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Hands, No Cuffs

Wanda Beriguette

Hands, No Cuffs

The bang from the gavel hitting the sound block had a sense of permanence, what had been said was said and court was adjourned. All I could see were the judge’s dry, pale, wrinkly hands. That’s it. That’s all I saw. My mind was taking longer than necessary to process the present. Was I really going to prison?

And then, my hands. They were being grabbed one by one so that I could be cuffed, booked and sent away for the next 13 months of my life. The big, (too friendly to be a bailiff) bailiff whisked me away while explaining that it wasn’t “THAT” bad and everything would be okay. He literally was Santa’s doppelganger. His hands looked like they were made to navigate reindeer through the skies.

I immediately burst into tears because my toddler’s hands were now all that I could see. My boys were ages 2 and 4 on that day. Though they had no concept of time, I knew they had a concept of reality and the reality was Mommy would not be tucking them in for many nights. Those soft, precious hands that woke me up every morning were what got me through those next 13 months.

I spent the first 30 days learning more about myself than I ever had in life. My days were shorter because I kept busy with chatter and workouts but my nights way too long. No one should ever be left alone with that much time to think about how many mistakes they’ve made. Therapy can come in many forms. Mine came through analyzing my past, the beginning. Before I was labeled “bad” and “troubled”. The days when the bad, troubled adults were my guardians.

I purged myself on paper and wrote down things I had never told anyone. I read so many books on self-help and I came up with all sorts of cool workout routines. I fell into the robotic, melodic pace that is prison. You’re either a lover or a fighter in prison. I was a lover, of myself. I decided I would use the journey to become a better me. I had it all planned out, written neatly on brand new printer paper I managed to convince a C.O. to give me. He had small hands like a woman and they didn’t fit his body.

Prison was not that bad like the bailiff had told me.

Then one morning my name was called and I was told to pack my things, I was being sent to General Population. Everyone was begging to “pop out” but I really just wanted to pop in and stay in my safe little prison trial bunk. I had no desire to join the farm, as it was called. The terrifying, gross stories that I had heard were in the back of my head. Another C.O. escorted me to my new living quarters, his manicured hands put me at ease. He could sense my nervousness and asked me how long was I there for. I told him about a year and he chuckled. I’m sure he was used to hearing crazier time frames. One thing about prison, if you say anything less than five years, the other inmates will get pissed if you complain. You better not get caught whining about a one-year sentence is all I’m saying.

General population felt like I was being hazed. The things I witnessed in 24 hours were eye-opening, mind blowing and overall life-changing. I met women from so many different circumstances. I bonded with women I never would have glanced at on a regular day. I had never felt a sisterhood in this way. I was expecting to fight and get stabbed and here I was singing karaoke and having Pilates sessions. I began to feel guilty because I was not doing “hard time”.

I did less than a month in my new quarters before being shipped to a pre-release center which are usually designed for low-level security and short-term offenders. Thankfully, I was both. Upon arrival, it was a camp-like setting. There were fully furnished gyms, nice flooring and the food smelled better than the big house. I was assigned a job by a tall handsome C.O. with massive hands that looked like he could be a piano player. Immediately he gave me a job assignment and sent me to my room. I shared that with four women.

The first morning I woke up to two of the roommates fighting over potato chips. They were nearly going to kill each other over Shabangs. The C.O.s managed to break them up. The taller roommate, who had huge, manly hands, had stabbed the shorter roommate in her petite sized hand with a #2 pencil. The stabber was taken to solitary confinement and the stabbed was left to figure out what to do next. None of the staff referred her to medical, their only concern was locking up the “bad” inmate. She bled it out and wrapped it with a dirty t-shirt. When I asked her why didn’t she ask for medical, she laughed an evil laugh and responded that this was not as sweet of a place as it looked to be.

Over the next couple of weeks, every morning there was a fight. At every lunch there was either a fight or an inmate would have a seizure from the lighting. There is apparently bad lighting in correctional facilities that sends some women into seizures. No one does anything about the lighting ever. But if the inmate breaks something while having a seizure, they are financially responsible for the damage.

Dinners were a hoot. There was homemade “liquor” and there were plenty of drunk inmates looking to start a fight or finish one. This also meant that they were sexually aroused and ready for a good time. One time I walked into my room and there they were on my roommate’s bottom bunk. All I saw was long skinny fingers on thin hands rubbing bare skin but then I realized there were three sets of hands. I walked away as I always did and funny thing is, not one of them slept in that room.

Shower stalls were also designated get-it-on areas so I would walk through those hallways with tunnel vision, staring straight ahead. The goal was to make it to an empty shower stall without getting invited to join anyone.

There were way more distractions at pre-release than at the big house. Violence was high here. These women were low level offenders but high level angry. I noticed a tattoo on an inmate’s hands one time and she told me she got it after she murdered her second husband as a sign of growth. She went on to murder someone again in prison because they reminded her of her husband. It was a woman. She was still angry and every day she picked a fight with someone, just never me. I was grateful for that.

Then there was the lady who had nails so long they curved twice. I asked her about her nails, she told about how she hasn’t cut her nails since she lost her child. She was incarcerated for murdering her child’s killer. I don’t believe that should be a crime, but that’s another story. She said her nails were somehow attached to that child and she couldn’t really explain how but it was her right and her need. She did have the most beautiful hands in jail.

The year went by faster eventually. I became a fitness fanatic. Created bonds with women who had similar interests and goals. I watched women go home and stay gone. I watched some leave and come back. It’s been well over a decade since I was released. I said I would never go back and I haven’t. I don’t like how handcuffs look on my hands.

Painting by Gwynne Duncan 

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