BOOKS ARCHIVES

Prison Memoirs: The New York Women’s House of Detention

“When the iron door was opened, sounds peculiar to jails and prisons poured into my ears — the screams, the metallic clanging, officers’ keys clinking. Some of the women noticed me and smiled warmly or threw up their fists in gestures of solidarity”

by

On October 13, 1970, the FBI ar­rested Angela Davis on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit murder stemming from her alleged role in the Mann County courthouse shootout. Before being extradited to California — where she was subsequently acquitted of all the charges — Ms. Davis was imprisoned for nine weeks in New York’s Women’s House of Detention. The following excerpts from her forth­coming autobiography describe some of her experiences in the city’s prison.

When the wailing of the sirens tapered off and the caravan began to slow down, I realized that I was somewhere in Greenwich Village. As the car turned into a dark driveway, a corrugated aluminum door began to rise and once again, crowds of photographers with flashing lights jumped out of the shadows. The red brick wall surrounding this tall ar­chaic structure looked very familiar, but it took me a few moments to locate in my memory. Of course; it was the mysterious place I had seen so often during the years I attended Elisabeth Irwin High School, not too far from there. It was the New York Women’s House of Detention, which stood there at the main intersection in the Village, at Greenwich and Sixth avenues.

While the car was rolling into the prisoners’ entrance, a flock of mem­ories fought for my attention. Walk­ing to the subway station after school, I used to look up at this building almost every day, trying not to listen to the terrible noises spilling from the windows. They were coming from the women locked behind bars, looking down on the people passing in the streets, and screaming incomprehensible words.

At age fifteen I accepted some of the myths surrounding prisoners. I did not see them as quite the crimi­nals society said they were, but they did seem aliens in the world I inha­bited. I never knew what to do when I saw the outlines of women’s heads through the almost opaque windows of the jail. I could never understand what they were saying — whether they were crying out for help, whether they were calling for some­one in particular, or whether they simply wanted to talk to anyone who was “free.” My mind was now filled with the specters of those faceless women whom I had not answered. Would I scream out at the people passing in the streets, only to have them pretend not to hear me as I once pretended not to hear those women?

❙ ❙ ❙

The women did not even notice that a new prisoner had been thrown in with them. Except for the woman who continued to pace, they each found places at the table in the day room and sat separate from one another, as if there were a mutual agreement that they would all re­frain from invading the others’ turf.

Later I learned that these women received Thorazine with their meals each day and, even if they were completely sane, the tranquilizers would always make them uncommu­nicative and detached from their surroundings. After a few hours of watching them gaze silently into space, I felt as though I had been thrown into a nightmare.

I had loudly protested being kept in 4b (the mental ward) from the very first day. I didn’t belong there — or had I been judged a mental case? The officer said I had been placed in 4b not because I was psychologically unsound, but for my own safety and to keep me from disrupting the life of the jail. I was not persuaded. At last the call came announcing the arrival of the lawyers. Going to meet them was my first opportunity to walk through any part of the jail at a normal hour — when the prisoners were not locked in or sleeping.

When the iron door was opened, sounds peculiar to jails and prisons poured into my ears — the screams, the metallic clanging, officers’ keys clinking. Some of the women noticed me and smiled warmly or threw up their fists in gestures of solidarity. The elevator stopped on the third floor, where the commissary was located. The women who were wait­ing for the elevator recognized me and told me in a cordial, sisterly way, their words sometimes reinforced with their fists, that they were on my side. These were the “dangerous women” who might attack me because they didn’t like “Communists,” had I not been hidden away in 4b.

Regardless of why the women in 4b had been placed there, they were all being horribly damaged. Whatever problems they had had initially were not solved, but rather systematically aggravated. I could see the erosion of their will taking place even during the short time I spent there.

In the cell next to me lived a white woman somewhere between thirty and forty-five years old who had lost all contact with reality. Each night before she fell asleep the cell-bloc shook with her screams. Sometimes her rantings and ravings filled the air long after midnight. Her vile language, her weird imagery be-speckled with the most vulgar kind or racial epithets made me so angry that it was all I could do to prevent myself from trying to break through the steel and concrete that separated her cell from mine. I was convinced that she had been placed there inten­tionally as a part of the jailers’ efforts to break me.

When I saw this pitiful figure the next morning, it was clear that her sickness was so far advanced — some stage of schizophrenia — that she was beyond the reach of argument. Her illness had become a convenient ve­hicle for the expression of the racism which had grown like maggots in her unconscious. Each night, and even morning before breakfast came, she went through a prolonged ritual which took the form of a violent argument with some invisible figure in her cell. More often than not, this figure would be a Black man, and he would be attacking her with a kind of sexual perversity which would have been inconceivable had not her own verbal imagery been so vivid. She would purge this figure from her cell with a series of incantations. When her imagined attacker assumed some other position, it brought about a corresponding change in her incantations.

