Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey
“This b—– decided to TRY to hit me on camera. She was just mad because I got the best of her privately.” –Anonymous, Inmate #00000000
Fight blood is spilled over cheating, over the green-eyed monster of jealousy, over women who carry themselves as if they are better than everyone else, blood is spilled over an insult, over lying and spreading rumors, gossip and gang affiliations, over hand signs and tags, debts and commissary, over hard looks and soft looks. Fight Blood in a women’s prison statistically isn’t as lethal as in a men’s prison but blood spills on-camera and off. Prison is the new Jim Crow, there’s race, more blacks and browns than whites but it’s not race or gang affiliations that schisms here, instead love affairs and loyalty divide.
It is a girl world at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey. The women here are beautifully named: Jamila, Natacha, Danielle, Isabelle, Yanissa, Shamika, Mecca, and Chinese. A few arrive here middle-aged, but most are under 30. Aggravated manslaughter, robbery, assault, kidnapping, weapons possession, carjacking, child abuse, murder, sale of controlled substances. Rubies and emeralds winking from the life-long manacle called Felony. Who are these women? Some started out as girlfriends of guys who turned them into street prostitutes, the men swirling around them like unemptied ashtrays, sex workers snorting white powder from the bar’s sticky green marble. They’ve been raised on gangs and police revolvers, drive-bys. The bullet world. The world devolving to sign language. Finger signals. Some of these women took their clothes off in gentlemen’s clubs, some waited in darkness for cars to steal, for apartments to enter and ravage. Some loved women and killed for them. Many grew up in the foster care system. Many are mothers. Some are polygender, a mixture of female and male, or genderfluid. Lock up these women together in wings and cubbies.
Dara shot a stranger point blank in Atlantic City for calling her a bull dagger. Barbara tied her husband to the bed for sex and stabbed him 41 times. Amelia stood out of her wheelchair and shot her husband in front of their daughter. Nicole, a pregnant Newark girl, shot the neighbor girl on her high school graduation night—the first in her family to graduate. Teenaged Shaniqua, a Blood, beat another teen to death, and Kandise at 320 lbs. strangled her father. Yolanda bludgeoned an 83-year-old man with a golf club, and Shannon, loaded on morphine and opiates, drove her car into an 81-year-old grandmother, killing her. A few have performed sex acts with children and hide their crimes. Krystal watched in horror as her boyfriend snapped and strangled an 18-year-old girl. Everyone lives under a cloud of rumor and innuendo.
Fights are duels. They are about money. Prison is a pay-as-you-go operation and the wretch and stink of poverty follows you. Nothing fungible is free. You pay healthcare deductibles, for example. The privatization of prisons is in full swing, and money can be siphoned from the incarcerated and their families. JPAY, a privately held Florida corporation, offers a digital smorgasbord—email services as well as money transfers and music downloads. Each email in or email out costs $2. Additional pages beyond one accrue additional charges. Any money transfer comes with a $3 handling fee. Once Jpay saw they could charge inmates for emails, the prison only needed to set the picket fence of rules around it. For good behavior inmates are granted kiosk time at the computer, five-minute stretches to compose and send missives.
“I don’t like violence, not one bit, but here it is sometimes mandatory. Grappling is best because it doesn’t leave marks, but really hurts. I am kinda good at it. If I took it too far, I would have popped her shoulder blade out.” –Lucy Weems, Inmate #2322870C
The EMCF that houses some of the State’s most violent women, those the public must be protected from, houses two women I call friends—Krystal Riordan and Lucy Weems. Krystal has ten more years to serve of a twenty-year-sentence, while Lucy has almost finished serving her seven-year-sentence. Krystal, the people pleaser, swims in the fight-blooded waters more easily, yet even she’s been assaulted in the mess hall and in the yard. Strong-willed Lucy speaks her mind, but it’s her body that has been jumped, kicked, punched, her jaw almost broken, her eyes blackened. She’s learned how to hold her fists and hold her own. She describes one of her fights. When the girl swung Lucy moved, so she missed with the first punch, and then the second. Missing when you swing makes you look weak, stupid even. Missing still gets you tackled by an officer and thrown into lock. How you look when you strike out to defend your honor counts. To fight smarter, Lucy has learned the art of grappling. Lucy doesn’t believe in fighting on-camera since that leads to trouble, to lock. You have to discipline yourself to wait until you’re alone to fight. Away from the cameras and witnesses where the real fight blood is shed. The same place the sex occurs.
