Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work


Last Thursday night, Javier got a stomach bug.  I sat up with him, rubbed his back, held his hand and cleaned up the mess which was, basically, everywhere.  After a long night of retching, he slept.  Friday afternoon, Jaime's mother and sister came to watch Javier so I could go to the prison.  By Saturday, he was good as new.

Sunday night, the bug hit me. Shortly after I went to sleep, I woke up feeling like all of my insides were broke.  Jaime is out walking the Camino de Santiago, so there was no one to rub my back or hold my hand.  I was alone and miserable and I will never eat vegetable tempura again.  Ever.  However, my bathroom was clean and filled with freshly washed towels.  My bed was soft and warm. And both my dog and cat lay silently in my room. They are ridiculous little animals, but I can't tell you how much I appreciated their presence.  I wasn't alone after all.

Monday morning, I managed to pull myself out of bed long enough to walk the dog and get Javier to the bus stop. Unfortunately, being sick does not come with a "I have been up all night puking" pin to wear on your coat, so this effort provided further evidence to the moms at the bus stop that indeed "La madre Americana es loco."  Oh well.  I made it home and collapsed into my bed, sleeping from 9:30 am until 6:00 pm, when Jaime called me to remind me to get the kids at the bus stop. As soon as I got home with the kids, Jaime's mom swept in to drop off some liquids to help me re-hydrate and wisk the kids away for dinner and homework.  Jaime had called to tell her I was sick.  Indeed, not alone after all.  I fell back to sleep until the kids returned at 9:30 pm. Edie came into my room to see how I was doing and let me know she'd put Javier to bed.  Not alone at all.

I imagine this is a story that most people can recognize.  We've all been sick - a nasty virus, too many margaritas, the first months of pregnancy, a turbulent boat ride, a bad piece of fish.  We've all been there.  And we can probably all remember acts of kindness and compassion that were bestowed upon us in those dark moments. Someone held back your hair. Brought you a cup of soup. Changed the sheets.

Many of the women who I interviewed for my dissertation project report being sick during the first few days of their incarceration. Dopesick, to be more precise. When a person suddenly stops using opioids (e.g. heroin, methadone, oxycotin), she goes into withdrawal.  Symptoms include abdominal cramping, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.  For many, these symptoms begin when they are in police lock up.  In New Haven, this is a single, common cell in the basement of the police station shared with the other women who were arrested that night.  There are metal cots, a metal toilet and a sink.  No towels, no blankets, no pillows.  While in police lock-up, people are wearing whatever clothes they were arrested in.  So, if it is July and you were wearing shorts and a tank top when you were picked up, you are wearing shorts and a tank top in the cold, concrete cell.  You stay in lock-up until the next court date when your case can be arraigned.  If you get arrested on a Tuesday afternoon, you stay until Wednesday court at 10:00am.  If you get arrested on a Friday, you stay until Monday morning.  That can make for a very long weekend.  The food that is served, at every meal, in the New Haven police lock-up is a brown bag with a baloney sandwich on white bread and a milk or orange-flavored drink.

When I was sick, I was thinking about the women going through withdrawal in police lock-up.  Now, that is alone.  I understand that these women broke the law.  They got caught using drugs or selling drugs or exchanging their bodies for drugs.  They got caught shoplifting.  They got into a big fight with someone on the street and cut her arm with a razor blade.  These are illegal acts, they got caught, and they are going to serve some time.  But do we have to leave them all alone?  Would the criminal justice system be completely compromised if we allowed these sick people to stay in the detox unit at Yale-New Haven Hospital for three days?  Maybe gave them a bit of methadone to help them come off the drugs?

Think about how you feel about the person who showed you compassion.  The person that passed you a glass of cold water.  Think about how you feel about the person who ignored you or laughed at you. Who are you most likely to listen to or care about in the future?  Who are you going to think is mean and full of shit no matter what they do or say?  For me, it's a question of legitimacy.  Is the criminal justice system a mechanism for further alienating the people who are already living at the margins or an opportunity for us to say, "Hey, I see you and your pain.  Let me help you feel better."