“How to Survive in Prison: A Brief History of My First Twenty-Three Years at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women” by Yvette M. Louisell


Image courtesy Kaspars Grinvalds/shutterstock.com


How to Survive in Prison: A Brief History of My First Twenty-Three Years at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women

1988:  Pretend you’re not really in prison.
1989:  Pretend you’re not really in prison for life.
Sleep as much as possible.
1990: Lose your grandma Lucy to cancer.
Try to find a better lawyer.
Watch T.V. when you’re not sleeping or writing attorneys.
1991:  Celebrate turning twenty-one.
Write ten-page letters to everyone you know.
Write five-page letters to people who know people you know.
Fall in love with a Marine stationed in Iraq.
1992:  Wait for a court date for your first appeal.
Spend a lot of time thinking about what you’ll do if you win your appeal.
Wait for the fence to be built around the prison so you can get out of the locked unit.
Read anything you can find.
Try to get your family to visit you.
1993:  Lose your appeal.
Learn to “circumvent” (break the rules).
Let someone else’s girlfriend turn you out.
Get beaten up by the girl’s girlfriend.
Get out of the locked unit.
Live for visits from your Marine boyfriend.
1994: Find out your boyfriend got married.
Spend as much time in the yard as possible.
Learn to fit in.
Become someone’s girlfriend.
Join a lawsuit against the prison.
Stop thinking that being good is going to get you anywhere.
1995:  Start taking college classes.
Study whenever you’re not with your girlfriend.
Write letters when you have time.
See your mother for the first time in thirteen years when she shows up unexpectedly.
Live for visits and mail.
Wonder why the food is suddenly getting so bad.
Wonder why the officers are getting so strict.
1996:  Find out your boyfriend got divorced.
Live for visits from your boyfriend (again).
Write ten-page letters to everyone you know (again).
File another appeal.
Exercise a lot.
Make a lot of phone calls.
Study a lot.
Spend as much time on the yard as possible.
Hang out with your friends.
1997:  Say goodbye (again) when your boyfriend moves to California.
Decide you’re tired of being in prison.
Get a new girlfriend.
Start taking a lot of crazy risks.
Have a lot of fun.
Get in a lot of trouble.
Go to the hole with your girlfriend.
Figure out that she’s bulimic.
Figure out that she’s cheating on you with half the prison.
1998:  Get another new girlfriend who occasionally beats you up.
Be happy when she calls you her wife.
Go to the hole together.
Leave her for someone else who doesn’t beat you up.
Get out of the hole.
Get back with your wife.
Go to the hole again.
Get out of the hole again.
Graduate from a community college with honors.
Wonder why the prison is suddenly issuing everyone a pair of recycled, stained panties each morning instead of giving you your own to keep.
Get transferred to a prison in Virginia with ninety-nine other Iowa inmates.
1999:  Get issued all new clothes, including six pairs of brand-new, white panties.
Be the only Iowa inmate to move into an all-Virginia unit of two hundred women.
Get out of the rut you were stuck in before you left Iowa.
Make all new friends.
Get a job as a tutor.
Get to see your grandma Ethel, who lives in Ohio.
Get to help interview and select the Vice-Principal of Education for all three women’s prisons in Virginia.
Get a girlfriend who goes by the name “Football.”
Take some college classes.
Find out that your boyfriend is getting transferred to Virginia.
Live for visits from your boyfriend (again).
Start working on your legal case (again).
2000:  Try to stay in Virginia.
Get sent back to Iowa anyway.
Say goodbye to your girlfriend and your boyfriend (again).
Reunite with your friends who didn’t go to Virginia.
Get used to all the new inmates, officers, and buildings.
Get moved around the prison several times, along with all the other inmates.
Get a girlfriend who happens to have AIDS.
Still do everything that being a girlfriend in prison means.
File another appeal.
Turn thirty.
Get a high-paying prison industries job.
Start working out a lot.
Get in a writing class.
2001:  Get another girlfriend who is known for beating the hell out of her girlfriends.
Convince yourself that she’ll never beat you up.
End up being choked on your cell room floor when you’ve just gotten out of the shower.
Worry about your grandma’s health.
Wonder what your grandma will think if you end up a naked, dead lesbian in prison.
Work hard to take your mind off everything else.
Get promoted to a warehouse position.
Spend almost all of your time with your girlfriend.
Try to avoid making her mad.
Read whenever you’re not at work or with your girlfriend.
Wait for something to happen with your appeal.
Try to convince people that you didn’t catch AIDS from your ex-girlfriend.
2002: Get a lawyer who went to college with you.
Realize he’s taken your case because he always wanted to ask you out.
Wonder if that will make him work harder to get you out.
Start feeling more hopeful since he is actually working for you.
Wonder what kind of obligation you’ll be under if he wins your appeal.
Get split up from your girlfriend when the prison moves her to a new unit.
Start doing more things on your own.
Become a hospice worker.
Start doing a lot of volunteer work.
Start writing poems compulsively.
Start trying to be more positive.
Feel pretty good.
2003:  Lose your grandma Ethel just before Thanksgiving.
Try to keep it together until after the holiday.
Shut everyone out.
Wonder how long it will take you to get a court date.
Find out that your high-school boyfriend is finally coming forward to testify that he lied at your trial.
Convince yourself that you’re going to get your conviction overturned.
Spend a lot of time looking up court decisions that relate to your case.
