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.
On Tuesday morning, forty-four days in, the screws are late coming to unlock us. As the time for people to start reporting for work comes and goes, speculation about what’s causing the delay increases.
‘It’s gotta be a raid,’ Tiffany is sitting on the kitchen sink where she can peer out the window and down into the compound where the officers’ hut is. ‘Nothing else would keep them back this late.’
Since her dressing down from Sandra she’s dropped the divisive talk and is doing all she can to fit in, be part of the family. She’s even done the dishes a few times. Playing cockatoo, or lookout, is another way she’s helping out now.
‘She might have point,’ says Sandra, ‘Been a while since we’ve had a ramp. Hope everyone’s wearing clean underpants, don’t want poor Birchie’s stomach to turn.’
We all laugh and my laugh has the added juvenile incredulity behind it of hearing the woman in the wheelchair use the prison slang for a raid – ‘ramp’. That’s wheely funny, I think, quoting a joke my son has been laughing at for years. He’s not here, besides in my head, and I miss him laughing at my not-funny joke.
The TV is on and we’re mostly lounging around watching the morning news programs when we hear the wheels of a trolley rolling up to the front door and the keys turn in the lock. The TV is off and we’re pulling ourselves out of the lounge chairs when the screws come through the door. There are more of them than usual for morning muster, screws outnumbering crims. As we move to the doors of our rooms they spread out and watch us closely. This is no regular muster, I think, that’s for sure. The screws are wearing their normal uniforms but with vests that look like they’d deflect a shiv. There’s extra pouches hanging from their belts and I think I recognise the shape of a capsicum spray can on the screw who stands near our door. Things are getting serious, I think, they look more like riot squad than screws.
Bitchie is in her element as she strides in the door and stands, legs akimbo and hands on hips, like the captain of some particularly unruly pirate ship.
‘Alrighty,’ she declares, ‘You all knew this was coming. Time for a raid, ladies.’ The large wheeled trolley sits at the open door of the house and I can see a jumble of pillows and blankets piled in it.
‘You will all remain standing next to your doors. The officers will be searching your rooms for library books and any other contraband. We’ll be strip searching you one at a time and then you’ll be allowed out on the veranda to wait. After we are done you’ll be locked into the house until the search is complete. Don’t try to hide anything and don’t leave the paved area while you are waiting out the front. And no talking.’
As she swivels towards room one, turning away from me, I see her keys dangling off her right hip and catch sight of a tiny set of handcuffs hanging from her key chain. I’ve seen these mini cuffs before. They are just big enough to go around an adult thumb and are marketed as ‘thumb cuffs’ in sex shops. In the kink scene people wear them as key chains or hang them from their rear view mirrors to advertise their leanings. I wonder for a second if Bitchie is a top or a bottom, likes bossing or being bossed, but the image of her hog tied with a ball gag is too much for me and I nearly start giggling. I’m shutting the line of thinking down as the closest screw gives me a shut-the-fuck-up look and I swallow my mirth. Just like a ref, I say to myself, show no sign of amusement. I slide my beige referee mask over my amused crim face and clasp one wrist with one hand behind my back, just like I do when I’m wearing stripes, to watch the ramp without laughing.
The screws are into room one, the room that Joanne was in before she went off to hospital to have the baby. The room is diagonally opposite mine and I can see the screws from where I stand. The room is tidy, feathered like the only nest she can get. Her bed is hospital neat, every corner tucked in tight. Good luck cards and pictures of her other two children are tacked onto the small notice board and a blanket which has been carefully dyed off-pink with beetroot juice is folded across the back of the chair. A small stack of books sits on the corner of the desk. The blanket is the first to go, and then the stack of books. Despite the search brief specifying books, the screws ramp the room thoroughly, tossing the pillow and sheets off the bed, opening cupboards and riffling through them, shaking out clothes and towels. They might be looking for books but from the vigorousness of their search I assume they have heard of tiny books. Or are just including tiny things as ‘contraband’. As the screws come out of Jo’s room they meet the other pair coming out room two and wander together to rooms three and four. Their not-quite-riot vests look out of place in the homely setting. When the screws have finished in a room, Bitchie and her buddy take the inmates into the bathroom for a strip search. Strip searches to find hidden books? This is one rigorous raid.
