In October 1980, Joyce Ann Brown, a receptionist at Koslow s furs, was convicted of aggravated robbery and sentenced to life in prison. The evidence against her was largely circumstantial, involving a getaway car rented to another Joyce Ann Brown who lived in Denver, and the possibility that Brown had been mistaken for an indicted armed robber who resembled her. Besides the word of one eyewitness, Brown was convicted chiefly on the testimony of Martha Jean Bruce, a woman she had met while awaiting trial in the Dallas County jail. Bruce testified that Brown had admitted her part in the robbery. The jury was not told that Bruce, seven months before, had been convicted of lying to a police officer.
This past November, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals set aside Brown’s conviction on the grounds that Dallas County prosecutors had failed to disclose evidence key to her defense. Tbday she is free, though District Attorney John Vance has not ruled out a retrial.
AFTER MY CONVICTION, I SPENT three months in the Dallas County Jail. In January 1981,1 “pulled chain” along with nineteen other prisoners being transferred from county jail to prison. We were rounded up 1 ike a herd of cattle and processed through die jail. When we got to the checkout point, the control room, they made us remove our panties, bras, and socks because it was against the rules for female prisoners to leave wearing anything except jail-issue clothes-a pair of short-sleeve overalls and a pair of “scuffs.” The scuffs were made of a double layer of rough white cotton and the toes were cut out, making it difficult to walk-you couldn’t lift your feet because if you did the scuffs would fall off your feet. So, you had to slide your feet along the floor to walk, or shuffle.
Handcuffs were locked on our wrists and then a long chain with ankle cuffs attached was stretched out on the floor. We were hooked up to the chain, and from the moment the chain was locked, we had to walk together as one, in single file and in unison, or be jerked to the floor.
The room was bitter cold. The twenty of us. wearing only overalls and no underclothing, had to stand there for what seemed forever without saying a word until die jailer finally yelled out, “Head ’em up and move em out.”
They herded us onto a large white bus, and as I stepped up through the door, I was greeted immediately by the revolting stench of stale human urine. Iron benches were mounted on either side, and we slid our feet along the floor to the back of the bus, until one of the guards yelled, “Sit.”
The benches were narrow, hard, and cold. I was chained to the women on either side of me, so I could not lean back. I could only sit there, freezing, hunched over, my back strained to the breaking point. The smell was nauseating. I knew I was getting ready to lose my last meal, but Cat, another prisoner, whispered, “Baby, hang tough. You got to be strong. If you throw up, they ain’t going to clean it and we’ll have to ride with it all the way.” She made a face at the stench and added, “The mens that ride the bus don’t give a damn. They Just piss whenever they feel like it and they don’t care if it’s on the floor. That’s what the smell is.”
The big, ugly white bus with iron-barred windows roared up and we left Dallas. As me lights disappeared behind us, I prayed for the strength that I knew only God could give. I was headed for prison and there was nothing I could do about it.
The nightmare continued as soon as we reached the Goree Unit outside Huntsville. After completing the necessary paperwork, I was issued my clothing. I couldn’t help thinking at the time that I had been represented by a white attorney, convicted by a white jury, sentenced by a white judge, and I arrived at prison on a white bus. Now the clothing issued to me was white. It seemed that all the color was being removed from my life.
My next step was the nurse’s station for a physical examination. I was not opposed to this at all because I had just spent three months in the county jail, and I was anxious to be checked. I was not prepared, however, for the type of examination I received.
I entered the room and was told to get my clothes off. When I undressed, the nurse told me to bend over the table, and when I did, she rammed her finger into my rectum, searching for drugs.
Then I was told to lay down on the table with my legs spread. As I climbed up on the table, I could see only one speculum in the room and no sign of any means of sterilizing it. Before I could object, though, she had grabbed the speculum and inserted it. I felt no lubrication, only a sharp, dry pain. I closed my eyes and once again the tears began to flow. 1 was helpless, unable to control what was happening to me and my body. I already knew what a guard would tell us that afternoon: we were “property of the Texas Department of Corrections.”
