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.
Later, when I get out of prison, I do some Googling and find out that February 2010 was the hottest on record. This translates to an inferno in the Induction unit. The small brick building sucks in heat, radiating it out from the double layers of brown bricks. It’s okay, inside, during the day when the air conditioning is on, but out in the tiny courtyard where we breakfast the air is baking. There is no circulation, no vents in the walls or gaps to let breeze in. The wire mesh roof lets filtered sun and heat in but no breeze. For a few days we still get our afternoon exercise out in the yard with the scant shade from the gum trees. As the day get hotter, however, the screws get worried about us getting sunstroke, so we start spending the afternoon unlocks in the courtyard as well as our mornings. The temperature has been steadily rising for days now, the prediction for today is mid to high thirties. At breakfast we were told all of our unlocks today would be in the courtyard. The wing officer for today, a tall blonde screw who I’ve nicknamed Chihuahua Face – for her tiny face and giant head – announces that they don’t want to have to deal with the paperwork of heatstroke, so dress sensibly for the weather and if we get too hot out in the yard, request to be put back in our air conditioned cells.
Dressing ‘sensibly for the heat’ is made difficult by the prison-issue clothing. Bare shoulders are contraband at Mulawa so the briefest tops that we have to wear are T-shirts, and more than once over the last few days, as the heat has gradually risen, girls have been reprimanded by screws for rolling sleeves up to the shoulders, or tying the front of shirts up to expose bellies. The top half of our bodies have to be completely covered, elbows and waist to neck. Most of the T-shirts are made of a thick stretch cotton drill that holds the heat close to your skin, though I have one raglan style shirt that I’ve already been wearing for days. Pants are also an issue. Very few pairs of prison issue shorts have pockets, and those that do tend to disappear when you put them in the communal wash. The tracksuit pants are thick, designed for winters out at Emu Plains and Windsor, but they do have pockets. Since we’re locked out of our cells during the day, except for quick bathroom breaks, everything we need is carried with us. My usual pile includes tobacco, papers, matches, pen, exercise book, red plastic cup, plastic teaspoon, reading book, and, in the mornings, my bowl. Some people have managed to wrangle clear plastic bags to carry stuff in but most of this needs to go in your pockets or be carried, and pockets make it easier. The thick tracksuit pants will only roll as far as just below your knee, creating a tubular scarf around the leg that keeps the heat in and quickly becomes soggy with sweat. Bare feet are also a no-no, and since thongs are a luxury buy up item most of us are stuck with thick wooly socks and the Dunlop Volleys.
The door into the unit has a window next to it, and through this we can see the screws lounging in their glass box office, and air conditioner outlet directly above their heads. When the door is opened for Cindy to go in and fill the thermos jugs with our hourly ration of boiling water for coffees, people cluster around the door to catch the overflow of chilled air that floods out. We ask the screws for cold water and eventually they allow us one jug to share between the thirty-five prisoners in the tiny brick box. By the end of the breakfast unlock, we are a mass of groaning complaints, lining up against the door, eager to get back into the air-conditioned cells for lunch.
The shifts of screws rotate, and today we have a crew that are mostly female. Over my eleven days in Induction, I’ve noticed there’s a pattern with the female guards – they’re meaner than the males, nastier. The males in Induction, like Davo, try to charm us into compliance, the women attempt to beat us but without ever lifting a finger. They use the good old female tools of sarcasm and shrill yells to keep order. In my exercise book I write about them: ‘it’s the women who are the worst, they seem to feel a need to erase their femininity, scrubbing away any scent of weakness and replacing it with the big hard cock of nastiness and anti-solidarity.’ Today’s wing officer, Chihuahua Face, is one of the worst. She has a constant cat’s bum mouth and actively ignores prisoners’ attempts to communicate. Her towering height and broad shoulders add an extra physical threat to the meanness. Her second-in-charge I’ve nicknamed Irish, she’s the yipping terrier that follows Chihuahua Face around, herding us into line with sharp yells and quick insults. I’ve seen the stupidest interpretations of the rules under these two and don’t hold high hopes for the rest of the day.
