Horrific Peek into Women's Prisons Finds: "Sisters, Fighting For Our Lives Together'
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Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Inside This Place, Not of It, followed by a Q&A with the editors Ayelet Waldman and Robin Levi.
Sheri Dwight, 35, was interviewed in a small, empty park in Inglewood, California. As she shared the details of her story, she frequently looked over her shoulder to scan the other benches, ever vigilant from her years in prison. Sheri was seventeen when she met her husband, and their marriage quickly deteriorated into mental and physical violence. A year into the marriage, Sheri shot and killed her husband, and was sentenced to fifteen years in a California state prison. During her time inside, she was diagnosed with ovarian cysts, and agreed to have them removed via a cystectomy. Then, for the following five years, Sheri found herself unable to menstruate, and experienced menopause-like symptoms. An investigation led by the legal nonprofit Justice Now revealed that the surgeon who had performed Sheri's cystectomy had also given her an oophorectomy without her knowledge or consent. Sheri has been home for a year, and is working to rebuild her life and help other survivors of domestic violence.
I got to Chowchilla in 1997, when I was twenty-one years old. Up in prison, I learned a lot. If you don't have any street smarts, you learn some. You learn to read body language a mile away. I can tell by the shift in the atmosphere if something ain't right. Like, sometimes we'll sit here talking and all of a sudden it gets quiet, and you'll start looking around, because you know there's a fight about to break out.
There were four thousand women there. Eight women to a room, thirty-two rooms in each building, four buildings on each yard. I knew a lot of people there, from school and from fighting their cases with me in county. That's where the bond is built. Nowadays I watch a lot of war movies and I can see a lot of what I went through in prison; it's the same thing. You have a band of brothers, a band of sisters. It was more settled than in county jail. Jail is more like, Please God, help me get out of this situation. I don't wanna be here. But once you get to prison you've already gone through that process and you have a settling in. Then it's like, Please God, give me the strength to go through this situation. I don't wanna die here.
I had a crew that was between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, and they all came in facing thirty-five to life, fifty-five to life, life without the possibility of parole. They became my sisters. We were fighting for our lives together. Nowadays, when I see some of those girls out on the street, I get so excited. I don't even get that excited when I see family members I haven't seen in years. But when we see each other, it's like, "What do you need?" We'd do anything for each other. The shirt come off your back, the shoes come off your feet, the money comes out of the purse. You say, "Come on girl, I got $5, let's go to McDonald's! At least we can get two hamburgers, two fries, and share some cookies."
I think it was in 1999, when I was twenty-two years old, that I started having a lot of abdominal pain and heavy menstrual cycles. I knew that something was wrong. The cramping that I was having was just, oh my god. Not only was I in a lot of pain, but I was also having periods in between periods. I went to the gynecologist to see if something was going on, and he began to run a series of tests, a lot of different pap smears. One of the pap smears came back showing that I had abnormal cells. I went through more tests to figure out what was causing the abnormal cells, then more pap smears, ultrasounds, pelvic exams.