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McPherson Women’s Prison 2018: age 80

The clouds look higher than usual this morning, far above the razor wire and guard tower. The bored officer paces slowly, checking her watch every few seconds, sipping her tepid coffee at the start of the morning shift. My hour in the yard is early, right after shift change, morning haze still thick across the fields.

The younger girls are up and out to work before dawn, but not me. I have to wait until a guard brings me outside, my old bones stiff, hips aching from the lumpy mattress laid across the concrete slab they call a bed. I may be old but at least I’m not in diapers. Not yet anyway.

Mandatory wake-up time at the prison is four a.m. Breakfast at four-thirty. Hoe squad leaves out at five. Ooops...I’m not supposed to call them the “hoe squad” anymore...politically incorrect. We have to call them the “field utility,” like a new word could make a difference to their precious self-esteem, most of them former hos and meth heads out in the free world. I chuckle to myself. I am eighty years old—too old for any sort of hoe squad.

Warden Annie Claud Lewis keeps me mostly inside the building: library duty for a while, then infirmary porter, then mopping the sally port. Warden Lewis is already seventy herself, spry and ornery as ever, and refuses to retire. She is afraid I might keel over dead at any time. Doc Harold and Warden Lewis dread that paperwork hassle. Autopsies are mandatory. Mortality reviews are a pain. I can’t even work in the kitchen or laundry anymore. They say I am just too old for the good jobs.

I love the clouds. I spend most of my early morning yard time gazing at them and remembering my childhood, my life, how I got here, how I’ve managed. Clouds trigger my memories—some vibrant and clear, others hazy like a dingy window. Days without clouds are boring. Nothing to see against an endless blue or smoggy gray. On days like today, giant white fluffs move silently across the sky, and my hour in the yard begins with dreams of God peeking at me from behind that ice cream cone or those gigantic rabbit ears.

I close my eyes and take a long, deep breath.

Perry County, Arkansas 1943: age 5–15

I am five years old, splashing wildly with Cousin Pam in the cattle tank my mother transformed into a makeshift swimming pool. The August afternoon is humid, the air thick. The fresh water from the well is icy cold. We squeal and shiver. I duck under and get water up my nose.

Mamma and Aunt Nell shell peas and sip Uncle Si’s moonshine unsuccessfully disguised as sweet tea. Daddy has been home from the war in the Pacific for a few weeks now and has passed out in the house, as usual. The clouds roll by with the subtle summer breeze off Cedar Creek near our home just west of Perryville.

“Look there!” Pam points to the sky where she spots a smiling giant with a big mustache in the clouds.

I spot a boot and a man’s fist. I am the dark child, full of torments and questions.

By the time the water reaches a comfortable temperature, our fingers and toes are puckered. We are tired, and I am sad that the clouds have passed.

Pam doesn’t mention the bruises on my back, but I’m sure she notices. I’m too young to wonder why she doesn’t have any. The daily flat-handed slaps to my back and angry kicks to the stomach will not seem unusual to me for many more years. Or being forced to sit on Daddy’s lap. Or enduring his secret visits to my bed. After he came home from the war, it didn’t take long for me to learn to fear him, his sour scent, his whiskey breath.

By the time I turn fifteen, the damage from Daddy’s beatings and whiskey-fed rages will have numbed me like the chilly water in the metal tank.

McPherson Women’s Prison 2018: age 80

Leaving memories of Pam and Mamma and enduring fear of my father behind, I open my eyes in time to see the officer signal that my yard time is half gone. Thirty more minutes. I take another look at the clouds—an empty crib, a hacksaw. The cloud is far away, but the memory is near.

Perry County, Arkansas 1954: age 15–20

When I was fifteen, Mamma just up and disappeared. One morning, she was gone. How could she leave me alone with him? She didn’t even take her clothes, and the tattered suitcase is still under her bed. Funny, the little things I remember.

After she disappeared, I’d dream of Mamma sitting on a beach like the ones she used to show me in her magazines. She’d look up at me from behind white-rimmed sunglasses. “Hey, sweetie! Sit here beside me and build me a sandcastle. Ain’t this heaven on earth? I love you, baby girl.”

