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Prison Tornadoes

Author's note: Greetings to you from Decatur Prison in Illinois!

You may remember me and my writing from a few years ago when you published some of my creative nonfiction under the name Suzanna Bowser. To round out your memory you may or may not recall that I was socially acquainted with fellow Petrolian Alex Cockburn and that I worked as a lecturer at Humboldt State University.

To clarify the dramatic opening of this letter, I'm currently incarcerated in Decatur, Illinois, having run afoul of the law by transporting Humboldt County pot through that fair state which, ironically, just legalized medical marijuana!

No longer the mild-mannered schoolteacher/college lecturer, I'm now a hardened class X felon, a classification that equates my crime with the actions of embezzlers, extortionists, armed robbers, and murderers. According to my lawyers I got off easy because I could have received up to 30 years if I had fought the case or if the judge had been hung over (the latter, a strong possibility from what I knew of the judge).

Through all of this, I have managed to continue writing although it's a challenge in here where the ambience is often like that of a carnival. Nonetheless, I have written some pieces and I hope you'll consider publishing some of my work. To that end, I've enclosed this small piece entitled, "Prison Tornadoes."

PS. Marijuana smuggling was not my main career choice. Please Google my name for more information.

* * *

We can't see the city of Decatur from inside this prison, but at 9:30pm, we hear the city's sirens wailing in the distance, alarms that signal the worst disasters: floods, fires, plagues of locusts, nuclear attacks, and, of course, tornadoes.

It's June 5th, and the TV visuals of the “F-4” that just wiped out Moore, Oklahoma are still fresh in our minds when the C.O. stops by to check on our 14' x 11' cell. He sticks his head through the door and says, “It's a code 7, ladies. Get under your mattresses.” With that uneasy admonition, he disappears, and we don't see him again for the rest of the night.

I'm from California – a stranger in this strange Midwestern land – but no stranger to home turf catastrophes like tsunamis and earthquakes. Still, for a newcomer to Illinois weather patterns, the idea of a tornado brings a couple of thoughts to mind besides the obvious images of devastation.

One is the old joke about the similarity between an Oklahoma tornado and a divorce where the punch line is: “Somebody's gonna lose a trailer.” The other associations involve the old familiar yellow brick road adventure. Tonight, with sirens screaming, I'm not sure I actually want to meet the man behind the curtain. The series of intense thunderstorms, high winds, and multiple tornadoes headed our way make me nervous about funnel clouds, witches on bikes, and having conversations with the great and powerful Oz.

After the C.O. directs us to make like ostriches, Desiree says, “Fuck that! We need to go into the bathroom.” Our resident “OCD” roommate adds, “ Yeah, lets hide in the bathroom. I ain't messin' up my bed for this shit!”

And so, we wedge ourselves into the 3' x 4' cubicle, our state-issue pillows made of weird 1970's-style cracked naugahyde positioned over our heads. Desiree sits backwards and side-saddle on the throne, her ample bottom precisely six inches from my face. I tell her I'm extremely grateful she hasn’t ingested some explosive chow (a condition said to result from our heavy soy diet). Elnora is jammed on the other side of the pot; Crystal sits to my left, folded up like a pretzel.

I can reach the doorknob from my spot behind Desiree's butt, so I crack the door to glance at Elnora's TV on the top bunk. Disturbingly, I see large yellow letters and exclamation points on the screen: “TORNADO WARNING!!! TAKE COVER IN AN INTERIOR ROOM AND STAY THERE!!” I shut the door on the TV and squirm back into my dubious shelter below Desiree’s butt.

We hide out in the bathroom for two hours, emerging later and surviving the night with no damage to Decatur Prison, although there’s news of flooding, a collapsed house, and a gym that had a wall ripped off. Two tornadoes touched down nearby but nothing worse than downed trees litter the byways.

In the morning, we resume our regular prison activities only to find a storm has moved inside our razor wire fences. “A” Wing is on lockdown. Apparently, an anonymous inmate wrote a threatening letter to the Warden expressing anger at the supposed sexual frenzy raging on the unit. A shakedown ensues lasting four days. According to, the IA finds scalding love letters, kites, contraband, and sculpted jolly rancher dildos made by some mysterious alchemical methods using a hot pot.

All hell breaks loose. Just like the Salem Witch Trials or the Red Scare, an accusing finger is more than enough to send someone to the dreaded segregation unit. Fear grips everyone, and, although I have done nothing wrong, the potential for getting caught in the crossfire is frightening. This is prison after all, where storms can cause serious injury. It's scary, and I can't escape this danger in the bathroom.

The prison walls are still intact as I dress for my day. I pull on my dark blue trousers and my state-issued white smock. My cheap knock-off Reeboks are clean and tidy. But as I lace my shoes, I find myself desperately trying to remember where I lost my ruby slippers.

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