In the bad ol' days, when this place was a mental institution, the 15’ by 15’ outdoor space on each wing was called the “Smoke Pit.” Today, the official sobriquet is the “Fresh Air Pit.” No matter what politically correct name the administration gives it, we inmates still refer to it as the “Smoke Pit,” and, while I rehabilitate myself here at the Decatur Prison for Women, I can’t help but feel that “pit” is the operative word.
I arrived at this facility on February 19, 2013 – four days and a year after my brilliant arrest on I-80 for driving a load of marijuana through Illinois. During the months that followed, I’ve seen the Smoke Pit on a daily basis, watching blizzards, thunderstorms, and the snow and rain that fall like chaff through the chain link fence above the graveled space. The sides are lined with ten-foot-tall plate glass stretching from floor to ceiling except where they’ve been replaced with plywood, a testament to past breakages and pre-safety glass construction.
Recently, one of my roommates and another woman fell against a window, breaking it into giant decapitating shards. One of these guillotine blades sliced into Tessa’s forearm. Blood spewed and chaos ensued, turning the white linoleum hallway into a scene from Carrie.
Tessa was all right, and the slab of skin was slapped back onto her arm and stitched down with all the Frankensteinian delicacy of a Boris Karloff doctor. Antibiotics were most likely not around when Mary Shelley wrote her masterpiece, but the prison has a full stock in the Health Care Unit along with enough thorazine to make zombies of the most bipolar inmates. But for this highly addicted prison population, the only available medication for everything from tooth-pulling (of which there is plenty) to Tessa’s wound, is Ibuprofen, baby!
Regardless of the danger to life and limb, we offenders continue to seek the fresh air that is sometimes offered in the eponymous pit. But, I was quickly disabused about the notion of drawing a clean breath one morning at 8am on my way to work. (Yes, I have a job in prison. I’m a Teaching Assistant from 8:20 to 3:20, Monday through Friday, in Career Technologies at $1.43 per day.)
Eager for a breath of non-forced air before diving into my windowless classroom, I slipped into the “Fresh Air Pit” only to retreat quickly when I inhaled a hot, humid lungful of what tasted like wet dog and fertilizer.
(There was a time, during my early writing years, when I would have described this rancid smell by saying that it was as if a filthy whore had squatted over the prison. However, some of my BFs are Sex Workers, and they’re universally some of the most obsessively clean people I’ve ever met!)
I found out later that the mangy fur scent – eau de wet dog – emanates from a giant food processing plant the size of a small city. This industrial complex, called ADM (Archer-Daniels-Midland the giant food conglomerate whose headquarters is in Decatur), straddles the interstate with tubes, chutes, and conveyor belts, moving tons of soy and corn through the factory. The crops are transformed into cat food kibble and other assorted food stuff, some of which, most assuredly ends up on my prison tray.
I know what must go into this food, not only because I’m aware of the monolithic corn and soybean industry, but also because I listen to the local “Brown Field” Report on my clear plastic AM/FM radio/cassette player. (Clear plastic radios and televisions are required so that prisoners can’t conceal contraband inside them.)
Besides describing “Butcher Hog and Live Cattle” prices, the DuPont-sponsored show offers advice on how to combat “Frog-Eye Leaf Spot” and what sounds like “Sardonic White Mold” with phosphate soluble inoculant. This “fusion technology” enhances root and nutrient uptake allowing “micro essentials” to yield greater “R.O.I.” (Tofu, anyone?)
This morning, I turn off my radio, disconnecting myself from one of the only three receivable Decatur stations, this one called, predictably, WSOY. The CO unlocks C Wing for the 8:20 line, and I head to work, having forgone the pleasure of inhaling Illinois oxygen in the “Fresh Air Pit.”
As I walk down the plate-glass lined corridors under the watchful eyes of the guards, I wonder if there is some sort of fungicide available for earworms. The last song I heard on my radio was a bubble gum pop tune by Taylor Swift, and my ears seem to be infected with her looping lyrics: “Trouble…trouble…trouble…”