There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
My friend Susan K. (a pseudonym) is a decidedly reformed ex-convict who spent four years in Maryland maximum security prison for drug-related armed robbery in the late ’90s. (Read her full story here.) Last year, we reviewed multiple episodes of Season 2 of Orange is the New Black, a Netflix show that takes place in a women’s prison.
She has agreed to review a few episodes of Season 3. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Episode One: “Mother’s Day”
Susan: Oh, dude, please skip the song.
Arts Desk: Do you not like it?
It’s fine, I guess, but I just don’t want to sit through it every time. I mean, the middle part always makes me laugh.
What middle part?
Like the part where the drums stop and she gets all plaintive. The “think about the roads, think about the children, think about your dad,” bit. It’s supposed to be the serious part of the song but it has the exact opposite effect on me.
Is there a song that specifically reminds you of your time in prison?
Oh yeah. “Sardines.”
By the Junkyard Band?
Yeah. I do not remember that song fondly. Like, my five-year sentence just got handed down, and I got to what’s going to be my home for I don’t know how long, and this chick in the cell next to mine just kept singing “Saaaaaar-DINES—HEY—and pork and beans.” Like every five minutes or so.“Saaaaaar-DINES—HEY—and pork and beans.” For like eight months, every five minutes. And I kept waiting for somebody, anybody, to tell this bitch to knock it off with the Junkyard, or to at least sing one of the damn verses. But nope. No verses. Just “Saaaaaar-DINES—HEY—and pork and beans.” The cell right next to mine. For my first eight months in Jessup [state prison]. Every morning. All day. Last thing I hear at night. “Saaaaaar-DINES—HEY—and pork and beans.” I hope I never hear it again.
Alex and Piper are talking in the cafeteria. Alex has returned to the prison after being caught with a gun, which was a violation of her parole.
Was it difficult for you to make the transition from inmate to regular citizen?
I think I had an easier time than most people. I got that work release job, so towards the end of my sentence I spent five days a week working a lunch shift in a restaurant. But I do remember one day towards the end when I was on a day release and I ended up going into a big box store for some reason, and I almost had a breakdown. Not like a crying breakdown, but like a can’t-stop-laughing breakdown.
What made you laugh?
Dude, there was just so much shit that you could buy, no problem. People could just reach into their pockets and pull out money and just buy things, you know? Dumb-ass things, too! Separate pumps for hand soap. Ninety different types of barbecue sauce. A hundred different shampoos. I mean, I remember standing in this store and looking at this endless row of razors, and some of them looked like phasers from Star Trek, you know? And then I saw this one razor called “Turbo” and I thought that was just the funniest goddamned thing I had ever seen, and I started laughing.
Why did you find “Turbo” funny?
Dude, I have no idea. I didn’t then and I still don’t. Maybe I was just thrilled at the idea of choices, even if they were completely pointless and frivolous ones. But I couldn’t stop laughing, and it wasn’t like gales of laughter, but like, “huh-huh, huh-huh, huh-huh, huh-huh, huh-huh, turbo, huh-huh, huh-huh.” A few people walked by and were staring at me, and I knew I looked like a freak, but I just couldn’t stop. So I got the fuck out of there without buying anything.
What were the terms of your early release? What did you have to do?
Well, for one thing I had to stay in Maryland for two years. Nothing against Maryland, but I had been forced to stay there for four years already and I was pretty sick of it. By the end of it I had developed one of those weird, quasi-redneck Maryland accents. You know, like the letter “o” sounds like “EAAUUUUUUU.”
Sure. Like “Eau-shun Seety” instead of “Ocean City.”
Right. “Tha Reuyvuhns” instead of “The Ravens.”
“Keel Ripkun” instead of “Cal Ripken.”
Yeah. Dude, people gave me such shit about that when I got back to Virginia because I sounded like Donna from Dundalk, you know?
What was your parole officer like?
Oh, he was fine. He was over-worked, but he was at least pretending to give a shit, you know? They also checked my piss on a regular basis. God, do you want to hear something weird?
