Read Prison Nation Online

Authors: Jenni Merritt

Prison Nation (3 page)

My feet finally stopped. I could see the open doorway out of the corner of my eye, the light of the walkway disappearing into the dimly lit cell within. I let my eyes trail up, locking them onto the number “942” that was painted above the cell door. Without another pause, I ducked inside.
Even though the cell door sat open during the day, allowing any one passing to easily look in, I always felt safe inside. I had been raised in this cell since the day my mother bore me into this condemned life. I knew every inch of it.
The same dull gray walls rose on all four sides, the only change in them being the open cell door on one end and the window on the other. During the day, a haze of sunlight would illuminate the thick plastic window, giving us our only sign it was no longer night. Daytime it glowed, nighttime it was dead black. If we wanted to actually see outside, we had to dare the exercise yard. Something that I rarely did. The yard was run by gangs and sweaty men, and always patrolled by heavily armored officers. It was better to avoid it.
The cell was just large enough for the bunk bed that was screwed against one wall, and the toilet and sink under the window. A small bookshelf that held our dismal stack of folded clothing and worn books was the only other furniture in the room.
This was home.
My mother sat quietly on the bottom bunk. She had cuffed up her jeans to her knees, her pale legs tucked up underneath her. Her white shirt was dirty from the lack of washing, creased and stained in spots as it draped across her thin frame. My eyes trailed down, landing on her shoes that had been kicked carelessly to the ground.

Mom, you have to line them up,” I said with a sigh.
My mother didn’t respond. I sighed once more, then bent down and picked up her shoes. I tucked her dirty socks inside, then carefully lined the shoes along the bottom of the bunk. A stale scent of sweat wafted up from the socks. Sniffing, I realized the entire room smelled like dirty socks. The rumpled stack of clothes on the shelf behind me only added to the moldy reek. I noted in my head that I would need to do laundry duty. Again.

Mom, if the guard comes in and sees your shoes like that, they will put you in solitary again.” I looked up at her, my hands still resting on her old shoes.
She didn’t return my glance. Her eyes were dancing around, loftily taking in the room around her. “They’re just shoes, Mills.”

It’s a tripping hazard. And against the rules. If something happened and we tripped and got hurt, they would have to hospitalize us. And that will cost us. Remember?”

If, if, if. The rules are too strict here.”

It doesn’t matter, Mom. They are the rules. The Prison’s rules. Always have been. They will throw you in the Hole if you break the rules, just like last time. I don’t want them to…” I rubbed my hand down my face. Standing up, I let a slow breath escape through my lips. “Please, just line your shoes up. Okay?”
My head still felt the remains of the fog. The fear of my mother disappearing again into the Hole threatened to bring the fog back in full force. She always came back worse. Blinking angrily, I turned away from her and walked toward the sink.
My mother finally looked up and met my eyes. Her brown eyes glittered. “Okay Mills. Okay.” A smile spread on her face. “So, where have you been?”
I cranked on the faucet. Luke warm water drizzled out. Letting it run over my hands, I closed my eyes a moment in exasperation. “My bi-weekly meeting with Dr. Eriks, Mom.” I splashed some water on my face, running my wet fingers back through my short hair.
A sheet of metal hung over the sink. It barely reflected anything, showing just enough to let you see a dented, dim reflection of your face. I had heard that they once had real mirrors in the cells. That was, until too many inmates smashed in the shiny glass to use as weapons. Against others. Or against themselves. After too many ‘incidences,’ the mirrors had been taken out. They were permanently replaced with the barely reflective sheets of metal that hung firmly mounted and screwed to the gray wall. I barely knew what I looked like.
Squinting my eyes, I tried to see the face that stared back at me. In the dim evening light of the cell I could barely make out my short, pale brown hair. It hung close to my chin. I ran my fingers through it again, hating the fact of how quickly they came to the cropped ends. Pursing my lips, I could feel the tight lines spray out across my face. I ran a finger along them, feeling their dips and rises crinkle along my lips. They were nothing compared to Dr. Eriks’.

You are beautiful, Millie.”
Startled out of my mindless staring contest with myself, I turned back to my mother. She still sat on the bed, legs crossed, hands resting on knees. A smile spread on her face as she watched me. Unlike Dr. Eriks’ smile, my mother’s smile always warmed me. Every time she smiled it was as if she had some secret brimming on her lips, wanting to explode out and be shared with the world.

My pretty, pretty baby.”

Mom, I am turning eighteen in a week. I am far from a baby now.”

