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?”