The Experience of One Lesbian Couple in the System
By Rebecca Redshaw, For Lesbian News, October 2003
Dressed in identical orange jumpsuits with faded orange T-shirts underneath, Carol Garrett and Hannah Draper (not their real names) seem comfortable in their surroundings. Well, as comfortable as anyone can be while incarcerated. For the last seven months the women have shared a small cell in the female “unit” of a county jail serving time for selling drugs. They are a lesbian couple, together for more than ten years. Even though individually they have been in and out of various prisons or jails countless times, prior to this last arrest they had been living a clean life for almost six years.
Accounts of women behind bars in fiction and on screen, often sensationalize prison life. The addition of sex and violence to the unknown day-to-day activities arc intriguing to the vast majority of the population that can only imagine what actually happens in locked cells. Do sex and violence exist in prison? Is lesbianism an accepted way of life? What kind of women end up in jail? Facts are hard to come by. Situations vary from facility to facility, state to state. The population is widely diverse and prisoners are reluctant to be honest for any number of reasons.
Carol and Hannah are unique in their candor. As addicts, and primarily non-violent offenders, they have no hidden agendas. In sharing their story, they reveal what time is really like on a day-to-day basis behind bars. The two women moved from California, where they spent most of their lives (and jail time), to the Pacific Northwest to take care of Carol’s ailing father.
Carol begins, “We stayed clean for a couple of years. We even volunteered to conduct AA meetings for the inmates, even though we weren’t on the inside at the time.”
“Yeah, we got jobs when we moved here,” Hannah says. “We lived with Carol’s dad in a nice house and were model citizens for the first time in our lives. We had everything we needed.”
Carol adds, “But then we found some people that had some heroin and got started using again.”
They stole Carol’s father’s money to buy more drugs and when he found out, they felt so bad the couple got into a methadone program and started working again. Soon, they got caught selling drugs and are now awaiting the outcome of legal negotiations.
Hannah is a bright woman with dark hair and an infectious laugh. Her forearms are bruised and scarred from years using drug needles. She will soon be transferred to a state prison where she will stay in receiving for up to four weeks and then go into a lockdown treatment for twenty-eight days. After that she’ll be assigned to a supervised work program before her release.
At first glance, Carol’s appearance suggests a hard life. Her cropped hair, angled features, and intense eyes arc off-putting, but when she speaks, deliberately and evenly, it’s easy to recognize her intelligence. Carol doesn’t know when she’ll get out of county jail. There are legal complications specific to her charges that need to be determined.
Neither woman is looking forward to the time apart. Because prisoners are not allowed to correspond with one another, it will be difficult to write and months before they see each other. Being incarcerated for the past months in the same unit, much less cell, is highly unusual.
“The guards don’t bother us,” Carol says. “They stuck us in the same room when we got here. But this jail doesn’t have much gay activity, although this last week, it’s been a little wild back there.”
“Back there” is a unit for women consisting of a general meeting room that has several tables bolted to the floor with attached metal stools. A shower stall with a curtain is situated at one end. The TV blares in the unit from before seven in the morning to eleven o’clock at night. The L-shaped women’s unit has three cells on one wall and three on the other. Each cell has a sink, a toilet, a cot, and a portable bed is added when more than one person is assigned to that space. There are no bars in sight, only metal doors with small glass windows. Every night each cell door closes and remains locked until morning.
“Over last weekend we had eleven [inmates] and it got kind of wild,” Hannah says. “There was a fist fight and it didn’t even involve me, but my face got in the way.”
Carol explains: “When you come down from drugs everything bothers you. So, when a few users coining off a high get booked, the dynamics are tough. It all depends on the individuals. People can either hate each other or get along.”
Hannah interrupts, “Anyway, they decided to put Carol and me into lockup but since they didn’t have the space they locked us together in our cell. It was stupid.”
The couple has learned to live within the system. Older than most of the other people in their current unit (Hannah is forty-one and Carol is fifty), their survival techniques come from years of experience. Hannah started using drugs when she was twelve years old. Thinking she was fat, she stole her mother’s and grandmother’s diet pills (amphetamines) and liked the fact she could get so much more done. Her family didn’t want for material things but her grandparents lived with her and her mom was always drinking and fighting with the other adults. The more Hannah’s family tried to set rules and control her, the more she rebelled.
“I’d hop out the bedroom window and disappear! I started smoking pot and drinking and having boyfriends. I was gone once for about a month and a half before the police came and got me.”
Hannah met an older man around that time and lied about her age. At fifteen she was married, pregnant with her son and living in Malaysia where her husband had legitimate work but dealt drugs on the side. She came home one day to find him dead on the living room from an overdose.
“I was glad to get back to the States,” Hannah says. “I was a kid and I missed my friends. I lived with my mom and grandparents and ran around like a spoiled brat ’cause I had lots of money left by my husband. I didn’t go to jail again until I was eighteen.”
