The Fleshly Cell
The cell was as sound-proof as my life had been. I wanted to scream. Maybe someone would hear. But all that came out was the scream of my nightmares. The scream that pulled all of my broiling emotions so tight against my chest that I felt my ribs would crack, but no sound came out; not even a sigh.
How many years did you get locked up for being incorrigible? I didn’t feel hunger, even though I hadn’t eaten for two days. Circles pull down the flesh under my eyes which feel like two fireballs. The socks they forced me to wear, rub against my blistered feet.
I was still riding my bike to the park with my dog running alongside, just a few months ago. I was escaping into other worlds through books. I read about escapes through underground railroads, I could be taken down a rabbit hole one day and drink strange shrinking stuff, or be carried away to a world of Oz through a hurricane – I went through twenty-eight books of this adventure. My world was happy and carefree. How did I ever become “Incorrigible.” “A Bad Girl.”
A metal bed with a thin mattress, a sheet, a lumpy pillow, a scratchy gray blanket, and a sink were the only other objects in the room. I was just another object; a thing. Why mother? Why did you want to shave my hair off? I would let you do it now. I would just wear a scarf to school. The other kids always gawked at me anyway and snickered to my face.
Was it because I became a shame in the neighborhood? That day, about a year ago, when I followed a neighbor girl to a house where she was pet-sitting a skunk. The girl, who I will call Merrilee, attended my school but hung out with the “cool girls.” She would turn her back to me as she stood; arms locked inside her tight circle of friends. I was only her “friend” when no one else was around.
When she brought me to the house, she had reached up in a cupboard for some of the tiniest glasses I had ever seen. She took orange juice from the refrigerator and mixed it in the glasses with a clear liquid from the cupboard. “Go ahead and drink this, it’s really good.” I followed her actions as she tossed the drink down her throat in one swift motion. Oh, how it burned in my throat and stung the lining of my nose. My nose and eyes scrunched tight on my face. She offered me another, which went down much easier this time because I held my breath. Just one more she said. I complied, and this time I didn’t feel or smell a thing.
We began to walk home, but my body was acting weird. We stopped at a liquor store to buy sen-sens (those tiny little licorice squares that could hide any scent.) The store owner watched as we swayed and laughed and slurred. We left the store, but a few minutes later a squad car pulled up and some men in uniform shouted for us to stop. We stopped They asked us to walk in a straight line. We walked like we were playing hop-scotch. “Stop now,” an officer said firmly. I kept going. “Halt, ma’am, right now.” “Ich okay, shee I cn do it.” They put cuffs on us and put us in the police car. They drove Merilee to her house first. Her mother came out and sat on the edge of the seat. “I want you to stay away from my daughter. You’re a bad influence,” she spat those words at me. Without looking back, she led Merilee away, with her arm tight around her shoulder. I slid down in the back seat.
Even though I didn’t understand what this liquid had done to my body, I knew that I was now, “A Bad Girl.” The neighborhood children gather around the squad car, to point and jeer. “Ooh, she’s in trouble. Do you think they’ll lock her up? I turn my face away. The burn of shame colored my face. I am “A Bad Girl.” I had wanted to tell you my side of the story mother, but you didn’t listen. You rarely did.
I pace in a tight circle. I had always had a choice of free and open spaces. Just a few years ago, I was running barefoot through the prairie grass, and holding grasshoppers in the cup of my hand. Would this room crush my spirit forever? Was I forever, “Incorrigible?”
I sat on the edge of the cot, my forehead pressed against my balled fists. I couldn’t even pray. God didn’t listen to criminals, did He?. At least that’s what the tight-lipped adults had taught me. They didn’t talk to me the way my Daddy in heaven did. I would talk with Him at night as I was drifting into dreamland, like a child being cradled in their parents’ arms. I talked to Him while I held the pillow over my ears, counting to fifty, and waiting for the screaming to stop. I felt His presence as I skipped carefree and content in my silent world.
I don’t know how long I sat. I wished the floor would open up and suck me into the ground. Down there I could burrow my way out like a prairie dog. I wished a tornado would rip the walls open and carry me away to adventure land. This was no adventure land and my wishes weren’t coming true.
My body felt like a stone statue, and the only thing that moved was my thoughts.
The sound of metal in a keyhole snapped me back to the present. The heavy door slowly opened and in stepped a girl, with glowering eyes and tight fists. She had medium-length wavy hair, intense eyes, and smooth brown skin. She squirmed away from the guards and let out a growl. The guards pushed the door shut and turned the key.
This girl didn’t pace, she stomped. Words I never heard, spat through her lips, and bounced against the wall so hard, I cringed.
I tried to be quiet, like a frightened hare hiding from a hound-dog. But, soon she noticed me, and said, “Hi, my name’s Marie.” I think my lips moved.
