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 as broken as my Spanish, but we managed to understand each other. She showed me the ropes, and before long I fell into a routine. At six each morning, the unit officer unlocked the cells. Inmates lined up for breakfast, a meal I usually skipped. This was followed by morning inspection. Beds had to be made, toilets scrubbed, trash emptied, furniture wiped down, floors swept and mopped. By the time a mop had been sloshed over several cell floors, it was so matted with hair and the bucket’s water was so dark that some inmates scrubbed their floors with soapy Maxi pads.
Each day is structured around meals. The diet is heavy in sodium and carbohydrates. Lunch and dinner trays contain a meat and a vegetable, beans, iceberg lettuce, bread, dessert, and a packet of powdered drink mix. When I started racking up pounds along with my days, I exercised by walking in circles around the upper tier. From windows in the unit’s common areas, I could see outside. But at no time were inmates allowed outdoors; the risk of escape at an urban prison was too high. I tended to walk at a rapid pace, even when I wasn’t exercising, prompting some inmates to call me Speedy. Eventually I slowed down, realizing I wasn’t going anywhere.
I HAD HOPED TO GET some writing done, but the noise level in the unit precluded this possibility: women screeching and guards barking orders and calling names. “Leggett” always sounded like a violent sneeze. To drown out the noise, many women use portable radios with headphones purchased from the commissary, but I initially refrained from buying one to avoid later associating songs with my jail experience. After September 11, I bought one to keep up with the war news.
I spent most of my time in my cell reading and answering mail. The cell had a sliver of window in the back, narrow enough to prevent escapes, but I did not have a view because the window had been frosted. I discovered the reason one night when a couple of inmates sneaked into my cell before lockdown to look through a scratch on the window’s surface. In windows across the way, men in the facing unit were exposing themselves.
Throughout the day, women style each other’s hair, socialize, exercise, and play games. I recall passing by a group playing Monopoly when suddenly they all howled. Someone had drawn a “Go Directly to Jail” card.
Personal hygiene and grooming are especially challenging in jail. It’s impossible to maintain a clear complexion. Prisoners use toothpaste to spot-treat acne and sugar for exfoliation. Sugar is also an exfoliant for “manicures.” Women use a white-leaded pencil to color the underside of each nail and smear Vaseline across the top for gloss. Some women dampen other colored pencils for eyeliner and lip color and mix baby powder with coffee grains for “loose powder.” I tore scent strips from Vanity Fair to use before visitation.
FOR ME, THE MOST DIFFICULT part of incarceration was the lack of privacy. Except for attorney-client communications, all incoming and outgoing mail is opened and read, each phone conversation monitored and sometimes recorded. Visitors must be cleared through background checks. Ten days passed before I could see my husband and mother. The brief union with family followed by the inevitable separation made visitation at once the most natural and the most awkward part of imprisonment. I dreaded the guard’s announcement that visiting hours were over. Each time, I’d have to watch my husband and mother walk out the door.
Visitation is “full contact,” with no physical barriers separating inmates from visitors. But the price for this privilege is the ultimate invasion of privacy: the strip search. The staff have to ensure that inmates have not received contraband. Each inmate waits his or her turn—which sometimes takes as much as two hours—until herded in same-sex groups of three to a partitioned area that reeks of a high school locker room. I had to remove and shake each item of clothing, which a gloved female officer then inspected. After showing both sides of my hands, I was ordered to lean forward and shake my head, raise up, turn back each earlobe, open my mouth, extend my tongue, pull out my lower lip, pull back the upper, raise my arms, turn around, spread my buttocks, “squat and cough,” lift the bottom of each foot, and otherwise shed any semblance of dignity.
PRIVACY IS PARTICULARLY DIFFICULT TO maintain in an eight-by-ten-foot space shared by two women. When using the toilet, most inmates place their ID in the cell’s front window, indicating the toilet is occupied. This custom didn’t always work. Mom explained that guards occasionally looked in even when IDs were displayed because inmates sometimes used the practice to cover illicit behavior, like smoking or engaging in intimacy with other inmates. “Talk on toilet too,” she added.
