Orange is the New Black, the t.v. show, didn’t present this: incarcerated Native American women. Lakota, Dakota, Omaha, Menominee, Cherokee, Mohawk, to name a few. In prison. In Connecticut. Far from their reservations. Far from families. Children left behind. Victims of alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, violence, poverty and a hopelessness that is pervasive.
I sat with them. I heard their stories. This is not an apology piece. They have committed crimes, made bad decisions, hurt others and left a trail of innocent victims behind. This is a window into my experience as a volunteer behind the bars of a United States Federal Prison, from 1992-2004.
I came to the experience as a white middle-aged woman with short dark hair, hazel eyes and a mixed Irish and French heritage. In my mid-forties, my life was centered on athletics and teaching at an inner city high school. In my late thirties, life’s synchronicity brought me two Native American teachers. Each medicine person, over several years, gave me teachings in his and her spiritual traditions. I became a pipe carrier and worked with the sacred sweat lodge. At home, I led a small group of like-minded people in a monthly spiritual circle.
One day I received a letter from an inmate at Danbury F.C.I. The “from” label, Federal Corrections Institute, took me by surprise. It almost sounded like a fancy college. Not. Even. Close! It is an imposing brick structure, surrounded by a tall fence topped with razor wire, housing women convicted of felony crimes and controlled/managed by armed guards.
The inmate complained that there was no one to lead their ceremonies. She asked me to help. With trepidation, I contacted the chaplain at F.C.I. to discuss the possibility of my volunteering as part of the Religious Services program. Sr. Margaret, a petite nun in her sixties, her habit shed for a black skirt and white blouse, was, in fact, eager to fill a gap in the spiritual programs she administrated. The traditional Christian inmates were well served. The Jewish and Muslim women were, likewise, well served. The Native Americans had no-one and were raising a fuss.
I jumped through all the volunteer training hoops and made my first visit to the prison. Holding no illusions. I questioned, in my mind, whether the women would accept me, a non-Native. To break the ice, I convinced Sr. Margaret to let me bring in a pipe, so I could lead a prayer ceremony. Four Lakota women, plus the woman who wrote to me, sat quietly talking as I entered the room in the chapel area. I explained who my teachers were and offered ways I could advocate for their circle. We prayed with the pipe, followed by a talking circle. Most had very little to say. I knew they were sizing me up and had no idea if I was passing their, mostly silent, test. I left thinking. I don’t know if this is going to work.
On the second visit a week later, my heart sank as I entered the room. Only one woman sat there, the one who had written to me. Relief came when I was told the other women were all transferred to another facility, in a major shift of populations. Over the next few weeks new inmates came into the circle. The numbers fluctuated as women came and went. Some were transferred; some were released for time served, always replaced by new faces coming into Danbury.
Six years passed. During that time I sat with them. I heard their stories. Some talked of their crimes. All talked of home. They came from different tribes, mostly from the midwest and west. One of our gals was pardoned by President Clinton. Her empty chair created a lively buzz in circle that week!
Finding agreement was often a challenge. “MY tribe does it this way.” “WE don’t do THAT”. “This is OUR way.” Even when the ceremony was the same, like a pipe ceremony, each tribe can have a different way of doing it. Some days I left with a headache. A circle of women isn’t always easy. But I persisted. Teaching in a high school taught me how to deal with difficult personalities and divergent opinions. I knew how to negotiate and set boundaries. It was working. Eventually, a core group became proactive. No longer content with just the pipe ceremony, they asked, “Why can’t we have a sweat lodge? It should be part of our religious services.” I began the process to get approval.
When the big YES finally came from the superintendent, the women were psyched. I was too, but with reservations. (Sorry, I couldn’t pass that up.) I knew how much work this would entail for me. I had to cut saplings, get wood, find rocks; every detail had to be covered. There’s no running down to the hardware store to buy string if it’s forgotten. This upped my anxiety level. It was a big deal and I felt I had to deliver.
