Apr/May 2017 Nonfiction

A Tree Grows in Jail

by Leslie Shwartz

Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer

Photographic image © 2017 Stuart Gelzer

Meth made its way into jail via two vaginal routes. The first route along the royal highway was by subterfuge and smuggling. An inmate, either processing through or returning from court, with very strong kegel muscles, eluded the deputies when asked to squat on the ground and cough while a flashlight was shoved up her vagina and ass. In cases like this, the meth or heroin stayed inside the body and was prodded out later for use or sale.

The second method for getting drugs into jail was by an inmate offering her vagina (or mouth) to a deputy in exchange for him bringing the drugs inside for her.

Clarissa, one of the girls I knew from Life Skills class, got her hands on cunnilingus meth one day, purchasing it from someone who'd blow-jobbed it in. She was flying. At that time, I was in one of the bunks in day room where I had been placed initially after I moved from Exit dorm. Day Room incarceration meant I was not locked up in a cell. I was grateful for the incremental improvements: I could walk to the faucet and get hot water for coffee. I could sneak a phone call in. Or, when certain deputies were busy with a female inmate procuring favors by way of the Officer's Toilet, I could grab a Diet Coke out of vending.

I slept on the bottom of my three-woman bunk. 18th Street, so-called because she ran the Mexican girl gang in our dorm, had the top. She used the center bunk for her bags of worldly goods; commissary trade, extra clothes, books, paper, a soap dish of golf pencils. I was the only white girl she talked to.

"Why you in here, guera?" she said, referring to my blonde hair and pale skin.

"DUI and battery of an officer."

She rolled her eyes. "What did you do, call him a meany pants?"

"Pretty much," I said. My battery charge resulted after I called the cop a "Nazi Motherfucker." Fair warning, I suppose, to any drunkard considering battering with the deadly weapon of her words.

We were right next to the cell where Clarissa was locked up with ADHA LaRue. With Clarissa on crystal meth, and LaRue off her ADHD medication, I felt like I was watching two cats with their tails cut off, in heat, in a cage.

LaRue, a hard-core meth addict missing most of her teeth, had just been blazed by the Lord. Induced by the euphoria of the meth, Clarissa, normally an earthy Catholic type, had succumbed to ADHD LaRue's evangelizing. For the three days she was high, she had been born again.

Clarissa and I were friendly. She, like the majority of us, were in jail thanks to taxpayer generosity and draconian laws for petty crimes related to our addictions, or poverty as the case may be. She happened to fall under both categories and was locked up for stealing three pounds of ground turkey meat in order to feed her son. So I didn't fault an addict like Clarissa for seizing the opportunity to get high in jail since she'd never found any resources outside to help her with her addiction. If I hadn't been struck clean and sober myself, I would have traded all my commissary fireballs and Keefe coffee for a few hits.

Being in day room, I could afford Clarissa some privileges. For instance, when we programmed, I was able to grab a phone for her for the few days I was in day room before I got moved and locked up in a cell again. I would sit by the phone and give it to Clarissa when her cell was popped open so she wouldn't have to wait in line for a phone. She had a sick baby at home, and her man was locked up, too. She was stressed out and needed that phone bad. I also shared most of my food with her since I was incapable of eating the TVP dog shit bologna and the eight pieces of bread they fed us a day to meet state-mandated calorie requirements.

It was no skin off my back, and it engendered an intimacy with her I enjoyed. When she wasn't on meth, Clarissa was one of the sweetest people I knew in jail. Once she cheeked one of her prescribed laxatives and gave it to me at pill call after I suffered a week of constipation.

Clarissa also came up with the idea of throwing the seeds from the soggy apples I was sure the prison-industrial-complex paid homeless people to exhume from dumpsters into a pill call cup. She lined the Dixie cup with jail issued toilet paper, which was really more like composted tree bark. This toilet paper explained why our asses burned, but also why the apple trees sprouted.

Since her cell did not face east or west, she asked me if I could watch her sprouted apple trees. She wanted me to put them in the "yard." Our rec area, also commonly referred to as "The Patio," wasn't a yard so much as an 800-square foot concrete walled space with about two feet of air blowing through the razor wire above the freeway outside. Clarissa's apple sprouts could thrive out there in the exhaust and tidbits of gloom straining through mesh.

