I have been incarcerated for four years and one month, and my last day at the California Institution for Women is not so different from most. Another day of “hurry up and wait.” Of plans being foiled. Another day of physical and emotional discomfort. Of surrendering to the understanding that the only thing I control is my response to situations.
Another day of friendships proving to be more powerful than barbed wire, bars, and badges.
During my time in prison, I’ve seen plenty of people leave and noticed a change as their time approached. Most become kinder and more generous, giving things away that in prison are priceless but on the other side of the gate would be considered junk. Like a jaggedly sewn handmade pillow or a faded pair of contraband pajama pants that have been passed down for twenty years.
When someone is about to leave, they start experimenting with their hair or makeup and trying on outfits. Other girls offer to do their styling or let them borrow clothes. People ask questions like: “Where are you going?” And: “What’s the first thing you want to do or eat?” They try to give advice, or at least feel compelled to say, “Don’t come back.” Recidivism is real. I’ve seen more than a few short timers come back to prison after parole. Either way, whether it’s a short timer or a lifer leaving, it’s exciting. It’s like a community effort to send someone off the right way.
Now it’s my turn.
I’ve saved an outfit for this morning, and given away every other thing I had. Little by little, each item finds its perfect new owner. My roommate, Layla, gets most of my hand-me-down contraband clothes—the soft purple pants from Jen, the hospital scrubs from Princess. I leave her my hair straightener so she can continue to make grilled cheese sandwiches without me. Angel gets my TV and those misshapen pillows made by Anna. Ella gets my workout clothes, Sandra the “sexy” jeans I bought from her last year. (Recently she thought she was leaving, gave all her jeans away, and then discovered she wasn’t going anywhere for another year.) Colleen gets my thermals and sweaters because she is always cold. I give Gypsy the tie-dyed tank top I bought from Taylor for one soda. Ceil gets my Nike slides, packs of tuna, and tank tops. Kara and Kailey get colored pencils.
My release outfit has been chosen by my best friend Nayeli, who paroled in September 2020. It has been held in R & R (“Receiving and Release”) for the last 28 days, as part of what is called a “parole box.” This is an option I didn’t mention to my family because I figured the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) had already gotten enough money out of them. I never even thought about it, really, but once Nayeli told me she had picked clothes for my first day of freedom, I was filled with excitement and gratitude. It is something I didn’t know I desired until it was there.
I got a lot of unsolicited advice at the beginning of this journey from other inmates. Most common was: “You come in here alone, you leave alone. Don’t make friends.” That advice, plus my assumption that I would have absolutely nothing in common with anyone, made it surprising that in jail and prison, I learned how to be a real friend. The joy and value of female friendship was something I had taken for granted, but I would form the deepest bonds I ever had while incarcerated.
I know what I am going to wear on the walk to R & R. I’ve planned it with Angel and Ceil. I noticed Angel as soon as she moved into my unit because she never smiled—not uncommon in prison, although she wasn’t trying to act hard; she was just in her own world. Her thick, espresso-colored hair curtains her face, usually covering one of her large eyes. She reminds me of a much taller Wednesday Addams. We became instant friends after I asked her roommate, “What the heck is wrong with your bunky?” I made it my mission to make Angel laugh. We have been laughing our asses off ever since.
When not locked down, we would go on long walks with Ceil or visit her room for “tea time,” a routine of drinking tea while “spilling the tea.” Ceil has done more than twenty years of a forty-five-to-life sentence. She was born with a serious heart condition and has had multiple surgeries while I’ve known her, yet she walks ten miles a day when she can and does tricep dips and lunges. I am constantly inspired by her resilience and the fact that she won’t give up on her health. Ceil was the go-to person for greeting cards and portraits. She once had a stroke and lost her eyesight in one eye…but her paintings are so incredible, you would never know.
Everything about this day has been perfectly planned, down to where to go for breakfast with my mom and stepdad Larry once I get out. Without the internet to look up menus or reviews, I’ve polled certain correctional officers (COs) for suggestions and sent my mom the list so she can surprise me.
