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Western Correctional Center for Women in Black Mountain, North Carolina
Western Correctional Center for Women in North Carolina (Source: Google Maps)

It was a bluebird day, cool and crisp, perfect for outdoor activities. For the women in this North Carolina prison, it was also the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began that they had all been together, staff included, enjoying festivities. The leaves on the trees were turning every shade of red, orange and gold, painting the mountains into a scenic background for Western Correctional’s Fall Fun Day 2022.

The morning started early with hot coffee, flavored creamer and Krispy Kreme doughnuts for all. We were called down by dorms to the dining hall, where members of the Western Women’s Service Club, which is composed of incarcerated women, and case managers Ms. Shuping, Mrs. Moore and Mrs. Hensley passed out the treats. Despite the chill in the air and the early hour, most of us arrived without grumbles or disorder.

It did not have to be voiced: We all needed this respite. The anticipation was palpable. Instead of dreading another day with the same emotional challenges, there was a sense of relief in the air. 

Many dressed to impress. Some women ironed their teal uniform shirts or donned their best pair of jeans or black shorts; others tended to their hair and makeup. People were feeling confident and showing it. Even at a minimum-level camp, with its relative privileges and freedom, life can become repetitive and demoralizing. We all crave a break from the monotony, something to look forward to.

This time of year can be especially difficult. Children are back in school. Holidays are approaching. And we imagine the moments with friends and family that we will not be able to join. Instead, we create our own moments with old and new and not-so-good friends, with strangers and with staff, looking to find any type of normalcy in a life of uncertainty.

This year’s games kicked off around 10 a.m. Horseshoes, limbo, Frisbee, races and more. Games ran continuously, set up at different stations on the court and yard. Coveted beauty items were awarded as prizes for game winners. It was as close to a fair as we would get, and we didn’t even have to brave port-a-potties. 

The scene of 200 or so smiling women resembled a neighborhood block party. Annette, who won the game of horseshoes along with Sara, called it an “amazing day.” “Everywhere I looked people were laughing and having fun,” she said.

No one was fighting or arguing. We all mingled, cheering for contestants and good-naturedly ribbing failed attempts at racing with a beach ball squished between two runners. Mae, a service club member running the Frisbee throw, said the day “lifted my spirits. I didn’t feel dehumanized.”

Some tested their aim with cornhole. They were no match for Karima, known as “Shorty,” and Shakeyra, who took home the gold. Khadisah was the big ring-toss winner, with 73 hits.

Even those who are typically not prone to group activities were out and about. “This is the most I’ve been outside in months,” said Dawn, who usually works long, hard hours in the canteen warehouse.

At first, many were hesitant to look silly by letting down their guard to play childlike carnival games. Yet the urge to compete won out. Even some of the toughest cases were seen hula hooping or doing the limbo. But there are always a few who refuse to be pleased. Today, though, no one paid them any mind, letting their negativity dissipate into the breeze. 

Memories could be recorded at the photo booth built and run by Veronica, aka “Tink,” another member of the service club. She designed hay bales and fall-themed props. “I am grateful to the staff for allowing us to do this and being a part of events themselves,” Tink said.

Mrs. Moore and Ms. Shuping, the case managers, joined in the games along with us. Mr. Shaw, our patient mailroom attendant, showed off his moves on the basketball court — “I’m a real b-baller!” — while his wife, Mrs. Shaw, documented the action from the sidelines.

The softball game got the biggest turnout. Per custom, Mr. Patneaude, a case manager, was the pitcher for both teams. He pitched joking taunts as well, while stopping line drives. Mr. Carpenter, also a case manager, took his turn at bat, nailing softballs to the fence. Balls were fumbled, some were caught; runs were made, tumbles taken. There were no strikeouts or points kept; instead we all enjoyed the feeling of freedom, like being a kid again. The only one missing was Mr. Velez, the assistant warden of programs and a regular at our pickup games. We were sorry he could not be there but did not miss him catching our infield flies.

“It’s been a good day,” Mr. Patneaude said. “Turned out well.”

On the softball field, Assistant Warden Hemingway took over pitching and proved her merit on the mound, sending pitches sailing right past the most seasoned hitters. Both she and Warden Shoup stepped up to the plate and sent balls well into the field. 

Tony, a fellow prisoner, caught a popup from Warden Shoup and instantly inquired about the safety of her merit days.

One young woman, Keisha, who had just arrived from another facility, was blown away not just by the activities but also the staff’s participation. “I love it,” she said. “I’m amazed at the warden out here playing. Not only do they show up, but there is no awkwardness, no feeling on edge as though we are being monitored.”

Angela, our committed librarian and an avid documentarian, felt something similar. “Seeing the staff participate and enjoy themselves showed their humanness,” she said, “and likewise I feel like they saw the same in us.” 

For the closing act, hip-hop music pumped from the PA system as a flash mob broke out doing “The Wobble,” led by none other than Assistant Warden Hemmingway. The secret was out: She has “moves like Jagger.”

As the day wound down, we all anxiously awaited the best treat, Wendy’s Biggie Bags. By the time the games were over and the sun was setting, we were all physically and emotionally exhausted — and starving. And yet there was a holdup at Wendy’s. Rather than saying, “Sorry, maybe next time,” Ms. Shuping, Mrs. Hensley and Mr. Patneaude made extra trips to retrieve our Frosties and nuggets, working late into the evening to pass them out.

A lot of hard work went into making the event special. Taylor and Tink collaborated for months to organize the festivities. The service club put together the bags and prizes, then ran the games. Our purchases of photos and hair color tickets helped fund the Wendy’s meals, candy, prizes and doughnuts. House of Mercy Ministry donated the games and coffee creamer. The Rev. Chad Smith and “Saint” Jane Derrick, along with the rest of the volunteers, made us “feel part of something bigger, as if there was a common ground of humanity,” Angela told me. 

The warden and assistant wardens trusted us to take the reins. Their open-mindedness allowed us to push ourselves on a project that brought feelings of accomplishment. We worked hard. And while sometimes we struggled, it was gratifying to feel acknowledged for our efforts. Just one day of socializing freely and feeling alive stays with us, carrying us through more difficult days.

The games, while seemingly simple, helped build a confidence many lack. No one was berated for falling at tug-of-war or teased for batting poorly. Inside, we are all at our most raw and vulnerable, and no one can judge us more harshly than we do ourselves. But for one day we put away our insecurities, looked past our feuds and respected each other as sisters in captivity.

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.

K.C. Johnson

K.C. Johnson is a writer incarcerated in North Carolina.