PICS or Post incarceration Syndrome, the new buzz word. Everyone is talking about it, yet only a few really experience it. Well, except for only about 600,000 people who have spent any time in the carceral system. So let me tell you about my PICS...
Released June 19, 2020: Now a federal holiday and, while in conjunction with the commemoration of slaves who are now free in Texas, it will forever mark my “Freedom Day.” Is it a trigger for me? Yes. You see, prison is another form of enslavement. A community of people gathered for various reason to complete one common thing, served time. So let me paint the picture of my journey where PICS sets root.
January 18, 2019: I get arrested for violation of probation and I must make that phone call to my mother. While sitting in the back of the police car, I am using my iPhone watch, while the weight of the steal cuffs bite into my wrist, as my purse and iPhone are but inches away. Thoughts are scrambling in my head as I await the next long 32 hours. I am transported to Sandy Springs jail, where I am allowed a phone call, while the dehumanization begins.
You see, I am also on my cycle, and the jail is out of personal hygiene. I am forced to wrap tissue paper in halves, pad it to my underwear and pray. I explain to the officers, who look at me and say, “Well you should have not gotten arrested and you could have had pads. Now you will have to deal with it.” (Trigger).
Being told they don’t care if you soil yourself is dehumanizing. “Oh, I’m sorry I am a woman, man. Fuck you.” I sit and cry because I am truly stuck and at their mercy. Two hours later I am transferred to Rice Street for processing until Gwinnett County comes to get me. Sandy Springs is not set up to properly house woman. Handcuffed and shackled, I am transported to Rice Street, where I am processed, strip searched where now I have soiled myself. The officer is talking shit about the mess that I am sitting in. As I cry and strain to get the words out that they refused to give me any sanitary napkins, the female sergeant took me to get cleaned up and changed, while calling and cursing Sandy Springs, for them deliberately having me soil myself. It was 2 AM by the time I was clean. It all started at noon the day prior.
All this time, I have had no insulin and nothing to eat. Despite me telling multiple people about my need for that medicine, no one cared. No one saw me and I was becoming delirious. Sugar was high, no food in my stomach, and I could not call my mom to help. I was stuck and at the mercy of people who were burnt out and were just there for the paycheck.
At 9 AM, after sleeping for a bit because I was afraid of a coma, they finally fed me, and I saw the doctor. I was dehydrated and they had to give me an IV, delaying my transfer to Gwinnett County. All I wanted to do is go. Get me to Gwinnett, because I knew I’d be taken care of a bit better. Once there, I was processed and 30 hours later, I was taken to Lima, the intake dorm for woman in Gwinnett County Detention Center (GCDC). I was there from January 21 to April 10 when I transferred to Lee Arrendale State Prison. I am not saying that my time from Sandy Springs to GCDC was not traumatic, but prison is a whole other level of mental and physical trauma.
We left Gwinnett and I could breathe. My chest had been constricted for months, and I wept leaving GCDC, knowing that I am on my journey home. I knew my out date, now I had to go through the process. As we pulled up to the prison, we saw the guard gate for our entrance. The officer got out of his car, placed his gun in the box on his truck, and helped us out of the car. As he removed my handcuffs, the intake guard called me INMATE (Trigger), not MA’AM, not WIESEN, but INMATE.
“INMATE, go inside and stand on the line.”
“INMATE, go over there and strip, spread your ass checks, open your vagina, open your mouth.”
“INMATE, now get dressed.”
I got back in the car and was driven through the gate. Days of the week used to be triggers. Sunday night was store at GCDC; it was also transport night. And that’s what happened to me. We all liked the officer on duty because she treated us with respect – and vice versa. She called me to the guard station, “Nicole, you’re on the list tonight. You have three hours till we have to move you ‘downstairs.’” I breathed deeply, told my friends, and called my mom to let her know I was being transferred tonight. I would not talk to anyone via phone for weeks.
It was Monday about 9 AM when we arrived. As we moved through pre-processing, I arrived at intake and the officer on duty said, “INMATE, sit over there.” It was a cage with a sign over the entrance saying ‘arrivals’ and the other side saying ‘transfers.’ As I moved my way past 14 other women, we were called one-by-one, photographed, stripped, de-liced, showered, and dressed in white and pumpkin orange clothes. We were given our net bags and were herded handed out to intake with counselors, nurses, and dorm manager, Captain Spears.
When we were through, off we went to chow hall to finally eat at 6 PM. We had 10 minutes to eat (Trigger). Ten mins to eat; think about that! What all we heard from the chow hall officer, was “EAT UP INMATES! EAT UP! IM HERE PAST MY SHIFT AND I WANNA FUCKING GO HOME. NOW EAT AND KEEP QUIET.” Next we heard, “ALL RIGHT INMATES, MOVE. DUMP YOUR TRAYS AND MOVE.”
Back in line outside we go to make the .5 mile trek to C building, our new home for diagnostics. Here is where PICS takes root.