That final morning, a constant barrage of people comes by, starting as soon as our doors unlock at 6:15 a.m. As people arrive, I stop whatever I am doing—mascara in one hand and one eye’s lashes done—and listen as they wish me well. With tears in her eyes, Ella reminds me about a letter I wrote on her behalf in 2019 when she went to court for a possible resentencing. She tells me that when she came away with twenty-five years taken off her sentence, her relatives added me to their nightly prayers. Nikki is next, and I open the door, concealer dotted around my face, and try to give her my full attention as she reminds me of moments we have shared in coding. I end up giving away my makeup right after applying it.
Even with the interruptions, I am ready on time.
The outfit I have selected:
- One high quality, relatively new Nike shirt—tight and white. I got some stares and compliments the first time I wore it in 2019, so I have kept it unworn after that, saving it for my walk to freedom.
- Pam’s old bra, which Kara gave me. Why? For one, we are not allowed underwire bras so this must be a relic from the early 1990s when female prisoners could get packages from whatever store they chose. It’s super comfortable and of such good quality, the only thing that makes me feel like a woman. But mostly I treasure this bra because Pam has a beautiful soul and when I wear it, I feel her good energy close to my heart.
- Over that, my pink Nike sports bra. Because I want it for jogging.
- One pair of silky lavender panties with a Nordstrom tag. Also contraband, probably from the 1990s. Left to me by my former bunky Jen who also had such magical energy that I don’t hesitate to wear her underwear.
- Very light blue jeans with lots of natural rips, which I got from Bonnie, who grew out of them when she started eating too many honey buns and adding creamer to her coffee. She bought them from Crystal, who needed money for drugs. I don’t know where Crystal got them. Somehow I have gotten away with wearing these jeans to coding, to medical appointments, to groups and Shabbat services, and no CO has ever stopped me on the yard. I wear them about once a week after acquiring them from Bonnie (who only dared wear them in our unit), sometimes avoiding eye contact with the cops and sometimes not, depending on my mood. Each time wondering: Is today the day these jeans get taken? Then, I feel a small victory at the end of the day, as if I’ve gotten away with something.
- My Adidas classic shoes.
By the time my departure day arrives, I’d have thought I’d reach my goal weight, but I haven’t anticipated so many people bringing ice cream from the canteen and cooking for me. People keep saying I look great, though, and despite a slight fluff, I feel like the best version of me. I’m looking in the mirror pondering that, in this moment, it’s quite possible that I accept myself. Then, I hear the announcement. It’s the same kind of announcement I hear at least a few times a week for different reasons: “Herron, Officer Station.” Sometimes it’s to go to a ducat. Sometimes it’s to sign for legal mail or go to Property. But today it means I’m going home.
As soon as I hear my name, I realize it’s not our regular staff. It’s not soft-spoken and always smiling Mr. Romero, nor hungover and usually sleeping behind his sunglasses Mr. Silver. I step out of my room and Angel, Ceil, and Jezebel—the aloof (cat-trapped-in-a-dog-body) raggedy-looking goldendoodle Ceil is trying to train—are waiting to walk me to the gate. They reach out to grab my bags. Bags containing journals, books I can’t bear to part with, and every letter that’s ever been written to me in accordion-style expandable folders.
As they lift the heavy bags, I feel a terrifying lightness, like I’m no longer tethered to the ground. I hear hooting and hollering and the applause that begins. The girls in the hall reach out and touch me as I pass…because most of us believe freedom is contagious.
But I am not in my body. I’m not feeling well at all, to be exact. My mouth is suddenly dry, and my palms are sweaty. Heart—is it still beating? Or is it beating so fast it’s sprung from my ribcage like a hummingbird? I grip Angel’s solid arm like a flotation device as I swim through this sea of people and energy, leaving behind all the familiar sounds and smells. The concrete and metal. The ugly things we think we hate serve as anchors and I’m floating away too fast. My lungs can’t seem to fill up with a satisfying amount of air.
But no one knows because I’m smiling.
Before I can slip into a full-blown panic attack, I see a correctional officer I don’t know emerge from the office.
