Women's voices from Solitary

The following essay comes from Sara Rodrigues, a prisoner at Albion Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison for women in New York State, close to the Canadian border. When Sara was sent to prison at the age of 16, she found her friend D there as well. Both Sara and D had life-long struggles with mental health, and while in prison, spent long periods of time in solitary confinement (both Keeplock, which is lockdown in one’s own cell, and SHU, which is the Special Housing Unit).

Sara writes about the difficulty D faced when she was finally released and put on parole, with no transitional assistance to move from prison to the free world. She ultimately ended up back in prison and committed suicide, shortly after giving birth to a baby girl. Sara Rodrigues wrote this piece in the hope of spreading awareness of her situation and the experience of many people around her. She writes, “Too many inmates in New York State under the age of 25 are killing themselves in prisons because they are literally being thrown away like garbage by the court systems.”

Republished from Solitary Watch

This essay is dedicated to D and all those who have given their minds and/or lives trying to pay their debt to society and to those who will forever be haunted and scarred from our justice system. Once self-worth and hope dies within our souls, what is left behind is a shell of life that can see no future, no redemption and no chance for a normal life. It is then that our minds realize how truly unwanted we are and how on a daily basis we are reminded that society has no use for us. Day by day life becomes very dark, some lose their minds, some will never be the same, and some just give in and take their own lives.

Many people who are sentenced to prisons are very young and have serious behavioral and mental health problems and this environment only makes their sickness worse. This is D’s story and how somehow out of the tragedy of her passing has made me resolve to open people’s eyes to the greater damage that happens to everyone by throwing the very young, mentally and emotionally ill into cages to rot under the pretense that more punishment, isolation, and deprivation will make people change for the better. This story has nothing to do with not doing your time, but doing your time in a healthy corrective facility, not the factories of misery that most of our prisons are today. D’s death had such an impact on me that she inspired me to keep fighting for my sanity, to try to never give up, and to get the word out whether people care to hear the truth or not.

In December 2008, I tripped and fell down the rabbit hole. Instead of “Alice in Wonderland,” I became Sara in Prisonland and I am still to do this day trying to wake up from my nightmare. I was 16 years old entering RCOD (reception) in a maximum-security prison, Bedford Hills. My sentence was eight, years flat and 5-post release supervision, I was scared and in definite culture shock, it was all so alien and overwhelming. Later I learned D was there, to me D was my cousin, my best friend, and a sister all rolled into one. We could talk about anything, she helped me so much to get used to this crazy way to survive my new life. We also argued a lot as young teenage girls often do, now in hindsight I regret ever getting angry and wish I had been a better friend.

Some months later, she was paroled and went home but it did not take long and here she was again. Being so young when she went into prison, the outside world was just too overwhelming for her. This and coupled with the fact that there are no transitional programs for people leaving prisons in the area we live in, which is Jefferson County, this leaves all parolees pretty much on their own. Get out of prison, go report to parole, go to Credo, (drug and alcohol counseling), go to mental health, get a job, pay your rent, don’t drive till we say you can, pay parole, pay credo, be home at curfew. You give up because it is all to stressful, can’t get a decent job because you are just out of prison and no one wants to hire you, zero job programs or training programs for parolees. One can’t even go to VESID (vocational training) until 6 months after you get out of prison and by then it is usually too late.

People need these services as soon as they come home and because of all this lack of support, every parolee is set up for failure. So she just gave in to all the temptation around her and started partying and having a good time, and even though her mother begged parole to try to live in a drug and alcohol program instead of sending her back to prison, they didn’t care and did what they do best. That is to not keep people out of prison but to make sure they end up back in. Do the math, almost zero services and supports for parolees in this country why is this and who lets this happen?

By this time she came back to Bedford Hills, she was pregnant. D’s time in the prison system was not easy, she was an outsider even in prison, she had a extensive disciplinary record which was making her mental health issues worse, and she had a long history of suicidal behavior, she had been hospitalized before incarceration and during. Making matters worse, she was always in Keeplock or SHU and this did nothing to help her problems. In coming back to prison, it was so much harder to deal with than the time before and at that point, I believe she thought nothing would ever change, she was in a cycle she could not get out of and I think she was just getting soul tired.

D was a fun girl who could have done great things in life. She had a good support system; she was creative, beautiful, funny, and smart. She could do hair and nails like a professional, no matter what her issues were she had many good attributes. Even though she did not have a lot, she would give you the shirt off her back if you needed it. This girl was not a nothing; she was a living, breathing, strong willed human despite all of her troubles. To many others and me she was a much better human than many who claim to be A-one citizens.

January 22, 2010 D gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby girl. She got to spend some time with her until arrangements were made for her mom and step dad to come pick the baby up. At this time D seemed to be doing better and holding her own, then within a few months she went on the draft to Albion Correctional Facility. This was the beginning of the end, she hated being at that prison, she was scared of that place because she was always in trouble and spent almost all of her time in shu. It was not long before she had deteriorated so bad she was sent to Marcy Psychiatric, she spent some time there and was shipped back to Bedford. Two days later on June 17th 2010, D was dead; she was found hanging in her cell while she was in keep lock because of three tickets she received while still at Albion. It was two weeks before her 23rd birthday.

