My Fairy Godmothers in Prison

My Fairy Godmothers in Prison

My Fairy Godmothers in Prison

My greatest fear of going to prison was the women: murderers, thieves, hookers and drug addicts. In the months before sentencing, my oldest daughter, Nikki said, “You are like Keiko the Whale, raised in captivity and released to the wild.” I worried I’d be eaten alive.  My Fairy Godmothers in Prison

My prison  sentence started in the women’s unit of the county jail. The unit was a long grey rectangle with cells along it’s length and metal tables at the back. A guard led me into the unit at lunch time. I was ordered to grab a tray. The noise had been deafening in the corridor. The voices ceased when I entered the room, all eyes on the new neighbor lady. I had seen the Shawshank redemption and other prison movies. The dining rooms were always the place where the fights broke out. I scanned the tables avoiding the women’s faces. There was one seat left, my legs stilted forward. I stopped at the open seat, eyes downward. Do I ask permission? Is there such a thing as jail etiquette?

Prison Teachers Harsh Lessons Part One
“Tizzy and Silver”

“Don’t just stand there,” said the woman to my right.  I folded myself in a tangle of stiff joints and sat down. I snuck a glance at her, she had brown wavy hair and looked about thirty-five. “I’m Tizzy.” She pointed to the two women on my left. “That’s Silver and Buzz Cut.” I tried to swivel my neck but it was frozen in fear, I forced myself to turn my whole torso.
I was surprised to see a young woman with a huge grin. She had a short brown buzz cut and strong arms. The woman next to her had silver hair and sad brown eyes. Silver asked,  “What are you in for?” 

“A car accident, I had a blood alcohol level of .08, right on the line. My husband and another woman died.” I might have been going for sympathy or perhaps I was trying to set myself apart, after all, I wasn’t a criminal.

I’m here on the same thing,” said Silver, shrugging like it was common place. “There’s no mercy about it. There’s quite a few of us in prison with similar crimes.”

“Have you been to prison?” I asked.

“All three of us were there,” said Tizzy. “ I got more charges and had to come back to court.”

“They added fines to my sentence,” said Silver.

I had no idea you could get charges added after you were in prison. I couldn’t even thin about it.

My Fairy Godmothers in Prison
“Buzz Cut”

“I came back to be with my girl,” said Buzz Cut still grinning. “ I committed a crime so I could come back and be with her.” I was stunned. She intentionally planned and committed a crime, just to return to prison to be with the girlfriend she left behind? This made no sense, but nothing made sense anymore. I looked at Tizzy and Silver for guidance but they were both suddenly focused on the mystery meat on the meal tray. 

Over the next few days the trio surprised me by being pleasant and generous with advice. They called me Karen, not Baker, which made me feel like I hadn’t disappeared completely. They began to school me in prison survival: No snitching, no stealing, shower everyday, and keep your mouth shut. I would start my sentence on the Intake Unit and be locked in a cell nearly all day. But unlike solitary, I could come out for meals, and church services.

My Fairy Godmothers in Prison“Everyone is clean, not like these people puking though withdrawal,” said Buzz Cut. She shouted into a cell where a girl had been sleeping for days. “They don’t fuckin’ smell like fish!” Then she resumed her composure and continued, “They make you shower. You get a job. The food still sucks but at least you won’t die from it.”

The way Silver, Tizzy and Buzz Cut described prison sounded like a major improvement over the living conditions in jail. But going to prison for over six years felt like the end of my life. The women weren’t my people; I still felt like Keiko.

“Look, Karen,” said Tizzy one day, “don’t think you’re cleaner than the rest of us. You killed people straight and simple. The women in there have been in and out of prison, taken every drug and stole or hooked for her habit, but they will look straight at you and say, ‘Well at least I didn’t kill anybody.’ The sooner you get over yourself, the better you’ll get along in there.”

“Yeah,” said Buzz Cut, “You gotta own it. Introduce yourself by time and crime. No one wants to hear a sad story of innocence. They just want to make sure your are not locked up for committing a crime against children. Here’s your speech: ‘I’m Karen. I’m here for a Man II/DUI car accident. I got six years, no good time, no programs.’