I’d smile and fill up my bucket with sand. “Mamma, is Daddy coming to the beach?” “No, hon. Don’t you worry about your daddy. He won’t ever bother us again.” I’d smile inside as she touched my sunburnt cheek with perfectly manicured hands.

Then I wake up— the dream fading, a stray tear on my pillow.

When I turn sixteen, I finally get up the nerve to run away from home. Mamma has been gone a year, since right after Daddy got back from fighting another war, this one in Korea where a mine explosion left him with a permanent limp. She left without a word. I don’t know if she escaped or if Daddy made her disappear. Truth be told, I don’t want to know. I prefer my dreams of Mamma relaxing on the beach over what might be the brutal truth. Daddy is rarely sober but when he is, I know better than to try to fight him off. Just going limp is my usual defense. But this particular night, he is passed out on the sofa. I see my chance and grab it.

I reach Highway 9 just before sunup and hitch a ride to...well...anywhere. East, as it turns out, then south into Saline County. When I get to Sardis, someone at the Baptist church tells me the boy’s camp at Marylake might be a place I can get a job working in the kitchen or helping the owners with chores.

It is at Marylake that I meet Farley, the man who would marry and take care of me. Just like Daddy, as it turns out.

The Carmelite friars converted the boy’s camp into the Marylake monastery in 1952. The monks hire me and Farley, and they set us up with a small house across the lake. I work in their kitchen. Farley helps with the sheep and cattle and has a beagle named Buster. Just a few months into the marriage, the beatings begin. First, just a slap when supper didn’t suit him. Then a kick with a steel-toed book when I stayed late in the kitchen to help out with the summer canning. Then worse. The monks do not see my blue and purple flowering bruises, and Farley is careful not to damage my face. I learn that all men are cruel, that I have no worth, that I cannot fight back.

I wonder if Mamma ever fought back.

We work here for about four years when I give birth to a baby girl. It seemed she never slept. Just cried and cried and peed and pooped. How could I take care of her when I had to tend to the monks during the day and endure Farley’s brutality at night. Only a few days after the birth, something snaps. I know that I can’t let this baby grow up feeling her daddy’s fists, smelling his breath on her cheeks. I must protect her and end her life before Farley ruins it, like Daddy ruined mine. I must protect her like Mamma should have protected me—should have never let me live to be his punching bag, his plaything.

After she stops moving beneath the pillow and lies peacefully in her crib, I wait for Farley to come home from work. I use an old fence post to knock him out as he comes through the door. Oak. Hard. Dried. Then I kill the dog—quickly—so his barking won’t alert the monks. But I take my time with Farley. Hack him up over five or six hours, dress him out like a deer, seeing Daddy’s face with every slice of the hacksaw, with every swing of the axe. Blurry memories of hot rage and revenge give way to sticky blood and ghostly silence.

Wish Mamma was there to help. I’m just taking care of a problem, like Daddy taught me—doing what my Mamma should have done before leaving me.

McPherson Women’s Prison 2018: age 80

The electronic buzz of the gate startles me back to the exercise yard. Warden Lewis enters the yard on her morning rounds. I have spent most of my life here, behind the fences and walls of the McPherson Women’s Unit in Newport, Arkansas. Before that I was in Tucker, then Pine Bluff, then Cummins, and before that, well, just one long nightmare. It’s a sad state when prison is better than the life before.

The short-hairs—new inmates with heads freshly shaved to get rid of the head lice—and the guards do not bother me anymore. I might as well be invisible. It has been years since I brewed any hooch or landed in the hole for mouthing off. I can’t even qualify as gay for the stay, as they call it nowadays, since no one wants to snuggle with a dried-up crone, skin paper-thin like a page from a well-thumbed bible.

Warden Lewis has been watching over me at one prison or another for fifty years. My best days and my worst days have been spent in her office.

“Morning, Ms. Maggie.” Warden Lewis often visits with me in the yard. “You feelin’ OK today?” She has lost some of her height over the years and her hair has gone from auburn to gray to white.

“Cain’t complain, Warden. Except for those powdered eggs and muddy coffee. This is like living at the Ritz-Carlton.” We both laugh. Our years together have been full of conversations filled with silly banter as well as heartaches and setbacks. She’s been good to me. If I could say I have a friend in the world, it would be Warden Lewis.

