A $10 fluttered to the floor as I opened the letter from my old college roommate. It was meant as a gift, but it felt more like a set-up. Even though I was alone, I looked around my cell to make sure no one was watching. I hastily shoved the cash in an envelope and mailed it home, afraid to be caught with the contraband.
I couldn’t believe it had gotten through to me. After all, prison mail, especially here at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women, is governed by an intricate and evolving set of rules.
NO cash or checks. NO stickers or glitter. NO greeting cards. NO Polaroid pictures. NO magic marker or crayon. NO escape plans or bomb-making recipes... Well, that one makes sense. (So does the ban on currency, I suppose, because it could be used to purchase influence with guards or other inmates.)
But the prison’s other prohibitions are, shall we say, a bit less immediately obvious in their rationale. Apparently the in-between middle space of a Polaroid is an ideal place to hide drugs. The folds of a greeting card, too, might be concealing more than wishes for a happy birthday. And glitter, stickers, and glue can disguise spots of a liquified drug squirted onto paper.
For decades, our mailroom has been primarily staffed by one person, whom we all call Miss Beatrice. I’ve never actually met the lady, but her spidery handwriting leads me to believe she is elderly and possibly arthritic.
Beatrice endeavors to be by-the-book strict, but nobody's perfect, hence the $10 bill. In her defense, these rules are countless. When Beatrice determines that a given piece of mail is in violation of one, she removes the offending portion and replaces it with a “Withheld Mail Notice,” which in turn features a half page of “reasons” with tiny squares next to each so she can check all that apply.
The form itself is single-spaced, blurry and difficult to read, as if the original was misplaced, forcing the staff to continually photocopy a half-used, crumpled one.
Once Beatrice adds her wobbly check marks and shaky signature, the overall effect is to make us feel that we have entered a bygone era. I half expect to read, on my next mail-rejection form, “Your mail has been withheld because women must not work outside the home,” with a checkmark next to it.
The Withheld Mail form also includes a set of blank lines. Therein resides Beatrice’s true discretionary power: She can withhold mail simply because she feels it is contraband.
Throughout the years of my incarceration, I have been the recipient of many a withholding notice. But I have also received the cash and, in one instance, a personal check.
Last Christmas, I received a forbidden greeting card. Back in 1999, I received a pair of sample earrings tucked inside a jewelry catalog.
New to prison, I didn’t realize my good fortune, but my cellmate did. She offered me five dollars in commissary for the earrings, which I took, stupidly. I could’ve gotten double that, easy.
More often my luck runs in the other direction. Beatrice once cut the bookmarks out of a new Bible someone had sent me. In the “other” space, she wrote that ribbons are contraband. There’ll be no six-inch pieces of fabric running amok on this compound!
A “Game of Thrones” book was withheld because it contained maps. Maps are contraband. I guess I won’t be escaping to Westeros!
Pictures of my daughter’s wedding reception were withheld because alcoholic drinks were shown. Alcohol is forbidden.
At one mail-call, my friend Cindy received an envelope. There was no letter inside, not even a Withheld Mail Notice. The only thing rattling around in there was a dismembered return address sticker, and the piece of envelope it had been stuck on.
Cindy considered it providence. At least she was able to determine who it was that she didn’t get mail from that day!
My friend Saira is taking a class in entrepreneurship. She asked her father to go online and research how to start a business in Maryland, print it out and mail it to her. But weeks later, she received an otherwise blank Withheld Mail Notice featuring another of Beatrice’s handwritten messages. The old lady had noted that mail containing more than 25 pages will be sent back.
Saira called home. She and her family had been communicating via the same mailroom for well over two decades — they were veterans of the system — but this rule was a new one to them. Apparently her dad had sent 26 pages. One page over the limit. One. Page.
Not only does Beatrice come up with ever more complicated interpretations of the rules, she fastidiously adheres to them. Imagine the tenacity: She inspected and counted the pages, only to repackage and return them, fully aware the same papers would come back to her, only in two envelopes instead of one.
She could have bent her self-imposed boundary, but not Beatrice, who essentially doubled her own work along the way.
As absurd as all of that may seem, it isn’t even my best story. My favorite “other” came shortly after I’d donated money to the Arbor Day Foundation. I love those tree-huggers, out there fighting for our environment.
I was puzzled when I received an Arbor Day envelope containing only the Withheld Mail Notice featuring Beatrice’s instantly recognizable penmanship. It read: Trees are contraband.
Was Beatrice saying that I couldn’t send money to this charity? I’d never heard of such a rule. I assumed that she’d finally entered a fugue state, desperate to shield nature itself from the incarcerated population.
Then I realized what happened. As a thank you, the Arbor Day Foundation had sent me a seedling.
Kimberly Hricko, 53, is incarcerated at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, Md., where she is serving life in prison for first-degree murder and arson.