Jesse in Jail

News & Politics
In November of 2002, Jesse Carr, a twenty-one year old college student, went to a protest against the School of the Americas. The U.S. combat training school in Fort Benning, GA, is notorious for training Latin American soldiers to commit human rights abuses in countries such as El Salvador and Colombia. He pled "not guilty" to the charge of trespassing, and was sentenced to three months at a women's minimum-security prison in Connecticut. Jesse is transgender, and at the time he had begun hormone therapy. Apprehensive that he wouldn't receive his testosterone shots in prison, his partner, Sarah, formed a list serve called "jesseinjail." The list serve functioned as an immediate advocacy call to School of the Americas Watch activists, transgender activists, prison rights groups, and Jesse's friends. Sarah also typed up letters Jesse wrote from prison every week and sent them out to the group. Jesse's observations went far beyond his own experiences making the letters an inspiring and informative document of daily life in a women's prison.

Jesse had been taking a shot of testosterone every two weeks for about five months when his incarceration began.

Alderson, West Virginia

4/9 - 4/12:
So it's about 3:30pm on Tuesday and I've almost done my first 24 hours here. First of all, I have great news about tranny-stuff: I spoke to the medical director today and it looks like they will let me continue hormone therapy during my time here. They're sending a medical release to Dr. Murphy and once they have my records they'll order testosterone.

I think the best short way to describe Alderson is that it is like an inner-city boarding school, and I think that's my main gripe so far -- why do we spend money on education, free health care, drug rehab, etc. IN PRISONS but not in the larger community where they could actually PREVENT people from ending up in prison?

At first I tried to take comfort: at least I'm not here for 5, 7, 12, 22, or 33 years (I have met women w/ these sentences.) But soon that comfort felt hollow and false, because really I'm saying, at least I'm not Black or poor or involved with men. So instead I've been thinking Kathy Boylan [fellow SOAW activists] did 6 months here. Clare Hanrahan did 6 months here. Liz Mcalister did 2 1/2 years here. That 18-year-old last year did 6 months. I can do this.

A few days after living at Alderson Jesse was told that he had to move to Danbury Correctional Facility in Danbury, Connecticut, because they had previous experience with "transsexual" inmates. He took a Greyhound by himself, arrived late, and wound up in the "hole"-- "a tiny cell with peeling paint, a metal toilet, and literally behind bars." It's officially called the Solitary Housing Unit (SHU); it is medium security.

Danbury Correctional Facility, Danbury, Connecticut

I was awoken at 6 in the morning w/the question, "Carr, you want rec today?" In the hole you get 1 hour outside M-F. I said yes and 1 or 2 hours later they came, cuffed me behind the back and took me "outside." It is concrete floor and wall with chain link enclosing you, including over the roof. No grass, no animals, no dirt, not even an unobstructed view of the sky or sun. Joyce Ellinger [fellow SOAW activist] is down the hall from me, she's been here for 9 days "pending classification." That's what I'm here for too, according to the sheet I got this morning. They literally call it being in the hole for paperwork.

Day 2, evening:
I made it out of the hole after just one night! Since my expectation was to be there at least a week, I am thrilled. I had a bad run-in w/ a C.O. [Correctional Officer] though, and it turns out he is my counselor (d'oh!) He was doing my paperwork and then looked up and said, "I hate protesters. I hate them even more now than I used to. And I'll tell you another thing, I'm glad about what we're doing in Iraq, I wish we would do even more destruction." He had a lot more to say about my age, my stupidity, and then had the gall to say that I was "FREE" thanks to what was happening in Iraq. The man is doing my paperwork for my entrance to PRISON.

Jesse got a job as grounds keeper. He worked seven hours a day, seven days a week.

Facing North of the Camp is UNICOR, the prison's sweatshop. UNICOR products are sold mostly to the military or back to the prison itself. I sleep on a UNICOR mattress and wear a UNICOR uniform. When it is cold I wear a UNICOR winter coat and even some of my hygiene products-- comb, toothbrush, etc. are UNICOR. When I hear about prisons having no money, I wonder why? The inmates care for the grounds, clean the buildings, fix and maintain the equipment, do the laundry, cut people's hair, work in recreation, the library, the law library, and even as teachers for $5.25 -$20 per month. Most of the materials used in the prison are old, broken, or made in UNICOR where women are paid, at most, $1.15/hour (50% of this is subtracted automatically to go towards restitution or "the cost of incarceration"). Health care is a joke, and the food certainly is not gourmet… where is the money going?