So I babysat her apple tree sprouts. When I taught my yoga class—begun after a dozen or so inmates spontaneously joined me one day as I practiced alone during program—I would watch the tree and swear it was growing faster than my time locked up was passing. The sprouts were the only living green things in the entire place. You couldn't count the turd-colored canned beans, or even the mounds of rotted cabbage they served us at mealtime, as alive or even green. So I fell in love with the apple sprouts the way one might with a newborn. I often found myself staring at them, thinking of my garden at home, the hibiscus trees with their large magenta blooms hanging over the meditation area, the fountain trickling, and the snow-capped San Gabriels looming on the horizon. I would only allow myself to think of these things for the five or six seconds that passed before all thoughts of home broke my fucking heart.

ADHD LaRue and Clarissa's affair with the Lord lasted exactly as long as Clarissa stayed high. When the kick hit, Clarissa did anything she could to get out of that cell. Which is why one day, as I was sitting around in day room, I noticed a river of water pouring out of their cell, followed by every variation of "you motherfucking cunt" spewing out of LaRue's mouth. Clarissa had clogged the toilet with her plastic meal bags and—now her "appetite" made sense—all that extra bread I'd been giving her.

When the deputy saw what had happened, he ordered both of them to "clean that shit up, you fucking idiots" and then they were placed on 24-hour lockdown in separate cells, which is what Clarissa had hoped for. By the time her detox ended, a few days later, Clarissa's apple tree sprouts were about two inches long, lush and beautiful and spring green. I'd been watching them for almost a week.

"Do you have my trees?" she asked.

"Sure," I said, reaching for them under my bunk.

"Go get me that bitch's pill call cups," she said, pointing to 18th Street's tangibles strewn all over the middle bed.

It was program, and Clarissa was looking hale again. She was so pretty, even her elaborate Virgen and gang tattoos appeared delicate and lovely. She was one of the few girls who really made the blues look good. Her green cat eyes were always accented by her jailhouse fake-up mascara—a mix of coffee grounds, baby powder, and commissary lotion. And she was smart. Also she didn't care much for politics, so she was friendly with everyone equally.

I walked over to 18th Street, who for reasons I could not fathom was half in love with me, and said, "Can I have one of your Dixie cups?"

"Go 'head, guera," she winked. It was considered an act of uncommon trust when 18th Street allowed me to rifle through her bags for her collection of pill cups.

I brought the cup to Clarissa. She filled it with toilet paper and poured in about a teaspoon of water. Then she gave me half her apple sprouts.

"Thanks for keeping my trees alive," she said, handing me the cup.

"Wow, thanks," I said. I couldn't believe she split her sprouts with me, but there they were in all their sapling gorgeousness. I loved them like my own child.


A few days later, the deputy in charge—a mean, cold-hearted dragon lady named Gutierrez—decided to move us all around again. She spent her first day back from vacation reorganizing us chattel in the module. After my relative freedom in day room, I was to be sent back to a cell and locked down again. At first, the dragon lady put me in with a butchy lesbian who played Hitler in the EBI (Education Based Incarceration) dorm school play about fascism, which would have been ironic since I was the only Jew in jail.

I moved my mattress, a one-inch thick plastic mat, and my bedding—a thin blanket—into Hitler's cell and put my new apple buds on the shelf under the stainless steel rectangle they called a mirror. I was not happy about moving in with Hitler. Though she had played the fascist with much clowning hilarity and she was smart, I didn't trust her. She treated me like I was beneath her, which always cracked me up. I mean, we were both in jail. Also, I didn't like the way she lorded over her much younger girlfriend. The two of them would fool around with impunity, right in front of my yoga class. And while I was happy for them for "gettin' some" while temporarily living in the worst place on earth, save perhaps Syria, I just wished they didn't have to do it in front of us spastic blue-clad yogis sweating it out on our mats every day.

After I secured my apple tree on the mirror ledge, I went out to retrieve the rest of my stuff—mainly my books and my "hygiene" (commissary purchased lotion, baby oil and shampoo, all pretty much perfumed water) when another inmate, Beverly Hills Cammy, convinced Gutierrez to move me in with her upstairs.

