Under the Wing of the Alpha

Under the Wing of the Alpha

Under the Wing of the Alpha


Day 43

I was alone in my cell at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility. Coffee Creek is the only women’s prison in the State of Oregon. The Department of Corrections calls it a Medium facility but women serving maximum life sentences are housed bunk to bunk with women incarcerated for drug crimes or white-collar embezzlement. I was assigned to a cell in G Unit. It’s the wild, wild, West of the prison and houses women who just can’t stay out of trouble and also new people, like me.

Under the Wing of the Alpha I was fresh off Intake and was assigned to an empty cell on G Unit. The prison was busting at the seams. It would be minutes not hours until a new cellmate would be at the door. I wondered what sort of demented criminal would be dragging her clear plastic bags of belongings to my cell. I paced in my State issued gray socks, my heel strike echoing on the slick cement floor. Walk, breathe, turn, repeat. I will have varicose veins from these floors. Then, the sound of the cell door opening.

A woman was at the podium, looking toward my cell. She looked to be in her early twenties. She had a strong body and glossy black hair. As she got closer, I could see she had tattoos on her neck and a teardrop tattoo by her eye. The door crashed open and she walked in, bumping her bags through the door. “Hello Celly,” she said, smiling at me almost timidly. At first glance, she didn’t frighten me, and I was relieved. 

She sighed and shook her head, “I’m not surprised they put me across the podium on Front Street. They like to keep an eye on me. Sometimes I don’t follow the rules.” She looked me over still smiling, “You look like a nice lady. They probably put you in here with me to keep me from misbehaving.” She felt sorry for me.

I wondered what kind of trouble she had caused? Fighting? Rioting? I didn’t dare ask. I did a quick check toward the red panic button on the wall. I learned in my first days that if I pressed that button, there better be blood. I scooted to the back of my lower bunk and pulled my knees to my chest. She had four bags compared to my two. She had one bag that looked like nearly everything on the canteen list, shampoo, lotion, CDs. She had white socks and a canteen brassiere the two separate cups instead of the faded State uni-boob sports bra. She had one bag of art supplies and books. How long had she been here?

She began unpacking, humming to herself. She wore the status symbol a faded tee shirt and jeans instead of my drop pocket jeans and shiny blue shirt that smelled like petroleum. I watched her line up her toiletries on her shelf like she’d done it before.

“Nice system,” I said.

“Yep, I got this down. I have been in for about two years. Before that, I spent some time in a psych facility. I caused some trouble there.” again the shy smile.

She looked so innocent. I couldn’t help myself, I smiled right back. I lifted an eyebrow of encouragement for her to continue.

She paused from her unpacking. “I led an escape out the window of an upper floor of the building. I remember looking down and thinking it wasn’t that far but I guess it was. Some of the ones who followed me out didn’t do so well. My legs took a hit.”

She led an escape from a psych ward? My head filled with questions. Did they catch her? Why was she there? How bad were others hurt, did they die? Her story stopped there and I kept my mouth shut. She finished unpacking and made her bed. She put a tablet and a drawing pen on the mattress and climbed up the ladder. I stayed seated, leaning on the wall listening to the scratch of her pen. She sang softly in a clear voice like she was soothing herself. Should I be afraid of this girl? What did she do to get locked up?

Karen Campbell Writes Contact “I like the little blue tattoo by your eye.” I said. “It looks like a teardrop.”

She stopped singing immediately and peeked her head over the edge of her bunk and looked at me, “You’re really green, Celly. You don’t know what that means, do you?”

I shook my head no.

“A teardrop tattoo is a gang thing. It means you have been to prison or you were ordered to do a hit and you succeeded. I can mean you were raped.” She withdrew and didn’t offer an explanation for her tattoo.

Such tragedy, so young.

She lowered her tablet over the edge of her bunk, “This is a drawing for a tattoo some girl wants me to do.

I had never seen pen and ink like this. It was intricate and dark. “You have real talent, Celly.” I like calling her that back. Do they sell tattoo supplies on the canteen list?” She laughed out loud.

