by Stephanie Dickinson
Clinton, New Jersey
I am sick to my stomach and my heart hurts. Not only did my kids basically reject me but they never sent me a Mother’s Day card, not for the past three years. I have been crying, nauseated, and seeing spots. They ripped my heart out.
—Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870C
Krystal always asks after her friends’ kids because she’s not one of those inmates who gets angry when she sees someone else’s happiness. In Maximum Compound, the mothers abound, and on Visiting Day the photographer is busy capturing the transitory togetherness of children and mothers. Family members have traveled in crowded buses or a grandmother’s car to be greeted by the bleak parking lot and razor-wire-shrouded buildings. There are some children with silence curdling inside, some who come with great-aunts and half-sisters to visit their mother. They’ve driven for hours on the ice. What will each child say to the prison mother? Perhaps some children keep her being in this place a secret. None of their peers knows, or else it’s common knowledge and no one cares. To this boy the air tastes like metal and shame is making his lips and throat tingle. He needs this woman, his mother, and wishes he didn’t. The first flakes of snow sifting down are scrawny feathers from the overcast sky. The snow falls on toddlers and teenagers, even babies. Rosettes spawned in a hot season that has turned cold.
Some fathers come to visit their adult daughters, and like Lucy’s father, are refused entry because of their choice of T-shirt color. Lucy’s father wears a red shirt and is approaching the metal detector, when the officer on duty stops him. Red and blue clothing signifies gang allegiance between the Bloods and Crips, and people wearing those colors aren’t allowed in EMCF. Lucy’s father has traveled from Connecticut to be here and calls the officer a prick. “Do you know your daughter has a girlfriend here?” the officer asks. “So what?” Lucy’s father answers. “Are you trying to turn me against my daughter? Because that will never happen.”
I had a phone call with my daughters yesterday that set a tone for a horrible Mother’s Day. My sister-in-law told me that they are going to try to permanently move my children to Florida and even worse was the fact that I had to hear my daughter Lucy tell me that she doesn’t want to live with me when I am out. I think that they are brainwashing them.
—Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870C
Some children wish their mothers would leave them alone. If she really wants to love me then she should just leave me alone. Some have been living dangerously in foster care for years, and for some, it was their father their mother shot. All join the long line of people genuflecting before the god of metal detectors. Wire baskets wait like mouths, where you must empty your pockets and leave your bags, everything removable. Little girls give up their pink-beaded purses with pentagon-shaped sunglasses inside. Someday she’ll be a designer, a fashionista. Someday he’ll be a basketball star. “Do you have anything in your hand?” the officer asks a 7-year-old girl. “What’s that in your hair?” Rainbow glitter from a birthday party yesterday at school. Her mother makes the best cheesecake, she tells him, and can Tiberius, their black Labrador who is waiting in the car, come in too?
A man becomes a 5-year-old boy again who belongs to a soft-spoken mother who stabbed his father 41 times. A judge ordered his grandma to take him to the prison to visit her. He still hates court orders and exchanges. Hates talk of parental rights. The man chews on a cuticle as the electronic doors open and he walks into a brown blob of a room with tables and nothing on them. His mother has served 19 years, with one more to go. He loves her. Ladies in beige uniforms. No vending machines, no Cokes, no snacks. It’s all boring talk that he sees, the dull silver gleam of sentences. The children ask for soda. The vending machines have been removed because visitors hid drugs in the coin return and can-retrieval slots.
I made a painting (9″ x 11″) on canvas for Lucy’s room, I will be sending it out on Monday when the package house here can mail it. I can’t be sure her aunt will hang it up in Lucy’s room. I know that she doesn’t like to open up my mail.
—Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870C
Inmate Mother: Lucy Weems
Lucy lives on the cusp of freedom and soon she’ll be going to a halfway house. She wants more than anything to regain her daughter Gianna’s trust. In the seven years she’s been imprisoned she’s missed much of her child’s life, her stepmother has died, and her father has remarried. Unlike many inmates she’s college-educated, with a BS in Accounting. Although she had an arrest record from age 18 for dealing large quantities of LSD and spent 11 months in a Connecticut prison before earning her degree, she approached job interviews with confidence. “If I go to 20 interviews, there will be one or two employers so impressed by my self-assurance and lowballing my salary expectation, they won’t bother running a background check,” says Lucy. And when in her auditing phase, she verged on being a workaholic at the Italian Clothing Customs Brokerage House in New Jersey, where she was employed as lead accountant. She oversaw the bookkeepers, performed internal auditing to find missing money, and she loved the detective-like number sleuthing. During tax season she moonlighted, filling out returns for her personal clients. “I lived for coming home when my little Lucy was still awake to run into my arms and yell ‘Mommy, I love you.’ And then depression seeped into her soul and the workaholic mania imploded. She no longer wakes in paradise but in hell. What if I don’t wake up and on goes the world? It comes and goes. Heroin beckons. Find the vein and it’s like a visit to Egypt. Sometimes the raisins and dates and Turkish coffee as strong as black liquor and the streets fermented in antiquities. Mommy, I love you.
I am in the middle of writing out a timeline of all of our court dates and a summary… This is what was suggested by our Legal Aids. This will show the long-term negligence of them … It has been 6 years of this crap, and I am almost inclined to put a request in for a better and different judge (as suggested by Legal Aid) but for now, upon me completing the timeline summary, I will see what the outcome is.
—Lucy Weems, Inmate #922870C
At a certain age there’s so much living you’ve done; some of your choices make you proud and others shame you. Lucy’s nature doesn’t deal in guilt. She intends to forge a loving relationship with her daughter when she gets out. Her 12-year-old has lived with her paternal aunt and uncle since she was four. Lucy considers the divide between hard money and soft money, and on the street as a prostitute the same money could be both. Bangladeshi delivery boys earned hard money, rarely taking a break in their 12-hour shifts, their eyes hot like mouthfuls of black fire. Their nostrils, connoisseurs of cheap tobacco. Then the dreaded day arrives when Gianna googles her mother—Lucy Basso Weems. She finds in the digital universe the details of her mother’s arrest. Mugshots, some showing Lucy with her hair half in a towering upsweep, half-loose and tangling, her eyes hardly open; others show Lucy in EMCF’s beige uniform. “Mom,” Lucy says. “I’m ashamed.”
My daughter has been adopted by a good family and I don’t have any contact with her. It’s painful for me.
—Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387
Inmate Mother: Krystal Riordan
Krystal has been told in prison by a jailhouse lawyer that even in a closed adoption case she has a right to see her daughter’s photograph and a health update, as well as a scholastic report card, once a year. “The last picture I saw of her was when she was two,” Krystal says. Long years ago she’d received a photograph of Trinity and had handled it so often the picture was creased. “Please make copies for me.” The attorney who had handled the original adoption could request a recent photo.
Krystal can’t reach out directly to her daughter, though, ever. “I know my daughter will find me like I found my mother,” Krystal says. After finally locating her birth mother, Eva had visited. Eva asked Krystal to go out and buy her some beer, and then riffled through her daughter’s room until she found the money’s hiding spots. Krystal pictured her mother folding the rumpled bills, a slow smile on her lips, as a black-purplish hair shadow fell over her face. The money Krystal earned getting into strangers’ cars, walking into rooms where she was paid for what felt like rape. Animals know their mother’s smell. Eva’s smell lingers in Krystal’s nostrils. The mother she hungered for all her life had never existed. Surely she doesn’t want to destroy her own daughter. When she’s older she’ll look for me like I looked for my mother. The words keep repeating in my head. Krystal seems not to comprehend the shattering force such knowledge could have on a child. Trinity Sade is almost a teenager now, and I hope she doesn’t go looking for the forbidden fruit of her origins.
