“Because I am so nice, people took my niceness for weakness.”
Jewel – Journey House resident
Jewel is a towering, broad-shouldered woman who greets me in the dining room with a beaming smile. She is one of my first Journey House interviews and I feel intimidated, not just by her, but because of my own inexperience. Jewel has a scattering of faded tattoos across her neck and chest and down her muscular arms. She wears loopy, gold earrings. Her hair is wound in a high knot on top of her head. I wonder how old she is.
What I have yet to notice are her hands…
Jewel signs our contract, and, with a flourish, lays her palms on the table. She looks up as if offering a cue for me to notice them. Her tapered fingers, decorated with multiple rings, are long and elegant, her skin flawless, and her sculpted nails impeccably manicured.
I smile, comment on her jewelry, and explain the plan for our talk together.
She jumps into our conversation enthusiastically. It’s difficult to imagine she recently spent almost half a year in solitary confinement at the Chillicothe Correctional Center.
I am the baby of seven older brothers, so I got beaten up a lot at home. (Laughs) But I did a lot of beatin’ up too. My dad had seven other children outside of with my mother, so there are fifteen of us in all. When I was seventeen, I got pregnant with my oldest daughter, Tori. She’s twenty now. We moved out of my mom’s house and to another town in Missouri. When Tori turned five, I started getting into lots of problems with fights. Because I am so nice, people took my niceness for weakness. A lot of it was because my boyfriend was no good. He was messing with all these other women who came to my house and threatened me. They even went to my kid’s schools. By this time, I had two. Dashani, my second daughter, was born in 2002. She’s been living with my younger sister. I went to prison for beating a woman almost to death. I did five-and-a half years on a seven-year sentence.
Would you say more about that incident?
Yeah. Sure! At the time my little sister was pregnant and living in a low-income apartment. She let a friend move in with her, but in low- income housing another person can only visit a certain number of days every month, not move in. But this friend just moved her kids and boyfriend in! My sister knew she was going to get evicted so I told her to get rid of them. I mean, you’ve got a baby on the way. You need your apartment. They’ve gotta go. But she couldn’t tell them, so I did. That girl started doing a lot of childish things - harassing my sister at work, busting her car windows, flattening her tires. It was coming up the Fourth of July and I was planning a barbecue for my family. I sent my little sister to the store to get some baked beans and ice and this same friend and two of her friends seen my sister’s car in the parking lot. When my sister came out of the grocery, they jumped her. My sister ended up in the emergency room. I was really mad because she was high-risk in her pregnancy and all. I mean, I was angry. When I went to the hospital to pick her up, I thought I am going to find those girls and fight them.
How was she beat up?
Uh…. her face. Her eyes and mouth were real swollen up. The baby in her was okay. I took her back to my house for bed rest. The next day those girls were bold. They hopped out of their car at my house with bats and crowbars. I tried to be the peacemaker. Mediator. I tell them “You all can wait to settle this after she has her baby.” I keep talkin’ to ‘em and staying calm because I am a calm person. I stay nice, but the girl, the one who stayed at my sister’s, goes off on me, she swings on me, so we start fighting.
What did she swing with? Her fist?
No. A bat. One of those little Louisville Slugger bats. (Jewel shifts in her chair.) You know, I dropped it and bobbed it and then I snatched the bat from her and I hit her. Then we really started fist fightin’ and the next thing I know I blacked out. That’s all I remember. When I came to, the police was there. I was in handcuffs. She was on the ground unconscious.
Was it life-threatening?
Uh huh. The reason I went to prison is because I didn’t call the police. They said I should have called the police when the problems first started. But, like I said, I had a history of fighting. Remember I was the youngest of seven boys.
Did any other family members get involved?
No. Just the two of us. It would have just turned into a big thing so they let me and her fight it out.
Nobody else called the police?
Had you had earlier problems with the law because of fighting?
Yes, ma’am! Misdemeanors when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Three misdemeanors combined is considered a felony. But this last incident was a felony in and of itself because I beat her up really bad. The police tried to hit me with an ACA.
What’s an ACA?
Armed Criminal Action. A concealed weapons charge because my hands are registered. Me and all my brothers used to box for Mathews-Dickey Boys and Girls Clubs. I grew up boxing and fighting. I’m a black belt. I know how to swing nunchucks (Okinawan martial arts weapon) and throw stars. I do a lot. I’m very talented in martial arts.
It’s interesting that you are a martial arts specialist and describe yourself as calm and friendly. Then there’s another side of you that appears when you feel pushed or threatened.
