I want to write about a woman I met the first time I was in jail. I was inside twice, neither time for a lengthy sentence: but the experience was profound in ways you might not imagine. I could write about facing down the head Latina King there, Ray-Ray: about how she stepped to me, and how I stood up to her with a firm dignity that I didn't know I had in me: about how she attempted to avenge herself on me, and how it backfired on her: I get a chuckle out of that one still. Ray-Ray was a thug, and one of the women who belonged there. She is probably still there.
But most of us didn't belong there. I picked up two misdemeanor charges at the age of 43. I had never been in trouble before outside of high school detention: I was new to the justice system, and believed that the guys in the white hats were mostly honest and fair. I was wrong. I was put on probation for my offenses, and was incarcerated both times for going to my probation officer in tears and admitting that I had used drugs again. Upon hearing my story, the other inmates assured me that I was criminally stupid, and they were right. I was told to ask for their help: instead I received their punishment. I was so, so naive. I watched these officers of the law blatantly lie in court, and I was stunned. I learned that justice and the law are not always related.
The first time I was in jail, I was terrified. I kept my mouth shut and my head up: I stayed to myself, nodded at people here and there, and took my time letting everyone size me up. It was hard to have no money when everyone brought out their commissary goods, candy and chips and coffee: I was starving, having gone days smoking rock instead of eating, and they don't feed you much there. But I knew better than to ask, because showing weakness is not a good plan. That much I knew. I knew not to admit that I had a suicide plan in place: their treatment would have been to put me in a straitjacket, diaper me, and put me in isolation. Think I'm joking? I saw it happen. I learned. I saw a woman have a series of mini-strokes: they put her in isolation, where we could not help her. When I left a month later, she had still not seen a doctor. Need to take a leak? Too bad. You can wait until the guard feels like getting up, and begging won't help. You are nothing in jail. You have no rights other than what they choose to give you.
There are so many other horrors I could delineate, but I want to talk about one of the women I met there. She was one of the women who taught me what it means to be a hero. Her name was Mary. She walked the pod like I did, round and round until it was time to lock down, or eat: killing time. She was in jail for taking her son to Burger King, with her ex's permission: he called the police and she was charged with kidnapping. She had a record of small drug offenses, so she was locked up with no bail. She was looking at spending the rest of her life in prison for nothing. NOTHING. She had spent her childhood being abused and gone on to make a series of remarkably bad choices in men. She had used drugs to alleviate the horror: she tried to get help, but there isn't much out there, and that's no excuse, that's the truth in the state of Massachusetts. As a crack addict, she was not eligible for detox: there are no rehabs available for less than an initial investment of $8000: and a mental hospital will not keep you for more than a week or so, even if you beg. So there she was, looking at life without: she had just been officially charged. It's fair to say that she was a little upset.
She and I were both walking our circles, as I said, and in time our circles synced up. And you know what she did with her fear and her pain, this woman? She asked me how I was doing. She was kind. She listened, and encouraged me to talk about me: she gave me some advice: but most of all, she just cared. I was amazed. In this descent into hell, I knew I was witnessing greatness. She gave me back my hope. And she showed me who I wanted to be when I grew up. She was my angel that day.
Mary died not long ago. She was 2 years older than me. This is when I start wondering, why me? Why not her? I have no answer. All I know is, she taught me something: I learned that love happens in the giving, not the taking. RIP Mary. You gave me the gift of hope when it seemed you had nothing to give, and I hold that hope to this day. I will never forget you.