Volume 30, Number 2

Ladies or Tigers

Mickey J. Corrigan

The judge was a youngish woman with sleek hair and trendy spectacles with clear frames. I kept looking at those glasses. I wanted a pair like that, I needed them. My eyesight was getting worse every day.

And on that day, in between the no-nonsense gray walls of the Broward County courtroom, I couldn't see what was right ahead of me.

The judge was behind the bench, and she looked down on me, her pursed mouth stern. "Lehigh, you have two options," is what she told me. Door number one led to a work training addiction recovery center (WTARC). Door number two: conviction and prison time.

Guess which door I chose.

The WTARC was located in north central Florida, out in the bumfucks. I had nothing with me, just the clothes I was wearing on the day they brought me in for participating in a con. The judge called it body brokering. Selling addicts to sober houses. I knew I was wrong to get involved, but there was a man, and he was sexy and, well, that's all it took.

The dirty white prison van lurched and bumped, then smoothed out on the interstate. I sat in the far back row and stared out the greasy window. Goodbye palm trees and hot sand. Goodbye Bradley and hot sex.

The only other travelers were the bus driver, an obese black man who didn't say much, and an old-looking crackerish woman with no front teeth. She chose to sit in the seat right next to me, the other rows glaringly empty. The black bruise on her cheek was so big it looked like half her face had been hollowed out. When she caught me staring, she shrugged. "Damn sore eyes, eh?"

What was I supposed to say to that?

She told me her old man did it to her, and she was lucky to get away for a while so he could chill. "He gotta heal up from his shoven down stairs, is what happen after he done this," she said, pointing to her messed up face, then cackling.

She asked me what was up with me but I refused to answer her questions. I didn't want to talk about me, my past, all the trouble that followed me around. Plus, she was difficult to understand. Maybe it was the way she talked or maybe just the missing teeth. Either way, I was tired of people, and I didn't want to try.

"Uppity bitch," she said, her limited patience quickly worn down. She moved to a seat in the next row up.

Time passed, the day dragged on. Highway asphalt, cement walls, dented cars, sparse trees under the brash glare of a late afternoon sun. I think I slept. When I opened my eyes, we were on a dirt road and the scrub was low, dusty, sad looking.

In the row ahead, my companion pointed out the window. "What hell is this?" she asked, turning to face me, her blue eyes wide.

I looked out my window. Swiftfield Farms, the peeling wood sign stated. And under that, The Lord is My Shepard.

"They spell shepherd wrong," my bus-mate said with a toothless grin.

We both laughed.

"I ain't the longest bit religious," she added.

"Me neither, and I'm not about to go there," I admitted, finally candid with this stranger.

She moved back to the seat beside me and we fist-bumped.

After that, Arby and I were in-house friends. As it turns out, Swiftfield is a good place to have an in-house friend. Someone to trust, someone to laugh with. Because other than that and a deep appreciation for the absurd, you had nothing for you at Swiftfield but physical and emotional pain and distress.

Before I tell you about my time there and the way I got loose, I want you to think hard. What do you imagine when you hear tell of a center for work training and addiction recovery? I mean, don't you think it's going to be like a spa with pastel-walled bedrooms for sleeping and a big sunny room for dining, with lots of weepy therapy, plus classes in computer coding or chef work or maybe a beauty school that teaches hairdressing skills? Well, that's what I was picturing. All the years in and out of juvie and in and out of law trouble, you'd think I'da known better than that.

What a dupe.

After Arby and I got off the prison bus, the first matron greeted us. They call them matrons at Swiftfield, instead of guards. They wear a uniform and carry tasers but no guns.

"Ladies," she said, her giant pink bosom heaving under her tight white police-type shirt. "You need to de-lice and pick up your work clothes, then you can go to your dorm and settle in."

Arby and I looked at each other. Lice?

So much for the spa.

We rode in the back of the matron's beat-up golf cart, passing by four long buildings that looked like stretched-thin barns, then pulling up in front of another one. A dented sign above the tall metal door said Admissions.

