hide You are viewing an archived web page, collected at the request of New York University using Archive-It. This page was captured on 16:09:11 May 30, 2017, and is part of the Fales Library: Linda Montano collection. The information on this web page may be out of date. See All versions of this archived page.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

DO YOU VANT TO GO TO JAIL...LINDA MARY MONTANO


DO YOU VANT TO GO TO JAIL?

   WRITTEN  by Linda Mary Montano

    TRANSCRIBED  by Sophie Strand

                         2017

                                                                                                                       *
 "A senior monk I know spent 17-18 years in Chinese prison after 1959. In the 1980s he was released and was able to join me in India. Once, when we were chatting about his experiences he told me that there had been dangerous moments during his imprisonment. I thought he meant threats to his life, but he said, ‘No, there were times when there was a danger of my losing compassion for my Chinese captors."  The Dalai Lama
                                                                                                                         *

   
 It was my father’s inspiration! That's why I went to jail! Henry Joseph Montano was a strict but saintly Roman Catholic with a fierce devotion to the church and because I was his caregiver for 7 years when he was in his late 80's, I both observed/participated in his world. Getting to know him later in my own life was a joy because as a young Dad, he was busy feeding/clothing/housing us and I knew only that father. As his caregiver later on, I was honored to be mentored by his spiritual practices by taking him to daily Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, and Confession. I didn't just take him places, I followed in his footsteps.  As a result, I re-remembered my two years as a nun, I re-remembered that I fainted after receiving Holy Communion when I was ten, I re-remembered Saturday afternoons when I would  carry my child-sins to the priest who sat  behind the wooden  grill in the Confessional. I re-remembered the smell of intoxicating incense. I re-remembered the male priests sashaying / processing down church aisles absconding with the power.

Dad would say to me at morning Mass when I was in my 60's, as if I were 12 again, actually he would more than say, he would nudge me when it was time to bring the "gifts" of unconsecrated water and wine to the altar. The nudge was his prompt for me to participate in the workings of the Church. So, there I was at 6:45 a.m. Mass having driven Dad there. There I was bringing the water and wine or communion wafers up to the male priest. There I was recalibrating my early devotional habits and addictions to actions that articulated and nourished my once young soul. There I was playing saint and holy girl. With my devoted to God, Dad!
                                                                                                                               
                                                                                                                                  *                                                                                                                             
Devotion to saints, with the Virgin Mary as the most prominent example, is a key characteristic of Roman Catholicism. Catholic devotions have various forms, ranging from formalized, multi-day prayers such as novenas to activities which do not involve any prayers, such as Eucharistic adoration outside Mass, the wearing of scapulars, the veneration of the saints, the Canonical coronations of sacred Marian or Christological images and even horticultural practices such as maintaining a Mary garden.
Common examples of Catholic devotions include the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Holy Face of Jesus, the various scapulars, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Seven Sorrows of Mary, novenas to various saints, pilgrimages and devotions to the Blessed Sacrament, and the veneration of saintly images. Wikipedia.
                                                                                                                                   *


His death at 92 was from a hemorrhagic stroke but while he was still alive and in decline, I was the manager of the 978,000 capable and loving caregivers who took care of him during his twenty-four-seven bedbound care at home for three years. After his death, I was paralyzed, bereft, left with consuming grief, guilt, rage, and a need to keep Dad alive. I missed my friend. Isn't that the usual post-death Elizabeth Kubler Ross scenario? So becoming a Eucharistic Minister of the Catholic Church seemed like a logical and healing segue and strategy to honor Dad’s fervent loyalty to his mystically grounded Roman Catholicism. Good Catholic, just like Dad, I did become one and was carefully trained by a Vietnamese priest for a significant number of months. At the installation of our "Ministry", I was given an Eucharistic Minister pin, prayer book, and then got to decide how I would participate in my newfound service to the Church which now allowed me to play priest! And although I could not turn wine into Jesus’ blood and bread into his body, a transubstantiation event allowed to ordained clergy, I could bring, carry, drive, or walk a Host to parishioners who couldn’t leave their own homes, couldn’t leave a hospital room, couldn’t leave a nursing home, couldn’t leave a rehab center to receive Communion. There was one other option: the Eucharistic Minister could give communion to parishioners by standing next to the priest at Mass and by doing so, become a baby, mini priest, a make believe priest, giving out Communion just like the big priest! And for women who felt called to this vocation of "being a Catholic priest," being a Eucharist Minister is doppelganger heaven. So I became a faux one, and the Eucharist Minister coordinator who is originally from Holland, asked me if I knew where I wanted to “serve”. I knew it was not at church or at a hospital or nursing home or rehab or at Mass and told her so. She then, with a thick Dutch accent said to me, “Linda. Do you vant to go jail?” What? Me go to jail? What for, I'm a fabulous person! That is I had no idea what she meant but I laughed so hard at her invitation to go to jail. And then I got it and thought, why not? I could go to jail and help people, expiate my own former guilts and make God happy, all at the same time. I said, “Yes! I want to go to jail.” Performance artist that I am, I was quick enough NOT to say, "I vant to go to jail," but was thinking of saying vant for sure. So there I was, all signed up to be a volunteer at the women's section of the local jail.

