Someone Help Me, I’m Obsessed With Prison

MCC in Chicago-

Federal prison in Chicago known for its stately architecture and sunny corridors.

Ya’ll, I am obsessed with prison, which is weird, right? It’s not like I have aspirations of ever spending time there.  The last time I visited a prison I was seven months pregnant with Sadie and got a pat down from an androgynous guard that made me blush.  I was visiting a client in a rural Illinois prison– and because pregnant women have to go to the bathroom all the time, I used 4 different toilets in Pontiac Prison before my visit was over.  I’ve seen a lot of sorry excuses for bathrooms (see train station in Siena, Italy where the “bathroom” was really a hole in the dirt that I paid lots of lira to use), but the prison bathrooms were so cold that icicles formed on my backside while I was squatting.

In Sadie’s baby book, there’s a section called “Places I’ve Been,” and I memorialized her in utero trip to the prison because who doesn’t want to know she went to the clink while in the comfort of her mother’s womb?

I’m a woman who’s always had enthusiasms– little bursts of interest or obsession that occupy my time, eventually fading away until a new one dominates my thoughts.  Through the years, there’s been the stigmata (don’t ask; it was a Catholic school thing), Baryshnikov, Words With Friends– normal enough stuff that was appropriate for my age and demographic.  But prisons? How can I explain that?

In my Facebook feed this summer I saw people raving about the show Orange Is The New Black, but decided to first read the book by Piper Kerman before diving into the series.  Holy shackles on a stick, I couldn’t put it down, which wasn’t helping to quell this latest obsession.

My recent saturation in all things prison-ish reminds me of my very first business idea after I got my Master’s degree.  Fresh from the exhilaration of falling in love with books and bonding with colleagues during seminar classes, I wanted to create that experience with incarcerated women.  My plan was to set up book clubs in all the prisons on the theory that (1) everyone loves to read, (2) reading creates and coheres communities, and (3) it would instill a love of literature in prison inmates, which in turn would magically keep them out of trouble in prison and off the streets down the road.  No one ever has thought that would be a great idea, but I still hold out hope that one day after I earn millions in a 100% legal enterprise, I can launch my Bookclubs For Bitches Behind Bars program and change the world.

In the  meantime, it’s getting tricky to explain the lyrics of Folsom Prison Blues to Simon who wants to know where Reno is and why someone would kill a man to watch him die. Good question, Son, remember Mommy is a pacifist.  I need to either tone it down or channel this into something more palatable for my young children who are growing tired of Mommy’s prison tunes.  What do you mean you guys are sick of hearing Cell Block Tango?  I need a new obsession– something lighter and more wholesome.  Something that has accompanying tunes that affirm life.

Does anyone know any songs about scrapbooking?


50 thoughts on “Someone Help Me, I’m Obsessed With Prison

  1. I don’t know about scrap booking songs, but you’re correct that prison toilets are frigid. That book program sounds inspiring-like something Johnny would do. Become the woman in black and make those bitches broaden their horizons!

  2. I live by a prison, my daughter (12) is fascinated (gasp) by the prisoners out there doing yard work, etc. Not with the corrections officers carrying a BIG shot gun, and hand gun on his hip! I asked her why? She laughed and says she doesn’t know. Her brother (10) and I think she’s crazy. Now I live in CA, we house some very serious prisoners. I explained in detail what some of these people did, her answer, “I don’t know why, I just like to look at them?”. I told my boyfriend, should I just let her be a penpal now! Lol.

  3. I have a few other hobbies, scrap booking, stamping, sewing, (quilting) jewelry making (beading). I don’t think there is any songs associated with them. Hmm, maybe you can write the lyrics, music and sing. There is your legal enterprise millions right there! 😎!

