by Cynthia Cone
When I tell people I spent two years in a New York State prison, the reaction is usually the same: disbelief. I certainly don’t “look” like a convicted felon, and I most definitely don’t carry myself like one. But the cold hard truth is, I am one. For better or worse, till the day I die, my record and my number—95G0153—will be with me, sometimes like an albatross around my neck, but always a part of my story.
Of course, the first question I am almost always asked is, “What did you do?” Which, ironically, is the first thing you learn NOT to ask when you are in prison. I have to admit, sometimes I am put off by the invasiveness of the query; but then I figure if I am going to put it out there, I have to expect that they are going to ask. Either way, I always start with the same line—“I was young, and it was over twenty years ago.” As if the distance between the incident and my current life separates me from the act. In a way, I feel like it does. I am not that same young girl, and in the years that have lapsed, I have changed a great deal.
However, one of the things I very rarely say out loud—frankly, because it makes me sound insane—is that prison was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Don’t get me wrong. I regret the “act” that put me there every day of my life, but if I took away the two years I spent locked up, I shudder to think of who I might be today. My evolution has never been more heightened and accelerated than it was when confined between those walls. The experience changed my psyche forever, and I know I am a better person for it; but in order for you to fully understand how I could feel that “prison was the best thing that ever happened to me,” I guess you need a little bit of my background story.
I grew up the only child of a single mother who spent a brief time on welfare until she became a bus driver in our relatively upper middle class town. It was not an easy life for either of us. Her alcoholism began to escalate in my formative years, and there were two occasions that I can remember when she attempted suicide. I would later understand the depths of her despair when I asked about the random pattern of scars on her arms. Her issues with “self” ran very deep and started in her early teens. My mom had a horrible childhood, filled with abuse by her alcoholic father; yet somehow she never lost her ability to be kind. Our relationship was complex, but I loved her fiercely, and I was her world.
Obviously, due to my mom’s own issues, I was not given a lot of structure growing up, and there were rarely ramifications for my bad behavior. I was a good kid who was just into some bad things. I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol at a very young age, and while such behavior was not condoned, it was very rarely dealt with. I almost always had older boyfriends, and never really fit in with any of the cliques in high school. Don’t get me wrong—I had a lot of friends. As a matter of fact, I was friendly with almost everybody. Not fitting in with one group allowed me the freedom from subscribing to the collectivism that, more often than not, runs rampant in high school. However, looking back, the sad thing is, it’s really not surprising that I ended up in jail.
If I said prison wasn’t frightening, lonely and miserable I’d be lying. From day to day you never really knew what was going to happen—what sex scandal would break out, who would leave, who would come back, who would die or who would fight; but at the same time, it was also the most predictable place I had ever been. I woke up at the same time every day, ate at the same time, moved around the facility at the same time, worked at the same place and went to bed at the same time. There was a structure to it that had always been lacking in my life. But what I actually loved about prison were the relationships I forged with the other women there. I thought growing up poor in a middle class town had taught me about “injustice.” What a joke. Any woman in that place would have gladly traded her life for mine, in a heartbeat. They were drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes and con artists, born into poverty and never given a chance; but they were also daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, who loved and were loved in return. To society, they were throwaways who would more than likely end up back in jail, time and time again, not even afforded the chance to educate themselves beyond a GED, thanks to Governor Patacki. I could go on and on about the injustices of the American prison system, but that’s an entirely different story, and one too long and complicated to address here.
Every woman I met behind those walls taught me something about myself, and I am forever indebted to them. There was Miss Pearl, who most people would probably discount as an old junkie, but she allowed me to learn there was much more to her story than that. Nazo, the hustler from the Upper East Side, made her living and extended her rap sheet by running con games and boosting from high end stores. Chicago taught me all about the pigeon drop and how to identify a mark. And then there was Teddy. One of my closest friends, her humor and positive outlook on life got me through my darkest days. Teddy’s nickname for me was “Nina,” and every month my mom would pack a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos in my food package for her. When I got out, I burned almost everything that came home with me from jail—but the one thing I could never bring myself to get rid of was the postcard Teddy had sent me of the Village Cigar shop in New York City. She was released before me, and I was really pulling for her. Teddy loved her son deeply and wanted to be there for him, but selling and abusing drugs was always her downfall. From the updates I was getting, she seemed to have her life on track; but it was only a few months later that I would learn Teddy had lost her battle with AIDS.
I am sure that, to some readers, these stories will evoke a response of, “These women deserved what they got,” but believe me when I tell you—they were so much more than what they did. They were not afforded the same privileges in life that I had, and their struggles were way beyond what a white girl from suburbia could fully understand. I left Albion with more than my share of stories, each one more tragic, funny and interesting than the next about the strong, funny, optimistic, beat down women I met while there. So, when I tell you that I spent two years in prison and don’t seem to have shame about it, know that I wear it like a badge of honor for all of the women I loved who can’t.
When I look back at all that has transpired in my life over the last 20 years—especially since I lost my mom—I can’t believe this is one person’s life. I feel like I have lived through three incarnations at the very least, and each time I grieve a little for the Cynthia that I leave behind. After coming home from prison, I went through a deep depression, and I did not understand it at all. For two years, all I had thought about was coming home; but once I got there, I realized my old life no longer fit. I was deeply changed, and even my closest friends felt like strangers. One day in session, my therapist told me, “You need to allow yourself time to grieve. Your old life is gone and you will never be that same girl.” Years later, that advice still holds up—with every end, with every beginning, you need to grieve a little. Life is about growth, change, tragedy, joy, loss and, at times, immense sadness. But we need to move on, or we will get stuck.
There were times growing up that I could not help but think I wanted to have my life all to myself. I did not want to be saddled with the feeling of being responsible for my mom, or anyone else. After she died, I felt guilty for even thinking that way, but I have learned to cut myself some slack. I know she would have understood. In the end, the ironic thing is that after spending 37 years trying to save my mom, I have now moved on to being more politically active, participating in things I can only guess make me seem crazy to those who knew me “back when.” The truth is, sometimes I wonder if this new drive I have to save the world comes from the void that was left in my life after my mom died. I couldn’t save her, but maybe I can save something. Why not start with the world?
About the Author: Cynthia Cone is an Ex Con with no college education and very bad punctuation. She is currently living in Long Island, NY where she pays extremely high taxes and likes to drink.
Contact Cynthia at firstname.lastname@example.org