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

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