“Hey, my Mom’s in prison”: A conversation at Tennessee Prison for Women

Black and white photo close-up of hands with tattooed knuckles holding a hand of cards

Jackson Hill

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 4, "Still Life: Inside Southern Prisons." Find more from that issue here.

Andrew Griffin: Do prisons work? Can a person be helped by prison? 

Betty: If they want to be helped. 

Janet: if they had the right kind of program that would work. More education programs and more work release, which we have very little of, especially us with long sentences. I was in pre-med before they brought me here. I had been out on bond three and a half years, and my appeal was denied. I was doing fine in school and everything. Now where am I? I’m at a standstill. To me this is not rehabilitation. 

Millie: In order to be rehabilitated, you first have to be habilitated. I don’t feel that this institution or anything they offer me (which I don’t feel they have anything to offer me) could reform me. 

I feel like I have to reform myself. I’ve felt that way ever since I’ve been confined. When I walked in that door years ago, they told me they was gonna break me. Well, they didn’t. They kept me in maximum security 408 days with that one thing in mind, that they was gonna break me. And when I come out I was still as much hell coming out as I was when I went in there. I’m being honest and what I say in front of you I say in front of them or anybody else. 

Andrew: What does somebody go through when they walk through the gates of this place? 

Betty: A lot of women are scared to death. When they bring in new admissions, they come to Dorm One, the dorm that I’m in. You’d be surprised at the women when they walk in and see the other women sitting around. I suppose you get this line of shit in jail about, “Oh, there’s all sorts of homosexuality and they’re gonna attack you and take all your stuff.” You know, you could scare a person to death in jail. I was scared when I first came up here. I know. The other day they brought in a group, and a couple were in tears. They, were scared to death. Some inmates had to tell them, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. There’s nobody gonna jump you in here.” 

Janet: But you don’t know that when you come in here. 

Andrew: How long does it take to adjust to being here? 

Millie: I ain’t never gonna adjust to this place. 

Pat: You make do — but you don’t adjust. 

Millie: Some people do adjust, I’m gonna tell you now. But they go completely out of their minds, too. There are some people that have actually adjusted in this place — people that don’t ever want to leave here. 

I wouldn’t care if they kept me locked up forever — and that looks like what they gonna do — I’ll never adjust to this place. I haven’t, and I’ve made it through seven years. And I’ll make it through the other seven years or whatever it is I’ve got left — twelve, four, five, I don’t know. 

Betty: There are some people that come in here that this institution has helped and can help. Because they bring people in from these little bitty towns up in the hills, that didn’t have no running water. They didn’t have clean sheets; they didn’t have three meals a day; they didn’t have a doctor or a dentist. I’ve seen women come in the dorm that didn’t even know what the damned shower was. They were afraid of it. 

But as far as rehabilitation, I’ve been here three times. I want to stay out, but if circumstances come up where I need some money and I know how to get it in a quick way — other than working my tail off on two jobs or something like that — then I will resort to what I know is an easy way to make money. 

Andrew: What is medical care like in this institution? 

Janet: Medical care is a problem. I don’t think really it stems from the institution, but from the lack of funds coming in to hire medical personnel. We have a doctor come in once a week on Tuesdays. If you’re sick, you just wait till then, unless you’re having real bad problems. Then they’ll take you to the hospital. 

Pat: It depends on who’s working. They have to call the nurse first and explain what’s wrong with you to her. if the nurse says take you to the hospital, then you go. if she says give you two aspirins and go to bed, then you go to bed. 

Betty: If you get a cold on Wednesday, you’re just out of luck. You have to wait until next Tuesday to get any antibiotics. 

Janet: Why don’t you put in your article that we do need better medical care, more work release centers and more incentives to get out of prison? 

Betty: We need more recreation. 

Millie: The first thing I’d do [if I was warden] is have everybody that works here spend the night here as a prisoner. 

Betty: And the judges, too. 