At the pre-lunch muster we’re reminded to look after ourselves, drink a lot of water over lunch and ask to go back into our cells if it is too hot in the afternoon. Most of us are leaning against the walls next our cell doors, already exhausted from our two and a half hours trapped in the stinking box. As the wing officer counts us, she reminds us to stand up straight on muster but as she passes we slump back against the walls. Over lunch I watch the Winter Olympics, fantasising about burying myself in snow and piling handfuls of it into my mouth. I’m now sharing my cell with an elderly Vietnamese woman who was here when I arrived, got bail, but then breached the bail conditions by seeing her son and co-defendant and was back forty-eight hours after she left. She has no English and I only know about the breach because a younger woman translated for us in the yard. Following protocol, I’ve given her the bottom bunk and she spends the air-conditioned hour tossing on the squeaking vinyl mattress and groaning at the heat. Every time I fill my cup with tepid water from the tap, I also fill hers and she gulps it down before dropping back to her pillow made of clothes. I’m not sure she’ll survive an afternoon out in the yard. Even with the air con, we both still have sweat dripping down our faces when the screws come to unlock after lunch.
When the keys turn in the door at the end of lunch, my new cellmate turns her back to the room, groaning. I know what’s she’s saying, despite our lack of shared words, it’s too freaking hot to go back out there. The screw at the door yells at us to get up and out, and past her I can hear other screws yelling similar things into other cells. The heat has sapped those in green of the will to follow orders and those in blue of the ability to give them gently. It takes twice as long as usual for unlock and the mood as we filter back out into the yard is angry, antagonistic. When the last crim comes through the door, Chihuahua Face stands in the door, rage evident in the set of her shoulders and tighter-than-usual cat’s bum mouth and reminds us that rules are still rules, even when it’s hot. She gestures to Cindy to hurry up with the jugs of hot water and then slams the door closed, leaving us out in the concrete box.
Cindy plops the jugs down on the table, says ‘I’ll try to get some cold water in an hour or so.’ She looks too tired to face the arguments with the screws which that will take.
We thank her in a chorus and settle in to handle the next two hours. No one seems game to hit the knock up button next to the door and request to be let back into their cell. The sun has moved overhead and drills through the wire mesh, leaving small patches of shade around the walls. So many bodies try to press into these spots that sweaty limbs inevitably touch and tempers fray. The seats attached to the metal picnic tables in the centre of the yard burn when we sit on them and those who try to sit wearing shorts jump up, yelling. The tables are too hot to lean on. The vinyl lounge chairs that have mildewed through constant exposure to rain sit empty in the sun, a miasma of rot and steaming possum piss rising off them. The air in the box feels thick in your mouth, solid as it tries to get into your lungs. Smoking is a chore, but most of us do it anyway.
My new cellmate isn’t handling the heat, she sits in a corner surrounded by the small group of Vietnamese women. Her face is pale, with sweat beading down it, and her lips are white slashes that she can barely part to sip at the warm water a younger woman has been pouring from cup to cup to cool. Another woman kneels next to her, bare knees on the gritty pebblecrete, using a red plate to wave air across the old woman’s face. Her eyelids flutter and when they open I can see more white than pupil, even from across the courtyard. After a while I approach the two middle aged woman standing near her and talking in a rapid-fire panic.
‘She needs to go back inside,’ I say to them, ‘needs to get out of the heat.’
One of the women looks at me, shakes her head like I’m crazy. ‘They won’t let her,’ she says.
‘They have to,’ I reply.
Her response is mute. I look at the CCTV camera which stares down at the old woman and wonder why the screws haven’t worked this out themselves.
The knock up button has been in full sun and is hot when I press my finger to it. There’s a long pause and through the window I can see the screws lounging behind the desk, waving chilled air across their faces with stack of paper and sipping iced water from glasses. Eventually Irish stands up and goes to the intercom at their end.
‘What?’ The interrogative is harsh and demanding.
‘There’s an old lady out here who needs to go back into her cell, I think she has heatstroke.’
I stare at Irish through the window then turn to the CCTV and point at the woman. The screw stands with her hand above the button and looks over at Chihuahua Face, I see the giant blonde head shake a negation and am angry before Irish’s finger gets back to the buzzer.
‘It’s not that hot, tell her to toughen up.’
The old woman is slumped against the wall, held upright by the young woman holding the cup. The whole group of them stare at me, waiting.
I take a deep calming breath, ‘At muster we were told to ask if we wanted to go back into our cells. This is me asking for her to go back into her cell.’
Even at a distance I can see the air of aghast the surrounds Irish, see her anger at me talking back. I don’t give her time to respond.
‘If you won’t let her in, then at least let us have some cold water. I can see the dew on your glass from here. This is unreasonable and unjust.’
