“Don’t take the chips.”
Prison Orientation Instructions
Amanda wears a mask low over her mouth. It’s not Covid- related. “Don’t take my picture. I’ve just had my teeth pulled. I’ll get new ones after I heal in about six weeks.” She grabs her phone and texts me a picture of herself that she likes, one I later see on Facebook. Long dark hair, brown eyes and a natural half-smile. She’s a tall, athletic looking artist who currently works in the medium of polished stone.
As we start talking, I immediately sense her self-reflective honesty, spirit, humility and something more… Amanda is a keen, intelligent observer. Her riveting perceptions about the day-to-day intimacies and culture of life in a women’s prison (a place she inhabited for nineteen months) is unforgettable.
We begin with the foundation of her childhood, then her chaotic middle years, the drama and wilderness of her time in prison, and her deep longing for her future stability - a place where Amanda’s weighty past pain meets a fresh horizon.
I only knew my parents as separate. They divorced when I was one. I have an older sister with my same parents and three younger brothers by different fathers. My first younger brother’s dad, a man my mother never married, molested me and my sister when we were 7 and 8. It wasn’t exactly weird touching, but he made us do weird things. If we got in trouble, he’d make us stand buck naked with our backs to him in front of the TV. Then he’d call us over one by one and spank our bare bottoms. My sister and I slept in bunk beds. I remember waking in the middle of the night with his hands on my legs, but then he went away. It wasn’t on the super bad end of sexual abuse, but I told my mom about it.
That took guts.
Yeah. She left him because of it… but that was all! No other reaction or consequence from her. In fact, she still worked with him every day and my brother, his son, still went to see him. After a while it felt almost like it never happened.
Yeah. My second brother’s father became my step-dad. He and my mom are still married. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, mostly raised me and my sister. She loved us.
Getting back to your birth father a moment - did you see him?
My birth father is an alcoholic. My sister and I spent time with him and his side of the family. My grandparents on his side favored my older sister, treated her specially, and, at the same time, they were very emotionally and psychologically abusive to me. I was a free-spirited, messy child, clumsy, and into everything. I wasn’t good enough no matter what I did. They treated me like a dog and spoke terribly to me simply because I was the second born. “You are fat and sloppy.” One time I was chewing with my mouth open at the table. My grandpa and dad yelled, “If you wanna eat like a dog, you can eat with the dog.” I sat outside eating with our dog in the yard. My father worked for the union, but he kept a cooler of beer in his truck - beer for breakfast. Then he handled heavy machinery, like cranes. We lived in a small town. When he drove drunk, he knew who would cover for him, protect him. I learned to drive on major highways at 8-9 years old! It was safer than him driving drunk. He gave me my first beer when I was twelve and got me drunk. I haven’t talked to him in five years because I went to prison.
What was your dad’s upbringing like?
I learned my grandpa was super physically abusive to my dad and his brother. Grandpa almost beat my uncle to death. They called an ambulance. He almost died. He never laid a hand on me, but he was extremely verbally abusive to me and my cousins.
So, the men through your father’s generations dished out the abuse they got.
Yes. Another family story was that my great-grandmother on my dad’s side chased my grandfather, who was the youngest of fifteen kids, with a Bible in one hand and a knife in the other. She had mental issues. But… I have some better memories. My dad taught me good manners and a strong work ethic. With him, the way you were “loved” was not a natural feeling of loving his child, it depended on how you “held yourself,” what you could accomplish like good grades, doing something right. Experiencing that was not any fun at all.
Caring was based on performance, how you looked to others even though his own performance was a really bad example.
Yes. He was in a freak accident a few years ago that almost killed him. His lower body was crushed. Multiple surgeries. But now, with all his drinking and smoking, he’s just doctor-shopping for someone willing to do the remaining surgery he needs.
Was there anybody who knew what was going with you?
I should have talked to people but I kept it inside. My choir teacher in high school was a mentor to me, a good influence, but I didn’t tell her. I struggled with manic bi-polar depression. I still don’t know what I was so deeply sad about. I was a really good student. All A’s. I did sports. I had friends, hobbies and activities. But I self-medicated with weed and opiates. When you come down off of drugs you can really crash. I tried to commit suicide twice.