The thing I can’t understand about prisons is the hiring procedure. Why would they hire somebody to work in a prison who has no compassion, no feeling for their fellow man? 

We had a man working here, and I overheard him saying to my boss in the kitchen that we were fixing too good a food for these inmates. He told my boss verbatim: “These women are in here for murder, robbery, we’ve got child abusers in here, they don’t know nothing about this good kind of food.” I could not believe this man said this. I was so upset, I cried for about two hours. But I cannot understand how somebody who feels that way can have that kind of position. I guess politics runs anything associated with any kind of government. 

Andrew: Tell me about your classification levels. Everyone who comes in starts off at Level I? 

All: No, Level II. 

Millie: On Level I you get locked up at six o’clock; no activities after six o’clock, you get locked in your room at six, or if you have a roommate, you have to stay in your room. On Level II you can do anything anybody else does except leave the institution (unless it’s to go to the doctor or something). On IV and V you can go outside the institution if you are invited and they approve it. 

Andrew: How do you move from one Level to another? 

Betty: Behave yourself. 

Janet: Every two months they have a grading period here. 

Betty: It depends on your work area: how you do your job and how you get along with others. Millie: Well really, you don’t know how they are going to grade you. It’s just really a confusing system. One month they may grade you 121, that’s low Level IV, and this month I got 140 out of 160. 

Betty: The grading system is based on who grades you; if they like you or if they don’t. That’s just human nature. That goes on the street. Two COs [corrections officers] grade you. if one likes you she might give you 160. The other might give you 118. 

One thing I would like to see written is more privileges for Level V. All you have to work for now is a rocking chair and a full-length mirror. Who the hell wants a rocking chair and a full-length mirror? You need something to work for within an institution. We used to have other privileges here. We used to be able to go out with a visitor on Saturday or Sunday for four hours, to go out to eat or to a movie. Okay, somebody came in drunk, and they snatched that. They used to have Honor Dorm and Self-Government, but that got too confusing and they snatched that. 

I was in Honor Dorm and Self-Government. In Self-Government the inmates and staff voted on you, and if you weren’t in this little clique, you didn’t get in. I know, ’cause I was in the clique. I’m just being honest. But what I’m saying is we need some incentive to be on Level V. We used to be able to go out shopping once a month, but that’s gone now, too. 

Andrew: From what I understand, there are kitchen jobs and a beauticians school. Is that about it? Millie: And school, GED [high school equivalency program], consumer business and key punch. Betty: Then they have job openings in the administration for those that have secretarial skills. 

Janet: It depends on if you are qualified for the job or not. They have a classification committee composed of the counselor, the nurse and the associate warden of treatment. They decide what you are qualified for. 

Millie: Even if you are qualified and they don’t like you, you don’t get the job. 

Andrew: Do you have to change yourself to get them to like you? 

Betty: Your personality around here changes every eight hours. You have to change with the COs. One shift you may be able to cut up, another shift comes on, you have to be quiet. This place is good practice, ’cause it’s the same on the streets. 

Janet: You have the ability to deal with people inside or out, but here it’s so confined, it’s magnified. Andrew: Is the type of crime that women are committing changing with the changing role of women? 

Betty: The majority of the women here are here for drug-related crime, and there are younger women in here than before. Like in 1971 there might have been 55 or 60 inmates in here, and they were older women, like in their late 20s and 30s and 40s. Nowadays the majority of the women are from their early 20s to their 30s, and it’s mostly drug-related. But there are a lot more women coming in now for armed robbery. 

Millie: And there’s a lot more also that didn’t have an accomplice, whereas before it was mostly the men that sent them out, and they didn’t know what was going on. Now they commit it themselves, and they know that nobody else has sent them out. 

Betty: I don’t credit this to women’s lib. I think that women are just getting more brazen. The role of women is changing. 