Win an award for a short story about your mom, whom you’ve seen once since age twelve.
Write your boyfriend during his second tour in Iraq.
Get a “Dear Jane” letter from him.
Wonder why he’s giving up when you know you’re on your way out of prison.
Get really mad and stop writing him.
Keep up on what’s happening with him through friends.
Keep writing his mom and aunt.
Still don’t write him.
Spend a lot of time in bed, not sleeping.
2004:  Realize that you’ve been in prison as long as you were free.
Start forgetting what happened when.
Lose your closest male friend to a seventeen-year-old murderer who reminds you of what you did seventeen years ago at age seventeen.
Spend a lot of time doing nothing.
Spend a lot of time not caring about anything.
Go through the motions.
Do only what you need to do to get by.
Isolate yourself.
Stop writing letters.
Stop getting mail.
Stop making phone calls.
Stop getting visits.
Find out that your attorney is being deployed to Kosovo.
Get a new attorney hired by your friends.
Actually go without a girlfriend for more than a year.
2005:  Move units again.
Get a court date (again).
Find out your father sexually abused your aunt, too.
Find out your family is trying to intimidate your aunt out of testifying for you.
Find out your boyfriend got married (again).
Find out your high school boyfriend has changed his mind about testifying at your hearing because he’s afraid of perjury charges.
Finally go to court.
Watch your aunt testify about your father raping your mother in front of you before you could speak.
Get really, really sick right before court.
Stay sick for months after.
Wait for a decision on your appeal.
Get another girlfriend.
Go to the hole.
Lose your job.
Lose your two-person room.
Get out of the hole.
Win an award for a poem.
2006:  Wait for a decision on your appeal.
Write the judge once a week.
Write your attorney once a week.
Get more pissed off every time they don’t write back (which is every time).
Argue with your friends about what the outcome of your appeal will be.
Try to stop thinking about getting out.
Hear that your boyfriend and his new wife had a baby.
Get admitted back into the college where you committed your crime.
Realize your mind isn’t as quick as it used to be.
Realize your vocabulary isn’t as expansive as it used to be.
Study late every night.
Still go to work five days a week.
Learn to live without sleep.
Gain ten pounds from eating ramen noodles while studying.
Get A’s in your classes no matter how much effort it takes.
Get two stories published in an anthology of prisoners’ writings.
Go the entire year without a girlfriend.
Go the entire year without getting in any trouble.
Wonder if there may be a connection between these two phenomena.
2007:  Lose your appeal.
Become more depressed than you can ever recall being.
Hear that your boyfriend made Lieutenant Colonel.
Throw yourself into your college classes.
Exercise way too much.
Walk laps outside for hours a day.
Get a job in the chapel.
Obsess over re-organizing the chapel library.
Attend almost every church service, regardless of denomination.
Meditate a lot.
Become calmer.
Become nicer.
Learn to quilt.
Start writing more.
Lie in bed and read a lot.
Watch a lot of movies.
Win $200 for a poem about all the women who have died while you’ve been in prison.
Start saving money for when you get out.
2008:  Get your prison industries job back (56 cents an hour!).
Get promoted to a lead position in twenty days.
Move units when your roommate of three years moves outside the fence.
Work hard.
Study hard.
Get inducted into Phi Kappa Phi.
Study harder.
Get bored.
Get lonely.
Get another girlfriend.
Be happy.
Laugh a lot.
Do everything you can to make your girlfriend happy.
Stop putting so much effort into everything else.
Stop spending time with your prison friends.
Stop writing your friends on the outside.
Stop worrying so much about getting visits.
Study when you have time.
Sleep when you have time.
Write a little.
Get some poems published in a literary journal.
2009:  Do everything with your girlfriend, who also happens to be your roommate.
Throw yourself into being in love for what you tell yourself is the very last time.
Play hard.
Spend pretty much every waking minute with your girlfriend.
Wonder why it doesn’t seem to be working.
Try harder.
Work at everything else just enough to get by.
Write a little.
Get published again.
Lose your girlfriend.
Get her back.
Lose your last grandfather.
Move into a room with your best friend.
Spend all day, every day with your girlfriend.
Spend absolutely no time with your best friend.
Stay up all night, every night to get your homework done.
Start drinking coffee.
Finally graduate from college, with high honors.
Find out the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing the constitutionality of giving juveniles life without parole.
Find out you inherited some money.
Find out you’re being charged $10,000 for the appeal you lost in 1993.
Spend all your money on really useful stuff, such as new underwear, ice cream, and CDs.
Get kicked out of the Special Privilege Unit for arguing with your best friend.
2010:  Stay up late at night when everyone else is asleep.
Get up early because you can’t sleep anyway.
Hope that the juvenile life without parole law changes.
Hope that you can make it through each day.
Try to stay out of the hole.
Try to stay as busy as possible.
Write, when you can stand reading your own thoughts.
Think about getting out of prison every day.
Think about your mom, wherever she is.
Think about your brothers, wherever they are.
Lose another girlfriend.
Get beaten up one more time.
Get another girlfriend.
Wait for a visit.
Wait for a letter.
Wonder why the prison has started giving out used panties again.
Try to stay out of trouble.
Try to hope.
Try to breathe.
Remember to breathe.
Remind yourself to breathe.