Sandra’s wheelchair-accessible bedroom with its open to the room ensuite is number seven, three doors up from me and next door to the communal bathroom. But searching her takes longer due to the wheelchair. Sandra can’t get into the normal bathroom so she is searched in her room. There isn’t space in there for the chair and two screws, so to follow the no solo screw strip search rule the officers stand outside the open door while Sandra is searched. The screws are done with rooms eight to nine and so we stand in a line outside the bathroom door and wait for Sandra’s search to finish. From my spot at the end of the line I can see right past Bitchie to watch Sandra struggling to undress, still seated in her chair. The male screws who’ve been searching the rooms stand off to one side where the door frame blocks their view of the undressing woman but they keep a close eye on us. I wonder for a second whether they are watching us, waiting for our reactions to Sandra’s predicament. That’s silly, I think, but then remember the many hours I have whittled away on YouTube watching reaction videos to ‘two girls, one cup’. Yeah, they’re watching our reactions. I make my face rock smooth and try to not see the search out of the corner of my eye but can’t look away. With the top half of her body naked and her eyes pinned on Bitchie’s shoes, Sandra lifts up each breast, humiliation staining her cheeks. She bends forwards at the waist and fluffs her wisp-like grey hair out and then reaches down to the floor for her nightgown-cum-T-shirt. As she pulls this on, Bitchie reaches out with a foot and kicks the shower chair towards her.
‘Out of the chair now, and get those pants off.’
Sandra groans melodramatically as she heaves her weight into the white plastic chair and starts tugging down her underpants. Bitchie grabs the wheelchair and pulls it out into the lounge room, shoving it towards the male officers.
‘Make it thorough,’ she snaps. ‘And watch out for the seat, she’s pissed in the chair for more than one search.’
I glance at Sandra’s face and see a tiny smirk at the corner of her mouth. You go girl, I cheer in my head, you show those dirty fuckers. The screws search every inch of the chair, even taking the plastic grips off the handles to peer up inside the chrome pipes. She’d have to be dedicated to reading to get the books up in there but they look anyway.
With Sandra done, the last three strip searches take less than ten minutes. Bitchie doesn’t quite have the same sleazy vim and vigour that she’s brought to our previous searches and I assume that searching the whole prison first thing in the morning must paint the naked female form in a whole different light. While Bitchie has been finishing of our searches, the other screws have torn apart the lounge, kitchen and laundry. The Christmas decorations are gone from the cupboards, as is the industrial-sized tub of Napisan that one of the laundry workers had smuggled back to the house. The stack of old Readers Digests have been taken from under the television. The bent tin lids we use to cut fruit and vegetables have been found hidden up inside the paper towel holder in the kitchen but surprisingly have been left lined up on the sink. Counting the stack of books from Jo’s room and the magazines from the TV stand, maybe fifteen books have been found in house eight.
When the ramp is done the screws lock us back into the house and trundle off up the path to house nine, dragging their trolley full of blankets, pillows, loose tinsel, and a small selection of books, along behind them. It’s another forty minutes until they come back to unlock us. The first room to be cleaned in this time is Jo’s, a group effort by everyone but Sandra. She closes herself into her room and stays there until the keys turn in the outside door. When she comes back out, there is no sign of the humiliation that had burned her cheeks during the search.
I had wondered how the screws kept the balance of control at Emus and watching Sandra and Bitchy during this strip search made it clear. The casual sleaziness and disregard for human dignity, the petty power games of the raid, all acted as an add-on to the rattling and turning of the keys. There is no chance, in the face of such silly power playing, to forget that you’re at the bottom of the heap.