Lucy has established a flourishing underground economy of her own. She creates colorful birthday, Valentine, and Mother’s Day cards for other inmates using poster paper and colored pencils and markers. In the Yard she conducts her business taking inmate orders and making deliveries. Inmates are allowed to receive art supplies twice a year—in October and July. If they’ve been involved in disciplinary actions, their privilege is revoked. I’ve ordered supplies for my friend and then have had to route them through another inmate who delivers them.
Mugshot: Lucy Weems
Lucy Weems came from a more privileged world. Raised in a middle-class Italian-American family, she was much loved by her father and brother. When Lucy was still a child her parents divorced, her mother abandoned the family, and then after working as an escort she disappeared. A loving stepmother took her place. Lucy graduated high school, had always worked with her uncle doing his bookkeeping, then went to college and graduated with an accounting degree. She married, gave birth to two girls, lived in an apartment with shining furniture and polished floors. “Life happened and I fell in love with heroin,” said Lucy. She tried to walk the straight and narrow working as an auditor in an accounting firm, a wife and a loving mother to her daughters, and then the temptation. Heroin. Flashy nose ring of diamonds. In her mouth her tongue melting like berry cream. The mind quiet and cool and skin hot as if the flames shooting up inside her had been doused by God.
“Lucy got into a fight and is in Lock. I’m hearing a bunch of different stories but they all said Lucy was bleeding a lot. The girl beat her up badly on the unit. I really hope she beats this charge. Please write her and tell her I love her and am worried about her.” —–Krystal Riordan, Inmate #2861387
You are not free of this place until the day the minute the moment of release. Anything can pull you back. Inside Lucy is her crime—the long druggie night when it seemed right and reasonable to take a pistol and rob and kidnap her drug dealer. She’d cycled for years between heroin and motherhood, between the needle and a career as an accountant. She’s statistically rare in prison, a college graduate. Heroin, for love of it, sacrifices must be made. Heroin-hair matted to the pillow’s blue stripes having nothing to do with sleep. A mirror breaking, jagged glass on the tile floor. Melon rinds used as ashtrays. Her daughters packed off to their godmother’s. Sirens. The worst taste in her mouth—her own sweat. A foreboding of need—black shapes in white trees. Day of the crazies. A tooth aching. Withdrawal. Chills. Nausea. Head, a bursting beaded purse. Mouth, the boil of rotten shrimp. Mind, a cesspool. Mottled black. She’s hitting herself—dull thud of knuckles hitting cheekbone. Fist indentation in her flesh. Bruises. Then rescue. The fragrance of music, the moment of shooting up, the butteriness. “I’d get clean and then I’d get dirty.”
“Since they made it against the rules to smoke there’s been a lot more fights here.”–-Krystal Riordan, Inmate #2861387
It is against the rules for one inmate to email another, just as it is forbidden for one inmate to transfer money to another inmate. EMCF deposits the wages earned by inmates into accounts. It could be $50 a month, or $68 but nothing higher. The inmate then uses her wages to buy commissary items: Tampax, shampoo, sneakers, candy bars, soda, taco bowls, and coffee, everything that makes life bearable.
Mugshot: Krystal Riordan
Krystal was born into the underground world. Her biological father sold drugs, and her biological mother worked the streets as a prostitute. Removed by Child Services from her birth parents and put into foster care, a wealthy couple eventually adopted her. Krystal’s new mother, a perfectionist, beat her when she didn’t measure up. Her new father spoke of her night terrors, and how she would jolt up from sleep screaming. A tall blonde, Krystal developed into a first-string basketball player, and in junior high she’d been scouted. The acting-out years began and Krystal was sent to Elan, a residential school for troubled teens. It was here that the staff treated residents criminally. Often new students would be told that their throats could easily be cut in the night if they failed to get along with staff and other students. More than getting along was required but staff demanded you please others. Elan bilked the state and desperate parents out of millions and millions of dollars. If a girl smiled at a boy she might be punished by having to scrub a toilet with a toothbrush all day. Krystal’s parents didn’t believe her about the abuse and after graduation she fled to New York City to stay with another Elan graduate, where they both worked as prostitutes.
It is January when Shaun arrives in Krystal’s North Hall wing. Sometimes a new inmate has a gift for mischief, for pouring fire-oil on already troubled waters. Shaun, manages to find work in the kitchen, the coveted $68 a month job, but then she loses it. She’s on Krystal’s unit. In the same share cube she shows my friend her gentle face like the fragrance of lilacs. No facial hair, no boxer’s body, and that disarming white-toothed smile. Pretty in a world where many of the inmates are broad-shouldered and bearded, where testosterone in a woman is prized. This Shaun starts to seduce Krystal. In the beginning, she’s soft and motherly, her voice almost a purr, would you like to rest your head in my lap. When I first hear of Krystal’s new girlfriend I hope it’s a good thing and that it lasts.
