This is a chapter of 18 Acres of England, entitled A Day in the Life. It was written in long-desired emulation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his fantastic book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, certainly the most dramatic and impactful book I have read on oppression and the human spirit. Much is applicable to 18 Acres of England as I attempt to describe a modern oppression that eats at our collective soul.
A word on the setting: Dakota Jamieson was sentenced to 42 years at the age of 18 for taking her boyfriend’s parcel, full of cocaine, to a post office. She has just been moved from a maximum security penitentiary to a medium security facility much closer to home.
A Day in the Life
Dakota always woke early. There was a time an hour before wake-up call when the constant noise of the dorm died down, as if the guards growing weary towards the end of their night shift decided to turn the volume knob down. Most inmates caught up on sleep but Dakota enjoyed the relative silence and seclusion and preferred to be awake. The other bugbear, the constant strip lights, seemed less obtrusive at this time. She mused that as day started they lost their power to break the darkness and seemed weak and pointless as a result.
She started each day with a routine she had invented. As she slowly came around, her back aching from the wafer-thin mattress, she needed something to fight the natural wave of despair. In the first months of incarceration she had given way to this despair. It had overwhelmed her as her nineteenth birthday came and went, marked just by a card and two chocolate bars from her parents, both of which were stolen from her within minutes. She had thought she could not go on; nobody could live like this. Then she had met a tiny old woman who had befriended her in an offhand manner, hiding emotion behind a hardened exterior. Elsie had been inside since she was eighteen herself following the murder of her entire family. Even now, Dakota shuddered to think of the house burning to ash after a row with her parents about her boyfriend. Elsie had gone three-quarters crazy inside, as many did.
“Count your blessings.” It was the one thing she had said that made sense and hit home. Ever since then, Dakota had started the day with a silent reflection on her blessings. Elsie had not been around long. She was moved to another facility after four months of acquaintance with Dakota, who learned years later from another transferee that Elsie had died of breast cancer shortly afterwards. It had been a painful slide towards death, with minimal medical care. Nobody in authority had thought it worthwhile to keep a crazy old inmate alive if it involved extra expenditure. Thus, they cut her sentence and released her soul.
Dakota’s blessings had multiplied several times over during the last couple of months. Sometimes, mimicking an old song her father had sung, she called it her ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ time. She had been moved to an infinitely more bearable prison. It was only medium security. That meant they thought she had hope for the future. The next logical step would be a low security facility; maybe even with work release. She was twenty-eight now and her counsellor had told her in their first monthly meeting that provided she behaved herself, she could expect the move to low security before her fortieth birthday. Then there was the impending move to the library, away from the dreadful laundry. She had heard only yesterday that this was happening and that she was starting there on Monday. That was a true blessing, allowing her to work with her beloved books.
There were many other reasons to be cheerful. They seemed to be stacking up right now. Yes, it was frustrating working on her Masters because of access to research material but, as her counsellor had pointed out, it was not as if she was in a rush. “You have all the time in the world.” She had smirked and Dakota had nodded and said, “Yes, ma’am, I do.” But she had a degree and she had obtained it in just eight years of study from a maximum-security facility. She proudly told herself each morning that she was one of only eleven inmates who had achieved this in the last decade.
But chief of her blessings were her visits. They had never been before and now suddenly they were like clockwork. Actually, not quite clockwork because they had sneaked in an extra one, so in March they had come three Sundays in a row. But she could count on them coming. And it was wonderful to see her mother becoming alive again. During each visit, she gauged her mother’s health on an index. Zero was dead and 100 was perfect health. She felt like a doctor monitoring her patient at regular intervals, charting the recovery and feeling a sense of accomplishment as it happened. She had been shocked by how much her mother had aged during the eight-and-a-half years she had not seen her. After the first visit, Dakota had given her an eighteen score. Now, after seven visits, she was at forty-nine and rising. Dakota calculated it scientifically. She gave scores for subsectors of health – her mother’s smile, her facial lines, her walk from the table afterwards, her general manner, her conversation, and double for the light in her eyes. She carefully weighed up each one and then calculated the total score. It was an objective test and it gave the results she wanted to see.
But Dakota had an honesty that came from her animal status. She had no belongings other than the few they allowed her. She had no freedom of dress, occupation or entertainment, save the books they allowed her. She ate what she was given, as a dog would. She obeyed instructions absolutely and immediately, not to curry favour but to have a chance of liberation as soon as possible. Sometimes she reflected that it was like a strict religious order with vows of poverty and obedience and humility. The only other option was to fight and that meant a longer sentence so was self-defeating. She was fighting by obeying.
