Suza Lambert Bowser: A Stranger In A Strange Land
We can’t see Decatur from inside this prison, but at 9:30 p.m., we hear the city’s sirens wailing in the distance. Those alarms signal the worst disasters: floods, fires, plagues of locusts, nuclear attacks and, of course, tornados.
It’s June 5th, and the TV visuals of the “F-4” that just wiped out Moore, Oklahoma are still fresh in our minds when the C.O. stops by to check on our 14-by-11-foot cell. He sticks his head through the door and says, “it’s a code 7, ladies. Get under your mattresses.” With that questionable admonition, he disappears, and we don’t see him again for the rest of the night.
I’m from California – a stranger in this strange midwestern land – but no stranger to my home turf catastrophes like tsunamis and earthquakes. Still, for a newcomer to Illinois weather patterns, the idea of a tornado brings a couple of thoughts to mind besides the obvious images of devastation.
One is the old joke about the similarity between an Oklahoma tornado and a divorce where the punch line is: “somebody’s gonna lose a trailer.” The other associations involve the old familiar yellow brick road adventure. Tonight, with sirens screaming, I’m not sure I actually want to meet the man behind the curtain. The series of intense thunderstorms, high winds, and multiple tornadoes headed our way make me nervous about funnel clouds, witches on bikes, and having conversations with the great and powerful Oz.
After the C.O. directs us to make like ostriches, Desiree says, “Fuck that! We need to go into the bathroom.” Our resident “OCD” resident roommate adds, “ Yeah, lets hide in the bathroom. I ain’t messin’ up my bed for this shit!”
And so, we wedge ourselves into the 3-by-4-foot cubicle, our state-issue pillows, made of weird 1970s-style cracked naugahyde, positioned over our heads.
Desiree sits backwards and side-saddled on the throne, her ample bottom precisely six inches from my face. I tell her I’m extremely grateful she has not ingested some explosive chow. Elnora is jammed on the other side of the pot; Crystal sits to my left, folded up like a pretzel.
I can reach the doorknob from my spot behind Desiree’s butt, so I crack the door to glance at Elenora’s TV on the top bunk. Disturbingly, I see large yellow letters and exclamation points on the screen: “TORNADO WARNING!!! TAKE COVER IN AN INTERIOR ROOM AND STAY THERE!!” I shut the door on the TV and dive back into our dubious shelter.
We hide out in the bathroom for two hours, emerging later and surviving the night with no damage to Decatur Prison, although there is news of flooding, a collapsed house, and a gym that had a wall ripped off. Two tornadoes touched down nearby but nothing worse than downed trees litter the byways near us.
In the morning, we resume our regular prison activities only to find a storm has moved inside our razor wire fences. “A” Wing is on lockdown apparently, an anonymous inmate wrote a threatening letter to the Warden expressing anger at the supposed sexual frenzy raging on the unit. A shakedown ensues lasting four days. According to inmate.com, the IA finds scalding love letters, kites, contraband, and sculpted Jolly Rancher dildos made by some mysterious alchemical methods using a hot pot.
All hell breaks loose. Just like the Salem Witch Trials or the Red Scare, an accusing finger is more than enough to send someone to the dreaded segregation unit. Fear grips everyone, and, although I have done nothing wrong, the potential for getting caught in the crossfire is frightening. This is prison after all, where storms can cause serious injury. It’s scary, and I can’t escape this danger in the bathroom.
The prison walls are still intact as I dress for my day. I pull on my dark blue trousers and my state-issued white smock. My cheap knock-off Reebok are clean and tidy. But as I lace my shoes, I find myself desperately trying to remember where I lost my ruby slippers.
Arcata writer and filmmaker Suza Lambert Bowser is serving a six-year sentence in Decatur Prison for Women for marijuana possession and trafficking. She posts dispatches at suzalambertbowser.blogspot.com.