The matron parked in the dirt, and we followed her inside.

The floors were warped wood, the room open and moist with humidity. Right there in the main lobby was a cage. A big cage made for tigers that they used for people.

People like us.

The matron locked us inside it, and this was where we waited for what was next.

"I feel plucked," Arby said.

"You ever have lice?" I asked her.

"Is them the ones in your crotch or your head hair?" she asked. But when I started to answer, she snickered. She was much younger than I'd originally thought, only forty-five, she said. "With six young 'uns and the one no-good 'un."

Another matron came for us eventually. Matron number two looked a lot like matron number one, but fatter. She had us strip naked, fold up our clothes and dump them in black trash bags that she tagged with our last names. Her eyes were slitty and her voice razored. "Bend over," she instructed me.

This humiliation was familiar by now but no less excruciating. I was sick to the bone of bending over for strangers.

After we got dusted off, the matron handed us each a short stack of gray clothes that reeked of chlorine. Tee shirts, sweatpants, sweat shorts, granny undies, ankle socks, Keds—all in an overwashed shade of fade.

"Wait here until the matron comes for you," she ordered.

Like we had a choice.

"How many matrons do it take to change a light bulb?" Arby asked when the woman had waddled away, leaving us chickens locked in our cage.

I laughed without even knowing the punch line.

Matron number three had a giant Afro and a friendly face. She unlocked the cage and led us back outside, where the sun had slipped down behind a distant grove of trees. A soft cool had settled in. I felt the tiniest bit better. Where were the guard towers, the German Shepherds, the machine guns? None in sight. Maybe Swiftfield wasn't a spa, but it could be like summer camp. Or kind of like the work farm where I spent some of my juvie days. That place had its charms.

We rode in another trashed-up golf cart to one of the other stretched-out barn buildings. "This is Dorm D," the matron told us. "You two ladies are gonna room together. So, hope y'all be friends."

We fist-bumped again. I felt my heart calming its race-pace for the first time since the DEA lady had whipped out her badge. Maybe it would all be okay, and the training here would prepare me for a solid career in something other than cons.

Dorm D must've stood for Dark and Damp. The dank hallway reeked of old piss and fresh vomit.

We followed matron number three down the spotted tile to our room. There was no door. Before she left us, she said dinner was at six and our roommates would take us to the dining hall.

Arby and I glanced at each other. Roommates?

Yes, seven of them. The bunk beds were triple-deckers, and our new bunkmates were lying on their beds in their overwashed clothes. Some of them sat up, some said hi.

A lanky lady got right up from one of the bottom bunks. She introduced herself as Jamilla, then she introduced everyone else. "We here for prostitution," she explained. "But we all really just addicts." She tossed her black dreads and pointed to a body in the corner of the room. A small, very young-looking girl was curled in the fetal position. "Sheree's new, and she going through it now."

Since Smithfield was a recovery center, there were lots of addicts in-house, both drug abusers and alcoholics. So, you'd think there would be special rooms with nurses for supervised withdrawal periods, but there weren't. Instead, the residents (they called us residents, but we all knew we were prisoners) detoxed in the overcrowded bedrooms. If it got too bad, they shipped you to the local ER and then to prison.

Three of us held Sheree down that night so she wouldn't crawl up the walls. No drugs were allowed at Swiftfield, not even to help smooth over the worst edges. Pray, they told the detoxers. Pray to Jesus.

Arby said, "This place worsen Cranmore."

I figured Cranmore was a prison somewhere in Florida, but it turned out to be an old state-run mental institution up in New York where Arby had spent a chunk of her early life.

Was there group therapy at Swiftfield? Oh yes, twice a week we could gripe and moan to one another while sitting on folding chairs in a big circle. Meanwhile, the matrons sipped tepid coffee and rolled their eyes. Group was optional, but we all went. It was better than work. Anything was better than work.

Did you imagine work training like I did, with special rooms set up for learning the computer and a big kitchen for wannabe chefs? Maybe a small beauty parlor for newbie aestheticians? But no, this was not the case at Swiftfield. "Training" turned out to mean unpaid labor.

