Tanisha's Scars

Inside Bedford Hills prison, women swallow pins and slice their arms

The cell block where Tanisha Jackson lived was quiet on the afternoon of September 22, 2000, when a fellow prisoner kicked a metal toilet twice and the clanging reverberated down the hall. Nobody paid much attention. Nobody, that is, except Tanisha. She knew who'd made the noise, and she knew it was a message to her. She and a fellow prisoner named Nancy Manigault had made a pact earlier that day in the prison yard, after another inmate smuggled them some razor blades. Now Tanisha, who everyone called Tee-Jay, reached into her mouth, pulled out a blade, and dragged it along the inside of her forearm. At that same moment, Nancy started cutting herself too.

The women lived in the Mental Health Unit at Bedford Hills prison, the maximum-security facility in Westchester County. A few minutes passed and Nancy kicked her toilet three times. This was the signal to stop, but Tee-Jay couldn't. She stared at herself in the mirror above her sink and drew the blade across her neck. Blood streaked the front of her T-shirt. She sliced her neck one more time. "There was something in me that needed to come out," she explained later.

Tee-Jay rode in an ambulance to the hospital, bandages circling her arms and neck. It was a trip she'd made many times before. Inside Bedford Hills prison, Tee-Jay was notorious. At age 26, she estimated she'd mutilated her body close to 100 times. Her skin held the evidence: Scars from cuts and cigarette burns covered both arms, her lower arms to her upper arms, all the way to her armpits. Invisible but equally disturbing was her propensity for swallowing things: pens, eyeglass parts, screws, bolts, pieces of spoons.

Tanisha Jackson: "The more intense the pain was, the better I felt."
photo: Cary Conover
Tanisha Jackson: "The more intense the pain was, the better I felt."

When the night-shift officers arrived each afternoon and got a briefing about the day's events, there was a good chance they would hear about an incident involving Tee-Jay. "People would just roll their eyes whenever her name would come up, and it was every other night," says Andy De Mers, a former officer. "She tried to take her life or she stole somebody's drugs or swallowed some paper clips or tried to slash her wrists. We would hear about Tee-Jay quite often."

Tee-Jay, who is about to mark her 11th year at Bedford Hills, says she injured herself for the same reason many prisoners do, because it seemed an effective way to release her anxiety. No matter how distraught she felt before she cut herself, she always felt more relaxed afterward. "The more intense the pain was, the better I felt," she says.

The job of prison wardens and guards has become much more difficult in recent years as the number of mentally ill inmates has grown. Psychotic inmates, suicidal inmates, self-mutilating inmates—all of them make the jobs of people who work in prisons infinitely more challenging. At Bedford Hills, one of the best-known women's prisons in the country, about 50 percent of the 820 inmates receive mental health services.

Tee-Jay Jackson is an extreme example, but she is hardly the only inmate with scars crisscrossing her arms. Self-mutilation is not unusual behind bars, especially in women's prisons. Yet the story has attracted virtually no media attention, in part because the Department of Justice does not collect numbers about inmate self- mutilation. In its 2004 "Unusual Incident" report, New York's prison officials counted 58 acts of self-injury (and 14 suicide attempts) among the state's 64,000 male and female inmates. One glance at Tee-Jay's arms—and the bodies of other women in Bedford Hills prison—suggests these numbers greatly underestimate the problem.

Elaine A. Lord oversaw Bedford Hills prison from 1984 to 2004. In a 2002 book, Acting Out: Maladaptive Behavior in Confinement, she wrote an article describing women at Bedford Hills cutting their throats, banging their heads against their cell walls, slicing their arms and legs, overdosing on medication, and swallowing just about any objects they could fit in their mouths, including paint chips, bedsprings, knitting needles, straight pins, lightbulbs, nails, and uniform ID tags.

Lord recounts the stories of several Bedford Hills inmates with long histories of self-mutilation. The most memorable may be a woman she calls Robbie. One day Robbie swallowed several straight pins and was sent to the prison's emergency clinic. The nurse placed a thermometer in Robbie's mouth, then turned away to grab a blood pressure cuff. "It was then that she heard crunching," Lord writes. "When she turned around, she noticed that the thermometer was getting shorter and shorter. She reached for it frantically, but it was too late."

Robbie was taken from the prison to a local hospital to have the glass and mercury removed from her body. She returned to the prison the next day, and she was released several years later. By then she had serious kidney problems related to her long history of swallowing. She died at 26.

Tee-Jay Jackson does not appear in Lord's article, but she could have. Starting in the mid 1990s, she was one of the most active self-mutilators at Bedford Hills. She grew up in White Plains and arrived at the prison in 1994, with a two- to six-year sentence for arson. A few months earlier, she had pushed open the basement window of a storefront, lit a stick on fire, and tossed it inside. "I wanted to watch it burn," she told the police. At the time, she was high on mescaline.

Next Page »