Millie: But that’s because the role of men has changed. Whereas you used to have gentlemen, now you got . . . pimps. Betty: Women aren’t depending on men nowadays as much as they used to. There are so many single women, single parents. You just see women doing things by themselves nowadays. 

Andrew: Is there a homosexual problem? 

Betty: In any controlled environment, it’s gonna go on. I mean, you can’t stop it. But sometimes I wonder if they’d just let these people be together, I bet you over half of them would say, “God, how did I get involved in this?” I mean it’s all right with the little Coke change and cigarettes and stuff, but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, I firmly believe a lot of them would say, “No go. I don’t even want to be into this.” 

And they’re not doing that much, but some of these people who work here think they’re doing everything. But if you stop and think — where could they do it? I ain’t gonna tell no lie. It goes on. It has been done. But I think if they said, “Let’s just let it go,” a lot of people would lose interest in it. 

Janet: Well, I just might be naive, but I ain’t never seen anything go on except somebody sitting together. 

Betty: Well, see, you haven’t been around that long. You stay in your room, and you’re naive, too. A lot of women come in here and don’t have anybody, and they latch onto this special friend. They need somebody. But if you have a close friend in here, they say, “Hey, we’d better watch them; they’re getting awfully chummy.” You really can’t have a friend in here. 

Janet: You really have to watch it. 

Betty: You get paranoid in here. The COs have a logbook at the desk, and they write down what they see or think they see. They had a riot here in ’71, and we got ahold of the logbook and read it. There were things like, “I thought I saw so-and-so playing footsie under the table.” If they put as much constructive thought towards things like rehabilitation, it would be a lot better place. 

Andrew: What’s it like going before the parole board? 

Millie: Let me tell you about the parole board. They will cut time for anybody that has political pull, but if you’re poor — poor white, poor black, poor Chicano, poor anything — then you’re just out of luck. You have to make the best of a bad situation. They’ll write you this form letter and say, “We feel you haven’t done enough time.” Yet someone with pull might get 10 years and go out in two. We had a girl that had 50 years for first degree murder, and she went out in five. Another one had 30 and went out in six. 

Andrew: What happens to a child when its mother comes to a women’s prison? 

Janet: It’s horrible. That’s the hardest thing. I have two children — twins that are four. That’s the biggest mental anguish I have. My family has them, and it’s a hardship on them, and the children can’t understand why I can’t come home. 

Betty: Two of mine — I have four — are under psychiatric care right now. My first child, he just rebelled, and he thinks it’s smart and cute that his mother’s in prison. He wanted to go to school and say, “Hey, my mom’s in prison,” like he was a little gangster or something. He started doing little things that could end him up over across the street [at the Juvenile Offenders’ Center]. So we snatched him up, and he’s seeing a psychiatrist. He’s better now. But my third little boy, since I’m up here (this is my third time), he doesn’t trust anybody, because I told him, “I have to go back to the hospital.” I wasn’t honest, you know. But you can’t tell a seven-year-old child that you’re going to the penitentiary. I saw how the oldest one dealt with it, and I don’t need four juvenile delinquents out there. 

It’s really hard on children. Mine are in foster care. If the state would stop and think how much money they have to put out for foster care plus the upkeep for a woman in here, if they would make all the people like me, who are in for checks and credit cards, pay back what they owe — if I had to pay back all that I charged on Master Charge and Bank Americard — I might stop and think. Whereas all I’ve had to do all three times is come in here and sit on my ass for a given period of time. I’m costing the state all kinds of money. 

Millie: I know I have. Janet: They’re just now trying to get a restitution program started in here. Some men work and pay it out to their victims, but they haven’t got anything started for the women. They need it. If you’re on Level IV or V, you can have one kid here for the weekend to stay in the room with you. Every time one of mine comes, they leave here crying. They can’t understand. And that’s the hardest thing on all the women I’ve talked to. When they leave crying, there’s nothing you can do about it. I just go back and cry, too, for two or three days. There has to be a better way.