And the honesty that was Dakota told her that the principle blessing of the many in her life was Ben Franklin, the oddly named security guard with a heart bigger than the prison walls that surrounded her. She lived for sight of him.
And when she closed her eyes she saw him each time, looking at her.
The bell rang, harsh against the peace before. Dakota threw off the thin blanket and swung her feet over the edge towards the concrete floor. There was another blessing. Her mother had brought new shower shoes on her last visit. She loved the newness of them and the tight way they fitted her feet with the thick rubber soles. But today was not shower day. Those were Tuesdays and Saturdays. Instead, she took off her orange nightie and put on her orange overalls with white t-shirt below, white socks and orange sandals. She brushed her short, straggly hair, remembering briefly how it had once been. But no time for what had once been. That way led depression and unpredictable behaviour. She checked her badge and grabbed her towel and toothbrush.
It was Friday today. While there were no guarantees in prison life, she knew that routine hardly ever changed. She was looking forward to porridge for breakfast. It was the best day for breakfast, other than Sunday when they had scrambled eggs. She shuffled in line, nodding to one or two other inmates. There was no talking allowed in line, just at the tables where they ate. She hoped to sit next to Janice who usually was in first and kept a space for her provided one of the gangs did not make her move to free up the table. Janice was her mother’s age and was in for drugs, just like Dakota. But she was very different. She had been in and out of jail for a long time before getting a thirty-year sentence two years ago. Because they knew her they had moved her quickly to medium security. She was cheeky with the guards and they seemed to like her. She was a good person to be friends with.
“Morning,” Dakota said. Following the ritual they had developed, she added, “Mind if I sit next to you?”
“Be by guest, honey, I don’t think Clint Eastwood is going to take it today.”
“So it’s a Clint day today?” Some days it was George Clooney, others Kevin Costner. Once, bizarrely, it had been Ronald Reagan, but Janice had never explained why.
“Sure is. Porridge for brekkie and Smith’s not on duty until Tuesday so it adds up to a great outlook for the weekend.” Smith was nobody’s favourite; a bloated figure with very poor health and small eyes and thin lips, an archetypal cruel-looking person for a casting director. She reminded Dakota of a portrait she had once seen of Henry VIII of England. She was an Assistant Warden with considerable authority. She was also a guard on the make because she resented her meagre salary, supplementing it with petty theft and extortion from the inmates. Rumour was she had gone to high school with the prison warden and then they had gone their separate ways. Smith had risen as far as she would go while Kinderly, with a Degree in Criminology, was her direct boss and was moving up rapidly. Smith would spend her entire career beating and cheating the prisoners at Zanesville, while the warden was passing through to Corporate.
“Second-last day in the laundry today,” Dakota said, gulping down the lukewarm porridge before they were told to move on and get out of the dining hall.
“I forgot you’re a bookworm type. Never saw the point of it myself.” Janice had once confided to Dakota that she had skipped most of her education and, while she could rattle with the best verbally, she had limited reading and writing skills. She had refused Dakota’s offer of help, saying she was too old to start on book-learning. Janice was assistant supervisor in the laundry and was happy with her lot. “I’ll miss you,” she added suddenly, another moment of honesty.
There was a sudden rush for the food counter. Dakota and Janice sprang up. There must be some leftover porridge. But the guards waved them down. There had been a little left but it had gone now.
“We need to sit closer to the counter,” Janice said, but both of them knew that those spaces were prime real estate and they had no chance.
“Morning. Mind if I sit with you?” It was Hannah, the only other white person in Dakota’s dorm.
“Be my guest, honey. I don’t think Donald Sutherland is going to take it today.”
“So it’s a Donald day today?” Hannah spoke between mouths of porridge. She was behind and did not want to miss out. They would be calling time any moment now.
“Jan, why don’t you sit with the other blacks?” Dakota had always wanted to ask her.
“No reason.” But the usually verbose response was missing and spoke for itself by its curtness.
“Time, move out now.”
“Damn!” mumbled Hannah, stuffing spoonfuls of porridge into her mouth at speed.
“I said move!”
Val Bennet was frightened. Her husband frightened her. He had been such fun to be around in high school but five years of drink, no exercise and junk food had seen to his temper as well as his looks. She was frightened of everything about him: the anger that was more evident every day, his violence, his sneering condescension, his bullying ‘know all’ nature. It worked very well that he worked weekdays at the prison and she did weekends. She liked to see how long she could go without seeing him other than the cursory and mundane, passing over responsibility for their boy.