                                                                                                              
                                                                                                                   *
Eucharistic Minister, or more properly "Lay Eucharistic Minister LEM", is used to denote a lay person who assists the priest in administering the sacraments of holy communion, the consecrated bread and wine. They may also take the sacraments to those who are ill, or otherwise unable to attend Mass. Wikipedia
                                                                                                                   *

GOING TO JAIL

The coordinator gave me the contact number for the Deacon who was in charge of Jail Ministry so I called him and arrived one Saturday at the jail where I met the two female Saint-Volunteers who had been going there for eons. It was the most medieval, scary, primitive, and ghoulish building in the universe – the old jail; the kind of building that you see online on Facebook that is so incorrect that it shames animal abusers who run questionable puppy mills. For your information, I am hardly ever scared of anything having survived the burning Ghats of Benares; having survived hitchhiking in Spain with a female friend after the running of the bulls in Pamplona avoiding gang rape by visibly fingering my Virgin Mary medallion that hung around my neck; having survived, at 21, finding a place to live after travelling alone on a train from Paris to Florence, sleeping on my pocketbook; having survived anorexia and shrinking from 145 to 80 pounds, growing feral hair and completely messing up my period forever; having survived Dystonia and the 4 times a year needles filled with Botox(rat poison?) injected into my trembling neck.
 I tell you these horror stories to prove to you that I’m no sissy. I’ve been there and done that, been around the block, and ridden in many questionable, dangerous “rodeos” so when I say the old jail was beyond the worst fetid spot in the Ganges where tortoises are known to eat half-cremated bodies, you know this jail was really bad and WRONG and housed holding cells that were dark with centuries of  women's tears and menstrual blood, dark with DNA flying in the air, dark with smells  of missed opportunities and lost dreams. Let me try to describe it to you. Not designed for privacy there was one big, barred and open room, housing about 12 women, with that many bunk beds and a small, open room to the side with a stinky toilet. I am so distressed remembering the room that I can’t remember if the bathroom had a door or not. Too freaked to be clear. I think it didn't. The women seemed to be in serial, horror movie mode; seemingly mad, disheveled, noisy, demonically angry and shouting/talking over each other. Was their hair matted? I think yes. Their punishment was fitting something – definitely not the crimes.
 Across from that big room where the group of women were incarcerated all together were three “rooms” divided by bars just as fetid and horrible. Each was about 12 by 12 and had a metal bed and an open toilet. They were in a horizontal row so the women had to see each other, watch each other, hear each other in their private, barred cage all day and night. Lights 24-7. It was the world of no privacy from each other and no escape from the presence and gaze of a Robert Crumb look-alike woman guard wearing guard like clothes from the tenth century. She sat in bored stupefaction at a small school desk or maybe a table, watching these three women 24/7; watching them sleep, watching them eat, watching them shit, watching them fart, watching them piss. Sharon and Jan walked through this bedlam like Mother Teresa at her Calcutta house of the dying, blessing with compassion, nice words and smiles. I followed and watched, aghast.
I may be fabricating this third memory but I think that the last “room” was for women who had newborns. And also for suicide watch, a phenomena where the inmate is left alone in the cell with only a blanket and the stare of a guard outside the cell 24-7. It resembled the other cells in horribleness but had three block walls and bars in the front of the cell, which made it an upgrade and sacred space for Mother  and Child? Or a woman on the verge of suicide? I know when I was there, there was talk of a woman who had just had a newborn in that more "private" room, a few feet from the loud jabbering, street talk and groans of the other women in the hood/vicinity. I can’t check these details  out with anyone because our team of three is now dispersed. Sharon died suddenly of a heart attack at a Stewarts, one mile from the jail, and I am out of touch with Jan. My memories are solo and unchecked, so I have taken artistic license in at least one story. You will guess which one it is when you read it. It wasn't this one.

                                                                                                                             *
One reason why jails have a higher suicide rate (46 per 100,000 in 2013) than prisons (15 per 100,0001) is that people who enter a jail often face a first-time “shock of confinement; they are stripped of their job, housing, and basic sense of normalcy. Many commit suicide before they have been convicted at all. According to the BJS report, those rates are seven times higher than for convicted inmates. Maurice Chammah  and Tom Meagher
                                                                                                                             *