She looked away from me but immediately went on another tirade, yelling obscenities, letting the walls know just what she thought of them, her family, and the mean “blankety-blank” guards. I forced a smile, hoping to deflect her anger. She was acting how I felt I wanted to but was afraid to.
So this is what it’s like to feel like an animal in a cage with claws stretched sharp and teeth bared; ready to kill if need be.
Soon Marie’s pacing and cussing ran out of steam towards the guards. The guards were long gone. She looked at me and seemed to assess me in one glance. A scared, naïve kid, huddled with knees to chest as a barrier of protection.
“Hey, let’s tear this place apart.”
She didn’t wait for me to join in, she grabbed a pillow off the bed and tore a hole in the bottom of the pillowcase and then pulled the torn case over her head, wiggling to pull it over her neck. She tore the sheet off the bed and tied it around her chest and then removed all her clothes.
I had been humiliated enough by undressing in front of the guards so I left my clothes on.
“C’mon,” Marie urged, “Take this pillow apart.”
She threw the pillow against my face. I was afraid not to join it. I had never seen a young girl’s face so distorted with rage.
I tore into the pillow, letting all my fear and frustration, tear with me. Feathers began to fly around the room. I choked and spit as small bits flew up my nose and mouth.
Marie laughed – wild-eyed and flailing arms – laughing. I began to laugh too. Better to join in than be the object of this crazy rage. She began to sweat and grunt like a wild boar rooting in the woods. She turned the metal bed frame on its side to give her more room to vent. She put the feathers in the sink and turned on the water.
Marie’s raging was interrupted by a loud clang, as a baton hit the door from the outside and two angry eyes filled the door slit. Marie didn’t break her pace.
The heavy door of the cell swung open and a trio of sturdy-bodied guards rushed in and took Marie by the arms; they shoved her against the wall and yanked her arms behind her back.
One guard took me by one arm, since I was quietly subdued, and led me out. She opened a new cell door; this one barren except for a cot. I slump to the floor and my spirit slumps with me. INCORRIGIBLE.
I was given a carton of milk, a lump of meat and a dry roll for dinner on a metal tray. I couldn’t eat, but I drank the milk. I was let out to use the bathroom while a guard stood next to the stall. I was self-conscious about peeing. I tried to be as quiet as I could, but the hollow stall only increased the volume.
The next morning I was given a clean set of juvenile hall issued clothing. After I got dressed, I was given a breakfast of slightly burnt toast, a runny egg and a small glass of orange juice. My knotted stomach couldn’t handle more than a few bites.
I was ordered to follow two guards to a county car. The courthouse was on the same street. I was led between the guards to a stuffy room. The room was lined with golden lacquered wood paneling. A long table sat under a judge’s podium, an American flag stood unfurled to the right. A defender sat in a chair next to the one I was directed to. He shuffles through some official-looking papers but doesn’t glance my way. I feel very small, like Alice in Wonderland after she drank the shrinking stuff. I lift a strand of hair to my mouth. The crunchy sensation soothes me.
Soon, a stoic-looking judge walks in from a back door, adjusts his robes and sits down on his lofty seat. The overhead lights bounce off his balding head, as he lifts a pair of thick glasses, hooks them over his ear to rest on the bulb of his nose.
The judge glances at the papers in front of him.
“Sheryll Annette Skarin,” he said, “Will you speak up?”
The defender turns to face me. “You must address the judge as Your Honor.”
I had never been in front of a “Your Honor,” so I was clueless.
“Your Honor,” I repeat.
“I’m reading here that you’re in detention for being “Incorrigible.”
“Yes, Your Honor.”
“I also see that you were destructive after being detained in your cell. You have destroyed county property, therefore I am sentencing you to two more months in juvenile hall, and after that, I deem it best for you to be placed in foster care.” “Do you understand young lady?” Before I can answer, he drops his gavel, “That’s all.”
My mouth opens but nothing comes out except the strand of hair. A guard steps forward and takes me by my arm and leads me back to my cell, in the facility where juvenile criminals were locked up – to keep society safe – safe from the likes of me. I feel a huge invisible stamp sear into my heart, leaving a permanent scar with the word, INCORRIGIBLE.
The guard leads me to the main living quarters, where the other offenders were housed. He took me to what would be my cell bedroom for three months to come. I shared a cell with another girl, who made no attempts to befriend me.
A lady, who was one of the day workers, asks me to follow her. She has a slightly softer mannerism than the other personnel I met so far, but she only makes brief eye contact.
She says, “I will show you what’s expected of you while you’re here. You will be issued a clean set of clothes in the morning. I will show you where you take your shower. We only allow two at a time in the shower.”