How did you try to kill yourself?
(Amanda sits quietly for a moment.)
Tell me about your mom.
She loved me but she was a bit of a bystander, very passive. She’d make threats, then stay in her bedroom.
Did she have issues with substances?
No. I’m the only person in my family who has a substance history of anything but alcohol. My mother’s current husband, my step-dad, is also an alcoholic but he gets lovey-dovey when he’s drunk. It’s easier to deal with. For a while he kept a keg in our dining room that he finished in a week. My mom says he’s drinking less now.
(Our conversation moves forward through chaotic and productive years. Amanda earned a four-year college degree in elementary education with all A’s. She gave birth to two children – a daughter and son fifteen months apart and suffered from severe postpartum depression. She married and divorced the children’s father. She unsuccessfully navigated joint custody, with periods of both sobriety and relapse. “I used meth intravenously and denied it, but my family could tell.” Increasing bad blood in the families, prolonged court appearances and costs, attempts at supervised visitation, all ultimately resulted in her losing custody of her children. Below are some excerpts of our conversation about this time.)
How did your family know you were using meth?
Manic behavior, rapid weight loss, not keeping to my schedule, weird
things like picking at my face. My family believed I was choosing drugs over my kids.
So, behind my back, my older sister went to my ex-husband and they made a plan. They tricked me. They planned for my children to stay with his parents (their grandparents) for the weekend, but when I went to get them, they weren’t there. I never saw them again. They were 2 and 3 when they were taken from me. I lost custody to my ex-husband. They were adopted five years ago by him and his second wife. I have not seen them since then. They are now seven and eight. After my kids were taken from me, I went downhill. I had 2 years of using drugs and eventually got possession charges. I ran - absconded my probation. I was in jail and almost overdosed there. I haven’t seen my family in almost five years. They cut me off so they wouldn’t be tempted to enable me. But we started talking again while I was in prison! My mother kept money on my phone voucher. In fact, my parents and siblings are coming to see me pretty soon in KC! They will rent an Airbnb for the weekend. I know my family loves and forgives me and I can do the same for them. They know my heart and my potential when I am sober.
Describe your prison time?
I am 33 years old. 31 of those years I spent in this world, and 2 of them I spent in the prison world. By the time I went to prison there was nothing more I could lose. Everything gone including my kids. My grandmother kicked me out of her house that I was renting. The people who were letting me stay with them and helping me move my stuff into a storage unit were also users. When they knew I wasn’t there, they stole my stuff from the locker. I lost everything in a big hurry. Prison was a big “sit down” for me. Nineteen months. Honestly, I’m very thankful for that time. It takes almost two years for your brain to return to any sort of a natural condition. The thought of using drugs, my old lifestyle, disgusts me, but… it took every minute of prison time to reach that conclusion. I was nervous going in, imagining the variety of crimes in there. I knew men’s prisons were far more violent than women’s, but I did witness some violence. I stuck to myself. I worked out and read and observed everything and everybody.
What did you see?
There is no other place on this planet like prison. A twilight zone. The things that matter to people on the outside do not matter at all to them inside prison, and what matters to people in prison does not matter to people on the outside at all. Two separate worlds. But one thing we all shared was a “common ground,” a bond. Even if we never spoke, were totally different, and didn’t like each other – no matter. We shared the complete understanding that we were all locked together. I think about 5% of girls don’t leave their rooms, but you have roommates so you are never alone. I never went in the day room to play games or watch TV or just pass the time. Even the showers are connected to the day room. I am tall enough to see over the dividing wall. I mean, nobody has anything else to do but create and watch all the drama! There’s no other source of entertainment – laughing at other people, relationship stuff, gossip like a bad-girl TV show. Prison drama is very crime-oriented and the mentality is extremely juvenile, childish, like an inability to express feelings without throwing a fit or screaming. Women tried to feel more like a human being by stealing floor wax and mixing it with ground up colored pencils to make toenail polish, and then needing to constantly hide their feet to not get in trouble. Or, if you ate at the chow hall with a friend more than 3 times, people would say you were “dating” that person. I watched couples get into fights.
So, if you “couple up” with someone, you become isolated from everybody else? Do relationships develop in prison between women who would not seek out a female partner on the outside?
