Moving Ahead…Sort of

In my last post, I was excited about the ladies getting equal opportunities with the men in the jail.  Apparently, I was getting excited too soon.  Major Baker has told the women that in order to have a women’s work program, someone outside would have to call into the jail and specifically request women to work for them.  Why is it that men never had to ask for such privileges?  A company never had to ask for specifically men to work for them.  The assumption was made that they would want men so women, once again, remain invisible in that sense.

Why is that women must work twice as hard to gain opportunities that men have handed to them?  Who knows, but this is just one more example of why we still need feminism and gender studies programs.  It kills me to think of how far we’ve come, and people believe we have nowhere else to go, so things such as this go unnoticed.  [end of rant]

So, Jane Olmsted of WKU’s Women’s Studies Department has aided me in reaching out to members of the community to see if we can get this ball rolling and get to improving the opportunities of the women in jail.  Further updates to come…

The Letter for Equal Rights and Opportunities

This week, the women and I finished reading Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, a book that centers on the story of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter from the Bible.  Many of the women found it hard to get into the story because for the first part of the novel, there isn’t much going on at the surface because Dinah is still young.  Eventually though, the book opens up into a beautiful retelling of a Biblical story from a woman’s POV (freaky right?).

Normally, we would discuss the story that we’re reading a relate it to real-life and read Ms. magazines from the 70’s that I found at a yard sale and call it a day, but this week, something different happened.  We were discussion the exclusion of women from Jacob’s religion and their punishments for not knowing the customs.  Then, we related it to the contraception wars and the exclusion of women from many of those discussions.  At this point, the women began about how their jail is mostly run by men, how the female inmates who are green tags and are supposed to have the same privileges as the male green tags are made to stay in the kitchen or do laundry.  The women’s only chance to work outside is to take out the garbage while the men are allowed to do road work and volunteer at the local humane society.  This is bothersome to me, but it was infuriating to the women.  In the heat of our discussion, one woman announced that she had been thinking about writing a letter to the jailer asking for the same rights and privileges as male prisoners.  Thus, the “Letter for Equal Rights and Opportunities” was born.   In their journals, we began to draft, going over how to write a persuasive letter without seeming accusatory.

The next morning, on the outside, I walked to the Gender and Women’s Studies department to ask the director if there was anything for us to do to further their cause and to ensure that they had the support of the community.  Dr. Olmsted asked for me to wait, to see how far the letter will go on its own, and if it doesn’t go far, we can step in and help.

This is a good feeling, knowing that the women are already trying to affect positive change in the jail.  I think it’s just proof that people can grow and change and evolve into a new image on the outside, but I strongly believe that the goodness that shines out has to come from somewhere, and that type of goodness isn’t created by spending time in jail or by going to a therapist.  It’s always there, from the very beginning, and the outside is what changes.  Each person is a window, and only when the window is clean can the light shine out into the world.  To get heavy with the metaphors, no light escapes from a wall because no one ever bothered to believe that it could be a window.  My point:  we just need to believe in these inmates and believe that they can make the world a better place, and they will believe it, and given the change, they will do it.

In my short time as a member of this club, when I tell people I can’t go out on Tuesday nights, they ask me why I would do that, why would I go spend time with trashy people who haven’t done anything better for themselves than get landed in jail.  They never believe me when I tell them that these women act just like us, breath just like us, laugh and cry just like us.