I WILL NEVER FORGET MY FIRST night in the Goree Unit. Along with the other new arrivals, I was placed in isolation, to await transfer-after orientation-to general population. I was so worn out that I fell asleep immediately. However, I was awakened, along with all the others, by the screams of a woman. Shocked, scared, and very curious, we all jumped out of our beds and ran to the bars to see what was going on.
The screaming and moaning continued for several minutes, and then there was a single, long screech of someone in intense pain, followed by several moments of silence. The silence was shattered by the sound of a loud slap. Then, a second slap. Next, we heard the sound of a newborn baby crying. We stood there glued to the bars, and the whispered questions flew around the room.
“Who is that?”
“What’s going on?”
1 didn’t have to ask any questions. I knew what was going on, and if it was going on in the dorm, it had to be illegal because even though I was a new arrival I knew you couldn’t be giving birth to a baby in a prison cell. I knew immediately that it would be my pleasure to blow the whistle on an illegal and clandestine birth within the prison.
A guard came to our section and ordered us to shut up and get back to bed, but I didn’t move. I stood there for several minutes, straining my ears to catch any sound that might provide a clue. Then I heard a slight snicker, followed by loud laughter. My smugness disappeared. We had been suckered. Big Doris, so named because her bras had to be special-ordered from the free world, was housed in the dorm next to the Orientation Section, and she took great pleasure in pulling her little joke on all new arrivals. Every newcomer for thirteen years was introduced to life at Goree with Big Doris’s birth of a baby.
Shortly after die night of “the baby,” I was assigned to general population and my job. I became a key girl to the prison infirmary, which was a rather boring eight- to ten-hour job of doing practically nothing. The locked door to me infirmary had a small glass pane, and to gain admittance an inmate was required to knock on the door and show a pass. My job as key girl was to check lor passes and admit the inmates.
It was there I met Granny. One day a little old black woman with a cane knocked on the infirmary door. She didn’t have a pass, so I didn’t let her in. A few minutes later another inmate knocked, showed me the appropriate pass, and I opened the door. She entered, followed by the strutting little black woman. Before I could react, she cracked me over the head with her cane and said. “When Granny wants in, you let Granny in.”
Granny had become somewhat of a legend by the time I arrived at Goree. She was in her seventies and had already served more than twenty years for killing her children and some of her grandchildren. Because of her age and length of sentence. Granny more or less had the run of the prison and could come and go as she pleased. In 1982, Granny was moved from Goree to another unit. She had diabetes and was losing her sight, and shortly after she was moved, one of her legs had to be amputated. In 1983, Granny finally got out of prison the only way she was going to get out. She died.
Even before her death, I always became depressed at the thought and sight of the little old woman. I began to have these terrible nightmares that I would end up like Granny, dying in prison. Even more depressing was the thought that I could die in prison for a crime I never did.
In prison, privacy becomes a thing of the past. You are housed in dorms with thirty-four to sixty-four other women who are thieves, murderesses, baby killers, con artists, hot check artists, extortionists, forgers, and petty criminals. You must learn to coexist with society’s outcasts in a living area not much larger than a small apartment in which there are four toilets and five showers.
Each prison is divided into two areas-the day room and the living room. The day room, where inmates gather to socialize or watch television, is more comfortable even though you sit on iron benches-no pillows or blankets allowed. Inmates play dominoes, Scrabble, checkers, and occasionally chess, but cards are not allowed because prison authorities believe card games would encourage gambling.
My living area was a small room, or cubicle, separated from the connecting cubicles by walls only a few feet high. My furnishings included an iron bed to which a small 12-by 18-inch shelf was attached. On it I kept a radio, several small pictures of my family, a mirror, and a few toiletries. Attached to my bed was an iron locker in which I kept my personal possessions.
Everything you do in prison, day and night, is under the watchful eye of a guard or your fellow inmates. Even the most intimate personal hygiene is subject to scrutiny by someone. You are told when to get up, when to go to bed, when and how long to eat, and if you can or cannot go to the bathroom. Your every action is monitored and controlled by gray-uniformed guards who often give the impression that their sole responsibility in life is to remind you that you are no better than an animal. It is a policy designed to break your spirit, dehumanize, and punish.
The gray-suits run the prison and they run it on fear. Their weapon is the “case.”