Yes. A lot of women who pair up in prison never connect again on the outside. It’s just people using other people. It’s driven by loneliness, or because a person can’t stand not to be with somebody, or they choose someone who has been in there for a while for protection without realizing that person also has enemies. Women who have no financial help from home find someone with money if they can’t afford to buy their hygienes at the commissary. If you have a GED you can only make $8.50 a month in prison. A month! If you do not have your GED you only earn $7.50 a month. It’s not enough. Nobody just does something for somebody – even five seconds of small talk has a string, an expectation, attached to it. They literally have a short clip about it in a prison orientation video I watched in jail prior to going in. A girl pretends to be friendly to a newcomer. She offers her a bag of chips. But, by doing that, the girl expects something - maybe sexual favors or passing drugs. It’s something everybody in prison laughs about, but it is a very true thing. It seems innocent, like we’ll be friends but it really means, now I expect something. So… the warning is, “Don’t take the chips!” It’s a “walking joke” in prison but it’s real advice.
How do people get drugs in prison?
It isn’t hard. There are a couple of ways. Powdered synthetic marijuana (K2) could come in embedded in white sheets of paper that appeared to have a kid’s drawing on them, like a kid sending an artwork to their mom in prison. It looks nice but it’s really drugs. The receiver can tear a piece of the paper and smoke it. But prisons got wise and stopped these fake drawings coming in. Synthetic heroin can come in another way. The sender unseals glue on the bottom seam of a large manila envelope, inserts the tiny heroin filaments, reseals it, and mails it. Synthetic heroin used to be hidden under postage stamps, but now the prison pierces through stamps on in-coming mail. Also, in return for sexual favors some officers deal in cigarettes, real meth, heroin, and fentanyl. These drugs can be worth lots of money, as much as $200.00 for one day’s worth of heroin. $6,000.00 a month.
What are the types of hierarchies in prison?
There are drug lords, kingpins inside who you do not touch or speak to. If they supplied you drugs and you did not pay them, they could bust into your room and break your appliances, hit you with a lock in a sock, break your TV and your other belongings. I feel really terrible for girls who are still struggling with addiction in prison. I don’t judge them.
How did you manage your drug addictions when you got in prison?
There are stages to the process of using drugs which are: You want to use drugs and you do use drugs. You use drugs but don’t want to. Don’t want to and don’t use. Thanks to God, I don’t know exactly how the final stage happened in me but a switch flipped.
What about useful programs in prison like job training?
Work release programs where you leave the prison, like working in an animal shelter, or MoDot trash pickup, or golf course maintenance are cheap labor that doesn’t require much training. You can earn maybe $120.00 month. Jobs in prison maintenance like laying tile, lawn care and plumbing do require some skill training. If you are on good behavior, you can do kitchen work, be a cleaning porter or part of a dog program “Puppies for Parole” which can help with emotional bonding. These are animals that shelters are not going to keep otherwise. I got a certificate in landscaping and gardening - greenhouse and vegetables. It was very self-taught. I learned to ask the right questions of our teacher. That was positive for me.
What about group counseling and “Pathways to Change?”
Mental health visits were short weekly 15–20-minute sessions for twelve weeks that mostly focused on sleep and anti-depressant meds. Other programs like balanced living, self-esteem, and setting goals were at a beginning level.
Did inmates find these courses to be helpful?
Strong change is possible, but if you are surrounded by certain types of people in the prison environment, it’s easy to regress. It wasn’t enough input to become habit-forming. No matter how unhappy I felt, my greatest depression did not come close to how disappointed in myself I was with the blunt fact that I, who had so much potential, was in prison. It hit hard.
How did you end up here?
I was more scared coming out of prison than I was going in. I heard girls talking about this place. I had no other backup plan. A whole year before I was released, I got accepted to come here.
What had you heard about the Journey program?
A safe environment. Wonderful people who run the houses. How much they help you first thing - food paid for, phone, and, eventually, an apartment. But walking in here was truly mind-blowing, surreal, dreamlike. My heart raced. I felt like a robot. Normal basic interaction was hard after the prison culture. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that these people were truly okay. I didn’t have to worry that if I talked to this person for ten minutes, they were really just keeping me out of my room so somebody else could steal my stuff.
