This episode features Karmyn, a writer and artist who was discharged from Michigan’s Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility after being locked up for 7 years. She speaks about the struggle to maintain a sense of self during and after imprisonment, and how the fear of state retaliation continues to saturate daily life.
Image credit: Karmyn, from postcard submitted to Humanize the Numbers
Click here to display the episode transcript.
a Maria Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is a Maria. We release this episode, Out But Not Free: Surviving after Women’s Prison, in the wake of International Women’s Day. We speak with Karmyn, a writer and artist who was discharged from Michigan Women’s Huron Valley correctional facility after being locked up for 7 years.
Before we begin, here’s Kaif Syed with some news you may have missed.
On March 8th, women filled streets around the world as part of this year’s extraordinary international women’s strike. The strike included massive actions globally, in major cities across Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Pakistan, and India, all calling for an end to femicides, as well as capitalist and patriarchal exploitation of all women. In a recent interview, Verónica Gago –a militant researcher based in Argentina that was part of the organizing effort of the strike in Buenos Aires– argues that “there is a certain effervescence of discussion around trying to understand what this violence against women means, what the violence against feminized bodies means in general, we are trying to link the economic violence with police violence, as well as violence related to working conditions to political violence in general.”
On February 21st, the state of Florida has severely curtailed visitation for inmates in all 50 state prisons. The state cites staff shortages and contraband smuggling as reasons to restrict inmates from their loved ones, even though most smuggling into Florida prisons is done by corrections officers. This measure came in the wake of the eruption of Operation Push, a statewide prison strike organized by Florida inmates demanding better conditions.
On March 1st Detroit community organizer Siwatu Salama Ra was sentenced to two years in prison at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility while five months pregnant, putting her health at risk after a history of high risk pregnancy. She was convicted of two felonies for defending her family. Last summer, Siwatu, a concealed pistol license holder, pulled out her unloaded gun to try and prevent a driver from intentionally using their vehicle to run over Siwatu, her mother, and her two year old daughter. Siwatu’s freedom team is continuing to fight for Siwatu’s appeal, release, and her ability to birth and raise her children outside of prison bars
Alejo Stark: I am Alejo and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement-building project based in Detroit, Michigan.
I’m here with Karmyn, a poet and artist whose writing was featured in our April 2017 episode titled “Survival and Resistance: Women Organizing towards Abolition.” We ended that episode with a poem written and recorded by Karmyn. At that time, Karmyn was a prisoner at the Women’s Huron Valley prison — the only women’s prison in the state of Michigan. Since then, Karmyn has been released and currently resides in central Michigan. Hello Karmyn, and welcome back to our show.
Karmyn: Hi Alejo, thank you.
Alejo: Karmyn, you’ve been out since November. Can you tell us very briefly, how was this first week of being back out?
Karmyn: I guess the biggest transition was getting used to that I had my own space again. I was used to being under the permission of somebody else to do anything. I had to have permission to use the restroom, I had to have permission to leave my cell, or an itinerary for the day. And so having that space, and having the freedom to do those things again, somehow was a bit strange where it shouldn’t be. So thinking about that was, kind of painful in a way. Because it shouldn’t feel abnormal to be free.
So when your used to constantly being under watch, one of the things I noticed when I came home was that I had a difficult time shutting doors. And when I got behind a shut door, it felt inappropriate. And I’m used to being within the line of sight of somebody all the time, I didn’t really have like, you have no personal space or no personal rights. In prison, it’s always subject to somebody else’s whim. The whim of a guard, and whether that be positive or negative, it’s subject to somebody else’s preference for your day or your time. Your minutes, your hours, it doesn’t, you don’t get to choose. And when you try to choose, even when you’re in your cell and your working on things like, say my writing and stuff. You’re still subject to that person coming into your space, so it’s not really your personal space, it’s always subject to the invasion of somebody else. Out of prison, it’s very difficult to transition into feeling like you have your own control over your own space, and your own choices.