“You’re not leaving this unit dressed like that,” she says over the celebratory noise.
Naively believing there’s a misunderstanding, I try to clarify. “Oh, no, I’m paroling right now. I’m Herron!” I say excitedly.
“Not looking like that, you’re not. I can see your sports bra through that shirt. And your jeans are ripped. You need to change.” And just like that, my hummingbird heart returns to the cage of my chest and morphs into a crow. A familiar anger centers me in the moment. I hear hushed whispers: “What did that bitch just say to Jac?” “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I’ve already given everything I own away. I have no other clothes and as soon as I get to R&R, I have a parole box waiting for me,” I tell her respectfully.
“I can’t let you leave this unit wearing that. You’re not free yet.”
The smile on my face expands, a spontaneous reaction as my panic breaks. Maybe it’s not possible to feel both rage and anxiety at the same time. There needs to be a new word for the kind of anger when you’re at someone’s mercy. The impotent rage of incarceration. Impotent because you can’t yell or leave or even say what you feel. It’s never a fair fight. And it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like or what type of crime you did—if you’re incarcerated, you will at some point be made to feel this hot rage at the hands of your captors. In the past four years and one month, I have been sexually harassed by COs, threatened with being written up too many times to count, told Jewish “jokes,” and just recently (for the first time in my life) called a kike. I’ve had to hear comments on my weight, shape, hair, clothes…. And I’ve had it very easy with the COs compared to others.
Some people cope with drugs, some cope with food. Some sleep with their captors to feel like they have some control. People act out every day—verbally, physically. And the guards love that. They love a fight. Any reason to use their pepper spray and batons. For me, the first time I felt this new kind of anger burning my insides, I knew it wasn’t sustainable. If I allowed it, it would burn me down. This is the energy of cancer. The energy that precedes a bad decision. This is the type of fire inside that causes you to reach for gasoline…just to get it over with. But I refuse to self-destruct.
When they call me “INMATE!” or mispronounce my name on purpose, a still voice inside says, “I am not my name.” When they “search” my room (destroy and/or take my stuff), that steady inner voice says, “I am not my things.” When they joke about my crime, the wise one inside says, “I am not a story.” Whenever it feels like a brick has been thrown at me, I step on it and become a little taller. Certain COs—the ignorant, the rude, the downright sadistic—serve as sandpaper for my character and my mind. Every bullshit moment becomes an opportunity to rise a little higher. To develop more self-control, to learn how to soothe and care for myself. So when this woman I’ve never seen tells me, “You’re not free yet,” my higher self in its powerful whisper of a voice reminds me: I’ve been free this whole time. To have this thrown at me in my final moments is a perfect encapsulation of my time in prison, a final test, and a reminder of the biggest thing I have learned, that I am free and in control, no matter where I am.
So I smile. And turn around to see so many disappointed faces. I shrug, making the universal gesture for “Now what?” Immediately, a girl named Cooper—who I’ve lived twenty feet away from for three years yet never really gotten to know—runs up to me with her blues.
“Put these on over your clothes,” she whispers, “and then just give them to Ceil to bring back to me.”
I am touched by her kindness. I duck into my room and pull on the baggy, state-issued, dark blue misshapen pants. They are, as usual, the consistency of cardboard, with legs that could fit three human legs in each side and a waistband fit for a ten-year-old. I button the faded extra-large blue shirt over the shirt that has just a few minutes ago gotten so many compliments. I feel momentarily disappointed that this is not how I’ve envisioned looking on my final walk across the yard. Then I take a deep breath. “I am not my clothes,” I remember.
I walk back down the hall with Angel and Ceil flanking me, no longer anxious or even angry at all. Again, the woman stops me. “You have to go to Medical,” she says. “They need to see you before R & R.”
I smile and say thank you.
“These fucking assholes!” Ceil mutters as we walk out.
Angel looks at me as if studying my face. “I love you,” she says.
I look up at the sky and my breath catches. “Look!” I point. “Look at the clouds and the color of the sky.” I have never seen a color like this before and the clouds are wispy strands like a trail of white cotton candy leading me home. I stare at the great expanse of the sky and wonder if I will miss this place.