One morning in the day room, Barbara, the young Black woman from the cell directly across from mine, broke her habitual silence to tell me she had refused her daily dose of Thorazine. It was very sim­ple: she was tired of feeling like a vegetable all the time. She was going to resist the Thorazine and was going to get out of 4b. She knew about my own attempts to get out, and if we were both transferred she said she would like very much to be my “cellie” in the main population.

In the cell next to Barbara’s was a very young white woman who ap­peared to receive larger doses of Thorazine than any of the others. One day when she was not so spaced out, she wanted to know if I could help her with her case. (She was back from court and evidently had not been drugged so she would look more or less normal for the judge.) When I asked her about her charges, tears streamed down her face as she said repeatedly, “I could never do anything like that. I couldn’t kill my own baby.”

She didn’t understand where she was and had no comprehension whatever of the judicial system. Who were her friends, she wanted me to tell her, and who were the ones who wanted to put her away? She had been afraid to talk to her lawyer, for fear he would tell the judge. Now she was thoroughly crushed because a doctor who had sworn himself to secrecy had just taken the stand and divulged everything she had told him. All she wanted now was just a little Thorazine. She wanted to get away, forget, get high.

Perhaps the most tragic or them all was Sandra — the teenager charged with arson. She was one of the women who had been in the receiving room the night I was ar­rested. I had noticed then that her hair was coming out in patches and had assumed that she had ringworm. My first day in 4b, she came out of the cell for meals. The second day, she ignored the key unlocking her cell gate at mealtimes. She silently and systematically pulled her hair out by the roots. From that day on, whenever I saw her, she was sitting quietly on her bed, yanking her hair by the handful. By the time I left, she was as thin as a wishbone, and all that was left of her natural was a few clumps of hair on one side of her pitiful hairless head.

❙ ❙ ❙

A little more than a week had passed when the warden informed Margaret (Margaret Burnham, one of Ms. Davis’ lawyers) that I was to be moved. Sure enough, the very next day I was told that I was about to be transferred to another part of the jail. I protested being bounced back and forth like a Ping Pong ball; but actually I didn’t mind the move, thinking that I was going into the regular population. I had no idea that my longing for some degree of seclu­sion was about to be overfulfilled. The main population I thought I was ­about to enter turned out to be a hurriedly improvised special isolation room separated from all the corridors on the sixth floor.

I decided to dramatize the situation by declaring myself on a hunger ­strike for as long as I was kept in isolation — I would hold my own on this side of the walls while things got rolling on the other side. Through the grapevine I learned that there were women all over the jail who were carrying out a hunger strike in sympathy with mine.

On the tenth day of the hunger strike, at a time when I had per­suaded myself that I could continue indefinitely without eating, the Federal Court handed down a ruling enjoining the jail administration from holding me any longer in isolation and under maximum security conditions. They had decided — under pressure, of course — that this unwarranted punishment was meted out to me because of my political beliefs and affiliation.

There was little time to learn my way about (the main part of the prison) before all the cell gates were locked, but some of my neighbors gave me a guided tour of my 8 foot by 5 foot cell. Because mine was the corner cell — the one which could be easily spied on from the officer’s desk in the main hallway — it was also the smallest one on the corridor; the double bunk made it appear even smaller. The fixtures — the bed, the tiny sink, the toilet — were all ar­ranged in a straight line, leaving no more than a width of two feet of floor at any point in the cell.

The sisters helped me improvise a curtain in front of the toilet and sink so they could not be seen from the corridor. They showed me how to use newspaper wrapped in scrap cloth to make a seat cover so the toilet could be turned into a chair to be used at the iron table that folded down from the wall in front of it. I laughed out loud at the thought of doing all my writing while sitting on the toilet stool.

Lock-in time was approaching; a sister remembered that she had forgotten to warn me about one of the dangers of night life in the House of D. “‘Mickey’ will be trying to get into your cell tonight,” she said, and I would have to take precautionary steps to “keep him out.” “Mickey?” Was there some man­iac the jailers let loose at night to pester the women?

The sister laughingly told me she was referring to the mice which scampered about in the darkness of the corridors looking for cell doors not securely stuffed with newspa­pers.

It became a nightly ritual: placing meticulously folded newspapers in the little space between the gate and the floor and halfway up the gate along the wall. Despite the preven­tive measures we took, Mickey could always chew through the barricade in at least one cell, and we were often awakened by the shouts of a woman calling the officer to get the mouse out. One night Mickey joined me in the top bunk. When I felt him crawling around my neck, I brushed him away thinking that it was roaches. When I finally realized what it was, I called for the broom — our only weapon against him. Apparently mousetraps were too expensive, and they were not going to exterminate.

Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo­ obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other. In response, imprisoned men and women will invent and continually invoke various and sundry defenses. Consequently, two layers of existence can be encountered within almost every jail or prison. The first layer consists of the routines and behavior prescribed by the governing penal hierarchy. The second layer is the prisoner culture itself: the rules and standards of behavior that come from and are defined by the captives in order to shield themselves from the open or covert terror designed to break their spirits.

In an elemental way, this culture is one of resistance, but a resistance of desperation. It is, therefore, incapable of striking a significant blow against the system. All its elements are based on an assumption that the prison system will continue to survive. Precisely for this reason, the system does not move to crush it. (In fact, it sometimes happens that there is an under-the-table encouragement of the prisoners’ subculture.) I was continually astonished by the infinite details of the social regions which the women in the House of Detention considered their exclusive domain. This culture was contemptuously closed to the keepers. I sometimes wandered innocently through the doors and found myself thoroughly disoriented. A telling example happened on my second day in population. A sister asked me, “What did you think of my grandfather? He said he saw you this morning.” I was sure I had misheard her question, but when she repeated it, I told her she must be mistaken, because I had no idea who her grandfather was. Besides, I hadn’t had any visitors that day. But the joke was on me. I was in a foreign country and hadn’t learned the language. I discovered from her that a woman prisoner who had come by my cell earlier in the day was the “grandfather” to whom she was referring. Because she didn’t seem eager to answer any questions, I contained my curiosity until I found someone who could explain to me what the hell was going on.

A woman a few cells down gave me a fascinating description of a whole system through which the women could adopt their jail friends as relatives. I was bewildered and awed by the way in which the vast majority of the jail population had neatly organized itself into genera­tions of families: mothers/wives, fathers/husbands, sons and daughters, even aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. The family sys­tem served as a defense against the fact of being no more than a number. It humanized the environment and allowed an identification with others within a familiar framework.

In spite of its strong element of escapism and fantasy, the family system could solve certain immedi­ate problems. Family duties and responsibilities were a way in which sharing was institutionalized. Pa­rents were expected to provide for their children, particularly the young ones, if they could not afford “luxury items” from commissary.

Like filial relationships outside, some sons and daughters had, or developed, ulterior motives. Quite a few of them joined certain families because the material benefits were greater there.

What struck me most about this family system was the homosexua­lity at its core. But while there was certainly an overabundance of ho­mosexual relationships within this improvised kinship structure, it was nevertheless not closed to “straight” women. There were straight daugh­ters and husbandless, i.e., straight, mothers.

Since the majority of the prisoners seemed to be at least casually in­volved in the family structure, there had to be a great number of lesbians throughout the jail. Homosexuality is bound to occur on a relatively large scale in any place of sexually segregated confinement. I knew this before I was arrested. I was not prepared, however, for the shock of seeing it so thoroughly entrenched in jail life. There were the masculine and feminine role-playing women: the former, the butches, were called “he.” During the entire six weeks I spent on the seventh floor, I could not bring myself to refer to any woman with a masculine pronoun, although some of them, if they hadn’t been wearing the mandatory dresses, would never have been taken for women.

Many or them — both the butches and the femmes — had obviously decided to take up homosexuality during their jail terms in order to make that time a little more exciting, in order to forget the squalor and degradation around them. When they returned to the streets they would rejoin their men and quickly forget their jail husbands and wives.

An important part of the family system was the marriages. Some of them were extremely elaborate — with invitations, a formal ceremony, and some third person acting as the “minister.” The “bride” would prepare for the occasion as if for a real wedding.

With all the marriages, the seeking or trysting places, the scheming which went on by one woman to catch another, the conflicts and jea­lousies — with all this — homosexua­lity emerged as one of the centers around which life in the House of Detention revolved. Certainly, it was a way to counteract some of the pain of jail life; but objectively, it served to perpetuate all the bad things about the House of Detention. “The Gay Life” was all-consuming; it prevent­ed many of the women from devel­oping their personal dissatisfaction with the conditions around them into a political dissatisfaction, because the homosexual fantasy life provided an easy and attractive channel for escape.

❙ ❙ ❙

On a cold Sunday afternoon a massive demonstration took place down on Greenwich Avenue. It was spearheaded by the bail fund coali­tion and the New York Committee to Free Angela Davis. So enthusiastic was the crowd that we felt compelled to organize some kind of reciprocal display of strength. We got together in our corridor, deciding on the slogans we would shout and how to make them come out in unison — even though we were going to be spread down the corridor in different cells, screaming from different windows. I had never dreamed that such powerful feeling of pride and confidence could develop among the sisters in this jail.