Oh God, I think, now I’ve done it. These are two words that screws hate to hear. The un-words get their hackles up quicker than anything. If my brain had been cooler, then I might have thought a bit more carefully about word choice. Well, I postulate, in for a penny, in for a pound, might as well pull out the big guns. I press the button again: ‘If she has a seizure out here,’ my voice is less polite now, ‘I’ll be calling the Ombudsman myself.’
Holy fucking hell, I think, two un-words and the O word. This isn’t going to be pretty.
Irish stares at me while behind her Chihuahua Face slams the gossip magazine she’s reading down and swings her big black boots off the desk and onto the floor. She stamps across to the office fridge, yanks the door open and takes out a giant jug of icy cold water. My salivary glands kick in, flooding my mouth as she reaches up to the top of the fridge and pulls down a single plastic cup. She places the glass on the bench and with deliberate precision pours three fingers into the bottom of the glass. Leaving the jug mockingly atop the bench, she pivots and heads for the door, swilling the glass so that drops fly out across the floor. I step away from the door as she approaches and my peripheral vision shows me every girl in the yard standing back, staring at me. For a brief second I almost hope she’ll fling the water in my face, which will make for some great scribbles in the book. She doesn’t, however, instead wrenching the door open and shoving the cup into my hand. I turn and gesture to the woman who has been feeding warm water to the old lady, passing her the cup and then bracing myself for what’s coming next. Chihuahua Face is a towering mountain of rage but I’m too hot to be scared of her. From behind her bulk, a wave of cold air washes out into the courtyard and highlights the trickles of perspiration running down my face and neck.
‘I’m not putting up with this shit,’ she yells at me, at the yard, punishing the whole for my use of the un-words, the O word. ‘It’s too fucking hot to be listening to all your bitching and moaning. You’re out of the sun, got water to drink, none of you are going to die. If you wanted to be lounging at home, sucking on ice blocks, then you shouldn’t have committed crimes. Next person to hit the knock up for no reason is up on charges.’ She pauses, looks around, takes a deep disgusted lung full of our rancid stench, plants her hands on her hips. ‘Cindy, get the jugs and fill them with cold water. No coffee till dinner and just stop fucking complaining.’
Her eyes come back to me and dare me to respond. Okay, I think, I’ll take your dare. I breathe in, place my own hands on my hips to mirror her. Behind me I hear a collective gasp. Till now I’ve been the one defining words and encouraging people to find sensible ways around the crazy rules, I can feel the wall of overheated brains wondering what I’m about to do. Use your emotional vocabulary, Angela, I council myself, be the big man.
‘What ever happened to solidarity?’ I say, arching my eyebrow in that way I know kicked goals in tutorials.
Chihuahua Face huffs once, then again. Her cheeks redden and the skin around her eyes and mouth turns stark white. She opens her mouth, closes it, opens it again. I stand stock still, hands on hips but barely breathing, refuse to break eye contact. Chihuahua Face’s mouth catbums till almost invisible. She pivots on her heel, slamming the door shut and storming back to the office and around the corner out of sight. I stand, shaking a little, scared to turn and see the reactions of the rest of the prisoners, afraid I’ll vomit or cry if I make eye contact with anyone. Slowly my hands slide off my hips.
Irish walks almost tentatively to the door and opens it, calling Cindy in to get water. As she waits for the jugs to come back, the screw holds the door open wide, letting cold air flow out into the courtyard and just before she closes it, after Cindy returns, Irish reaches out and unlocks the window next to the door, sliding it open two inches so that a small breeze comes out into the courtyard.
We spend the rest of the afternoon taking it in turns to sit on the bench in front of that breeze, necks turned to chill some of the sweat. My cellmate is first in and after every three of four people have a sit she’s called back to have another go. The mood in the yard is subdued but relaxed. It might not have gotten any cooler but the tiny victory feels like a communal one. None of us have ever seen Chihuahua Face speechless.
By afternoon muster the wing officer has found her words again. As we line up outside our cells and she marches past us for the count, she derides us for our stench, the rancid smell of us en masse. Standing next to me, but deliberately not looking at me, she lectures us on hygiene, says that by now we should have learned to look after ourselves, keep our bodies smelling like women instead of barnyard animals.
I don’t care. Not one single jot. The rancid sweat is cooling on my skin and after lock-in, when I’ve showered, I spread my towel out on the top bunk and celebrate the lack of cameras in my cell by laying dripping wet in my underwear directly underneath the aircon vent. The chills of water on my skin feel like winning.