 So every Saturday, later on it was Sunday, we would ring a bell, get buzzed in, sign in, and pass through a hazing ritual of seeming laughs and guffaws and what the hell are you doing here looks from the having eaten donuts and lots of them attending guards. The donut eating words are not fair, but a cheap shot at these always sitting, just as jailed  men who gain weight from the stress of a job where their life is often compromised by sudden attack, violence and death itself. Trauma induces cortisol=weight. “We’re the Eucharistic Ministers,” Sharon, our Irish spokeswoman would shout. “We’re the Eucharist Ministers.” And if the guards were in the spirit of cooperation they would immediately and semi-happily go to the women’s pod to those God awful cells and yell, “Catholic Service! Catholic Service for women!” Sometimes we talked to them, prayed with them in those back rooms of terror that I told you about but more often we would stand in the hallway and watch as ten to twelve unenthusiastic convicts would seemingly march in soporific and guilted by association single file with male supervision to the most God awful, ugly room I have ever been in. And there we would sit around an oversized table with chairs too short so our arms couldn't reach the table top and the three of us would offer our individual “strengths”. Sharon, who had the Irish gift of storytelling, would often share recipes / dog and cat stories and very useful jail knowledge, having been trained as a social worker. Jan would talk about the Virgin Mary and her backyard statue and memories of her grandchild crowning Mary with flowers. Another perk was that she promised to pray to Mary for all of us when she went back home, assuring miracle results. Jan, the Montessori teacher, was love itself! I, on the other hand,  always insisted in good nun fashion, that we concentrate ON-THE-PRAYERBOOK AND-DO-WHAT-WE-CAME-TO-DO, which translates, give them God, give them religion! My let’s-get-this-show-on-the-road-and-do-what’s-correct attitude helped nothing or no one. I was often not a happy camper because I didn't feel as if we did anything Churchy! The scene was way too human!  My two kind mentors never corrected Linda the ex-nun.
                                                                                                                        *
Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship through deliberate communication. Wikipedia
                                                                                                                        * 

Old Jail Story

One Saturday, I was guilty of absolute inappropriate slippage that happened when I graduated from the stern enforcer of you-must-pray-because-we-are-the-Eucharist-Ministers-and-that’s-why-we’re-here-to-make-sure-you-get-religion. I was inspired that day to act out one of my personas because a shadow-self appeared without my permission. She/he was  the Heyoka /Sacred Clown / Troublemaker / Performance Artist. The energy in the room must have been bipolarish or maybe the saint-Priest Father K. was not with us that day to say Mass. Maybe it was around the holidays and the women (guards called them the girls) were pepped up about something, but I do know there was a totally wild and wondrously incredibly out-of-order inmate in that small, smelly, stuffy meeting room filled with orange-clad sad girls. And one was ready to rumble! Remember these were inmates in jail for everything from prostitution to drugs to selling drugs to unspeakable othernesses. There were tormented, abused, psychotic women chained by life circumstances waiting to go before the courts for further sentencing to half-way houses, prison, parole, community service, re-hab, probation or FREEDOM! So they had a lot on their bored and worried minds. A lot to consider, a lot  to regret.
We don’t know what that cuckoo/ninja woman was in jail for or where she might be sentenced to, or what her mind-state was, or if she was just freaked out from that unspeakable JAIL but there was definitely a felt energy in the room and I pulled rank, stopped being an Eucharist Minister, got caught in the whirlwind of her unleashed volcanicness and started teaching them karate punches and kicks thinking that it would be therapeutic. Duh! I unwisely intuited that homeopathically mirroring controlled, conscious movement that "looked like" so called violence, would be of value. Violence curing violence. But I was not correct because a tornado of something I couldn't handle exploded and escalated with each taught punch! The air electrified. Consciousness and common sense was thrown to the winds and, honest to God, I am not lying, I am not fabricating, I am not making this up, I am not elaborating, but this really happened: the wild woman jumped from the floor to the top of a full sized, metal filing cabinet in one fell swoop without stepping on an intermediary object and began acting out aggressively, wildly, manically, as if possessed while standing semi-erect on top of the filing cabinet!! You know how tall those metal filing cabinets are, right? Luckily that room had a call button to alert the guards to come at once and I’m not sure if Sharon or Jan pushed it but within a minute a male guard was in the room, patriarching madness into order and not asking her to get off the filing cabinet but demanding by his presence and calm authority that she jump down. She did. Time stopped. I was abashed, internally red-faced, embarrassed, and yet forgiven so sweetly by Sharon and Jan who more than once had told me, “Not many people who come to join us as an Eucharistic Minister last very long”. I often wondered if that comment was a hint that it was OK for me to leave, turn in my Minister pin and retire from service. But no, I didn't. I'm an endurance artist!! I arrived  that next Saturday, deferring to these senior sisters of mine who had been coming to the jail for fifty years between them. My hat was off and in my hands. My head was bowed.

                                                                                                                            *
Mentally ill people are overrepresented in United States jail and prison populations relative to the general population. There are three times more seriously mentally ill persons in jails and prisons than in hospitals in the United States. The exact cause of this overrepresentation is disputed by scholars; proposed causes include the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill individuals in the mid-twentieth century; inadequate community mental health treatment resources; and the criminalization of mental illness itself. The majority of prisons in the United States employ a psychiatrist and a psychologist. While much research claims mentally ill offenders have comparable rates of recidivism to non-mentally ill offenders, other research claims that mentally ill offenders have higher rates of recidivism. Mentally ill people experience solitary confinement at disproportionate rates and are more vulnerable to its adverse psychological effects. Twenty-five states have laws addressing the emergency detention of the mentally ill within jails, and the United States Supreme Court has upheld the right of inmates to mental health treatment. Wikipedia

                                                                                                                                *

Things I Learned From The Old Jail

1.     The punishment doesn’t always fit the crime because some women were in this medieval torture chamber for having stolen a box of Tampons from Walmart. This jail was not made for that crime.