It was difficult for me to be around people, it still is, three months out. So I’m ok, I kind of fake it to make it, everyday sorta. And I’m ok in interacting, but when I get personal time with people, I’m uncomfortable and I don’t….I’m not used to it. Because in there, there’s no, it’s very inhuman. The treatment is very inhuman. So even with a guard that wants to be somewhat friendly or considerate of your position in there, they can get in trouble for over familiarity, just talking to you about what’s on the news that day. It’s that dehumanizing, you never get to have a conversation with somebody that you want to have a conversation with, and be engaged. And feel like you exist, as a human. That something you say matters or…. So when you get out, it’s sort of feels the same way. You’re afraid to have an opinion. I think that probably people who do a lot of time, are… this is more difficult for. I did seven years in prison, so I think that after years and years of stripping away from you being a person, your own sense of self goes away. So it becomes….it’s hard to get back again. It’s hard to find that confident person that you used to be, it’s destroyed.
Alejo Stark: How did you feel like you were able to keep a sense of self inside?
Karmyn: The way that I tried to maintain a sense of self I think, was through being novice of my writing, and my paintings. I could express myself in that way, but even those things are subject to seizure and harassment. And it’s difficult to even think of those things as your own, to even have that as your sense of self, because even that painting or that personal piece of writing that you did can be taken away from you at any point. Or can be handled, or mishandled by somebody, if they come in into your space and disrupt your area. Take apart your things, and search your stuff for any reason that they want, even if it’s an intimidation tactic. So it’s difficult to even use your creativity as an outlet for finding a sense of self in there, because it’s really not yours. It’s not yours, anything that you do is not yours. You know?
Alejo Stark: And even after coming out, do you feel like you’re still subjected to that?
Karmyn: I do, on parole I do. I just had an instance recently. When I was released from prison, I was aware that I wasn’t supposed to have contact with other felons. But there was a couple of girls that I wasn’t near, I wasn’t close to people in there. And like I said, you just have such an inhuman experience, but sometimes you meet… the only people that treated me like I was a person. The past seven years were these couple of people. So immediately, I’m not allowed to have them in my life anymore. So again, they can take that away from me. In there, we could talk and we could visit. But now that I’m on parole, I’m not allowed to talk to these girls. And it’s difficult because in seven years, the only people that you’ve been close to in seven years. When you go into prison, a lot of times especially with women, families fall off. It’s a higher instance than with men in prison, women tend to stick with men that go to prison and it’s not that way…. I was put in county jail overnight, a scare tactic because I had contact on Facebook with these two girls, that I was…the only to people I’ve been closed to in the past seven years. And we’re not free, we’re out of prison but we’re not free.
I had to go through this process of being handcuffed again, after all those years of being locked up. And I got out, I started college right away, I was working already. Within a week of being home, and I was doing all the right things and still am, doing all the right things with my life. But still it was taken away from me, it could be taken away from me that easily. And they used the social media contact as a way to hold me in jail, because they wanted to question me about an officer that worked for the prison that I was in. And so again, it’s like a rape that lasts and lasts, that’s what prison is like. And that’s what parole is like, it’s something that you don’t have any control. It was like an assault to my person. I had to go in there, I had to be strip-searched, I had to get naked in front of a guard, I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t have a choice. And without committing any kind of crime, I was handcuffed and taken to the county jail, and I had to go through almost a trauma. But this is what your money’s paying for, for this lady to drive up here three hours to keep me in county jail overnight, to question me about something that doesn’t even have anything to do with me.
Alejo Stark: You’ve written on one of your poems, in your latest collection of poems, to one of your friends inside, that’s still inside. I don’t know if you wanted to share a little bit about that….
Karmyn: I do, it kinda connects to this a little bit. Actually, in prison it’s difficult to find solidarity, and say: we are a people as prisoners. You’re all going through it, so it’s easy to feel like you’re just separated from everything, and that you’re all alone. But these ladies, this one lady that I wrote the poem about in particular, is very close to me. And I care a lot about her. She’s a young girl. She’s super intelligent. She does Shakespeare in prison, she’s a wonderful actor, a positive role model for other prisoners, she works everyday. Just an amazing young woman that doesn’t think very much of herself, and they perpetuate that kind of thing. There’s nothing corrective about being in prison, it hurts more than it helps. There’s nothing that you take away from that experience of being dehumanized that is healthy.
So after I got out, it was easier to look back on it and say there was solidarity there. We did find each other there, me and this girl in particular. We became very close, and I hope that we’ll always be friends, and right now I can’t contact her. I was arrested because I wrote her a letter. And she’s one of the only female friends I’ve ever had in my life, and I found her there. But they’ve taken her from me, and I can’t even tell her why.
