As we pull past the last of the cornfields, and the complex of chicken wire, squat brick buildings, and tinted-windowed towers emerges from the green, I am struck, in spite of myself, by thinking of definitions of two terms which are thrown about nearly indiscriminately in the modern vernacular: courage and heroism. Each of these is, at this point, at best relative to one’s own threshold for discomfort or lack of imagination. Everyone with a state-sanctioned weapon, anyone physically stronger than we are, each person who has overcome hardship in the public eye becomes a hero, is endowed with a reserve of courage which is difficult to comprehend lest we walk a mile in their shoes. The terms are each watered down to the point where they are borderline nonsensical, and each leaves a sour residue as I consider what for me would constitute a hero, what courage would look like in person. I am uncertain I have known either firsthand, truly.
I think of these things because I am afraid.
As we park in the gravel lot, I am afraid not of the cars parked in spots labeled “Officer of the Year” and “Assistant Warden,” but the people inside, purportedly made of the same stuff as me, blood and guts and bone and hope and fear, whose job it is to render 2000 other people as close to animals as their own tiny imaginations allow. As we try to follow the confusing, redundant, and self-contradictory signage to enter the place, I am afraid that the arbitrary rules and regulations of such a place will bar us from entry, that these are not visiting hours, that there is a lockdown, that today our friend is in segregation and cannot receive us. The wan light from the stultifying sun and dim fluorescents above only serve to reinforce the crushing banality of the place, at once clinical and filthy, in every sense of both words. The gatekeeper asks for information we do not have and then produces it herself, and each moment I feel as if I am being tested, which is not something of which I am afraid. The only way in which this dim and gradually destructive place, this blight upon the middle of the state in which I have spent the majority of my life, can harm me is to prohibit me from bringing whatever I can from outside its walls and within myself to a person who has been trapped for months on months. As we venture into the next house, I cannot shake images of work and concentration camps with each of their successive small offices and great dormitories, middle-managers clinging to a modicum of power and authority which, were the playing field leveled for even sixty seconds, would result in swift and unmitigated reprisal. Justice, or something like that. “Sit down when you hear shots fired” reads one sign, “Inmates approaching flying vehicles will be shot,” another. We are inventoried, frisked, and shunted off to the next waiting room, with fellow travelers, for whom I am afraid as well, afraid of the news they might bring their loved ones, or what it would be like to reach across the table and touch the arm of a mother or sister or granddaughter, perhaps for the first time in weeks, perhaps for the first and last time for months. As we traverse the final few yards, via a grotesquely well-manicured garden, to the last building, our actual destination, I am afraid I am not enough, that I should not be here and am out of place, that a person who deserves real solace will see through me and that something like pity or shame will emerge no matter how hard I attempt to stifle them.
And the room itself, the visitation room, is certainly enough to solicit those unwanted, unnecessary, useless emotions of pity and shame. I am sorry that the food in these vending machines is so vastly superior to that in the prison dining hall. I am ashamed that the snot-green linoleum floor is covered in water from a prehistoric air conditioning unit which in its best repair would not cool a space one-fifth the size of this one. I pity—in fact, I am chilled by—the small corner with overused and dirty toys for children and young family members of inmates, and I am ashamed at the brutality of the guards at the exits, the broken tables at which we sit and wait, and the heat, always the heat, which is damn near intolerable here, where the visitors come, and likely only alludes to what the women in sickeningly pristine white polo shirts and blue cotton pants surrounding us must contend with in their cells. We are sweating instantly as we pull off our button-ups to reveal our sloganeering t-shirts and I am one last time afraid that I am caricature of bleeding-heart, paternalistic concern for a young woman I am meeting for the first time, any minute now, I hope.
But then again—I am here, and I am not alone. I have at my side three absolute pillars of feminine strength and certitude, women who inspire me not out of what they have done, but who they are: equal parts ferocious and caring; angry (Brit will tell me she is perhaps a bit sad or scared, but mostly angry) and indignant; and, most importantly, demonstrably willing to lay out and give of what little material and nearly boundless emotional stores from which they draw. If they are anxious, nervous, concerned, cautious, then I certainly have every right to be as well.