Oh Millie-Millie, you are my pretty baby.” My mother held out her arms, her fingers wiggling as she begged for me to come closer. I could hear her muttering ‘pretty baby’ over and over softly to herself.
The warm feeling that had just a moment ago flowed over me at the sight of her smile went suddenly cold.
She was lapsing again. My mother’s psychiatrist had declared her as ‘unstable.’ She would be completely lucid one moment, then would suddenly disappear into some distant world of her own the next. I had been told that if we lived out in the Nation, I would have been taken from her long ago, but because we were in Spokane I was ‘allowed’ to stay in her ‘care.’
Most times the lapses seemed to consist of me being a baby again. I used to love these moments, relishing in the deep hugs she would wrap around me. I could never seem to get enough. Until one day I realized the truth. That when these moments happened, she didn’t seem to know it was me. She would call me by my name and talk to me, but her eyes were always glazed over by some hidden ghost. I didn’t exist. Since then, I never let her hug me when she was ‘gone.’
I watched her a moment. Her smile was contagious on her face. It must have been beautiful once. Under the wrinkles of prison-ran life and the dirt smudges that never seemed to wash off, she held a beauty that refused to disappear.
The strange glaze that now covered her eyes tried hard to chase the beauty away. It brought to light the stray hairs that stood on end, the greasy blonde twists that hung in clumps on her shoulders. I saw the shadows under her eyes. The deep gulps she took as she gasped in frenzied breaths and wiggled her fingers, begging to hold her baby.
Without a word, I darted out of the cell.
Choking back a sob, I leaned against the thin slice of wall that separated our door from our neighbor’s. I let the weight of my body pull me down until I slid onto the floor. My hands shook as I ran them through my hair, still damp with the water I had just splashed onto my face. After eighteen years of living in the same cell with the same woman, I should have been used to those moments. But I hated them. I hated how I had to be the adult in this crazy, locked up world.
Lifting my chin I looked around. My father. He hadn’t been in the cell.
Typically a silent shadow that followed my mother around wherever she went, I rarely even noticed him. He would mumble to me sometimes, asking how my day was and if I had any plans for tomorrow. I tried to answer and start a conversation, but it always failed and left us sitting in silence. What is there to talk about, when every day is the same?
To me, my father was only one thing: a silent reflection of my mother. I wanted to feel a connection to him, but it was impossible to feel connected to someone who barely seemed connected to life.
Looking down the walkway, I strained my eyes to see if I could spot his familiar stooped figure. A few other inmates leaned against the railing or sat on the ground outside their cell. I saw one man reading a tattered book, another man carelessly bouncing a ball over and over again on the ground. A girl walked past me, carrying a handful of papers. As she passed a pencil rolled off the stack and fell with a clatter to the ground.
It rolled and bumped into my foot. I reached out and picked it up, my fingers wrapping around its thin wooden surface. Before I even thought about it, I lifted my eyes to the girl and held the pencil out.

Th-Thanks,” she stuttered.
Squinting my eyes, I looked harder at her. She looked like she was just a year or two younger than me. I knew this girl. Fighting against the persistent fog in my mind, I tried to place her face and stutter. It slowly came to me. She had sat next to me in my classes, before I had opted out into independent study. She had always been mumbling to herself, her stutter causing her to slightly twitch when it got too intense. Her name was… I couldn’t remember it.

942B?” she asked.

Uh, yeah. How are you?” The words felt thick in my mouth, obviously forced.

G-Good.” She forced a smile, one side of her mouth drooping slightly under a healing bruise. “H-How about you?”
I nodded, pulling my eyes away from the bruise. “Doing alright.”

Sh-shouldn’t you have b-been let out b-b-by now?” the fellow Jail Baby asked.

Next week. I turn eighteen next week.”

Oh. Well. G-Good luck th-then. I hope t-t-to never see you again.”
I let a tiny smile spread on my face as I watched her shuffle away down the walk, her shoulder slightly twitching as she mumbled to herself. Her parting words weren’t meant to be harsh. Everyone in Spokane hoped to never see each other again. It wasn’t a hostile wish. It was the wish that you might never again be locked up inside these walls.
I banged my head softly against the wall, trying hard to remember the girl’s name, but it never came to me. I could only remember the bruise on her drooping lip and the twitch of her thin shoulder.
My back started to ache. I must have been sitting for at least an hour. Losing track of time was too easy in a place where every day, every minute, everything was the same. Standing up, I rubbed my back, stretching my other arm up over my head.
The groan that escaped my lips came to a quick halt as I heard something echo down the walk. Footsteps. Heavy footsteps. They weren’t the usual padding of worn out sneakers. These echoes were sharp, precise. Timed.
They were the echo of boots.


ushing my back against the wall, I looked up to see two guards making their way slowly down the walk. They glanced into each cell as they passed, occasionally pausing a moment longer to stare inside before moving on.
I silently thanked myself that I had lined up my mother’s shoes. Glancing inside, I saw she had fallen asleep on the bed, one hand hanging over the edge, her fingers occasionally twitching as she dreamed. I let myself relax a bit, my back leaning once more against the cool wall.
I had known the older of the two guards for most of my life. Saying that I knew him might have been an overstatement. He had patrolled this walk for as long as I could remember, yet I could never remember his name. Still, just the fact that I easily recognized his casual walk and drawling voice made me feel as if I did know him, in some small, pathetic way. His eyes were always hooded, a yawn always trying to break through on his chubby face. He was never angry or rough like the other guards. He just seemed… indifferent.
My eyes trailed to the second guard. He was new. Tall and lean, his muscular arms and shoulders were evident through his armored uniform. His short cropped hair shone in sandy blonde waves. I could smell his hair gel and the hint of cologne from where I stood. He looked as if he were made for the prison guard uniform. As the old guard waddled along, glancing inside each cell as he passed, the new one walked beside him, looking down the walkway instead.
Looking at me.
His blue eyes locked onto me, watching. As a slow grin spread on his chiseled face, I felt a lump form in my throat. It was never good when a guard noticed you. Noticing you meant that they had something on you. And having something was never good.
My mind reeled, retracing all of my steps. Appointments, exercise yard, laundry, schoolwork. I had done nothing out of the ordinary. I could feel the guard’s locked gaze out of the corner of his eyes. Even though he glanced away to take in the rest of the walk, the guard watched me.

Hello 942B,” the chubby guard muttered.
He squeezed past me to lean into my family’s cell. I watched as he stared a moment at my sleeping mother, then as his eyes swept down to scan the ground. They paused on the shoes a moment before I heard him let out his usual grunt of approval. He backed out of the cell, rubbing his eyes with his chubby hand.
The new guard gazed into my cell, occasionally letting his eyes flick back to look at me. I shifted my weight to my other foot, glancing at the new guard whenever he looked away.

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