You Need to Keep Your Things Secure

Corporal Davis rips along the perforated top-edge of request slips. She separates the pile of creased, wrinkled packets into three more piles: originals, pink receipts, and yellow receipts. The request slips are written in neat, painstakingly legible handwriting. On each, the inmates ask for property items and favors: the delivery of a handmade granny square blanket to her family, a packet of batteries for a hearing aid, a special visit with her new-born daughter. 

The top request slip, from inmate Mitchel, doesn’t ask for anything specifically, but the implication is that she has ordered a new pencil sharpener. She writes: “Mine is missing, or stolen.” Davis knows that Mitchel has given the pencil sharpener away. It’s difficult to catch this type of rule breaking. Sometimes inmates organized trades. Coffee for shampoo. A pencil sharpener for a box of Caramel Cookies. Other times, one inmate tried to buy the protection of another. Sometimes, property items really were stolen.

Davis rolls her eyes to the ceiling. She mimics Mitchel in a falsetto voice. “Whoops! I lost my pencil sharpener! So…if I get a new one from Union Supply, you need to let me keep it.” This is how inmates bend the rules. If Mitchel has ordered a new sharpener, as Davis suspects, then rather than perform the policy-required replacement of the old for the new, Mitchel can claim that she has no sharpener to exchange. Davis could be wrong. Mitchel might have genuinely lost her sharpener. But fourteen years of experience means her instinct is usually right. At the bottom of the request slip, Corporal Davis writes: You need to keep your things secure.
Davis picks up another request slip. This one for a new mascara. At the bottom, she writes: You need to keep your things secure.

                                                                           *****

In the Mess Hall, Davis stops to wash her hands. The cafeteria is packed with women in red and grey shirts. They use orange sporks to swirl boiled peas and corn into red sauce and spaghetti noodles. The din of laughter falls quiet when Davis enters. The women raise their eyes from their plates to watch. A few inmates sit up to look around the room. Davis disappears into the kitchen. I hear the faucet. Then the sound of the paper towel dispenser. The women are waiting for someone to say something to provoke her.

Inmate Busque stands with her plastic tray and smiles. She is twenty-six years old. Her face is long and sallow. Her cheeks pockmarked. The hem of her prison-standard grey shirt bunches at her hips and clings tight to a small belly low on her abdomen. Her hair is long and straight. When she shifts from one foot to the other, the frayed tips flick against her lower back.

“Hey, Corporal Davis.” Busque says.

Davis does not respond. She dries her hands with a paper towel. She crumples the towel into a soggy ball. She tosses it in the trash. Busque nudges the woman beside her, inmate Fabrizio. Fabrizio looks up. She is an Italian pin-up doll with rose-colored lipstick and heavy eyeliner for Audrey Hepburn cat eyes. She has knotted her hair into a French Bun, tied with a red ribbon. Fabrizio hurries to her feet besides Busque. She adjusts a stretchy, pink headband with a Hello Kitty design on her forehead.

“Corporal!” Busque says. She skips forward. She tips her tray over the mouth of the trash bucket so the leftovers slide off the end. Then she drops her tray on top of the pile of other used trays. Davis frowns at the clatter. 

“What?” Davis says.

“Do you like her headband?” Busque gestures at Fabrizio.

Davis looks lazily from Busque to the Hello Kitty headband. She stares at it until Fabrizio’s smile slips. Fabrizio looks down, uncertain. Then she looks behind her at the empty seat where her half-eaten lunch remains. 

“I hate Hello Kitty,” Davis says.

Busque scrunches her face tight. “How can you hate Hello Kitty?”

“I hate. Hello Kitty.” Davis repeats.

“How—“ Busque grabs her hips. She leans forward, “—can you hate Hello Kitty?”

Davis puts her hands on her hips too. “How can you like it?”

“That’s just wrong.” Busque bites her lip. She shares a look of mock pity with Fabrizio.

“I can’t be wrong.” Davis says. Busque opens her mouth, but Davis continues, “I can’t be wrong because I hate Hello Kitty, which is an accurate representation of my personal feelings, which cannot be wrong, because they are my personal feelings, and so they are right.”

Fabrizio’s eyes drift up and then down as though following the argument in her mind. “Okay” She says. She turns to Busque and nods. “Okay. Good argument. That’s a good point.” 

Busque ignores her. She shakes her head. “No. That’s like hating babies.”

Busque waits for Davis to respond. Davis stares back at her. 

“Hating Hello Kitty,” Busque continues, “is like hating babies. How could you hate a baby, Corporal Davis?” Busque smirks.

The chow hall is quiet. Some of the women are still seated, eyes down, not talking. They push their food around their plates. Others slowly stand and glide across the room to the kitchen. They empty their trays item by item. They are careful to gently place their bowls so that they don’t clatter. Davis doesn’t look. She doesn’t seem to notice. She looks only at Busque.

“I don’t hate babies.” Davis says.

Busque hooks one finger in her hair and twirls it under her chin. “Yes, you do, Corporal. You. Hate. Babies.”

