The waiting room and Hep C
Tabitha talks about her expiences as an Aboriginal woman in the criminal justice system.
Content warning: This post includes descriptions carceral violence, sexual violence, suicide and strong language.
Tabitha Lean, or as her ancestors know her, Budhin Mingaan, is a Gunditjmara woman, an activist and story teller. She is also a lived experience abolitionist having spent almost two years in prison, and two years on home detention and remains tethered to the system on parole, or as she calls it, open air prison. Tabitha is committed to elevating the voices of those with lived prison experience in order to expose state sanctioned carceral violence in an effort to stop the brutalising and killing of her own people in the colonial frontier that is the criminal injustice system.
I used to love Fridays: end of the work week and beginning of the weekend. A whole 48 hours with my lover and kids and nothing but sun kissed days, salty sea breezes and sand covered toes. This morning, though, I groan in response to the ring-a-ding of my alarm, shutting it down dramatically and more aggressively than my iPhone deserves. I groan because it is my weekly parole sign in day. I sign in every single week. Every seven days I present at the office for deviant souls and repent my sins, receive my penance and go back into the world of the living to inhabit this quasi-existence in my open-air prison.
Now, I am very aware that I have sinned. I understand that my delinquency has offended the state and I have been sentenced to this period of lamentation and I must serve this time before I am released unto society as a ‘reformed’ woman. But I want to share with you the perils of occupying this carceral space as a Blak woman with a mental illness: an illness which led to my “offending” and caused me to lose myself in every single way someone can misplace their soul and embody a new sense of distorted self.
I am a criminalised Blak woman, whose mental health has suffered significantly across time and space. A woman who has lit flames of fire across her skin many times in an attempt to cleanse herself of rogue men’s nonconsensual touch. A woman who has jumped from bridges hoping the plunge to her death would bring an end to breathing the heft of grief that rest in her heart like a massive boulder. A woman who leapt in front of a moving car with little regard for the body that she flung onto the bitumen, or the burden that death would bring onto the unsuspecting motorist. A woman who has sliced and singed her body and swallowed fistfuls of pills choosing delirium and death over life and suffering. But I look like you. Every single day I pass. I pass for normal. And some say I could pass for white. And every so often, I pass for sane. You see, no one sees what is lurking beneath this scarred skin. No one sees the charcoaled feet acquired from the waltz and tango of the ballroom in the depths of hell. No one sees the torment that rests in the back of my brain from my time in the devil’s playground. They are oblivious to the wells of torment and valleys of discontent that have settled into the gaping pores adorning my body’s surface, nor the monsters that lurk in the dark recesses of my mind.
So, I present. I present at ‘corrections’ for my weekly confessional with an agent of the carceral state. I park my car and walk slowly to the door. This week I was greeted on the path to the office by a fellow ‘prisoner’ (yes, we are called prisoners, even in the community). He grabs my waist and swings me into him, grinding his pelvis against my hip with one hand on my waist and one on my breast. His tongue is quicker than I anticipate, and it fishes about my ear like an intrusive little worm squirming into freshly turned dirt. I react, and I react instantly. I fly at him, “Get your filthy fucking hands off me, cunt.” I sound rough, prison yard rough. I sound rough as fuck. He laughs, throws his hands out to the side, mocking me and says, “talk about an over-reaction.” His mate mutters, “Stuck up bitch” and the emaciated, drug fucked girl next to him says, “as if you weren’t gagging for it in that dress”. I smooth down said dress, look them in the eye, and spit, “keep the fuck away from me” – unoriginal perhaps, but it’s all I can muster. I’m flustered. I can feel the gaffer tape that holds down the boxes of trauma I store at the very back of my brain start to peel away. I can see a little, white hand reach over the edge of the box tickling my conscience. I swallow hard and turn and walk the three steps to the front door.