All along I’d called it an accident, never Man-slaughter. The excuses were like litany: Tom was supposed to be driving. I never would have driven drunk. That wasn’t me. But these women held a mirror to my face and their harsh words stung. Because whether I meant to or not, I did drink and drive and I killed people. It would take time and practice to admit to that speech. But I was a sponge, and I soaked up their advice, grateful that they had taken me under their wings.

My Fairy Godmothers in PrisonOn my 14th day in jail, I got word that the next day I would go to prison. The van would take me, Tizzy, Silver, and Buzz Cut together. These were the women I would literally be bound to on my first days. 

That night after dinner, as we celled in for the night, Tizzy called out from down the row of cells, “You’ll survive, Karen. We’ll keep an eye on you, but if you fuck up, you’re on your own.”

My Fairy Godmothers in Prison

Harsh Lessons One – The Fairy Godmothers

Harsh Lessons One – The Fairy Godmothers

Do I still have a home in their hearts

Hard and Fast Graduation from Childhood

Hard and Fast Graduation from Childhood

What have I done? My children Nik  and Haley were 16 and 13 years old at the time of the accident. A fierce kind of wisdom was forced upon them that day, and they would never be the same. I had more to teach my girls. I wasn’t done yet. Who else was going to explain about heartbreak, or how to use silverware from the outside to the inside of the plate, or how to walk in New York? Me, their mother. They needed me.

Hard and Fast Graduation from Childhood
Central Park

After the accident, awaiting sentencing, I decided to take my daughters to New York as a graduation from childhood. As Frank Sinatra sings, If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere… I went through their wardrobe and selected solid clothing, mostly black, and bought them cross strap purses. I laid out a map of Manhattan.

“It’s easy, it’s a long thin island.” I pointed to Central Park, “Uptown, I pointed to the tip, Downtown.” I marched them up and down the hallway of my apartment complex, giving terse instructions on how to walk in New York: quick pace, eyes straight ahead, never up at the buildings or a down at a map. Jaywalk.

They were good students. The girls ate up the city with their long legs. We let ourselves have the time of our lives. We had to, there wasn’t a day to waste. Nearing the end of our trip, we were coming up out of a Midtown subway. Haley emerged first and took off like a native New Yorker. She turned her head backward toward Nikki and me, “Uptown.” She turned back around and strutted away. She was confident that we would follow her anywhere. Nikki and I were stunned. The baby? She can’t possibly… without stopping, Haley looked back and saw us trying to peek at the map in the top of our pockets. “GA, Uptown!” We shoved the corner of our maps back in our pocket and followed. That’s it. I can go in now.

Hard and Fast Graduation from Childhood

Because prison was certain, I had to send my younger daughter, Haley, to California to live with her father. She moved after her freshman year in high school so she could settle in with her dad, be ready for a new school and try out for the volleyball team by fall. It was the only thing to do, the best thing, we thought, for Haley. She told me years later, that it broke her heart that she had no friends to celebrate her 15th birthday. Before she left, to console us both, I wrapped her in a blanket on the couch. I cuddled next to her and stroked her glossy brown hair and held her feet, the same way I did when she was a baby. 

When the time came, I packed Haley’s life into duffles, childhood toys and teenage make-up all jammed together. It all had to go or get thrown out, there would be no family home in Oregon. Nikki had gone on to her Freshman year at college. Her best friend, her best friend’s mother and I took her to the airport. We walked her as far as security allowed, and said goodbye. Helpless, we watched her pass through scanners, leaving behind her house, her sister, her friends, her left outside hitter position on the volleyball team, and her mother. We watched as she turned and waved, walked down the concourse, turned and waved again. She turned a third time and stood there, crying for all to see. She finally turned and we watched until the very last sight of her duffle bag disappeared.

On the night before my sentencing, Nikki, who was 18, came back from college and spent the night with me. Just as she had done when she was a little girl, she slept in bed with me, one hand on my cheek. Even as we shifted in bed during the night, she sought me out. I slept poorly and as I lay awake beside her. I memorized her face. In sleep, she was a young angel with tangled curls and rosebud lips that mumbled in a restless sleep. She would wake as a grown woman with the weight of the world on her slim shoulders. As I watched her sleep, I begged silently, Please, please give me a chance to make this up to you. Their graduation from childhood didn’t happen in New York. It happened on the day of the accident.

Hard and Fast Graduation from Childhood

Hard and Fast Graduation from Childhood