Chants thundered on the outside: “One, two, three, four, the House of D. has got to go!” “Free our Sisters. Free Ourselves,” and other political chants that were popular at the time. After a while, we decided to try out our chants. It was far easier for us to be heard through the windows by the people outside than it was for us to be heard by ourselves, separated as we were by the thick concrete walls dividing the cells. Although our slogans may not have been transmitted in the most harmonious style, we managed to get our message across: “Free the Soledad Brothers,” “Free Erika,” “Free Bobby,” “Long Live Jonathan Jackson.”

While the chants of “Free Angela” filled me with excitement, I was concerned that an overabundance of such chants might set me apart from the rest or my sisters. I shouted one by one the names of all the sisters on the floor participating in the demon­stration. “Free Vernell! Free Helen! Free Amy! Free Joann! Free Laura! Free Minnie!” I was hoarse for the next week.

As the demonstration moved into full swing, an officer unlocked the gate to our corridor and shouted to us to stop all the noise. We refused. They sent a captain to try to halt the demonstration. She approached me in my cell to say there would be sanctions for all of us if we did not calm down. Our exchange was heat­ed. Within a matter of minutes, a confrontation had brewed. Shouts began to come from across the hall — the sisters in the next corridor had decided to join. There was noth­ing this captain could do to make us acquiesce; every word she uttered kindled our combativeness. The more militant we became, the less confident she became, and finally she left the corridor in defeat.

As long as there were demonstra­tors outside, we continued our chants. Even after they left, the floor was throbbing with excitement. We were proud of the staunch position we had taken vis-a-vis the bureau­cracy. In this atmosphere of triumph, it was a cruel letdown for us to discover that the Supreme Court in Washington had just denied our appeal, and that I would soon be extradited to California.

That night, still hot with the ardor of the demonstration, locked up in the darkness of their cells, the women staged a spontaneous de­monstration of support. “One, two, three, four. We won’t let Angela go!’ Five, six, seven, eight. We won’t let them through the gate!” Shoes were banging on the cell bars; chants grew louder. An officer tried meekly to calm them down but had no success. A very vocal sister who was in one of the adolescent corridors was told to keep it quiet, but when she refused and all the sisters came vociferously to her aid, the officers hit her, knowing that all we could do was scream. They dragged her away to 4a — the punitive isolation unit. Frustrated by our inability to help her, we called out threats and beat even more loudly on the bars of our cells.

Someone noticed a sympathetic-looking white couple on Greenwich Avenue staring up in wonderment at the building, which was shaking with the clamor of protests from our floor. We called down to them that a sister had just been beaten and was proba­bly being put through the third de­gree down in the hole. We were bold that evening. We shouted out loud and clear the names and ranks of the officers who had pulled her from her cell. We asked the couple to call the underground press and as many Left organizations as they could to let them know that we were expecting an even more severe crackdown. (I later discovered that they had spent the evening contacting everyone they felt could help us.)

❙ ❙ ❙

With the receptionist on one side and the librarian on the other, I walked slowly through the prisoners’ gate onto the cold cobblestones of the courtyard. My anger gave way to pangs of regret at having to leave behind all my friends locked up in that filth. Vernell … Would they drop that phony murder charge? Helen … Would she go home? Amy … so old, so warm … What would happen to her? Pat … Would she write her book exposing the House of D.? And the organizing for the bail fund … Would it continue? Harriet … So committed to the struggle — would they continue to try to break her will?

The police van was waiting in the courtyard, the same van they had used to take me to court. Through the heavy grill on the windows, I could see nothing in the darkness. But suddenly, as the van rolled through the courtyard gates, I heard a thun­derous burst of shouts of support. I could not figure out how so many people had learned I was being taken away that night. Later I found out they had come in response to the calls made by the white couple on Greenwich Avenue. Not a single light illuminated the gigantic courtyard of the Tombs. All I could see was the outline of a collection of cars parked in the center, and the shadows of human figures moving back and forth between the vehicles. The atmosphere was reminiscent of postwar spy movies. A dozen white men swarming around their unmarked police cars, nervously awaiting the end of this transaction, this histrionic ceremony of repression unfolding under the dim glow of flashlights.

New York removed its handcuffs and California produced theirs and locked them around my wrists. ❖

Copyright 1974 by Angela Davis. From the book ANGELA DAVIS: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY Random House, Inc. A Bernard Geis Associates Book

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 4, 2020

Archive Highlights