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Overhead view of a glass of milk
Photo by oykuozgu on iStock

I went to prison at age 16.

Officials were unsure what to do with me as I was the youngest prisoner they had ever had. Prison staff decided I would be safest if placed in solitary confinement until I turned 18 — this was 30 years ago, and a much different time.

As the door closed behind me, I looked around my new home — a tiny cell. To my left was a doorway to a smaller room that contained a toilet and sink. My building was known as Cottage 3, but this was far from a cottage. 

This building housed “troublemakers” and the mentally ill. It was fairly small, old and cockroach-infested. 

The pests crawled out of the cracks and broken seals along door frames, pipes, toilets and sinks. They crawled out of holes in the mortar that prisoners before me had made using pencils, which they then left in the holes as pegs to hang things. 

I spent my first several hours scouring the cell, searching for those cracks and holes, which I filled with dampened toilet paper to try to limit the number of uninvited guests.

Hours later, I sat beneath my window on a plastic chair. With my knees pressed against the cold metal radiator, I looked up at the distant but large, bright moon. It was captivating but so far away from my reality. 

Then I heard singing. It was a hymn: “Lord, you are more precious than silver. Lord, you are more costly than gold. … And nothing I desire compares with you.” 

The sound came from a woman in the cell below mine in the basement. I learned later that her name was Addy and that she had severe mental illness. Her singing — at least to me — was angelic. I listened as I stared at the moon’s full radiance. Tears streamed down my face.

I found myself oddly craving a cold glass of milk. The craving intensified as that first night in isolation endlessly continued. I could think of nothing I wanted more. 

Eventually an officer came by on her rounds. She looked into the small window on each prisoner’s door to make sure everyone was OK. 

As she approached my door, I knocked to request her attention. She opened the small steel slot through which my food trays were given to me at meal times. I knelt down and looked up at her as I asked if she could please bring me a cup of milk. 

I never knew her name, nor will I ever forget the mixture of confusion, compassion and heartbreak that registered upon her face as she responded ever so kindly, “Honey, you can’t have any milk.”

I turned and sat on the cold, concrete floor and rested my back on the hard, steel door. I began to sob, still unable to comprehend the horrific reality of what I had done, of where I was and of what my future held. 

At that moment I didn’t understand the symbolism of the countless roaming roaches, like the endless stream of pain I had caused in so many people’s lives.

The moon’s grace-filled light shone down on me, and Addy’s celestial song reverberated around me as I sank into the lonely depths of my personal and deserved dungeon.

And my unquenchable craving for that cup of milk. … My soul was yearning desperately for nourishment, for sustenance to make me whole, to bring me to life.

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.

Jennifer Kszepka is a writer incarcerated in Virginia.