It did not help that he was a senior guard, above her in experience and pay grade. He might soon even become a supervisor. Then he would be unbearable.
Val pondered her life gloomily as she dropped her son with her mother. She had been called in to work today because they were short-staffed. Hopefully she would be on a different wing to her husband. She had no desire to see his brash bulk any more than she had to. Why had things turned out so poorly for her? Everything had been bright and hopeful before.
“He’s a little unwell, Mom, so call me if you need me.”
“Believe it or not, I have dealt with sick kids before.” Why was her mother so cold with her? One day she would get up the courage to talk to her about it, but not today. She needed to rush or she would miss the thirty-minute slot at work for payment and would have a half hour docked from her wages.
“Please God, let me be on D wing,” she prayed, knowing her husband was on A wing today. D wing had a separate staff room for breaks so there would be little chance of seeing him until tonight when they got home.
“You’re on D wing today, Bennet.”
“Thank you, Lord.”
“What did you say?”
“Laundry room.” That was hot and humid but at least it was D wing.
“Jameson, you are daydreaming. You have been staring at that basket for five minutes.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Bennet.” Val saw the fear in Dakota’s eyes and hated her job even more. “I’ll get right on to it.”
“Wait a moment.” Val fished a couple of dollar bills out of her skirt pocket. She just could not be that hard, however much she tried. “Go get two coffees from the machine in the hallway outside the staff room. I take mine white, no sugar.”
“And the other one?”
“Whatever you have. Here’s a chit to go there.” She scribbled out a permission slip.
Dakota had not had a real machine cup of coffee since her trial. She just could not believe her luck. She was back in four minutes with the two cups of coffee, rushing so as not to be told off.
“Thank you, Miss Bennet.”
“Come outside with me.” There was a loading dock outside the anteroom to the laundry.
“I’m not allowed.”
“You are with me. I’ll say you were helping me with something.” There was an air of collusion in the way she spoke. Dakota reluctantly followed the guard outside. The landing dock was a long raised concrete platform, overlooking a yard with D wing to the right, C wing to the left. Val leant against the railings with her back to the yard. Dakota stood in front of her, not knowing what to expect. She sipped at her coffee; it seemed all so wrong in front of a guard.
“Dakota?” At first, she did not respond, she was not used to a guard using her first name. “Dakota?” Val said again, more hesitantly.
“Yes, Miss Bennet.”
“I just wanted to talk to someone.”
“What about?” Was this some trick to get her in trouble? The coffee tasted great but was it worth the risk? Dakota wished she were safely back with the others, working the washers and presses. What could this guard want with her?
Suddenly, Val could not stop herself. The last five years of her life poured out: the hopes, the pregnancy shock, the aftermath, her parents, his parents, the rushed marriage, the birth, their home, her disappointment, her fear, the job, everything about how unhappy she was.
“Do you love your husband, Miss Bennet?” Dakota dared to ask, her right hand clasped against the paper coffee cup, her left fingers drumming against the side of her overalls.
“Then you should leave him. Better a five-year mistake than a lifetime sentence.” Would that incite the barrage of abuse she expected at any moment? Guards and inmates just did not mix. Everyone knew that.
“But I don’t know if I can. I have nowhere to go.”
“Miss Bennet, I know your husband. He is as mean as they get.” She did not add that every inmate knew that he was unfaithful to her. He was looking for it, too. “You can look after yourself. Get your son into day care and get the tax credit and you can work full-time here.”
“But I hate this job too and I’ll never be any good at it.”
Dakota realised this to be true. Bennet would never be any good at the job because she was a gentle, considerate person. Yet she was in as harsh an environment as she could imagine. It was like a war zone in there. Now Dakota’s fear was gone, replaced by compassion for what she saw – a lost person in the wrong place, trying to make it work but fighting against the tide.
“Then look for something else.”
“But what? There is nothing else in Zanesville.” At that moment Val looked like a little sister asking for advice. Dakota saw this and also that there was no point in stating the obvious; that she must move somewhere else. She was lost, depressed, miserable. Now was not the time to face reality.
“I’ll ask Ben on Sunday. He might have some good ideas.”
“Ben Franklin? Yes, he might.” She seemed to cheer up, then added. “He is a good man. He has talked to me a bit.”
“Take heart, Miss Bennet, things will improve.” On impulse, Dakota stepped forward and took the guard’s hand, squeezing it gently. They made eye contact and Val gave a weak smile. Dakota only hoped that no one had seen her, as it was an invitation to trouble.
“That’s OK. Anytime, Miss Bennet.” To Dakota, this was surreal, but more was to come.