1021 Meagan Leaving

It is Tuesday at 8:36 pm and I am doubled over about to pee myself. This is the third shrill of laughter that has emitted from the Warren County Regional Jail Library this evening. Welcome to book club–where the irrational realm of instutionalized living serves as an instant community for a rowsing group of animated ladies. Why are we laughing? Tracy, a wide-eyed brunette with a murky tattoo on her forearm, has shared the big event of the week–she informs Hilary and me that charges that were nearly pressed on one of the kitchen staff inmates for sneaking a dry, tasteless, piece of cake. Once she shares this, everyone guffaws. In this room, the women are allowed to hike up their sweats without it being viewed as a suspicious gang sign, they may stick an article from the New York Times in their book without getting frisked, and best of all— they can speak about sex, their children, the cigarrettes they aren’t allowed to smoke, and all of the things that make them bold and beautiful women. This is the reason that I love my Tuesday nights. The energy in the room mounts and there is a great release over something like the cake that brings us all back to our humanity and our interdependence of being. If I can facilitate those moments, why would I rather be anywhere else?
Eileen Ryan and Jennifer Dooper were the volunteers before they passed the torch on to me in Spring of 2010. It wasn’t always so easy. I remember the first book that I read with the group, Nobakov’s Lolita. I could think of nothing more distasteful for a group of nearly all mothers. We have had great success reading African-American women writers like Mia Angelo and Gloria Naylor. Faulkner was a bust, but Plath was a hit. Recently, we have been reading popular fiction such as Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants—all of which I would have never read on my own, but were well-loved by the group.
When I would mention something about book club to my family, they would treat it as something that was swell on my part but didn’t really make a hill of beans on the part of the women. I beg to differ. This club has certainly changed the way I view others. Their joys are my joys—their pain brings me tears. I would like to think that their voiced appreciation of the club does not fall on my ears alone. This club is based on much more than a book–this club creates room for communion as well as opinion. It allows us to discuss difficult issues like death, lonliness, and love. It allows us to break the silence that creeps in the halls. It allows us to laugh at the madness and remember that we are all in this life together. The Warren County Book Club fosters a relaxed environment where women may simply be themselves–and that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.
Alas, I am leaving to finish my German degree across the pond in Regensburg. I am proud to have a brilliant woman like Hilary Harlan to take my place. I promise she will be much more orderly than I. We met as counselors during the 2011 Women and Children Learning Together camp. When I was asking around to see if anyone was interested, I was hoping that she would say yes. If you don’t know Hilary, you should because everyone should know at least one person that it going to do great things. In a harried, nearly frantic way, I have tried to endow her with everything that I have learned and yet I feel like there is something that I am missing. I think that is the feeling that everyone has when they have experienced something life changing. What more can I say?
Thank you to all who have made this club possible including Dr. Jane Olmsted for your wisdom and ideas, Renee Purdy for your expert Amazon skills, and all of the sponsors for your generous gifts.
One of my favorite quotes from the women of the club was from a Mrs. Yolanda Webster (I am sure she would be glad to share). She said to me at the close of one of our meetings, as if an epiphany, “Meagan, we all have got stories to tell.” And I hope they do.

The Eye of the Sow

The horizon has not always been this noisy.
There was a time when the Heavens and I could mingle,
 sip wine, and sing our souls anew.
They no longer heed my beckoning;
 and if by chance they do,
their voices are far too strained to render.
A constant dawn, a foreboding Aubade—
the busy-bodies brooding over the land behind my father’s house.
It was my grandfather’s land before
 the yellow tennis balls etched trails in the carpet.
As a young girl to whom the cows gave chase,
I wandered in the tall grasses and picked
the hides of cicadas from cypress trees.
There are no trails here anymore,
only teeth marks from a columbine and row upon row of inedible corn.
The fluorescent halo at the edge of the field frightens me more
than the eye of the blind sow that I fed until age nine.
I refused to eat the meat when I was ten,
telling my father that sausage made me sick.
The day-blind stars weep at their nightly shadows;
and despair for the world grows within me.
My laments meet the unrelenting voice of the sky,
the buzz of three hundred light bulbs looming over
six acres of neatly parked, glittering cars.


This morning, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green alongside congregations across the nation, dedicated their service to raising awareness for the DREAM Act. I was privileged to be a part of such a service, reading different narratives from DREAM-eligible students. At the end of the service, we passed around petitions to our senator and representative. I’m not the naggy-activist type, but I do believe that such an act would benefit our nation morally and economically. Below is information taken from the website devoted to the act ( Please read and respond accordingly.

Over three million students graduate from U.S. high schools every year. Most get the opportunity to test their dreams and live their American story. However, a group of approximately 65,000 youth do not get this opportunity; they are smeared with an inherited title, an illegal immigrant. These youth have lived in the United States for most of their lives and want nothing more than to be recognized for what they are, Americans.

The DREAM Act is a bipartisan legislation ‒ pioneered by Sen. Orin Hatch [R-UT] and Sen. Richard Durbin [D-IL] ‒ that can solve this hemorrhaging injustice in our society. Under the rigorous provisions of the DREAM Act, qualifying undocumented youth would be eligible for a 6 year long conditional path to citizenship that requires completion of a college degree or two years of military service.

Women pregnant with unspoken words

Birgette Hansen's Old Eve

I am here, again. Pushing the beady black button under a spotty speaker. “How may I help you,” scratches a voice born of hourly cigarette breaks and diet cherry cola.

“Book Club,” I say. Open sesame. A deep clutch of locks operate within the massive frame.

