Tanisha's Scars

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

Like many women who cut themselves in prison, Tee-Jay had picked up the habit long before she got there. She recalls harming herself for the first time at age seven. She was upset and tried to talk to her mother, she says, but her mother left the house. Tee-Jay found a large knife in the kitchen, and she cut the top of one arm. "I felt better," she recalls. "It was like taking a deep breath out of a long, long journey."

Tee-Jay found solace in cutting herself throughout her childhood. She would ride her bicycle around the neighborhood and stop when she spied a shard of glass. Then she'd cut her arms with it. She always cut the tops of her forearms, not the insides. Throughout her adolescence, she continued to cut herself, especially during her long stays in psychiatric centers and group homes.

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photo: Cary Conover
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."

THE THINGS THEY SWALLOWED

Self-mutilation is a frequent occurrence among mentally ill women in prison. (It's also a problem among male inmates, though not quite as widespread.) Elaine A. Lord, the former warden of Bedford Hills prison, documented the phenomenon in a 2002 article titled "The Prison Careers of Mentally Ill Women." The list of sharp objects that women in her prison have used to cut their bodies includes:

• Razors
• Floor tiles
• Plastic medication cups
• Glass
• Screws
• Pieces of window ledges
• Foil packets of skin cream
• Radiators

Even more bizarre is the tendency among some mentally ill women to swallow objects that may require surgery to remove. Over the years, women at Bedford Hills have swallowed:

• Knitting needles
• Lightbulbs
• Paint chips
• Safety pins
• Straight pins
• Screws
• Pencils
• Pens
• Bedsprings
• Uniform name tags
• Pieces of walls

When Tee-Jay talks about her childhood, the bad memories come tumbling out: her father beating her with an electrical cord, her mother introducing her to heroin at 14, her father's alcoholic rages, both parents telling her she was the product of a rape, the sexual abuse inflicted by an older family member, her father giving her a knife and urging her to use it on her mother.

It is impossible to verify Tee-Jay's memories since her parents are both dead, but a history of severe abuse is common among women in prison. Angela Browne, a senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, interviewed 150 women at Bedford Hills and found that 82 percent had endured severe physical and/or sexual abuse when they were children. Experts believe there is a strong relationship between childhood abuse and self-mutilation.

Tee-Jay earned a reputation at Bedford Hills not only for injuring herself but also for assaulting others. In 1996, she attacked a nurse, punching her in the face, then kicking her in the abdomen when she fell to the floor. Though she was already in prison, Tee-Jay was arrested and convicted of assault. Inside Bedford Hills she was sentenced to 36 months in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), where she was locked in a cell for 23 hours a day.

To cope with the isolation, Tee-Jay took every psychiatric medication she could get. When the meds did not make her feel better, she resorted to cutting. "Being alone like that with only your thoughts, it can lead you to want to end it," she says. "It's despairing." She recalls that a mental health worker visited once a week, conducting therapy sessions with her through the food slot in her door.

Her self-abuse escalated when she learned her mother was dying. She recalls crawling under her bed, tying the belt from her bathrobe around the metal bed frame, and trying to hang herself by lying facedown, her head suspended a few inches above the floor. Officers moved her to the Observation Unit, where they checked on her every few minutes. Over the years, Tee-Jay spent days—and sometimes weeks at a time—locked in an observation cell, nearly naked, dressed only in a paper gown.

Whenever Tee-Jay became especially self-destructive, she was sent to the state's forensic hospital, Central New York Psychiatric Center, in Oneida County. Sometimes she stayed a couple of weeks; sometimes she was there for months. When she seemed more stable, the hospital's officials sent her back to prison. Tee-Jay became notorious at the forensic hospital too.

She attacked two aides in the fall of 1999 and was convicted twice of attempted assault. A judge imposed a second prison term of one and a half to three years. On March 8, 2000, she arrived back at Bedford Hills to start this second sentence. By 2001, she was back at the forensic hospital, where she assaulted another aide. She'd first entered the prison system in 1994 with a two- to six-year sentence. Seven years later, she was still locked up and would be for at least the next few years.

Mentally ill people often spend more time in the prison system than other inmates because of their inability to obey rules. "They go backward, not forward," says Lord, the former prison warden, who now teaches at Manhattanville College. "Prisons run because prisoners cooperate and follow the rules and do things according to the way they're supposed to be done. And mentally ill people have a great deal of trouble following any rules."

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