Below are stories that Donna has written for various publications
Prison Journalism Project – Working as an Inmate Advisor
Prison Journalism Project – Stories by Donna
Below is an article written by Donna for the online magazine, Prison Life & Beyond
From Park Place to Baltic Avenue
If you have ever played Monopoly, the title above will make sense as you read on.
Prison by nature is a dangerous place. Men’s prisons are by far, worse than women’s, but from experience, I can tell you about the largest female prison in Virginia. Most prisons have an honor unit that houses offenders who remain infraction-free, keep employment, follow rules, respect staff and other offenders, and don’t engage in violence or illegal activity. Typically, there are waiting lists to live in these units, and you must maintain the above to continue living there. For those of us stricken by Covid who had to be quarantined outside of our honor wing housing unit and placed in the general population, it has become a shock to our system. Granted, many of us have lived in the general population for years before living in the honor unit, but nothing could prepare me for what I am seeing now. Who is in charge of FCCW? Years ago, when I lived in the general population, the staff made rounds constantly and didn’t miss anything. The staff that is still here from 13 years ago seem to be tired and rightfully so. They are overworked being drafted after working 12-hour shifts, working on their days off, working from post to post, and forced to work in red hot zones (active Covid zones) despite not having Covid themselves and doing jobs they normally wouldn’t be doing. Living in a red zone was rough. You are sick and must carry your 2 boxes that seem heavier than normal and trash bags containing your clothing and bedding. Once you arrive, you must find an empty bed as offenders pick and choose with whom they are going to live with. Many living with their ‘girlfriends’. One day, the officer who remains in the wing 24/7 demanding an offender to move to a cell with a woman that states, “No, you are not moving in here”. Tensions and stress raised, cursing begins, and violence ensues. The result is the woman moves into another cell. The officer in the wing is just trying to do his job. He has ladies with Covid coming in wheelchair-bound and need bottom bunks. Trying to get girlfriends to separate to give up a bed they don’t belong in is going nowhere. The Sgt. In the control room is screaming over the PA system telling us one thing, and the officer in the wing is saying something else. The staff is outnumbered, and offenders are in control here. You have offenders under the guise of helping others following the Sgt. From one wing’s back door to a red zone’s back door passing drugs. An offender who has a release date coming up during a pandemic cares about passing drugs to positive offenders. Really?
Getting out of quarantine and into a green zone is to move into the general population. I and two others that came from the honor unit are the outsiders. When I first came there, there were only three phones, and trying to use one was like needing an appointment. Each phone had notes taped to them with names of who needed to make calls and the time the phone was needed. For those of us that want to use our meager five calls to call our children, parents, and friends, we can barely make two calls. Girlfriends have again taken it upon themselves to live where they want. Offenders stay up all night and sleep all day. Their lights are covered. Rooms pitch black and staff say nothing. No, these offenders do not have insomnia. They pile up in each other’s cells to take drugs, often using the same needles. Some are putting the drugs in their eyes or take it orally. The current drug of choice is Suboxone. Did you know that half of a strip is selling for $400? Are you not curious where the drugs are coming from since there is no visitation? I stay in my cell as much as possible because I live next door to a drug cell. I don’t own much, but I would like to keep what I have. There are four investigators, what should they be focusing on? I heard a woman say, “I don’t care if you are old or not, I’m not getting in the washer next I’ll beat your old ass!”. None of the things that go on in the general population go on in the honor unit and make me extremely grateful and appreciative to live there!
Some things you need to know that may fall on deaf ears:
1. Living in the honor wing and trying to do the right thing seems to give some staff the power to turn it into a negative and use it as punishment while those that continue to get by with breaking the rules get a pass. For example, in September, I emailed a friend that is a high-ranking Navy official to ask that he go to the Facebook page of a sister of a friend of mine in the honor unit and email the photos to a place that sends photos here to my friend. The photos came from the page of the friend’s deceased’s sister who had recently passed. These photos were not being sent by me or the Navy official, but from the photo company which was received with no issues. The mailroom clerk, J. Kendrick, who handles all mail and email saw this outgoing email that I wasn’t hiding and wrote me up on an infraction saying that I violated policy by abusing mail. I believed that I was doing a good deed for a grieving friend. Instead, I paid the price of being humiliated in front of my supervisors at the place in which I work, the hearings office. I was found guilty. Though it’s an informal resolution, it’s still a blemish on my stellar reputation that I have fought hard to keep clean. I feel strongly that had this issue been forwarded to the lead investigator and taken in the context of the circumstances, my living situation, and my job status with ten years at the same place, that I wouldn’t have received the infraction. Working in the hearings office has put me in a position to represent offenders on various charges written by J. Kendrick, the mailroom clerk. Examples are, a mother mailing a coloring book to her child, a grandmother mailing masks to her grandchildren because they had none, an offender that typed an email for an elderly woman attorney because her typing wasn’t up to par, an offender requesting her attorney have a reporter reach out to her for a private call. Do you believe a mailroom clerk should have this much power over our communication?
