An excerpt from
Imprisoned Women and Their Struggle with the Criminal Justice System
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An Unexpected Journey with Unexpected Friends
June 12, 2008: The First Day
At the end of a mile-long, tree-lined road, the maximum-security prison looms into view. Double rows of thick chain-link fencing, twelve to fifteen feet high, line the perimeter, topped by mounds of coiled razor wire. On the ground, inside and outside the fences, more rows of the spiked spirals tumble together in threatening heaps. Forty-foot-tall white guard towers stand at each corner of the complex. The darkened windows at the top of the towers obscure any view of the people inside, but I catch a few glints of light. Clusters of ugly, squat, red brick buildings with narrow, vertical slit windows march into the distance.
It is 6:45 P.M.; I am here for a 7 P.M. meeting.
I detach the car key from my key ring, slip my driver’s license from my wallet, grab some paper supplies, and leave everything else in the car. The rules for visitors are strict: no pocketbooks, no briefcases, no wallets, no money, no underwire bras, and no cell phones. I later learn cell phones are the biggest piece of contraband smuggled into a prison besides drugs, and the most dangerous. There have been incidences—mostly in men’s prisons—wherein cell phones have been used to coordinate attacks on correctional officers, start uprisings, intimidate witnesses, and oversee gang activity inside and outside the institution. Smuggling a cell phone into a prison can result in a $10,000 fine and a year in jail.
It is a visiting night; the lobby of the gatehouse is crowded with the inmates’ friends and loved ones waiting for the officers to call their names. There are several small children and two infants. I wonder if the toddlers are even aware of their surroundings.
I am allowed to take in one small notebook and two pencils. The items go through an x-ray machine and are then thoroughly examined. Remove shoes. Remove all jewelry: watch, bracelet, and necklace. Deposit everything into a little plastic basket along with my car key and driver’s license. The gentlemen have to remove their belts as well; they stand around the lobby holding their pants up.
A uniformed officer waves me through the metal detector. Any metal detected is suspect—the reason for the ban against underwire bras. The alarm goes off. I jump. Then freeze. It is my late husband’s wedding ring; I wear it on a chain under my shirt. I forgot about it and it triggered the alarm. I slip the chain over my head and add it to the basket. When I succeed in getting through the detector, a female officer tells me to raise my arms and proceeds with a quick pat down. She slides her hands over my shoulders and arms, under my breasts, and up and down my legs.
I retrieve my belongings, redress, turn my driver’s license over to yet another officer, and receive in return a visitor’s badge to clip onto my shirt. A big red “V” for “Visitor” differentiates it from the prisoners’ badges, which sport a big red “I” for “Inmate.”
Finally time to go in. The two people who had invited me lead the way. We wait for the first door to clang aside electronically. (They are called “sliders” and, yes, they really do clang, just as they do in movies.) Enter a tiny anteroom. Wait for the next slider to clang aside. Walk outside. Wait for another slider to clang open. Cross a courtyard enclosed by a twelve-foot chain-link fence topped by the ever-present whorls of razor wire. More wire stacks lie in a heap outside the fence and dribble down a rocky strip that leads to the road and the outside world.
Wait for the first courtyard slider to clang shut. Wait for the opposite courtyard slider to clang aside. Take the sidewalk around to one of the squat red brick buildings. Bars on all the windows. Wait for the inside slider to clang aside. Sign in. Again. Wait for another inside slider to clang aside. Go through that squat red brick building to another squat red brick building. Wait for the slider to the entrance hall to clang aside. Report to an officer and wait for the door to the offices and meeting rooms to click open. Find the right room and there they are: my future stars.
It is 7:35 P.M. I am thirty-five minutes late.
It began in May of 2008 with an unusual phone call:
Caller: Is this Betty May?
Caller: And you are the director and you write plays?
Caller: Could you write a comedy about life in prison?
No, it wasn’t a prank. The caller was Mary Pat Donelan, founder and sponsor of I-WISH (Incarcerated Women Inside Seeking to/for Help), a group of women serving natural life sentences in a Maryland maximum-security prison. She runs the bimonthly meetings along with her co-sponsor, Susan Eberhard.
