My greatest fear is being put in prison.
I wouldn’t last a week. I probably wouldn’t last 48 hours. Maybe I’d be toast in as few as six hours, depending on the inmate population. One hour? Yes. It’s conceivable that I could be dead or bleeding to death within an hour of my arrival.
I have had this fear for four decades.
My carceral interests began at a very young age. I was fascinated by the idea of living, against one’s will, in a miniature society that’s kept completely apart from the rest of the world. Over time this interest expanded to include insane asylums, castaways and cults.
Along with that fascination came a fear, which was fueled by my consumption of televised prison dramas. I can trace this back to 1972 with my viewing of the made-for-TV film Women in Chains. Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski, whose oeuvre also includes such classics as Black Noon (a western about a small-town reverend being pursued by Devil-worshipping voodoo practitioners) and Terror in the Sky (a disaster film about a flight full of people who eat bad chicken pot pie), Women in Chains was a scary movie, at least when I watched it as a seven year old. It was a potboiler with a good plot: lady cop goes undercover to investigate reports of abuses in a nearby prison.
Besides having a good story, it was also well cast, most notably with Ida Lupino phoning in her role as a malevolent prison warden and Jessica Walter (the crazy from Play Misty For Me) as her chief stooge. I remember liking this movie because it took what was awful about prison – namely, imprisonment – and pushed it to its most extreme conclusions. The protagonist, Sandra, played by Lois Nettleton, watches as her last tether to the outside world is cut when the one person who knows her true identity is killed for completely unrelated reasons (nice twist!). Sandra is truly alone and trapped now, and her world becomes even smaller within the prison itself as everyone turns on her and a conspiracy to murder her is set into motion. I would describe it as an emotionally claustrophobic movie.
It would be another two years before my thirst for lady prison fodder was again slaked, this time by Linda Blair. In 1974, coming off of her turn as a demonically possessed pubescent in 1973’s The Exorcist, Blair starred in Born Innocent. Now all growed up, Blair played an abused 14 year old who lands in “juvie.” The movie broke new ground in terms of showing graphically adult content on television. Should I have been watching this at the age of nine? Probably not! FCC executives agreed, declaring 8:00-9:00 pm the “Family Viewing Hour,” partially as a result of a shower scene in this movie that involved a girl gang, a broomstick and Blair.
As far as made-for-television movies about women’s prison were concerned, the 1970s was the decade that kept on giving. Next on my list of fantastic television films in this genre was Nightmare in Badham County, which appeared in 1976. Starring Chuck Connors and Deborah Raffin, this one focused on the misadventures of two co-eds from UCLA who pick the wrong southern town in which to have catastrophic car trouble. Before you know it, they’re wearing unflattering prison-issued mini-shifts and pickin’ tomaters at gunpoint. They’re guarded by ample-chested but short-tempered gals in hotpants and halter-tops. In the R-rated theatrical-release version there is a good agricultural mud-wrestling scene in which the guards train a super-powered hose on the prisoners and, amazingly, manage to blow their prison shifts clean off their bra- and underpants-less bodies. Tina Louise and Robert Reed also turn up in this gem.
My 1970s television cavalcade of incarceration capped off with the 1978 documentary Scared Straight! Here we saw the real life kids from Born Innocent’s juvenile delinquent center being ushered into New Jersey’s Rahway Prison, seated in folding chairs and subjected to two hours of verbal abuse from actual convicts, in a program designed to frighten them (and me, presumably) into staying on the right path in life. This documentary marked the first time that expletives were broadcast on television, by the way, just six years after George Carlin’s famous bit entitled “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Now that’s progress! The efficacy of this method of crime deterrent was ultimately called into question, and some wondered whether subjecting youngsters, even criminal ones, to this process wasn’t abusive and traumatic. Looking at the dialog, though, the convicts sometimes come off as kind of lame, like they’re struggling to marry their menacing personas to the program’s positive agenda:
“I’m here for murder, kidnappin’, robbery, armed-robbery, conspiracy, breakin’ the dude’s jaw and breakin’ his fuckin’ woman’s both her gottdam arms! But fuck what’s happenin’ to me! It’s whats’ happenin’ to juveniles we’re concerned about.”
Okay. Sure. Here’s a Pepsi ad. It’s about as threatening and believable as you are.
One thing I will say: it takes balls to wear a fishing hat and a plaid sports shirt in prison. But I guess when you’re threatening teenagers with gang rape on national television then you can wear just about whatever you like. Fun fact: this is the first time I ever heard the word “shank.”
My fandom also included the Australian series Prisoner of Cell Block H on PBS. And, thanks to cable, I managed to see the films Short Eyes, Midnight Express and Papillon as well. As you can see, I did not lack for prison-themed entertainment in my youth.
If you know me personally, and wonder why I’m so warped, you can stop wondering now.
