Nuevo Correctional Institution – Kern County, CA
“Okay, Lang, strip!” The guard’s bark made Carrie’s stomach roil. She cowered in the corner of the women’s processing area, shivering under the blast of cold air from the ceiling vent.
“I said strip! Don’t make me have to tell you again.” The pudgy, uniformed female slapped a baton against her palm in a constant rhythm. In the empty room, the sound bounced off the depressing gray cement walls and echoed in Carrie’s head. She forced herself to take a faltering step out of her shoes. Her frigid fingers fumbled with the buttons as she struggled to remove her favorite pink cotton blouse. She unfastened her jeans and let them drop to the floor, then gazed through bleary eyes at the other woman, praying she didn’t require the removal of anything more.
“This is all a big mistake. I shouldn’t be here.” Carrie’s voice trembled. “Honestly, I’m innocent.”
With deeply-furrowed skin and graying hair, the guard looked well past fifty. She walked closer, stopping when her face was only inches from Carrie’s. “Do you have any idea how often I hear that in here?” Her breath reeked of cigarette smoke, and Carrie wrinkled her nose and turned her head. How could someone she’d never met hate her so much already? Was there even an ounce of compassion buried beneath that deep sneer?
The older woman pressed the edge of her baton against Carrie’s jawbone and forced her face forward. Her stomach clenched. Evil gleaming in her eyes, the guard delved the wooden stick under Carrie’s bra strap, slowly guiding the silky string off her shoulder and down her arm. Gooseflesh peppered her skin and she shivered.
“Stripping means everything, inmate Lang. Panties, too, sweetheart. Move it! I’m a busy person, so quit wasting my time.” The matron strode to the other side of the room, leaned against the wall, and ogled Carrie while she finished undressing.
Lowering her head, she dropped her bra atop the pile on the floor then kicked her panties off next to it. Feeling the cold invade every pore, she wrapped her arms around her upper body. Threatening tears blurred her eyes, but she squeezed her lids together and tilted her head toward the ugly pipes snaking across the ceiling. Oh Lord, what did I do to deserve this? Please, help me. You’re my last hope. “Praying are you?” the gravelly voice taunted. “It’s a little late for that. Put those hands down to your sides and look to the front, missy.”
Carrie opened her eyes and swallowed hard. Did the woman expect her to know what to do? “N-Now what?” she asked in a quivering voice.
Just a short time ago, she’d been frisked, photographed, and finger-printed for the second time in her life. Her initial arrest had been horrifying enough, but she at least made bail for a time. Now this? She gazed down at the black ink smudges still visible on her hands. Why was this happening? Never had she felt so humiliated…and disbelieving. How could the judge have sentenced her to ten years in prison?
The guard laughed, drawing Carrie’s thoughts back to reality. The evil cackle indicated delight in her predicament and turned the room even colder. Ms. Ogden, as her name tag read, placed her black baton under one arm and, with the other hand, reached into a pouch on her utility belt to retrieve a pair of plastic gloves. She slowly pulled them on her age-spotted hands, leering at Carrie the entire time. When she finished, she put the baton into a special holder on her belt then stood with her hands on her hips. “Now, lift up those breasts so I can make sure you aren’t smuggling contraband.”
Carrie’s cheeks burned, but she did as she was told. With her eyes squinted shut, she turned her face away, trying to halt the sobs wracking her insides.
“Okay, now bend over and spread ’em.” The matron’s snicker was the final stab of humiliation.
Aghast, but shaking with fear, Carrie bowed at the waist, letting her hands dangle just above her toes. The welling tears now fell, splashing against the darkly tiled floor. Her breath seized when the cool feel of plastic touched the skin of her buttocks, daring to invade places that should remain private from prying eyes and strange hands.
“Okay, that does it,” the guard said, stripping off the gloves. “Now get in the shower. There’s soap on the ledge and shampoo in the big plastic bottle on the floor. It’s a ‘lice’ preventative, so make sure to give your hair a good wash. We don’t want any more critters around here than we already have.” She turned to leave.
Carrie crossed her arms over nipples erect from the cold and cursed the legs that didn’t want to support her. She paused for a moment before entering the stall. “What do I put on when I’m done?” Her voice was a mere whisper.
The simple question brought another evil guffaw. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll bring you a pretty little matching outfit and a new pair of shoes.” Ogden pulled a towel from a hook by the door, threw it in Carrie’s face and left.