A “case” is the major disciplinary action imposed by the prison and results in loss of privileges and good time. Lose good time and your parole date or sentence is extended beyond its normal date. Any violation of prison rules can and will result in a case. Unfortunately, any guard or officer can issue a case for any infraction, real or imagined. It is common for an inmate to receive a case based purely on the guard’s disposition that day. Catch a guard in an irritable mood or with a grudge, and a case is issued, A case can be appealed, but then it becomes an inmate’s word against a guard’s. Guess who wins?
Not once in all of the three thousand, four hundred, and sixty-one days I was in prison did I ever receive a case for a rule infraction-but once I came close.
I was sitting in the dayroom helping one of the younger inmates prepare for her GED test. We were working on math, and in the process of showing her how to work a problem, my hand brushed hers. The officer yelled out,
“Ladies, if I see your hands touch again, you both get a sex case.”
I couldn’t believe it. I looked at the officer and said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I’m not kidding. Keep your hands away from each other.”
I immediately demanded to see the sergeant on duty, and when she arrived, I asked, “If I touch this lady’s hand while I’m trying to help her with a math problem, is that a sex case?”
“Of course not, Joyce. You know better than that,” she answered.
“Well, I know better” I replied, “but your officer doesn’t.”
I guess what really irritated me was the fact that the guard was a known homosexual, and for her to even slightly suggest that I was involved in something like that made me mad. The point is, the issuance of a case can sometimes be totally uncalled for, but when an inmate gets one, it goes on the record.
The movies, television shows, and books say that there is “honor among thieves.” Forget that bull. The people in prison would steal your false teeth if you left them lying around. Whites steal from blacks, blacks steal from whites, whites and blacks steal from each other, and all the boosters-thieves-steal from the staff. They steal because they need it, because they want it, and often they steal just for the heck of it. It is an accepted way of prison life, and the only deterrent is fear of reprisal. Fear helps keep a thief honest.
Early on, I established that I was not someone any inmate could take advantage of. 1 was getting ready for work one morning when I noticed that something was missing. I had arrived with several white nylon slips, trimmed in white lace. Nothing like them could be bought in the commissary. They were my link to better times, a better life.
That’s why I came unglued when one of those slips was gone. I pitched a bitch they still talk about. I announced to the dorm, in my loudest, most threatening voice, that I wanted my slip back or else. I screamed out, “I’m going to work, and when I get back tonight I want my slip on my bunk or there is going to be some hell around here.” When I returned that evening, my slip was folded neatly on the foot of my bunk.
NOT ONLY DID I HAVE to constantly protect my own property, I had to be very careful in selecting my friends and associates in order to avoid the risk of getting caught up in someone else’s action. The law of self-preservation rules at all times in the prison.
For example, fifty stamps were stolen from a security officer’s desk in the department where I worked. Fortunately, I was not working when the stamps were stolen. When the theft was discovered, the officer called the mailroom and alerted them to be on the lookout for the stamps-a different type from those sold in the commissary.
I had no idea what was going on until I returned from the commissary and was met outside the dorm by a woman I worked with.
“Joyce, I need your help,” Slick said, panic in her eyes. “I boosted some stamps from our office and I think the officer knows it was me.” Slick wanted me to go to her “house” (cubicle), get the stamps, and hold them for her. I reluctantly agreed, but as I walked toward the dorm, I began to have some doubts. 1 realized that if I got caught with those stamps, I’d be in deep trouble, and although Slick was supposedly a friend, I wasn’t too sure she wouldn’t deny the whole thing and finger me as the thief in order to keep herself out of trouble. I retrieved the stamps, but rather than holding them for her, I dropped them in the trash can.
Lucky for me, because about fifteen minutes later, me “police” showed up and staged a shakedown of our quarters. Of course, the stamps weren’t found, and although they may have suspected Slick, they had no proof.
That evening, when Slick returned from work, I told her what I’d done. She was furious and wanted me to retrieve the stamps. She had a plan. She wanted to take the stamps outside and drop them on the grounds. Another inmate would find them and use them, and that would take the heat off her. I couldn’t believe she would set up another inmate, and I refused to help her. Needless to say, Slick treated me like I was wearing the “snitch jacket” for several days after that. We never were friends again, which didn’t bother me in the least. In prison, you have to take care of yourself first.
