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.”