Alisha is utterly striking; I think the facsimile on my t-shirt averts its eyes when the genuine article strides through the door. She is tall, with a tiny gold cross dangling over the top button of her over-bleached, spotless, unbranded polo, and, somewhat surprisingly, made-up: eyes, nails, brows. It at first seems a petty thought: this young woman embracing each of us in turn at once calls out the utter indignity of the place by prevailing in her cosmetics, such as they are, and immediately outshines the wholesale dreariness of everything around her. She is not of this manufactured, martial world, nor does she seem all that daunted by it. There is no reason to put on a brave face for us: we are perhaps her advocates on the outside, back in the city, but we are not family, nor incompetent lawyer, nor racist, classist judge, nor vulturous media seeking an angle, nor parole board. Alisha Walker could be anyone she wants to be in front of these four veritable strangers and is, as best I can tell, herself only. She is immediately affable, neither obsequious nor standoffish, either of which, alongside a spectrum of other affects, would be entirely understandable. I think it safe to include the others when I say that our worst traumas, scarring and brutal as they may be, do not announce themselves every morning when we open our eyes, peer out a window, and scratch off another of the hundreds of alike days to follow when we rest our heads in the same small space from the cycle began hours earlier. She seems entirely pleased to see us, to answer our questions, to ask about ourselves, to make friends in the space of a few fleeting hours together. I look at the women I love and respect at my sides. One weeps and smiles in equal measure, another seethes with rage and consideration, the third, perhaps most important of all, fills in empty spaces with her easy conversation and ability to persevere through emotionally-charged moments and extreme heat with her distinctive and immediately attractive voice. Equally vitally, Alisha, our junior by three to ten years, clearly wants us to be at ease. What does she say?
She tells us about the state budget holding up her access to education inside, as well as ability to move to a more desirable unit. The general lack of programs available is directly tied to the legislature’s continued deadlock, which shows no immediate sign of loosening (I run through statistics concerning recidivism and institutionalized poverty linked to the lack of job training and education for inmates. I grip the table and draw a deep breath of humid, stifling air: this woman, who has been punished on so many levels it becomes difficult to count, reveals only mild frustration at this latest indignity. I want to grab the guard’s service weapon, drive to nearby Springfield, and convince our good Speaker and Governor to enjoy a Sierra Mist while they listen to Miss Walker’s calm, reasonable concerns. I hope they’ll be allowed to bring in paper and pen rather than dictate from memory, as I am now forced to.). In a mirror of the stunning success of No Child Left Behind, one apparently most benefits from Illinois Prison education by failing the GED, which Alisha unfortunately did not (I grip a little tighter). She tells us about the superiority of these facilities to those of County, and that she was forced to choose between the more socially integrated dormitory style living (“a non-stop party” she jokes), and the comfort of her own space. It is clear that Alisha is unwilling to sacrifice basic humanity while inside, cleaning her own toilet facilities daily, trading for the makeup she currently wears, including prison-manufactured nail polish. Though there is a prohibition on anything dyed, she details her amateur seamstress work in making bed sheet dresses of various cuts and styles. She details some of her favorite recipes, including one that sounds like a homemade cake roll (essentially prison ptitsa), and my eyes go wide as Alisha describes a complex sous-vide process to tenderize the proteins the State bestows onto them. We talk about television a bit, and it is heartening to hear about her degree of investment in her favorite weekly program, how she and her friends talk as if the characters were real, narrating and recapping the action during and after each episode. She talks about a crazed, overly-possessive previous roommate who finally snapped and assaulted Alisha, who had to kick her across the room and appeal to every guard and officer until she finally received a transfer. Her current mate waves from a few tables down with bright, indefatigable eyes and a smile which spells genuine happiness that Alisha has visitors (Alisha tells us “She says: ‘I’ll be out when I’m 70. That’s not too old to party!’.” Her cellmate is currently 25). The infamous system of prison wives and pets is as real here as anywhere, though it seems Alisha has navigated a protected space for herself in her current block and employ. She tells us of a trans woman who was found out after months of detention in a men’s prison to have had full transition surgery, which moved her across the way to the women’s prison. Alisha laughs as she relates how much this person enjoyed the ruse, or mistake, depending on one’s perspective (“She’s a whore!” A sex worker, on the outside? “No, like: she’s just a whore! She had a real good time!“). Alisha works in the kitchen, where she is paid $19.20…per month. She likes the work fine, but wishes she could enter the cosmetology program (13 women get in; 1900 are housed here), or really any sort of secondary education.
