The five women you meet in jail
A former inmate profiles her cellmates
911 Parr Boulevard, we wait. We wait for anything. Mail. Visits. Court. Prison. We are patient in our pound, where women pretend to be girls and girls pretend to be women. I had the honor of doing four months flat in this bloodbath of lesbian drama and 20 second, timed showers. I got out on May 18 and felt like a tourist in my own city and a stranger to some of my friends. For four months, I was absorbed in women and rules. I still think of these dreamgirls on the daily. They left an impression of friendship I don’t think I’ll ever shake. And maybe I don’t want to forget—their colored hair and roots coming through as the season changes. Also, the ones who buzzed their hair altogether.
Sometimes I paint them on afternoons when the light is right on my balcony and I feel like I’m on the cusp of revisiting dirty nostalgia. I can almost taste the 4 a.m. oatmeal. It’s like that feeling of watching a really gross porn, getting off, and being unable to shake the shame.
One’s hair sometimes tells the truth, though. Sidney was totally a brunette, but we treated her like a blonde—carefree and fun. We wouldn’t remind Janelle that her highlights were fading because we were all fading. Into what, though?
We all just wanted to go home. But some of us killed people. (She gave out the bread rolls at dinner.) Some of us stole people’s credit cards and slid until the cashier gave them the “really?” look. And some of us didn’t pay our speeding tickets for five years.
And I shouldn’t have had heroin on me two years ago, but I did.
But this piece, it’s about the collective “us,” people with addictions and mental problems that led us down the rabbit hole of Chuck Allen’s Washoe County Jail. It’s about some of the women you see every day who hide their secrets in their Prada purses. Some of us die, go to prison, or end up in a mental institution. If you’re lucky, you go to prison. If you’re really, really lucky you may escape and recover into a non-destructive, “happy” person like the bank tellers whose smiles look almost surgically pasted on.
Back to me—but this isn’t about me; I totally, like, hate attention—I had to let myself fade a little too. We laid on our bunks and took in our punishment, whatever that was. (I always believed it was the food.) As an avid reader and writer, I always kept myself busy and kept a routine like a drill sergeant with track marks that read like a map to the next mission. My drastic imagination was the only thing that kept me from breaking my fist on the sink and drinking the juice. If you took a chainsaw to my split ends you could find the bridge to Terabithia. The book cart was my saving grace, and I resented the fact they would only update them every two weeks. Tall tales saved my sanity. I think I made it through unsinged. Almost.
But there were some of us who couldn’t read, and I understood why they screamed at night. I’ve been in and out of jail for the last two years because of my disease of addiction. I have zero shame about this. I want to explore our jail system at good old Parr Boulevard when it comes to the feminine divine. I met a wide variety of characters—too good for reality shows. Let’s stereotype them the best we can, shall we? Putting women into boxes and defining them is nothing new, and it’s easy. I like easy.
1. The Trap Queen
You’ve seen her at 7-Eleven, outside, on the phone bitching at her ex-boyfriend about the paternity of little Jace, and you’ve met her current boyfriend, Smoky, outside the Walmart on Second Street. He asked you for a Newport. You gave him one. Then he asked for another and if he could use your cell phone.
She’s in jail about 70 percent of the year, studies show. Her tattoos are a work in progress, along with her GED studies and frontal cortex lobe. She worked at a call center for two weeks once. But let’s not be a pessimistic Patsy. She offers Reno more than uneven cleavage and expired bus passes.
The trap queen—or if we are sticking to her original alias, “the street bitch”—takes care of the trap (usually a weekly motel room used to sell drugs and venue prostitutes—shit, I mean sex workers). She keeps track of who comes in and out to buy merchandise or return Alexis’ hair straightener. Her pierced dimples are just as cliché as her soundtrack, which is probably an artist you don’t want to hear and will fade out, too. Unfortunately, sometimes an undercover cop entraps the queen in her own trap. So, she does the time and doesn’t snitch, and brags about how she doesn’t snitch. A lot. She goes down for her man, in multiple ways.
