Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work


Like I really needed more dork points...
The other day when I was running, I tripped and I fell. Splat. It was a beautiful day and the park was filled with people. I wiped out in front of a young couple. The woman reached down to try to help me, her face full of concern. I must have been a sight to see. Smiling to reassure her, I jumped up and ran off as quickly as I could. Embarrassing.

In reality, few people probably noticed and those who did soon forgot the incident. People fall all the time.  It's normal.  But, it's still embarrassing when it happens to you.

Lately, I have been reading the participants' narratives about stealing food while incarcerated and smuggling these items between prison spaces. When asked about these activities, women describe being nervous and worried about getting caught. They express anger, frustration and resentment about incidents in which they were caught. Disciplinary actions can extend their prison sentence and/or make their time more unpleasant. However, their strongest reaction to getting caught, or thinking about getting caught, is embarrassment.

To be caught is not just to be a thief, but a bad thief. Often, a room full of peers and staff is watching. None of your tricks worked. You have so little money on your books that you are stealing crappy cafeteria food.  People steal food all the time in prison and often get caught doing it, but it's still embarrassing when it happens to you. And so, as is so often the case, your greatest disciplinarians are yourself and your peers, not the never-powerful Oz.

Facilitating embarrassment is a strategy for crowd control that is not without logic, but it is cruel and inappropriate in a women's prison. Most incarcerated women already have countless moments of embarrassment to play back in their minds over and over again. The times when they tripped and fell in public and private places. Do we take this opportunity to slip a few more slides into that memory carousel? (Thanks Don Draper!) Or, when someone trips, do we reach out and try to help them up?

P14:  I used to take spaghetti, like spaghetti noodles.  ‘Cause they had stuff on commissary like olives and I used to bring it back and make olives and pepperoni, and like parmesan cheese… I just make it my own way… And this guy, one of the COs, he seen me.  I had a big giant garbage bag full of spaghetti.  And he known he seen it….

And so he said something and I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” …He was like, “Did I just see you?”  And I was like, “No.”  …  I wasn’t real rude with him or whatever.  I just was like, “No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” (laughs) I thought like, damn, if we weren’t in the chow hall, I probably would have gave it to him.  But we were in front of everybody, in the chow hall.  I was like, I’m not about to pull this spaghetti out my pants.  It’s no way in the world he’s getting the spaghetti out my pants! … It would have been embarrassing!  Everybody would have been like, “Ohhh, she have spaghetti in her pants!” (laughs)…

If he would have caught me outside, instead right there in the middle of the chow hall.  If he would have caught me outside.  And be like, “What is that you got?”…I probably would have been like – you know, I would have gave it to him. …‘cause I get nervous.  I’m not a real good liar.  I’m not.