Without fail, upon the metallic jolt, I am reminded of the significance of that sound–a sound of contempt and incarceration, the sound of a night that went wrong, or an encounter that escalated. But it is also the sound of long-awaited freedom, a mother’s sigh, and a brother’s pat on the back.

Of course a jail has several of these metal beasts stopping mid-hallway, cutting off the circulation of bodies with more spotty speakers and scratchy voices, chaining together the loose-ends of G-dorm with Z-dorm, and connecting all extremities to the heart of booking. There are no books in booking, only piles of mistakes and the faces they belong to.

A man in holding holds his head in bandaged hands. His orange garb names him a jester, but no one laughs. Visitation separates a mother from her child and replaces an embrace with a black phone damp from another’s clammy grip. These are the ironies of being behind bars: there are no bars, only shatter-proof glass. I’m standing a sadistic zoo of sorts. All the animals clammer when I walk by, for I am an animal, too.

Tonight, it was Jimmy Johns. If there is a microwave in booking it is buried under carry-out receipts. My guess is that they draw sticks to be the lucky go-getter. They may even choose to order from more distant franchises in hope of a few more minutes of Beaver FM and the open window. My participants, fresh from their cots, eye the greasy hoagie with wanton bellies. The Baliffs pick up the schrill of a call and mumble words. Click. The ring keeps them from their next bite–damn phone.

Someone in the drunk tank gags into a spotty hole in the floor. The hole gargles the message into a drain, but no one replies. I scan my finger like an inmate. I am patted down like an inmate. But I don’t hunger quite the same. Feral bodies, feral bones, yet we sin like humans and pay the price for the apple.

The faces glitter with the sweet moisture of sleep; I have awoken many with my arrival. They smile between yawns, and I yawn between smiles. We greet each other as something slightly different than equal. We ask about the in-between time but we never chat about their unseen weather. Many are from other cities, other states, pinned down for a crime in a place they see only in the upper-left-hand corner of documents. Do they know that the leaves paint the hills in mid-October? Do they feel the same chill through their worn sheet in December that I feel when I awake at three to a dead fire? Where are their skies, their heavens? Are their stars stains looming in the tiles overheard of an optional Sunday Service? Is heaven really seven steps away?

We gather in the center of a blank room. Burgundy chairs relieve the mono-chromatic scene. I pass around the role, and the women excite themselves over my pen–the permanence of my ink. The faces are new, save one. She asks me about my summer, about working at camp, the trees of Maine, and planes. I fear the possibility of gloating, so I keep it simple, keep it light, and a tad untrue. I say that the pine tree is Maine’s saving grace. They all sort of chuckle. We move on.

The book I chose to turn the leaf of the club is a collection of Z. Z. Packer’s short stories entitled Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. One of the five at tonight’s meeting had read the first story as instructed, so I do what I can do. They aren’t receiving credit, they are missing some sitcom or murder mystery series. So we got chatty. Women that see in me the face of their daughter, their social worker, or maybe that of the hussy that stole their husband from their bed, but never the face of an equal, makes getting chatty quite a challenge. So I play the game until we get closer to the same.

My freshman year of college, I read a book by Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation. The book was about one-fourth as lengthy as the title. Tannen speculates that women use sympathy to make themselves equal through the act of story-telling.

So we tell stories, sometimes they are written by others. Sometimes it is easier for someone else to give voice to the joys and the sorrows. Most times, though, the stories are our own. They swell inside us and ripen with time. As one quickly learns, jail doesn’t encourage linear thinking. Routine, gray, gray, gray, asks for sleeping pills and the narrative of memories. We are human, all too human.

I want to hold these women like a mother, like a daughter, like a friend. I want to tell them that I do care, that I know it has been hard, even when I don’t know–how could I ever know?

The door’s guts cringe: our time is up. I will tell them to read the next story. I will clean up around the watercooler of our gab session. Some give me hugs; others stack chairs. They thank me, thank me, thank me. One is beaming, she leaves tomorrow morning. We beam together for a moment. Yo-Yo asks if I will be back next Tuesday night. I reassure her yes, of course, I will. I love you ladies, I say. Keep on reading, and if you don’t like the story, then read something else.

Yes, Ms. Meagan, we will. We’s always reading, Yo-Yo says, all of us is, ain’t we?

21-10 Book Club leaving. The Bowling Green air is wet tonight like the faces of the women curling up in their cots, thinking of a story, maybe one of our own.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.