For months we had been struggling with all the changes of lockdown—the social distancing and canceled programming that COVID-19 brought to the front door of every cell in Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, known as the world's largest female prison.
Any expectation of social distancing in a prison is a joke. And during this pandemic, a very ugly and deadly joke. Especially for women. We are social, we are nurturers, and we touch and comfort one another as naturally as breathing. Fighting the instinct of interaction presents a daily challenge.
We are locked in our rooms for the majority of each day. Imagine a one-car garage. Can you picture it? The sides of your car barely a few feet from the enclosing walls. Now remove the car and replace it with four metal double-bunk beds, eight 12-foot lockers, two sinks, a table and a chair. Wait, now throw in a small bathroom stall and a separate shower stall.
The only time we could smile was observing the panic and resulting bad behavior as John Q. Public made a run on toilet paper. We laughed while watching news footage of shoppers pushing and shoving amid the empty grocery-store shelves and the signs advising limits on purchases. In prison we call that a Wednesday.
Next came the awareness of hospitals overrun with people in respiratory distress and without enough ventilators. We looked at each other, estimating that our massive prison might have two of these machines.* Maybe. The reality of our position became unnervingly clear. We had, as they say in prison, nothing coming.
Then we noticed that one of our own, Angel Marie Kozeak, a lifer down for 44 years, was jaundiced and staying in her bed. We thought she had the coronavirus—until we learned the diagnosis: aggressive pancreatic cancer with kidney and liver failure. Angel's brutal decline lasted from April 8 to her May 6 death.
We held a memorial for Angel on Friday, June 5. As one of the organizers of the event, I woke up early that morning. I had details on my mind—last-minute preparations and inevitable roadblocks from the administration.
Walking into the day room, members of our Comfort Care team that organizes events like this one already had questions to hammer out. I did my best to listen to everyone and encourage the personal touches they wanted to add to the service. Making decisions about where to place the tables and chairs and how to direct the traffic kept me busy for an hour. (We grabbed more chairs than we were allowed in the social distancing memorandum from prison officials.)
During breakfast time I was the designated mediator to talk with the staff who were already sour-faced at having to allow us to have an event when the prison was supposed to be on a pandemic lockdown. I brought out the memorandum signed by the warden and did my best to head-nod as they complained about how no one had told them about this.
I detailed how Comfort Care volunteers would keep things organized and socially distanced, and how we would move people through the garden into the area where the tables would be set up for people to sign cards for Angel's family. All the staff would need to do was sit there and look pretty. That got a laugh. A final nod to the staff was leaving it to them to decide which unit to release first and a promise that we would work within any time constraints they had.
At the site of the service, our Comfort Care girls set up the tables, chairs and music system in no time. There were moments when I paused and looked around, smiling at the efficiency and focus of women with a task at hand. This is what I love about working with a team that you lose on lockdown: seeing the flow of intent and effort.
We put up some decorations. First there was the string of pale blue and tan cardstock butterflies that I’d made and threaded with the repurposed fibers of a broom. The girls got creative and hung them from an eave outside our unit. It was perfect, a light wind adding to the fluttering effect. There was also an amazing poster created by the women in Unit 510, which we leaned against some repurposed trash cans.
And there was another piece of art: a guitar with a pair of angel wings on either side and Angel's name across the bottom. This was front and center, greeting the women as they stepped into the garden area. We used a metal “Out of Bounds” sign from the prison yard to hold it up. Seemed fitting.
People started showing up, and we had about 15 minutes to hug one another. These women had not been together for almost three months. We are close-knit. The separation had been hard.
At one point, I had another one of those pauses as I became aware of a sound I have not heard for so long: It was the murmur of conversation and laughter. Voices shared concerns about family on the outside. Remarks were made on hair that had grown long. More than one woman complained about her “COVID 15,” those pesky pounds gained on lockdown. Then there was the comparing of notes: How locked down is your unit? Are you getting your laundry time or phone time?
Some housing staff are more strict than others, so we talked about whose officers were the bigger assholes. Other conversations meandered, from stories about roommates who were on their last nerve to how hard it was to lose a prison job and that money because of all this.
Far too many had sad news to share, the death of an uncle, grandparent or mother.
A mix of women were at the service. There were youngsters who may not have known Angel but enjoyed being outside. Then there were old-timers, those who had known Angel for many decades and were grateful for a space to share their grief.
Many of the women had been touched by Angel’s “original gangster” wisdom. She’d been tremendously respected for her ability to lay out prison rules to the newbies. We talked about how she took the time to listen and how she had really turned it around. She conquered addiction, stopped acting out and eventually landed in an honor dorm, thriving and making it happen.
One of my friends, a lifer down for 33 years, stood in front of me and although she had on sunglasses and her COVID mask, I noted the hunch of her shoulders. She had known Angel for decades. I opened my arms and we just hugged. I could feel her sobbing.
At some point the associate warden came by with our grumpy facility sergeant by his side. I ignored the sergeant. Dude needs a haircut, I thought. Maybe that’s why he is perpetually in a bad mood. Who knows?
I led the associate warden on a short tour of the garden area, showing him the memorial poster and then Angel's hummingbird feeder. I gave some youngsters who had taken off their masks a hand sign to put them back on while I steered administrators away by showing them the tables where the women were filling out the sympathy cards.
Reflecting on that day brings a tired smile to my face. I had forgotten how exhausting doing an in-person event could be. But I would not have traded my sore muscles and fuzzy brain for anything else. That experience reminds me of the importance of having a space for people, for women in prison, to breathe into.
*According to Central California Women’s Facility Lieutenant Gene Norman, the prison does not have any ventilators.
Michele Scott is a writer who gardens passionately, and is involved in peer education, restorative justice, victim impact and spiritual groups at the Central California Women's Facility. In 2014 she co-created and facilitated the first Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) support group in the prison. Scott was incarcerated for murder but was commuted from a life-without-parole sentence in December 2018 and is currently working to get release on parole.