“Krystal became involved with a Draymond in female form. While she weighs half as much as Dray this woman stood out on a 3 a.m. exit with an off-duty cop and pistol whipped a 19-year-old girl. This WOMAN we are discussing has a hold on Krystal.” —–Lucy Weems, Inmate #2322870C
Mugshot: Shaun Daniels✶
Shaun enters the digital record with the headline Woman Oversleeps and Misses her Sentencing. Her attorney argues that she’s just recovering from surgery and has no intent to escape the court’s jurisdiction. Already convicted of kidnapping, assaulting a minor, robbery, and weapons possession, it’s the judgment she sleeps through. She’ll trade seven years of her life for a stolen cell phone. It’s 4:29 a.m. and Shaun rides in her lover’s grey SUV. He’s an off-duty cop, a 13-year veteran of the force. A 17-year old girl, who they claim they’re bringing to a halfway house, rides in back. It’s good to be in with the law, perhaps Shaun feels she can break the law and come to no harm. She is an extremely pretty woman with plum lips and slanting brown eyes; her skin and her white teeth shine. You might take her for a lawyer or minister, she gives off a hymn-singing glow, even her long straightened hair and teardrop nostrils. A minute later, Shaun tells her lover to pull off at the exit, she’s done this kind of thing before. She points the gun at the 17-year-old girl and tells her to empty her pockets, and hand over her cellphone. The police revolver in her grip has real weight, superior to a chrome, a cheap silver-plated street gun, the kind you use for muggings and stickups. This revolver is heavy as a judge’s gavel. Now Shaun tells the girl to get out of the car and perhaps the teen calls her a bitch. “You’d better hope we don’t run into each other again.” They do run into each other again in the line-up when the 17-year-old identifies Shaun as her assailant. Goodbye, Shaun, pretty as musk soap.
“Attention–even if it is negative attention, “being wanted.” even if it is being wanted simply for the purpose of being treated like a puppet or for the narcissistic needs of this WOMAN. On another note .that lady tried to bully Krystal into letting her wear the cross I asked for you to send her for her BDAY… and finally Krystal stood up for herself and said NO.”–Lucy Weems, Inmate #2322870C
Upon request EMCF will issue checks for inmates to send family members or friends outside the prison system. Krystal and Lucy’s lives revolve on the merry-go-round minutiae of rules. Nothing comes free, every transaction runs through Jpay and Commissary. Coats, sneakers, hygiene products. Krystal or Lucy draw a check and send it to me, to deposit into a fellow inmate’s Jpay account. I would rather not be their go-between banker as this kind of funds transfer is forbidden, but I understand how senseless and suffocating the rules can seem—a wild growth of choking vines. I pass email notes via Jpay from Krystal to friends and lovers.
Friendships (without sex) often simulate love affairs. Lucy and Krystal are still best friends but it’s different now that Lucy has lost weight. She’s taken Mecca as a lover, and then after Mecca’s cheating, given her a second chance. Krystal no longer commands her full attention. Lucy’s smile that warms her like a golden-studded window of light is no longer Krystal’s alone. When Lucy and Krystal meet in the yard they pick fights. “You’ve changed. Maybe Shaun has rubbed off on you.” “You’re too wrapped up in your pursuits for affection.”
“This is Shaun one of Krystal friends, I’m not sure if you remember me or not but I’m writing you to inform you that I had someone send some money out to you that I need you to send back in to me through JPay in my name. Thank you and enjoy your holidays.”––Shaun Daniels Inmate #23821747
My go-between banker role leads to a snafus. Trouble. I receive in the mail a check for $80 from an inmate whose name I don’t recognize. It is how Lucy often has checks sent to me for monies owed for her artistic creations that she sells to other inmates. But I am expecting no check from her. It must be the check Shaun emailed about. I deposit the check and transfer $80 into Shaun’s Jpay account. The next day a letter arrives from Lucy (not email for that is monitored more closely) telling me to expect a check for $80 dollars and I realize I deposited the monies into the wrong account. Then a check for $40 arrives from an inmate whose name I don’t recognize. I tell Lucy and Krystal what happened. They beg me to deposit the $40 into Shaun’s account. She has already turned a whole wing full of inmate women against Krystal who threaten to fuck her up. The female Draymond is a slender pike fish, her silver scales glisten. She seizes you by a sudden sideways slash.
