This is an excerpt from Snakes and Ladders. Book is currently in development with Affirm Press. Follow Angela J Williams on Facebook for more excerpts and news on publication.
0 – Stripping Time
A female cop interrupts my musing, poking her mousey-but-groomed head into the small cubicle and asking quietly if I will please follow her. I don’t get any eye contact. She looks uncomfortable as she leads me out the door of the holding pen and towards a locked room at the very end of the charge room. There is no explanation. So far I’ve had my property searched and tagged, my fingerprints taken on the new digital scanning machine. I’ve signed all the paperwork. I think back to my original arrest, trying to imagine what indignity is waiting for me. She still hasn’t made eye contact with me. As she pulls a pair of latex gloves out of her pocket I realise what comes next. This scared-looking woman is about to check me for contraband.
I’d forgotten about the strip searches.
I try to remember how nineteen-year-old me responded to strip searches, wonder if I was this scared of getting my gear off in front of someone wearing a uniform. I have a sinking feeling that Angela Marino me might have found it a rush, gotten off on the idea. Poor naïve nineteen-year-old me. I’m getting the impression that I’m going to be remembering a lot over the next few days.
The bathroom we enter doubles as a storage room for cleaning products. It’s right next to an ominous hallway. I’m pretty sure from the CCTV cameras and double-keyed locks that in just a few minutes I’ll be taken through the last police-locked door and be put into the care and custody of Corrective Services. The police might not be overly interested in naked bodies but Corrective Services love them. This won’t be the last time I take my clothes off in front of strangers wearing uniforms. And this time I won’t even get paid for it. A strip search accompanies every movement between prisons and many movements within prisons. I’d forgotten that access to my naked body was no longer a privilege I could choose to dispense. I try to brace myself but fail completely. The cop closes the door and we are alone. The snick of the door closing sucks the air out of my lungs and I’m suddenly cold under my clothes.
The cop looks at the leaning mops and brooms, a rumpled roll of garbage bags, smudged bottles of cleaning products, anywhere but at my face and eyes. She wears the gloves but doesn’t touch me. Goes to scratch her face but recoils from the unfamiliar texture. The room smells like some old antiseptic that I used to know. I remove my shirt and since there is nowhere obvious to put it, I drape it over the edge of the hand basin. She leans over, takes the shirt, feeling along its seams for hidden caches of drugs and gestures me back. I remember that they like space in searches, room to move, to see a threat before it happens. When I place my pants on the sink I do it with an extreme lean, far enough back that I cannot possibly excrete a weapon or drugs from them without her noticing. It’s all coming back to me now. Strip searches are something like pantomime undressing, lots of big slow movements – and nothing at all like erotic stripping. I lift off my bra and place it on the sink so she can pick it up and feel it. I lean forward from the waist and fluff at my hair so that any hidden things can fall out. The cop looks at the bottom half of my face as she directs me to open my mouth and run my own finger around the inside then outside of my gums. The last step is my underpants, which drop down around my ankles.
‘That’s far enough,’ she says and makes a spinning motion with her finger.
I turn in a circle, stopping to lift up my feet and show her the soles, separating the toes to show her between them, on something like autopilot now. I turn back to face her and she is staring past me at the toilet bowl.
‘Get dressed,’ she says, and as she turns to open the door, ‘I’m sorry.’
I get dressed and the shame that paints my face feels both shockingly familiar and painfully unique. Nudity, I remind myself, is nothing to be ashamed of, we are all naked under our clothes. This public speaking anxiety-reducing tip only works for a second though. As I size up the cop walking out the door, try to mentally undress her, my eyes fall on her handcuffs and I realise that no amount of imagining her naked can balance the power between us. In this giant stack of signifiers of power, I’m right at the bottom.
Then the door at the end of the hallway opens and I am walking past the (suddenly very nice-seeming) female cop, into the care of corrective services. It’s been a long time and I never thought I’d be back. The gruff officer on the other side of the door greets me with a rough ‘Marino’. Since I was originally arrested under my married name, my birth name has now become an alias. Do the last thirteen years really exist, I wonder to myself, if it was all done by an AKA? I realise I have ceased to be ‘Angela Williams, person’ and have become ‘Marino, 263504, inmate’.
I suppose that is what happens when you commit crimes. I should have looked fucking right. Or not committed the crime.