Home again, whatever that means exactly. Moving for most people is terrible because it involves putting a bunch of small things into larger boxes, carefully wrapping delicate items—heirlooms, art, instruments, televisions, anything which is not really designed to be packed into a van or truck or other vehicle and moved any distance. It also can mean uprooting oneself, which obviously cuts both ways: no more favorite diner down the street, no more garden in the back, no window which catches the light in the morning just so, no paint on the walls which has been redone to suit moods or fancy, no immediate physical access to friends, family, and work left behind, all to be exchanged for comparable or better versions.
Our LeLe’s move shares variations on many of these characteristics. She moves from maximum to medium-minimum security, from 2000 fellow inmates to 500, from a facility housing people who will live out their natural lives within to those who will be there nine years or fewer. She leaves behind an ex-partner to become “fresh meat” at a new facility. She sacrifices friendships and a place where anything might be obtained to one where inmates are far more cautious and the state’s control is more ironclad. She cannot bring her paints, for which her nails have (temporarily) suffered, but the kitchen has a fryer and not everything is made of soy, by dint of which her skin has immediately cleared. She exchanges the promise of contract work to reduce her sentence, the possibility of working with animals or cosmetics for a kitchen job which pays next to nothing (from 15 to 20 to 30 dollars a month as she moves up the ranks, rapidly), and layoffs in prison labor which do not allow her sacrifice herself to menial labor to move towards swifter release. It’s a new place and there’s not much going on. We sometimes think of our jobs, our relationships, our apartments, the very contours of our lives as prisons, and it sometimes feels as if we move from one to the next. Alisha Walker’s situation has in some ways actually gotten worse with this move, and I can tell, and it tears at me, which in turn makes me feel dumb, because it tearing at me does nothing for her.
It is hard not to imagine what it was like for her arriving as we do, pulling through a proper town and into a different sort of stone and barbed wire hell. There is a funny little hut with some tables at the entrance and I momentarily lose track of where I am, thinking: “this would be a nice spot for Alisha to sit with her family.” The presence of the eerily immobile guard standing beneath a strangely folksy, wooden sign proclaiming “Staff Only” quickly dispels that notion. These are places of utmost control and power over, and any person who leaves them not wanting to smash, kill, and destroy after serving their time is either an incredible model of restraint from whom we all could learn that lesson at least, or else has had their spirit so utterly broken that it must take many soul-searching hours to find themselves anew outside. This being our first visit, we brace for different regulations and novel layers of arbitrary command to fight through to gain entry. We are not disappointed in this expectation. Our first time through the double glass doors finds paperwork and, interestingly, more people of color behind one desk than we saw at the entire facility at Logan. We are informed that one of our membership’s attire will bar her from entering, despite it being identical to what she wore on our last visit, and so I run back to the car to find something else she might wear, to no avail. After a trip to Target to buy something less revealing than thick black tights and a hooded sweatshirt (the dead cops t-shirt is fine, mind you), we make our second attempt, now being told that we need a second form of ID each, which I dutifully return to the car again and procure. The third try reveals that the hooded sweatshirt cannot be worn in, nor can my cardigan. When we finally make it through the metal detector, we’re left to peruse the scenery outside the gendered shakedown rooms, then left again to our own devices until we realize we can walk into the visitation room on our own accord. The distance from the visitor’s entrance to the building to the door behind which we’ll spend the day with our friend is perhaps thirty feet, entirely indoors. This is emblematic of an entirely different, arguably even more nefarious affect of the Decatur facility.
The entry desk is opposite a giant set of plaques devoted to employees of the month and retirees, each of which is clearly hand-carved, burned, and painted as if we were in a backwoods hunting lodge such as one might find just a few miles away from town. There is one calligraphed sign for “Warden,” one for “Guard on Duty,” and a variety of smaller ones for the time clock and a key rack. There is a hand-etched lithograph commemorating a mother and children reunification program, to help reintegrate ex-offenders, which is distastefully hung next to a prison-staff lotto game of some variety where officers can put in their names for a monthly drawing for cash prizes. I’m uncertain which is the more disingenuous of the two. The guards interact with us in a generally saccharine tone (“It’s always more complicated the first time, sorry.”), wholly opposite the gruff, put-upon affect of the previous set. I detest them and their complicity in this system, and I do not want to muse on this being a better work environment than the previous facility, that they get on better with each other and perhaps even the inmates, I want them to feel the full gravity of the despicable institution in which they are cogs, and I want them in turn to be as miserable as possible as they help make this needless societal scourge for the women inside.
But this is not the place for any more of this particular screed. I am privileged to see and hug and laugh with and hold and update a friend who has gotten closer and closer, and I want to know she is as all right as is humanly possible in a place designed to rob her of her humanity at every turn.