A woman coughs. A plastic cup taps against the table. An inmate laughs. Then another. Then a whole table of women is laughing into cupped palms. Fabrizio giggles shrilly, her eyes wide.

“You hate babies!” Fabrizio shrieks, breathless. The entire room is laughing. I feel goose bumps under my sleeves. The Corporal waits for the laughter to die down. She smiles with closed lips.

“No,” she says, “I hate fluffy, little, white cat things.” Then, she turns to leave. 

Fabrizio cuts Davis off. “I have a matching make-up bag!” She puts her hands under her chin to cradle her face. She tilts her head to the side as though posing for a portrait. “It’s pink.”
Davis’ lips twist. “Yuck.” 

Busque hasn’t moved. 

“Corporal.” Busque says. 

Davis ignores her. She addresses the room: “Well? Are you through eating?” The women closest to her look around, wide-eyed.

“Corporal.” Busque says again. 

Davis makes an exasperated upward motion. “Line up! This isn’t social hour.” 

“Corporal.” Busque doesn’t move. The women shuffle around her.

Davis turns to leave. Over the clamor, Busque yells: “When Logan was a baby–“

Davis stops short. She interrupts: “HE—” she pauses. Logan is her youngest son. She takes a breath. “He didn’t look like Hello Kitty.” Then she exits through the Enter door of the Chow Hall, through which Busque cannot follow.

Busque’s voice muffles, then grows louder again when she emerges from the Exit door at the far end of the hall. “Corporal Davis!”

Davis keeps walking. 

“Corporal!” Busque calls again. She laughs. “You’re wrong about this, Corporal!”

“I’m not paid to be right,” Davis calls back.

When we are out of earshot, Davis smiles at me. “One day, I think I’m going to get stabbed in the back by these Hello Kitty lovers.”

                                                                            *****

Davis interlaces her fingers and clenches until they turn white. She reaches across the desk to press the nozzle of the sanitizing gel. A thin chain and silver charm slip out from the unbuttoned collar of her shirt. The charm swings and catches the light. When she leans back in her chair, the chain hooks on the button of her collar, leaving the charm exposed. It is a single angel wing.

“Don’t let this go past this office.” Davis says. She stares at the computer screen. The text cursor blinks in the search bar. “Because none of the inmates know.”

Her expression is flat. The surveillance screen hooked onto the wall over our heads displays the empty intake room. The time and the date tick in the lower left hand corner at a discordant rhythm to the wall clock in the back of the room.

Davis exhales. “I lost my son to a heroin overdose in November.”

She stops. Looks down at my notebook. At the words she just said now in print. Her face is so close that I can see the pale freckle marks underneath her make up. She says nothing. I feel a coldness pooling in my stomach. I look down. I write that she is looking at my notebook. 

“I want you to know that,” she continues, “That the reason why I’m so angry with some of the inmates is because of that.”

Keith Davis was 26 when he died. At the time, Davis hadn’t seen her oldest son for two months. She knew that he had been in and out of jail for drugs. On Halloween last year, he called home to pick up a few of his old things. Davis’s second husband had answered the phone. 

“By then, Keith had been out for ten days,” Davis tells me, “and I didn’t know. He’d never called me.”

Two days later, the doorbell rang and Davis opened the door for police officers. They asked if Davis knew of her son’s whereabouts. Had she heard from him recently? “Is this about my son, Keith? Is he in trouble again?” The officer told her that perhaps she should sit down. And so she said in her most sarcastic, exaggerated voice, “Don’t tell me he overdosed.” 

Davis had put her oldest son through rehab. She had tried everything she could think of to help him. She wanted to help him. “But,” she tells me, “The desire for drugs was stronger than the desire to heal.”

Many of the women housed in the Goffstown Prison have drug-related offenses. Their recidivism rate is extraordinarily high. Perhaps because they have nowhere to go, but back to old neighborhoods, old friends, and old habits. Perhaps because the prison lifestyle is bad, but not as bad as the lives they leave behind. Perhaps because their desire for drugs was stronger than their desire to heal. 

Weeks before her son died, Davis lay in bed imagining her life without him. “I knew it was going to happen,” she tells me, “He was reckless. He wasn’t going to stop.”

Davis combs her fingers through her hair. She pulls the short, blonde strands back tight behind her ears. She tucks her necklace into her shirt. Adjusts the collar. Leans forward to move the computer mouse around the desktop. Then she reaches for the hand sanitizer. When she thinks I’m not looking, she practices smiling. 

When her son died, so did the Corporal’s patience. Why was she trying to help people who did not want to be helped? Who fought against her help? Who could not be helped? The day that Keith’s obituary was scheduled to be published in the Union Reader, Davis realized how many Goffstown inmates received the Union Reader. They would read about the death of her oldest. They would know he was her son. She called the Captain. There was nothing to do. The newspapers had been distributed. Davis went to look for a newspaper. She felt the women watching her. She wondered if they had figured her out yet. Her son’s last name would be listed as Davis. Then they would know. And they would talk. And they would look at her with pity. They would tell her how sorry they were. But she didn’t want their sympathy. She didn’t want them to know about her personal life. An officer could not allow an inmate to know.

