Carlotta Allum, 42 is a British woman who spent eight months in an LA prison for drug trafficking. Now single and living in York with her three daughters, Mabel, 16, Edie, 11 and Nora, two – as Orange Is The New Black returns – she tells Healthista what prison life is really like
It was with some trepidation I sat down to watch the first series of Orange is the New Black (OITNB), especially as my 16 year old daughter, Mabel and her friends had seen it and my story had just ‘come out’ in the papers. I was expecting to find it slightly uncomfortable, in the same way that I wince at the airport scenes in ‘Banged Up Abroad’. But I was immediately impressed by how authentic it was. It prompted a barrage of questions from Mabel, ‘Was it really like that? ‘ And the answer was more often than not, ‘yes, it was’. I was pregnant with her when I was arrested at Los Angeles LAX airport for drug trafficking.
I spent eight months in prison altogether. I got out on bail and then got time-served when it went to court as I had given evidence about the man who put me on the plane that got him convicted.
But it was an experience that shaped the rest of my life. I now run a charity, Stretch, that works with prisoners, mostly women and I am committed and driven to help their welfare and give them a voice.
Healthista have asked me about day-to-day life in prison, was it like OINB at all? Well, like Piper, I was a middle-class girl very much out of her depth in the prison community. But people are surprisingly resilient and I found I soon established my friends and my routine. Most women in prison are lonely and scared, there are only a few real hard nuts, and they keep themselves to themselves. Women care about each other, and the humanity and the helping, the friendship and the camaraderie, is something that really affected me and stays with me still.
The first thing I did when I entered the wing was approach a table of friendly looking faces and break down and cry, begging them to look after me, which they did. They shared their things with me, cooked for me, made me tea and reassured me that I would get used to it, that it wasn’t so bad. It did happen to be a table of white women; prison in America is very ghettoized with the black and Hispanic girls keeping themselves to themselves, not in a mean way or confrontational, it’s just the way it was. It’s not as bad as that in English prisons as far as I can see, more like society in general in either country.
I was put in a cell with an ‘old timer’ who would look after me and show me the ropes. The officers have some sense of responsibility, they know if someone is vulnerable and needs extra attention. Some women who have been in prison lots of times will take pride in showing a ‘newbie’ around. I see it in the classes I teach now as well. If some poor girl has literally arrived with nothing from the street, other girls will bring her things in class such as the odd eyeliner, some extra sugar, toothpaste, what ever they have spare.
Owning things in prison is a big deal. I spent the first two weeks with nothing, just my prison issue clothes and a couple of items given to me from my new friends. Mary, a Chinese woman gave me some hair conditioner and a bowl, Susan bought be toothpaste and toothbrush and a plastic drinking cup (everyone carried around their plastic mugs all the time for tea and water). Until my money came through I could not buy anything form the ‘canteen’ – so the few items that I slowly collected became precious. One quickly starts doing what every one else does, collecting cereal boxes at breakfast to eat later in the day, stashing fruit and precious items, sleeping for hours in the middle of the day.
There is a lot of women who form sexual relationships in prison. When I was LA there were some overtly lesbian couples, where the ‘man’ was very aggressive and butch and her girlfriend very coquettish and girly – I kept well away from the mind games. Another young girl-raver, Carmen, who was a friend of mine, flirted with Tony (the ‘man’) who was actually quite charming and Cathy, his bitch, attacked her. I thought Carmen had been daft and think she was used to flirting and getting the guys on the outside.
Of course women get close, in lots of different ways. I think as women we find it easy to slip into quite a tactile, loving relationship. In the middle of the night when you are using the toilet and doing everything in front of your cell mate, if it’s a friend you feel a bit like a married couple.
I see the women getting close that I work with. Many are incredibly vulnerable and some stronger women take advantage. I’ve known some women act like male studs in prison, looking and acting like handsome young men do. I could see the attraction and the charisma, we all want a pair of strong arms around us for a cuddle, let’s face it!
I have noticed that the there appears to be a high incidence of women who are gay outside of prison as well and it got me wondering if it could be that they had been let down and hurt by so many men in their chaotic lives that it’s more natural to seek comfort from a woman.
Still, everything is magnified in prison, so a relationship that often feels intense and all consuming inside is probably forgotten all too quickly once they are tossed back into their ‘real’ lives.
In English prisons I have noticed a sense of loyalty amongst the drug addicts; people in for similar crimes, street crime and petty theft to feed their habit. Women who are obviously ‘rattling’ (drug withdrawal) or on a ‘script’ tend to look after each other. They immediately have a bond and something to talk about: ‘Have you seen the doctor yet? How much methadone are you on? What about psych drugs?’ They have a whole common language of recovery or abuse. I know of women who looked forward to their spell in prison, almost engineered it, so as to access the treatment they were not getting on the outside.
People seemed to like me and on the whole I was looked after. Just like in OITNB there was a matriarchal figure similar to ‘Red’ – she was called Mama Gloria, a Hispanic woman who ran the laundry. Her whole family were in a Mexican cartel and she had taken the rap for one of her children. Her husband was in the men’s side of the prison and struggling mentally, she was always making us laugh saying he needed to ‘grow some balls’. She ran the laundry and had a lot of Hispanic girls working for her. Mama Gloria took a shine to me and washed and ironed all my clothes, she arranged for some clothes to be altered for me as my pregnant tummy began to show.
