Doing Time

A cellmate named "Mom." A night in the Hole. The toilet telephone. No identity. No rights. Scenes from my life as federal prisoner 13371-179.

ON MY FIRST MORNING IN jail, I woke to the sound of keys jangling, steel clanging. I opened my eyes to a cement ceiling. Approaching footsteps echoed. I sat up. White cinderblock walls surrounded me. I realized my back ached and, worse, that I hadn't been having a nightmare. The footsteps halted. Through a narrow opening a pair of large, dark eyes stared at me. "You want your tray?"

I pulled the sheet to my chin. "Pardon me?"

An oblong slot in the middle of the steel door opened, and through it a plastic tray slid forward. Breakfast: cereal, a plum, a cake doughnut, and milk. I couldn't eat.

I stood in the center of the concrete chamber, which had all the comforts of a roadside restroom, and I caught my reflection in what seemed to be a mirror above the sink. It proved to be a polished metallic square that dulled my image. Probably better that I couldn't see, I decided—not realizing that another 168 days would pass before I would see my reflection in a true mirror.

I had arrived here the day before, on July 20, 2001, after surrendering to the U.S. Marshals Service. A van transported me to the Federal Detention Center (FDC) on Texas Avenue in downtown Houston. I arrived wearing a pantsuit, pumps, and the only accessories allowed in prison: handcuffs and leg shackles, both secured to the "belly chain" girding my waist.

My crime? None, actually. Federal judge Melinda Harmon had found me in civil contempt for refusing to turn over my research materials for a book on an unsolved murder to a federal grand jury. Unless I obeyed the subpoena, I would be imprisoned as long as the grand jury was in session or for eighteen months, whichever occurred first. "I'm the Wicked Witch of the West," the judge said. "Meanest woman in the world. I'm not going to give her bond. She's going to have to go into custody."

Guards locked me in a holding tank for what seemed like hours. Finally one led me to an adjacent room that resembled and smelled like an Army surplus store: wall-to-wall shelves stacked high with khaki and Army-green uniforms. She ordered me into a changing booth and pitched a cardboard box at my feet. "Everything in the box," she said, snapping on latex gloves. I removed my slacks and jacket, which I folded and placed in the box. I draped my scarf over them and set my shoes on top.

The guard tilted her head at me. "I said everything"—she looked down at a sheet of paper—"Leggett."

I took off my undergarments and a barrette—my identity, it seemed—and added them to the box, which she sealed and said would be sent to my home. My new wardrobe consisted of several tan uniforms, a sweatshirt, cream undershirts, sports bras, panties, gray gym socks, and a pair of navy canvas shoes. Everything used.

Outside the changing stall, I was required to sit on a large thronelike apparatus that looked like an electric chair. As instructed, I placed my jaw on its protruding chin-plate. The device, a Body Orifice Security Scanner, or BOSS, detects metal weapons inside body cavities. An officer rolled my fingerprints, assigned me a federal identification number, and snapped my mug shot. I was federal prisoner 13371-179.

THE THREE EAST WOMEN'S UNIT is on the third level of the FDC. A two-tiered cell block about the size of a large gymnasium, it houses approximately 120 women, two to a cell. The rubber soles of my slip-on shoes squeaked across the floor as the guard led me toward the far side of the unit. Opening a caged area apart from the main unit, the guard said he had arranged for me to stay in the unit's "deluxe suite," a private room. This was his little joke: I was to be housed in solitary confinement since I'd been admitted after lockdown.

The cell was about the size of a walk-in closet. A metal bunk bed, storage locker, and small desk with a swing-out seat were each riveted to the floor and walls. A porcelain sink and toilet sat just inside the cell's door within view of whoever looked in the window alongside the door. Before leaving, the guard said that an officer would check on me during the night. "Don't get all the way under the sheet," he advised. "If you don't leave an arm or something exposed, they'll wake you up to make sure you're there."

I chose the upper bunk since its thin mattress appeared less soiled than the lower bunk's. After making the bed I decided I would at least attempt an escape—the only escape possible: sleep. I pressed the silver button near the cell door to turn off the light. When it didn't work, I punched it several times until the unit officer arrived to ask that I not set off the duress button unless I had an emergency.

When I asked how to turn off the light, he said, "You don't. They gotta stay on so we can monitor you during the night." Since I couldn't sleep, I decided to read the literature provided me, particularly the part about infractions, like causing false alarms. I climbed to the upper bunk and read the Admission and Orientation Handbook cover to cover.

I don't remember falling asleep.

THE NEXT DAY, I WAS transferred into the general population and assigned a cell. Scores of women in inmates' uniforms occupied the unit's common area. The bundle I carried to my cell gave me away as the new girl. All eyes were on me. I tried to follow the manual's instructions: "Carry yourself in a confident manner at all times. Do not permit your emotions (fear/anxiety) to be obvious to others."

The first inmate I met was my cellmate. A short, stout Hispanic woman in her fifties whom the other inmates affectionately called Mom, she greeted me with a sympathetic smile. Her English was

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