Then there are the prison clans, the intergenerational mothers, daughters, sisters, cousins. The majority of the women who call out Mom, Kid, Sister, Grandma, and Cousin are not related by DNA but claim kinship. The hunger of the ice for warmth. These women drift with no ties to the outside, no family visitors, no mail ever comes for them. One inmate daughter speaks of shooing her repentant birth mother away like a black fly, swatting at her attempts to reconnect, and wanting to take her bastard stepfather between her fingernails like the blood-gorged flea he is and hear him crack. The mother who sat on her thumbs doing nothing when her husband ravished her 12-year-old daughter and gifted her with syphilis. Heart hardened, frozen inside while his fingers stroked the outer beauty of her blue body. Prison Mom does the microwave cooking, while the daughters procure the food from the mess hall or Commissary; one daughter washes the dishes. Tonight it’s spring rolls with the coleslaw (free) saved from the mess hall lunch, shredded chicken (free) from Sunday dinner. The whole family pitches in with slaw and chicken, sugar packets (free), syrup (free) saved from pancake day, hot and spicy packs (50 ¢) from Ramen noodles, tortilla wraps ($1.50). Mom microwaves the coleslaw for two minutes, while the daughters mix the chicken, sugar, and spice. The family absolutely sticks together in fights. They talk about the first food they’re going to eat when they’re free. French bread and batter-fried jumbo shrimp. Salami, turkey, ham, dill pickle. A week of meats. Mom says grace, and after the Amen they dig in. When they’re free, whoever gets out first, they’re going to mess that bastard up. Amen, again.
Some inmates have strong support systems and unlimited monies put into their phone cards. Those mothers with DYFS intervention, i.e., social services, in their families, even women whose crime involved children, seem to receive fairer treatment than others. Lucy mentions Anna, the inmate who slept with her 14-year-old daughter’s 14-year-old boyfriend and became pregnant by him. While Anna apologized to the boy in front of the judge, saying how ashamed and full of regret she was, to inmate friends she explained how his boy fingers seemed so knowing that she’d forgotten his age or whom they belonged to. She pushed him into the closet, her hands moving inside his shirt and touching the hairs that sprinkled his belly. They both got crazy. Anna received five years for her crime. After she gives birth, a social worker comes each week, bringing the baby and her 15-year-old daughter to visit. She gets along beautifully with the foster parents. Her long-eyelashed boy-man kept saying how pretty she was, and who can resist that?
Inmate Mother: Nicole Guyette
Some children draw their first breath behind prison walls. The infirmary is their manger, as it was Nicole’s son’s, born in Maximum Compound. Nicole is pictured in the witness box. Pretty and of Portuguese descent, her long-ringleted hair curtains her oval face and high cheekbones. When she lifts her chin, her fine features freeze until her face looks chiseled from stone. Pride. Wearing a modest blue dress and a cross around her neck, she sobs for forty minutes on the stand; she’s the only witness in her defense. Her life, all eighteen years, comes down to one night. Pregnant, she is walking the street on her way home, passing the neighbor’s house, where a group of celebrating teenagers have gathered. A warm June night in Newark, the black clouds of 2008 lisping across the moon like fraying head rags, graduation night at Barringer High School. A special night for Sujeiti Ocasio, Nicole’s next- door neighbor and the first in her extended family to graduate from high school, now she’s to enroll in community college. “Hey, trick,” the girls snicker at Nicole, a high school dropout, whose young body already shows the belly where a son is growing. Trick. Prostitute. Nicole feels her face flush, redness spreading until her whole head is hot. Shame. All of the girls laughing at her. Humiliation. Her blood rises. “I’ll be back,” she warns. Her face looks as tight as her jeans. Her boyfriend has given her a gun; just last night he brought her the black gift. Gift beyond compare—a revolver in a paper bag. The moon floats from behind its clouds as she marches out of her house holding the handgun. Strong now, no longer alone. “It looked funny,” she says at trial, where she pleads not guilty to murder. “Like it was broken.” The gun already cocked and she does not expect it to go off, when she swings it up to hit her former classmate, the gun fires; the bullet passes through Sujeiti’s neck and into the collarbone of another girl. Nicole flees. She’s on the run, hiding at a friend’s, in the closet eating cold nachos. The gun is a black car; you get in thinking you’re safe, and then rocks jut up and the steering wheel’s no longer attached. Holes gape under the dashboard, and the death that leapt from one movement of your finger boomerangs and comes for you. Sirens. Police cars. Nicole gives herself up to the family priest. Her sentence for aggravated manslaughter is 20 years; she gives birth in prison.