“Oh, Celly. No, you use the ink from pens and take apart a disposable razor blade. If DOC catches you, you’re in big trouble.”

Trouble seemed to nip at her heels. Who are you?

Later when she left the cell, I watched her walk through the day room. She moved like the Alpha of the Unit. The inmates turned toward her, leaning in, hoping to catch her eye, a word, or approval. She was dignified and soft-spoken, not like the rest of the crude voices that carried through the cell door. She drifted across the room with ease, not hurrying or looking like she had something to prove. I was fascinated.

That evening I was doing a load of laundry. I had seen women sitting in front of the dryers to make sure no one would steal their clothes. But my clothes were not worthy of theft, even amongst thieves, so, I went outside for a walk. When I went to collect my laundry from the dryers, the area was abnormally quiet. I felt observed. I opened my dryer, I pulled out my dark blue jeans and my puffy red shorts and shiny shirts. But there were no pajamas. I reached in and ran my hand around the drum. I looked in the washer I had used. No pajamas. Someone stole from me! I was indignant for about six seconds. And then, reality check. Look where you are, Karen. My pajamas were the only decent thing in my prison wardrobe.

Use your brains, Karen. Time to be brave.

I turned around, “Hmm,” I said loudly to no one in particular. “My Celly is not going to be happy when she hears her pajamas are missing.” Then I walked across the room to my cell, I waited for the door to open near the top of the hour.

Celly was sitting on the top bunk, lost in a drawing. When I entered she brightened, “Hi Celly!”

I was all puffed up, “Celly, let me try to get the slang right: I think I have been punked. Someone jacked my jammies.”

She looked at me, still peaceful, then eased down the ladder of her bunk. The cell door was still open for the final minute of the line movement. She exited and walked over to the laundry area. I could not hear what she said, but it could only have been a sentence or two. And then she was back, only gone twenty seconds. She took up her pens and paper again, humming. The cell door closed.

I rubbernecked at the cell door window like a yokel and could see a mad dash of activity in the laundry area.

Knock, knock. Standing before the cell door was a girl-woman with a few important teeth and a fawning smile. In her hands was a folded stack that looked like my pajamas. “Tell your celly we found her pajamas. They must have fallen behind the dryer. (Nervous giggle). Tell her we are sorry. (Blink). Don’t forget to tell her!”

The girl-woman placed the pajamas on the floor outside the cell and slid them under the door. I took the pajamas and walked over to the bunk. I stood before my celly. I was quiet and waited for her to look up. When she did, I had the courage to ask, “Who are you?”

The child Raccoon Doesn't Want to Go to School

The Child Raccoon Doesn't Want to Go to School

The Child Raccoon Doesn't Want to Go to School

Day 795

When Haley was a child, I read her the book The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. The story is about separation. The child raccoon doesn’t want to go to school, he wants to stay home with his mother. The mother raccoon kisses the paw of her child and tells him to place it on this cheek when he misses her, and she will be with him. LIke Nikki, my younger daughter Haley was deeply hurt by my actions. She was so young and tender and her life was ripped away from her. She left her friends, her sister, and her mother and went to live with her father in Southern California. We couldn’t place our hands on each other’s cheeks, but Haley and I sent drawings of our hands through the prison mail for comfort.

~ Karen Campbell

Haley Hand Drawing Karen Kampbell Writes

The Visit A Poem by Nikki Karen Kampbell Writes

The Visit A Poem by Nikki

The Visit A Poem by Nikki

(Year four – of six years three months prison sentence)

My daughter Nikki wrote this poem, The Visit, as part of her Senior Project at the University of Oregon. Nikki publicly bore the brunt of my crime. She finished raising herself and stood by me. I would have never wished this on her slim shoulders, the ripples go on and on.

~ Karen Campbell

The Visit

I am driving, past sheep and empty fields to visit my mother in prison.

When I get there I will sit at the stoplight facing the entrance of the prison.

