Blurred face of a woman who fears the prison system.
Photo by Callie Gibson on Unsplash

The system seems to revel in instilling fear. Don’t let the bullies get to you.

At 22 years old, I was arrested. I found myself in a cold, dingy jail bathroom with a burly female officer staring at my naked body. She had a five o’clock shadow and a look that screamed, “Don’t fuck with me.” I was an addict, young and scared. But back then I loved to challenge authority. Despite standing completely exposed, I shot back the best “don’t fuck with me either” look I could muster. She nodded, unmoved. Her intentions were to break me.

“Hands up. Shake out your hair and lift one breast at a time,” she said slowly, with a kind of pleasure. 

“Turn around,” she continued. “Place your legs wide apart. Bend over. Touch your ankles.” 

There was no compassion, no sympathetic gesture for me to cling to. 

My knees bent a little during my effort. “You can do better than that — let me see the pink!” The statement left me breathless. Following her instructions I went through a series of squats and coughs, like a morbid frog. 

She produced a steel canister with a hose. It looked like something a ghostbuster would use. I looked back at her and turned white as a ghost. 

She aimed it at me. With no further warning, I felt a blast of icy liquid on my genitals and armpits. 

The liquid, meant to rid me of lice and any other parasites that might hide in my hair, ran down my forehead and burnt my eyes. It smelled awful.

Later, other inmates told me that the process was called “being quailed.” It meant “to grow feeble,” “to recoil in dread or terror.” 

For a while, I had no idea how afraid of our system I should be.

For a while, I recoiled.

For a while, I let them win.

Most importantly, for a while, I thought that was the name of the solution they used on me — the way my life was and always would be.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Heather C. Jarvis

Heather C. Jarvis is a writer incarcerated in Ohio. A winner of the PEN America annual prison writing contest, her work has appeared in the Iowa Review PWP, The Crime Report and The Journal of Woman and Criminal Justice.