Countering Violence Against Women
Recollections From Behind Bars: A Woman’s Tale
Editor’s note: Jamie Farthing is serving a life sentence with a 40-year stipulation at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in New Jersey. She was incarcerated in 1994, at the age of 18. She earned her associate degree, with honors, in prison and is finishing her Bachelor of Arts degree. What follows is an account of her experience working with inmates while she was incarcerated at the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, N.J.
I am sitting in a cheap plastic chair in the Bergen County Jail. The chair is the perk of having a dollar-a-day job watching suicidal inmates. The door clicks open. Automated lock system. I look up. I see an officer come in. I don’t see anyone behind her.
“Farthing, you working constant watch?” the officer asks. “Intake’s kicking. She’s going to cell one.”
“Come on, honey,” she says to the girl I still can’t see. “OK, take off all your clothes and put on this gown,” she says. “You’re on a constant watch until the psych clears you. You can’t have any property, just in case you try to hurt yourself with it. She’ll watch your stuff for you,” the officer adds, nodding to me. “Come on.”
The officer puts the girl’s clothes in a bag.
“Bra, panties, socks, too. Good God, honey, you’re skinny,” she says. “When’s the last time you ate? You hungry? Farthing—we got any bags out there?”
I look in the cooler for a lunch bag filled with milk, juice and a bologna sandwich.
“No, you have to ask the kitchen,” I say.
“I’m not hungry,” the intake girl says. “I’m sick. Is medical bringing me my methadone? I’m on a methadone program. They have to give it to me. I can’t kick. I’m pregnant.”
“Farthing, tell the officer in the bubble to call for a pregnant bag, and call medical to see if they have any medication coming up for the pregnant intake,” the officer says.
“I need my methadone,” the intake girl keeps repeating.
“Honey, all I can do is call,” the officer says. She walks out of the cell. The officer hands me the bag with the girl’s clothing and goes back into the glassed-in officers station known as “the bubble.”
I can see into the girl’s cell from where I sit. The girl curls up on the bed and rocks herself. I’ve seen a million junkies kicking. Pregnant ones, too. I’ve never seen one this skinny. She is a living Tim Burton nightmare. A pregnant skeleton. The officer clicks the door twice to let me know the pregnant bag is outside. I open the door. I pick the bag, which contains lunches for new intakes, off the floor. I bring it to the intake girl.
“Excuse me,” I say. “If you’re hungry, your bag came up.”
She uncurls and looks up.
“You got anything sweet?” she asks.
“I may have a candy bar,” I say.
Sometimes I buy Hershey bars for girls coming in kicking heroin. Sugar helps the kick.
“My name is Jamie,” I say. I give her the candy.
“Hey, do you know when they are bringing me my methadone?”
She is still rocking. I watch her eat the candy bar.
“I’ll ask,” I say. I turn away. It hurts to look at her. I wave at the officer and say, “Meds.” The officer shrugs.
“She doesn’t know yet,” I say. “How far along are you?”
“I don’t know.”
She curls back up and rocks.
I don’t take offense. She looks like she is in pain. I walk back to my chair.
We work eight hours a day. My watch is almost up. The overnight crew is coming on.
“It’s just one girl, pregnant, kicking,” I tell Natasha and Natalia, who come in for the overnight shift.
“Miss, I’m going off work,” I tell the intake girl. She doesn’t look up or stop rocking.
“Good night,” I say.
I walk across the baseball diamond-shaped pod. My cell is at the top of the steps. It’s the corner gate cell. Or third base on the baseball diamond. The corner cells are bigger. They don’t have solid doors, just bars. They make you feel less locked in. I grab my shower bag and walk to the shower.
“Yo, that new girl looked nasty,” says Crystal, my cellmate, when I get back from the shower. Crystal is a pretty, African-American girl with a head full of curls.
“I saw every bone in her chest. In the girl’s chest,” Crystal says.
“Aw, she was just out there too long on that stuff,” I say. I dry my hair. “But she is skinny, even for a junkie. Pregnant, too.”
“She’s pregnant?” Crystal says, her voice rising. “Who was screwing the crypt-keeper’s daughter? She looks like the mug shots, the ‘after’ shots of what crystal meth does to you. You seen those commercials? You know what I’m talking about?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I feel bad for her. Kicking, pregnant.”
“Don’t feel sorry for her. Feel sorry for the baby. That is going to be the first thing that poor baby sees,” Crystal laughs.
I roll my eyes.
“If you’re on a methadone program on the streets, do they have to give it to you here?” I ask.
“What! The lady’s getting methadone!” Crystal says. “If she’s on a program in the streets and pregnant, I think so.”
She thinks for a minute. “I wonder if she’ll sell some?”