The heavy metal door slammed with a clank. Carrie glanced around the empty room, listened to the stone silence, and fought the nausea bubbling up from the pit of her stomach. Her legs felt leaden with each step toward the faucet, and with trembling hands, she somehow managed to turn on the tap. At least the water was warm. She stepped beneath the soothing stream, feeling the heat spread across her chilled skin. With her face raised to the pelting shower, she prayed for divine intervention. Her remaining tears bubbled to the surface, mingled with, and washed away in the shower spray. She muffled her sobs against her fist, daring not to tarry.
After her shower and shampoo, she toweled off, wrung the excess water from her long brown hair, and forced herself to don the prison-issued dirty-gray panties and equally disgusting sports bra. She’d ignored the grating of the door as it opened and closed during her shower, and now spied a uniform hanging on a wall hook. Her skin prickled at the thought of how many people before her had worn the bright orange shirt and pants. Once on, the uniform’s baggy fit completely hid all of her feminine attributes, and the accompanying well-worn shoes felt disturbingly strange. She pictured all the previous feet that had molded the cracking rubber of the brown slip-ons, and an appropriate saying crept through her mind. Walk a mile in my shoes. Had prior wearers been this petrified?
Dampness from her hair spread onto her shirt. She shivered at the coldness of the cement bench, hugged her knees, and waited.
The hair on her neck bristled when the holding cell door creaked open. She swallowed hard to rid her throat of a lump that threatened to choke her.
The same portly woman leaned against the open door and leered inside. “Get out here, Lang. I have some new friends I want you to meet.” The ensuing chuckle made Carrie shudder.
Her mind raced. If only she could wiggle her nose like Samantha in ‘Bewitched’ and disappear. Was there no end to this nightmare?
She shuffled toward the opening, her rubber footwear slurping as the wet soles adhered to the slick concrete floor. Avoiding the matron’s gaze, she stopped just inside the cell.
“Are you an idiot, Lang? I said out!” The guard pointed her baton toward the far wall in the booking area.
Carrie slunk from the holding cell and stopped where instructed. Another female guard shoved a scratchy woolen blanket and two badly worn sheets at her, followed by an oft-used towel that had long ago lost its whiteness, an equally aged washcloth and a packet of toiletries. On top of that she plopped a second change of clothing, two pair of socks, panties and a black mesh laundry bag. Carrie fought to balance the lot and glanced apprehensively at Ogden, waiting for further direction—daring not to move.
“Follow me,” the woman snapped. “I have a special bed reserved just for you.”
Clutching her new belongings, Carrie trailed behind, her heart pounding hard against her chest wall. Never in her life had she felt so frightened or been treated so disrespectfully, and there was not a thing she could do about it. She took a long, calming breath and placed one foot in front of the other, although she didn’t know how on legs so wobbly. Two smirking male guards held open the steel doors, allowing the women to pass into a hallway.
She chewed her bottom lip and peered around her load. The corridor seemed endless. Beneath overhead lights, the tiled floor glistened with a freshly waxed sheen. Painted block walls displayed the same dismal gray as the holding cell, and the distinct smell of bleach hung in the air. The chlorine did little to mask the odor of unwashed bodies and co-mingled with the aroma of the most recently-served meal. Bile rose in her throat and she struggled not to retch. The same question kept echoing in her head. How could this have happened? She didn’t belong in this place.
Ogden unlocked yet another steel door and, holding it, motioned for Carrie to enter. Foggy disbelief clouded her mind, but she did as instructed, waiting for the guard and staring down yet another endless passageway. The slamming door sliced the silence and made her jump. At once, the desolate area came to life with a cacophony of catcalls and lewd comments directed at her. Reaching hands stretched between bars from the confinement of the cells, grabbing at the air as she passed. She gulped and tried to keep her eyes forward, but found it difficult to ignore the myriad of strange faces that peered between the bars and vied for her attention. She hunched her shoulders and gripped her prison issue, trying to draw into a ball to avoid being touched. She had nothing in common with these women.
Run away, run away. You don’t belong here. The voice in her head drowned out all other noises and encouraged her to do something she knew wasn’t possible. Cement, steel doors, and endless hallways stood between her and freedom. Not one person in the place had believed her when she’d proclaimed her innocence.
With the turn of a key, a single cell swung open, and Ogden shoved Carrie inside. “Sweet dreams. If you need anything, just call room service.” Again, the woman’s taunting guffaw pierced Carrie like a knife.