Imagine walking into a barracks of 100+ women at the height of being called ‘fresh meat,’ tissue paper being thrown at you, laughter, yelling, and talking. Loud fans are churning and the COs are yelling for everyone to get on their bunks. “New INMATES, find your bed.” I was numb scared and trying to keep it together.
The craziness went on for weeks:
Weeks of naked slip and slide.
Women having sex in the bathrooms.
Electricity being blow because the woman are smoking tea leaves and banana peels.
Weeks of missing laundry.
Diabetic calls at 3:30 AM and 3 PM.
Fighting to see if you got a slip to be called for tracks to get out of the den of thieves. That’s what we call Dorm C1.
Weeks of hearing, “INMATE, where are you going?” “INMATE, where is your pass.” “INMATE, its diabetic call.”
INMATE, INMATE, INMATE. You forget your own name. INMATE is forever ingrained (Trigger).
Coming home was a process and still is today. You question everything. You buck at authority because during your entire life in captivity, you were told how to dress, when to eat, when to sleep, when to have rec, when to do anything.
The only time I felt free was when I chose to take charge of my incarceration. I became dorm rep and worked closely with Capitan Spears. I became the diabetic liaison, ambassador, if you will, to ensure that all those for diabetic call where up. The COs gave me the slips to distribute for tracks for that morning call. I walked the compound freely, all still being called INMATE, but it became how I chose the reality of my incarceration to be. I worked with Chaplin McNeese to ensure the women had their religious needs, books, and spiritual comforts. It was not until I was shipped to Pulaski, that I helped acquire Kosher and Halal food for those who aligned themselves with religious practice.
The PICS that I struggle with is being questioned, being doubted, being fearful of being found out, and being left alone. Prison isolates you, breaks you, and does not correct you. You enter broken from whatever trauma you endured before. Prison breaks you further and isolates you more. Prison makes you feel you are not enough, that you ae not worthy and you second guess everyone and everything.
I was broken the first two weeks. I was a shell of the woman I am now. One morning, I was walking early from diabetic call to breakfast (chow). One of my fellow diabetic women, who is a lifer, was chatting in Spanish when she stopped me and said, “Be the light I see you are; be the light we need; be light, mi amor.”
I took her worlds to heart and as I moved through Whitworth Women’s Facility and finally landed at Pulaski State Prison until my release June 19, 2020. While I made my incarceration different, I still suffer with PICS. I sit in restaurants so there is never a blind spot behind me. I always look over my shoulder. You see, I was threatened in prison several times and was unable to ask for help. The moment you do that, you are labeled a snitch. I learned to use my skill set and commissary to pay for my protection.
Pineapple, my protector, was always with me. We were in diabetic call together at Pulaski and she was also STG (Security Threat Group), meaning she was a gang member. She lived in my dorm, we ate together, and she walked me to and from my detail. Still, I was always in fear at every turn, every time I went to recreation on the weekends, even when I was in my 2-man cell during the day.
The feeling of not being enough haunts me. GDOC does a very good job in making you feel less than your worth. They break you emotionally, spiritually, and at times physically. The GDOC team knew my degrees and my aptitude. I was always being asked what I did and how I ended up, the look of discern across their faces. It got old, so I started to buck the system, using their Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). I began to write for the women inside. I began to fight for them, even though I was always called on my rears by staff. And while I was feeling good about helping, they always made me feel less than good. They would always critique. “Who do you think you are, Wiesen. Do you think your writing means anything to anyone who cares? NO! NO, INMATE. No one cares (Trigger).
But for many triggers come in the inform of many things:
- Being questioned about your whereabouts
- Slammed doors
- Closed places
- Closed doors
- Loud places
- Being asked to talk about the prison experience
- Being overwhelmed, like when you go the grocery store for the first time
- Having too many options
- Personal relationships
- Re-uniting with family and children
- Parole/probation requirements
- Not being welcomed into faith-based organizations
- Not being able to find housing
- Not being able to get medication
- Convenience stores
- Commissary items: Coffee-mate, Irish Spring soap, Dermasil lotion, ramen in a cup, Suave shampoo and conditioner (Store list will be forthcoming)
- Job interviews
- People at your six behind you
- The colors orange and beige for woman; men’s colors are different based on their prison
Feeling safe is a trigger for me. Can I feel safe in a world that is unsettled? Can I trust someone – anyone – with my thoughts, my fears, my hopes, my failures? Can I share my experience in prison? Will anyone care? If I share, will that information be used against me to gain control over me, to put me back in the prison in my mind? Yes, that part of my experience I fear to share because I don’t want to feel the anguish that a Department of Corrections did not correct but, instead, broke me emotionally and physically. I saw some many horrible things done to others by other women and by the guards. But I know if I keep quiet, I will allow all those atrocities to go unheard, and we all lose. For all the men and women who suffer needlessly in prison who are not safe, I fight through my fear to speak out and speak up.