The women of I-WISH wanted to be heard and seen, Mary Pat told me. They feel invisible to the outside world—a perception grounded in reality: many of them have “victim impact” clauses in their sentences forbidding any public display of their faces. They wanted to contribute to society in any way possible from behind the walls of a maximum-security prison. And they wanted to show the world they are deserving of a second chance. They decided to launch a reach-out program for at-risk youth. Perhaps the lessons they learned from their tortured pasts could be passed on to the people who needed to hear them.
Six months earlier, they had written and presented a play designed to warn teenagers of the consequences of bad choices. It went over well with the population (a euphemism for inmates), but bombed when presented to their target audience. They concluded the teens didn’t like it because it wasn’t funny. That’s where I came in.
After Mary Pat’s call I didn’t think much about “a comedy about life in prison.” The meeting was a month away—the long lead-time necessary because prison officials had to run a background check on me to make sure I was on the right side of the walls. I was directing other shows and working on my novels. I am also a clown, and the end of the school year is a busy time: the usual birthday parties plus school fairs, family reunions, community events, and businesses celebrating the onset of the slow summer months with company picnics. And I was getting ready for my job as head coach at my son’s summer circus camp in Greenbelt, Maryland, a fun, if exhausting, job.
People often ask if I was afraid going into a prison with “a bunch of murderers,” but my late husband, Gerald (Jerry) G. May, was a psychiatrist and worked at Patuxent Institution in Maryland for several years. The “murderers” were the inmates from whom he had the least to fear. Serial killers aside (the majority of whom are men), most are people who, for one reason or another, didn’t like somebody. The women had no reason to dislike me—at least not at first.
More on that later.
So, no, I felt no fear. At this point, volunteer or not, it was just another theatrical gig. If they wanted a comedy about life in prison, I would write a comedy about life in prison. No sweat. Talk to the women; get some amusing anecdotes; rewatch that wonderful 1999 movie, Life, starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence; invent a few scenarios… Piece of cake.
There were about twenty-five women at that first meeting, seated at two long tables pushed end to end. The tables filled the small room. Gray plastic chairs—some of them linked together—and beige walls decorated the space. They were all dressed in gray cotton prison-issue outfits. Because it was summer, most were wearing knee-length shorts. The gray t-shirts had three-inch white DOC (Department of Corrections) letters on the back, since changed to DPSCS (Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services). The gray shorts had three-inch white DOC letters down the length of the left pant leg. Every hairstyle possible, from bald, to braids, to dreadlocks, to cornrows, to careless or perfectly coiffed long strands. Most were thirty-five to, perhaps, seventy, but some were in their late teens and early twenties. I was surprised to see such young women in a group of lifers.
Mary Pat introduced me and said they had business to conduct before we did anything else. Much of the conversation centered on speakers for their upcoming meetings: professionals involved in the judicial system in one way or another; experts in self-improvement fields; and instructors on various topics such as poetry, meditation, and Reiki.
Some of the women stole quick glances at me. I smiled and nodded. They gave me quick ten-percent grins and looked back down at the table. A lot of them sat hunched over, as if embarrassed by the presence of an “outsider.”
When it came my turn, I asked them to tell me more about what they wanted to accomplish with their play.
A large African American woman spoke first.
“We want to talk to kids in trouble,” she said. “We want to help them—maybe keep them from ending up like us.” She waved one hand at the women seated around the beige tables. “We wrote a play. Everybody here in the prison loved it. But when we did it for the kids they were bored. Turned off. Rolled their eyes. Wiggled around in their chairs. Couldn’t wait to get out. Left without even talking to us.”
“Why do you think that was?” I asked.
She shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t know.”
An older woman at the far end of the table spoke up. A heavy accent I later learned was Phillippine made it difficult to fully understand her words, but I got the gist.
“It wasn’t funny,” she said. “Kids want funny.”
She tucked a strand of gray hair behind her ear and looked me straight in the face, her faded blue eyes staring into mine. “Can you write a funny play about us? Tell them about bad choices we made? Warn them?”
She was so earnest, and her concern for these unknown troubled kids was real.
I didn’t know what to say. How could I write a “funny” play about people who led such miserable lives? Eddie Murphy aside, what could be funny about a real lifetime sentence?
I asked them to tell me about their former lives and their lives in prison. As they realized I was interested in what they had to say, they opened up a little, although the hunched backs remained and the furtive looks continued. I began to understand what I was seeing was shame and a fear of still more judgment.