2. This same mailroom clerk prevents me from getting a newsletter sent into me that had been mailed in several times before with a tracking number that an operations manager had to locate in the warehouse to retrieve to get to Kendrick and send to me through the mail that I created with the help from an outsider for my wing. Let me explain how this newsletter came about. When the pandemic first began and the prison shut down building 6, the unit manager came in the wing stating that we all need to get on the same page and act more like a community. This led me to reach out to another offender and we began a “community gathering” each week, bringing the wing together (masks are worn) to air grievances and concerns without using prison staff. We would check in on each other emotionally as many may feel alone, afraid, and isolated. We discussed positive issues, helpful ideas, encouragement, and solutions. Agenda topics include prayer requests, well-being/mental health readings, thank yous and recognition, Covid news, D.O.C. stats, community resources, prison reforms and legal news, parole, and future work on positive quotes. We have a high percentage of attendance and have a designated note-taker so that any person not attending or staff person wanting to see what we are doing can read the notes. It was my idea to create a newsletter titled “Honor Wing Cares” with a mission statement, “To educate society through poetry, fiction, non-fiction, essays, art, and quotes”. We are not the offenses we committed. We are human beings with ambitions, goals, and dreams! Let us show you how diverse we are and how we have transformed our punishment into rehabilitation and reform. See that we are deserving of a second chance and our lives are worth living outside these prison walls. The bottom of each page stated, “Does not reflect opinions of the staff”. The newsletter was being emailed to Senators, Congressmen, and advocacy groups. There was no fee for it. The content must be positive, and our first issue contained these items:
49 and counting, an essay about the dog program.
Recovery on purpose, an essay about the power of getting an education.
Community amidst a pandemic, an essay about how our gathering started.
New law gives hope to juveniles, an essay about juveniles, and new helpful laws.
I am Mommy, an essay about why I’m still a mom even though I am incarcerated.
My children serve my sentence too, an essay about the effects of parents in prison.
How yoga helped me find freedom in prison, an essay about how yoga alleviates stress.
What living in the honor wing means to me, an essay about the benefits of positive behavior.
Dogs make your heart whole, an essay about living with dogs.
What is a mother?, a poem.
Loss and forgiveness, an essay from a mother who lost her son while incarcerated.
Celebration of life, an essay on a group from the wing celebrating those we lost.
Nature of the crime, an essay about changing or removing the “nature of a crime” as a deciding factor to grant or deny parole.
Deserving a second chance, an essay about showing society that no matter the time you still deserve a second chance.
J. Kendrick denies me from getting the last one mailed in so I could do a final proofread. I wrote an IMS asking why when I was getting them before with no issues. The Lt. and unit manager both saw the newsletter and loved it. She wrote back stating, “Who gave you permission to do a newsletter?”. She is the mailroom clerk. Why is she allowed to question me? I receive tons of newsletters with no problems!
Had the previous warden, Mr. Aldridge been here, this would not be an issue. He loves positive peer-to-peer encouragement! When does the 1st Amendment come into the picture? I and others are trying to do positive things with our time that helps others. It doesn’t involve money, drugs, or violence. Shouldn’t we be uplifted and NOT torn down? For those of us that live in the honor unit, we don’t want to be just warehoused bodies. We want to be productive citizens in prison so we can be more productive citizens out of prison.
Excerpt from Donna’s new book, “The Prison Pandemic Experience”
Sunday, January 17th I woke up with a tickle in my throat. Is this my allergies or am I positive for COVID?
Maybe I forgot to take my Zyrtec yesterday. I popped a Zyrtec and went on about my day. It’s before 11 am and 3 nurses with face shields just came out of the wing next to where I live. They gave them rapid tests again. I wonder how many more will be positive? Since Monday the 11th they have taken out at least 30 women. The previous Friday someone made the decision to move positive offenders in that wing who came from a red hot zone that had not yet completed their CDC mandated quarantine.
Within 2 days offenders started showing symptoms. The building houses over 220 women sectioned off into four wings, A-D. In each wing, there is one vestibule worker that hands out food trays and supplies. They go in and out of all the wings and mingle. The supply closet they have access to is located in a few of the wings. A wing is where the positive offenders came from.
On Wednesday the 13th the entire building was
tested after so many tested positive in A-wing. All three wings outside of the A-wing were negative. This brings me to today, Sunday the 17th. The entire building is getting tested again. Two offenders living in my wing (B) are positive. One is the vestibule worker. Wouldn’t you know that the other vestibule workers in the other wings also tested positive and thus the fire has been lit?
I tested negative.
So maybe this sore throat thing is just my allergies.
Tomorrow I wake with a very dry cough.
They have now declared A wing a red hot zone (this took over a week and a half) and now they are disbursing the remaining negatives from that wing throughout the building.