Life and Death

I began that last post before I really went back to work. I think the conclusion was a little flat because my first day back was nothing like I expected or could have prepared for, not for all the cups of tea I could drink in an evening. Trust me, I tried to drink it away. Nursing my eight-week-old, I couldn’t resort to my preferred glass of wine.

Three days before I went back to work, my oldest went back to school, and my baby went to daycare I panicked: What was my code? Did I have my badge? Where had I so thoughtfully stored my belt and holsters? What a fool I was going to look like when I got there Wednesday morning. Could I slip in when no one else was clocking in, so only two people saw me fumble around? We all made it to our respective destinations with hardly a hitch, and it turns out I was asking all the wrong questions.

Not five minutes from leaving my car, having returned once already to retrieve my badge, and making it through the metal detector, one of my co-workers whispered to me, “Vivi committed suicide yesterday. I just want you to know what you’re walking into this morning. People might be weird.” She didn’t even stay for roll call, but immediately went up the females’ quarters to lend a hand, an ear, her heart. Working with them at least six hours each day, she is closest to them.

I looked around for some clue about how to respond. I knew of her, but I had never worked with her. Having been gone for eight weeks also helped soften the blow I thought would surely come. In roll call she was first objectively treated as a report. Then the Sargent explained how in reviewing all the film footage, the logs,etc. we had acted to the letter our procedures; still, she had managed to hang herself by the means of a tightly knotted sheet. Until you’ve worked in a prison, you really have no idea how difficult that feat is. She was dead in a matter of minutes. One of the officers performed twenty minutes of CPR on her anyway.

All of this didn’t stop some staff from turning the color of egg-shells out of shock or the females from screaming violently in the warden’s face, “Why weren’t you F—-ers watching her?” I’m told that between the offenders and the staff the whole range of emotions showed up in the aftermath. The following morning most were expressionless. Probably this was to protect themselves from criticism of others about being too soft or too hard toward criminals. The Sargent was clear, though, when he said our staff would have a difficult time dealing with her death because we actually “gave a damn.”

People were confused about how relaxed she was in her final days. She was just giggling over a movie last week, one might say. She acted up so as to be removed from her cellmates in order to spare them the added trauma of finding her body, another pointed out. Clearly, this was planned and she was at peace with her decision. One of her cellmates, however, replays her hurtful last words and adds this guilt to her already burdened shoulders. These are the tricks we play on ourselves in dealing with the traumatic deaths. I remember similar conversations when my co-worker was murdered by her ex-fiance in the parking lot of my workplace. Because this is a suicide, I also hear people talk about their anger toward her which I’ve learned is very natural. 

Her story unfolded for me that day. If my boss had told me her history before, I had forgotten in the midst of living out my own story. All I could remember was how she would sabotage her chances of success with us every month. The reason, I was told, was that she didn’t want to be deported to Mexico (she was an illegal immigrant whom ICE would deport at the conclusion of her sentence) and planned to delay her deportation by earning her full adult sentence. I confess, as an American woman, I could understand that only a little bit.

I had met, and you will too, a number of these ICE convicts, young men who had been brought over the border in diapers and know about as much about Mexico as I do. (This doesn’t make them any more legal, mind you, but it illustrates their concerns about being kicked back.) The men will have it bad enough, but it’s different for a woman. In the case of little Vivi, she wasn’t worried about Mexico, she was terrified.

Sold in Mexico at age nine, she was shipped to New York City, alone. There, she was put to work as a sex agent. That’s her memory of Mexico. Think The Whistleblower or Taken. I don’t know what exactly brought her to us.

The Sargent shared that she wanted to die in our care because she knew we would treat her with dignity, but out there…

In her shoes, would I have done the same thing? I think so. Except for God’s grace, her story might have been mine. She had no hope, not in herself, not in others, not in God above. I’m left to wonder, did anyone ever tell her about Him? Was she ever given a real chance? After this, was I going to be more persistent in shamelessly speaking about my faith with my students? Vivi, a name rooted in the word for life, had learned to sew and cook with a microwave and live with other people. All of these skills are good to have in the land of the living, but did the pastor ever get to teach her about eternal salvation?

In the end, diapers went with baby, scissors went with my four-year-old, HR papers went with me that morning, but I was swiftly reminded of what was most important.

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About hey miss

A teacher. A prison guard. I used to think that was like oil and water. Like lightening and metal. Some days it is. Some days it's magic.
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