It was an average Texas prison weekend when it happened. Chow had just finished, and the dorm was settling into its routine. The bolted-down metal tables in the dayroom were cluttered with bowls and commissary food as several women started cooking in preparation for our late night.
Late nights were the times we all looked forward to, during the weekends and holidays when dayroom hours were extended until 1 a.m. This meant more free time, which of course meant more TV. A debate was already raging about whether we would be watching the rerun of “Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1,” or a true-crime special.
I had missed the premiere of “Mockingjay,” so I was in the camp supporting Katniss Everdeen. And by the looks of it, the tide was turning in our favor.
My best friend and I were in negotiations for saved seats closest to the television when an ambulance drove down the “main street” of our wing of the prison. This was not an unusual sight. Our unit primarily housed older women with long sentences as well as the mentally ill, so medical emergencies were common.
But this would mean the dreaded “rack up.” Rec time would be delayed or cancelled. No one would be allowed in the dayroom.
“Everyone rack up! Special count!” I knew it.
“Damn!” I grumbled about missing the start of the movie as I shuffled back to my cell. After plopping down on my bunk, I began leafing through a magazine and munching on some stale cookies.
Suddenly, someone nearby blurted out that she had overheard an officer talking on the phone. A young woman in the cellblock, she said, had hung herself and was dead.
“Yeah right,” I thought. Everyone knows how things get blown out of proportion here. I remembered once when someone said a friend of mine had been impaled and her intestines were hanging out. The rumor was that she had been mysteriously pushed from behind onto a broken sink. This led to plots of revenge—until said friend showed up the next day in the library with one tiny stitch, where she said she'd been cut when the sink she was standing on had broken underneath her.
“Girl, nobody pushed me,” she said, “but I couldn’t tell them I was standing on the sink to reach up there and steal the disciplinary case the lady had written on me!”
Every mole hill becomes a burning volcano in here, in other words.
But then I glanced out the window and noticed two female officers leaving the cellblock, and something in their mannerisms startled me. The younger one, a well-known and feared guard, looked weak in the knees, her face somewhat buried into the other’s shoulder. She struggled to stand.
“Hey, y’all,” I said, pointing toward the guards. “Something’s wrong for real.”
It was late evening when count cleared. The ambulance left and the unit slowly returned to normal.
Soon, we uncovered the details of what happened: A girl really had hung herself when the cellblock turned out for rec. It was during this time, the staff preoccupied with all their strip searching, that she tied something around her neck and let go.
The lifers and big timers were the ones affected most by the suicide. Women who had spent decades locked up felt as if some part of their own hope and youth had died. This woman was young enough to be their granddaughter. They repeatedly mumbled to themselves, “She still had a chance, she still had a chance,” as if such a mantra could somehow bring their own true selves back.
Questions nagged us. Who was this girl? She hadn’t been locked up long, judging by her inmate number. Where had she come from? Why did she do this? Could we have prevented it? We didn’t even know her name.
She was unknown, but she had been one of us. Now she was gone forever.
We asked the chaplain to hold a memorial service in the chapel, and his response was a definitive no. We felt his reasoning arose from a purely personal belief about suicide and was not based in policy.
So this refusal to honor our comrade did not go over well.
Women are often portrayed as vicious and vindictive toward one another, and perhaps there is some truth to that stereotype, especially behind bars. However, when one of us was treated unfairly, victimized or neglected, our prison politics fell away. Our jealousies, petty cliques and bitterness were instantly forgotten. We were no longer enemies but sisters—and we didn’t need anyone’s permission to honor this young woman.
It wouldn’t be much, but it was fitting that we held our impromptu memorial service during rec time. There were no candles or music. We didn’t have a picture of her, or her real name. No one knew this girl well enough to share any anecdotes.
We couldn’t even gather as a whole, since large groups are prohibited on the rec yard, and broken up if formed. Instead, we separated into smaller groups, as large as the more sympathetic officers would allow us. Together we prayed, and talked about who this unknown girl might have been, and whom she might’ve become.
Then we began to talk about our own struggles.
Many of us had contemplated suicide before. One of the most intimidating women on our unit revealed that even she had wanted to die, many times. She said, “Y’all, my stepdaddy used to put his hands on me. I would go to school and see all the nice families picking up they kids, and I was like, why can’t I have that? Instead I got a drunk momma that don’t even know this sick motherfucker is walking into every room I try to hide in. I learned to just stop feeling.”
The woman who’d hung herself, the woman said, didn’t know how to do that. “But maybe it’s better she didn’t, because sometimes I already feel dead.”
Another lady spoke up about her crime, which she told us she'd committed against her abuser: “I’ve always thought that I should have killed myself instead,” she said. “If he were alive, maybe he would have gotten his life right, and I wouldn’t be trapped in this place. Sometimes I just want it all to end.”
I noticed that several people in our small group were plucking nervously at the grass where we were sitting. In lieu of flowers, we left bald patches of turf.
That night, as I was laying on my bunk, I realized that our memorial service had turned into something much more powerful than what the chapel could have offered us with its hard, wooden pews and hushed voices. I hadn’t expected it: I had gone to rec that night simply to register that I was part of a united front, to show that we do have each other’s backs when push comes to shove.
I got so much more than that. We didn’t just honor this young woman; we were able to connect to her suffering through our own. Surprisingly, I never would have guessed the women around me had been through such terrible things. I had previously believed they were just playing the roles and characters that our prison culture had assigned them.
But the tough woman who spoke about her stepdad was not just a cold and calculating bitch—although she could be, sometimes. Who she really was was that little girl hiding in one room then another, trying to find peace.
My empathy had no choice but to widen. This was a dangerous development in my character. I felt vulnerable: I knew my compassion might make me appear weaker, but I had a sudden faith that somehow, I could still safely navigate the prison world, even with some kindness.
A few days later, while at work in the library, I learned that the person who had discovered the girl’s body was the same young officer I’d noticed leaving the cellblock that day. She had then taken some personal time off. Her coworkers whispered that she was deeply shaken by what happened.
No one blamed her, of course. It wasn’t her fault. Everyone knew the girl had planned for the perfect moment when the officers were not making their usual rounds.
I walked over to the spacious window in the corner of the library; over the years, this had become my nook for thinking and people-watching. I stared at the cellblock for a long time, until it made sense.
The young officer had seen something in us and couldn’t make it unseen. In that desperate, unexpected moment, she finally saw us as more than the roles and characters we were forced to play.
Unwittingly, I too had seen beyond the guard’s assigned role, when I noticed her slumped over with grief. I thought about all of this as I watched another officer impatiently scolding an older lady who teetered behind the rest of the inmates in the chow-hall line.
I guess human suffering could connect all of us, if only we had the courage to share in it.
Jennifer Toon spent nearly 20 years incarcerated in Texas. She continues to write for the state’s prison newspaper, The ECHO.