Still, there is honor in the street bitch. She does not bitch about jail, and she’s ready for inspection every morning at 7. Hell, she’s ready for prison after sentencing. There’s something to be admired about the street bitch, who goes with the flow and only cries into her pillow at night when she thinks her cellie (cellmate) is asleep. (I hear you. I care. I promise not to tell the world, except this publication.) And if you look closer at her face, that tattooed teardrop starts to look like a rain drop on a mountain top. You’ve probably read it on her chest: Ride or die. The street bitch rides. She’s an inspiration in the way of dealing with things, though. Fuck a counselor. If you’re crying in jail, the street bitch will pull you aside and let you know how to deal with your missed visit with your dad. Why? Because she’s ridden this ride too many times, and her wisdom sweats out of her pores as she stretches in her cell, as if she could move those brick walls and escape. She also knows how to make the perfect commissary order (groceries for jail). The street bitch just knows, and she’s an important asset to the Washoe County Jail. She just knows.
2. The Bible Woman
“Do you have a Bible? Just let me get you a Bible, and then I’m sure the judge will believe in his true…” Wait what? Oh, sorry, I fell asleep. Please, if there is a god, make her stop. I’ve had a few Bible-thumpers as cellies, and while I appreciate the quiet and prayers before court, I could do without the studies and questions. And crying. I like denial, and crying can really get in the way of that. Their optimism is as false as their prayers for bail. And every time some inmate goes home, they think Jesus himself went through the courthouse metal detectors and vouched for Deb’s child abuse case. “Jesus told me last night, Debs was going to go home.” “Bullshit,” I reply and go back to Game of Thrones. Pause. After Tyrion’s trial, I got so excited. I had to do something, anything.
I then convinced her that Jaime Lannister was one of the apostles. She gave me an interested look and grabbed different versions of the New Testament. For two days, she buried her unruly gray hair in the texts only not to find Waldo. Look, I’m not the devil, but when you’re on 23-hour lockdowns because Chuck Allen’s jail has a death rate that is nearly five times the national average, you’ve got to pass the time somehow. And really, sometimes, pray.
The Bible woman is usually in her 50s, and it’s usually alcohol that flips her casual existence. “I like my wine,” the overweight granny pinches the front of her glasses and slides her Bible to the side. “I just like it a little too much.” She showers you with pictures of her granddaughters and details of her honeymoon with her husband, Roy, who has a gambling problem. “He wasn’t always like that,” she would say, and I would offer her a hug that would last a little too long. I asked to be her jail granddaughter once. “Oh, dear, you’re too sweet, but I’m getting released in a week.” I would shrug. “When do you get out?” she would ask. “I don’t know, never?” And then I turn my body opposite her and get lost in the incest and fire of Game of Thrones again, convincing myself that my direwolf would save me, not Jesus Christ, but Jon Snow, Our Lord and Savior.
3. The Mental Health Chick
She’s out of her fucking mind and not in a hot Harley Quinn way. I’ve had some crazy birds as cellmates too often, especially this last stint when I did my four-month stretch. What I don’t like about the mental health girls is how unpredictable they can be. With a street bitch, you know she’s going to be writing postcards after lunch to her husband in prison. With the Bible thumper, you know she’s going to be doing her Bible studies at the big table with all the other grandmas, drinking instant coffee and talking out-dates. But some women—you’re not sure what their next move is, like some fucked-up chess game. Therein lies my next cellmate, and we shall call her X.
X liked to talk about her daughter’s discharge during dinner time. X liked to call me her little mouse. She had full-on conversations with herself in the mornings, and I used to write down what she would say—that’s how bored I was. Her teeth were perfect except for one missing in the front, no doubt from some altercation. In a moment of mental dementia, she told me a story about her daughter’s quinceañera and how she wore a flowing flower of a dress—a pink confidence of Judy Blume realism and pride, dedicated to her heritage. X cried and said it was the best day of her life. Her daughter came out to the song “I Knew You Were Trouble” by Taylor Swift, and 15 balloons exploded like fireworks. Three days later, X cried all day like an SPCA commercial was looping in her brain. It was her daughter’s big 18th, and she had no money to call on the phone. I swiftly offered to let her use some of my phone time. She swiftly threatened to kick my ass while I was cleaning the cell. I had a broom in my hand and a general rage in my system that had built up for a few days due to her existing in it. She made an already small cell feel smaller. Caitlin, put the broom down. Caitlin, she has mental problems. Caitlin, this is like fighting a kid in a wheelchair. X had a new cell five minutes later, and I kept my composure and wore it like a badge for the rest of the afternoon. Rumor has it she did the rest of her sentence in the hole (solitary confinement cell).