"Because we both like yoga," Cammy told her, with her oblivious pertness.

The deputy rolled her eyes and said, "Go ahead."

I went back to get my stuff—my bedding and my beloved apple tree—but the apple sprouts were gone. Vanished.

"Hey, Hitler, where's my tree?"

"What tree?"

"The tree. The little sprouts? I put them on this shelf."

"Sprouts. What the hell are you talking about?"

"The plants in the Dixie cup?"

"There's no plants in no Dixie cups."

"But I..."

"Hurry up," the deputy shouted. "Come on get your shit and get moving. Upper Tier, 46."

"My plants," I said.

Hitler shrugged. "No plants here."

"You fucking liar."

"Who you calling a liar?"

"You, you stupid bitch."

I was about to cry.

"Hey," the deputy shouted.

Beverly Hills Cammy, with her perky Jackie Kennedy hairdo and her yoga butt, said, "C'mon, Leslie, before she changes her mind. I don't want to have to bunk with fucking Twynika again."

I left Hitler's cell a wreck. The whole moving thing had been so chaotic, and I was distracted. Maybe I had left my spouts somewhere else. Maybe Hitler had stolen them. I didn't know. I only knew I had loved and cared for my baby trees, and now the cupful of greens was gone. My heart broke.


One day our locks were popped on our cell doors. I heard them all pop like a machine gun, first one by one throughout the lower tier, then upper tier. I just assumed it was time for a class for some group of people. Then after a few minutes, I noticed the girls walking out of their cells, slowly, cautiously, as if going out for the first time after the nuclear holocaust. One by one, girls timidly headed toward the day room, then the phones, then the showers. Soon people were smiling. Happy. Was this program? Why did all of us get to be together? Why so early in the day? I had no idea. But I, too, left my cell and lined up for a shower.

There was a different deputy in charge, a friendly-looking man who didn't say much. But when it became clear he had let us all out to program together, I was flabbergasted. It was unheard of. One hour went by, then another, and another. In my entire time there, I'd never seen anything like it. We were lucky if we got an hour or were programmed at all. The inmates were unusually kind to each other that day, and relaxed. We were never told to "Keep it down, ladies" and "Get away from the hallway, ladies" because no one shouted and no one went toward the hallways. The deputy's trust changed everyone's normally belligerent attitudes. He treated us with respect. He never said a word. He just sat quietly, his face open and kind. It was the strangest thing I had seen, and I realized it was the first time I had witnessed an act of kindness by anyone in power in jail. I had never seen the inmates act so polite, either, as if his generosity had an effect on each of us, and so we wanted to be nice to everyone else, too.

But like anything that might be misunderstood as good in jail, it ended all too soon. Suddenly a blonde-haired, three-striped sergeant and her lackeys showed up and told us to pack up. We were all being moved to the next module over.

"Don't freak out," she said. "Everyone will stay together. You will all keep your cellmates. Now get your items and be ready to move."

She dismissed our new deputy who had allowed us a three-hour program and began screaming and ordering us around. At this point in my incarceration, it became clear that one of the most effective tools the jail system employed to keep inmates in line was to move them all the time so we never knew what was up, and so we never really got to be too close to anyone. It kept us all on edge and sad, compliant and demoralized. It would be, since my surrender, my fifth move in less than 30 days.

Cammy and I, like everyone else, went to our cell and packed up. We watched for hours while they moved everyone out of EBI into the dorm across the hall, which was going to be the new EBI dorm. We watched while they moved the GED students into our dorm from the dorm across the hall. It was an absurd and chaotic enterprise and made me think of the Nazis and their "orderly" disbursement of human cargo. As the hours wore on, though, it became clear Cammy and I had been left behind, along with about four other cells of two inmates apiece. They'd run out of cell space across the hall. It wasn't an equal exchange between EBI and GED.

For the next several days, we were told we would be moved, and to stay alert for our orders. In the meantime, I remained locked in the cell now, unable to attend classes across the hall. Then one day, the six of us who were left behind were popped out of our cells, told to line up, and were escorted across the hall to the new EBI dorm. We were going to class. So I threw a bunch of candy in my blues pockets to help me through the next four hours, snuck a bottle of water in my tucked-in shirt, and headed across the hall.