“You’re going to drink spit from the crypt-keeper?” I say. Some inmates attempt to collect their liquid methadone by quickly spitting it back up after swallowing it. Officers are supposed to watch you take your medications to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“It’s the crypt-keeper’s daughter, and if it gets me high, yes!” Crystal says.
“You gonna need Valtrex,” I say, referring to a drug used to treat the herpes virus. “Not all those sores were from picking her face while she was high.”
The next morning, I go to the shower, wrap my hair in a towel and grab my cup. One scoop of instant coffee. Crystal always leaves me half a carton of milk and sugar packets. I don’t get up for breakfast.
I go downstairs. The communal hot pot is bolted on the wall in the middle of the pod. I pour hot water into my cup and walk over to the tables, where I see the intake girl.
“Yeah, I know. And the bitch won’t bail me out,” she is telling the other girls.
“You’re feeling better?” I ask. “They brought you your methadone?”
“Yeah, last night and this morning,” she says. “They told me they were going to drop me down to five milligrams. Force me to kick. I told them pregnant people can’t kick or the baby will die. That’s a huge lawsuit. I already have the dudes who want to adopt it calling and threatening them. If they try to make me kick, someone is just going to have to bail me out.”
“They won’t force you to kick,” I say. “That’s dangerous.”
I pull a cigarette from my pack.
“Can I get one of them?” the intake girl asks. She holds out her hand.
I give her a hard look.
“If the heroin and crack didn’t kill it, I doubt the cigarettes will,” she says.
I hand her a cigarette.
“Can I get some coffee, too?” she says. “Nothing goes with cigarettes like coffee.”
She holds out her cup.
I pour half my coffee into her cup.
“You going to use those sugars?” she asks, looking at my packets.
“No,” I say, handing her two. “My name’s Jamie, by the way,” I say.
She smiles. Her smile freaks me out. She has odd-colored eyes. Brown and hazel green that overlap.
“So what I was saying is that I asked that bitch that wants this baby to bail me out, and she said no, because it was safer for the baby if I was in jail and not getting high,” Christina says, turning back to the group.
“I told her they are going to make me kick,” she says. “That they don’t care if I’m pregnant here. So if the baby dies it’s on her, not me.”
She tears open a sugar packet, pours half of the sugar into her mouth and chews the granules.
“I saw I was getting nowhere with this bitch, so I called Mark and Kevin,” she continues. “Same thing. Just try to wait it out until the baby’s born in a few more weeks. They don’t care what happens to me. They just want this baby.”
She pours the other half of the sugar into her mouth. Her teeth crunch it as she chews.
“You’re giving your baby to a woman and two guys?” I ask.
She pushes her dirty-blond, Farrah Fawcett hair out of her face.
“Like I would give a baby to fags to raise. God, no,” she says laughing.
“But do they think they are adopting it?” I ask. “The two gay guys?”
“They can think whatever they want,” she says. “I never signed anything. I’m not under any obligation.”
“Why not just tell them?” I ask.
“Because those gay guys take care of me, lovely,” she says. Her lips curl into a sneer. “I can’t even tell you how much money they gave me the last six months. They’ve bailed me out of jail three times. I even had one of them cop for me because I was ‘too sick.’ I wasn’t sick. I owed my dealer, Sam, a lot of money. He was looking for me. I got Kevin to use my name to buy me some drugs. Sam told Kevin he better pay up what I owed. Kevin got scared for the baby. The dude paid him to keep me safe. Sucker born every day. They even got me on this meth program to help me get off heroin, blah blah blah,” Christina says.
“They sound nice,” I say.
“Nice?” she snaps. “They don’t care about me. If I wasn’t giving them this baby, they wouldn’t do shit for me. Believe that. They only care about themselves and what they want. I’ll never hear from them again after this baby is born.” She is sneering again. “Can I get another cigarette?”
I hand one to her.
“Do you have any more coffee?” she asks. “This suicide gown is thin. I’m cold.” She picks up a blanket on the bench and wraps it around herself.
“Sure,” I say. I pour more of my coffee into her cup. I look at the clock. “It’s almost time for my shift.”
I get up and go back to my cell to collect my notebook, Walkman and two packets of instant coffee. I fill two cups and go back down. I give Christina a cup. The blanket is in a heap next to her.
“You can just pour it into your cup,” I say, but she is already drinking from my cup. Crystal is at the table, and she sees the look on my face. She knows how I feel about other people drinking out of my cups.
“Can I get another cigarette?” Christina asks. I give her another one. I light it.
“So you’re just using the gay guys?” I ask. “But the woman who won’t bail you out is really getting the baby?”
“No,” she says. “I can’t stand that bitch, either. She’s barely worth what I can get from her. Which is not much. I have to get it from her husband. And he’s just paying me because I blow him for 50 bucks.” She laughs again.