“This is how the sky always looks,” Ceil says. “It just looks different because you’re going home.” A part of my heart breaks at the thought that I’m leaving and they’re staying on this side of the gate.
The air is no longer crispy as it was last week. Beads of sweat form under my two shirts and two bras and I tug at the tiny waistband of the blues every now and then for some relief. The walk to Medical is about half a mile and I wipe my hairline and dab at my brow and upper lip, sweat threatening my makeup. I think back to this time last year, after Sandra painted my toes and blew the extra glitter off them. Then she left our cell and I remember lying on my top bunk with my feet straight up, pressing the ceiling. I whispered to myself, “These look like free toes.…They should be out there.” I kicked them around a bit and imagined I was in an apartment and had plans later to go out with friends. It was a Saturday night, after all. I wondered what I would be doing… just then, I felt a gust of heat.
This was May 2021, exactly a year ago, and we were all dreading the hellish CIW summer to come. There is no AC here. There are tiny fans for those who can afford them. Flashbacks of sleepless nights, dumping water on my head to cool off. Cold showers fully clothed before bed. On this Saturday night with my glittered toes, my release date was December 2022.
“I can’t do another summer like this, God,” I pleaded in a whisper. I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head like a little kid on the verge of a tantrum. “Please let this be my last summer in prison,” I mumbled. I whispered prayers and cried.
I remember this day because it was one of very few pity parties. And now, as I walk through the yard for the last time and feel the first sneak preview of the upcoming summer, I realize my prayer has been answered.
I keep trying to grab my bags but Ceil and Angel won’t let me. Even Jezebel the dog is walking with purpose, not pausing to stare down gopher holes or chase weasels. It’s like she knows this is serious.
When we get to Medical, the CO, an annoyed-looking blond guy, explains that because of COVID, people have to check out first with a nurse before paroling. He explains that there are no nurses in the building right now.
“Why don’t you just sit down? Get comfortable.” He nods toward the metal benches by the door where Angel and Ceil are standing. Jezebel is lying in a fetal position. I feel my eye start to twitch. It’s been doing this on and off for a week now. I walk back to my friends and relay the message. We stand in the doorway and discuss the craziness of this place. I steal glances at the clock.
“Fuck this!” I finally mutter and unbutton Cooper’s shirt and throw it to Angel. When I start to pull down the ugly clown pants, the CO jumps up from behind the desk.
“WHOA, WHOA—” he starts before he realizes I’m wearing jeans underneath. I’m trying to get the pants off without removing my shoes and at one point, I’m hopping around on one foot, kicking and stomping the other pants leg down. I can feel my face grow red and realize my behavior could be regarded as erratic when I look up and see the CO is standing on alert, hand hovering over the pepper spray hanging from his belt.
“I just got hot,” I explain, kicking the pants towards Ceil.
“I’m so sorry, you guys,” I say to my friends. “You can go. Seriously. Just leave me here.” Of course they don’t. I talk about how Mom and Larry are on the other side of the gate, and I feel a wave of grief over all I’ve put my family through. Every time they came to visit, took my calls, emailed, sent me money. Rode the roller coaster of false hope with me. They did this time with me. This experience has fucked with them just like it’s fucked with me—right up until this very last second. I march over to the CO.
“Excuse me. Dude…. I only have twenty-four hours with my parents until I have to parole to a different city. Every minute I’m sitting here is a minute we don’t get together.” My voice is cracking. “Please. It’s been four years and…I really miss my family.” A tear escapes, quickly followed by another. “And now my makeup is getting ruined,” I add, tilting my head up as if tears are only an issue of gravity.
After carefully wiping my eyes, I look down to see his face soften. He makes a call, and after hanging up, he tells me they really can’t let me leave but the nurse should be back shortly. I nod. Time bends and stretches and my friends and I play with it like a piece of shared Silly Putty. We talk, tell stories, and whenever I get agitated, Angel explains that my family doesn’t know what’s going on. That for all they know, this is how long it takes.