2.     Put forty women in a hell hole and they will feel and act like they are in hell.

3.     Take away bathroom privacy from forty jailed women and you encourage constipation and hemorrhoids.

4.     Don't you think that forty women living 24/7 cramped into deplorable conditions, lights on, would be traumatized forever?

5.     The first thing you see when you enter the women’s pod as a volunteer/ lawyer/ medical person,  are hungry, begging, starved, Auschwitch-like pleading eyes and dirty hair.

6.     Even if it didn’t smell like fear, menstrual blood, farts, dirty hair, and sweaty feet, the Old Jail’s women’s pod seemed to or could have smelled like all of the above. Suffering smells.

7.     Maybe the Old Jail was a good thing? Who would ever want to break the law and return to that snake pit?


 Performing at the Old Jail

 How many years I went once a year to that torture chamber? I don’t remember. But when the new jail was "rebuilt" from scratch in stockade fashion  almost directly across the road using multi-million/ trillion / billion /gazillion dollars of taxpayers' money, everything changed. It was a whole different story, a whole different ballgame. But before exiting and erasing the terrible, terrible old jail memories and moving onto the new jail, I must admit that I left it as both a Eucharist Minister and as a performance artist. That is, I came back to the now empty old jail as an artist and not just a holy volunteer. How did this happen?

Every year this small city showcases sculpture publically and, most often in outside spaces. The year Beth Wilson, an art historian, curated the sculpture show, she invited me to participate and since I claim sculpture as my first love and performance as my second choice I submitted myself as “living sculpture” inside the empty Old Jail; inside one of those dingy, dirty, nasty, smelly, disgusting cells. Those same light-less cells housed or trapped, barred women, who by God would be scared straight by their incarceration there and would never want to do anything bad ever again if it meant coming back to the Old Jail.

 The performance I designed was titled “Lighten Up” and I sat there inside one of the cells, shackled by my commitment to performance art time and committed to my vow to heal myself and others via art. Was it three hours? Seven Hours? All I remember is that I sat there, in costume, assisting visitors to laugh with and at their personal, private issues that they verbally shared with me. Was our contrived screeching, laughter and sonic exorcism of plugged up terror held inside by the women who lived there over the years an effective strategy and pain remover? Did it ameliorate and scare away any leftover, sad demons still present in that slime dripping environment? Thank God, Kathe Izzo, the Love Artist, was outside the cell I was in, offering comfort to those who had experienced laughter as healing with me.  I think she gave them a piece of bread when they came out.




Lighten up Linda Mary Montano Performance Art Humor Laughing Jail



The New Jail

The newness of the New Jail built on a supposed swamp was a 4000% step up visually from the Old Jail. In fact it was almost spa-like in comparison to the one across the road. The visuals / cleanliness  alone covered up the stench of bodies co-menstruating, covered up the loneliness of inmates who now slept two to a private room-cell with a closed door; covered up desperation with its constant blaring T.V.; covered up isolation with its cold all-metal picnic meal tables where groups /gangs could sit and eat crappy jail food together. It also housed a not-too-shabby meeting room where the weekly Bruderhoff volunteers and Eucharistic Ministers met with those who “wanted to do something” to break the tension, to break the monotony, to break the girl fights, to break the T.V.! And I almost cry when I think back to another space; the empty "gym" room next to the meeting room,  which had a horizontal crack of open space cut into the wall which allowed a slit of sunlight to enter at Mother Nature's whim. Not one stick of exercise equipment. Often we would come in on a Sunday morning, and see women lying on their backs with their heads strategically placed so that  their faces could receive a quarter of an inch of sunlight. I don't cry much but I would cry inside when I saw this. This reminds me of the ONLY GOOD THING ABOUT THE OLD JAIL: there, the inmates were allowed to go to the fenced in, barbed wire yard and feel air. The only good.

 Things were looking up at the new  jail. The priests said Mass once a month, the same as they did at the old jail. A writing club met periodically. A How To Mother group, organized by Sharon, met then disbanded and then met again. All in all, this environment insisted that everyone was a model prisoner not because they were but because the jail looked 4,792 % better than the old jail which made everyone there a player in one of Dante’s deep, dark circles of no good. Here, the inmates looked pretty  good!

 At the New Jail, everything was an entirely different deal. We went to, if I remember correctly, an all day or maybe an orientation of some hours. Of course I had been police and legally vetted and checked for any infractions when I began my volunteer work at the Old Jail. But because this was a spanking new building, things got tighter, more efficient, and much more autocratic. That is, the signing in was much more rigorous and then we passed through four, or was it five, alarmed and locked safety doors, pushing buttons while being watched by a computer command center someplace in the bowels or attic of this jail. How classic movie fare is that? Going up the elevator to the second floor women’s pod was always a crap shoot because sometimes there were "shy" inmates pushing humungous lunch containers delivering jailhouse mystery meat and Wonder Bread to the men’s pod or women’s pod. Jailhouse meat was not meat.  Sharon would smooth things over nicely, making small talk and Irish jokes about the hash and chicken, giving these bad boys a taste of civilian street talk. Note that women convicts were not allowed in the kitchen nor were they given “jobs” proving that misogyny never ends. Just saying.