Even in the prison, she has a difficult time finding her space and fitting in, because she’s African American. But she’s also like a little skater geek/punk type. You know? It’s things that she’s into. And so she has a difficult time, because people of her own race give her a hard time, because she was hanging out with me and I’m Caucasian. So she gets it from both sides, she doesn’t fit in with white people, she doesn’t fit in with her own race. So she sometimes feels like she’s really on the outside of everything. So I wrote this piece titled “Mikayla.” And it was actually in relation to Robin Coste Lewis’ “Voyage of a Sable Venus”.
Alejo Stark: Can you read it for us?
Karmyn: I can. Ok, the poem is titled Mikayla. And it reads….
I am not supposed to be
this. Bleached shell or even
bone, yet these are my hands
waving, waving. I know
at the bottom is such
violence. The south
still feels like
home. In photographs
our bodies meet
on granite ledges, but
surface has no color
at depths like
this. All her
knowing of me, all
parts of my
life. If I could
make sense out of
the way water
forms around something
received slow because
I am the same as
her. Even if
our eyes are only
Mississippi. The threat
of deadly flooding
is real. Like
this pen, is
real. White sheets are
Of black blood, ships
swallowed unto the
and white insomnia! You
Must see, that we’ve
drown. So we ask you:
Are you sailors?
If we had a name, it
would be ocean! and we
would not try to understand.
Alejo Stark: Thank you for sharing that. This is only one of many poems you’ve written inside, you wrote this in the past year. There’s actually a postcard from 2016 that you sent to “Humanize the Numbers,” at the University of Michigan, which is one of your drawings I believe. Right?
Karmyn:That was a pencil sketch, the image is drawn from the shading in, so the image that you see of the woman is actually negative space. And so the point behind that was, for me, was that I felt like in prison, you’re sort of negative space. You don’t exist anymore in the realm of the outside world, so you feel, you know, so….
Alejo Stark: And you wrote something on that postcard too, with that drawing that you made, that seeks to evoke that negative space as well. You said, “I chose to write a poem to express the hurt of constant longing to go beyond the pane of glass, the fence, and its existence to the life I knew before this, to the person still reflected when I look inward. Remember we existed.” That’s what you wrote on the postcard.
Karmyn: I just wanted people to know that we still exist in there. It’s easy for everybody to operate around that place, and you might drive by it everyday, and get used to seeing it where it becomes commonplace to you. There’s a whole world going on inside of there. There’s people that are living their lives everyday, and some people will never leave. So it is their life. And they’re learning, and they’re teaching, and they’re communicating, and finding a way to still be people. In this carceral system, the little things that you have to make an existence, it’s such a teetering thing. And you’re desperate to have those things, to make your life worth living in there. And so it’s hard, you’re scared to report people for doing the wrong things, because you’re afraid of losing the little bit of the opportunities that you have. So it’s unfortunate that they can use even educational opportunities as a way to dissuade you from speaking out for yourself.
Alejo Stark: Before, you were mentioning mentioning also how in a way this continues after being out. This constant fear of retaliation….
Karmyn: Yeah, it’s a constant fear of anything. I fear of just, anything they could use to take my freedom away again. I don’t want to lose what I’ve built so far. And I’ve only been home a short time, but just having those little parts of my life back like going to work everyday, I don’t want that taken away again. So I have a fear of everything when I’m driving down the road, I have fear of going a mile over 55, because I’m afraid of having police contact. The contact, physical contact itself, scares me. But also just the fear of contact, because if I have contact with a police officer even for a traffic violation, I could go back to prison. So you operate under this constant fear of, people ask me to go and do things with them. Like a couple of my coworkers want me to go to lunch. But I’m afraid to go, because I just don’t know what they do. I just don’t know them personally. So I’m afraid to speak to anybody that I don’t know personally, and don’t know exactly what they do. Because you don’t want to be guilty by association. So it sort of keeps me in this sort of prison, even out here.
Alejo Stark: When you got home, have you gotten the chance to continue writing, or drawing, or painting?