“That 40 dollars is mine and if I don’t get it I will have my best friend track that money order and get Krystal in trouble and whoever else that has something to do with my money being missing. Thank u.” –Shaun Daniels Inmate #23821747
The emails from Shaun begin to filter in edged with threat. I hear rumors of how she intimidates Krystal, punishing her. In this world, love comes and goes, burns fiercely, tries to conquer all and usually fails. After love, your loyalty trumps all. In prison after love and loyalty there’s money. There are more threats, and then someone hides a razor blade in Krystal’s bunk and tells the CO (in the 21st century guards are called corrections officers) that she has contraband. A search team finds the razor and Krystal is taken to detention or what inmates call Lock. The punishment cell where you are stripped and examined, held without privileges, and allowed only to shower every third day. Weeks later, Krystal gets out many pounds lighter.
Krystal and Lucy argue and Krystal claims Lucy told her to go slit her wrists. According to Krystal, Lucy kept saying it. “I’m trying to forgive her but it’s hard. I don’t look at her the same. She was the one person I trusted.” Every time they get into an argument Lucy throws Krystal’s weak-mindedness into her face. “That’s why your trunk is empty. That’s why I’m going home in April and you’re still going to be here.” Each inmate has a trunk where she stores her commissary items and hygiene products. It’s not always possible to get a truth reading on either Krystal’s or Lucy’s statements. I don’t know the context of their words or the body language or tone of voice. Like all of us we sculpt truth to serve our needs or to portray ourselves in a better light. And yet the bond of their friendship doesn’t sever. Krystal protects Lucy and vice versa. Krystal has rejected a young girl with a crush on her, and now the girl angrily confronts her in the yard. “You’re too young,” Krystal says, trying to calm the waters. The girl’s knuckles tighten making fists. Is this how it has to be? Krystal remembers Draymond’s fingers on either side of her robe’s neckline. “Say goodbye to this turquoise crap.” Then he ripped the polyester until two halves hung down. She took hold of his shirt, a three-hundred dollar shirt, her gift to him. Her hands dropped, but he punched her anyway.
The girl hits her and Krystal raises her arms to defend herself. They’re on-camera and Krystal knows she can’t hit back. The girl punches again and again. Krystal tries but can’t always block her fists. Her mind drifts past the girl, her mother punishing her, hitting her, a downpour of fists. Then she hears a soft voice. “I want to give you the moon,” Shaun says. The girl puts her leg out and trips Krystal. Forearms catch the fall. The moon—when’s the last time you saw the moon without someone telling you what to do? Not even in your sleep, a full moon is as forgotten as the diagrammed sentences of high school.
Yes, the woman here have beautiful names. Shonda, Cinthia, Markita, Helen, Nicole, Tahleemah. Fight blood is the heat rippling and roiling it’s all in the punch, the devil-white bail setter, the sentencing judge, a slaver, no matter his/her/they gender or color. Fights are the sugar in a Hershey’s chocolate that makes you feel higher than the Empire State Building. Who cares who is president? Papa Obama or Papa Trump, both have a mouthful of money promises and none of them include you.
✶Shaun’s name has been changed; everyone’s inmate number has been changed.
Stephanie Dickinson works a day job to support the holy flow. Her novels Half Girl and Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her feminist noir Love Highway. Other books include Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, (New Michigan Press), Flashlight Girls Run (New Meridian Arts), The Emily Fables (ELJ Publications) and Girl Behind the Door (RMP). Her work has been reprinted in Best American Nonrequired Reading, New Stories from the South, and 2016 New Stories from the Midwest. She is the editor of Rain Mountain Press and lives in an East Village walkup with the poet, Rob Cook, and the feline extraordinaire, Vallejo. She is and identifies as a disabled gunshot survivor.
Michael Weston is a self-taught artist and writer. When he isn’t messing with pigments or making up sentences and lines of poems, he plays online rpg games or reads various genre books. He is trying to finish up about four works-in-progress on canvas and a book of poetry entitled MS in blonde teeth. He still dabbles with a novel entitled Mon hysterie. Born in a small town in New York State, he was sent south for a long and eternal winter (but all the snow melted long ago), and has remained as a general annoyance, currently living in a college town. He began painting in 1983, studying as many masters from the Renaissance forward, at libraries, etc. He has produced 350+ paintings, thousands of drawings and filled hundreds of sketchbooks. He can be reached at darkglasses (at) mindspring (dot) com. He’s not a social site animal, but reads his email obsessively.