What life in prison is actually like, according to a girl who grew up inside one

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What life in prison is actually like, according to a girl who grew up inside one

A realistic look at life inside

Everyone feels trapped sometimes by routines, expectations and responsibilities –but none of that compares to the loss of control that young women face and overcome in prison.

Young women who are incarcerated have the same spectrum of emotions and wants and needs as you. These are young women who have crushes, who want to have fun, but who also have to survive every day in prison — like Sasha “Skoop” Hernandez, a 24-year-old who’s been in prison since she was 16.

Skoop is currently staring down the barrel of a life behind bars — a 39.5 to 79 year sentence, a plea she accepted to spare her mother jail time. She's in the midst of serving her sentence at State Correctional Institution-Muncy in Pennsylvania. But that’s another story.

No matter how many episodes of Orange Is The New Black you’ve seen, there is nothing like hearing another girl’s experience to drive home the fact that female inmates aren’t statistics or cautionary tales, they’re real women. We drove up to Muncy from our office just a few short weeks before Christmas to talk to Skoop in person, after months of correspondence both online and via handwritten letters.

As the three of us huddled together in the visiting room, we unpacked Skoop’s experiences on the inside over an orange soda. In that clinically clean space decorated with kitschy paintings and holiday-themed backdrops for visitors and inmates to pose in front of, with Happy Feet playing in the background, she told us about life in prison.

A day in the life of Skoop

Skoop’s day-to-day is, like the lives of all inmates, tightly controlled. She works as an electrician, eats pre-made meals at pre-designated times, and goes through regular head-counts.

She gets a block of free time every day — when she can read, watch TV or listen to music, wash her clothes, gossip with other inmates, shower, or take care of doctor’s appointments — before mandatory lights-out at 9 p.m. On Fridays, it’s her turn to go to the commissary, where she can buy food, clothing, cigarettes or hygiene products.

And if nothing about her sentence changes, this is what she’ll be doing for at least the next 31 years. But just because there isn’t a lot of built-in variation doesn’t mean that Skoop’s life, or the life of any inmate in SCI Muncy, is empty. It just means that making things interesting takes ingenuity and a lot of work.

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'Don’t be getting caught up with these hoes'

Behind bars, sex is complicated. It can be used as currency — Skoop says when she first got locked up, older women would straight-up proposition her in exchange for clothes, money, or goods from the commissary. “I had 50-year-olds saying, ‘Will you fuck me?’ I am a big flirt, but that doesn’t mean I’ve ever proceeded to do anything. I have too much pride for that!”

And according to Skoop, sex in jail can be dangerous from a health standpoint — many of the women incarcerated have a history of IV drug abuse, which means they might be carrying STIs like Hepatitis C and HIV. Plus, whether or not you can get alone time in the first place depends on how cool your cell mate (celly) is and whether the corrections officer on duty is willing to look the other way.

Speaking of corrections officers, CO/inmate relationships aren’t uncommon either, even though they’re illegal. The biggest scandal of the last few years, according to Skoop, involved an inmate who collaborated with the prison’s head of security to bust her CO/lover after he stopped smuggling drugs for her from outside of the prison. The general sentiment, per Skoop, was that “it was all good when he was bringing her pills, but now she wants to set him up — that’s fucked up!” Skoop even likes to warn her favorite male COs about fraternizing with the prisoners: “Don’t be getting caught up with these hoes.”

But not all prison sex even involves a partner. When we asked Skoop for a list of prison slang, one term in particular caught my eye. Over email, she described the "Oh Boy" — a homemade dildo made with rolled-up pads with a t-shirt to wrap it up. And according to Skoop, it gets the job done.

'You get in a relationship and end up loving someone. Then they leave'

Dating in prison is even more complicated. But just because a romantic relationship begins while two people are incarcerated doesn’t mean their feelings are any less valid or real.

In fact, between rampant gossip and the fact that being in a relationship in prison means you’re essentially together all the time, shit can get seriously intense.