Some thought she did it on accident because she didn’t want to go back to Albion and some thought she just had enough but it didn’t matter she was gone and me, I lost my mind, I was alone, grief stricken and sick. This was just too much for my mind to grasp. I became angry with her, God, and everyone around me. Every night I had horrible nightmares, I would wake up screaming and crying hoping this was just another nightmare, but it was real. Something went wrong, she should have never been sent back to Bedford Hills because she was just not stable enough. The fact that she was so desperate speaks volumes about how bleak she thought her situation was. Her family was devastated, as was my family; our worlds were in upheaval and pain.

In many ways, I can totally relate to the feeling of wanting to just give up. Since I came to Albion, I have spent most of my time in the box and I am so tired already. Having a medical condition, every time I go to the box my skin gets horrible, my skin cracks and bleeds, rick now I am so sick, I feel like death. After awhile I start talking to ants, crickets or any other living thing or imaginary thing I can think of so I do not totally lose what is left of my mind. My mother is convinced that they throw people like us in the box so much because they want us to go over the edge and kill ourselves. My mother documents everything that happens to me and she tries so hard to make people aware of what goes on. Right now, she is infuriated that I slipped up about a month ago and tried to hang myself and now I am back in the box for months. Mom says that we are not even allowed to treat animals that bad and keep them locked in cages for months, why is it ok to do it to humans. So yes, we do get tired and in a moment of disparity, I can see just ending it all. I keep telling myself to hang in it won’t last forever hopefully I will listen to my own words and stay strong.

Although she died in prison, I believe the brunt of responsibility for her death lies in the hands of the people who put her in there. Prisons are not equipped or have the time or training to be able to deal with people with mental and behavioral problems. They have been taught that if they just keep disciplining with tickets, Keeplock and SHU, eventually they will stop acting out. This is far from the truth and that is why I believe that everybody I know with mental health or behavioral issues that goes to Albion ends with way worse issues. They are strictly about punishment whether you are guilty of your tickets or not. To them you are just a trouble maker who must love being locked all the time. They aren’t educated to the bigger picture that people like D and myself have always had problems even as small children. If we understood why we are the way we are, and could be normal I know our lives would not have been hard. There are many good decent officers here at Albion, who are fair, try to understand and treat us with dignity and to all of them I say thank you and don’t ever stop having heart, but there are others who well, the only way I can explain how I feel towards them is to refer you to “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” the dementors, the CO’s of Azkaban prison who don’t have a good happy positive thought about anyone, they take all good feelings and thoughts away, drain them of life, and take pleasure in watching you fail.

The powers that be, who send people like D and myself to prison full well know that prisons are dangerous for people with mental, emotional, and behavioral problems and worse than that, send children into adult prisons just because they can. They don’t care to help them get the help they need, it is easier and cheaper to ship them to prisons. Too many inmates in New York State under the age of 25 are killing themselves in prisons because they are literally being thrown away like garbage by the court systems. We need good transitional programs and job training for those whose skills were not up to the training programs in prison and good decent parole officers who talk to people like humans, really support, and help parolees to keep from going back to prison. All these things if they were in place may have saved D’s life. D needed a decent long term residential treatment and rehab program, that was equipped to deal with her mental health issues, not to be thrown away into prison as if she was disposable.

Although D’s death was the most horrible time of my life, it was a learning experience and surprisingly she inspired me to try to be the best person I can be and I do try, and that is not an easy thing in here. I learned not to depend on anyone but God and myself. Since her death, I have realized how making fun of someone, teasing, embarrassing or humiliating someone does hurt. We sometimes do not realize how mean comments can hurt another. I have learned to try to never judge anyone because you never know the circumstances of what they have had to endure that may have made them become the way they are. A big thing I have learned is that with just a little common kindness, it may save a life, and just showing human concern and being there for someone makes a difference and may have a positive impact on them.

In writing this essay, I felt that maybe others that have been in similar situations could possibly relate and may reach out to help someone who needs to be lifted. In choosing this topic I felt the way to get the message to all inmates about the importance of sticking together and helping other inmates instead of being mean to each other. I hope this reaches at least a few hearts and helps them understand the impact we all have on each other’s lives. This situation is real and it happens all the time inside and outside of prison. Try to remember you are not alone and try to never give up on life no matter how bad you feel like enough is enough. D left behind a family hat loved her very much and misses her everyday. More than anything I learned life is so precious, we take each other for granted never understanding that one moment someone can be there and the next day they can be gone from our lives forever. This had to be part of my healing process too; I had to tell her story so she did not die in vain. It is so ironic that my most notable surprising experience was with another inmate who taught me more than she could have ever imagined. Unbelievably I feel her with me sometimes holding me up when I feel like I just cannot do it anymore. No matter how bad people make you feel about yourself, no matter what they call you or how bad they try to degrade you, remember you are not unworthy, that everyone has issues especially the ones who want you to fail because that is the only way they have to feel good about themselves.

In closing, maybe this essay may shake some of the authorities, maybe someone somewhere will have the courage to stand up and start changing the system for the better. If you want people to pay their debts to society, come out and be better people, you cannot keep beating a dead horse with more and more punishment and shame. As we are all aware, many know and see how counterproductive prison can be; now we just need for someone with some common sense who has the power to take action because most of us are really worth trying to save. Too many lives have been lost or tossed aside in the name of paying for your crime.