Tanisha's Scars

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


During one of her stays at the forensic hospital, Tee-Jay learned from another inmate how to swallow. The first lesson took place in a bathroom, she recalls, when they ate pieces of a broken soap dish. Swallowing became her second favorite way to hurt herself, something to do when she couldn't get her hands on a razor or another sharp object. Back at Bedford Hills prison, on July 25, 2001, she swallowed a fork and punctured her esophagus. When she woke up from surgery at a local hospital, she had 16 staples in her neck.

Tee-Jay was still in solitary confinement, but now she began to receive weekly therapy sessions with a social worker and a psychiatrist. Instead of talking to them through the food slot in her door, she met with them in a room, wearing shackles on her ankles, a metal chain circling her waist, and a pair of handcuffs attached to the chain. "I wouldn't answer questions," she recalls. "It took eight months to a year even to admit that it's hard for me to talk about how I feel. I had a tendency to become very emotional."

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 she finally started to open up, there was plenty to talk about: her abusive upbringing, her near addiction to cutting, the soul-destroying effects of living in isolation. Then, on August 17, 2002, her friend Jessica Roger strangled herself with a bedsheet in the SHU. Tee-Jay and Jessica had previously lived next door to each other and used to stay up all night talking, swapping stories about growing up in institutions. Jessica's suicide stunned the entire prison, reminding everyone of the sometimes lethal consequences of putting mentally ill people in the SHU.

Tee-Jay remained in solitary confinement throughout 2002 and 2003. Eventually her behavior began to improve. A report from the end of 2003 states: "For the past 60 days, inmate has not made any attempt at self-harm or incited others to self-harm. No disciplinary activity for this period." Superintendent Lord reviewed the report but decided against releasing Tee-Jay from solitary confinement. "Extremely lengthy history of violence against staff and other inmates," Lord wrote. "No expectation of changed behavior if released to general population."


Why do some prisoners injure themselves again and again? "For some of them, what they're doing is checking to see if they're still alive," says Terry Kupers, a forensic psychiatrist and the author of Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars. "They literally are relieved to see that they bleed. For some of them, it's a . . . kind of guilt mechanism or shame mechanism where they're punishing themselves. For some . . . they cut themselves to reassure themselves they can feel. There are many different stories they give, but what it boils down to is that it's a mechanism that reduces their anxiety."

Joel A. Dvoskin confronted this problem frequently from 1985 to 1995, when he ran the mental health system in New York's prisons. "A regular person minding their own business doesn't just wake up one morning and say, 'Gosh, wouldn't it be cool if I just cut the crap out of my arm,' " he says. "It's very, very common among people who have self-injurious behavior that they report histories of having been physically or sexually abused or severely neglected. This is an issue for an astonishing number of female inmates."

Dealing with prisoners who repeatedly mutilate themselves can leave both mental health workers and corrections officers frustrated. At times, it can feel like the inmate is injuring himself or herself in order to be manipulative—to get attention, to get moved to another location, to get more drugs, to exercise a tiny bit of control.

But experts caution against dismissing such instances as manipulation. "There's a false dichotomy being set up where it's either the person has a bona fide mental illness or they're being manipulating or malingering," Kupers, the psychiatrist, says. "The truth is it's more often both. . . . They're in a pretty bad predicament, and they need attention."

On a recent Friday morning, Tee-Jay told her story to a journalist in the parole room at Bedford Hills. She wore prison-green pants and a maroon T-shirt, but no cuffs or waist chain or leg irons. After eight years of living in observation cells, solitary confinement, and the forensic hospital, she was permitted to re-enter the prison's general population in the spring of 2004. Now she attends GED classes (her formal education ended in seventh grade), and she works on the horticulture crew, tending to the prison's plants and flowers.

When Tee-Jay entered the state prison system, she had one felony conviction. Now, almost 11 years later, her rap sheet shows five felonies. She was rejected for parole in the spring of 2004. The earliest she could be released is January 2006, but this depends on whether prison officials decide she has earned enough "good time," which is time shaved off her sentence for good behavior.

Tee-Jay is now 31. She says she has cut herself only once in the past year, after her grandfather died. Afterward she felt a sense of regret—not relief—which she took to be a positive sign. To remind herself of all she's been through, she often wears short sleeves. The scars covering both sides of both arms testify to the emotional pain she has endured, and survived. "It's a big part of my history," she says. "I'm not ashamed of it. It makes me see where I've been and where I am now. When I feel like doing it, I look down and say, 'Do I really want another scar?' "

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