And who is incarcerated here, anyway? At the moment, 4 or 5 SOA prisoners, to start with. Helene doing 5 years for selling drugs to support her own habit, who wants to be a drug treatment counselor when she gets out in 2005. Tracy who wants to be an out lesbian minister when she gets out, and has already been here 7 years. Women who used or sold drugs because they were poor, meaning because an income, any income, means food on the table. Women accused of conspiring with their husband or boyfriend who they couldn't escape because of beatings, rapes, and more beatings. Women who describe the welts that used to criss-cross their backs and list the broken bones, counting on their fingers. Women who didn't do anything but get accused and found out the hard way that there is no presumption of innocence for poor women, immigrant women, women of color. Women whose whole families are in and out of prison all the time, who have spent most of their lives in institutions -- visiting, being locked up, writing, visiting, being locked up again.

And mothers, so many mothers to so many children, carrying their pictures in their pockets, missing high school graduations, first words and steps, mothers saying, oh, my daughter has breasts now, saying, maybe when I get out I can get my kids back, do you think so?

I tell one woman about why I am here, about the School of the Americas, about the torture and murder and people kidnapped off the streets never to be seen again. "Yes," she says, nodding emphatically, and waving her hand around at all the women streaming by us. "Yes. We here are also the disappeared."

Everyday, for an inmate who got caught in the net of paperwork it's OK, I need my medicine. (The doctor's not there now.) When is the doctor in? (Oh, he's around, just keep checking back.) OK, I don't have a PAC # yet, where can I get one? (Talk to Mr. Tinelli.) Mr. Tinelli's not there right now. (Oh, he's around, keep checking in.)

Go see the doctor; I hear he's in now. Doctor, I need my medicine. Sick call? When is that? 6:30 in the morning? OK. Count time, everyone to their rooms, standing up, no talking, absolute silence. Excuse me sir, are you Mr. Tinelli? (No.) Do you know where he is? (Check his office.) I did, sir, he's not there. (Well, keep checking, he's around.) I haven't been able to make a call for two weeks. (Well, talk to Tinelli about it.) I don't have stamps, where can I get them? (Commissary.) When are they open? (It depends on your inmate #.) OK, how do I get a commissary order sheet? (They make them available.) Who does? (Commissary.) When and where do they do that? (I don't know, that's a good question, just ask around, someone will know.) Excuse me, sir, are you Mr. Tinelli? (Yes.) Well, my PAC # doesn't work and I haven't been able to call anyone. (Well, the woman who deals with that has already gone home, why don't you check back with me tomorrow?) Tomorrow. OK. What time should I come?

So many women are here on drug charges. A lot of them didn't have any kind of access to a drug treatment program until they were put in prison. Even then you have to have a 'documented drug problem' to be eligible. This means that women who are here for theft or check fraud, who committed these 'crimes' to fund their drug addiction, aren't eligible because they're not here for drug charges.

One of the women in my room has HIV. She has done 7 months of a 60-month sentence. For a prisoner with HIV, given the 'health care' available, 4 1/2 years to go is almost like a life sentence. And I'm not exaggerating about the healthcare situation. You have to wait weeks to get x-rayed -- one woman was hobbling around with a cane for 3 weeks before an x-ray revealed a broken hip. She was ordered to be in a wheelchair by the doctors but the C.O.'s would only let her use a cane. I've noticed though that even if she'd had a wheelchair it wouldn't have helped much since there's not a single aspect of this place that's wheelchair accessible.

Still the most common sound I hear is the sound of laughter. Cynical laughter, joyous laughter, what-can-you-do? laughter. Me, I laugh every day, too. The women know Metielski gives me a hard time and they go out of their way to share crude and vulgar remarks with me regarding his sex life, drinking problems, and the size of his genitalia. It usually makes me blush, but I have to laugh, too, because I know I'm seeing survival in action and the worst thing you can do to a C.O. is have no respect.

Jesse missed two hormone treatments before Sarah sent out a call to the list serve to advocate on his behalf. They responded immediately.

When I went to work on Wednesday morning my medical records were still missing. When I returned, not only had the records been miraculously found, my prescription had been phoned in to Central Office and I was assured that although I have missed two shots, I will not miss a third. "Your point has been made," said the unit manager. "Please call off the dogs." The phone lines of Danbury Corrections were shut down by the calls, stopping all other business from occurring. I am told that the warden is still unable to use her fax machine. "The most recent faxes have been from a bunch of nuns," says the unit manager, a look of absolute bewilderment on her face.

