We pass the jail every weekday. It sits at the top of the hill, across the street from O’s school. And it is lovely, and tragic, adorned with rusty razor wire- pretty much everything that piques my interest. I knew we would go on the tour, and I knew I had to write about it.
And yet I was surprised at my own resistance to writing this post.
There are countless coming-out processes, innumerable private shames to overcome, often impressed upon us by outside forces. Ways of being, ways of thinking, things we have done, or had done to us… a bottomless well of ambivalence:
Do we own these things publicly and take whatever the rewards or consequences are? Knowing that there are rewards.
Do we bury them in fear of negative repercussion? Because maybe it has been used to diminish or damage us in the past?
The jail (or “gaol,” as was the old spelling) waits for me everyday. I walk right up to it and sit in its shade as I wait for my youngest child to meet me after school. And I often think about what the tour guide told us- though the jail was “officially” closed in 1989, the women’s unit stayed in operation into 2002. If I had been here then, I could have been here then.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The tour. We should talk a bit about the tour.
It was originally called a “gaol” because it was a temporary stop for convicts on the way to the gallows. Forty-two people were hanged there. More on this later. Suffice it to say that, eventually they realised they couldn’t just kill everyone and turned it into a “prison”- or long-term incarceration.
In 1903, they moved the men’s prison across the way and converted the space we toured into a women’s jail. In that time, women were subject to laws that prohibited their being intoxicated, “disruptive” (read: loud or outspoken) in public, using curse words, indecency (which was left up to the arresting police to decide), and any number of other arbitrary rules often made up on the spot to put them in their place. Many women were also arrested for petty crimes such as theft (usually from markets- to feed children), prostitution, and other survival crimes.
The women were typically only there for a few days or weeks, though there were some long-timers. The guards were generally sympathetic to the sensitive nature of the women in their charge and allowed women to protect their identities from the swarms of journalists, who flocked to the grounds, by facing away from the cameras. This allowed them to go back to their everyday lives without the shame of having been seen in the newspapers. They were able to tell friends and neighbours that they had been off visiting family, or some other excuse, to save face and – potentially- their livelihoods, homes, and children.
In addition to the vegetable gardens that provided produce to the jail, there were also flower garden that the women were allowed to cultivate and tend. This brought a touch of beauty and homeyness to an otherwise dreary place (it was later removed after the space reverted to male housing and the inmates pulled out the brick edgers to use as weapons). Around this time, there also appeared a community of jail cats that guards and inmates alike doted on. You can see a cat door cut into the bars of this cell (lower right corner).
And here I have to reckon with the fact that the only way for me to impress upon you the importance of these small acts of kindness is for me to turn my face to the camera.
I was in “prison” in 2001. If I had been here then, I could have been here then.
I put “prison” in quotations because it really is a hyperbolic title- it was just a jail. But: Pennsylvania *shrug* they like to make things mundane sound important.
In the women’s unit- our “yard” consisted of a paved basketball half-court, edged with fifty foot tall chainlink fence. Through it, we could see vast expanses of green valley dipping down to touch the edges of a forest. And above the treetops there, the soft tops of the Allegheny mountains that glowed lilac in the setting sun.
We inmates would crush against the fence to look at a herd of deer passing by, and point out the flocks of birds passing over on their way South. In late Summer, we would reach through the metal mesh and pull up dandelions and clovers to put in our hair. These were always taken away by Ms. Brookens- the oldest, and cruelest, guard there. She slapped me once in the mouth, hard, for having a four-leaf clover tucked behind my ear.
But some of the guards were kind. They left the radio on “by accident” after lights out so we could have dance parties in our cubes (like cells, but open- think Orange is The New Black), and let us convert the crafts we made with the Mennonite volunteer squad into contraband jewellery. The most special thing, though, was when they let us keep a bunny.
It was Autumn, and the grass outside made one last push to grow before it shrivelled up yellow and died. Though the groundskeeper hadn’t been out in weeks, I suppose he felt he should take care of it before the snow came and matted it all down- which would make it impossible to mow come Spring. Usually, the guards hustled us all inside when the lawn men were out- worried we would flash them (which we would) or have them throw in contraband (which, I sure we would have tried). The guard who was with us that day was easygoing. She just yelled at us to keep our clothes on and let us stay out. It was, after all, one of the last warm days we would have for a while. She even rolled up her uniform legs to get some sun on her shins.
As the tractor-mower crested the hill, we could see small movements on the ground in front of it. Rabbits. Maybe seven or eight of them scurrying, panicked, ahead of their certain doom. Someone screamed, and we all started waving our arms. The driver did as I am sure he was strictly instructed, and dutifully ignored us. We watched as one, and then another, poor creature disappeared beneath his wheels. The mother rabbit was pushing her babies- darting from one, shoving it with her nose, and then over to another. One lost its footing and came rolling toward us- safely out of the way of the machine- just as its mother and sibling were sucked under.
Most of the women by then had taken themselves to back inside, disgusted or dismayed, or just bored with trying to prevent the carnage. There were only a few of us left outside- all from the same, smaller cell block- and the guard. The mower turned and disappeared down the crest of the hill, leaving the bunny alive, but shell-shocked.
We made kissing noises at the poor creature, trying to lure it over to us. It was paralysed with fear, but we eventually managed to woo it. She- we guessed it must be a “she”- was small enough to fit easily through the small openings in the fence. We yanked some grass through the fence and tried to hand feed her. She was, understandably, not hungry. We passed her from person to person- stroking her ears and nose- making cooing sounds. We asked the guard if we could keep her.
The answer was no. She could lose her job just for letting us hold it out here. But, not to be deterred, we asked her to look at its face- how could we send this sweet orphan back out to her certain death? We were allowed one night- “ONLY ONE”- she said- and that was only because she was back on duty the next morning. And we had better keep our lips ZIPPED.
Only a handful of us know about the rabbit, and we gathered in the cube of the two that had been decided as caretakers. They had a laundry bin we could use as a pen, and some extra vegetables brought back from dinner. We didn’t sleep that night, five of us laid across the small floorspace, wrapping legs and arms around each other. Letting “our” bunny explore the space between us, feeling special when she chose to sniff at our pants and fingers. We shared stories of loss and violence- using the bunny’s fate to frame our own- hoping we were each the one shoved out of the way of the machine in our stories, rather than being left to churn under its blades.
The next day, the guard smuggled the bunny out after her shift. She gave it to her daughters, and brought us in photos and updates on her wellbeing.
Eventually, we would all be released from that place. I wonder still how many escaped the gnashing of the machines in our lives- be it poverty, addiction, racism, or any number of other brutalities.
I wonder how many of us rabbits are still out there running.