Immaculate Incarceration: A Baby in Solitary Confinement
At a time when most infants rock in cradles, take naps on grandma’s shoulder or play bouncy-bounce on a knee, I crawled around in a 4-by-6-foot concrete box the size of a small closet. Instead of the background lullaby from a pull toy in a crib, I would have heard “Chow time!” yelled through the slot in the steel door and then a slam — the food port in our prison cell in solitary confinement. I was born in prison; I spent part of the first year of my life in “the hole.”
I’ve known that I was born in prison for most of my life, but it was only when I returned to my prison birthplace in West Virginia for a speaking engagement with the inmates there that I found out about the hole. According to my birth mother’s 900 pages of prison files, she served around 17 weeks in solitary confinement, off and on. The last time would have been when I was around 7 months old; almost four months, out of our 12 months together. Only for her it wasn’t so solitary. She had me.
I’m sure I was a much-loved baby in prison, a bright angel of glory in a dreary place. As hard as I try, through hypnosis, visualization, even in therapy, I can’t access the memory of my time there with my birth mother. But I can imagine and speculate. It’s almost more than storytelling can abide — how extraordinary and odd, this enforced intimacy. How close and bare and passionate, just the two of us, with guards watching our outlines.
Everything is taken to an inmate in solitary: meals, medication, water. No interaction with other prisoners, no phone time, no packages, no visits. The hole leaves people alone with their demons. Psychologists around the world research the breaking point for the mind in solitary confinement. Agitation, doubt and distress live in the hole, along with terror, torment, frustration, boredom, brutality and rage. And floating through the air, imaginary friends, powerful enemies and ghosts.
On the bright side, as one woman who served over a decade in prison, some of it in solitary, told me, it’s a place for someone to clear her head if she likes solitude, or wants to get away from the prison drama. Or it’s a good place for a mother like mine who will go to any extreme to spend time with her baby. Maybe, just maybe, my prison mother violated prison rules so we could be together, just the two of us.
All I know is what I imagine. What’s possible: She had a box of sanitary napkins, a pen, a few sheets of paper and a Bible, like the one in the bedside drawer in a three-star hotel. I’m sure the guards gave her diapers and blankets and other baby needs for me. Was she allowed to have baby powder or ointment for my rashes? Did she breastfeed me in the hole, or did she give me formula from prison-issued powdered milk? Prison food may not be good for a mother, but I’m sure she made the best nourishment for her little daughter. My birth mother was considered irresponsible and problematic, and yet she was allowed to keep her baby even when she was sent to isolation. Apparently, she was trustworthy enough with me, even when she had done something “out of line” with the prison rules.
Was my mother tortured by her demons, or comforted by me? Did she dream of my future, or fear it? She died years ago, so I’ll never know. Even if I could ask her, the truth can trick us. Her truth as my prison mother would not be mine, the daughter born heroin-exposed, who suffered through withdrawal with her in lockup, who has battled with this story for a lifetime.
The United Nations calls solitary confinement a form of torture. I was a baby, alone with my mother. I’m confident that I didn’t suffer mental torment — not then, at least, not because of the hole. It was a peaceful place, in my mind, a quiet alcove of calm where my birth mother could think clearly and mother me without distraction. Just a room like any other only without all the “stuff.” I tell myself the guards looked out for me, and sneaked in treats for us, or the things I needed. For my birth mother, perhaps solitary confinement was worth it, and for me — immaculate incarceration because I was innocent and sentenced by circumstance.
In the words of John Donne: “We are all conceived in close prison; in our mothers wombs, we are close prisoners all; when we are born, we are born but to the liberty of the house.” In my case, the house was the opposite, lacking in liberty but not in love.
There was a time I hated the facts about my prison roots, but sometimes when we run from the truth, the demons inside us win. Rather than run in fear of my story, now I hold this mother-daughter bond in prison, and in the hole, with tender closeness. We were a diamond duo, beautiful and rare, in solitary confinement.