“We did dumb things,” a young black woman said. “Stupid things. And now we’re here.”
“We see kids coming in here every day,” a fortyish woman who looked like a white suburban soccer mom said. “Kids just like us. We know what goes on in their homes. It’s what went on in our homes that nobody talked about. We’d tell people and they wouldn’t believe us.”
Around the table, a few white heads bobbed in agreement. The younger black women didn’t look impressed.
“That’s only some of them,” one said. She looked like she was still in her teens “Most of them are from the city. Went to the same damn schools we went to. Stupid kids walking around trying to look tough but scared as hell. They think being in jail is cool. We want to tell them different—what really goes down in here.”
A woman somewhere between forty and sixty—her shaved head made it difficult to tell her age—had written another play.
“It’s about these three inmates. They tell all about what happened to them when they were kids. How their mom’s boyfriends beat the shit out of them. Then they tell what they did—how they robbed some old lady at a bus stop and she dropped dead.”
She read the play out loud. It was brutal and intense—a little too intense, some of us felt, for kids. Others didn’t agree. They believed it was what some kids face and should be presented.
“It is what it is,” an older white woman said. “We have to tell it the way it is.”
The discussion went on for quite a while without a resolution, except that the reality should be presented in a way palatable for young people.
The conversation kind of petered out, so I launched into a brief lecture on Constantin Stanislavski, the patron saint of acting. I explained the basis of Method Acting: physical action to evoke emotional response. The women were willing to give it a try and we had some fun with Stanislavski’s Score of Actions: What do you do when you are happy? What do you do when you are sad? They participated, but I caught a couple of people yawning.
I heard a whispered comment: “What’s she talking about?”
Okay. Maybe it was a little early for Stanislavski.
I switched to theater games and the room exploded. They loved the exercises and everyone joined in. Purists in the theater world would not have liked it—lots of showing off and going for the laugh—but we sure had fun. I completely forgot I was in a maximum-security prison. I think, for a moment or two, maybe they did, too. I don’t remember the exact words, but it went something like this:
“My name is Baby Doll Susie,” a three-hundred-pound woman squeaked. “And I just can’t stop wetting my pants.”
She got up from the table and sat on another large woman’s lap. “Can you help me G.I. Joe?”
“Get off of me!” she said in a deep macho voice. “You’re getting my pretty uniform all wet.” G.I. Joe shoved Baby Doll Susie away and Susie landed on the floor.
“I hurt my bum-bum,” she sobbed.
They got into the games so quickly I decided to try some group improvisation. I clapped my hands. “All right, children. It’s your first day of kindergarten. Gather ‘round.” I waved them into a circle.
It took them all of three seconds to get into the act.
A twenty-something black woman raised her hand. “Teacher?”
I smiled a benign kindergarten teacher smile. “Yes, Sally?”
“Johnny showed me his wee-wee.”
The woman next to her jumped right in. “Did not.”
“Did, too! And it was this big.” She held her forefinger and thumb an inch apart.
By this time we were all doubled over with laughter. But they weren’t finished.
A tall woman with a long gray ponytail grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and made a drawing of a spider. She showed it to everyone, and then shoved it down the back of another woman’s shirt. Appropriate shrieks followed, along with deep, heartfelt wailing. I laughed so hard my stomach hurt.
An officer, alarmed by the noise, stepped into the room. The fluorescent light glinted off the metal buttons on her uniform.
“Everything all right in here?”
One of the younger inmates waved her off. “We’re fine, Miss Dade. No problem.”
Officer Dade gave us an arched-eyebrow look that was half suspicion and half amusement. We waited until she left before collapsing into middle school giggles.
We ended the meeting in a circle: holding hands, and reciting the Serenity Prayer: Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And the Wisdom to know the difference.
I wondered if I would have the courage to face the rest of my life in prison.
I didn’t sleep much that night. I kept seeing their faces. I don’t know what I expected when I went into the prison. As I said, I didn’t think much about it. But meeting the women made the project far more than just another gig. I’d only been with them for ninety minutes, and already I was feeling their pain and seeing their beauty. What I did not expect was their normalness. The women are all of us: daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and, saddest of all, kids.
I did not expect some of them would become dear friends.
 Constantin Stanislavski, 1863-1938, was a Russian actor and director. He revolutionized the art of acting.