On the big day, I brought the saplings, rocks and wood to the back delivery gate. The sun was shining into a blue sky. My eyes gravitated to the glinting razor wire above the perimeter fence. Nothing here can be taken lightly. I drove my pickup truck back to the visitor parking lot, where I grabbed my bag and pole and walked to the front check-in lobby.
“I’m sorry ma’am, you can’t go in with that.” The C.O. (corrections officer) gestured toward the pole. It was imposing-about four feet long, the thickness of two thumbs, and made of iron. The guard’s voice betrayed nothing, but his eyes said something like, “ You gotta be kidding me. You’re not getting in here with that big f’ing pole1”
I sat down in the waiting area anxious for Sr. Margaret, the chaplain, to come rescue me. Sweat from my hands dampened the weighty iron pole This wasn’t going according to plan. Sr. Margaret and I made a list of tools weeks beforehand, with the pole on it. All approved, or so I thought. No lodge would get built that day without my pole. My mouth was dry, armpits wet; my fingers drummed on the pole.
A prayer formed in my mind. Great Spirit, If you want me to do this, you gotta help me out here. On the heels of the prayer, the warden strode through the front door. After a brief discussion with the C.O. she barked, “Send her through…with the pole.“ I nodded my thanks to her followed by a second thankful nod skyward.
A silent metal detector allowed my passage into a small corridor. No matter how many times I did this, my reaction was always the same. An involuntary shudder vibrated through my body when the heavy sliding door locked with a slam and a click behind me. The next stop was a window in the middle of the corridor, manned by a C.O. He stamped the back of my hand with a substance which shows up under an infrared sensor.
Finally, Sr. Margaret appeared and led me through the compound to the grassy exercise yard. A small plot was roped off to mark where the lodge and fire pit would sit.
A voice carried above a group of khaki clad women. “She’s here.” That was Lori, the loudest of my bunch. It’s weird for me. I’ve met weekly with these particular women for a couple years. I’ve heard about their families, relationships, other personal stuff. Yet I can only nod in greeting. No hugs. Prison policy. I understand why, but it goes against the grain.
I immediately pulled out a shell, some sage, and a feather. Once the sage was lit, I inhaled deeply and wafted the purifying odor over me. This is how we cleanse ourselves before ceremony. I passed the shell and feather to Rose; asked her to smudge the others. When finished, I asked Lily to smudge the tools, the fire pit and the lodge area. I’d learned to delegate work amongst the women, to ward off jealousies. With jobs assigned, we began.
Sixteen spots were marked on the ground in a circle. A hole had to be made in each spot. The saplings would be placed in those holes. This was the most physical part of the work; where my heavy metal pole did its job. Marge was ready with a sledge-hammer, supplied by the grounds crew. My job was to hold the pole in place while she drove it a foot deep into the soil. (Each hole would later accept a sapling to form the lodge.) My grip was placed halfway down the pole to avoid any danger, my head cocked to the side away from the swinging sledge. Marge put muscle into the work. All the women were relaxed and told stories as we went about our tasks. Some organized the wood and tended the fire, others stacked blankets or cut string for tying the saplings together once they were set in the ground. Sr. Margaret hovered over us to start, then disappeared for a short while.
As we worked, the whir of a helicopter overhead sent all eyes upward. There was tittering amongst the group. My brows crinkled as I wondered what’s going on? Lori, who seemed to know everyone on the compound, noticed my expression and responded.
“See that woman over there?” My eyes followed her pointed finger to a smallish woman, thin and maybe in her fifties, walking around the exercise area.
“She actually hired a helicopter to fly over a men’s prison to break her boyfriend out!” This explanation led to a chorus of laughter around me.
“He’s still there. AND NOW,” said with a flourish, “she’s here!” More group laughter.
“At least we’re not that dumb!” Lori gloated.
