A Reflection by Lynne Greenwald
22 April 2011, Good Friday
My second bunkmate at FDC SeaTac was Jan (not her real name). She arrived one week after I began this short 6-month sentence. She walked into our room cheerful and talkative, excited because the van that brought her from the airfield had a TV.
Jan explained she was here for “testing.” Over 3 weeks time she gradually shared pieces of her life story. I’m grateful to have gotten to know her for the short time we were on the same unit. She’s left my life richer for putting a face and painful emotions onto a system of generational abuses and injustices.
Jan could not remember where she was or what the “rules” were. Gradually, with a helpful community of women supporting her, she fell into the prison routine. She has a great sense of humor, a transparency and vulnerability similar to a young child, loyalty to her family, pride in her Native American heritage, and a good, generous heart.
Jan is also a fighter. I hear her voice so clearly when she would say, “I had to fight all my life, since I was a kid.” She would take up a pose with her fists up, so it was possible to see this short, compact woman-child taking a stand against a threatening, often violent world.
Coming from a South Dakota reservation, Jan talked about having a job before having “brain surgery.” It seems she had a ruptured cerebral aneurysm, leaving her weak on her right side and unable to speak. Her recovery gives testimony to her survival spirit, and her challenges continue to frustrate her, taking her into patterns of conflict and self-destruction.
Jan was brought to SeaTac for a psychological evaluation to determine if she is capable of going to trial. What led to this situation is unclear. She drank, heavily at times, and spent time in holding cells. The Reservation police knew her and seemed to have developed a way to keep everyone safe. That is until one night when the responding officer didn’t know Jan. She was home drinking heavily, there was a knife, “a long knife,” and Jan was shot in the abdomen. She really doesn’t remember what happened. She kept asking, “Why am I here when I was the one shot?”
Seeing the psychiatrist was especially traumatic. “He thinks I’m stupid. How would he like to have someone’s hands on his brain?” Jan would explain, “Brain surgery changes you.” She struggled to find names for objects, to recall names and recent events. As her anxiety increased, her behavior deteriorated. She would either “lash out” or “shut down.”
Jan was put in the “SHU” today – Special Housing Unit, “the hole.” Earlier this morning she came back from the psychiatrist’s office extremely upset, verbally lashing out at everyone. “He thinks I’m stupid Are you in on it too You are, aren’t you?” She went to her room and soon came out crying. Tears ran down her face as she sat next to me, trying to explain what was going on. Other women tried to comfort her.
As we were eating lunch, Jan went up to the unit counselor, stood too close and said something. She was sent to the SHU. My last image of Jan is seeing her standing defiantly in front of prison authority. I was transferred from the unit shortly afterwards.
I think of Jan’s mother and family back home waiting for a phone call. These frequent calls and her memories were all that kept Jan connected with home. Tomorrow is her son’s birthday. He’s locked up in Rapid City. Jan once told me, in relation to her son’s imprisonment, “There’s meth on the reservation. Can you believe it? It was in all the news.” He’s the same age as my son, Noah.
I’m not sure anything could have really prepared me for prison. Everything operates so differently from my personal and professional life. Things like empathy, compassion, helping, strength-building are at odds with this system meant to punish people and deter crime.
Although there are many good, kind people working here, workers are here to support the prison.
So I’m left with many questions and a reflection. Why are so many poor and non-whites locked up for nonviolent crimes, leaving families torn apart? Why are so many professionals caught up in a system of supporting prisons, not people? Why does it seem too simple to shift resources into mental health care, drug and alcohol treatment, education and jobs? Why are some individuals getting rich off of the prison system?
“This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke, letting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke.” (Isaiah 58:6)
Many nonviolent resisters choose to witness within prison walls as part of an action intended to expose violence and injustice, and to begin the transformation process. Let us pray for the strength to do this work.