So, the first time I went in there to take a piss test, and the guy handed me the cup and sent me off to the bathroom, and I was sitting on the john, and there was this chick in there to watch to make sure I wasn’t using someone else’s piss, and she was staring at me, but I couldn’t go.
Why not? Can you not go if someone is looking at you?
Oh, it was the total opposite, actually. I couldn’t piss because it was really quiet. I guess I had this weird environmental conditioning where I was used to taking a piss where there was no privacy and no doors and all the other inmates were doing the standard bit of screaming at the top of their lungs. So I just couldn’t go.
How did you get past that?
This is kind of embarrassing, but I started like, making noises. Like, “WOOP! UH-HUH! WOOOOOOOOOOOP! YUP! WOOOOOO-HAAAAAAAAA!” And that did it. The chick watching me thought I was nuts, man.
How long did it take you to get over that?
Oh, like two months. I would be in my shitty little apartment with the bathroom door open, just like “YUP! UH-HUH! TAKING A SHIT, NOW! HEEEEEERE WE GO!” It still kicks in sometimes, but not often. I have a radio in every bathroom in my house, and if it’s not happening, I just turn it on to talk radio. Like, the angry talk radio stuff. You know that squeaky-voiced guy who’s on in the evenings? The guy who’s always just fucking furious?
Uh, not really.
Well, he’s like my piss partner. He never fails me. I don’t even care what he’s talking about, but there’s something about his voice that just flashes me back to all those screaming Jessup bitches and I go like a horse.
The inmates are preparing for what is apparently a Mother’s Day carnival.
You know, they actually did something like this at Patuxent .
What, like a fun fair thing with rides and games?
No, no rides or games. They gave everybody with kids like two hours or something, and there were hot dogs and hamburgers. But they sure as hell didn’t let the kids run around unsupervised.
An inmate reaches into her baby’s diaper and pulls out a pill.
See, yeah, that’s the reason they used to search the hell out of the babies. They would open up the diapers and use, like, these sticks to poke around. And the inmates used to get all indignant about it, you know? But apparently sneaking stuff in by way of a baby’s diaper on visiting day is like, a classic move.
They didn’t have this sort of thing at Jessup?
Oh, hell no. And the men sure as hell didn’t get anything like that. And like, what’s with keeping Crazy Eyes away from the kids and then just letting the kids run right into the actual prison? Come on, dude.
In last year’s reviews, a lot of people were commenting that you weren’t making a fair comparison, because you were in a maximum security prison, and Litchfield is supposed to be very minimum security.
Well, that may be. I don’t really give a shit either way. But if the point of the show is to get people to empathize with these characters and all of their trials and tribulations, as a former inmate myself, it’s kind of hard for me to do that. Because I would have loved to have some mythical warehouse where I could have just walked in and dug around and found some ping-pong balls. I would have loved to just get out of line at chow and run over to some chick that I was sleeping with all the time, and I would have loved to run off into the chapel and make out with somebody, which you can just do here, no problem. Do you see what I mean? It’s like, to me, this isn’t prison. This isn’t even like a drug rehab, you know? Fuck, this doesn’t even feel like a high school, sometimes. It doesn’t feel like my high school, because at least there the administration knew where the hell you were all the time. It’s like here nobody has a clue.
Do you remember Mother’s Day while you were in there?
Not really. I mean, I didn’t have any kids. My mom came to visit me a lot, but like, my Mother’s Day gift to her was to spare her the Jessup visiting room. “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! Remain in Virginia!” Like, I couldn’t exactly make her breakfast in bed, but I could relieve her of any obligation to drive up there.
What was it like when inmates would be visited by their children?
I can’t imagine it was great. There are two different things that I remember pretty well. There was this one woman, she was like a young mom, and just completely ill-equipped to handle it. And she got sent to Jessup for just losing it and throwing the kid on the ground when he was a baby. Like really injured him. There was a brain injury, and the right side of his body was crooked.
How do you know that?