“So you’re using both of them?” I ask. “They both think you’re giving them your baby?”
“Them and another pathetic couple,” she says. “That lady is such a loser. She can’t have kids. She’s always staring at me, telling me what a blessing it is to be a life-giver. Like she’d know. She’s creepy. She made a room in her house for me. She pays me a hundred dollars to shower, eat this health crap and let her sing to my stomach. I just have to lay on this bean bag chair so she can sit on the floor next to me and sing to my stomach. She tried to touch me one day, and I was like, ‘Uh-uh, bitch, you want to touch me, it’s extra.’ She started crying, saying she only wanted to feel the baby move. Even for a hundred I could only stomach it once a week.”
She gulps down the last of her coffee and sets the cup on her desk. I don’t want it back.
Crystal is trying to get my attention, but I don’t look at her. I am fascinated by Christina, who goes to the bathroom. She doesn’t wash her hands. Then she goes to the officers station. I see her talking into the port in the window. She is asking about the next methadone delivery. I can’t hear the officers. Christina turns and walks back to the table.
“I need my meth,” she says angrily.
“Lindski, Bishop, Mason and Johnson—visit,” a voice on the intercom announces.
Christina walks toward the door. “Do I just go like this?” she asks.
“Farthing, give her a uniform to wear for visitation,” the officer says from the window port. “Make sure you get it back after.”
“Whoever is here better bail me out,” Christina says.
I wonder who came. What if all three couples showed up? I light a cigarette. The girl next to me wants a drag. I hand it to her. I go to the bathroom. When I come back, Christina is walking back inside. Visits are two hours. She was out there less than 30 minutes.
“That fucking bitch!” Christina screams. “Fuck that bitch!”
“What happened?” I ask.
“Farthing, you need us?” the officer asks through the window.
“Nah, we’re good,” I say.
Christina continues yelling.
“She has to get back in the gown now,” the officer says from the window port.
“You okay?” I ask Christina.
“Can I get a cigarette?” she says. “I’m so pissed. Bitch refused to bail me out. Why did she even come? We’re not friends. I don’t want to see her. She’s telling me I could give birth any day now and after that I could kick and get clean. I asked her if she knew how horrible it is in here and if this was where she wanted her baby to be. I asked her if she knew I was on suicide watch because I can’t take it. That shut the bitch up. I’m giving them my baby and they don’t want to bail me out? We’ll see after that visit.”
She grabs my cigarette. An officer taps the window.
“You have to put the gown back on real quick,” I tell her.
Christina balances the cigarette on her desk. She quickly strips out of the uniform. She is naked. She picks up the cigarette, puts it in her mouth and reaches for the gown. We all look at her emaciated body. Her stomach is the size of a volleyball. She has sores all over.
“God, you carry small for nine months,” I say softly.
“Yeah,” she says blankly. “I wish it was a little bigger. Some tricks go crazy for pregnant girls. Make a lot of money when I’m pregnant.”
She comes back to the table. “Days of Our Lives” is on the TV.
“How much money you make, girl?” Teri, a skinny, light-skinned crackhead asks.
“A hundred, three hundred, easy,” Christina says.
“Three hundred?” Carman asks.
“Yeah,” Christina says, taking a drag on the cigarette. “One of my tricks pays me $300 to finish on my stomach. He makes me shake my stomach. He likes that. The more it moves, the faster I get paid. There are some real sickos out there. But the real money is with those people that want this baby. Any sob story and their wallets fly open.”
“Lindski, meds up,” the officer says through the window port. The door clicks open. I bring down Christina’s methadone. She drains the cup.
“Can I get another cup of coffee?” she asks. “It’ll help bring the methadone on faster.”
I want her to keep telling me her story.
“Crystal, would you mind getting it for her?” I ask.
“It’s your coffee,” Crystal says with a shrug.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking all these questions,” I say. “But are you worried? What are you going to do when you have the baby and they’re all there to claim it?”
“Let them claim away,” she says. “It’s their problem. I’m just a junkie. The state will take it away.” She shrugs.
“Do you know the father?” I ask. “Does he care?” She laughs.
“Father,” she says. “Girl, it’s a trick baby. It’s just a way to get paid. I don’t care what happens after. And I’ll use the next one for what it’s worth, too.”
“You’re talking about a baby,” I say.
“No, a trick baby,” she says.
“Lindski, pack up,” an officer says through the intercom.
“I knew that bitch would cave,” she says. “I’m out of here.” She puts the uniform back on.
“What’s your name?” she asks me.
“Jamie,” I say.
“Jamie, can I get a cigarette to smoke outside? I know that bitch won’t give me one.”