Inmates who steal outside their dorm face the dangerous problem of getting the stolen goods into their quarters. The best way to move contraband from one part of the prison to another is by “legging in” the items inside underpants or between the legs.
To counter this, the guards use the shakedown. At any time, in any place, you can be forced to stand at attention while a guard rubs her hands all over your body. Some officers delight in giving inmates a painful chop of their hand to the crotch to ensure you aren’t “legging” merchandise.
The shakedown also provides another means of degrading the inmates. It’s a perfect time for homosexual guards to abuse inmates, who have no choice but to submit.
On visiting day, it is customary for the guards to search you before and after visiting with your relatives. Most guards, especially if they know you, simply do a “pat search” unless they have a reason to believe you are carrying contraband. But one guard, who was called Hamburger, had a reputation for taking advantage of the situation. She was a lesbian and loved to give those thorough searches whenever possible.
One visitors’ day, I bounced down to the visiting room, happy with the prospect of seeing my mama and daughter. As I walked into the clearing room, however, my spirits sank. Hamburger was on duty. I knew what I was going to have to go through, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
Sure enough, after my visit, I left the visiting room with a fellow inmate and we stopped for our search. Hamburger started with the other inmate, but she just gave her a simple pat search. When it was my turn, however, she gave me this nasty grin and proceeded to destroy all the good feelings I had from my visit.
She started with my shoulders, cupped my breasts, and then came down the front of my skirt, stopping at my private area. I took a chance of getting a case that day because I did something an inmate is never, never supposed to do: I slapped her hand away. She was so shocked at what I had done, she just stood there, staring at me. I stared right back. Finally, she kind of grinned and said, “Well, I guess you’re not hiding anything. You ladies go on back to your dorm.”
I was not quite prepared for the boldness of the homosexuals in prison. When I first entered prison, I would hear someone say, “Tell my mom I love her.” I assumed that the person speaking had a mother also serving time behind the walls. However, one day I heard one of the inmates say, “Tell my mom I love her. And tell my dad 1 love him.”
I knew there weren’t any men housed in our unit, so I asked what she was talking about. That’s when I learned what “family” means in prison. It is common for older inmates to “adopt” younger inmates; take them under their wing, teach them the ropes, and comfort them in times of stress and tragedy. It is not unusual for these younger inmates to refer to the older woman as “Mom,” “Auntie,” or “Grandma.”
These make-believe families exist not only among the straight inmates but the homosexuals as well. However, among the homosexuals, the inmate playing the male role-the stud broad-becomes the father, or “Dad.” If the two homosexual lovers break up, the kids remain loyal to their “father” and even get angry if their “mom” or “dad” takes up with another lover. If the kids see that there is no way the father or mother will get back together, they accept the new lover as their “stepdad” or “stepmother.”
Homosexuals even get married in prison. It’s against the rules, but marriages do take place. They are planned right down to the smallest detail, and once the vows are exchanged, there is even the traditional throwing of rice.
A lot of violence erupts because of homosexual relationships. I remember one instance when I was caught up in this madness. About sixty-five inmates had turned out for the rec yard and a fight broke out between two lovers. An officer, a new young mother who had just returned to duty from maternity leave, tried to break up the fight and suddenly found herself being attacked by inmates. I saw what was happening and rushed in to pull the officer out of the fight, in the process, one of the lesbians slapped me.
I forgot all about the officer. I jumped for the woman who slapped me, but before I could grab her, someone grabbed me, lifted me off the ground, and held me up with my legs dangling in the air. I looked around and saw that it was a tall, black woman I had befriended- She pulled me away, and by the time other guards arrived to break up the fight I had calmed down.
Though it was a woman’s prison, the sexual relationships were not limited to lesbians. Men were also involved. One of them, a huge white man we called Bull, was in charge of the kitchen and had his own thing going with several inmates working under him. Things that went on between Bull and his heifers (as we called his girlfriends) were well known by inmates and officers, but the officers simply turned their heads.