So we got off the elevator, walked left down the 50 foot hall, got buzzed through one thick, glass door, stood inside a 5 x 5 foot waiting area then got buzzed into the women’s pod which is an approximately 120 x 100 foot, double-story room with closed door rooms-cells against the side walls. That is, there are two floors, two decks. I hope that you can picture this. Let me say it more clearly  because it is somewhat unbelievably lacking in common sense and safe design and for that reason I want you to feel how danger could ignite in this room.  As soon as you enter, you see the back of a woman, most often a female guard, but sometimes a male guard which excited the women into flutters of estrogen. The guard was always sitting 12 feet from the door at a 40,000 dollar computer. This one instrument and this one female officer “controlled” the entire scene, touching a button on the computer and letting women in and out of their cells when they wanted to go to the bathroom. This one woman fielded questions, quieted skirmishes, demanded submission, kept her bionic eye on fidgety women, and the machine at the same time. And nobody was watching her literal back! Remember those 12 feet in back of her? Some guards/officers were able to double/ multi-task. Some not. Some were saints. Some yelled. Some scary because probably frightened for their lives for good reason.

                                                                                                              *
Newly appointed Correction Officer Trainees will be required to participate in, and satisfactorily complete, all requirements of a 12-month training program before they can advance to Correction Officer. As part of the program, recruits will attend the Correctional Services Training Academy for a minimum of eight weeks of formal training. Paid training at the Academy will include academic courses in such areas as emergency response procedures, interpersonal communications, firearms, unarmed defensive tactics, legal rights and responsibilities, security procedures, and concepts and issues in corrections. Recruits will also receive rigorous physical training to develop fitness, strength and stamina. To physically qualify, it is necessary to perform seven sequential job related tasks in two minutes and fifteen seconds or less. Failure in any of the tasks will result in the recruit failing to meet the agency qualification standards and, accordingly, being dismissed from the Academy. The test is administered during the final week of the training program at the Academy. A thorough explanation and demonstration of the course, and an opportunity for a trial run, will precede the final test. Wikepedia
                                                                                                                                                                *



So the three of us, dressed like ex-nuns, that is not flashy although Jan always looked fabulous, would get buzzed in, walk 12 feet to the computer station which was 12 feet long and 3 feet wide. Inmates were able to walk in back of the guards to heat up their coffee at the only microwave in the room. How scary is that? Go figure. If she wasn’t busy scolding, breaking up a potential rumble or buzzing someone into their semi-private thick doored cell for a supposed Tampon change, we would say hello, force her to look up by our non-orange clothed presence, and then she would call out two or three times, “Catholic Service! Catholic Service! Catholic Service”. Walking over to the locked room and keying us in from her stash of numerous entry devices hanging from her thick belt, we would enter a 12x24 foot space that housed 2 essential meeting room items: 1. four long tables pushed to the side and 2. stacked chairs. Depending on the amiability of the group and friendliness of the past week's interactions, we would be assisted by a few of the women to place the chairs in a circle. These were women eager to chat with us, tell secrets to us, or find solace from incarcerated chaos with us before the others arrived. They wanted a touch of outside life. They wanted to feel special.

Once our meeting began, the women were relieved from enforced don't touch phobia because Sharon and Jan were confessed huggers and said it like this: “We know that it is against the law for you to touch each other in here. But we are huggers.” And that they did: warmly, safely, closely, and generously. I followed suit and broke through my intimacy phobias under their supervision, enjoying a chance to contradict my “do-not-touch-me! I am not friendly! That’s my rule!” I instead was telecasting, “I'm here to teach you to pray not to party.” Actually, by my seventh year of SEVA (selfless service), I actually grew to look forward to the dopamine hug blast which supplemented my then once a month touch by pay massages.

                                                                                                            *
Hugging has been proven to have health benefits. One study has shown that hugs increase levels of oxytocin and reduce blood pressure.Wikipedia

                                                                                                             *

 The meeting was formatted something like this: hugs, then chit chat then Sharon and Jan questioned “How was your week?” I eyed the prayer book and even after  seven years never learned the easy intro banter. The jailed women talked about their newborns at home, their court dates, their lawyers, their insomnia, the meals, how sick they were of orange jumpsuits and the male-run group laundry that dished out anonymous underwear when it was returned to them. It was said, “You get what you get and not what you own.” Uckkk. Is this memory true or a literary hallucination? I don’t know.

 Some of the women were pregnant. Some on medication which was sometimes adjusted inadequately by the jail and not tailored for the disease. Some were baby girls protected and held psychically close by the repeaters/elders . Some were model prisoners, and although we didn’t know why they were there, I often smelled the crime, reading it on their faces. Once one was a supposed mother type who conned me into thinking she was the queen of the jail until I learned she had embezzled hundreds of thousands from a local business which was a big SIN in my eyes because my parents worked hard for their money and owned a business. Imagining someone stealing from them sent chills up my spine.  Some were scabby, some groomed, some with visible track marks on their arms, some bruised, some needing the next fix. Some were formidable, streetwise, big city types who were sent upstate to fill financial quotas. Some used jail to go inside their hearts and they were my favorites but again, you never really knew if that admission of conversion, prayer and meditation was true or a con. Some were still beat up from the streets. Some still high from having just been brought in the night before. Some/ many repeats. Some violent criminals. Lots of repeats, in fact. Some were downright mentally challenged. I remember a mother and daughter there at the same time. All were chained by having been caught.


