I went back to jail last Thursday, on October 27, 2016. The night before the surrendering (and it was a self-surrender for me), I sat, going over my talk in my head, I threw-up in my mouth twice—this to me was a bad sign and the Program Director for the females who are incarcerated, JW, was obviously feeling my anxiety, because she emailed me way past working hours and asked if I was still going to be the guest speaker. I replied, “Yes,” but my soul was like, “Are you f***ing joking.
I kept thinking, “I do not want to be a fraud. I do not want the women to think I’m fake.” I also knew I would be meeting some people who held my life in their hands years ago and had abused their power by either abusing me or encouraging inmates to abuse me.
Sarah picked me up at 7:15; we got coffee and headed to CCA/CTF. I said on the drive, “I’m so nervous.” Sara looked at me and said, “You don’t seem nervous.” I looked at her and said, “Just wait for it.” I know myself well and calmness in the face of something that seemed impossible to me is not a good sign. My calmness can turn into a shit show and upgrade to a shit storm in seconds. Let me tell you, vomiting is a close friend of mine and it sounds like I’m possessed and then I often pass out.
As we looked for parking Sarah immediately noticed the swift change in me. I had only seen that parking lot from barred windows with me on the other side. I had only ever entered CCA/CTF in shackles and never from the front of the building.
We walked together towards the building. I never knew the building stood in such deep color. My Community Supervising Officer (aka CSO or PO) drove up as we walked to the building, stopped and told me, “You’re going to do great.” I nodded and said, “I just hope I don’t throw-up”. We walked in and before Sarah could even tell me I had to take off my boots, I saw Sgt. M-El. She was putting her belt back on after going through the metal detector. Huge smile and, “Ms. Nuevelle, what are you doing here?” Of course she knew I was coming. I am legendary at this place—I have a box of copies of each of my grievance against CCA/CTF in my apartment. Sgt. M-El walked back through the metal detector and wrapped me in her arms and said, “I’m so proud of you.”
Boots off, through the metal detector and more people who work for the DOC and CCA/CTF approaching me and smiling. I was holding up well. Cracked a few jokes especially when the GED Instructor said to me on the elevator, “I think I know you.” I nodded my head and smiled and said, “Yes. Mr. F. You know me. I’m Taylar Nuevelle. I was incarcerated here. I was your T.A.” Then I laughed, because I take a lot of pleasure in saying my name, “I’m Taylar Nuevelle.” I’m not, “Ms. Nuevelle.” Or, “Nuevelle” that was often said with contempt during my incarceration at CCA/CTF and the BOP. I’m not inmate DCDC #293-799 or Bureau of Prisoner’s inmate #97159-016. Look at me. What do you see?
We were taken to the chapel. While we waited for the women and program staff, I did microphone checks and practiced with Sarah and my PO. Then I sat down where we had been instructed to sit. We were facing the chairs that would soon hold women all in a sea of dark blue uniforms and white tee shirts and blue “flight shoes”.
Sarah sat to my left and my PO to my right. I was silently berating myself for the coffee. When I looked to my far right and saw her. Officer S. She had been sitting and watching me. Seeing Officer S was a visceral experience for me and my PO leaned in and said, “What just happened?” Sarah leaned in and asked, “What’s going on?” I nodded to Officer S who responded by showing her teeth and laughing at me—a laugh that I will take with me to my grave. My upper lip trembled and Sarah whispered, “Yes.” My PO looked at me questioningly and Officer S got up, did that strut that I came to hate long ago, and left.
Then what I hate most about myself started happening, tears. I do not even know how they ended up on my cheeks. They were just there and I said, “I can’t do this.” Then I went on and explained how Officer S had laminated articles written about me before I was sent to CCA/CTF to await sentencing as well as those written after I was sentenced. She used to pass these articles around to inmates and new staff. At night or early in the morning, she would open my cell (I was always housed single cell at CCA/CTF per the psyche department’s orders) and shine her flashlight on me and say to whatever officer or inmate she had with her, “There she is that crazy stalkin’ bitch.” Officer S and her “cohorts” were a team of bullies and they tag teamed with one another to ensure I was constantly in a state of emotional hell. “I cannot do this.”