I’ve heard other ladies say they can’t believe it here - the power of an environment that’s truly genuine, caring, and honest. Do you think that’s overstating it?
NO! I was more than impressed. I am a Peer Support Specialist intern here now for the next three months. (See Resources) There are two of us - one at Journey House and one at Peace House. One of us will potentially become a new house manager. This program which I am taking online pays you for doing it. You graduate with a professional reference, greater job opportunities.
What motivated you to become a Peer Support Specialist?
I’m not better than anyone, but I realized that I was far enough along to be able to help others like me. I don’t want to do elementary education anymore. With all my charges, I would have impossible hoops to jump through with the Missouri Board of Education. And… I truly can’t do anything with children. The circumstances with my own children make it very hard to be around kids right now. With everything I put myself through and learned from, helping others like me, putting positive into the world is the only thing that is left for me to do. I’m proud of the person I am now. I can do a lot with my life. Put my life to good use. It’s time.
Putting your life experience to use. Who better than you? (Amanda smiles.) Turning hard things into your gift. How do you reach out to others here?
The biggest help is to be present, to listen and maybe offer a bit of guidance. It’s all relatable. We aren’t alone. We will get through it. We believe in them: There is hope for humanity yet.
Who can you talk to? Who is present for you?
My family - my mom and sisters and brothers are reconnected, super supportive. We have an unspoken understanding and forgiveness between us. They send messages twice a week saying they are happy that we are together again. Also, the ladies here - residents and staff - are all so encouraging and supportive.
What are the top struggles women have after incarceration?
Huge overwhelm at being outside. Taking care of your body - health care in prison is terrible. Dental and eye care is terrible. Unaddressed trauma and other mental health concerns. Rehab. Clothes. You name it. Everything needs attention. Many women are victims of domestic violence and fear their abusers will come looking for them.
Is it safe here?
Yes! We have an alarm system. Someone is here all the time. Nobody can get in the house. There’s confidentiality – we can’t tell names of other residents.
What’s needed here? Donations?
Hygienes like shampoo and deodorant, bedding, sheets, mattresses, lamps, clothes, hangers (if you can believe it) cleaning supplies, gas and food money fund, cleaning supplies, vitamins, Tylenol, furniture.
What do people need to understand about women getting out of prison in Missouri?
Well… no words can make a person choose to understand what they don’t want to think. The wide variety of women coming out of prison have made mistakes as the result of emotional instability, mental illness, trauma, genetic predispositions, poor decisions, and challenging early life circumstances that couldn’t be helped. Our past doesn’t define us. It would be good if you could re-interview within a year or two after they have gotten out. Life beyond. This place is the threshold for that.
I know this is a hard question… Do you envision any way you might reconnect with your children?
I pray every day. I hope my mother, who has some contact with them, might be a doorway, but I am not ready. I do not want to be anywhere close to where I have been when we meet for the first time. My children are too young to remember me. My ex-husband’s family is very negative. I want to be the exact opposite of anything negative they may have heard about me. I am not ready for that yet. At least 50% of the women in here feel deep loss for their children. Some have no rights to their children. Some still have rights but don’t see them. Or kids, who are old enough, are choosing not to interact with their mothers. Women here also struggle with the fact that their kids are now using.
And one last thing… tell me about your artwork.
With the artwork, I do lots of types. I write, paint, do mosaics, woodwork, and small polished stone pieces. What motivates me is simply feeling. I used to be driven by releasing pain. Now I’m motivated by happiness and joy. It can be a bit more difficult at times to be moved as these are new muses to me, truly. All my results are equally beautiful in their own way.
Anything else, Amanda?
Thank you for this opportunity to share and taking the time out of your day to listen. I really appreciate what you are doing.
The Drive Home:
It is my privilege to know Amanda, a little girl who evolved from a sloppy “dog,” in the serrated atmosphere of her upbringing, to a woman of spirit, humility, longing, and immense potential. Her future, ironically perhaps, reflects a value instilled by her father, “What matters is how you hold yourself in the world.” Amanda is no longer addicted to her troubles. Her future career as a Peer Support Specialist is a dedication to ushering others out of the doorway of their pasts with the assurance, “There is hope for us and humanity.”