Story One



One Sunday I was sitting next to a woman who kept love bombing me with her eyes and her vibrations so hard that I thought I was back in the sixties. It was otherworldly, consciousness changing in its intensity. I mentioned it to Sharon and Jan as we walked back the gauntlet through the six locked doors to get our coats which had been locked into the side wall of the main room where visitors queued under police watch after having left their driver’s license with the officers sitting  behind the safety of their glassed room. Having been checked out and contraband free, visitors waited patiently so that they could see/talk to but not smell or touch their sons, daughters, lovers, friends, husbands, wives, enemies, mother, fathers, aunts, uncles, children. There always were many, many adorably dressed babies brought to visit fathers, mothers, aunts, cousins, sisters, brothers, and friends on visiting day.
Back to the love bomb story. We returned the next Sunday, and learned more about the love bombing woman who freaked out when an officer strip searched her cell and everyone else’s cell. It was done often. But during the " attack" on her cell, they tore  from her cement wall block, something she had made under the loving care and supervision of the saintly Christian Bruderhof volunteers who gave time, talent, tips on how to make glitter birthday cards, and God-love to the women. So this woman who had love bombed me the week before freaked out big time, accosted the woman officer who desecrated the sacred and special B-day card. Said guard, now a hostage, was without her phone contacting system which was supposed to be on her belt, I guess, – not a good idea, always bring your phone – and, since this was a lock down strip search to see if contraband had been smuggled in, I assume there was nobody free to help the sole officer on duty  because the love bomber grabbed the officer by her hair, pulled her down the metal stairs, or maybe was pulling her hair once she was down by the computer. Remember it is a 40,000 dollar computer, I think. So nobody was able to use that computer to buzz for help because the love bomber smashed it. So when the SERT (more intensely trained officers) Team tried to get into the room they couldn’t because 1) the computer was down, broken and couldn’t buzz them in and 2) the officer was down, broken and on the floor. So someone from SERT went down the stairs to the main desk, had them buzz the officers upstairs into the women’s pod and when they got there, inside the pod, the attending officer was pinned down by the very upset woman-Amazon who, by then, was banging the officer’s head against the floor. Three big, heavy duty, I’m not going to say donut eating, SERT guys could not release the pinned officer. It was a scene from the exorcist for sure. Coincidentally, that’s exactly what happened, an exorcism and intervention by a holy person, because, lo and behold, a female officer, accompanying the SERT Team and I hope  a SERT herself, went over to the very upset woman who refused to submit and with two fingers lifted the mighty woman off of the pinned officer. When asked how she did the impossible feat of power which three strapping under 40 men couldn’t pull off she said, “One time I asked God to give me strength when I might need it. I needed it.” This is the only story that has  questionable accuracy, except for the part about the female guard-exorcist. Am I accused of poetic license or sloppy journalism?
How can we even fathom the inner plight or traumas or history of this woman convict stripped of dignity, stripped of the birthday card for her nephew or son or husband, stripped of opportunity, stripped of love? It was an inner plight which afforded her an unimaginable physical power. Was the scenario being applauded or feared by the other inmates on lockdown, peering from the small windows in their cells, unable to help or join in?

                                                                                                                                *
 Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. American Psychological Association.
                                                                                                                                 *


 My Intention

I ask, what was my intention going to the women’s pod at jail once a week for seven years, having lived in a convent for two years, on and off at an ashram for many, many years, and for three years in a strict, traditional zen monastery? Was it because I wanted jail to also be a monastery? I believed and hoped that some of my love of chosen incarcerations would rub off on these women, waiting for their sentencing to prison/rehab or “freedom”. You see, jail is the first stop in the legal system. After a hearing in court, decisions are made as to the inmate's future. My initial belief was that this was a fabulous opportunity for them to use time well and to focus on nothing but breathing, eating, and sleeping because everything was provided for them just like in the convent: food, bed, laundry. There were meals on time, although horrible. Laundry done for them, a horror? And a built in community. horrible too? Was that room, crowded with meandering women in crisis, a comfort or a sentence to hell?
 So my mistaken notion that I alone could make meditators of them all was dashed to pieces when I met the other two women who were interested in providing solace, company, chit chat, and compassion. Compassion along with generous, warm hugs were the real deal whereas I was in it for the Hail Marys and twenty minutes of silent meditation not hugs. Eventually I gave in, gave up, and came along for the new opportunity to examine my own self imposed inner jailing: an opportunity to observe the lockdown of my biographical traumas that ran my daily show, the opportunity to observe the jailing of emotions that disallowed me to reach out for others unless I was performing, teaching, giving workshops myself, and making sure I was the boss in charge of the “show”. Here I was not in charge, but I was learning: how to co-create and collaborate; I was learning what it was to be caught/wanted/profiled by the law; I was learning what it felt like it to be deprived of phone and visits; I was learning about the color of my privileged skin. I was learning what it felt like to earn and barter points for commissary. I was learning admiration for the young woman who “drew” portraits in exchange for ramen soup and shampoo. She was as inspiring as any wheeling and dealing that I encountered outside prison walls in the art world.
Having authored, birthed, and published many books and manuscripts I was always encouraging the women to write down and later publish their miraculous and incredible inventions which now I can’t remember. I asked them, to write then they leave, "My jail story." Sharon said that at one time they had published a prison paper under her watch. I wanted them to do it again and record and share the ways they creatively and ingeniously made different foods in the microwave, the ways they made faux Christmas trees from our outdated prayer books, the ways they made eyeliner from coffee grounds, the ways they could start a small business from their ability to sort of copy children’s portraits from photos. Jail was a graduate school education for me and the three of us always applauded their shark tank entrepreneurial-ish will to survive.
 