My life behind bars has not been a bad one, considering they locked me up for life when I was only twenty years old. This life has been far better than the one I left behind where they labeled me a murderess.

In today’s world, I might get off for some sort of mental disease or postpartum depression or justifiable homicide. By the time those fancy terms came along, I had been locked up for so long I would not know how to act in the free world. I made the best of my situation after the jury gave me life without parole and assigned 423 as my new name, later updated to 700012 because of some regulation or another, laughingly called “standards.” Never mind. A name or a number does not matter.

Cousin Pam visited me at Cummins for a few years after they locked me up. At first, she came weekly; then monthly; then not at all. I am sure she is married with her own family, her own problems. Memories fading. Kinship—friendship—forgotten.

I look back toward the east at the sky over the cotton fields. Some distant clouds the shape of squash blossoms take me back to those early days at Cummins.

Cummins Women’s Reformatory 1958: age 20–35

Cummins Prison Farm in the late 1950s houses men in the main building and the Women’s Reformatory in a separate one where the Maple Grove Plantation once stood, just east of Grady, Arkansas. This is to be my new home and, oddly, for the first time in my life, I feel safe.

I make some high-quality hooch from fruit cocktail using Uncle Si’s secret recipe and get quite the rep with the other girls. I keep my head down. Learn to go unnoticed. When the new girls come in with their heads shaved, I give them advice and whatever protection I can offer from the trustees—entitled inmate suck-ups—and the cowboy-wannabe guards they call the “long riders” with their dark sunglasses and leather boots.

These are tolerable times for me and the twenty or so other female prisoners in the Women’s Reformatory at Cummins. I learned to accommodate demands of men at an early age, so the occasional encounter with a long rider is just part of life. Thankfully, I manage to avoid getting pregnant again. Some others are not so lucky. We find ways to pass the time: do some gardening, can vegetables for winter, play our girl games like Twenty Questions and Freeze Tag. Sew uniforms for the long riders and inmates. Wash the rich, loamy dirt from their shirts and pants at the end of a week working in the fields. Dye our hair red like Lucille Ball then black like Elizabeth Taylor.

For a while, I write the Women’s Reformatory column for the Pea Picker’s Picayune, Cummins’ monthly inmate newsletter. There isn’t much to report but it fills a few idle hours.

Women’s Reformatory Report, June 1968

By Margaret Ann Lowe, On-the-Scene Reporter

A great big Cummins’ welcome to Miss Annie Claud Lewis, our new Women’s Reformatory Superintendent! We hope her loving spirit and strict discipline will rub off on everyone. We are sure she’ll grab that brass ring and become a full-fledged warden running her own prison someday.

Ruth Ann Ludlam welcomed her son and daughter to visitation this week. Young Arthur is going into 6th grade and, boy, is Ruth Ann proud! He’s going to be a real heartbreaker one day. Little Sandra is a State Fair Queen in the making.

We are all hoping the rain holds off until the peas and butter beans are in. We can’t tromp around in muddy fields, and you know what they say about idle hands being the devil’s workshop. We don’t need to give old Beelzebub any encouragement! One more week of good picking weather and our pantry should be full for winter.

One last item. The washers the warden bought for us last fall are going through a bit of a mid-life crisis. Seems like they might have come over on the Mayflower! Does anyone think some unnamed reformatory sisters using them to churn twelve gallons of milk into butter caused the problems? You didn’t hear it from me! At least we’ll have plenty of sweet butter on the cornbread for a good while. Anyway, we are tinkering with the machines every day and hope to have them back up and running soon. Meanwhile, it’s washboards and rocks, ladies, and gentlemen, so please be patient and you will soon have bright, clean uniforms to wear to the fields again.

See you around...or over the fence!

Margaret Ann “Maggie” Lowe, Inmate 423

At Cummins, the clouds always seem close. Friendly. I spend a lot of time in the fields. Now thirty years old, I am still young and strong. After hours of picking beans and peas, pulling weeds, fighting off the bees trying to pollinate the fat squash blossoms, I stand, stretching my arms as far as I can reach toward the clouds. Sometimes the clouds are thin and wispy, sometimes greenish-black, and scary, sometimes taunting me with freedom, sometimes caressing me with warm, forgotten arms. But always there. If not today, then tomorrow. I know I’ll see them again soon, despite the clearest day or when they gush with rain, pelting the bean sprouts into the mud.