Everyone thought my English accent was ‘neat’ and I got a lot of questions about Princess Diana, as though I knew her. The white girls thought I was funny, the black girls thought I was clever and the Hispanics thought I was pretty, so I had all bases covered.
I kept my head down. We were up every morning at 5am for breakfast at 6am, beds had to made and cells tidy in the morning. We took it in turn to clean the showers, a few cells at a time with one of the ‘old timers’ in charge. One of the scariest moments for me was when I took a shower a bit late and they were coming round for inspection. A particularly scary inmate called Lucinda who was probably schizophrenic came banging on the door saying, ‘Which b*** is still in the shower ruining our f***ing inspection?’ – I scurried out in tears apologizing – ‘F***ing English!’, that was what some of the women called me.
As I was in a detention centre with people on remand we were ‘locked down’ for a lot of hours a day. In UK prisons now there is still the culture of very long lunch times, back to your cell for three hours in the middle of the day. It makes the days seem even longer and every day is like two days as you can feel completely different in the afternoon session after a long sleep.
Prisons infantalise you. I see it happen to women today and I definitely felt it happen to me. You become child-like as you don’t take responsibility for yourself and constantly told what to do. Like in the school playground, the girls form cliques and stupid arguments start over seemingly insignificant issues. We had a lot of arguments over the scrabble dictionary for example. Women in prison are on edge, and often things can be going on behind the scenes or in their court cases that distract them so moodiness and ‘losing it’ are common place. Just like at school, some girls are fighters, some girls cause trouble. I wasn’t one of them, but there were regular fights. Some girls were known for it. ‘Crazy Cathy has kicked off again, she’s in the Hole’ was a common utterance. I would not dare even look at her.
Trips to the doctors and health care were quite an interesting pastime in prison, a break from the norm – anything that got us out of the daily routine was desirable. A day in healthcare was much more interesting than hanging around the wing, the doctor was a new face. As my routine medical showed me to be pregnant I got a lot of healthcare attention, much to the annoyance of some of my ‘friends’. One woman, Patty, who became a bit of stalker, actually tried to fake a pregnancy for the attention. In fact, there is a lot of mental illness in prison as the women are vulnerable. I see it in the women I work with now, they obsess about their doctor visits, what drugs they are on, what food they eat, what they heard is available in other prisons, how bad things are at this one. It is often just a long-winded cry for help and attention. Self-harming when alone in your cell is rife.
People in prison are obsessed with food. When you are denied something it is easy lose yourself in food-fantasies, like that would make everything all right. Prison food is awful, and it is eaten off brown plastic trays, with no metal cutlery. I think I found it one of the most depressing things, as I am quite a foodie – half Italian and bit of a food snob. In America it was real stodge, carbs on carbs, things I had never heard of such as ‘grits’, a cornmeal porridge type thing – southern American peasant food, served with ‘gravy’ – which is a white source. The real stuff in the south might be passable but the prison version is as close to a Dickensian gruel as I can imagine. American ‘biscuits’ nothing like the biscuits we get in Britain, more like a cross between a savoury scone and a dumpling.
Every one puts on weight in prison. In England too, after a few months women are pasty, pale and overweight with spots. The few things that they cannot ruin too much, like chips and pizza, become favourites. The treats you buy from the canteen are inevitably chocolate bars as there is not the choice of fresh fruit. The food in British prisons is marginally better I think. I have seen a salad bar (pasta salad mainly) – but it still has a long way to go. The system definitely supports a sedentary lifestyle, which is bad for the inmates mental health as well as physical health, making women depressed.
For sentenced prisoners in UK prisons now there is much more for them to do, they get a small amount of money for attending education and they are encouraged to use the gym everyday. It is still easy however to do nothing, to slip through the net and not access the services and support. It’s unfortunate that women, who often need more care than the men, are overlooked in prison reforms and do not get to access the same services. As women are often on short sentences or on remand they cannot access the courses that are available to the wider prison population.
Visiting projects can have a real impact in prison. My charity Stretch goes into prisons and works creatively with women to help them tell their story and build their confidence. I know it can make a real difference to their lives. Here are some examples of films Stretch have made with British female prisoners, Samantha, Charlotte and Leanne, each telling their stories.
Today, if I had a magic wand and could change one thing overnight about the British prison system it would be to treat women’s mental health as a priority, especially addiction, abuse and low self esteem. Prison could be a real chance to do some focused work on these issues and I think right now, it is a sorely missed opportunity to help prevent women from re-offending when they are released. Something needs to change and I hope at Stretch we’re doing our part to help women’s lives both in prison and outside it.
Carlotta Allum is a social entrepreneur and founding director of the arts charity Stretch. Stretch aims to re-engage marginalised groups such as those in young people’s care homes, prisons and school through partnerships with museums and galleries and increase life choices through cultural activity. Carlotta founded the charity in 2003 as a result of a project within her Masters in Museum and Gallery Education. Stretch is currently looking to expand their services to include a digital media agency and working with at-risk women in the community. Carlotta is writing a book about her experiences. Look at the website stretch-charity.org and watch some digital stories for authentic prison voices.
Season two of Orange Is The New Black premieres on Netflix on June 6th
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