My PO leaned in and said, “Oh you can do this. You have to do this. You get to stand up there and speak and show her how well you are doing and that you are so much better than what she did to you.” I wiped my tears and waited. Slowly the women and staff began to enter. I could feel the energy throughout the jail, I could hear the murmurs of staff and COs, “Did you know Nuevelle is here?” I could hear it I tell you and it kept getting louder. Then silence. The women were seeing me. I could see the women and then my heart cracked. It will never be whole.
Someone recently made a joke to me that DC is no longer “Chocolate City”. Yes it is. See Orange Is Not the New Black. Black has always been The Black in the jails and prisons in this country and nobody in DC is wearing Orange (or in most jails/prisons for that matter).
This program was the closing event for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. My goal was to trace the trauma-to-prison pipeline for women and girls. I did this by sharing my own trauma, by focusing on the moment that I began to believe I was unworthy. The women who knew me from doing time together had never heard about my survival of childhood abuse or that I had survived domestic violence in my adulthood at the hands of my ex-husband, and each one of my female partners.
DC race demographics: 51% White and 49% Black. DC jail demographics: 90% Black. As I watched the women enter I started counting the number of White women. Of the 130+ women (CCA/CTF numbers are low as the Bail Reform Act in DC is really being enforced now and the city is offering alternatives to pre-trial detention) I could count on one hand the number of White women. I lost count after 20 of the number of women I had met in 2010 when I was “stepped-back” after I lost at trial, and only two of them were White.
After much thought I have realized that the moment I started my journey on the trauma-to-prison pipeline began at age nine in the middle of a beating from my mother. My earliest childhood memories are of violent beatings and vile words of hatred from my mother, aunt, uncles, stepfather and adults in the church I attended until high school.
When I was nine years old I could take a beating and not cry—I lost my tears when I was eight. And I could give looks that spoke of how I despised my mother and what she was doing. On this particular day, my mother looked at me and said slowly as she poked me in my chest, “If. Yo’. Own. Mutha. Don’t. Love You. No one. Will. Eva’. Love. You. And. I. Don’t. Love. You.” She does not love me to this day. I shared this story and skated through the husband and girlfriends, because at the heart of it all is that I have been trying to make someone prove Claudia Ann Lucinda Lowe Friend (a.k.a. Claudia Friend) wrong, someone to show her that I am lovable.
I sang the lines from Bonnie Raitt’s song, “I can’t make you love me if you don’t. I can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.” For my fellow justice involved women and me abuse has come to define our existence and need to be loved and too often because of this need we end up abused. However, I now know that I cannot make anyone abuse me (despite what Judge Russell Canan said at my sentencing) and I cannot make anyone love me. I wish I had someone long ago explain it to me in such simple terms.
I was not there just to speak to the women, but also the gatekeepers. As I shared my story, I looked over and saw Officer S. Her face was stuck in that smile, her eyes full of pain. Perhaps regret? I knew I had made my point. We women, be it that we are the incarcerated or those holding the keys, are more alike than we realize.
After the program ended, Director JW asked the women not to rush me and the two other speakers from local nonprofits. They wanted hugs, but hugs are not allowed. This was my promise, “I’m coming back to lead a program. You will see me again.” And they will.
The day before I went back to jail, I received a call from the DC DOC, “Ms. Nuevelle, you have been approved to volunteer at the jail. We just need you to do a drug screen.” Drugs are not my struggle, so I will be fine. I will go back and do the work because I need to reclaim me and show the world that we women who are justice involved are survivors and have stories to tell and a system to change.
I do not need to make anyone love me. I am Taylar Nuevelle and I am learning that I am powerful and lovable. I have already proved Claudia wrong because I am someone and I love me.
Now turn off OITNB and get up and become a positive in this movement of criminal justice reform for women.