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.
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.
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.
photo: Cary Conover
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:
• Floor tiles
• Plastic medication cups
• Pieces of window ledges
• Foil packets of skin cream
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
• Paint chips
• Safety pins
• Straight pins
• 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.”
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.”
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?’ “