The light is especially long and for every second

I can feel the family in the car to my right staring at me.

Dad in the driver’s seat, mom with the perfect hair in the passenger’s seat

and their two angels in the back.

They look over at me going to the prison.

They are probably going to a picnic or coming home from a soccer game,

and I am going into a building to sit under fluorescent lights with my mom

while we are monitored by cameras,

the always over-weight and lifeless looking guard.

Not to mention all the other inmates plus whatever humans choose to visit them.

It’s always the same people.

Some of them try to be friends with each other in the waiting room

and act like they can just shoot the breeze with wry expressions

as they slide between freedom and incarceration.

I just can’t take it that lightly.

I do not talk to anyone unless it is to tell them how to use the lockers,

because those sons of bitches steal your money

faster than any criminal is physically capable

and I know that at least 95 percent of visitors are living in poverty

so lost quarters are worth talking for.

Other than that I sit in the corner and I look at the floor

and I listen to other people’s lives in the waiting room.

I always look at the board to see  who got the officer of the week,

but I wonder who judges that and doubt they ever deserve it.

Anytime I bring pictures in they stare at them for far too long,

and it makes me feel completely exposed and objectified.

“Looks like somebody had fun.” Or “Where was this?”

They are just curious, but I do not want to talk to them about my life.

It is none of their business.

They think they are being nice, but they reveal themselves every time.

When they become the person in charge,

and they tell you to spit out your gum like a drill sergeant

and they are above you and they carry cuffs and a taser.

I try not to look at the children, usually kids make me laugh.

Their simplified outlooks on life make so much more sense,

remembering how to think like a child is my religion.

And as they are crawling around on all fours like dogs,

I can’t help but notice how hideous they are and how fat they are,

and I can’t help to think about how fucked up their lives are going to be.

You can just see their futures splayed out before them

like the mess they are making with the prison toys.

When I am finally released from this compartment of depression

I sit in another room and wait for my mom to come out.

She is always the same.

She reacts like she is so surprised and so happy to see me she can’t even stand it.

She is also dramatic.

I do it too, I think, I hate faking excitement

but we only have two hours so I match her energy without thinking.

When it is time to go we hug and tie knots on the ends of our conversations

so that we don’t feel terrible inconclusive feelings as we return to our segregated lives.

I wave to her like a child so she feels especially motherly.

It’s easy to humor her now.

In between the visiting room and the lobby with the lockers

is a transfer room with windows so you can see into both rooms.

It is the Earth between heaven and hell

and it is also the room where the young ones realize they are leaving their mothers.

That is the worst part by far.

You can see their smiles fade slowly and their tiny lips catch on their teeth

in that frozen moment when it hits them.

They all cry. Some scream.

Some even plead with the guards or their fathers to let them stay.

“Please! Please let me stay just a little longer.

Please, I just want to stay the night with my mommy.”

The adults or those who like to think of themselves as such

laugh at the little girl for wanting to stay the night in a prison

and I pity them because they do not understand her love.

We children would give anything for a sleepover.

Maybe they didn’t have mothers like that little girl’s.

Maybe they didn’t have a mother like mine.

I’d like to think that no one has a mother like mine.

Tamara Upton - The Dwarf Killer

Tamra Upton - The Dwarf Killer Dies in Prison

On Sunday April 14, 2019, Tamra Upton died in hospice care while serving a life without parole. I met this woman halfway through my sentence. The news story was sensational and grisly. In any crime, there is more to the story.

Day 1095


Tamra Upton was serving Life without parole, having committed a notorious crime: the bungled murder of dwarf. We all knew each other’s crimes but the details were spread by the jungle drums, not the inmate herself. As The Woman Who Writes, I had several women come to me and tell me their stories. Perhaps in the retelling, it took out some of the sting.