Yeah. I got into lots of fights in prison, too. In the first prison I was in, I went into the hole for ten days. Me and this girl just fought it out and we both were given ten days of lock-up. The second time, in the second prison, me and this other woman - a lifer - both spent sixty days in the hole for fighting.
Describe that fight.
She was a “lifer” who picked on me the minute I arrived. She’d been in for over twenty years and I was the new girl in camp. Everybody wanted to be my girlfriend or my friend and she didn’t like it, so me and her fell out about it.
She was threatened by you?
Yes. That is exactly what I’m saying. She was intimidated by me. I’m real big and stuff and she figured that I was going to take over her spot which I don’t blame her because, like I said, she’d been there for twenty plus years.
So, you understood her feelings, about keeping her position?
Yes, I didn’t blame her for it. I mean, I was a newcomer in her territory. Anyway, there’s this big open space called the yard where you can go outside within the prison gates either for recreation or to just sit at the picnic tables. There are gardens there too. The yard is surrounded by numbered housing units. It was time for everybody to go out to rec. She walked out of number ten house and I came out of number three house. (Jewel points her index fingers together.) We met up at a point. She grabbed me by the back of my hair and we just started fighting.
What was she in prison for?
Murder. She murdered a whole family, but, I mean, that didn’t intimidate me… it was an accident. She didn’t try to kill them.
What? How do you murder somebody and not mean to?
She had blackouts and she… well, this is the story I heard, but not from her. She broke into a house for some drugs. While she was rambling through their stuff the wife came out and she stabbed her, and then she stabbed her two kids. They died in the hospital.
(We sit for a moment without talking.)
Is it correct that in prison everybody is mixed in together - people with minor crimes and lifers with real serious stuff?
Yes. Child molesters, killers, drug sellers, DUI’s are all together - roomies.
Getting back to the fight for a minute, was everybody else just standing around watching? What about the guards?
It took several minutes, but they maced us, which broke it up. Fights are common, but I never saw anybody in prison get sliced up or beat up with locks in socks. (Improvised weapon. A padlock inserted into a sock that is swung at a target.)
How would you compare your safety living in prison versus on the outside?
I’m a big girl. I am my own security. I never ran to the guards for anything. If you rat on somebody you become a target.
Are there women who avoid fighting and keep to themselves.
Yes. Both of us were in lockup, the hole, for sixty days. Later, I was in solitary again for ninety days for fighting and false PREA.
Lock up is horrible.
_Before you describe life in solitary… explain what “false PREA” is.-
(After our interview I looked up PREA which stands for Prison Rape Elimination Act.)
Okay. This woman called PREA on me, which means she was accusing me of coming on to her sexually, which I did not do. But it instantly got me locked down in solitary.
Are you saying that somebody can accuse you of something sexual that you didn’t do, but you get locked down for it anyway?
Right. It can take the prison investigation committee ninety days up to a year to hear your side of the story. To determine if it’s PREA or false PREA You are just in there waiting forever.
What’s it like in the hole?
The cell is about ten by ten feet. There’s a bed with a flat mattress and a toilet and sink combined. You get a thin, wool blanket, a sheet, a pillow, face towel, soap, toothpaste, deodorant, and shampoo. No lotion, conditioner, no grease. They’re considered a privilege. There are two long rows of solitary cells. Fifty-six altogether. They stay full. Thirty days is the minimum.
What did you do in there?
Breakfast at 4:30am, lunch at 10am and dinner at 4pm. I’m not a big reader, so I did sit ups and push-ups against the walls. I wrapped my mattress around my bedpost and punched it. It made the time go by. Dinner was a tray with five places in it. You get a vegetable, a fruit, some beans, a salad, maybe chicken casserole and a tiny cup of juice. The holes are this big. (Jewel forms a small circle with her fingers.) Like a spoonful. Tiny. Insulting for what a person needs. By 7pm I was so hungry. They were the longest days ever. They kept me medicated so I slept a lot. My hair fell out. My weight went down too. On Sunday and Wednesday, they let you out into an outdoor cage of chain-link fence for an hour whether it’s raining, sleeting, or snowing. It’s your choice to go out or not.
What did you learn from 150 days in solitary?
Huh! Right! I learned how to stay out of it! Control my impulses. It helped me with my attitude because I had a real short temper. Now it’s to the point that I can take so much more.
You take more off others than you used to?
Yes. (Raises her arms.) I keep my hands to myself.
Were your medical needs addressed in prison?
If you need a doctor’s appointment you have to fill out a form. They come early in the morning and cuff you up to see the doctor like for a bladder or a yeast infection. You wait forever. You don’t get your teeth cleaned because that’s also a privilege. They just pull your teeth instead, but that takes forever too.
Are you on medication now?
