Sisters-in-Detention: Notes from behind the Walls

I have been detained for almost two years in a county prison, awaiting my trial. There are many reasons for my coping day to day. First and foremost is my Christian faith. Second is the wealth of support from family, friends, and others "on the street." Third is the relationships I have developed with my sister inmates. Women have incredible nurturing gifts, and they set up support systems instantly.

My first few hours in the holding cell demonstrated this intense bond. I was not negatively bothered by anyone. I didn’t know it then, and found out later, that this was because a sister decided to "watch my back" since I was "fresh." She is a repeat offender, and I have seen her several times since. I now look out for her when she needs help with her legal questions or writing out her commissary slip. In that holding cell, she made no proclamation of her intent. I now understand and know the body language she used, but then I did not. This cell was packed with four to six ladies throughout the two and a half days I was held there. She set the tone for graciousness that was very different from the other cells within earshot. I slept two nights on the floor in that freezing cell because that spot was the warmest. The other ladies shifted or lay on each other’s shoulders, although they did not know one another before then.

It’s been a long journey since that holding cell. I was transferred to my current facility and placed in isolation for nine months. There were several women who were also in this group, and I was very blessed and grateful that they embraced me. I learned expected behavior, procedures, and jail house life from their instruction. These ladies shared with me memories, photos, and cards from those at home, and they expressed the deep emotional pain of being cruelly parted from society. We also played games that masked our frustrations. We dried each other’s tears, and we constantly struggled to find humor in the everyday routine. I have to admit that they were better at it than I was. But I am stronger and more capable because of them.

In the meantime, I also experienced sisterhood (separate and not equal) from nurturing correctional officers and staff. I was intimidated at first to ask anything and was at a loss as to what to say. I am fortunate that they did speak to me. They treated me with a professional respect. After a time, they treated me with affection, and I looked forward to the exchange of pleasant words. I had to earn this and I am thankful I did.

When I entered the regular population of the institution, I had no fear, but was full of anxiety. But this time, I had rapports and had observed sister inmates existing in a nurturing environment. I also saw my share of disruptions of the peace and how they were resolved.

I am on a unit with 99 other women, and cliques form here. Small groups hang together from previous bonds, relationships from the street, or from working in the institution. I personally have no clique. I am very different and have slid into the maternal role in the unit. I am referred to as "Mom"—mostly because of my grayish hair and age! In many ways, I don’t fit in and yet I get along with all whose paths I have crossed.

I have seen many random acts of kindness amongst my sisters. I have seen sisters give up their food trays to someone new or fresh who is hungrier than those of us who are able to buy commissary. I have done this many times myself. I learned mercy acts from the best! I have been on both the receiving end and the front line in answering a sister’s littlest need to her greatest. I have been able to work in the law and reading libraries, attend classes, and tutor in the GED program. I am very thankful to offer help when I can. I have spent many hours listening to tragedies, counseling, praying with my sisters, and suggesting spiritual direction behind these walls. We encourage one another and find hope in that. I have become a mom-in-the-storm to many of my sisters, and I depend upon them to be my mom-in-the-storm when the walk is too dark. We live in a valley of tears, and most days the only compassion we receive is from each other.

Robyn Maloney-George

Robyn Maloney-George is an Episcopalian whose sons attend Frankford Friends School in Philadelphia. A wife and mother of three who ran a family daycare program, she was charged with first-degree murder in 2000 in the death of a two-year-old foster child in her care, Markia Lockman. The girl apparently suffered a fatal seizure, which the prosecution argued was caused by a beating. The defense testified that the girl's injuries could have resulted from efforts to save her life. Threatened with the death penalty, the author spent two years in prison before her acquittal on May 9, 2002. This article was written while she was incarcerated.