After the momentary distraction, we got back to work. With half the holes punched in, I suggested to Marge that we take a short break. As we stood there, me leaning on the pole, Marge with the sledge-hammer propped against her leg, she got a smirk on her face. She leaned in closer.
“You don’t know why I’m in here, do you, Gail?”
“Uh, no. Is it something I should know?” My eyes grew larger.
“My girlfriend’s husband beat her pretty badly one night. I waited. A few days later, when he was alone and somewhat drunk, I went over there with a hammer and settled the score.”
My eyes grew even wider.
“No shit,” I whisper out of earshot of the newly returned Sr. Margaret. “Really?”
Marge nodded, then looked straight into my eyes.
“Not sorry, either.” Her voice held a triumph and a warning simultaneously.
I let that sink in. Message received. Don’t mess with Marge. Then it was my turn to hold her eyes as I shouted across to Lori, “Hey, Lor, you wanna come here and hold the pole for Marge?” Marge laughed as I passed the pole to Lori. I patted her on the shoulder as I went to check the fire.
An hour later the structure was built; the rocks were hot; time came to begin. I watched one bank robber, three drug dealers and two women with felony assaults crawl into the lodge. In came a two gallon bucket of water and a dipper. I called for the first seven rocks to be passed in, then the door flap was closed. We sat in complete and utter darkness. I splashed water on the rocks. The air, warmed and heavy with steam, embraced us. We prayed. Tears flowed freely as the women called out their children’s names, imploring Spirit to watch over them, to keep them safe.Their kids, so far away, never come to visit. It’s hard on everyone.
At the end of each round, the door was opened to add more hot rocks. More steam. More sweat. More prayers. Parents. grandparents, relatives, friends, tribal elders all were remembered. One woman hoped her father, suffering with cancer, wouldn’t die before her release date. And so we went through four rounds. Praying. Sweating. Singing.
It can’t be all gut wrenching emotion, however. I had jokes to tell. When we sang, I was off key. The women laughed. On a scale of 1 to 10, my singing voice was a 3. On a good day.
“Gail, you need singing lessons,” a voice chirped from the dark. I heard giggles of agreement. I read once that life should be a mix of tears and laughter. I agree.
Two hours after we crawled in, the ceremony ended. As the women crawled out I saw their faces looked softer, their backs straighter. Water dripped from our hair, from our clothes. I hugged each woman. Sr. Margaret looked away, pretending not to see. We toweled off. They scattered to their cells to change into dry clothes. Sr. Margaret escorted me to a staff rest room to change. We met back up at the cafeteria for a fine feast. Several of my girls worked in the kitchen and knew their way around. Fry bread and other treats were served. I looked at their faces. A burden had been temporarily lifted. They glowed!
For me, it was a long day, beginning with the weight of expectations and ending with a prayer of gratitude on my lips. Filled with a sense of relief, but exhausted, I said my goodbyes. I hefted my bag and trusty pole, ready to head home.
Sr. Margaret walked me to the first sliding door. We both stepped into the little corridor. Slam. Click. Shudder. One more door to go. I approached the window and held my hand up to the infrared sensor. Nothing. Second try. Still nothing.The C.O addressed my companion.
“We have a problem here, Sister.” I looked at her, my brows knitted together.
“Oh, wait, I know, it came off with the sweat from the lodge.” I explained to the air, to the nun, to the C.O.. Unimpressed with my theory, he acted as if I were an inmate in cahoots with Sr. Margaret, ready to hit the freedom trail.
At that point, I was tired AND annoyed. Who knew getting in and getting out would be such a hassle? Then again, it is a Federal prison, surrounded by a very high fence topped with nasty razor wire. A Captain was summoned. Too wiped out for idle chit chat, we waited in the corridor in silence. Twenty minutes later I finally got approval and release. In the parking lot, as I entered my car, a helicopter, again, passed overhead. I couldn’t help it. My face broke into a huge grin.