Reaching for normalcy

People in jail crave a lot of things: sex, drugs, their families. But in general they crave normalcy.

Take the food, for example. One woman explained how she transforms and redistributes breakfast to the new inmates who are still coming off drugs: “Nobody eats a plain hard-boiled egg — it’s disgusting. The girls will just throw them out.  But those girls that are detoxing need protein, and they don’t get up for breakfast. And I have some mayonnaise packets, right? So I collect the hard-boiled eggs they’re gonna throw out and I make egg salad and bring it to them.”

Birthdays are observed with “cookie cakes.” The inmates order cookies and kool-aid powder from the prison canteen. The cookies are pushed together into a rectangle, then covered with icing made from kool-aid slurry cooked in the microwave.

One of my clients told me that the birthday of his deceased mother was always hard for him.  The day after her birthday, I checked in with him and asked how the day had been.  He said one of the other guys had given him cookies from his canteen order to make her a cake.  I try not to cry in session, but I almost did there.

….

The men’s units feel like a workout room. There are men doing pullups from the stairs, men coaching each other on pushups.  The correctional officers are often into body-building as well, and I sometimes hear them swapping advice on protein shakes with the inmates.

The female units have a more domestic aura. When you walk into a  men’s unit you smell body odor, but when you walk into a women’s unit you smell laundry detergent and the burnt-dust scent of a hair dryer.

The women spend endless hours doing each other’s hair. I suspect it serves several purposes – to pass the time, to show affection, to form alliances, and to create debts that must be returned.  One of my clients came into the office with her hair half-done in lopsided, amateur cornrows. She looked at me apologetically. “I figure I have to leave it in for at least two days. I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

….

Normally the only animals in jail are the drug-search dogs and the mice in the walls.  But at some point a pair of pigeons somehow got into one of the large units. It was a little surreal, in that skyless cinderblock world, to see birds gliding overhead.  Apparently the guys like having them. Some weeks later I asked an inmate, “Are those pigeons still there?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said, “They’ll never leave. We’re feeding them too well.”

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