I can only smile, for communities who have devoted their lives to struggles for justice are familiar with a type of solidarity that leaves many at a loss for words. Many of the people who helped in the advocacy process may have had no prior experience with or knowledge of LGBT, particularly T, issues, but knew simply that I was taking a stand for justice and peace and needed support. Those who called and faxed showed that we take our community everywhere and are never truly removed from each other -- not in fear, isolation, incarceration, or even death.

I can't help but wonder, what if every inmate had hundreds of people to advocate for their every right and need? Indeed, what if every person, long before the circumstances and choices of their life landed them in prison, had hundreds of people to advocate for their every right and need? That would be a revolutionary movement, and that is the type of movement we must build.

At the base of a little five-step staircase that leads to the camp P.A.'s office [my friend] and I sit, waiting. We both need injections and the P.A. has forgotten to bring anything to do with our prescriptions -- no medicine, no syringes, nothing. He says he'll be right back, which in BOP-time means he may not come back at all.

We are discussing 9-11 -- she says to me, "When I heard that two planes had hit the towers and I watched on TV as they fell down, and I saw people jumping out of them to escape, I just felt so scared and helpless." She tells me, "I felt just the way I did when he used to beat me. You know, he once broke 32 bones in my body. I had to steer with two fingers when I drove myself to the hospital." It is like looking through one of those binocular-like toys with picture sets: two planes crashing two fists coming towards her face bombs streaming towards Baghdad, Kabul kitchen, bedroom, parlor as battlefields.

She has been incarcerated for 15 years and tells me "yes, yes I did what they said, I carried drugs onto airplanes and across national and state borders, lots of drugs -- pounds, kilos of coke and marijuana and dope. Yes, I did those things but mostly I am here for not picking up the phone and calling. They told me that if he was abusing me, making me do these things, I should have just left." I'm still back at 32 bones. Thinking, counting -- 8 fingers, what else? Nose, jaw, ribs . . . shoulder blade? Collar bone? Tailbone? Legs, toes, feet? We are facing each other, both staring kind of blankly at a spot over each other's shoulders. Finally I say, simply, "That's not how abusive relationships are. You don't just get up and leave or pick up the phone and turn them in for drug dealing." I tell her, "You don't deserve to be here." She nods and tells me more: how she managed to leave once and he found her quickly, managed to leave a second time, stayed in hiding for 3 months, but finally enrolled her kids in school. He called the Board of Education and found out where his kids were -- when she went to pick them up one day, he was there, waiting.

There is a word for this in prison -- there is a word for just about everything in prison. Women who do the dirty work, the illegal work, the stuff that gets you shot or arrested, because the man 'employing them' may very well kill them if they don't. Here they're called mules, a different woman informs me. She herself was a 'mule,' here for 5 years for selling crack.

It's been two hours that we've sat here. The doctor has not returned, and she says to me, what do you need an injection for, anyway? I swallow and hope she doesn't regret confiding in me after my answer. I have spent weeks perfecting explanations of gender, MY gender, transgender, in anxious anticipation of this very question. Of course, my mind goes pretty blank so I manage only, "I'm transgender. I get a shot of testosterone every two weeks." She smiles. When she was at another federal prison, her roommate was inter-sexual. She tells me, 'His name was Mike. He was such a sweet heart. I really loved him.'

Our conversation is ended as we're both called to the C.O.'s office and told that the P.A. will return between 9 and 10pm with our shots. We part ways, returning to our rooms. She has been incarcerated since I was 7 years old. She was just starting prison and she felt okay -- "I was basically safe," she says. "I mean, they were always telling me what to do, but I was used to that, you know?"

I don't know, but I'm beginning to get the picture.

I don't think my life, my mind, can ever be the same knowing about people being in prison while I . . . do whatever I'm doing. It's a thought that has occurred to me a lot during my job. I work along the highway where people drive right by, literally 2, 5, 10 feet away from me, where on the other side of traffic there are businesses, homes, and an elementary school. And always I think, do they know? Do they know they are driving past mothers and grandmothers? Do they know they're driving by immigrants and poor people and dissenters? I ask it of the cars that drive by, the parents dropping kids off at school, the commuters and joy riders, and now I must also ask it of myself as I prepare to cross back over that line, and in my civilian clothing, get in a car and drive away.

Jesse was released on July 3rd, 2003.

For more information about the rights of prison inmates, visit the links on the website of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. To read more essays written by youth in prison or juvenile centers, visit The Beat Within. Zoe Chace, 21, is a WireTap intern.

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