Segregation on Tuesdays

by Valerie Kreutzer

“I’ve had a metamorphosis,” says “Royale,” pointing to a new diary. From here-on, she says, she’ll write when she feels angry. Writing will calm her, she thinks. It’s her rages that have gotten her into segregation, the single-cell unit at the women’s prison in Purdy where violators are locked up 23 hours-a-day.

“Royale” and another prisoner are chained at hands and feet, tethered to a desk that’s bolted to the floor, in a glass-walled classroom observed by two guards. It’s Tuesday afternoon and Sue McCarthy, who has been coming here weekly for over a year, unloads her NVC materials, ready to listen to the latest twists and turns in the young women’s lives. On the white-board behind her are lists of NVC fundamentals: Observation, Feelings, Needs, Request. NVC is the only class offered in segregation.

“Royale” is eager to learn. During role-play she explores the feelings and needs of her mom and her former employer; she tries to feel empathy towards the people she has disappointed, tries to walk in their shoes. “This is hard,” she giggles, clutching her diary. The two-hour session goes fast.

Returning to the class with Sue a few weeks later, “Royale” sits in a room by herself, separated from the three students in the classroom. She has been in verbal fights with “Kassy,” a new arrival in segregation. As I settle with “Royale” while Sue starts the class next-door, “Royale” shows me her diary filled with writing and photos of her loved ones. She lets me know that she is conflicted over her closest relationships because they are toxic. Perhaps she should let go, she wonders, but if she does, she will lose the financial support for her telephone and commissary needs. Prison life would be even harder. As she navigates the minefield of her emotions and contemplates her choices, one thing is certain: Sue will be back next Tuesday.

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