I walk inside and the receptionist barely looks up from her computer, “Name?” she asks like it’s a full question. “Lean, Tabitha Lean”. More tapping, and I can see that she sleeps on her left side because her hair is still flattened from slumber. “Yup, who are you here to see?” “Deb, I reply obediently. “Ok, sit down.” So, I sit. I sit in the waiting room. I look around and my retinas are flooded with institutional bleakness – from the grey walls to the glass partition protecting state agents from the ‘likes of me.’ I watch a television flash images of murdered and missing people imploring ‘crims’ to come forward with information, information which if proved useful could benefit us, presumably lessening the sentence burden? I watch Blak faces of my slain brothers and sisters flash on the screen. No trigger warning. I am forced to stare into their eyes and wonder what fresh hell they suffered before their demise. There are posters on every pin up board: hepatitis C this, community service that, obligations, obligations, obligations. To my right is a very worn-out Declaration of Reconciliation. The irony of which is not lost on me, but apparently on every staff member in this place who locks a Blak man in a cage at night.
I am called in for urine testing, which is of course conducted by both a man and woman. They want me to drop my knickers, squat over a toilet, and pee in a small cup, and they want me to do this in their presence. “I can’t” I say. “I can’t do it with him in the room,” my head tilting in his direction. He laughs, “one of those” he mutters under his breath, while his colleague smiles in silent agreement. I wonder what “one of those” that I am today. Am I just a plain old uncooperative crim? Am I a feminist who hates men? Am I one of those ‘prisoners’ kicking up a fuss just to delay the testing while hoping and praying to all that is holy that the drugs dissipate in my system at the speed of light to avoid detection? Or am I just a woman standing before them wanting her humanity to be honored? To be fair, I am not sure which of those iterations of me they would detest more.
I tell them: “please check my file, I am supposed to do swab tests.” He scoffs “why?” and I respond, “because of the PTSD. I can’t do this. It’s all in my file. There’s a letter from my psych.” I am shaking now. The anxious heat is rising from my chest up to my throat and tears are threatening to spill from my eyes. I will them down. I tell myself “do not give them the satisfaction Tabs. Do not buckle, do not fold. You got this”. Of course, I haven’t got this…literally no one ever “has this” in these spaces. They look at each other and say they’ll check my records. I am sent back to the waiting room where I have to sit in breathing proximity to my new ‘friend’. He sniggers, “bitch”. I nod and sit. And no matter what I do, I just can’t quite origami my naked legs small enough to hide them, so instead I tuck them under the chair, away from his leer.
After ten whole minutes, ten minutes of him side-eyeing me, they call me back: “right, you can do a saliva test”. “Thanks,” I say, as if I should be polite and grateful for them following their own procedures. “Yeah, we gotta check these stories out, you crims lie.” Instantly, the saliva in my mouth dries up and all of a sudden my mouth is the most arid of deserts, the kind that are always thirsty and devoid of life. So, for the next thirty minutes I swallow, I roll my tongue around my mouth, I think of food, of anything that could moisten my mouth enough to produce the full thimble amount of saliva. They grow impatient and with every shuffle of their feet I grow more nervous and drier. But I finally produce. I produce the saliva I know will be clean because this Blak body has never even touched a drop of alcohol, let alone an illicit drug.
I return to the waiting room, my new ‘friend’ is leaving, gives me a turn of his hand, winks and says “see ya round, slut.” I can feel all the PTSD stirring the contents of my morning porridge around my stomach and I want to vomit. I can see flashes of the man who raped me a decade ago in my mind’s eye and I can smell him…it’s always the smell that holds me captive. And then I can feel the prison officer’s hand on my leg, and his warm breath on my neck. I have to shake myself. I have to ground myself, but I can’t feel the earth that birthed me. In fact, I am so far from the earth that birthed me, because my parole conditions prevent me from going home to my Mother’s country, because travel across state lines is prohibited for people like me. So, I do that five senses thing my counsellor taught me. I look for what I can smell…him…right, bad start. What can I see? Dead people, next? What I can feel? The steel frame of the chair…cold like the bars of my jail cell. What I can hear? The tapping of the receptionist’s computer and the ringing of phones which I am sure go deliberately unanswered, and just before I can get to the taste, which I know will be my own blood from the clenched teeth and the anxious chewing of the inside of my cheek, my name is called again, and I enter the office of the meeting room.
