Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work


Tonight, my husband served lomo (pork loin) and rabbit fillets to the kids for dinner. I was both engrossed by the book I'm reading and grossed out by dinner, so I stayed on the couch. (A little English word play for my Spanish readers...)

The worst part of Jaime's multi-meat dinner was that he didn't want to tell the kids what they were eating.  They are used to the piggie parts by now, but are not equally enthusiastic about the long eared bunny.  Luckily, as Mr. Short would say, my kids were born at night, but not last night.  They know better than to eat weird Daddy meat.  No tricks at our family table.

Anyway, when you visit me in Spain, come prepared to eat pork, or keep busy avoiding it.  I will probably be able to steer you clear of Roger Rabbit, but it's pretty hard to dodge Porky.  Apparently, another place where they serve a lot of pork is the Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, LA, just south of Baton Rouge. This is where the protagonist of the book I am reading, Zeitoun, spent a month incarcerated after being arrested and held without cause in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  For Zeitoun, a Muslim, who had immigrated to the US from Syria decades before, one of the many egregious insults and humiliations that the system subjected him to was serving him pork on a regular basis.

At YCI, where the women in my study were incarcerated, inmates can sign up for the "Common Fare" menu.  This is a vegetarian, one-size-fits-all, menu for people who don't eat meat. From what I understand, Common Fare includes a lot of grilled cheese. It's not clear to me how one qualifies for this special menu, but I think it is just a matter of getting the paperwork done with a counselor, no proof of religion or "vegetarianism" is required. Unfortunately, Zeitoun couldn't even get a phone call, never mind the Common Fare paperwork...

The other part of prison life that particularly offended Zeitoun was the frequent strip searches.  At intake, once a week during cell checks, and basically whenever else they felt like it, guards asked him to take off all this clothes and checked his body cavity either visually or manually.  Think gloves.  The outrage and shame that he experienced during these searches are completely justifiable.  No one should be subjected to this kind of violation of privacy, especially without reason.  

Interestingly, strip search is a part of prison life that seems to roll right off the women who participated in my study.  Like Zeitoun, they were all strip searched at intake, and then, whenever, moving forward.  If, for example, a guard suspects that a woman is removing food from the cafeteria, she may be subjected to a pat down, or if the guard is unsatisfied, a full body search.  Women who work in the prison commissary are stripped searched every day on their way in and out of the store.  This search does not include a "cavity check" but does require the women to stand in their underwear in front the guards.  CT policy requires that these guards also be women, but they are strangers nonetheless.  In the following description of this process, P6 takes issue with the searches primarily because they reflect the system's lack of trust in her, it's inability to see her as a hard-working store employee who doesn't steal.  

P6:  We get strip searched coming in, we have to tell, say I had on a white Tshirt and thermal, that automatically came from commissary.  So, if I have anything that I bought from commissary, they write it down…Right, everything is written down and we are all stripped searched, even though they have cameras, the women strip search us.  We have to take everything off and put everything back on…we’re in our bras and underwear…At first I had an issue with it because, I’m like, why would somebody, you know, we were always told that if we needed something, ask.  You know, from the big boss…I had issues with it because I’m my own individual and I feel that I shouldn’t be subjected to something just because you do something, doesn’t mean that I have do it…So, at first I had I would have problems with it, and then when they put the cameras, they just put the cameras in, and I was like “Oh, we don’t have to be strip searched anymore.”  We still do. So, it’s like where’s the trust there? 

For P6, the getting naked part seems to be less of an issue. Zeitoun's humiliation and outrage at being asked to remove his clothes was rarely expressed by any of the women in my study. Charge it to the game.  Probably not the first time they've been forced to share something private and intimate with a stranger, probably not the last.  Disconnect. Remove yourself.  Go to a calm space deep inside. Survive.

Zeitoun's story is truly an American tragedy, and one worth reading. It breaks my heart that he and his family had to go through this ordeal.  At the same time, I found it oddly refreshing to read his reaction, and the reaction of his wife, family and friends to the experience of incarceration. It's too easy to start writing off the horrors of prison life as "just the way it is." Seeing it all through their virgin eyes provides a much needed slap in the face.  Indeed the US criminal justice system often does not work.  Incarcerated people, even if they are not innocent like Zeitoun, should not be denied health care.  No one should be kept in solitary confinement for days on end. Guards should not be conducting strip searches to find potato chips and pats of butter. Thanks for keeping it real, Zeitoun.