There was a lot of talk a few weeks back about the comments made by presidential hopeful Ben Carson, concerning his statements that the prison system has the power to take a straight person and make them gay. While Carson ended up apologizing for his asinine statements, the fact that he even made them to begin with only goes to show his pure ignorance on the subject, and his closed-minded ideals on sexuality.
It’s horrifying that in this day and age we are still debating things like gay marriage, whether or not gay people are capable of raising well-adjusted children, or if they even have the right to march in a fucking parade. The fact that we are still having these discussions truly highlights how far we have to go when it comes to our evolution as a society.
Lately, I have been listening to the language we use when debating these hot-button topics, and I have had an epiphany of sorts––it came to me in one of those “aha moments,” when all of a sudden, everything seems so crystal clear. When it comes to the verbiage we use when arguing nature versus nurture, by even taking part in the debate we are inferring that there is something inherently wrong with being homosexual to begin with. We don’t ask people why they are heterosexual, or what makes them heterosexual, so why would we ask someone to explain why they are homosexual? It’s insulting, and, quite frankly, why does it even matter?
As a former inmate of the NYS Department of Corrections, I have actually experienced what happens behind that barbed wire, first-hand. Let me tell you, the prison culture is a lot more complicated than most would expect, and the relationships forged there are not only sexual in nature. Prison has a way of breaking down barriers, and while I do not recommend making that trip if you can help it, I believe the things I learned during my stay made me a better person.
From the moment you enter the system, you begin to lose all sense of identity; and that’s how it was designed. The system’s main purpose is to scrub away any indication that you were once an individual with a unique identity, and turn you into a compliant inmate. It all starts by assigning you a number, and the process is anything but subtle. Every time they take something from you, whether it’s your name, your clothes, your phone privileges, etcetera, it cuts to your very soul. You lose a lot more in prison than just the ability to live within society.
I will never forget the day I arrived at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. The moment we rolled up to the gate I could sense the heaviness––it was almost like a black cloud loomed over the entire place. Don’t get me wrong; County was horrible, but most of the people there had “short time.” Bedford was a max-security prison that housed lifers, and if it seemed creepy from the outside, it only got worse the moment I stepped inside. The buildings were dark and foreboding, the halls narrow and damp; and, as if that was not bad enough, the entire place was overrun with cockroaches.
Once brought into the reception area, I was put in a large room with a bunch of other girls who had arrived from various county jails. We were stripped of our clothes and led like cattle into an open shower. Out of nowhere, the COs started throwing what looked and smelled like lawn fertilizer at us. Looking back, the visual is almost comical, but at the time I was horrified. I was told this powder would get rid of any “lice” I had; as far as I knew, I was completely lice free, and instantly resented the treatment. As I pretended to scrub away imaginary bugs and tried to avoid the random handfuls of fertilizer being thrown my way, I felt both my dignity and identity slowly circle the drain.
I didn’t make many friends those first few weeks. Most of my time was spent trying to adjust to a very surreal situation; the fact that this was going to be my reality for at least the next two years was very overwhelming. It was only after I was sent to Albion (my somewhat permanent “home”), that I started to settle in.
One of my first jobs in Albion was working on the paint crew. There was a woman I worked with named Bauzo who took to me right away. She was several years older than me, and I guess she could tell I was a little out of my element (it wasn’t exactly a hard thing to recognize). After a few weeks of working with her, Bauzo told me to call her “Titi,” which means “Auntie” in Spanish. Every morning on our van ride to some random cell block, she would give me a little prison education; or as we used to say, “drop some knowledge on me.” They were invaluable prison-life lessons, and I felt grateful to have someone like her looking out for me.
I am not sure if it was my naivety of street life or the fact that I was so open to making the best of a really bad situation, but I loved learning about the women I met during my time there. At first glance our lives seemed so different; and they were in a lot of ways. But once you stripped away all the bullshit, our stories had a lot of similarities. Most of us had been survivors of some form of abuse or another, the majority of us were addicts, or had at least grown up around addiction, and pretty much all of us felt like we were the misfits of society. We were emotional wrecks a lot of days (especially after sharing in group sessions), but if we had nothing else, we had each other.
Relationships that are formed under oppression and during times of extreme hardship are some of the strongest bonds you will ever make. Just ask anyone who has ever been in the military–-as odd as it may seem, the prison experience is very similar.
Before I finished my two years in Albion, I had many “sisters,” “mothers,” “aunts,” and yes, even a girlfriend. There is something that happens when you are locked up far away from friends and family for so long. The human part of us wants to seek out anything it can in order to make you feel “human” again. If you can, you try to recreate those relationships that are missing. It’s a survival tactic. Was having a girlfriend a choice for me? Yes. Should my choice matter to you, or does it have an impact on your life? No.
I cared about my girlfriend a great deal during that time. We ate together, watched TV together, walked the yard together, and even went to solitary together. Most of my close friends know I had this relationship, but there has always been a part of me that felt it should be hidden from certain family members. It was during my “epiphany” that I realized that by not being as open about this part of my life as I am with the rest of it, I am caving into fear and feeding into the idea that there is something I should be ashamed of. And that is wrong.
I am only forty-two years old, but I am old enough to know there are too many things in this life that keep us afraid. Being human, and experiencing that humanity with whomever we choose, should never be one of them. This is my “coming out.”
Author: Cynthia Tarana is a heavily tattooed Ex-Con with no college education and very bad punctuation. She currently lives on Long Island, NY where she pays extremely high taxes, likes to drink, rage against the machine and shop at the GAP.
Contact Cynthia at email@example.com
Also check out: The Long Redemption by Cynthia Cone
4 thoughts on “I Went to Prison Straight and Came Out Human”
Another insightful commentary and analysis. Cynthia reminds us of what’s important . . . and real, so let’s keep our minds open as there is so much we can learn.
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Thank you, Mac!
I could not agree with you any more Cynthia. Also empirical evidence agrees with you.