  4. I don’t want to write anything here, but my heart says I have to. Also, I don’t mean anything critical, I just wonder if people know what prison really is about?
    Prison is not a titillating fantasy world. It is dehumanizing and degrading. Let alone dangerous. And no one is coming to save you. It’s not a movie or a TV show or a book. It’s a nightmare that real people live. Orange is the New Black is capitalizing on human horror for entertainment.
    My daughter has been in and out of prison for the last 15 years and it breaks my heart the way she lives in there. She gets out with every intention of never going back but picks up a drink or a drug and is off and running. Maybe you could talk to someone who has done real time and been stripped of every dignity possible.
    Your idea about books is fantastic. My daughter begs for books, and all the girls share the books I send her. She even shares my phone calls just so they can call me mom and say hello, pretend for just a paid for minute that someone loves them, a mother. They don’t have much else.
    Sometimes I send her books that she never receives because the prison guards keep them. If I send her a thick letter, it is returned to me after a year or so because too many pages is called a book. All books have to come from a store or approved organization. They would actually love the name Books For Bitches. Because if they are not a bitch in prison they will not survive.
    Most of the women have no family left that will speak to them so any kindness is appreciated. They are real people, women who had homes, children and families, mothers who loved/love them. Most of them are in prison from addictions to illegal substances and even housewives from the country clubs are there, women who got on prescription pain meds or Zanax, got addicted and got in trouble.
    All of the stories are heartbreaking, and for many, not all, prison is a family pattern along with having survived abusive, violent childhoods. I have met women who had their first fix from their mother. Women who were traded for drugs when they were still little girls.
    They have to buy toilet paper or use their fingers. If you have no one left who will put money on your books, you have no shampoo, soap or toilet paper. They eat bologna and peanut butter every day. Maybe they deserve it, although rehab makes more sense, but they are still someone’s daughter.
    My daughter.

    • You’re describing my worst nightmare– not that I end up in prison but that my kids do. And you’re right– for me I’m talking about as aspect of human life that is hellish for some but entertainment for others. I’d like to send your daughter some books. Is that even possible? I’d happily donate some from my personal stash. Otherwise I’d donate from a bookstore. I’m serious. My email is

      If you want email me the info and I’ll make it happen.

      • Also the point she was making is that the movies and shows are not true to real life in prison. It seems almost fun in the shows. Real life in prison is a lot more boring, wasteful, and taxing on the mind and spirit.

    • Okay. I will email you. By the way, my daughter said Bitches is a very bad term in prison it means sexual slave, to stay alive. Especially for a guy. Might want another name for the book club. Like, Books For Mama’s Outlaws. Many bookstores will donate because they have too many books. Also, my daughter said untreated mental illness is as big a reason for women in prison as illegal or prescription drugs. And no, mental illness is not treated in prison, it is punished.

      • Yep, lots of self-medicating. So many people falling through the cracks because they can’t afford treatment. Myself, I didn’t get diagnosed until I was an adult (18), and things changed a lot when I left a well-off home, to being poor (raising a family of my own). The police often, OFTEN have to intervene (and they had to sometimes with me, just to get me to inpatient services).

        Even in jail, some folks are there because there is nowhere else for them. In our area, at BEST, some are in hospitals because inpatient services had no beds. And inpatient services ain’t no picnic either. My daughter still remembers my last visit.

      • Listen. Try to understand. Help us to live with dignity.

        You are already doing the first two with me already. The third is harder, because it requires a more collective effort, than simply an individual one.

  5. My dad was a janitor in a mental health institution when I was very little and for awhile I was obsessed. I wanted to go there, I wanted to see what he saw, I wanted to see the people. It’s bizarre what we attach to in life.

  6. I was in prison for a year and a half (in New York State) and I think it’s a great idea. Where I was, at any rate, bitch was a friendly term. Depending on the facility it could be difficult to get the necessary approval. If you can jump through all the hoops, though, there are definitely people who would appreciate it. Oh, and if you need anyone to answer your prison fascination questions, I have first-hand experience. My blog is actually a lot about prison, both prison-related news stories and a chronicling of my efforts to get my own prison memoir published, so you might be able to satisfy a bit of your prison itch at . And if you ever have any bizarre prison questions you want answered, feel free to post and ask away.

  7. My home alanon group takes weekly meetings to the local women’s prisin in Lockhart (Tx).it is a wonderful opportunity to share the priceless gift of recovery. You can also sponsor soneone by correspondence, which I have done before. I have a brother who was in and out if prison. It is not pretty and visiting him was always such a strange feeling. I agree with the comment regarding addiction..seems to be such a factor….

  8. Becoming aware and talking about mental illness and prison is a great first step. I used to go to a maximum security men’s prison to speak and to help provide AA meetings inside, during my first five years in sobriety. It was during the late 70’s and it seemed back then that alcohol was much more a problem than drugs or mental illness, at least in AA and in prison. My sponsor was a very wise woman because I believe those meetings helped create the foundation that has allowed me to walk sober for over thirty years.
    When all the budget cuts began, thousands of mental hospitals and out-patient programs were closed down, so now the system sends mentally ill people to jail and then, out to the streets. How much money did the USA save (to send for foreign aid) and how much does prison cost? How many lives have been destroyed for lack of mental health hospitals, programs and after-care, how many families have been torn apart? Too many to ever count, but I’ll start. One. Mine.

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