                                                                                                                              *
 Another factor that contributed to the increase of incarcerations was the Reagan administration's "War On Drugs" in the 1980s. This War increased money spent on lowering the number of illegal drugs in the United States. As a result, drug arrests increased and prisons became increasingly more crowded. By 2010, the United States had more prisoners than any other country and a greater percentage of its population was in prison than in any other country in the world. Wikipedia.

                                                                                                                               *

Story Two

Occasionally the mood was celebratory and I would slip out of holy girl persona and share my ability to transform into Bob Dylan for them. Maybe, oh maybe, that’s why I was there: to perform and not to pray with them, although I held onto the pray-role very tightly. One day Sharon said, “ Linda does a wonderful Bob Dylan. Maybe she will do it for you.” I more than rise to the occasion to perform, so I pulled my long hair over my upper lip, slouched even more than I slouch, squinted my eyes, and with a gravel voice sort of sang a few words of the only song that came into my auditory vision at the time which was an inappropriate and sleazy version of “Lay, Lady Lay”. Oy Vay, it was a women’s jail (there is a male pod also in this jail) and “Lay, Lady Lay” was so butch, and I would appear so dikey! Catching myself midstream I stopped and did something equally silly to divert attention from something I realized was an inappropriate lesbian proposal. The air crackled and they laughed, happy to feel the suggestiveness of the moment, but the ethical and moral aspects of being so inappropriate and downright sinful drove me to the confessional box the next Saturday where I admitted to the 400 pound priest that, “I made sexual-lesbian innuendos at my job”. My conscience runs me. Thankfully, I got absolved by him, but wasn't that the word in the air and isn't that why I karmically ended up in jail in the first place? To learn about absolution? YES! That’s why I was hanging out with those convicts. I needed to understand forgiveness, to understand guilt and absolution/ incarceration/ being held hostage by shame. Those words lived in my broken toolbox since I was born. And here I was sharing in their scenario and soap opera for seven years, helping myself unravel, disconnect, and separate from my own bad girlness. The atmospheric frequency and vibrational symmetry of all 200 people living in one, big updated medieval torture house, ruminating on their own guilt 24/7 was my story but I was doing it in the supposed freedom of a home without bars. We were guilt friends by association. What a tribe. No, I take that back. Not all of the women were neurotically tied to their bad girl stories. In fact, some were feisty, radical, wild. Many were mini-lawyers who talked the talk with an astute knowledge of concepts like:  rules/ infringement/ reprisals/ punishments / time served. In short, they knew legalese, discussed the letter of the law, were able to fix it, twist it, communicate it, fix it that is not only to their own advantage but they helped each other. Often commissary was exchanged for knowledge. I was not only learning but witnessed a booming barter economy!  What smart survivors I met!

                                                                                                                              *
Performance art usually consists of four elements: time, space, the performer's body, and a relationship between audience and performer. Traditionally, the work is interdisciplinary, employing some other kind of visual art, video, sound, or props. MOMA definition.
                                                                                                                              *

Story Three

There are many more short stories but let me share this one about the time two women were admiring the extra hair ties that I had on my wrist. They Oohed and Aahed. They smiled and cooed. They wanted one. Each of them. And I pulled two off and handed them each one. These women were happy for anything. Happy for everything. Excited by every little thing. No Dollar General was in sight. No Walmart. No Stewarts. But I paid the price. A heavy price.

 As the three of us were signing out of the jail after our meeting that day, I panicked. My blood pressure spiked so high above my head that I thought guilty girl would faint. The word contraband, contraband, contraband flashed across my screen mind. Guilt. Guilt. Guilt. In red lights. Having been meticulously trained by the jail to recognize objects that could become shanks/ weapons to injure self or other inmates like guns/ pot/ drugs/ cellphones, my finely tuned Catholic confession girl mind forced me into remembering that these two rubber hair ties were the kind that were made with a piece of metal about 3/18th of an inch long, holding the rubber band together. This said piece of metal fortified the elastic and made it stronger. Metal. Metal. Metal. Linda, you gave them metal. Alarms went off in my inner ear and after I confessed to the two officers at the main desk that I had given two inmates the rubber hair ties THAT HAD METAL ON THEM, we left the dastardly deed to them to cure, returned the next Sunday, and heard that all the women were put on high alert lockdown and strip searched because of my inattention and ability to be easily scammed and taken for a ride! When we went into the meeting room, all was quiet, nothing was said by them and the mask that I wore at our meeting that day was one of a humbled penitent. I remember saying very little, next to nothing, having caused the women another terrifying, time wasting, tormenting day in Hades.

