HAVE YOU EVER SEEN a 300-pound lady naked and covered in Vaseline? No? Me either; when I met Betty she was fully clothed, but her naked Vaseline escapade was legendary. In the real world, there aren’t many opportunities to see people walking around naked coated in Vaseline – but I didn’t meet Betty in the real world. I met Betty in prison.
Prisoners are often compared to animals in the zoo, which is a somewhat obvious comparison when one of them is running around naked, shrieking like a wild (and naked) banshee. In truth, though, prison is far more like a circus than a zoo. Many of the circus personalities are present: you have your fat lady, your bearded ladies, your acrobats, and even sword swallowers. Well, not sword swallowers. But there are many individuals who are very talented at “swallowing” a surprising amount of contraband with their vaginas. Prison is not your average circus experience – and a felony conviction is the price of admission – but, in the right light, it is a circus nonetheless. Here are the featured performers:
The Fat Lady: It is perhaps doing Betty a disservice to call her the Fat Lady; she was far more entertaining than your typical circus Fat Lady. She was, however, over 300 pounds. A dedicated alcoholic, Betty went to jail more frequently than some people do their laundry. She had a penchant for getting arrested either naked or half-naked and sometimes dropping her drawers – while handcuffed – to moon whichever unfortunate judge happened to be remanding her that particular day. Although Betty was fat in a literal sense, the key thing about the Fat Lady is that everyone wants to stare. Whether or not they are actually overweight, the Fat Ladies of prison fascinate and often horrify onlookers by doing unexpected and shocking things, things no one can help but watch. Maybe they decide to take a crap on the floor, maybe they have a screaming match with an imaginary person, maybe they decide to take a swing at someone for invading their dreams. Sometimes, this type of Fat Lady has mental health issues -- but sometimes it’s just an act. Usually the onlookers know, but not always. In either case, it is difficult not to watch.
Lion Tamer: The lion tamer has a difficult task, and one that could go horribly, horribly wrong -- just like those inmates who have sex with corrections officers during their prison stays. In some cases, it’s clearly against the inmate’s will; in others, the inmate is a willing party. In all cases, the inmate is in grave danger. If it’s voluntary, the inmate is in danger of being placed in solitary confinement. If it’s involuntary … the inmate is still in danger of being placed in solitary confinement. In fact, in the latter case, they are both in danger of being placed in solitary confinement for telling and of being placed in solitary confinement for being found out. In theory, reporting a sexual assault should not result in retribution. Perhaps predictably, in reality it does. Essentially, no matter what, the lion eats you.
The Bearded Lady: There is a whole coterie of bearded ladies in prison. See, on the outside, women with facial hair generally shave it, tweeze, or do anything in their power to get rid of it. On the inside, though, some don’t bother. Why? Because they’re “gay for the stay.” So many women find prison girlfriends that it’s generated a phrase, an axiom of prison existence: “Gay for the stay, straight at the gate.” Of those who go gay for the stay, there are two basic types -- femmes and AGs, or aggressors. Femmes are, as the moniker implies, the girly types. AGs are the more butch lesbians. Although the majority were not transgender on the outside and do not identify as transgender on the inside, many insist on masculine pronouns during their prison stay and are generally referred to as boys. Because I had short hair during my circus tour, even C.O.s would refer to me as “he.” I didn’t seem very masculine, though, so the short hair confused people and they would often asked, “Are you a boy or not?”
Human Cannonball: A man being shot out of a cannon clearly has little regard for personal safety. Essentially, the human cannonball just doesn’t give a shit. Just like the jailhouse lawyer. It may perhaps surprise those unfamiliar with the carceral circus to learn that jailhouse lawyering is such a dangerous job, but it certainly is. The exact repercussions can vary greatly from one facility to the next. In some facilities, the biggest risk is a little extra hatred from the guards. In other facilities, helping one’s fellow inmates with legal paperwork is a major rules violation and will result in solitary confinement if discovered. Despite this risk, there are generous souls who do it anyway.
My friend, Henrietta, did months in solitary for helping other inmates with legal paperwork. Repeatedly. She knew that she was breaking the rules. She’d been punished before. She didn’t care. Unlike a human cannonball, she didn’t engage in dangerous activities for the sake of entertainment. She did it because it was the right thing to do. People needed help and she had the skills. So she helped.
Acrobats: In the real circus, acrobats seem to defy the rules of gravity; in the carceral circus, they just defy the rules. It should come as no surprise that there are some inmates who refuse to follow the rules. They get high, they make out in the bathroom, they get in fights, they steal. They get away with it an awful lot of the time, but when they don’t, they turn into a contortionist.
Contortionists: Contortionism involves tying oneself in knots, sometimes while confined in a tiny box -- not unlike those inmates who land in solitary confinement. With traditional contortionists, crowds watch as the performer twists body in painful knots. With solitary confinement, the inmate watches as his or her own mind twists into painful knots as the days drone on and the contortionist loses touch with reality in a nightless, always-lit cell with no human contact.
Tight-Rope Walkers: That’s everyone. Everyone in prison is doing a tightrope walk, every single day trying to maintain some shred of dignity or sense of self when you have regular strip searches and are identified only by a number. You teeter between a person and a piece of property; between choosing to stay sober and returning to drugs; between finding redemption and becoming a statistic.
Spectators: No show is complete without an audience. And who is the audience in this case? Why, the guards, of course. Ultimately any show is answerable to the spectators, and ultimately every inmate is answerable to the guards. Granted, in this case, the spectators have the ability to send the performers to solitary confinement, which is something they do with great regularity and for the most absurd of reasons.
Guessing the reason for someone being placed in solitary is as ridiculous as any carnival game. Except that carnival games may be a little fairer. In the carceral carnival, you can go to solitary for major things, like having a weapon or smuggling drugs, but you can also go to solitary for minor things, like having too many postage stamps or talking back or missing an appointment. Most solitary stays aren’t particularly short, either -- in state prisons, it’s usually a few months, but some people spend years or even decades in solitary confinement.
World’s Tallest Man: The World’s Tallest Man is above it all. This is what every inmate wants. Well, perhaps not -- some like the drama of being more directly involved in the show. With a little luck and a lot of resolve, any inmate can stay above it all. Stay in your bunk and read. Keep to yourself. Don’t give the guards any reason to remember your name. Stay out of trouble. Be anonymous. Almost no one does it perfectly -- you probably won’t be the World’s Tallest Man. But if you do your time the right way, you can at least be tall enough to stay out of the fray.
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Of course, the circus is not the real world. The circus is where people go to escape, whether it’s for a night or more permanently, such as if they’ve run off to join the circus. Prison is a circus that no one chooses to run off to – but it’s just as, or more, removed from the real world than any Barnum and Bailey affair.
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KERI BLAKINGER is an ex-convict and a journalist living in upstate New York. She is a reporter for The Ithaca Times and has had bylines in The Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, Alternet, and more. She is also an ardent prison reform activist, indiscriminate dog lover, and aspiring book hoarder.
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