Their meeting spaces are not like our meeting spaces. Nothing like the campfire at the base of the ancient engineering – absolutely none of the intimacy of our gathering places, and perhaps I am glad of it. This room has a door that unlocks when they press a button. It has a thick partition of glass separating us and the chair wobbles slightly because it has lost its footing. The air is stuffy in that room, and I feel like I could suffocate, so I try to inhale deeply. All I cop is a nostril full of the previous person’s body odor and I feel the vomit rising again. I sit down, not because I want to, but because I know it is expected (and a little because my legs may well give out at any moment, the trauma is resting so heavily on my shoulders.) She asks how my week went, as if she cares – what she really wants to hear is what I have consumed my time with. I talk a little about university, scared to go into details, because even your accomplishments seem threatening to the state. She asks about my sleep, and I wince. I mutter quietly “I sleep fine”. She says I look tired…I know I do. I never sleep when my partner is not home. He has a way of quieting the demons in my mind and keeping all the monsters away, and when he is not home, they all come out to play, so I just don’t sleep.
I get a little annoyed at her inquisitive eyes, and shrug my shoulders, hoping my indifference will ward her off the topic. She suggests meditation. I tell her I have a psych to speak about my sleep with and it really is beyond her remit. She makes notes on her little notepad. I peer across at her and she shifts her diary over it. Like I give a flying fuck anyway, she’ll write what she’ll write, and I am sure that manila folder is filled with little ditties of her perceptions of my ‘progress’. I notice in her diary she has blocked days out with the words “no offenders today” …offenders…and then sign a sheet next to the word “prisoner,” my prison ID number at the top. A six-digit number that has become part of my identity. A number that might as well have been tattooed on my pale skin for the stain it has made on my body, mind and soul.
She talks some more. She wants to address my criminogenic risk factors. I ask her “what risk factors?” She starts explaining to me what risk factors are. I smile, of course I fucking know what risk factors are, I want to know what the system has decided are mine. She looks nervous and flicks through papers stapled into a manila folder, and looks up, peeking her eyes above the rims of her glasses: “mental health would be my main concern”. And this time I laugh out loud. I literally laugh with unashamed mirth because I have just endured a full 60 minutes of state sponsored violence and trauma, as well as sexual assault from a captive of the carceral state on government property…a 60-minute mental head fuck, and she wants to talk about my mental health!
So, we go through the motions of me telling her all the dates I have seen my psychiatrist and psychologist. She asks if I am compliant with treatment and medication regimes. She makes me sign a waiver so she can contact them to confirm my appointments have been attended and that I am doing as they say. You know, to check my story. She wants to contact them to report on my ‘progress’ to Parole…my private clinicians, whom I pay. I have no choice, “Sure,” I shrug as I sign my life away, again, figuring my life became a magazine anyone could thumb through so many years ago anyway. What does it matter now?
We finish up with her confirming that I will present again next week: same day, same time, same conditions, same slice of hell with fluro lighting. And that’s my morning. I go back into the day as if I am normal. As if I have never wronged or been wronged. I go into the day to be a mum, a lover, a daughter, a student. I tuck the flaps neatly back onto the box of trauma, apply fresh tape and shove the heavy box to the back of my brain where it rests in the recesses pulsing with life, straining against its gaffered restraints.
This is my reality. The reality of a criminalised Black woman in this colony. A reality that forces women to gather up all of their ashes and make sweet poetry from it through both our activism and resistance. When we have been to that place and watched our own being brutalised and killed, how can we not pick up the mantle and fight for abolition. How can abolition not be the common-sense option – the logical way forward, the only way we know we can live and breathe? The only emancipatory pathway for our people?
And this is YOUR system. Your brand of justice. This is done to me in your name. Are you okay with that? Does that rest easy with you? Because your silence is complicity. Know that.
If this post has brought up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or chat to someone online (external link).
If you are affected by violence you can contact 1800RESPECT for counselling, support and referral.
Call 1800 737 732 or chat to someone online (external link). If you are in immediate danger, call 000.
Note: This story was originally written and published on WWDA's Leadership Blog.