Clutching her meager belongings, she stood, frozen in place, and grimaced when the door clicked shut and the overweight guard waddled away. Finally, Carrie turned and surveyed the narrow room. Graffiti littered the confining walls, a timeless testimonial to the previous residents. Her gaze passed the metal bunk beds and rested on the lone lidless toilet, jutting from the back wall and visible to anyone walking by. Claustrophobia squeezed at her chest and tears threatened again. How much more degradation was yet to come?
“Welcome to Hell.” A voice came from behind her.
Carrie’s heart jumped into her throat. She jerked around to see a prone form on the bottom bunk and struggled to find her voice. “I… I thought I was alone.”
“No such luck. They prefer to keep the cells full. It makes serving meals and head counts a lot easier for the coven of witches who work here. My name’s Susanna Crane.” A tall blonde with bright brown eyes and full lips stood and offered her hand, then chuckled. “Oh, sorry, I see you have your arms full. The good news is, it’s nice to have company, and the bad news is you get the top bunk. The bottom one is the only perk around here, and it’s first-come-first-served.” Her pleasant giggle was a welcome sound.
Carrie stood on tiptoes and dumped her issued items on the bare mattress. Marks of age crinkled the cold plastic. In a few ripped places, the cotton filling poked through—like her, it sought escape from a hellish confinement. A quiet chuckle bubbled to her lips until she tried picturing what type of people had slept on the bedding before her. She cringed.
At home, her downy mattress was practically new, still bearing the tags that threatened penalties if they were removed. How ironic. You couldn’t be more law-abiding than that.
She turned back to her cellmate. “Don’t we even get pillows?”
Susanna shook her head. “Not anymore. I hear they used to issue them, but some idiot tried flushing one and backed up the whole sewer system, so now…”
“I don’t think I can sleep without one.”
“So… we all get punished for what one person did?” Carrie hoped she misunderstood.
“That’s the way it works. It’s an incentive program.”
“Incentive for what?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet. I think they expect us to police one another, yet fighting isn’t tolerated. That seems pretty stupid, considering the best way to stop someone from doing something that’s gonna screw us all, is to beat the livin’ shit out of ’em. Go figure.” Susanna’s lips practically disappeared into a thin line.
Carrie was taken aback by Susanna’s language. At first sight, with her shoulder-length hair and big eyes, she looked like the all-American girl. The one you’d find in church or at the Red Cross. Carrie figured her for twenty-five at the most. She glanced around the cell, pondering Susanna’s last statement.
“I’m not sure I understand. How can they expect us to prevent things from happening if we’re all separately caged… like animals?”
“Oh, we get recreation time… a whopping two hours a day. You’ll love it. You get to socialize with the cream of the crop.” Susanna’s voice held a teasing tone
, as she sat back on her bunk, pulled out a netted laundry bag and held it in the air.
“Here’s the answer to your pillow.” She plumped the contents. “Just add your clean clothes and, voila!” She ducked her head, plopping onto her back, and rested against her makeshift cushion. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to get some sleep. I work in the kitchen and have to get up at three a.m.” She pulled her scratchy woolen blanket up and rolled to face the wall, leaving Carrie with questions still begging for answers.
Susanna glanced over her shoulder. “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
Carrie massaged the headache looming above one eye. “Carrie…Carrie Lang. Good night.”
An eerie silence filled the cell. She glanced at the top bunk, knowing that sleep would be elusive. The sleeping accommodations offered no appeal, and her mind raced far too fast to rest. She glanced around, taking in the harsh reality of her new home. Tears clouded her vision and frustration gnawed at her gut. This had to be a nightmare, the worst in all her twenty-four years. She prayed someone would wake her soon.
She walked to the bars separating her from the hallway, pressed her face between them and peered down the long corridor. Her hands clutched the icy steel so tightly her knuckles blanched. It was hard to believe in just a matter of weeks her life had been completely turned upside down. One day she was happy and carefree, and the next, a convicted felon. Why wouldn’t anyone believe she was innocent? She had nothing to do with that bank robbery.
The lights in the prison dimmed, signaling bedtime for all the inmates
, she supposed. Carrie turned and stared at the toilet. She always peed before she went to bed… but maybe not tonight.
Her gaze returned to the long hallway and the depressing empty walls. As the murmuring voices from adjoining cells faded into quietness, fear gathered in the pit of Carrie’s stomach. Her eyes grew tired from straining to see someone—anyone—return to the cell to announce this was all a horrible mistake. She stood a long time before exhaustion gave the strange bed more appeal and reality sunk in. There was no yellow brick road, and she definitely wasn’t Dorothy.
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