We know each other a bit better now. Alisha knows which one of our troupe she’ll have wild parties with and learn about the tough edge of the anti-fascist struggle when she gets out, which one will take her to tiki bars and teach her about the subject position of being a queer femme and all its responsibilities and travails, and which one will laugh too hard in spite of himself at all her jokes and make sure she’s well-fed when she needs home cooking with her Chicago family (I’m the last one, if you were wondering). LeLe is her usual combination of vivacious hilarity and genuine interest in what we are up to on the outside. As has been the case throughout, some of our mail has gotten through (all her birthday cards) and some, infuriatingly and arbitrarily, has not (two of our members’ last letters), so there is some general updating to be done on our end. But we are, as anyone would be, curious about our friend’s move, and it is safe to say Alisha is at least a little wistful for the, shall we say, woolier world of Logan, a place better suited to her bawdy, mischievous, and social personality. In short: our girl is bored. But I am reminded more acutely in this visit also: our girl is easily but deeply funny. She tells us about the first set of clothes she got at the new facility, the crotch and thighs stained (“somebody had like a toxic vagina or something! Just burning through!”), and how she soon found that there was no fashion scene to keep up with here. We comment on how clean the clothes she has now look, and how she has clearly lost back some weight from the—marginally—better food and find that she’s wearing her “special occasion” polo, pristine and white, and her pair of shoes from Logan that “nobody else got.” At the old facility, she’d be altering clothes and getting the new garb whenever it came in or else risk ridicule, which would result in mouthing off, which consequently would result in something worse. We comment this sounds like high school all over again, and Alisha’s eyebrows go up as she busts up laughing: “It’s worse than high school! They’re criminals! You get your ass beat!” She tells us about the sort of pranks unique to a place where people are already on edge but used to certain routines which mark out the time. There is the regular practice of lining up to receive prescription medication, which LeLe naturally thought was worth crying wolf at, at least once: “MEDLINE!” The effected inmates, of which there were many, all piled out of their cells to line up for drugs, furious at the false alarm. When one of the older inmates got especially angry, Alisha responded with the natural question of the nonplussed prankster: “You mad? Are you big mad or little mad?” knowing full well this would be the end of the incident. In this “minimum security” place, loaded with contradictions, the restrictions regarding fighting and sexual relationships are vastly harsher than the previous: either will get you cited and likely put in solitary confinement, in the hole.
We ask her a few questions on behalf of a reporter friend who is doing a profile on Alisha, one of which we already have a sense of the sad answer to, but ask anyway and receive a classic LeLe answer.
“How are you passing the time at Decatur?”
(slight pause) “Dyking out!”
She goes on to explain that she is “talking to” three people, but there are ten more interested. We get into a discussion about how “everyone is gay” on the inside, because there’s nothing else to be. As mentioned before, she has been separated from the partnership she had begun to build at Logan, which we assume would be difficult, but as it turns out, not for the reasons we guessed. Suffice it to say, Alisha had her heart broken while she was still at the last facility, subjected to the same sort of amplified betrayals that anyone who offers up herself to another, who feels she has forged a connection through the harshest of obstacles, who takes a calculated risk knowing separation is immanent, would find themselves susceptible. The classic coping mechanism of “needing to spend some time alone” is drawn into brutalist relief in a place like this where one is at once in a uniquely profound solitude and at the same time never more than ten feet from another person or fifty. Alisha proclaims she is “manic depressive,” a diagnosis about which we are all concerned and interested in how it is made and treated in this environment. It turns out that a formal diagnosis has never been made, and Alisha explains how there is no intermediate state for her, she is either hyperactive and excited, sociable to the point where she kids with the guards in the dining hall and pushes buttons just to get some kind of reaction from the subdued and tamped-down inmates, or else utterly depressed. Not just sad about her lost girlfriend, the absent opportunities which were available to her at Logan, her missing family and friends, the wrongful nature of the system which reminds her daily it would have simpler if she had just died that night, but a purer, simpler low, resultant from the basic realities of being a giant spirit and personality cordoned off and hidden away from the society she would choose and which would, I am certain, choose her.
The time is more real now, she says it and I can see it, because this will be the final destination before release. She bargains with us for all the things she would give up to be able to step outside, or do anything positive for herself at all, and then we hit the crux of the matter. Alisha tells us she is not used to—and at this point, there’s no reason to think she’ll ever get used to, which is fine—having to ask for everything, and being powerless to help those she cares about. Among the myriad motivations for doing sex work, the at least potential command over one’s income, how often and what sort of work one wants to do, was clearly foremost for our girl. Her mother, brother, sister, and new nephew need her, not simply financially or even emotionally but—and I do not use this term lightly—spiritually. Anyone who meets Alisha and finds favor with her would comprehend this sort of need; she is magnanimous not because she is a saint but because it is clear that when she cares it is wholesale and not easily vacated. She will never become accustomed to be so dependent on, having to ask for things from, her mother, having to be shaken down to use the bathroom, finding nearly every step, of which there are only so many which can be taken anyway, requiring official and explicit sanction.
It does no real good for me to soften the situation in these reflections: our dauntless survivor is hurting, each next forced renegotiation of her dignity and creative power taxing the underground wellspring of strength from which she draws. The tiny gold cross she wears around her neck borders on satire; this is no cloister for the likes of Alisha Walker, and there’s no spiritual quest or fulfillment concealed within. Just the full, indifferent weight of the state’s corporal fetish borne down on a young woman full to bursting with creative potency. I, insignificant and impotent in the face of such forces, have two options, with only the first being at all viable. Either LeLe will emerge from this place, sooner than later, intact and excited to make good on all the plans we make every next visit, or I do not want to go on existing in the world which not just allows but applauds her forced sacrifice.
Alisha is disappointed that one of our members does not eat red meat, having raised cows in her youth and, accepting this reality, turns to me in mock-frustration:
“Aaron, please tell me you eat steak.”
I do, LeLe, I do, and I don’t know if it’s going to taste right again until you’re on the opposite side of the table from me for the first time.