These days, the cable program Locked Up Abroad fulfills my need to see doomed, everyday lawbreakers on a regular basis. The storyline is predictable and static, the series repetitive, but like a good zombie flick it’s still horrifyingly fun to watch. Almost every show goes something like this: desperate/screwed up/gullible person is talked or duped into transporting drugs across international borders; person is eventually caught (usually due to spectacularly bad judgment); person is unceremoniously dropped into some hellhole in Peru, Mexico or The Philippines where they fight for sanity, survival and freedom.
I have never been to prison. And, as I hope it’s abundantly clear, I wish to never go to prison. I have made (nearly) every effort to avoid such a fate. The one time I bought pot in Manhattan (from someone in an apartment, not out on the street; oh, God, no), I made my friend carry it on the subway. At political protests I endeavored to stay as far away from police barricades, trucks, horses or officers as possible. My protest signs were always clever, upbeat and witty rather than offensive or inflammatory. I did steal something once. Once. I’ll never do that again.
So it’s ironic that despite my aversion to prison and fear of interrogation I nonetheless find myself the object of legal authorities’ interest. Usually this mini-drama plays out in airports. I’ve seen enough episodes of Locked Up Abroad to have developed a theory as to why: I fit the profile of a drug mule and have for years. Drug mules are typically nonelderly white women, traveling alone, with checked baggage. That describes about a quarter of the air-traveling public, from what I’ve observed.
I’ve never actually been taken to that little windowless room and strip-searched, but I have been vigorously felt up on several occasions and, I might add, not by anyone I would normally like to be felt up by. Although there was that one TSA agent…
Yet when I ask my nonelderly white female friends if they get stopped for the more intensive security procedures when they travel alone, they always say no. So what is it about me that, for approximately three decades, has convinced airport security people that I’m a threat?
I think they can smell my fear. I shouldn’t have watched all those prison movies.
But it’s more than that. For one thing, while I look nervous, sweaty and shifty-eyed, I also think I look like the kind of person who will politely submit to questions, pat-downs, luggage searches and other invasions of my person. And I do. I also suspect that the security people need to look busy. They’ve got a daily quota of harassment to fill and I’m an easy target.
Perhaps not coincidentally, I get asked for directions virtually everywhere I go. I’m not a large person, nor do I think I look particularly severe. Maybe I look relaxed, friendly and knowledgeable when I’m not in airports. My point is, people approach me constantly, looking for a receptive and placid source of answers despite the fact that I’ve lived in the same neighborhood since 1994 but can’t even tell you what the name of the street behind my house is called. Sometimes I lie and say I don’t live here. It’s just easier.
The image of myself – as viewed through authorities’ eyes – that I have formed over the years presents a paradox that confuses me. How can I be both suspicious but not threatening at the same time? Somehow I manage to.
This summer I had my first real run in with police authorities. It took me by surprise, to say the least. I was in Edinburgh, Scotland, touring with a little theatre group in which I served as producer and crew. We were on a grueling schedule of traveling, staging, rehearsing, promoting, performing and – in the evening – drinking and socializing. We’d spent a week doing this in London, then had gone to Edinburgh for another two weeks. About a week and a half into the trip, we were all still going full bore on this schedule and, as I am on the wrong side of 40, I was feeling the effects.
On our fifth night in Edinburgh I’d stayed out until about 2:00 am with my companions, all of whom were 10-20 years my juniors. When we got in I was totally wired and could not get to sleep. So after that nearly sleepless night I got up and worked all day, then proceeded to have another evening of carousing. At 11:00 pm on this evening the exhaustion hit me like a wave and I said to my colleagues, “It’s been fun, but I need to get home and sleep.” I was going on 36 hours without proper rest.
So I walked the three quarters of a mile south from the whiskey bar to our rented flat. Or, rather, I ambled. Once I got out into the night air I felt how lovely an evening it was and, although I was determined to get to sleep, I realized I hadn’t walked this way alone before, nor had I had the time to really look around our surroundings yet. What was my rush? I slowed to a stroll. I took out my iPhone. I began snapping pictures.
Here’s the first one I took. It’s a picture of a bunch of people who were dancing at a private party in a restaurant about a block away from our flat. What you can’t see was the overweight man with a huge pompadour whirling about and pumping his arms while doing a karaoke rendition of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You!” It was funny and also kind of touching, how unselfconsciously happy they all were. In the middle of a dead neighborhood was an island of celebration, the doorway open wide, and I wanted to capture that.
Since the flowers coming over the wall looked so eerie at night I crossed the street to look at a bunch more that were growing in front of a church. I snapped those.
At some point I realized that there were random guys passing by me on the street about every couple of minutes. Since it was midnight and I was a woman out on my own, I thought it prudent to keep crossing the street, out of their paths, and avoid inviting confrontations or other dangers. So I was doing a lot of darting back and forth across the street.
The United Kingdom has for at least a decade been known as a “surveillance society.” It has been reported that the UK has more closed-circuit cameras per capita than any other country in the world; about 1.8 million, or roughly one for every 32 citizens. Had I not been rushing around so much during the day I might have noticed the special plates in the sidewalks labeled “CCTV.”