A security guard follows the gurney carrying Nicole, who is in labor. He unlocks Nicole’s belly chain and frees her arms. “Nurse, can you call my mother? Please, can’t she be here with me?” The nurse shakes her head. “Sorry, baby, but only the security guards and the doctor and nurses are allowed. Raised by her mother, her 9-year-old loves soccer and science.
Nicole is doing her time in Max and doesn’t like to talk about her crime, but it’s always there, ready to ambush her. She touches the silver cross around her neck. Lights out at 10 p.m., but it’s midnight before the noise begins to fade out. She buries her face in her pillow and still can’t stop the nightmares. The dead girl Sujeidi nears her bunk and Nicole swings her hand up. There’s blood in the air. The gun explodes. Sujeiti’s eyes leave their sockets, dark oil melting down her cheeks. Nicole sits up in her bunk. She is holding her hand over her nose to hide the sound of her breathing.
I don’t see much of Nicole anymore. She’s in North Hall. We used to be friends.
—Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387
Inmate Mother: Brittany X
Fewer in number are the inmates who become pregnant in prison. Rape babies. The law does not recognize consensual sex among the incarcerated; an inmate can’t consent to touching of any kind, and trysts with a corrections officer constitute rape. Brittany, with her cicada eyes and dimples, believes she has no choice but to give in to his flirtations. He’s the sole officer on duty. He corners her in her area, this beefy, round-faced male corrections officer who seduces her with his beard, his ardor, and blandishments. You’re gorgeous, a sleek mink, those dimples, I see man-hunger in your eyes, what a shame. Think of those favors to come, babe. They have sex for months in the closets and off-camera corners. Her corrections officer gives off the air of being streetwise and the weight of the uniform, the write-up pad, the walkie-talkie are all meant to impress. Later he’ll be one of five male correction officers arrested for having sexually assaulted an inmate. It is not yet that day when his photograph, along with his brother officers, stares out from the front page of The Star-Ledger. He’ll take her for the X-Tudo sandwich—grilled chicken, mayo, cheese, ham, potato sticks, bacon, and fried egg. His lavishing gifts upon his mistress never happens, unless you count some fried chicken wings and a few cigarettes. Her officer must feel invincible, the power of the Maximum Compound lawman, all these toothsome women at his beck and call. Such a man wears no condom; such a man must spread his invincible seed. Brittany misses her period and keeps missing her bloody moons, and when she starts to show, she hides it in the baggy T-shirts and sweats. She lets her officer know and he shrugs it off, telling her not to mention his name. They keep having sex. The hurried sex that can never be called lovemaking, the looking out over your shoulder. Brittany’s taken into protective custody when officers finally notice her belly. Don’t tell them about me. Don’t tell them that you’re still frightened by a dark stairwell. She gives birth in St. Francis to a biracial daughter.
There are women who don’t talk about their children unless they have to fill out forms. Are they denying their bodies ever incubated life? Or do these mothers consider their kids accidents, or does their crime involve their offspring? The rest of the inmate mothers share photos of their children, tell each other about happy or sad phone calls.
Now, visits are forbidden. Now, the temperatures are taken of all prison staff reporting for their shift. There will be no in-person mother-and- child reunion in the age of Covid-19. And so this tradition will continue. On children’s birthdays, the tradition is for a group of inmates to make cupcakes and sing Happy Birthday to them on the phone, and if they can’t phone, they sing to each other.
Stephanie Dickinson lives in Manhattan with the poet Rob Cook and their feline, Vallejo. Her novels Half Girl and Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil. Kallisto Gaia Press will publish In the Razor Wire Wilderness based on her friendship with inmates at EMCF sometime in 2021.