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Handcuffs on a dark background
Photo by D-Keine on iStock

Everything was cold, gray and hard. The lights were too bright or too dim, but always tinted in a yellow haze. It would have been easy to mistake being processed in a Los Angeles jail as a dream — no, a nightmare.

After all, I was familiar with being on the opposite side of the law. Up until my arrest in 2011, I had worked a nine-year career as a California Highway Patrol officer. 

Then, as soon as I was arrested — for what I maintain was an accidental fatal shooting of my husband that occurred during a domestic dispute — it didn’t take long for peers to turn on me. A sheriff’s deputy grabbed my wrists, slapped handcuffs on tightly and posed a nasty question: “How does it feel to be the one wearing the cuffs now?” 

My mind was already circling the drain, knees two minutes from collapsing, residual shock still charging my nervous system. It felt like the world was watching me fall from grace, and now I had to contend with my peers taunting me.

I went from part of the law enforcement tribe to a cop discarded behind bars, where I was treated as a treasonist.

While serving my 50-years-to-life prison sentence in Central California Women’s Facility, I’ve faced retaliation and discrimination from both law enforcement and the people locked inside with me. Often, I’ve felt like I don’t belong anywhere. 

Despite those struggles, serving the law and serving time have given me a unique perspective on mass incarceration in America. It has taken me years, but with care, patience and hard work, I’ve found purpose and connection inside prison, changing for the better. 

A rude awakening

During my criminal trial about 11 years ago, deputies shackled me to a chair at the court entrance where prisoners walked by. I was met with awkward stares and heard people whisper, “That’s that CHP officer.”

When I first came to prison in 2012, a staffer told me he was going to house me in a safe cell, since I was an ex-cop. I quickly learned that he had tricked me. Soon after, another staffer stopped me and suspiciously asked how I had been doing in my new cell. They then informed me that I had been housed with an inmate who had a long history of abusing people in the prison.  

When I first entered our cell, I noticed my new cellie had scrawled a rule on the cell locker. It stated that no roommate was to tell corrections officers about anything going on in the cell. And that no roommate was to ever ask staff for a bed move. 

Our first month together was mostly fine, except for some passive-aggressive behavior. By the second month, the cellie started to complain about small things, like how running water in the sink was too noisy or how I needed to groom my hair differently.

By month three, the tension escalated. They would make me get on my hands and knees to clean the floor with window cleaner and a towel. They threatened to put my head through a window. One time they threw the cell’s sturdy chair at me.

I was lonely, hopeless and helpless. I worried I wouldn’t survive. I began to experience panic attacks, nightmares, insomnia. I stayed silent because I remembered the rule written on the locker. I was too scared — and inexperienced — to go against prison rules.

One day the cellie brought me a newspaper article about my past life as a California Highway Patrol officer. I was stunned to learn it was circulating around the dayroom, a common space. I felt like they were trying to trigger me. They also started to randomly out me as an ex-cop to other people. Random people would talk to my cellie and then ask me if I used to work in law enforcement.

The abuse crescendoed after roughly five months, when the bully challenged me to a fight. They had already threatened to “beat” my ass numerous times before, but this time I hit a breaking point. I took a step forward, prepared to fight. 

Everyone around us paused in disbelief. Someone was finally standing up to them. Someone said something along the lines of, “She got tired, she ain’t taking that shit no more.” I was done staying silent, being stalked outside my cell, being cussed out for making the faintest of noises.

In the end, we only had a quick verbal altercation. Days after our fight, I was moved out of our cell. I believe they asked for the change.

Breaking down barriers 

Despite some people who disagreed with my former profession, I have built trust with many people in prison. But I had to go through healing first, seeking out group and individual therapeutic sessions offered through the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

I underwent therapy because I wanted to address challenges tied to my upbringing. Through therapy, I learned that the lack of affection from my parents growing up led me to seek affection in unsafe adult relationships. My father also liked to keep the family’s affairs within the household, which instilled in me a code of silence. That meant that when I encountered abuse in relationships, I never sought help. I decided silence was the best course of action, a mistake I repeated with my bully cellie.

In group therapy, I connected with my incarcerated peers. Many people initially resented my professional background because of bad experiences they had with the police. I remember one person who told me she didn’t like cops because “they were always killing people.” 

But in therapy, we learned about each other and deconstructed that resentment. I cried on the shoulders of my incarcerated peers, listened to them and took their advice on how to change for the better. They saw me hurting with the same kind of pain they were in. I felt their resentment of me for being an ex-cop easing, and they were beginning to like me.

Over time, I became a mentor, obtaining the certification to work with incarcerated people on navigating grief and trauma, de-escalation and nonviolent conflict resolution. I met with other women individually and in groups to help them improve their lives. The conversations were sometimes about becoming more politically involved, or taking responsibility for their crimes. 

In some ways, going from working in law enforcement to being incarcerated has been a blessing in disguise. I’m in a unique position to better understand our broken and unjust criminal legal system. It’s something I don’t think the average incarcerated person, district attorney, judge, public defender, prison official, everyday citizen or reformer can know from both sides like I do. 

While I was a cop, I had ended two relationships with men I loved once they were sent to prison because I was embarrassed and being associated with them made me feel criminally adjacent. When I saw one of them on the news, in an orange jumpsuit, I remember thinking, “He must have done something wrong to be in that predicament.” 

I now understand how wrong I was. There is corruption and bias throughout our criminal legal system, which disproportionately affects people of color and those who are poor.

Now that I’ve served more than a decade in prison, I’ve seen the good in here — people working toward positive outcomes despite the prison environment. There are hard workers, creative and beautiful artists, phenomenal rappers, poets, writers, prison lawyers and singers. 

I’m good at basketball and have a mean crossover, jump shot and suffocating defense. I write poetry and songs and perform at events. 

Incarcerated women have an immense amount of talent.

Mending the divide

Still, there is a segment of this community that likes to remind me I’m a “cop” — and refer to it purposefully in the present tense. They still consider it to be who I am and will always be.

But most of the imperfect people around me have given me a profound understanding of their experiences through conversation and shared community.

Women in California prisons make up less than 5% of the state’s total prison population, making them a severely marginalized community. We have been over-sentenced and not given the opportunity to heal, learn and grow in mental health facilities, addiction centers or diversion programs for survivors of domestic violence, rape and sex trafficking. 

Women here have spoken to me about their deepest traumas, which have influenced the entire trajectory of their lives. One woman told me they were arrested at age 12 and funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline. Another said their mother offered them up to be raped at only 8 years old. Stories of horrific neglect and violence abound behind these walls, and go a long way in explaining how many women end up here.

Coming in with the preconceived notions about incarcerated people, I had to grow tremendously to see their beauty. Now, standing in the middle of the law and incarceration, I am better positioned than most to help bridge and mend the divide between law enforcement and citizens. 

In the future, I see myself facilitating restorative justice work between cops and the community, working to help the police understand the impacts of mass incarceration and hopefully lowering recidivism rates. I can teach folks about implicit bias and racism and fear. I can speak with incarcerated folks who are leery of law enforcement. 

While prison is a terrible, haunting place, it has nevertheless provided endless opportunities for me to learn about myself. All these experiences made me a better person. I am no longer trapped in one identity or the other. I am both and more, so much more.

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.

Tomiekia Johnson is a writer incarcerated in California.