This is all chatter—still rather amazing in retrospect due to the conditions and environment—very matter-of-fact without being strident or in any detectable manner complaining. We are careful not to over-stress anything happening in the outside world, being uncertain the extent to which such talk is desired or in any way spiteful. But we do not have much time, a grand irony in a place which is designed to crush its inhabitants under the brute, dull weight of ponderous time. I want to know what Alisha wants, what she misses, not just so we can help her—the best we can do is make others aware and move in any way to hasten her release—but because I know the comfort of unburdening myself in confidence that my needs will not be misrepresented and no motives ulterior hamper the listener’s ability to simply listen. The sole material absence to which Miss Walker admits? High heels. There is no prison approximation of this totemic footwear, which clearly bestows a combination of sex, power, class, habit, and home unto our friend. Of all the disgusting, reductionist, bile to which Alisha has been subject, something about her very offhand anecdote about being forbidden from wearing heels to her trial because it would render her too tall, too imposing, too ‘hood, and too much a reminder of her profession, makes the blood behind my eyes boil and my teeth clench until my jaw cracks. It is this unique detail of inhumanity which puts in sharper relief all of Alisha’s nonmaterial concerns, which coalesce around two figures: family and activism. Of the former, she tells about her mother’s chattiness and righteous anger; all the idiosyncrasies which either slightly annoyed or she did not understand on the outside are cherished during their phone conversations inside. She worries about little sister, threatening to “break out and take the seven years” if the latter’s man does not do right by her. She speaks with equal parts pride and maternal care about little brother, her hope for the family, the precocious and preternaturally bright boy who will redeem any of her ills, make any trials suffered thus far or in the future worthwhile. Of the latter, she says all she wants to do when she gets out is, referring to the ladies’ political activist activities, “what you guys do. I want to tell my story to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.” I admit again: I am smitten by the strength and force of will of my partners in this journey, so it does not surprise me when someone else is too.
Alisha Walker will be a powerful activist of her own stripe: she is direct, hyperaware and “woke” without any hint of bitterness, and genuine in her solidarity with others in her profession, or of her sex, or simply likeminded and appreciative of the dangers of a society which thrives on criminalizing and subjugating many, and attempts the destruction of those who check many of the boxes which landed her in this place: young, woman, person of color, lower class, sex worker, unwilling to be anyone’s martyr or, more likely and far worse, anyone’s sad statistic.
It is almost impossible to believe she has been in this place or others like it for a few years. She is totally seasoned, understands her surroundings and the unique ecology of mass incarceration, and yet is outwardly unaffected. She is gracious and caring, transitions easily between tough and sweet, seems to think nothing of the differences in our backgrounds, recognizes only the commonalities and what we share. Alisha Walker did not seek to be any sort of hero, she makes that perfectly clear to the point where claiming any such status would be silly and almost insulting. I am not convinced she would claim courage as her motivation; in many ways, her life outside the capitalist system through which she watched (and watches) her family battle was more courageous than the tragedy which robbed her of the middle part of her twenties (and hopefully not much more). Make no mistake, though: there is no cause for regret in the act itself, and you’ll find no false remorse here. Our friend was faced with death and survived, I am in awe of her will to live and her desire to do more than resume “regular” life upon emancipation, but to transcend her circumstances and, for lack of a better term, educate.
When I leave this place, I am shaken, and I feel for my compatriots, who surely must imagine themselves in the soon-to-be-again high heels of our friend. Whatever lengths we go to free this woman are insufficient until the deed is done. Alisha wrote me in thanks of our support for her in “this stressful time.” If it is not courage which locks eyes with the malevolence of the prison industrial complex and labels it nothing more than “stressful,” then I am sure I do not know what courage is.
If you want to support Alisha (commissary, visits, legal needs) & help us and her family continue to visit please contribute here: https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/alisha-walker-survived-and-punished–2