Louisell’s case is presently awaiting a decision in the Iowa Supreme Court after a judge in 2014 resentenced her to 25 years (she has already served 26 years) after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 handed down a decision that a mandatory life sentence without parole for juveniles was unconstitutional. She was due for release last year but the Iowa States Attorney appealed the decision in her case. While a freshman at the University of Iowa, Louisell murdered a fellow student who was 42 and a paraplegic, when she claimed he attempted to rape her while she was nude modeling for him.

This poem, for which Loisell won a 2011 PEN Prison Writing Award for memoir, was published in this version in PEN AMERICA in 2011.

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Aesthetically strolling my inner arm

IMG_0458I was starting to read a new book I picked up today (Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi) and I noticed my arm. I had just read the first few sentences and my eyes happened to drift down where I saw long serpentine veins traveling nearly the whole length of my inner arm from my wrist to the crook of my arm. The bulging meanderings feeling way too casual and indirect— criss-crossing, zig-zagging, taking their time.

Their snaking felt pulsing, vibrant, vital and utterly complex and mysterious. A fully dimensional map under my skin pushing its way through. Vascular messages aesthetically strolling my inner arm.


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Pushing nature around

IMG_0407From this morning’s discovery of a major misspelling (“loosers”) stomped out in the wood-chipped playground (above), to the consensual rearrangement of DF’s hair by a couple of enthusiastic friends (after which he was proudly paraded down the hall), to the organized and aesthetically arranged random objects on the beach by an anonymous and compulsive artist, it is clear that there was some irresistible reason today to push nature around and communicate a statement or two (or three). Maybe it was the eager sunshine and the 80 degree weather.


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The Known Universe

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“My Skeleton” by Jane Hirshfield


My skeleton,
who once ached
with your own growing larger,

are now,
each year
imperceptibly smaller,
absorbed by your own

When I danced,
you danced.
When you broke,

And so it was lying down,
climbing the tiring stairs.
Your jaws. My bread.

Someday you,
what is left of you,
will be flensed of this marriage.

Angular wrist bone’s arthritis,
cracked harp of rib cage,
blunt of heel,
opened bowl of the skull,
twin platters of pelvis—
each of you will leave me behind,
at last serene.

What did I know of your days,
your nights,
I who held you all my life
inside my hands
and thought they were empty?

You who held me all your life
in your hands
as a new mother holds
her own unblanketed child,
not thinking at all.


from Jane Hirshfield’s The Beauty 2015

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And more All Quiet creative projects


At the end of our reading of All Quiet on the Western Front, I ask my 8th graders to produce a creative response to the book. This can take any form: a play, a poem, an image, a piece of music.

Today SD presented a painting of a soldier with mechanical parts like the automatons, Remarque describes, soldiers must become in order to survive in war (see above). IL made an image of a soldier beneath bleeding patriotic colors which she created melting red, white, and blue crayons with a hair dryer (see the end of this post). EV recreated what she imagined the play that Paul, the main character of the book, had in his top drawer. She Google-translated it into German, antiqued the paper with brown watercolor, then created bullet holes with blood on its pages for each of Paul’s friends who were killed.  WN created Detering’s diary, ending with his execution, as he went AWOL after seeing the cherry blossoms which reminded him of his home. On their flutes AS and MJ played a piece of music they wrote based on national anthems of the countries involved in the First World War with battle and discordant sounds interwoven throughout. AT wrote a meta piece (below) about trying to figure out what to do for this creative project which ended with a reworking of the epigram of the book. Original epigram by Erich Maria Remarque:

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.


HD made a WWI board game in which no one wins and lots of men are lost. There were a variety of musical compositions using different computer apps. There were posters, letters, stories, and poems the students created. Today’s presentations were inspiring, serious, and meaningful—reflective of a book with which my students were totally engaged.


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Field Trip statistics


from a display at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia

Tuesday through Friday:

Total steps—81,841

Miles walked—33.06

Floors climbed—119 (walking up the path to Monticello accounted for a lot of these)

Calories burned—9825

Total number of minutes interacting with 115 adolescents: 3,578

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