Immediately it was clear the new dorm was much more strict and, if possible, even more dreary than where I was. And since I wasn't officially enrolled—I had only signed a piece of paper in my Life Skills Class on what seemed like one day ages ago—I now had to officially enroll in "school." I saw immediately how horrible EBI would be, with seating charts, searches, and trustees (I thought of them as capos) wandering around checking you out, and I wanted none of it. I filled out my official enrollment but never turned it in. The rules clearly stated you had to have at least six months left of time to serve—I had a week—and that your educational status of non-high school graduate would be double-checked. I had a master's degree, which in jail could cause a lot of problems. I sincerely doubted they would waste one second of their time checking up on us, but they always threatened us with anything that would keep us in line. I was fairly certain that since, incredibly, the LA County Jail system was not digitized, and most of the record keeping was still paper and paper file, they would have a hard time following up on most anything.

Still, I saw the writing on the wall. With a week left to serve, I opted to stay as anonymous as possible. I would still take the classes in my dorm—there was typing class and an early morning biology class—but I would no longer go across the hall and risk exposure, just to solve second grade math problems and read about Manifest Destiny in high school history.

I had no choice, however, but to stay put that one day. In the end, I was glad for that, as it was one of the most interesting days of my incarceration. What happened next revealed the light in the unlovely and the unloved and restored to me the crumbled faith in humanity I had pushed away from the ruins of my life.

I was assigned a seat with some of my former dorm inmates, Hitler included. I knew she had been forced to move because she was in EBI, but that her girlfriend had been forced to stay behind because she was in GED. I had watched, over the days they had been separated, while Hitler's girlfriend wept nonstop. She was inconsolable. I recalled how she and Hitler used to use their program time to fool around, rubbing each other and kissing passionately for the entire hour while the girls in my yoga class tortured themselves into the various positions I suggested.

Served the bitches right, I thought, even though I still couldn't be sure if Hitler stole my tree or not. In any case, we sat there while the EBI teacher droned on endlessly about something meaningless—how to balance a checkbook or some lame thing that no longer applied in the real world—and I shared my candy and volunteered my test answers. At one point Hitler asked me how her girlfriend was doing.

"She's been crying nonstop."

Hitler's face fell. "Really?"


"Is she... is she okay?"

I shrugged. "I don't know. I don't talk to her."

Hitler looked depressed. She put her head down on the table. Against my better judgment, my heart went out to her.

"I'll kite her a message if you want," I said.

One of the trustees walked by. "Keep it down, ladies," she said.

"Capo," I said under my breath.

Hitler looked at me hopefully and with surprise. "You'd do that?"

"Why not? Just write a note. I'll give it to her."

Hitler smiled from ear to ear. She got busy writing a note. Then she folded it up and told me what cell her girlfriend was in. I put the note in my pocket.

"I'll be right back," Hitler said.

She disappeared up the stairs to her cell. A few minutes passed, and she returned. She sat down, and out of her front pocket she pulled my tree, the Dixie cup smashed a little, but the tree alive and well.

"Here," she said. "Sorry."

I started to cry. "My tree."

Everyone looked at us. I began singing "Reunited and it feels so good..." And the other girls started snapping their fingers and singing along—until we were told to shut up.

"Thanks," I said.

She nodded.

"I forgive you, bitch," I said.

She nodded and smiled. "Thanks," she said.

Later that night back in my module, when upper tier programmed, I kited the love letter Hitler wrote to her girlfriend who was locked up on lower tier. I have never seen anyone happier than that girl who pressed her lips through the glass on her locked cell door and kissed it, then mouthed the words, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."

I nodded and skirted away and out of the deputy's line of sight, since I knew you could spend a night in solitary for kiting messages. I had my tree back. I thought it took moxie for Hitler to admit, while incarcerated no less, that she was a liar and a bandit. What I'd forgotten in that place was that beneath the wreckage and catastrophe of every broken spirit, including my own, the heart still tenderly beats.


Previous Piece Next Piece