She leads me into the restroom with two shower stalls and four toilets. Two girls were in the toilet stalls and I respectfully avert my eyes. The stalls were only waist high and there were no doors.
“If you need a shaver for your legs, you must shave while someone is watching, and then you give the razor to the guard in charge.” You have ten minutes for a shower. You must ask permission to use the toilet.
In the morning, when it’s your turn, you’ll make the toast. Other times it will be your turn to iron the clothes. You’ll be shown how to iron correctly. If you don’t do it right the first time, you will be asked to redo it. You will help clear the tables and sweep the floors. You will also take turns cleaning the showers and toilets.”
Some of the girls stare in my direction while others whisper with heads down. I suppose they didn’t want their lips to be read. Their eyes held a look of pain that frightened me.
I see the girl, Marie, standing with two of the meanest looking girls. She glances up and smiles. I realize now that I was accepted by her because I had helped her vent her rage. I wave timidly. She says something to the other two and then walks toward me.
Now what? Not in front of these other girls and ladies supervising us. I pull a strand of hair into my mouth.
Marie walks up and nonchalantly exclaims. “The other girls won’t hurt you. I got your back.” She saunters off without further explanation. The strand of hair slid out of my mouth.
Later I learned through the other girls, that all the new girls were initiated, by either being cut or beat up. No choice on your part. I was grateful that I was being looked out for, but I was also being locked up for two more months for joining in with Marie. I guess one way I could look at it – at least I’m not getting beat up.
One particular girl, who I will call Anna, was so filled with rage; it seemed to ooze out of every pore. She had a pretty face but it was edged by her short dark hair and a taut jaw. One night she led a riot by refusing to go in her cell. She yelled for everyone to join in while she began pounding on the walls. Her wrists began to bleed and every tendon in her neck bulged. The lady guards and supervisors tried to drag her into her cell but she just stretched out her hands and feet across the doorway and leaned with face towards the floor. The other girls were following her lead, making it impossible for the guards to maintain control. They finally were able to drag Anna back into her cell and slam the door, but she continued to beat the walls and scream obscenities.
The guards were red-faced and beads of sweat were forming on their upper lips. One of the guards had been calling for back-up over the intercom. A group of armed guards burst through the door with a loud bang, batons held high. “Go back in your cells right now,” they ordered.
I was already in my cell, watching through the window, silently, like the timid little uprooted prairie girl, I still was.
The girls realized they were out-numbered and overpowered. One by one they began to slip into their cells. The guards walked down the row and turned the keys in the locks.
I lay in my cell with the day’s events repeating themselves, one broken scene at a time. I ponder everything until the early morning. Why were these girls so hardened? Why did they have to scream to be heard? Why did they want to hurt themselves? I discovered why over the next few months, in jagged bits and bleeding pieces.
I tried to find my rabbit hole at night as I crawled onto the cold cement floor under my bunk. The guards would come by and order me back on my cot. After they left I crawled back. The silence of the girl on the cot next to mine, terrified me.
We Were not Forgotten
Tuesday was the day I met Jesus in juvenile hall.
The first time I met him was as a young girl in a private place in my heart, when I told him I believed in him and who he was. I read about him through the words in my Bible storybook. He wasn’t afraid to touch lepers or talk with a woman by a well. He gathered the children around, spoke to them and loved them. I knew He loved me in my fishbowl world.
The chaplains were a husband and wife team. They came every Tuesday. I saw them in action. They stood out in the dark hopelessness of the forgotten ones. They made eye contact.
I was in prison and you came to me. Mt. 25:36 (Msg) Jesus words.
“Hello, young ladies,” they started the meeting at one of the tables. “How have you been? We’ve been thinking about each of you this week. Would anyone like to talk?
I am touched by this genuinely loving couple. I see the Jesus of my bible storybook in their faces. They don’t preach. They just listen and care.
They notice me standing quietly behind the other girls.
“Hello,” they say. “You must be Annette. Would you care to join us?”
They smile warmly. I move from the edge of the group and sit on the corner of the bench; I almost slid off. I still hide behind a strand of my hair, but they notice me.
“We’re, Jeanne and Bob. We’re the chaplains here. If you need anything or just need to talk, let us know. We’re here for you.” They smiled grace into my heart. I knew then, that God did care about criminals.
Most of these girls had been runaways, drug abusers and gang fighters. They were all very broken.
I was shocked when I learned that Anna had been abused by her dad, but they locked her up, because, she was told, “You were at fault, you must have done something to make your dad do those things. He needs to take care of his family.” So, she was put away.
I heard many broken stories over the next few months. Girls who had been lost and discarded were girls that Jesus loved. I know. I saw him in the faces of the two chaplains that day.
When I was finally released, the chaplains were my first temporary foster parents and I saw Jesus in their home.