by Nina Levin
About the guest blogger: Nina is a senior at The University of Michigan studying Comparative Literature and Environmental Sustainability. Last fall, she became involved with Professor Buzz Alexander’s Engish 310 course which subsequently lead into The Prison Creative Arts Project. Through the class and the organization, she has participated in a creative writing workshop with six young men at Thumb Correctional Facility. She is excited to start a new workshop next week in Macomb.
Our creative writing workshop was two hours long on Saturday, instead of one. This changed a great deal for us, primarily that by the end, I had to use the restroom desperately (much coffee is necessary for waking up at 6 am on a Saturday). Instead of using the visitor’s bathroom in the lobby on the way out, however, I used- for the first time- the women’s bathroom within the facility.
This is certainly only used by employees, I thought, since there are no female prisoners here. It is only entered by men to wipe and disinfect, and maybe to imagine what women do behind closed doors.
I entered the small, dark room and groped to switch on the light. The bathroom was shockingly sterile; bare; grey It reminded me of a hospital room. It was a single stall, so I found myself alone. I turned the latch and locked the door and suddenly my breath felt shallow.
This was the first time I had experienced a locked door enclosing me inside the prison. I felt afraid. I feared the door would not reopen by some fluke. Worse -and more irrational- I feared that the male prisoners lingering outside would open the door and enter; if even by accident, because somehow I did not lock it properly and it is their scheduled duty to clean.
I was reminded of a traumatic instance this summer in China when I accidentally locked myself in a bathroom in a dark alley. It was night and no one was passing by. Even if someone were, they certainly did not speak my language. The door required a swipe card to exit, but the scanner was not operating. I’ve never been more crazed or claustrophobic in such an enclosed space as at that moment.
In the prison bathroom, I moved quickly as though I were racing some shadowy, approaching menace. I unbuttoned my pants with shaky fingers, eyes on the latch, and pulled my pants down to my knees. I felt suddenly vulnerable, so naked, so female, so forbidden, so out of place. I crouched above the ceramic crescent and looked into the bowl beneath.
A droplet of blood plopped into the white water below. It began to dance and swirl, the wings of a ruby ballerina drifting about her as she diffuses into her surroundings. Plop! another drop. Plop! Red, almost purple, swirling and mixing, marbleizing in the liquid between my legs. The brightest thing in the room, the blood on my fingers trickled down into my palm, tracing my fingerprints like tributaries, eroding the lines on my hands. It glistened in the florescent, metallic lighting. I looked at it, as though seeing such a thing for the first time.
In this prison, blood does not mean life. Blood does not mean fertility; possibility; generation. It means death, it means memories, it means wounds. Blood comes from shooting or being shot, from stabbing or being stabbed. There is blood on my hands because of my posterity; there is blood on these men’s hands because they are called “criminals.”
I wondered what would happen if I smeared my hands on the sterile, tiled walls and left my bloody fingerprints for all to see. It was a gory, savage thought, but I felt wildly curious about what the image would conjure in the mind of the next prisoner who came to wipe the floors. Would he understand the life that this blood is proposed for? Or would he remember the pain that imprisoned him in the first place?
I questioned what this blood means to the people inside these walls. This liquid of life, so fragile, so vital, so simultaneously linked to both birth and death. In my world I see blood at the full moon; in these worlds, these men see blood at the scene of irreversible destruction. In the world of this prison, there is no blood; only sterile bathroom walls. There is no birth, no guns. Death is only slow and bloodless.