communication can be restricted in prison, which should be expected when you are in prison. The only thing that is interesting about these articles is that unlike most inmates and ex-cons I have known this author writes well.