Because the kid’s grandmother would actually bring him in all the time to visit this chick. Can you believe it? She was swearing up and down that she didn’t do it, or sometimes she’d say that it was an accident and that she tripped. But that kind of thing was really sad to see. I also remember that there was this one woman who was looking forward to seeing her son, just for weeks and weeks and weeks she was talking about it, and then like the day the visit was supposed to happen some crackhead chick who had only been there for about a month lost her mind and took a swing at a guard, and they locked down our section. No visitation.
Why did she take a swing at a guard?
Who knows? She probably thought the guard disrespected her, I think. That’s a big prison thing, to not disrespect anyone. And some people were really touchy about it. You’d get these chicks, some of whom were like, shitting in alleys before they got to Jessup, and they’d be like these peacocks about everything. But the guards are supposed to disrespect you, you know? That’s their damn job. Anyway, the crackhead chick got like nerve damage-level fucked up, twice. I mean, the guards just beat the shit out of her, because you don’t ever touch the guards. You’ll get time on your sentence and an ass kicking and maybe like an accidental fall down some stairs, you know? But then a few of the friends of the woman who missed her visitation beat that girl’s ass again when she got back from confinement. And it was like, three months later. The crackhead came back and thought that everybody would be happy to see her, she’s back from confinement, she’s back from getting her ass kicked by the guards, and like, fuck the guards anyway, and she was like “Hey, my people! I have returned!” But all that other woman could think about was missing that chance to see her kid because the crackhead got a rabbit up her ass for some stupid reason. So yeah, they beat the shit out of her too. Not like, the instant she got back, but I think that night they ran in and fucked her up really good.
Was it hard to keep track of days?
You know, it was weird—there was a bit right in the middle where I was meticulously counting days and minutes and everything, but it gets pretty hard to do that when they aren’t letting you outside, and you just get sort of herded to the same places every day over and over.
Was it hard for you to watch fights and beatings?
Well, they really didn’t happen all that often. It wasn’t super violent at my prison. It was like, I don’t know, a hail storm or something. It happens, but when it does, it’s significant enough to notice. I definitely saw the guards beating the crackhead’s ass, but mostly I didn’t watch violence on the odd occasion that it happened. It just seemed smarter to not see anything, you know? Whenever something happened I would go into church mouse mode and go back to my cell and stare at the ceiling. I did listen a lot though. You can’t help but hear shit like that.
A theme that keeps getting brought up when people talk about this show is “empowerment.” Meaning that unheard stories are getting told, and that we’re being exposed to new points of view. Do you think this show is having that effect?
Well, what exactly are we talking about when we talk about empowerment? Who’s getting empowered here? The chicks on the show? And what does empowerment mean in entertainment? To become famous actors? To get rich? To throw on a bikini and suck a lollipop on the cover ofsome bro magazine?To end up as the love interest in some shitty Redbox movie that you can get for two bucks when you walk out of Food Lion? That isn’t empowerment, you know. That’s celebrity. And I stopped giving a shit about that kind of thing when I turned, like, 16. I mean, you know, good for you that you really busted your ass at acting, and now everybody has this scripted perspective of a woman shelling out oatmeal at a make-believe minimum security prison, but they all still get to go home, or put on a $30,000 dress and hang out on the red carpet.
Well, what does empowerment mean to you?
Well, how about empowering some of these women getting out of prison to at least support themselves so they don’t have to drift into blowing dudes from Craigslist, and then get into drugs again so they don’t have to think about having to blow dudes from Craigslist and then end up back in prison because they fail a drug test? Or how about easing up on the fucking checkbox of shame on every job application? How about that? I had to literally start my own business to not have to worry about that “have you been convicted of a felony?” shit anymore. Look, I was a heroin addict and an idiot, and I did bad shit, and I got caught, and I admit it. And I got out and kept it together and I busted my ass to become productive, you know? But at the end of the day, I’m like, Gloria Whiteington from Bourgeois County, and I had lots of help from friends and family and lots of support, and I got the benefit of a few doubts, right? And there are lots of black women and Latinas and just straight-up poor people that are getting out who are totally willing to admit the same thing, and they want to get better and they want to be productive too, but the fucking breaks are not there for them. I mean, let’s talk about that kind of empowerment. You can sell all that other shit to Us [Weekly].