Cousin Pam visited from Perryville for the first few months I was here. Now that she has stopped coming to see me, I count on the clouds for comfort. For pleasure. My only visitors.

On one dismal May afternoon with angry, black clouds churning in from the west over Pine Bluff, I gaze across the bean field and the pond and think I see Daddy marching with a group of inmates being herded into the field by a long rider. My stomach heaves. The peculiar drop of his shoulder, the slight limp he couldn’t shake after getting home from Korea, carrying a hoe, wearing one of the white jumpsuits I wash each week. Bitter bile burns the back of my throat. Could it really be him?

After all these years, my fear and hatred are still untamed. I gasp for air, pulse racing. Mamma. Did they find her? I turn my gaze to the east, away from the men’s side of the prison. Hoping that maybe he is getting it now instead of dishing it out.

That afternoon, Warden Lewis calls me into her office. “Miss Maggie, please sit.” She motions to the worn chair beside her desk. “I’m afraid I have bad news.” I know what’s coming. “Your father has been sent over to the men’s unit. A jury convicted him of murdering your mother last week. They gave him life without parole.”

I choke back tears that both surprise and sicken me. “Di-did they find her?”

“Yes. On your old home property near Perryville. He’d buried her under the smokehouse. Seems someone bought the land and found her in a shallow grave. They’ve given her a decent burial in the graveyard by the church. I’m so sorry. Why don’t you take a day off work? I’ll clear it with the major. Go talk to the chaplain.”

I admit there is some peace in knowing Mamma did not choose to leave me. That she’s not sipping iced tea on that beach without me. Strangely, learning the truth about Mamma lightens my loneliness.

Pine Bluff Women’s Prison 1974: age 36–55

With juries giving more and more of my sisters-in-crime long, harsh sentences, the state moves us from the tiny barracks at Cummins down the road to Pine Bluff. The prison bus is full. Dangling from the rearview mirror, the driver’s transistor radio blasts with a DJ talking about Richard Nixon resigning from being President, and a man sings about saving time in a bottle. We joke and laugh. The trip is over too quickly.

The prison in Pine Bluff is larger and more modern, providing us with our own cells and indoor showers. Our allotment of toilet paper at Cummins was one roll per month. Now we get two and life is good.

At thirty-six, my life back in the free world is a fuzzy, distant memory—a life I don’t miss and a memory I don’t nurture. My little prison family gets through each day working either in the fields or inside taking care of each other. Some girls need a kind touch; some need a patient listener; some need a good ass-whipping. One of the short-hairs, Callie, who is a few years younger than me, arrives like a scared little kitten.

“Hey kiddo.” My usual greeting. “I’m Maggie.”

“C-callie,” she stammers.

“You look like you’re about to shake out of those boots. Just sit down here, and tell me your story. We’ve all got one or a hundred stories to tell. Hey, it’ll take a while for the shakes to stop. Don’t worry. I’ll help you get through it.” She sits beside me on the concrete bench. It takes a few days to gain her trust, but she finally confides in me her all too familiar story.

I take Callie under my wing, and, over the years, we provide each other with the love and support that we both either missed or threw away out in the free world. She quietly slips onto my bunk at night, so I can hold her and reveal the nightmares of my childhood, hear hers in return, and pretend we are loved. Together we purge our demons. We share our dreams that will never come true. It is the happiest time of my life.

Sometime around my fortieth birthday, I get another summons to go see Warden Lewis. “Thanks for coming down, Miss Maggie. I’m sorry but I have another bit of bad news for you. Your father was killed yesterday at Cummins. The report looks like it was a gang attack in the yard. He’ll be sent to Little Rock for an autopsy then sent to the Medical Examiner’s crematorium.”

“Damn. You never mince words, do you, Warden?” I’m almost joyful. Daddy. Dead. After all this time, I’m still afraid of him. Yet, I feel the burden of fear and loathing fall away. “Are they sure? Are you sure?”

“They’re sure. His body has already been shipped to Little Rock for the autopsy. No doubt about it. You OK?”

