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Prison rules force a minimalist lifestyle and fitting one's life possessions into a small box.
Illustration key, according to artist Marina Bueno: “1) Assorted papers, letters and artworks 2) My one book and assorted hygiene bottles 3) Pictures that the COs make me take down all the time 4) Tightly rolled clothing 5) Toilet and tampons 6) A smattering of food” (Illustration by Marina Bueno)

Marina Bueno wrote the following piece in response to "16.5 Cubic Feet" by Brian Hindson.

I see your locker and raise you a shoebox. 

In my Florida prison, I must keep everything I own — state-issued and personal — in a locker that measures 18 inches wide, 24 inches long and 10 inches tall. With every call from corrections officers to “get in compliance,” I have to arrange my room to make it look as tidy as possible. 

That used to mean a scramble to jam everything in my locker. Finally! A chance to use my excellent Tetris skills. I’ve sacrificed valuable objects to the “smashed in the locker” god, sometimes hearing an expensive snap as I closed the door. But now, after 12 years in prison, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to fit all the things I own into these diminutive lockers is to just get rid of everything. When you own nothing, everything fits. 

I laugh now at the fact that I ever thought I needed so many things. Who needs three pairs of pants when you have only one ass? I’ve kept two pairs of socks because I have two feet. The same rule applies to bras. What about underwear, you ask? I’ll keep three pairs of those in case of a surprise strip search or some kind of car crash (I’ve heard you don’t want to have dirty undies for that). What about books? I’ve given up on those — anything worth reading is too large and not worth the effort to keep. 

We are lucky that our canteen sells hotel-size bottles of shampoo and conditioner, but I’ve recently begun to shave my head because the bottles keep busting open all over the place. I’ve also begun taking the Depo-Provera shot, a contraceptive, so I don’t need feminine hygiene products. Try finding a spot for 24 tampons or pads. 

Because of the shot, I’m super bloated so no one notices I’ve stopped eating. Not having food frees up a lot of space. That’s fine with me because it is now impossible for our friends to send us money without a clean record that goes back at least two reincarnated lifetimes. I don’t get letters, cards or pictures anymore due to a recent policy change. By alienating us from any support systems, the Florida Department of Corrections is helping me organize my life.

So what do I actually own? I haven’t found a way to halt all biological function, so I’ve kept toilet paper for now. If I figure that one out, I’ll let you know. My tightly rolled clothing, which is tied together with rubber bands and gets confiscated every time they search me, is stacked neatly in one corner. I have a folder with receipts to prove I own things so I can ward off confiscations. I have a writing manual that was a gift, and a shower bag filled with medication and coffee items. I have headphones and a cup. 

In some respects, I am lucky. Everything I value doesn’t have to fit in my locker. My family answers my calls. They send me emails and pictures on my tablet. Anything I value here, I can send home to them because one day I will return to them. But how different is this locker system for someone who doesn’t have support? Someone whose whole universe must fit in a box?

One of my old bunkies, who has been locked up since 1984, kept every card her late mother sent her. How can you ask her which cards to keep and which cards to throw away? How can you ask a mother to choose which pictures of her estranged children to keep and which to throw away? Whom do you send your valuables to if you have no one? 

Legal work is something else altogether. Even with an active court case, there is no designated place to store your hard-fought documents for more than 30 days.

“I don’t want them to take things from me that can hurt me,” my friend once said. She had a package confiscated and tossed in the dumpster right before it was to be sent home. In my experience, there is no leniency or understanding from prison staff. No programs to convert our physical documents into digital ones. No laundry cubbies to store state-issued uniforms. Each year, the rules become more stringent, and no one presents viable solutions. 

We are expected to treat Florida Department of Corrections’ property with respect, but they treat our property like trash.

You can adapt to this minimalist lifestyle, but it comes with consequences. With careful pruning and binding, you can get organized and cripple the human spirit. For every lost image we hold in our mind, another one disappears. For every hurdle they place in front of our loved ones, it becomes easier for them not to try at all — another name in our contact list we never hear from again. 

As the years pass, all that is left are the remnants of who we used to be. Soon, there will be none of that left, not even the memory of freedom. But isn’t that the goal?

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.

Marina Bueno is a writer and artist incarcerated in Florida.