My name is Katherine now, but before that I was Boyett #877299. Before that I was Kathy and before that I can’t remember. I’ll be turning fifty this year and almost all of those years have been marked, no matter my name, by a state of loss – loss of my innocence to a stepfather I loved and trusted – loss of my mother who chose him over me, loss of friends who never really were and of things that never really belonged to me, like my freedom. I’ve spent the whole time repeating the same mantra: “It’s ok. It will all work out. Chin up. Keep pushing forward. Just keep moving and nothing can get you.” Unfortunately what I’ve come to realize through years of soul searching and many, many groups and classes is that just isn’t true.
All the things we try to escape in life, all those little deaths load up onto a little wagon that we grudgingly tug along, sometimes without the actual knowledge that they are even there. And more often than not it is thru those things we see the world. I was twelve years old when my stepfather took my virginity. I was sixteen when my mom brought me to Texas and left me with an alcoholic uncle who promptly threw me out on the street. It’s funny the way your mind works. Here it is almost thirty years later and all those things in the wagon still have power, still color every picture.
By the time I went to prison I was tired of living. I had given up and was promptly punished for it. Walking into the state jail in chains not knowing what to expect and horrified by the reality that there would be no escaping – that no matter where I went there I was. They strip you bare in there. Literally. And every eye casts judgment. You’re kept in a constant state of imbalance, easier to control. Things you took for granted like clothes and food aren’t yours anymore. Now you don’t choose where or when you sleep, eat, shit or piss. Now you are a piece of meat in a warehouse and the only thing anybody’s responsible for is whether you live through it or not. Sometimes they cut their losses. After getting classified they tell you which prison you’re going to. I made the mistake of thinking it was like a job interview and tried to smile and be impressive. Surely they’d see I was a good girl in a bad situation. Nope, that’s not what happened – they sent me to Hobby. When the guard asked me as I came out of the room where I was going, I replied Hobby. He said “geez that’s the worst one. Maximum. Lots of hard timers.”
I didn’t know what that meant but I was going to find out in spades.
From that I remember walking down a long hallway to a kind of waiting room with metal tables and stools. I’d find out later it was called a day room. It was adjacent to small chain link cages with beds lined up, and inside – not animals but women. It was called the dog pound and those women were treated like rabid dogs and I think that’s all they had – to snarl, bare teeth and given the opportunity, bite.
The guard said “Don’t you talk to anybody and by god even if somebody falls down dead in front of you don’t you touch them. Don’t you help them, you just mind your own business” and I knew he didn’t mean the business of humanity. Nope we were less than human now. We were dogs in the pound and if you don’t get to go home from the pound you get dead. I looked in those cages at those other women and I prayed, not for the first time in my life but for the first time in a long time. “God please don’t let them put me in those cages.” I thought “I must be lucky. I am going to Hobby surely it won’t be like that.” And it wasn’t. It was just as bad if not worse. Prison was so surreal. I constantly had the feeling I’d stepped through the looking glass that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, that this couldn’t be! But it was, and like all the other hurdles that presented themselves to me, I adapted. I became not an inmate but a convict – and by the time I left Hobby to go to Lockhart, I had become feral like the other women in the cage.
The sight of real violence no longer shocked me. This was the way life worked: if you wanted something you took it. If somebody hurt you, you hurt them worse. The guards were Nazis and the only thing you needed them for was to get over on, get out of cases and maybe get a stick of gum every once and a while or a special treat like food. They were them and I was us. If I had left from Hobby to go to the real world I would have come out a criminal. I had learned new behavior and it was dangerous. I was dangerous.
At Lockhart, I didn’t work on the hoe squad. I wasn’t run out the gates to work till I dropped in the heat and dirt. There was time to think… too much time… and deep inside me there was a glimmer, a small flicker of the girl I was before. She started taking classes and she had a name not a number. And that’s when I became Katherine. She scrambled to find a way back; to become something more than what I had become. It was one of these classes that saved me. It was called Truth Be Told. They asked me “Who are you? Why are you here? Really, what’s your story?” The women who came to teach those classes were the first people in my life who didn’t want anything from me. They wanted to give me a way out – a way to truly be free. I walked those hallways as a human being and I knew it. Prison couldn’t take that from me.
When I left, prison gave me a set of clothes and a hundred dollars. I climbed on a bus, a bluebird carrying me into the great unknown. I’d chosen Austin as my new home. I’d studied its history and it was where Truth Be Told was. I wanted to start all over kind of like a do-over but it was my life, not a game.
That first full day out before it hit me how much the world had moved on without me, one of my new friends (one of my angels) asked “what would you like to do?” Without a thought I said I’d like to go to the dog pound. She was so surprised! But off we went while I regaled her with the history of her town. Everything seemed wondrous and new and even though she had horrible dog hair allergies she walked right in there with me. It was clean and bright. There were lots of smiling people. Some worked there, some volunteered there and some were in prison. I walked from cage to cage looking inside and what I saw was Hobby and Lockhart. I saw the old lady in the cell next to mine who used to say she was so sick and tired of being sick and tired. I saw the young girl who’d been beaten by every stranger she’d ever come across and hated everybody for it. I saw wasted life after wasted life – young and old, ugly and beautiful – and I saw myself with my back to the wall afraid so fucking afraid. And then the sun shined on my face, the wind blew through my hair, and all the years of not caring about anything all shifted and I saw love and hope and promise…The very things that had been taken by that first dog pound… The lies that had become truths. None of that mattered now. I was free from the pound; life had adopted me and taken me home.
I was free in a way only a dog saved from certain death is free. And even better – I began to see myself as a real human being who deserved no less than those who also hoped to become free.