                                                                                                                          *
There are many different kinds of contraband, including homemade weapons, gambling paraphernalia, excessively metered envelopes, weapons, drugs, food, and whatnot. As most corrections professionals know, almost anything that can be traded or modified can be considered contraband.
Dangerous contraband is anything that can be used as a weapon or to aid in an escape. Examples include guns or gun parts, explosives, magnets, knives, wire, torches, tools, chemicals, razor blades, alcohol, matches, and lighters. State of Texas.

                                                                                                                        *


Were my seven years at the women’s jail of any benefit? Did I set world records for teaching mindfulness practice? Did I inspire the women to write/produce one act plays? Did I teach arts and crafts or assist them in legalese and ways to proactively address their situations? Did I buy anyone clothes because if they came to jail in the summer and left in the winter in short shorts and T-shirts they froze? Did I give any of them money for commissary? Did I bring stamps and envelopes for them to write letters home? Did I teach them how to sing? Did I do any of the above?

                                                                                                                      *                                                                                                                      
Beyond required community service, some religious groups emphasize serving one’s community. These groups and churches reach out by holding Vacation Bible Schools for children, hosting Red Cross blood drives, having fall carnivals, or offering free meals. Through these services, churches are able to benefit neighborhoods and families. Some churches create non-profit organizations that can help the public. Crisis pregnancy centers are often run by religious groups to promote pro-life values in local families. To meet impoverished people’s needs, some churches provide a food pantry or start a homeless shelter. Also, certain  churches will run a day care so that busy parents can work, while their children are cared for by church staff. Wikipedia
                                                                                                                         *                                                                                                                             




The Final Story


Setting the scene. As I explained before, every Sunday we were let into the locked room where we set up chairs in a circle and like most places where groups of people gather consistently,  everyone had their special, favorite and private seat as if gravitationally pulled to a sacred spot. Mine was always with my back to the door and wall, both of which were half glass/ half solid. One Sunday, for no good reason, I sat facing the half glass door and half glass wall, allowing me to see the computer station and the lower and upper tier of cells directly across from me. Mistake! Why? Because halfway through the meeting I heard cries and screams coming from the big room, “No! No! No! Don’t jump! Don't jump.” And since I was sitting in the exact place where I could see what was happening, I was one of the first to look up and much to my regret, I saw a small, blonde girl-woman in an orange jumpsuit standing for a breathtaking moment on top of the skinny, metal rail of the second floor. She hesitated baby bird-like, lost balance but actually jumped two stories, to the first floor below. She was too young, too fragile, too sainted by suffering to really jump. No, she didn't jump, she flew as if metamorphoized into a swan, a feather, an angel,  floating freely.
All was  Silence.

That day, a very seasoned, mature, earth motherish, streetwise inmate insisted on holding my tremoring hand. Remember we were not allowed to touch. Jail protocol.

That day, our bowed heads/soft hearts were our closing prayer.


What I Wanted To Happen When I Became An Eucharistic Minister At The Jail

1.     I wanted to remind the women that they could transform their cells into a chapel. Did that happen?
 
2.     I wanted to teach them to meditate. Did that happen?

3.     I wanted them to taste the ecstasy of mindfulness. Did that happen?

4.     I wanted to remind myself that I also have chained, regressed, frozen, stuck impacted life issues that invite me to live in my own private jail.  Did that happen?

5.     I wanted to experience community and feel the appreciation of women who are stripped of freedom, feeling happy to be with three volunteers who sometimes brought pre-approved see through ink pens and holy cards as gifts for them.  Did that happen? 

6. I  wanted to do "seva" the Hindu word for selfless service as directed and suggested by my Jain "parents" who adopted me in 1990. Dr. A.L. and Dr. Aruna Mehta were stellar volunteers/servers/givers of food, money, love and medical services always and most especially during the Partition of India and Pakistan. My mother and father, Mildred and Henry Montano also mentored this same giving spirit and never expected return, ever. I only hope I make them proud of my will to imitate them.  Did that happen?

7. Finally, I wanted to become the missionary I always wanted to be , having trained at the convent of the Maryknoll Sisters, Ossining N.Y. Then my hope was to cure leprosy in the overseas missions. At the jail, my hope changed and shrunk in ambition. Did that happen?

I leave that journey asking, has my own healing has just begun?

The jury is still out.
                                                                                                           
                                                                                                                      *
Restorative justice repairs the harm caused by crime. When victims, offenders and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results can be transformational. It emphasizes accountability, making amends, and — if they are interested — facilitated meetings between victims, offenders, and other persons. Restorative Justice.org
                                                                                                                       *

Linda Mary Montano , Saugerties NY,  2017