“You get to know someone 10 times more than at home,” Skoop told us. “You’re together 24/7.” She explained that when you're with someone who's also incarcerated, the two of you eat meals together, spend your down time together in the yard or library, and maybe even live together.

Skoop lived with one woman, Krystal, for the last 10 months of their 4-year romantic relationship. She still has Krystal’s name tattooed on her right forearm in red gel pen ink.

The pair split up when Krystal got out, but she and Krystal remain close. From what Krystal told us, the two of them are a testament to how real the bonds formed while in prison can be.

“She’s a great person,” Krystal says. “She’s someone that, no matter what relationship I’m in, will always be a part of my life. She taught me patience, she taught me how to think before I act, she taught me how to accept and receive love.”

And Krystal hopes that someday, when she gets out, she can introduce Skoop to her son.

Skoop and her mom, who still regularly visits

But that built-in expiration date adds pressure to prison romances: Skoop described the heartbreak that stems from losing a girlfriend to the outside world once they’ve served their sentence. “People catch feelings,” she said. “You get in a relationship and end up loving someone. Then they leave.”

Granted, not every couple who met in prison splits up once one partner makes parole. If the partner on the outside is willing to relocate closer to prison and commit to visiting on a regular basis, it can still work. But not every couple breaks up because of parole either, and a bad split can cause some serious tension if both parties remain on the inside.

Imagine dumping someone… and then having to see them around for the next decade. “If you’re the one breaking up and it’s for no reason, be prepared to fight,” Skoop said.

'It’s kinda like a big high school, but more violent'

The piece of gossip that has everyone in Muncy talking right now involves an inmate who’s set to be released in less than two months and her partner, a lifer — a woman sentenced to life in prison.

“Now the girl with less than 60 days is messing with someone else after they were together for three years,” Skoop told us. “The gossip in here is always juicy.”

According to Skoop, having hundreds of women aged 15-94 all cooped up in the same compound is a recipe for “nothing but drama.” For inmates, it’s a great way to break up the monotony: “It’s easier to pass the time, to distract yourself,” Skoop says, when there’s a scandal to focus on.

Most of the drama revolves around relationships and the rest around insults, real or perceived. “It’s kinda like a big high school, but more violent,” Krystal says.

And according to Skoop, tensions that stem from petty bullshit can escalate into full-blown war. And that war can drag on for years because inmates have nothing but time to think about it. “You don’t know. Just because you let it go, that don’t mean she let it go,” Skoop says.

Unlike what you've seen in OITNB, there's no boss bitch controlling all of the inmates at Muncy. And according to Skoop, the women don’t clique up based on race either. Instead, they’re more likely to form friendships with people from the same hometowns, like Philly, or who they spent time in county jail with.

Skoop and her mom, who she says is her best friend

And even though she makes a concerted effort to stay out of the drama, even she isn’t immune to rumors. “If you associate with a femme, like you [as in me, the reporter], you guys are fucking,” Skoop says.

Plus, anything you say to or in front of the wrong person becomes fair game for the rumor mill. According to Krystal, Skoop has been a target for other inmates because of her age and her determination to better herself and get herself out of Muncy, which means that she’s had to physically fight to defend herself.

Long story short: you’ve gotta be careful who you piss off and who you trust. “The more friends, the more bullshit,” Skoop says.

So Skoop’s main confidantes are her celly, a woman named Melissa who Skoop described as optimistic and caring, and her mother, Rosa — they talk every day about everything, from girls to Skoop’s ongoing legal battle. Skoop even sports a tattoo on her shoulder that says “More Than The Stars,” because that’s how much she and her mom say they love each other — more than the stars.

'Contraband depends on the officer searching. If you’re a dick, if you’re not'

Creature comforts are hard to come by from inside a prison, especially because there are strict regulations about what can and cannot be received from the outside world. Skoop says that at Muncy, inmates aren’t allowed to receive packages, period. That means that if you want something, you need to improvise. And the areas where that improvisation shines through the most are food and fashion.

