Author’s note: Frog Gravy is a depiction of daily life during incarceration in Kentucky in 2008 and 2009, in jails and in prison, and is reconstructed from my notes.
Names are changed, except prison nicknames that do not reveal identity.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language.
PeWee (pronounced Pee Wee) Valley Women’s Penitentiary near Louisville, KY, a few days before Thanksgiving, 2008
We are meticulously counted, every four hours or so. For the count, which we refer to as “count,” or “count time,” we must be in our room, at our bedside, not moving and not talking.
It is one of the evening count times. An officer is strolling the floor, looking into each room, pointing to each inmate, and counting to herself.
A pregnant woman, who has been having contractions for some time now, informs the officer that she is in labor. The pregnant woman cannot sit still.
The officer accuses her of faking labor and playing a game to mess up the count.
The woman talks back to the officer, saying, “I know when I am in fucking labor!” The officer escorts the woman away.
A little while later, two officers come to the pregnant woman’s room and pack all of her belongings into boxes.
We assume that she went to the hospital to have the baby.
We were wrong. The officers had handcuffed the woman and taken her to cell block: the hole.
There is actually a jail within the confines of the prison, and it is a building that we call “cell block.” It is a brick building with isolation cells that are nearly identical to “hole” cells in the jails. The holes are tiny cement cells. “Isolation” cells in the jails sometimes have television, whereas the “hole” cells do not.
You may or may not have a mat. I think you do get a mat here at PeWee, but I am not sure because I have never been in the hole at PeWee. One blanket is issued at 11 PM and then taken away at 4 AM. The cells are ice cold. When I was in the hole in McCracken, I had arthritis so bad from the cold that I wrapped my legs in toilet paper strips. I had no socks or shoes.
The hole is perhaps best known for the 24/7 fluorescent lighting, that is disorienting as well as blinding. Also, holes are punishment cells known for sensory deprivation and time distortion. There is absolutely nothing to do but count cement blocks or look at the hairs in the floor drain, if you can see them; they do not allow you to have glasses in the hole.
Food is delivered through a slot in the steel door. This is the only way to know the approximate time. There is no view to the outside. There is a tiny window to the hallway, but the hallway side of the window is covered with a hinged steel flap that can be opened only if an officer decides to open the flap and peer into the cell.
There is no way to wash your hands in the hole. The push-button spout points upward and issues a tiny upward stream for a second or two, but the stream is certainly not continuous. After a bowel movement, therefore, you must simply hope for the best, because if you plan to eat, well…there is no bar of soap, and there are no paper towels. There are no real towels either. No washrags, no sheets, and certainly no pillow.
When inmates die in cell block nobody really cares because they were just inmates.
The pregnant woman in labor was handcuffed and walked to cell block. Cell block is about a one-half mile walk from Ridgeview Dormitory.
I hear the rest of the pregnant woman’s story from another inmate, who was there when she arrived. The woman telling the rest of the story spent 30 days in cell block for having cigarettes.
The woman in labor cried and pounded on the door, but staff ignored her, so other inmates tried to talk to the woman, because there was nothing else that they could do. The inmates talking to the woman were also mothers, for the most part.
The nursing staff showed up briefly and told the woman in labor that until her water broke there was nothing they could do, because she was not really in labor, unless her water broke.
The pregnant woman told the nursing staff that her water had broken.
They left her.
According to the woman telling the story as she observed it, although cell block staff is supposed to perform half-hourly checks on cell block inmates, they only checked on the woman in labor twice.
At about 3 AM, the pregnant woman exclaimed, “Oh my God!” Other inmates heard “like a pop, and then we heard a baby cry.”
It was a boy.
Apparently, the mother was “passed out, with the baby attached.” The staff refused to open the cell door until an ambulance arrived.When the ambulance arrived, the mother was handcuffed.
Had the baby not cried, it is likely that no one would have opened the flap to check on him or his mother.
Author’s end note: The woman and her baby survived. I believe the baby was subsequently cared for by Amish women, through a program called The Gallilean Home, where Amish women care for babies born into captivity, until the mother’s release.
The mother returned to prison. The day staff in cell block apparently refused to take her back, so she returned to population. In case you are curious, the woman was serving time for non-violent drug charges.
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