Windows and Doors: The Illusion of Transparency

by Taylar Nuevelle

The last time I was on suicide watch there was not one psychologist on the compound at the Federal Secure Female Facility Hazelton (Hazelton).  They had sent them all to the male prisons. There were three—maximum, medium, and a camp for men—that surrounded the women’s prison. Occasionally a psychologist would come to the female prison, which sat within this male complex, especially if someone was on suicide watch.  The women were left with unsupervised psyche interns who were so cruel. I had been put on suicide watch often for standing up for myself when being bullied by officers and/or inmates. I was put on suicide watch for being attacked twice. Then after suicide watch I would be put in the Segregated Housing Unit (SHU).

The last stay on suicide watch lasted three weeks. An officer had decided to destroy my cell—my area of the cell. And as he yelled and screamed and tossed my property into the main unit, I sat at the computer writing an email to the warden detailing what the officer was doing: grabbing his crotch and jutting his pelvis at me, calling me worthless, and telling me I was a nobody and no one cared about me. 

Finally, I flipped.  I started yelling back, “I’m not even sure you need a G.E.D. to work as a CO.” The unit cracked up laughing (later they would turn on me and write up lies to support the officer) and I kept going, “My time is short. I’m going home and this is as good as it gets for you.” He threw a sweater I had been knitting out and started tearing other things I knitted apart. He reminded me of my mother.  Claudia used to destroy my toys and clothes when she was enraged with me.

It ended with me going to the cell as he started ripping my books.  You do not ever destroy my books.  I don’t give a damn who you are—never destroy my books, they are and always have been my friends. As I grabbed the book he shoved me and then he radioed the lieutenant and I heard over the loud speaker, “Nuevelle.  Nuevelle. Report to the lieutenant’s office immediately.”  I yelled, “Fuck!  Fuck! Fuck!” By the time I got to the lieutenant’s office I was a wreck. 

Thus, I was sent to see the psychology intern.  She was this arrogant, snotty White woman.  I was shaking and having muscle spasms in my face.  Then I let it slip that the officer had pushed me.  “Okay. Well then you are going to have to go to the SHU if you are claiming you were attacked by an officer,” she joyfully explained. We walked back to the lieutenant’s office and she repeated what I said and the lieutenant looked at me and asked, “Is this true?” I answered, “Well everything except the part that he pushed me.  She’s making that up.”  I lied, because I just wanted to return to the unit because investigations can take months. Then I was accused of disassociating—which probably wasn’t too far off the mark of where I was headed—and I was taken to suicide watch.

There are windows all around and three rooms in the suicide watch area.  The middle room is where the inmate suicide watch workers sit.  Yeah, you read that right; inmates work the suicide watch area. The rooms to the left and right are the rooms for the inmates on watch.  There is a steel door that you are locked behind and another steel door inside the room that leads to the bathroom. The fluorescent lights are never turned off. It’s freezing cold. So cold my fingertips always turned blue.

When Dr. Benache was there and I had a break-down he would put on my paperwork that I could keep my underwear and socks and have two blankets and that the bathroom door was to always remain open because I would vomit often and he knew waiting to use the bathroom was a trigger for me. But I had to wear the Turtle Suit.  It’s a big quilted gown that is fastened with Velcro.  I hate the sound of Velcro. Dr. Benache always knocked before he opened the steel door. He always came in and talked to me like a person. Then he left Hazelton and went to work at a male prison in Arizona. My depression and fear increased.

Dr. Benache was gone so they took my underwear and socks that last time on suicide watch.  They gave me two blankets because I was so skinny.  They locked the bathroom door. The interns, and occasionally a psychologist from one of the male prisons would come by once a day and yell through the steel door, “Are you feeling like you want to hurt yourself?” I would flip up my middle finger without even turning over on the mattress to look at which idiot was asking. I stopped eating. But the officers got little paper cups and would bring me water when they walked through.

Then the intern came with another intern and two lieutenants one day and took my cups of water.  The officers informed them, “She isn’t eating and we can’t come and watch her drink water and take the cup every time she is thirsty.  It’s easier to just give her a couple of cups and leave her alone.”  The psyche interns said, “No. She needs to learn to follow instructions.” They decided I needed permission to drink water. I needed permission to use the bathroom.

This little gnome of a lieutenant wanted to talk: “So Nuevelle” she snarked, “You not eating huh?” I walked over to the window that faced the suicide watch inmate. The officer yelled at the watcher, “Don’t look at her.” Then I began to sing that Alison Krauss’s song Down to the River to Pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O sisters, let's go down,
Let's go down, come on down
O sisters, let's go down
Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the robe and crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

Over and over I sang these three verses loudly as an answer to each directive and question. My bedding was ripped apart and they left. Suicide watch made me unhinged and suicidal so I sang to ground myself.

The next day was punishment time. I asked to use the bathroom one shift and the White intern came with a lieutenant and an officer. They told me to put my hands through the slot and handcuffed me. I was told to walk to the back of the room, face the wall and wait.  Then an officer opened the steel door to the room, unlocked the bathroom door, walked out locked the door and told me to come back over. 

There I stood, hands behind my back waiting to be un-cuffed so I could go pee.  So I spread my legs, and backed up to the door and pissed and watched as it slipped under the door and evidently onto their boots and shoes. “Did she just squat and pee on the floor?” The intern asked. Handcuffs off and I turned and said yeah I did assholes.”  See the thing about suicide watch is you can cuss and call them names and you cannot be written up because you are considered, “Mentally Unstable.” I was fine mentally (relatively speaking) before this degradation and humiliation but all that was lost what more did I have to lose. I wanted to piss on them because that is what they were doing to me.

I spent three weeks on suicide watch that time—my last time before coming home. I was moved to the SHU afterwards for another three weeks and then my email was reviewed and I was set free to go back to being locked up.

Nobody talks about what happens to women in solitary or on suicide watch in prison. Windows and Doors do not lead to transparency; they are just another way of isolating us, violating us, shaming us, silencing us.