Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work


A couple of weeks ago, I was writing about the stuff we carry around with us that shapes how we see the world and interact with others.  In that conversation, the "stuff" was, obviously, figurative:  fear, hope, memories, expectations, etc.  Now let's talk about the actual physical stuff that we carry around with us.  

After 40 plus years of economic privilege and countless Target shopping trips, I have a lot of stuff.  One of the great challenges to pulling off this year in Spain was deciding what stuff to take with me.  The goal:  two 50 pound suitcases and a carry on, for which there was no weight limit (yea!).  Based on this lengthy process, involving both qualitative and quantitative analysis, I was able to identify my three major types of "stuff," each with their own distinct packing challenge:  books (heavy), shoes (oddly shaped) and cardigan sweaters (bulky).  After arranging, re-arranging and last minute weeding, my "essential" stuff was chosen and crammed into the suitcases (pictured above).

This process shed light on discussions I have had with women who have been incarcerated in Connecticut about the management of stuff in prison.  At the York Correctional Institution (YCI), CT's only female prison, inmates are each allocated a drawer to hold their stuff.  I have never seen the drawer, but it has been described to me as about the size of a milk crate.  Sometimes, an extra drawer may be available, if there is an empty bed in the cell/dorm or if someone chooses not to use the drawer designated for her.  But basically it is one drawer per person.  Padlocks are available for purchase from the commissary for those who want to secure their stuff, although items may still go missing for a variety of different circumstances.  One of the primary causes of lost stuff is being sent to the segregation unit.  You can't have any stuff when you are in "seg."  So when this happens, personal items are put into storage and things are often lost and stolen in the packing and/or storage processes.  The potential loss of stuff is considered by many to be one of the major disadvantages of being sent to "seg."

The stuff that women have at YCI include prison-issued clothes and items purchased from the commissary, i.e. clothes, electronics (e.g. TV), stationary, cosmetics and food.  Clothes include jeans, t-shirts, sweatshirts, white sneakers, bras and underwear.  (In Spanish prisons, incarcerated people are allowed to wear their own clothes that they bring from home.  More on that later...)  For most of the women who I interviewed, their prison stuff was primarily cosmetics and food.  Keeping inventory of that stuff, guarding against theft, and making the stuff last were described to me as central activities to prison life.  On this surface, it might seem a bit trivial.  Is the theft of a couple $0.23 Ramen Noodle packs really that big a deal?  The decision to share some shampoo with a new inmate that remarkable?  You are locked in cell by yourself for 23 hours a day for a week and your major concern is what happened to your half-used deodorant and a stick of beef jerky?

Then again, the same could be said for any of our stuff.  If you looked in my 50 pound suitcases, your reaction would probably be, "Really?"  But if my stuff went missing in the Madrid airport, you better believe Iberia would have heard about it.  They may not be worth much, but those are my white ankle socks, and I want them.  They keep my feet warm.

We all have our stuff - big and small, often uninteresting to other people, but invaluable to us.  And when we are in circumstances where we have less stuff than usual, each item becomes even more valuable.  So while you might walk right past a crate of Ramen Noodles sitting on the sidewalk, if that is all you had in your drawer at YCI, you'd lock it up and keep it safe.