“Better than OK, Miss Lewis.” And I actually dance a little jig, right there in her office. “I need to go tell Callie.”

We move again in the early 1990s to the Tucker Unit but only stay there for a short time. Years before our arrival, the prison carpenters remodeled the Tucker death chamber into a real infirmary complete with examination tables and blood pressure cuffs. There is a licensed doctor on some days and nurses around the clock. Waiting to have our temperature taken or blood drawn, we are silent, trying not to think about the ghosts who haunt the room. No one complains when, a few years later, they load us all on another bus headed north.

McPherson Women’s Prison 1993: age 55–80

The new prison at Newport, called the McPherson Unit, is the nicest one yet. After only a few weeks there, Callie paroles out. We had nearly twenty years together. When she leaves, she promises to write, to visit, but I know she won’t. She’s just gone. Like Pam. Like Mamma. I know she isn’t like the clouds. I know she is gone for good.

On the day she leaves, I send in a sick call request to see the nurse. Tears oozing from my eyes despite my determination to show a brave, stoic front, the nurse draws blood and I tell her about the lump in my left breast, the one Callie noticed the week before.

“We’ll send your blood work to the lab,” she assures me. “Doc Harold will let you know the test results in a couple of days. Do you want to talk to someone in mental health? I helped process Callie out this morning. I’m sorry. I know you were friends.”

I am grateful for the nurse’s words. For treating me like a human being. For at least pretending to care. For using Callie’s first name.

“Sure,” I mumble, through quiet sobs. “Nothing else to do. Can’t hurt.”

“OK. I’ll notify them that you need an appointment. Should be tomorrow or the next day. Come back and down if you don’t hear from them by Tuesday.”

Unwelcome news from the lab report. The Department of Correction sends me to Little Rock for an MRI and then surgery. Thanks to Callie’s tender and observant touch, the cancer takes my breasts but not my life. Too bad. The days slow down. The sky is empty. The clouds gone.

McPherson Women’s Prison 2018: age 80

“Miss Maggie, times up.” The officer calls me back, signaling that my yard time is over. The slow walk back toward the gate gives me a few extra minutes to reflect.

I am the oldest female prisoner in Arkansas. Callie has been gone for over twenty years. I have been behind these bars for sixty. The clouds are, once again, giving me something to anticipate each day and filling at least a part of the void left by Callie. By Pam. By Mamma.

Arthritis causes my hips and hands to ache. Daily insulin shots keep my diabetes under control, despite the Little Debbie cakes the girls slip to me in the barracks. I am present at every pill call, three times a day, nine different pills to swallow. I am a regular on the security van into Little Rock to see various specialists for my diabetes, my cancer, and my heart. I like the trips. The radio in the van plays Beyoncé and the younger inmates in back sing along about girls who run the world.

Doc Harold cannot handle my multiple illnesses in his infirmary. I am more than his general practice experience can deal with, what with having to care for over a thousand other women and their pap smears and mammograms, their cramps and periods, their colds and flu, their head lice and chicken pox. I neither make nor drink the hooch anymore, although I did teach Uncle Si’s secret brewing techniques to a couple of the girls. They call me “Mammaw.” I think of Callie and Pam often and hope they are happy.

I think of Mamma.

I try not to think of Daddy or Farley or Buster or the baby girl. I’m tired. I deserve to be tired. I’ve earned tired. That back-door parole will come for me soon, and I will leave here in a body bag, just shy of ninety pounds, almost blind, selectively deaf.

A breeze kicks up and the clouds move over me. They billow above the yard like wedding gowns with long trains, gliding down the aisle to meet their grooms. Each one perfect. Each one unique. Each one beautiful. Always there, yet always different. I turn to go inside.

Maybe tonight they’ll bring the body bag to my cell. Maybe not.

Maybe I’ll join Mamma. Maybe not.

Maybe I’ll be back in the yard tomorrow to gaze at my clouds again.

Maybe not.

About the Author

Jan Jolly

Jan Jolly retired from the Arkansas Department of Correction in 2017 and is currently working on a master’s in nonfiction writing at the University of Arkansas Little Rock. Jan lives with her husband in Little Rock, Arkansas where she raises an urban vegetable garden and writes for academia and pleasure.

Read more work by Jan Jolly.