The Union Reader lay open on the table of the dayroom. The pages were creased. It had already been read. She felt her heart constrict. She couldn’t swallow but her hands were steady.  A few women addressed her. Davis said nothing. She grabbed the newspaper. She considered leaving. She thought it might look suspicious. She flipped slowly to the Obits, as though browsing. She read the names: Jane Keary. Sam Willem. Joseph Moretti. But Keith? Keith Davis wasn’t there. She stared at the page. Then she folded the paper, replaced it on the table, and left.

Later, she would learn that the Union Reader had made a mistake. The obituary would be published but two days later than planned. This time, Corporal Davis was ready. She had the obituary page removed from every Union Reader delivered to Goffstown Prison that day. She collected the pages, folded them together and took them home with her. None of the inmates even noticed. “It’s amazing to me that they still don’t know,” Davis tells me. I ask what she would do if they did find out. “I would deny it until they’re blue in the face.”

When Davis’s son was healthy, her job was hard. When her son was sick with heroin, her job was harder. When her son was dead, her job was unbearable. Every hour felt like a year, every task like a test, every inmate a reminder. In the aftermath, Davis remembers a new intake on Charlie Tier. The woman was just standing on the concrete floor in the center of her cell. For hours. Not looking at anything. Not moving. Not aware even of Davis staring at her. “Just doped out,” Davis tells me, “and looking like my son did the last time that I saw him.” 

Another new inmate – inmate Taylor. Corporal Davis brought her to medical to get her intake health exam. The nurses were testing her blood with a glucose monitor, a small device with a built-in needle that pokes the tip of the finger. Corporal Davis uses her right pointer finger and thumb to imitate a clamp. She mimics the Beep, Beep, Beeeeeeeeep sounds the device makes. “All I could think of were those machines in the hospital rooms that measure your heartbeat,” she says, “and that moment when my son’s heart must have flat-lined.” She makes the sounds again – Beep, Beep, Beeee—

Her voice cracks.

On such days, the job is too much for Davis. She wants nothing more than to lock herself in the dry tank. Just to be alone. Prisons aren’t built for privacy. Sometimes the Corporal steps into the Officer’s closet and she holds tight to the doorknob to keep the door closed. Sometimes, she escapes to the medical offices. To cry. To talk. To stand next to someone. Anyone. Almost anyone. Corporal Davis stops talking. She breathes in one big breath and doesn’t exhale. She looks down at her hands clasped in her lap. She rubs them together to absorb the tears.
“They have no clue.” She says. She means the inmates.

“They have no clue what’s happened to me. When they brag about the drugs they do.” She shakes her head. Her lips tremble and then clench. “They don’t know who they’re talking to.” 

I ask her why she doesn’t leave? If everything is a reminder, then why work here? 

“What else am I supposed to do?” she demands, “Where else am I supposed to go?” Her eyes are blurry. I look away. “Who else will hire me? At my age?” The Corporal spreads her palms up and open between us. She looks down at them. She squeezes her fingertips together to make two small cages. She opens her hands. Squeezes again. “I could never find a job with good pay and good benefits like this. I only have five and half years left until retirement.”

There’s movement from the camera monitor. Officer Susca brings a new inmate to the dry tank to fill out intake paperwork. The woman is hunched. Her shoulders curl in tight to her chest. She moves slowly and keeps her hands close to her face. When Corporal Davis looks back at me, her lips are pulled into a tight line. Her voice is hard and clipped. 

“That’s why I’m so angry,” she says. “Some days, I have no patience for it. For inmates like Gagnon, telling me how hard she was hitting up outside of prison.” 

On those days, Corporal Davis wants to scream. She wants to scream at Gagnon who has no fucking idea what she’s doing to her family right now. She wants to grab her by the shoulders and shake her until she gets it. Smarten up, she would say, you have kids, damnit! Remember your baby’s face every time you even think about picking something up. Thank God Keith hadn’t had kids. But Davis cannot scream at the inmates. The Corporal can be loud. She can be cold. She can even be sarcastic. But she cannot be angry. Angry is personal. And an officer cannot be personal with an inmate. Yet, the women call Corporal Davis Mom. 

“In my head, I’m screaming,” Davis tells me, “Screaming until my eyes well up.” Those are the emotions that an officer does not express. Ideally, does not even feel. She tells me it is better to be cold and apathetic than angry and distraught. “If I allow myself to feel,” she says, “then I can’t do my job.” So Davis yells. She snaps. She sneers. But she does not scream. 

Some days, the Corporal sits in the Briefings Room with her endless paperwork and she imagines writing her own Request Slip: “Dear Corporal, My son is missing, or stolen. Could I please have him back? Sincerely, Wanda Davis.” At the bottom of the page, the Corporal imagines writing: You need to keep your things secure. 

Officer Carr enters the Briefing’s Room and Davis falls silent. We both look at Officer Carr. He stops mid-step. He offers to leave. The Corporal shakes her head. Carr hesitates, but then sits down at the center table. He  takes out his lunch. He snaps open a soda.