Legally, she was now an adult and that raised the stakes in regards to prosecution and sentencing. She started using heroin and doing whatever it took to get the money for drugs, including burglary and prostitution.
“The guys I was using with were into doing stuff like burglaries with guns. At first I would go with them but then I realized that a woman could make money a lot easier and have things a lot nicer and not go to prison forever and ever by doing other things like prostitution.”
Hannah guesses she spent most of her twenties behind bars in one facility or another. In reflecting back on her life, Carol is much more philosophical in a cavalier way. “Basically, it was the sixties. Everyone was smoking marijuana. It was the time for drugs, acid, pot, whatever. I was arrested when I was sixteen because I’d taken sleeping pills and crashed my car into a parked vehicle. You know, you don’t drive real well on sleeping pills.”
Although their current jail situation is non-threatening to lesbians, Carol has encountered homophobic guards in the past. “When I was in a California county jail one time they went on a “man” hunt. Anyone they suspected of being gay was locked in a separate room for six months. But mostly nobody bothers you. Although one time, years ago, there was a homophobic sergeant who took me and another woman to the hospital ward and shackled us to different beds. About four days later the nurse ended it because we were singing and dragging the beds around with our chains, so she sent us back.”
Lesbianism is widespread in the prison system but at least Hannah and Carol don’t feel they are treated differently. Other than when meals are delivered to the unit and the occasional shakedown of cells, the inmates seldom see the guards and there is no camera surveillance.
“We’re discreet,” says Hannah. “Carol and I don’t make out in front of the others or run around acting stupid. 1 told a couple the other day that if they didn’t knock it off that one of the straight women might tell the guards and then they’d be separated. I’ve been in jails before where you’re not privately bunked and somebody’s doing this person one day and then doing another person the next. Before you know it, people get jealous and there’s a whole big soap opera with fights and it causes problems. And most of the women aren’t really gay outside of jail—it’s something they do to get attention on the inside.”
Some women, like men, claim that they arc only gay while in prison, that once on the outside things are different. Hannah laughs. “Every ex-con I’ve talked to will say, ‘I’m not gay and blah, blah, blah, but when I was doin’ my five years, I let some little punk suck my dick.’ I’ve talked to a lot of those guys over the years but I’ve yet to meet the little punk that did the sucking!”
But Carol and Hannah aren’t a couple of convenience. Their commitment to one another is strong. “We have wedding rings and everyone knows we’re together,” Carol says. “Hannah’s son calls me ‘Mom,’ and he would never let anyone say anything about our relationship. We’re lucky when I think of all the times we’ve gone to jail. We have friends and family and money and a home to go to. So many women in here get out and they have no one and no where to go.”
While the women wait to be released, the biggest struggle they encounter in the county jail is boredom. Inmates awaiting sentencing or court hearings can be held in county up to a year before being released or transferred to a state prison. Carol says, “County jail time is the hardest because it’s so structured and rigid. Prison is almost like a college campus compared to this.”
Meals are brought in three times a day, the noon meal being a cold sack lunch. The exercise area is a walled cement yard maybe fifty by fifty feet with no athletic equipment to speak of. They can walk for exercise but they only have access to that area three or four times a week for no more than forty-five minutes at a time. Their unit provides board games like Scrabble, and the public library loans books to inmates. Hannah sketches on scratch paper to pass the time and Carol is an avid reader.
“Right now I’m reading about the wars in England in the 1300s, both non-fiction and historical novels. I read a lot of murder mysteries, too. You find out early on if you struggle in here, you’ll be miserable. You can’t do that. You have to make the best of it. We’re here—we’re stuck. We knew we were going to get buried because we were selling.”
Carol and Hannah will inevitably be released and they know they will have to plan for the future. Even though they tested positive for Hepatitis C, their symptoms to date are dormant. Given their history of shared needles, both women consider themselves fortunate to be HIV negative.
They’ve taken college courses and are looking into continuing their education, even though they know their felony records will be tough obstacles to conquer when it comes to employment. “My grandmother needs care,” Hannah says. “And the plan is to move back to California and help out, once our parole can be transferred. There’s a community college near her home.”
Carol is anxious to get out and start over once again. “I miss my animals. Right now a friend is watching my dog and cats. I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a car and I still have a little money, so I can rent a place. I have friends but they’re not the kind you want to run around with. I know one of the requirements of parole will be a lot of meetings for inpatient therapy.”
The couple has been clean and sober now for more than six months. They know the odds are against them, given their track record, but they are thinking positively about the future. Carol says, “We had it good on the outside up here. I think now that we’re older and since we stayed sober and have experienced a traditional life, it will be easier to stay straight.”
Hannah agrees: “We don’t want to miss out anymore.”