Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Pinball Wizard

In the middle of September, when I had just started transcribing these interviews, I wrote a post about the life that many study participants describe in the weeks and months before their incarceration.  Everyone has her own story, but there are common experiences:   Drug use and sales, homelessness, sex work, petty theft.  No eating, no sleeping. Spin, spin, spin.  (If you missed that one, click here to review!)

Two and a half month later, I have officially completed the transcription of all 30 study interviews. (The crowd goes wild.) Happy day.

The last interview that I transcribed was #28. This woman was an enthusiastic participant in the project. Her answers were thoughtful and detailed. She listened carefully to the questions and responded in full.  At the very end of the interview, she offered a compelling description of her life after prison that I wanted to share on the blog. Seemed like a good way to close the transcription circle.

After over a year in prison, she is drug-free. Underweight and exhausted when the police finally caught up with her, she is now obese, having spent most of her incarceration sitting, sleeping, and eating.  (I calculated her BMI as 33.5.)  She is struggling to regain custody of a child, find employment and steady housing, stay clean and perhaps most importantly, as she describes it, find her "purpose."  Hers is a unique story all her own, but the threads which run through it are present in most of the other women's post-prison narratives.

This narrative about her re-entry experiences and deliberations, the life she is currently living, came out of her just as I have included it below.  These are her unedited words.  Listening to her questions and emotion, through my little purple headphone on this dark rainy night, somehow my mind drifted to the words and music of and old song from The Who, slipping out from under the bottom of my older brother's closed bedroom door circa 1984.

Like a pinball launched into a maze of lights and bumpers, these women find themselves bouncing around New Haven upon their release from prison. They may win points here and there, but the motion is downward, is the outcome inevitable? They move from here to there, their speed and direction dictated by forces beyond their control. As they descend, we pull the flappers back hard, hoping to catch them, even if only by the edge, before they slip back. Sometimes they connect hard, right at the thickest part in the middle, and the bounce sends them back to the very top where they drift for days, months and years among the shining lights. Sometimes they slip right through the middle and all the flapping in the world can't stop them from falling.

"That deaf, dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball."

Here are her words -

Amy:  So when you think about yourself and your own role as a mother to your children is there – does food come into that? 

P28:  Yeah, it’s something you do fun with your kids.  You know?  It can be a fun experience to, you know, bake cookies and make ‘em homemade.  Food is important.  Gotta have it – gotta teach ‘em how to eat healthy.  You know?  Try not to eat fried foods.  Don’t eat too much red meat.

Amy:  Do you feel like you’ve been able to do that with your kids so far, teaching them those things?

P28:  No, I haven’t done, you know, with my addiction 13 years, I haven’t been too much of a mother.  I’ve been more of a friend, than a mother. I have another chance.  I have another little baby that I could – I can actually do this from start, again, and do it right this time… 

It’s a very different experience [with this child].  I never had DCF in my life, so, you know, it’s different.  Um, I get nervous, I get scared.  You know, am I going to do it right this time?  Am I going to hurt this child’s life if I take him back and if I f*** up later on in life?   Excuse my language.  But reality is, it could happen, and relapse can happen – with my baby or without my baby.  You know, and, what would I do?  Would I be honest with the system?  Would I try to, you know, keep continuing?  Would I give up on my son and have him go back into the system again? 

Even though he’s in a pre-adoptive home, so, if – God forbid [knocks on wood table] – it don’t, but if it ever did, he would go back to these people who have him.  If they wanted him!  And it can be five years down the road, now they got a new child, ‘cause they didn’t get to keep this child.  You know, they’re looking to adopt a child.  They have my child and they want to adopt him.  You know?  And I’m trying to outweigh, I’m trying to, I mean I’m determined to do right today.  

I really learned, like, that’s not the way to go in life anymore.  I really want to turn my life around.  And I know gettin’ my foot in school to be a drug counselor, startin’ out with that.  Then I could work my way with the, you know, become certified and become a social worker. 

It’s steps I have to take.  You know.  But I know I need to get into it soon.  Because I’ve been out here almost 2 months.  And I feel like I’m not doing nothing.  Yes, I’m going to [Program #1],  I’m going to my meetings, I’m going to church, I’m going to all these appointments for probation, DCF, [Program #2], [Program #3].  You know, I have a – I don’t have time to get a job.  I don’t have time to go to school right now.  It’s bothering me.  Cause, I want.  Can I get my life together, please? 

Like these people, I feel, are standing in my way for me.  They don’t understand that if I feel I’m not doing something positive in my life as far as for me, I’m going to go backwards.  And it’s time consuming thing for me.  That’s been my problem in my life.  Feeling useless. Feeling worthless.  All my life!  I don’t want to feel like I’m not doing nothin’. 

It’s a process to get into – I’m trying to go to [a community college] program.  I have to copy of my high school diploma.  So I sent away for that in [another state], I got a message on my answering machine that the guy got it, now he wants, I have to go on-line and get a code number, or something.  What do I?  Just send me my copy!  [laughs]  Why is there a process to get my high school diploma?  I sent in a copy of my identification, that’s what they wanted, with it.  I did what I was supposed to do, just send me my thing – why does it gotta be more added on to it!  

Yeah, then I got to leave [Housing Program #1] on the 30th.  I’m trying to get into [Housing Program #2].  Which is another, you know, stable environment.  A good sober environment.  I’m trying to stay with that. 

Tomorrow is the 30th.  Let's hope someone pulls back the flapper and she hits it, right square in the middle.