4. The “Gay For the Stay” Chick
Here is the classic diary of a young woman who comes to jail for the first time who has never even touched another girl’s labia. Like the escalation of drug use, it’s a growing epidemic of straight girls fighting loneliness with any defense mechanism their subconscious can muster. The following narrative will follow our hero, Sarah the Straight, through the trenches of jailhouse sex-politics.
Week One: No, I’m straight.
Week Two: No, I mean, once my boyfriend comes to visit me next week, you guys will believe I am, like, totally not a lesbian, but the shaved haircut is really kind of cute on some girls here.
Week Three: [Boyfriend doesn’t show. Her soul is an Edgar Allen Poe poem filled with worms.] Yeah, I think he’s still at work and missed the visiting time, again. But, yeah, Brittney has been looking cute lately with the cornrows and half-shaved head. It really brings out her eyes. But I couldn’t do that to my boyfriend. I only hook up with girls when he’s around.
Week Four: Fuck him! I just talked to his mom on phone time, and he hasn’t even mentioned coming to visit me, let alone putting money on my books. I’m done! I need to stay single for a while in here anyway. My lawyer says he can get my bail reduced, so I’m out of here, bitches!
Week Five: So, my lawyer says the motion for my bail reduction was denied. But I’m not that upset because of Brittney. She’s really been there for me these past two weeks. She even held my hand during movie night.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Once a week the whole unit sits in plastic chairs and watches a movie that was popular in the 1990s, and the DVD skips at least six times. No, it’s not hipsterdom or ironic, it’s just sad. This is the equivalent of a “date” in the outside world. You sit next to your love interest. It’s not cute or surviving. It’s just sad. We also get popcorn that was from the 1990s. You hold the wrong girl’s hand though—I’ve seen fights on the yard. “Why you gotta fuck with my bitch during Lion King?!” Fist connects to face, and so on.
OK, back to my rendition of a straight girl grasping at straws—or a closeted lesbian … you never really know, do you? Our hero is mysterious and complex.
Week Six: Things are getting pretty serious. She bought me a Twinkie on commissary, and I don’t even like Twinkies, but I’m totally going to act like I do. She snuck me a note under my dinner tray saying I should shave my head like hers. Like I would ever do it! She’s so funny. I’m pretty sure I’m falling in love with her.
Week Seven: Brittney screamed at a girl for looking at me today. It was so cute. And she even punked someone out of the shower so I could use it first. I love her. I love her. I love her.
Week Eight: No. No. No. They’re sending my love to rehab next week. Fuck the inmate assistance program, and fuck drug court for sending her there. She needs me—not some counselor. I’m shaving my head to show exactly how deep my love goes.
Week Nine: Well, all my hair is gone. And Brittany is too. She never even got to see it. I’m fine. She gets visitors at rehab, right?
Week 10: I miss my hair.
5. The Author of this Article
Surprise! Plot twist. I’m number five. There are a million reasons, actually four pin-points before you got here. I am all four women. No, I don’t have split personalities with different names like that one show on Showtime with Toni Collette. God, she’s a good actress. I’m a fake, but not that good. While I was in jail, my eyes wandered to girls when they got out of the shower, the dripping of their hair down the back. One time in March. (I only remember the month because I nicknamed it March Sadness in my jail diary.) I thought I stopped time in my cell. It was two in the morning for four hours—I still swear by it. I never touched a Bible in jail, but I chanted, like some wannabe guru, when I didn’t have a cellmate. I ordered an extra pad of paper so I could start a cult. I still keep it in my closet like a skeleton. And being a street bitch is so common in any city. My boyfriend has definitely asked to use your cell phone outside of Walmart. I had high friends in places. I was the girl next to him, twisting my hair in JonBenet ringlets and shaking my head back and forth, wanting to go home. Even on the outside, I always wanted to go home.
I’m home now and as happy as a pessimist can be. I write long words and work dead-end jobs. I strum my guitar a little more slowly and worship my mother like a goddess for torturing her for so long by playing with fire over and over again.
I don’t push black heroin into my arms anymore. And I’m thinking of dying my hair black and growing it out. Black is the hardest color to fade.
You don’t need a back-number to peel back your layers and focus on the four details of the women I danced with. But be careful. After-all, the devil is in the details. But what do I know? I’m just another crazy street-bitch who stares at girls with wet hair. OK, now it’s time to stop time.