Karmyn: Well right now I’m actually staying with some friends, so it’s difficult to find creative space when your living in the middle of a family. So the transition I think would be easier if I had my own space, but right now I don’t. I have been doing some writing, staying up late hours of the night, and doing some writing then. I haven’t painted since I got home, but I want to so much. So operating everyday, like going to work everyday and trying to act like a normal human being, when inside I don’t feel that way. It’s a difficult thing to maneuver through, because you want people to think you’re normal. You have to go to work everyday, and your boss tends to think your ok. But then when the person walks away from you that you’ve just had a totally normal conversation with, and you’re thinking “do they know that I’m a prisoner?” You know? You think that people might recognize that about you, or how do you bring it up in even conversation, where people sort of shy away from you then. Like even when you do meet new people, and you have to explain eventually that you’re in a transition from prison, or on parole. And then they don’t call you anymore. So it’s difficult.
Alejo Stark: Well you’ve written many, many poems in these past few years. Would you mind sharing one last poem with us?
Karmyn: Yeah, so this one’s about women, like just, being a woman. I find that before in my life, I didn’t really consider the solidarity of women, in a feminist movement or anything like that. So this poem is titled Rebel….
Is there any unfamiliar pain?
Robin Lewis asked me this once, but I couldn’t
take in or feel those words
So I had no answer
“life is suffering” the notion of
betray dominate and abandon
silence is a common language
among us David Bowie once proclaimed
“the only school for the musician-
is the road”
the contradiction in 1940
middle-class white women were
expected to marry
five percent of us had careers
in Law or Medicine
it’s all about that
Dred Scott Decided
in 1857 a slave remained a slave
-even in free territory
life is but a dream…
Power Influence and Income
Our grandmothers keep their shoes
in closets in our musings
we pale faced girls think
“I’d like to try that”
Prior to 1940
working women were
Poor and Failed
many Black Women
view women’s rights as narrow
concern of middle-class
who are insensitive to
numerous women defended
traditional roles viewing
feminism as subverting
family and community
thousands of our black families withstand
economic Intimidation and
to de-segregate our schools
some sounds aren’t humorous
between 1941 and 1945
6.5 million women take jobs
by the end of the 40’s
twenty-five percent of all women
are employed; four yrs. later
#of working women soars
thirty-six percent more
the previous forty years
the rapid industrialization of the south
Ends cotton culture
the demise of need for
Unskilled Subjugated Labor
Lyndon Johnson signs
The Voters Rights Act
1965 Tv SHotS
SnARLing PoliCE dogs attack
our Black Demonstrators
Hate-Filled White Faces FRenZIed
at the effrontery
of our little black children
going to school
They has Roots
Black Buying Power
tops twenty-five Billion
enough to make boycotts
effective weapons for social change
need not be static
the Wor ends
We Women should REturn
to our rightful place
in the home
Historians Neglect the role of
Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia Farnhan argue:
female employment is
We betray our biological destiny
Angnes Meyer writes:
“although women have many careers
We only have one vocation-
to a surprising extent
in job market only
our black population in metropolitan areas soars
more than seven million
a greater number than any total immigration
of a single nationality group in American History
We altered the race configuration
no longer could we be left in the hands of Southern Whites
no Black Families lived in my town
until I was six maybe
seven? I met a Black Girl at recess
She sat on the swings
Her and Me We
played and would not go
when the Bell Rang
our aggression turned against the oppressor
for once not against ourselves
“in 1960 alone
Sixteen African Nations Emerged
from under white colonial rule” She claimed
Her affirmation of Blackness
A erosion of pseudo-scientific
Desire and Will, our “I Will”
would not be significant enough
social alteration is not
Questioning our sphere of responsibility
amounts to Heresy
feminists are viewed
most of us still exhibit little
so pervasive we
view it as Rule
of the Game
few of US exhibit wherewithal
it is unrealistic
into a posture of
Alejo Stark : Thank you so much Karmyn. Thank you for your courage, for your words, for your poetry
Kamryn: Thank you.
Alejo Stark:Is there any last words you’d like to tell our audience in Michigan and beyond?
Kamryn: Find a way to contact somebody inside, and encourage their creativity, and empower them through education. I think that education is key to reducing recidivism, because once you have some success, you want to build on successes. It gives you, there’s very little positive opportunity in there. But when you do get it, every time you succeed at something, you start believing. You can exceed it, you can exceed that level. And succeed again, and again, and again, and again. It builds on itself, so if there’s anything that I would suggest that anybody do, it’s just to reach out with any kind of opportunity. Even for people in transition leaving prison to have some opportunity to get involved with community.
Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes on our website at http://www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: Andres, a Maria, David Langstaff, Catalina Rios, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.