Bull’s main heifer was Billy Jo, a very small white inmate who not only kept Bull sexually satisfied but ran the kitchen as well. In fact, it was referred to as “her kitchen1’ by inmates, and if anyone needed a day off, a better job position, or a favor, Billy Jo was the one to see. She held this position of power because whenever Bull wanted sex, she made herself immediately available. The kitchen storeroom door was closed many times during each week as Bull and his heifer conducted “inventory” of supplies. Eventually, the complaints became too numerous to ignore. But instead of disciplining Bull, the authorities transferred Billy Jo out of the kitchen and into the yard. That left Bull free to pursue his sexual pleasures with other heifers-until he finally made a serious mistake. Bull and one of his heifers forced a nineteen-year-old white inmate to perform oral sex. The girl suffered traumatic shock from the incident and had to be admitted to psychological therapy. An investigation confirmed that she had been raped, but Bull was simply transferred to another unit.
If you’re not a homosexual and you don’t mess around with the male officers, how does a normal, healthy woman handle normal, healthy sexual desires in prison? With a great deal of difficulty, that’s how.
I’ve always taken pride in the fact that I am a very strong woman. I’ve always told myself I can do anything I want. So when I first entered TDC, I knew that sex would become a thing of the past and that I would have to put my mind on different things.
Once you have been sexually active, living without sex can be very disturbing. Think of it this way: if you eat a lot of sweets and overnight you are cut off from sweets, your body goes through withdrawal. You become moody and irritable, and everybody gets on your nerves. I’m a living witness that you go through these changes and much more when you are cut off from sex.
I found myself avoiding conversations with other inmates when the subject came up. I even avoided television and watched only sports, or a light comedy and the news. I didn’t want to watch a lot of programs for fear that once the lights went out, I would be dreaming about something I couldn’t have. Many nights I would wake up in a cold sweat, my heart pounding and beating and racing; I would sit up, realize where I was, and the tears would pour from my eyes. The harder I tried not to cry, the more I did cry because the dreams were so real.
THERE HAVE BEEN MAJOR CHANGES within the prison system since I went in more than nine years ago, but the most significant change for me took place inside my heart. During the first two years of my term, I thrived on bitterness and hate-not just for whites but for blacks as well. I didn’t try to get along with anyone. At Christmas, in 1982, I began to really take a good look at myself, and I didn’t like what I had become. I knew my mama and children could see and feel the bitterness and hate festering within me, but I really didn’t care until my daughter, Koquice, woke me up. I was shocked to hear her say, during one of her visits, “I hate them, Marna. I hate all of them and I hate those stupid laws that put you here “
I tried to explain. “You mustn’t hate them, Quicey. They were just doing their job.”
But how could I persuade my daughter not to hate when her mother was filled with hate? I knew then that I needed to let go of the anger that I held on to so desperately. I sat down, talked to God, and asked Him to fill my heart with love, to replace the bitterness with compassion. It dawned on me that the people I lived with were real. I realized 1 had something in common with them and I wanted to touch them. I couldn’t just exist anymore. I had to live, stay human, and walk out of prison feeling good about myself. I then made out a list of New Year’s resolutions, and I resolved to become, once again, the person my mama had taught me to be. My new attitude toward myself and my fellow inmates was reflected in the fact that the following year, and until I left prison, I was “Sis” and “Aunt Joyce” and even “Marna” to more than half the inmates.
The transformation did not happen overnight, and over the years it has not made me forget the injustice I received, but it sure has helped my spirit and eased my fears. I have no doubt in my mind that if I had not changed that year, I would have gone mad behind bars.
NINE YEARS, FIVE MONTHS, AND TWEN-ty-four days out of my life, lost forever. I can still remember being defended by a white lawyer, prosecuted by a white district attorney, convicted by a white jury, sentenced by a white judge, and sent on a white bus to prison where I was issued white clothing.
But now I have other memories: white attorneys who stood by me; a white minister and private detective who worked on my behalf; white jurors who admitted they did not receive all the facts at my trial; white writers who kept my case before the public; and a return from prison in a white van. There is a moral in there somewhere, just as there is a moral in my prison sentence.
There is a poem that best describes my years in prison and it goes, “Two prisoners looked through bars/One saw mud, the other saw stars.”
I never stopped looking at the stars. And on Friday, November 3, I reached them, when I walked out of jail and into the arms of my family.