I couldn’t understand and thought we’d hit a language barrier.
“Sí, talk on toilet.” She leaned over the bowl and made a digging motion with her hands. “Take out water, stick face in toilet. Talk.” She raised up, tilted her head at the ceiling. “Men. Upstairs.”
“Inmates communicate through the toilet?”
“Sí, es crazy.” She shook her head and lumbered onto the lower bunk.
One night I woke to an insistent rapping, like a miner’s pick striking stone. I sat up and listened. Then I heard a man’s muffled voice say, “Get on the pipe!”
Chink. Chink. Chink.
Finally, I whispered. “Mom? Do you hear that?”
“Sí,” she said in a sleepy voice. “It’s like I tell you. The phone es ringing.”
AT NO TIME WAS MY privacy more threatened than the evening of my forty-eighth day in custody. After visitation, the escorting officer said we had to stop by the lieutenants’ quarters. “You gotta do a UA,” she said. I didn’t understand.
A urinalysis. Random drug test.
I’d never heard of this practice and couldn’t recall reading about it in the manual. I asked the acting lieutenant to see the policy. He refused, calling the procedure routine. He was not required to show me any policy, he said.
He ordered me to stand and face the wall outside his office for two hours unless I was prepared to comply. After about half an hour, I asked the desk officer to see the lieutenant. When I entered the office, the lieutenant was accompanied by two other male staff members. Surrounded by the three men in the dimly lit office, I renewed my request to see the policy.
“Are you disobeying a direct order?” one asked.
I cited inmate right number two in the manual: “the right to be informed of the rules, procedures, and schedules concerning the operation of the institution.” One of the guards asked if I knew my refusal constituted a serious offense that would result in solitary confinement. I asked if I could call my attorney. I’d give a urine specimen without seeing the policy, I said, if my lawyer confirmed it was routine. They refused.
I was sent back to stand facing the wall for two hours before being taken to solitary for the night. Inside the cell where I’d spent my first night in jail, I climbed to the top bunk but couldn’t sleep. Early the next morning, I thought I heard a female voice say, “Leggett? Are you in there?”
I sat up.
I couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from.
“Leggett? Is that you?”
I scaled down the ladder, padded over, and stared at the bowl.
I leaned over. “Hello?”
“Leggett! What happened?”
Then I heard keys jangling. Someone was coming. I scurried back to the bunk. I never learned who had called my name.
THE MORNING SHIFT OFFICER APPEARED shocked to see me. “Leggett, what happened to you?”
I told her the whole story, explaining that I was still willing to give a urine specimen if shown the policy. A couple of hours later I stood before the captain in the same office as the previous night’s encounter. He removed a binder from a shelf and produced the policy.
I gave the urine sample—it was negative—and was released from segregation. As a result of the incident, I was subjected to disciplinary hearings over the next few months. I lost phone and commissary privileges for one month and was placed on a six-month probationary period. Subsequently, I was pulled from the unit each month for urinalysis.
The morning I came out of “the Hole,” women in the common area clapped. It was the closest I’d felt to freedom.
THE THREE MONTHS LEADING TO the holiday season were the hardest. Visitation on Thanksgiving was so glum my family and I decided to postpone Christmas until I was free. As it happened, the warden decided to cancel Christmas altogether. Prison staff made the announcement, removed the tree from the visitors entrance, and ordered inmates to remove all decorations. Many women cried. Our unit manager was able to persuade the warden to allow some concessions, but it didn’t make much difference. It’s impossible to have a merry Christmas in jail.
On January 4, 2002, the grand jury’s term expired and I was released. I hadn’t been outside for nearly six months, and I was overwhelmed by the cold air and expansive blue sky. Striding briskly up Texas Avenue, I could have walked for miles. I caught my reflection in a mirrored wall on a building. A true mirror. It was like seeing myself for the first time.
Houston writer Vanessa Leggett’s new book, The Murder of the Bookie’s Wife, is due out in 2004 from Crown Publishing, a division of Random House.