“I just feel bad for subjecting them to this,” I say, blinking back more tears. “All this time, I never had a mental health crisis. Wouldn’t it be something if I lost it right now? Just started screaming or ran through that window? I mean…what if this is the last straw for me?”
“You should fake a seizure,” Ceil suggests sarcastically. “That’s the only way to get anything done around here.” We laugh some more. Avoid eye contact with the clock.
Once the nurse shows up, I have to sign some papers and then we nearly run to R & R. I hug my friends, not processing that I won’t be hugging them again later or tomorrow. All I can think is: “Got to get to Mom.”
I rush into R & R, out of breath and sweating. “I know I have a parole box, but I’d like to take it to go, please,” I say. “My family has been waiting long enough.”
The CO on the other side of the desk gives me a sad look. “Are you sure? You should walk out of here in something new,” she says.
“It will only take a minute,” a deeper voice chimes in. I look, and next to her is a gorgeous man I have definitely never seen before. He looks like a stripper pretending to be a cop. It makes me wonder how I look. Pit stains and raccoon eyes, I’m guessing. I take the Fedex box she’s just sliced open and hurry to the dirty bathroom. I pull out a maroon push up bra, the kind I used to wear. Pam’s bra has no padding. This is something I forgot was possible. I put my nose to it and breathe in the scent of something new. The smell of “store.” There are yellow sandals with a gold chain and my mouth is hanging open. Black capri pants that fit perfectly with a little silver butterfly on the butt pocket. A plaid blue and white shirt with buttons… Down the back! I change carefully so that nothing will touch anything in here.
When I emerge from the bathroom, stripper cop wiggles his eyebrows flirtatiously and smiles.
“Well now, isn’t that better?!” the other CO says.
They both nod vigorously. And I kind of believe them.
There’s this awkward moment where you are looking at the parking lot waiting for the gate to open. I don’t know if it is seconds or minutes of staring at Mom and Larry. The gate opens and I embrace them. I hear cheering, clapping, and my name being yelled. I remember that Kinzie and Kelly are in Visiting with their families and have been on the patio waiting. Another pang of survivors’ guilt. I wave and yell goodbye. Mom is crying. I feel a strange numbness.
In the car, I gaze at the prison from a new angle. Larry is driving slowly and I realize I’ve been silently staring out the window while they both look at me.
“I’ve never seen it from the outside,” I explain. I try to tune into my feelings but I’m drawing a blank. The sound of the GPS startles me. I don’t like it.
“Can you turn that down?” I whisper. Mom hands me a gift: a new iPhone. It feels terrifying. Too skinny. Somehow I keep accidentally summoning Siri. After about ten seconds, I hand it to her.
“I can’t deal with this right now.” She tells me all the people who want to hear from me and I’m nodding, staring out the window feeling like the car is going too fast. Next thing I know, she is trying to hand me her phone—she has called someone for me. I shake my head, waving my hands. and she looks confused, politely telling them I’ll call later.
I just want to be present right now.
As we arrive at the diner, I realize I’m starving. The waiter hands us menus. I lift a fork and experience the heaviness of it. This is the first time, I realize, that I’m going to eat with real utensils, not a plastic spork. This is my first sip of water out of a glass. The walls are cluttered with signs and old-time tchotchkes. I can’t stop staring at everything. I wonder how I must look to other people. I feel like there’s a sign on my forehead. The waiter comes back to take our orders and although I know what I want to eat, I haven’t anticipated the question about drinks.
“I … uh… “
“Do you need a minute?” he asks.
“No…I mean, no it’s just…well…there’s coffee. Or juice? I already have water,” I mumble.
I see him glance at my parents and wonder if he thinks I’m brain damaged. I can’t have that.
“I’m sorry, I just got out of prison!” I blurt. Quickly, I cover my mouth as if to stuff the words back in. Mom and Larry gasp. Larry laughing uncomfortably, mom glaring at me. I’m looking to the waiter wide-eyed.
“Wow,” he says. “Congratulations. My uncle is in prison.”
We all exhale, relieved.