I have bipolar schizophrenia that was diagnosed by mental health therapists in prison. Also, hyper-tension and I don’t sleep well. I also used to hear and see things sometimes that weren’t there.
I wouldn’t describe it exactly like that. It’s like in some type of way I communicate with the dead. When I was in prison a woman always came to me named Madeline. She wanted me to help her find her granddaughter. I asked my roommates - do you hear and see her? They said, no. I thought I was going crazy. I asked this old guard who had worked there forever about this woman named Madeline Kennedy. She told me that she was an old lifer who had died in prison.
Does medication help with that?
Oh, yes. I don’t have that anymore. And when the bipolar makes me moody, I just stay in my room.
It sounds like you are taking care of your mental and physical health now.
And you’ve learned self-control.
My mama always said, “Jewel, you find out things the hard way!” (Laughs) I hung with white girls in prison because black girls get you in more trouble. (Laughs) Even though I’m black, I stay away from them. Ha!
How did you make your way to the Journey House?
We were sitting around the yard one day and people were talking about the Journey House. I started asking questions. I went to a case manager and I had phone interview with Georgia Walker. I said that I didn’t do drugs and that I have two kids and that I am ready to have a different life. I got accepted! If you go back to the same persons, places, and things as before prison, you just do those old things again. The prison van dropped me off at the bus station in Kansas City before dawn. Georgia was waiting for me in her car!
What happened then?
I put my box in the trunk and gave her a hug. “God bless you.” We pulled up to this bright house. Georgia said, “You look happy. You have a good spirit.” She showed me my room and handed me a gift basket full of feminine things. At Walmart I got a couple of outfits and undergarments. I’ve been here three weeks. This is a beautiful place. I just love the women. They really help if you are ready to change, but… you must be at that point.
What does your future look like?
Staying in Kansas City. I have to find a job and get a pass from my PO (parole officer) to visit my daughters after five years! I can’t wait. I want face-to-face, hugging and smelling them, kissing them. I am going to cry like a baby.
(Jewel’s phone rings. She comments that it is probably one of her girls calling her, that they call her all the time. Jewel shows me a picture of her daughters. “The older one looks exactly like me - very black. I call her my twin. Her younger sister is lighter skinned than us.”)
Where’s their dad?
He got killed in 2004. It was a mistaken identity deal.
What kind of work are you looking for?
Housekeeping or at the Dollar Store. I like stuff like that.
After all your life experiences, what wisdom could you offer others?
I could be a big help to all the people who need comfort. Even the older women in prison called me mom because I’m a Pandora’s box. You can talk to me about anything. What goes in stays in.
How did you learn this gift, the kindness other people receive from you?
(Big smile) Thank you! I cultivated it in myself. People cannot believe I once had a violent past.
Is there anything you would change about the Journey House?
I wouldn’t change it for the world. This is all brand new to me. They feed you good, they give you a real place to lay your head, and they take you to important appointments. They pray with you, for you. They laugh and joke. You get mothered. We mother each other.
We hear a car horn honking in the parking lot. Jewel shoots out of her chair.)
Oh, gosh, it’s Gabe. She’s home from the store. I’ve gotta carry her groceries.
In her rush out of the dining room Jewel stops, walks back to me, stretches her arms, and gives me mammoth, (pre-Covid!) bear hug.
The Drive Home:
“Beating up” was the solution to Jewel’s childhood. It was the way she knew herself, the way she was equal to her circumstances. How must it now feel for her to realize that “beating up” another human walled her away from her own children for over five years?
What must her bodily memory be of slamming her fists, elbows, and heels into someone? How must the reverberations of being slapped in the face, and pummeled with a baseball bat live inside her?
Imaginary pictures from Jewel’s life remain with me. I see the rage surging in her seeing her sister’s mouth and eyes swollen and bruised. I watch the slow-motion “duel” that developed in the prison yard as she and the lifer faced off. I hear her fighting the walls in the hole, her fists punching her bed pole and mattress.
I see the apparition of Madeline Kennedy haunting the halls of Jewel’s “crazy” mind and the medicine circulating through her to curb her visions, insomnia, and wild moods.
Jewel’s thirty-six-year-long conversation with the world has been expressed through her body. I wish I had asked how she was mothered when she was hurt. I wish I knew the fate of her brothers. What are her insights about the people she has hurt? Is she sorry? Is physical pain preferable to emotional pain?
My favorite take-away, is the real-life picture of Jewel using her “registered weapons” to help carry groceries for the bruised and brilliantly resilient hearts and souls of the women living and thriving at Journey House.
*At the time of this writing Jewel is in a relationship and not in prison.