Modern-day slavery. That's what Jamilla called it. "We slaves. White slaves, black slaves, brown slaves, Asian slaves, we all slaves," she said every day when we lay on our bunks, exhausted from another eight hours in the fields.

"Worsen Cranmore," Arby would mutter. Her bunk was the one above mine. Every time she shifted her scrawny limbs, her field dust drifted down on me. "I vote prison next. Easier."

I had to agree. In juvie you do arty crafts like making keychains out of pounded leather, and you learn to sew prison clothes. This? This was hard time. I was a cushy girl. I wasn't used to stoop labor.

Our days started early when a matron arrived in the dark, smacking the bedroom door frame with a stick. She would turn on the overhead fluorescents, turn off the fan.

There was no AC.

Breakfast was mystery meat and powdered eggs, reconstituted watery juice. We had ten minutes to eat, then off to the fields. The crops were laid out in vast rows that went on and on into the dusty distance. Miles of that and nothing else, all beginning to bake under the just rising sun.

"What's growing out here?" I asked Jamilla on the first day as we walked toward one of the fields. The plants were big and small, green and brown, some low to the ground, others tall as trees.

"Lotsa stuff. Tomatoes. Cukes. Strawberry. Grapefruit. Oranges. Depending on the season, we got to plant, fertilize, weed, harvest. Sunrise to sunset we out here. Matrons bring us power lunches, water breaks." She looked me up and down. "You gonna sunburn, white girl."

This, it turned out, was not the least of my problems.

From the first day, I suffered mightily. The bending, the hoeing and spreading and digging, the blast furnace sun, the dirt in every pore, the sandy grime under the broken stub fingernails. Every night as I lay on my bunk, my skin blistering, beet-colored, my leg and back muscles screaming, I rued the choice I had made. Why did I go for door number one? I thought I had gone for the ladies but instead I'd chosen the tiger!

By the end of our first month, Arby had lost her sense of humor. I knew I wouldn't make it through the full year sentence. I'd end up with skin cancer or maybe breast cancer from the pesticides we were exposed to. Or I'd die from heat stroke first.

So, one night I woke up Arby and whispered my plan. We would make a dash for it. After all, there were no sentries, no electric fences, no border security at all. We could walk out, make our way back to civilization. We could steal off people's clotheslines. Panhandle for food. Thumb a ride the fuck outta Dodge.

Freedom waited for us just up the road, I told her. All we had to do was go for it.

Arby sat up. "Tonight's fine, ain't it?"

I wasn't ready to go, but I wasn't ready not to go either. We fist-bumped softly.

Jamilla's voice filled the dark room. "You get caught you do time. Real time."

Like this wasn't real time? Our real time, being wasted on this hell farm?

We dressed quietly and tiptoed out. No locked doors, no matrons in sight. The big wash of night sky was full of pinprick stars. The moon was a white blob, and the half-light guided us through the compound. We left through the front gate, then walked fast down the dirt road we'd come in on six weeks before.

"We can hide in the fields as soon as it's light," I told Arby.

"Be nobody out on this road all night," she said.

The hybrid cruiser picked us up an hour later. Blue lights off, the electric engine too quiet for us to hear until it was too late.

These Swiftfield Farm folks, they take their employment practices very seriously. This is because all of their alternative sentencing workers are, in fact, free labor. They can't lose us or we might run around telling everyone to boycott the fruits of our slave labor. The courts are in cahoots, working with Big Food to provide companies with workers. Chicken farms, hog farms, produce farms, everybody short on immigrant workers can opt for prison labor. People like us are a good deal; we get no paycheck, no workman's comp, no nothing.

Took me a little too long to figure out I'd been scammed.

No more WTARC for me. I have my own room now. They fitted me for spectacles, and I chose the coolest glasses with clear plastic frames. I work nine to five as a uniforms seamstress, a job I'll have for the two years I'm inside.

I miss Arby. Heard she got sent upstate to do her time. Hopefully, the Lord will be her shephard up there.