Sunday, August 8, 2021
Illustration of Men Dancing in a Circle
Artwork by Jack Matthew Heard


This unit looks like all the rest, but it is vastly different in its occupants. This unit, with its dim lights, bolted down chairs, locked doors with metal flaps shut is where the most desperate are. These are the ones who need the most help, and who get the least.

I am an inmate, but I do not live here. I am a “mentor,” which is actually kind of a joke. Mainly I am here to babysit, because correctional officers are not patient enough to deal with the kind of situations that happen here.

There is a part of prison institutions that no one speaks about. The residents here do not have a voice that reaches anyone who can change their situation. I can mentor them and advocate for them as much as I want, but nothing will ever change. These people are stored here, until the medical bills get too expensive, or the property damage occurs too often.

“Keep them inside, keep them quiet, make sure they don’t hit anyone or take off their clothes,” is what I’m told.

Things in this unit are always much easier said than done. And yes, I am both biased and jaded.

For the most part, my days are spent making random errands—tracking down misplaced underwear, changing television channels, monitoring cleaning chemicals, watching for arguments or fights between residents, cleaning up messes, etc. Day to day, I rush around trying to do what I can for everyone who needs something. I try to help as much as I can, but they need more than I can give.

My first day on the job, I walk over to a table where a girl is sitting alone. She is laughing hysterically, and there are upside down crosses scraped into the skin on her beautiful, pale face.

I am the type of person who feels the tugging pull of fucked up humans and decides it would be a good idea to know their story. I struggle with my own mental illness—a deep and boundless depression that has wracked its way through many of my family members and was so generously handed down to yours truly.

I tend to wrongly believe that whatever another person is going through, that I have been there and can identify with their pain. This is why I feel I can walk up to this young woman who is talking to herself and not feel scared.

It is clear right away that she is in a different world. Her eyes don’t stay in one place, they are fixed on a different place in the room listening intently and conversing with someone or something I can’t see. I sit down carefully on the stool across from her. She looks up suddenly and we lock eyes. She looks away quickly to the spot she was focused on before, and looks at me distractedly. It is almost like she is trying to decide if I am really there or not. I speak hesitantly and optimistically, with a big smile on my face, “Hi, I’m Rachael. I’m new here. What’s your name?”

I wait several moments while she finishes her previous conversation in silence.

Finally, she blurts out with a chuckle, “Amelia.”

We enter into a dance of words that is very much trial and error. Some of my questions answered, and some of them she may not have heard, or doesn’t want to answer. At one point, she tells me that Facebook has ruined her and that is why she is here.

“Facebook?” I ask.

Completely serious, she says, “Yeah, that’s why I have to get tatted up and buy a car, move away.”

I try not to show any surprise, because we are making progress, and because I can tell this is genuinely what she believes.

“Because of . . . Facebook?” I repeat.

“Yeah, because we’re at war,” she says, looking at me without blinking.

“Oh . . . ” I try something I don’t know will work. “But that’s not real,” I say, maintaining the seriousness of the conversation.

She hesitates and says, “It’s not?” Her face registers shock and surprise, but I continue.

“No, Amelia,” I say. “It’s not real.”

She is quiet for a long time after that. I am just about to say something else when she looks up from the sorting of thoughts in her head and says, “Oh . . . so I don’t have scales, and my eyes don’t change color at night?” “No. No, I don’t think so,” I say.

With a heartbreak so real and so damaging, she looks as if everything she’s ever known was a lie. Her voice is small when she looks up at me and says, “But . . . now what am I gonna do?”

Later, I ask another mentor about Amelia. Flippantly, she says, “Oh yea, she’s real fucked up. She’s from Nebraska, but her mom ended up shooting her up with bath salts instead of meth and she was never the same.”

The disbelief is written all over my face, and I have no words for this.

The mentor looks at my face and softens her own. She pats my shoulder and says, “It’s okay, you’ll get used to it.”

I don’t believe it for a second. And I was right. I never got used to it.

For two years I worked in this unit, every day, dealing with various situations. I witness fights, breakdowns, suicide attempts, psychosis, fits, and just about everything you could ever think of. Even more things you could never make up in a million years.

These women will either get parole and immediately get put back in jail, only to come right back to prison. They more likely will discharge their sentences, and we will never hear of them again. Some of them will be in this unit, confined to an eight-by-five-foot concrete cell for the rest of their lives.

The people in this unit are infinitely different from the rest of the prison population. They are unspoken of; they are almost invisible. We are only reminded of them when a suicide attempt is successful, and their death is announced. These people are women. They are mothers, and sisters, and lovers. They are real people. But they are hidden by the department of corrections because no one knows what to do with them. They are heavily medicated to lessen incidents. They are contained. And no one knows, because no one cares. 

My heart has been broken a million times over working in H5. I have lost friends; I have seen things I will never be able to forget. I will dream these nightmares for the rest of my life.

But there are memories of success, and laughter, and happiness. These women have helped me more than I would ever have been able to help them. They take my focus off myself, they open my eyes to someone else for a change. Someone once told me, in the depths of my depression, that there was a cure for my struggles. She told me that when I feel this way, I simply must look outward and help someone else. 

I never believed her until now. And I will never forget that advice. Just like I will never forget the women in H5.