I was halfway into my time, I stayed off the radar, but I was still intimidated by some of the Lifers. One day, as a new student in the prison hair salon, I was assigned to do a haircut on Tamara. I panicked. Cutting hair was hard for me. I was not a natural like so many other girls. I waggled my scissors in the air, wild-eyed, and signaled for help. The inmate tutor came over and did not seem intimidated by Tamra at all. She ran her fingers through Tamra’s hair, rat ta-tatted instructions, and left me to the wolf. This woman killed a dwarf. I stalled by placing and replacing the cape over her, readjusting the neck and smoothing it over the arms of the chair. I looked around at the other students, eyes pleading, everyone suddenly looked purposeful. The tutor’s expression was, get over it. Tamra was staring at me.

“Cut it short and spiky.”

“O.K,” I said and nervously ran my fingers through her hair as the tutor had done.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s just hair,” she smirked. “It will grow back.” She paused as our eyes met in the mirror, “Of course, our hair is all we really have in here.” My heart was racing, she was unshaken.

I took Tamra to the shampoo bowl. She rested her neck in the cradle and closed her eyes. I reminded myself of my manual skills and shampooed and conditioned until I gained some confidence. The muscles on her face relaxed, her breathing became slow and steady.

We are not allowed to touch one another in prison. The Department of Corrections believes it will lead to sex, producing complicated entanglements and fights. The shampoo provided rare human touch for both of us. The muscles on her face relaxed, she sighed contentedly, giving herself over to my touch. Her vulnerability was all it took.

She trusts me. I began to feel a nurturing tenderness toward this woman, this legend. She moaned quietly when I turned off the water.

“That felt so good, the human touch,” she opened her eyes and sighed, “Allowed touch.”

Tamra settled into the chair and I went to work. Her calm allowed me to focus and not let nerves carry me away. The haircut wasn’t horrible. I put a little gel on the top for a spike and we both smiled into the mirror.

Coffee creek prison in Oregon
Coffee Creek prison in Oregon

“I love it. This might be one of the best cuts I have had,” she said.

“Ah,” I flapped my wrist and took off the cape.

“I’ll be back again in about a month or so, it grows fast.”

The funny thing was, I never nailed that cut again. I did alright and she forgave me for it. I would see her on the unit and say hi or share a table with her while we waited for call outs. One morning after breakfast, she asked if we could have a word, alone.

I felt a shiver of danger but pushed it away. I was no longer intimidated by the woman before me. I was intimidated by the woman she had been when she committed her crime.“How about at first line movement after lunch?” What did she want, a favor? To borrow something? We met later that day. We sat alone at a table at the end of the room.

“You seem like a nice lady,” she said to the table top. “You have probably heard the stories about my crime.” She looked up. I fidgeted. I had no idea that this was coming.

“Hard to keep a secret in here.” I was nervous about what she would say. Did I really want to hear this?

“Our crimes are all a matter of public record,” she said. “But that doesn’t really tell the whole story for any of us, does it?”

“There’s always more to the story,” I offered. Here we go.

“It matters to me that good people, like you seem to be, really know what happened in my crime.” She looked up at me again. “I am not the evil monster Joe Public thinks I am.” In a way, I was flattered that she thought I was worthy of an explanation and that she could trust me. She told her story from start to finish. On paper in a criminal file, it was a heinous crime. Her explanation of the plummeting events ended up being yet another story of unintended stupidity that ended in a murder conviction. She never denied that someone died and she took her time with the details. What started with bad drugs and jealousy led to one stupid blunder after another and a botched disposal of the body.

“Our mistake was that we came back to the scene. We weren’t sure if the guy was dead. There were witnesses.” The woman shook her head, not frustrated but resigned. We sat in a fitting silence for a while. Then I asked the mother of all questions to a Lifer, “How do you it? You have life without parole. What is it like to know you will never be free and this,” I waved to the  beige room of tables, podium, lines of cells, “This unit will be the last place you live?”

I will die in here. Over the years, I have collected enough meds from Med Line and stashed them in my mattress to die. It’s just weird to pick a day. For now, I am working on a blanket so it won’t be this week.”