“Dakota, will you call me Val when we are on our own?”
Lunch was a Spam sandwich, as it was on most weekdays. The cooked meal was at 5pm. At weekends, it went the other way because they wanted to close the kitchens early, hence cooked meal at midday and Spam sandwich in the afternoon. Dakota was lucky because Hannah was serving lunch and slipped an extra piece of Spam onto her tray. A piece of Spam was worth three cigarettes, not that Dakota smoked anymore. The packet she received from her mother each week was traded for other essentials. Ten cigarettes would get you a packet of plain biscuits, but anything with chocolate cost at least fifteen.
She sat with three friends so split the Spam in four. It was how she approached life. Janice called it stupid, but her opinion did not stretch to declining the quarter of Spam. They often talked about food. Today Dakota said what she would give for a juicy hamburger. They laughed and then raised it to a pizza with various toppings, then Tammy saw them with a steak and fries, washed down with a long cold and never-ending beer.
“I had a real coffee today.”
“Yeah sure, and it had caramel flavouring and came with free refills.”
“No, I did.” But they would not believe her; deep as they were in their own game of make-believe.
The afternoon was spent in the laundry, but it was her last afternoon there. On Saturdays, they only worked half a day. She worked the machines as if she was a machine herself, everything in slow-motion automation. It was hot but the guards let them open the door onto the loading bay and the breeze was like freedom on their cheeks. They sang with Janice leading them in ‘Captain Jack, meet me down by the railroad tracks’, the echoes sounding like a ragged blues band at play.
“Keep it down, ladies,” Bennet called but her voice was not heard above the vocals, then someone started drumming on the empty washing machine. Dakota saw Bennet look at her pleadingly.
“Guys, enough!” She shouted to be heard above the accelerating din. “If we get caught it will be no visiting privileges this week. I really don’t want that to happen.” They responded to Dakota’s request and, giggling, started to whisper the same song. Soon, all work had been abandoned and they were rolling on the floor laughing, or gripping the sides of the machines, trying to control themselves.
It was none too soon for Val when the bell went at 4pm. She led the slightly more sober inmates back to the rec room and handed them over to the staff there.
“Sixteen inmates from laundry detail,” she reported.
“Good, take a break and get back here in thirty minutes. You’ll be finished after lockdown.”
“But I was told it was only to the end of the work day. I’ve got my son to pick up.”
“Bennet, do you want a job or not? Just because hubby is going up in the world doesn’t mean you can pick and choose your hours to suit yourself.”
Evenings were the most exposed time of all. It was obviously so because of two key factors. There was more free time and less supervision. The evening meal was complete by 5.20. They filed out of the dining hall and most days they could go to the rec room, the dorm or the bathroom. Dakota and her friends always chose the rec room as the safest. It was better populated and more scrutinised by the guards. She saw Bennet there and looked away, pretending to watch a game of cards. There was a DVD player at one end but it was the cause of unending fights for viewing privileges and Dakota knew to keep away. Mainly they sat on the floor in a huddle, ready to move on the moment a gang came their way, happy to do so.
“We’re the ‘non-gang’,” Hannah had joked once. “Our aim is to keep away from everyone else.” They achieved this through a mixture of appeasement, bribery and agility. The idea was to use your wits to survive and they were all survivors; that is what they had in common.
So, evenings were a mixture of cautious enjoyment of the company of the same old friends, tainted with being forever on guard against threats, looking out for each other, building those bonds that last forever.
Dakota had quickly become a central figure in this evolving group, despite being a recent arrival. Occasionally, a new inmate would join, sometimes only briefly, before drifting away to a gang or moved on suddenly to another prison. But Dakota liked her friends and would have it no other way. She had lived in maximum security for over eight years without any friends, watching her own back day after day, night after night. Hence a half-dozen friends was another blessing she counted every morning when the prison population finally slept and gave a little peace to their violent world.
It was a strange fact that they had so much time on their hands yet Dakota found getting time to study so difficult. Twice a week, on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, she could go to the library, likewise on Sunday mornings. But it was not enough. But that was changing with her new job on Monday.
Lockdown was 7pm. That was the end of the day. That was when she said a brief prayer and then ran through the day again in her mind, trying to talk to God about good and bad, hopes and fears, until she drifted off despite the harsh light and harsher voices. Tonight, her thoughts were all about Bennet. It was unheard of for a guard to confide in an inmate, even stranger to seek advice and to collapse in a heap of sorrow and confusion. Dakota would talk to Ben on Sunday. She felt sure he would have an idea to help her.
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