Inmates can buy clothes beyond their standard-issue uniforms from the commissary. Sweatsuits are a kind of status symbol in Muncy, because each piece costs $17. If you’ve got one, Skoop says it means that “somebody is taking care of you" — sending you cash from the outside.

But since inmates themselves make much of the clothing sold in the commissary, the garments available there can be wonky and overpriced, like a t-shirt Skoop described with uneven sleeves that cost much more than the $0.42 an hour some prisoner was paid to sew it.

So inmates make little tweaks to their clothing on their own — sewing pants to change a bootcut to a skinny leg and trimming socks to ankle length and painting them with spare craft supplies.

According to Skoop, some women also get crafty with their makeup, using gel pens and oil pastels for a dramatic eye look even though mascara and liner are for sale in the commissary. Some women even use coffee grounds as foundation.

But there’s one area where prison creativity has already been well-explored, and for good reason: in the kitchen. Skoop described the process of building a “stinger,” a cooking contraption made up of a broken extension cord, some washers, a tub full of water, and a pinch of salt or (coveted, longer-lasting) baking soda that inmates use to cook.

Skoop likes to make fried rice, which she seasons with soup flavor packets, in her stinger by mixing the rice up and then double-bagging it to prevent any leakage. She’s the better cook, between her and celly.

Other inmates can make birthday cakes or her personal favorite, stromboli. That's made using crushed Ritz crackers combined with water as a dough, some kind of meat filling like chili or pepperoni, then dropped in the stinger for a few hours, safely encased in a chip bag. Some even brew hooch (a kind-of wine thing) from stolen yeast, sugar and fruit juice that needs two weeks to ferment.

But prison cooking and crafting don’t come without risks. The stinger is dangerous: Skoop showed off a scar on her forearm where the makeshift device burned her a few months ago.

And the biggest challenge is that all of these items constitute contraband, which means that if a CO finds them and is in a bad mood, inmates can get in trouble and their items get confiscated. “Contraband depends on the officer searching,” Skoop says. “If you’re a dick, if you’re not.”

'I’ll be damned if I’m gonna follow anybody'

Skoop roots for the New Orleans Saints, watches Keeping up with the Kardashians and Vanderpump Rules, reads GQ, ESPN and Esquire and hates mornings. She's a rap fan, a Latina and a lesbian, but she knew all of that before she came upstate. But Skoop’s identity goes beyond all of that.

In prison, if you don’t know who you are and how to take care of yourself, you’ll fall prey to the people who want to take advantage of you.

“You have to learn how to stand your ground sometimes,” Skoop says. “If you don’t have a mind of your own in here, you’ll be easy to target — for money, if you family is taking care of you, if somebody needs someone to steal for them, as a laundry bitch…” We didn’t ask exactly what a “laundry bitch” is, but I feel like I get the gist.

Skoop, before she was incarcerated

From both Skoop's account and the words of her ex, Krystal, she’s found a deeper understanding of herself in the last eight years. “I think I was a bit of a follower when I was home, so that’s something I taught myself in here,” she said. “I’ll be damned if I’m gonna follow anybody.”

Krystal praised Skoop’s maturity and sense of self-assurance. “She’s not the same person she was went I met her, let alone the same person she was when she was first incarcerated. She’s only 24 years old, but she’s got the mentality of someone who’s 40 or 50.”

Because if you don’t have a strong sense of who you are, Skoop says that you’re almost guaranteed to get used.

***

Skoop’s case is currently under review, and she’s hoping to get her sentence reduced. Racial tensions in her town and a lazy public defender contributed to what she sees as an unfairly large amount of time. And she’s hopeful, sharp and funny — but sometimes she falters. “With numbers like mine, hard not to say your life is over."

But she still sees light at the end of the tunnel, and hopes to work with juveniles when she’s on the outside, kids like she was before prison. “That’s where it starts,” she says. “How can you be a drug counselor but you’ve never been addicted? Same thing.”

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