My Survival Story: Formerly Incarcerated in MDOC’s Hell, I Know The Reasons We Must Fight For Change

In 2012, despite the wonderful places I thought my life would go, I ended up in prison and how I got there is just as important as what I experienced, but that would require an entirely separate series of articles.

Upon entering prison you realize a few things – that no one is safe, that your life no longer matters, and that no one can hear you scream. I entered on a hot day and smelled the feces and dirty bodies upon entering the zone. Temps in the summertime at CMCF can get sky high. There is no relief. No A/C, just a hot tin roof baking the inmates inside with a fan blowing up into the guard tower and one in the cafeteria. People literally fainting and getting heat exhaustion daily. The prison jumpsuits are made from heavy cotton and women aren’t allowed to remove them or you face additional charges (so you are told).

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On this day it was approximately 103 degrees in Parchman.

The entire place was menacing. It felt big and lawless despite the heavily armed guards . . . and it was.

My first night in prison was horrendous. I think it didn’t click with me during the 9 months I spent in jail before prison that this was really where I was headed for a first time offense. I made the mistake of allowing someone to help me make my bed and from that point on she felt she had some claim over my person. It was violent. The entire place was menacing. It felt big and lawless despite the heavily armed guards . . . and it was. I think I gloss over a lot of the details because honestly I don’t want to relive the utter fear and despair I sat in for over a year.

Food comes in containers marked “not fit for human or animal consumption” or “inmate consumption only” boxes. And if you can get past the disgusting quality and often moldy bread or meat you still have to manage to get fed before the cafeteria runs out, which is frequent. My first week during intake I watched as a nurse didn’t change the gloves or needles during medical testing. When I spoke up, I was threatened. I then panicked and was reprimanded.

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I was sexually assaulted by a guard during an allergic reaction to black mold that covered our living and bathing area. I was very vocal about this and tried to press charges. I was pushed through to the next facility to get out of their hair. I was traumatized having guns pointed at me for safety drills and being screamed at and thrown from my bed in the middle of the night. I watched people “seize out,” get beaten, and even die while guards ignored cries for help and even placed us on lockdown to keep us from notifying our families of the things happening.

These are a few of the atrocities people who are incarcerated right here in Mississippi go through on a daily basis. Every day was fight or flight. Every thing I did became a way to survive. Reentry was hard for me, I went from having a great job to being an “unemployable felon.” I took jobs that honestly I was overqualified for and grossly underpaid. I barely made enough to pay my p.o. (probation officer) and my rent and gas.

I couldn’t go into public spaces without feeling overwhelmed. Things just changed inside my person.

Finding a place to live was hard because they do background checks on our records. I struggled with sleeping and slept in a closet for a few months so I could feel a bit safer. I couldn’t go into public spaces without feeling overwhelmed. Things just changed inside my person. I went from being naïve to blunt and hard. I went from living to surviving and I still have to practice a lot of mindfulness to be where I am currently.

Prisons in Mississippi often consist of some people who may have made bad choices and some who ended up there through the victimization that plagues the poor and uneducated. These are people’s mothers, daughters, brothers, and fathers. Human beings forgotten and looked down on; but, these are people who matter. Prison was made to rehabilitate not to torture and break.

I want MDOC to have a better system of checks and balances – not just for the facilities, but for the care of those who are incarcerated. Not scheduled visits with government officials that they plan for, but real visits where incarcerated people can speak to people with the power to make changes without fear of repercussions. I want access to mental health services and education and better access to books. I want court appointed lawyers to actually interact with their clients before their court dates.

Nothing about the way prison is set up is rehabilitative.

Everything I saw in there pushed me to start speaking up. Made me realize how incredibly wrong our justice and rehabilitation system is. Nothing about the way prison is set up is rehabilitative. These people are set up to fail when they leave. Insanely high p.o. fees and the fact that they are barely employable is a start to where it goes wrong. I am lucky. I’ve found good jobs thanks to my personality and personal connections. I stayed out of prison because I am well-educated and have a support system – things not every person has whether you’re formerly incarcerated or not.

MDOC, for all of its vile and inhumane conditions, is only part of the problem. There’re sentencing laws, 3 strikes laws, and these judges handing out sentences with impunity with no regard as to how it affects families in our community long term.

MDOC needs to be held accountable and not just on a surface level. Inmates need to be listened to and at the very least living conditions should be humane. In order to allow people to become productive members of society when released we need accountability while they are incarcerated. This can only be addressed when the lights are shone in the darkest of places. To quote Nelson Mandela ” No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones.”

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Natasjia Zinda is an Unabashedly black Wife, mother, and nerd. She is a local criminal justice activist, content creator, and avid black gamer.

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