My final photo is this one. It’s a picture of a mail slot in a wooden door. It reads “REDACRE.” The door was red, the one break in a long, high, seemingly endless wall. I wondered if perhaps it opened onto a garden.
As I stood there and mused about what might be on the other side of the door I became aware of a sudden commotion behind me, the sound of a racing engine followed by a rush of air and a change in energy in the molecules all around me. I turned to see a white van, still lurching forward and screeching slightly as it came to a dead stop. The driver threw his door open and said, “Can you get into the van, please?”
Only that isn’t what he said. Well, it’s sort of what he said. But I’m glad that isn’t what he said because my first thought was, No. I’m not getting into any van. The most incredible thing is that he said “please.” But he – he being a police officer – didn’t say, “Can you get into the van, please?” He said, “Can you come up to the van, please?”
Then I thought, Well, he said please. And he wants me to come up to the van, so maybe someone is trying to harm me and I’m being protected. So I looked all around me, in comically exaggerated alarm, hoping to spot and avoid my would-be attacker. But there was no one there. And so then I thought, Wait. Does he mean me? Meaning I’ve done something wrong? What did I do wrong? Jaywalk?
Now I was somehow up next to the van, leaning forward solicitously as he was stepping out. In the meantime a lady officer had exited the van and was coming around the front to join us on the sidewalk. She’d squared her shoulders and looked poised to pounce. I observed that that she was about two inches shorter than I am. I also noted how young they both looked.
“What were you doing just now?” His voice was stern, accusing. “Why were you taking a picture of that door?”
Shit, I thought. You can’t take pictures in this country? What kind of place is this?
“I, uh…” This was a hard question to answer. Why did I take a picture of that door? “I…I’ve never seen a door that says ‘REDACRE’ on it. I thought it was visually interesting.”
That’s what I said: I thought it was ‘visually interesting.’ I actually used those words. In an American accent. There’s your BFA, shining through, in your foreigner accent. Elitist scum. That’s what they think I am.
I was also thinking, Jesus Christ, I need to sleep. If I get taken off to jail, how long is that going to take? I’ll be up all night. I’ll probably have a mental breakdown if I don’t sleep for another 12 hours.
The male officer and I looked at each other in silence for a good few seconds while he evaluated me. I was trying not to flinch, despite my growing certainty that I was about to be arrested on suspicion of burglary. I replayed everything I’d been doing for the five minutes before this. It’s true, I had been acting weird. They’d been watching me on their CCTV feed for quite some time.
What is the Edinburgh jail going to be like? Will I be thrown in with a bunch of hookers and drunks? Will I get to make a phone call? What if I don’t? Or I do but no one answers? What happens if no one knows where I am?! What the…
Then I looked over at the female officer and I could see the corners of her mouth curling up into a very slight smile, accompanied by a dim mirth in her eyes. I’m a bumbling idiot. An innocent. She knows this. I’m probably off the hook.
Her partner was not yet so sure. He pressed. “Why are you in this neighborhood at this hour?”
“I’m staying just over there,” I sputtered. “At ‘2 dash 8’…or ‘2 slash 8’…I think that’s how you say it here.” Shut up. Just. Please. Shut up. “Meaning number 2. But it’s apartment 8. On the third floor.” Shut up! My left arm made a weird sweeping gesture of its own volition, a stiff wave in the direction of my building.
Lady officer had visibly relaxed. She exchanged a look with my conversational partner. He sighed and reached into his belt and extracted a bulky black handheld computer that resembled what my UPS delivery guy carries.
“Alright,” he said. “This is a nice neighborhood. We get a lot of property crime. So we had to stop you.” The black brick in his hand sprang to life and his face was bathed in a dull green glow. “I’m going to have to record this, so if you’ll just answer a few questions.”
“Sure. Sure.” I was now certain that I would never get to sleep after this encounter. I also remembered that there was no booze in the house.
I was asked for basic information: my full name, where I was staying. I was also asked my occupation, which I somewhat shakily stated as “theatre producer,” because that’s what I was doing there, despite that this was the only piece of theatre I’d ever been associated with in any way and I will probably never ever produce a piece of theatre again. It was like saying, “lion tamer” and I sounded about as convincing saying it. But I had to, because if they checked…Then that’s what my colleagues will say. If I have to reach them from jail. Oh, God…
“Place of birth?”
I hesitated. “New York, New York.” Yep. I’m a theatre producer from New York City! That’s what I’m claiming to be!
“Oh…” he said wistfully. “I wish I was born in New York.”
No you don’t, I thought. I am completely in love with your city. I want to move here because it’s so beautiful and small and quiet and friendly and it’s not 9,000 degrees in the summer and now I know that the cops say ‘please’ even while they’re considering arresting you — which makes me love this place even more. But I didn’t say that. Instead I blurted, “Yeah, it’s a good place.”
He extended the brick outward, turning it and handing me the stylus. “If you could just sign here, miss, we’ll be on our way.”
I wanted to hug them both. Thank you for not putting me in jail. Thank you for letting me go to bed. Thank you for being such nice police officers.
Instead, I signed my name, smiled and wished them a good evening.