Echoes and ghosts: Prison women left their teardrops on the cell house floor

Youngest Montana State Prison woman inmate.

One of the youngest women ever held at Montana State Prison was Evelyn Donges, then 16. She was convicted for luring a man into a robbery on September 11, 1951. He was beaten and later died. Details are available at https://mthistoryrevealed.blogspot.com/2016/06/

(This story first appeared in the Sunday features section of the Helena, Mont., Independent Record, on August 14, 1977. I wrote it after women held captive at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge were moved elsewhere. In those days, the women’s unit held only few female offenders. Today, Montana has about 200 inmates in the women’s unit, now in Billings.)

By Kevin S. Giles

DEER LODGE, Mont. — It was a long time ago, it seems, when the women were here.

The row of empty cells – four of them – are dark and damp.

One is empty. Its mattress is rolled and stacked at one end of the bunk, which is cyclone fencing stretched across a metal frame.

In another, books of salvation are scattered across the bed. The gleam of a faraway window bounces off one cover, illuminating its title: Prison to Praise.

A third is the home of a ghost. The bedding has been thrown aside, as if the cell’s occupant was startled by the cold metallic clank of a cell door, and stood for a smoke, or was awakened by a nightmare of the past.

A dishwater wig, rudely discarded, lines in a heap on the brown metal dressing table. Personal letters and those from attorneys are scattered about the call. A black spider crawls around rim of the toilet bowl.

The heavy barred doors stand open at various angles, as if trying to tell the stories of the women who once lived there.

The “women’s disciplinary area” at Montana State Prison is but a dungeon now, quietly tucked away in the basement of the former “guards’ quarters” on Main Street in Deer Lodge, Montana.

Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot

 

The clothes are still here, stacked neatly in a beige cabinet adjacent to the shower in the little living room outside the cells: overalls, dark blue jackets, white blouses with red shoulder patches, cheap white bras, worn towels and washcloths.

Cells at Montana State Prison, like in all old prisons, were dark and dreary.

For many women who passed through Montana State Prison, dark and dreary prison cells invited reflection on the loneliness and lost lives.

The warmth the women gave to the room – the television set, the chairs, the hobbies, the personalities donated in seven years of confinement – is gone. Little remains but three yellowed poems, painstakingly written in ink and taped to the wall near a list of inmate rules.

Until March 1976 this space was a “holding tank” for about 20 women who stayed as little as seven weeks or as long as seven months.

Dolores Munden, records supervisor at MSP, was head matron of the women’s area for the seven years of its operation. Last week, as she walked among the cells, she remembered the many women whom she had come to know. “I became very close to most of the girls. They burdened me with most of their problems, particularly the young ones,” she said.

Munden remembers that as the years passed the women became younger, and “how much they had experienced in their young lives.” And she remembers how “starved for affection” they were.

While MSP waited for approval to move a woman to the Women’s Correctional Prison in York, Neb., or waited for the courts to decide the woman’s fate, Munden would lend a sympathetic ear.

“I used to go home exhausted mentally,” she said. “But I miss the girls. They must have felt some kinship toward me.”

Munden said there were only a few “hard core” women. “They tried to put on the airs of tough sometimes, but it wouldn’t be long before they would be crying.” Her voice trails off under the stark light bulbs.

The women feared the unknown. “They didn’t know what was going to happen to them,” Munden said.

And so they read, and they slept. Some made clothes for their children; perhaps they never would be worn. Others wrote letters that never would be answered. They watched television and wrote poetry.

Only one considered confinement the last straw: she broke a mirror and slashed her wrists with the sharp glass. The cuts were deep but she did not bleed badly, and she lived.

“A woman prisoner is a lot different than a man,” Munden said. “A woman prisoner has a very low concept of herself. She thinks she has sunk to the lowest.”

The women were required to clean their cells and keep themselves clean. Showers were available every other day or every day in hot weather. No smoking was allowed in the cells.

Because meals were cooked inside the main prison walls and came early most mornings, the women were allowed to eat before they got dressed. They were required to make their beds after breakfast, and dress, but if they wished they could sleep all morning on top of their made beds.

The television was on until the stations went off the air. Women could go outside into the exercise yard if they wished.

Munden recalls that four women was the most she had in the cells at one time. And one weekend a woman nursed her newborn baby in her cell until the child went for adoption on Monday morning.

Munden remembers the disciplinary area as it was – a place where confined and convicted women lived with dignity – and she is saddened at the bleak desolation of the area now.

Carefully, she peels the poems of Anita Blakemore off the wall. “She wrote me a little note, thanking me for treating her like a human being,” Munden said quietly.

She swings the barred gate open to let herself out of the room. “I don’t think living here was as much of a punishment as it looks,” she said.

But after she left, one could not help but hear, in the silence, the sound of teardrops falling softly on the gray prison floor.

Kevin S. Giles is an American journalist and author whose books have roots in his native western Montana. He published One Woman Against War in October 2016. Two other books take place in his hometown of Deer Lodge: a novel, “Summer of the Black Chevy” (2015) and the nonfiction work, “Jerry’s Riot: The True Story of Montana’s 1959 Prison Disturbance.” (2005)

(The following poem was written by Anita Blakemore during her stay in the women’s disciplinary unit at Montana State Prison.)

♠ ♠ ♠

I look for a letter as days pass by,

Each day disappointed, I silently cry.

I cannot accept with each letterless day

That nobody cares if I’m locked away.

I can’t face reality or the simple fact

That nobody cares if I ever get back.

My family don’t care, now there’s no doubt,

That I shall have no one when I get out.

I pretend their (sic) busy and they couldn’t reply,

I think of the letters I wrote and I cry.

I know I’m alone, but I must pretend,

That somewhere out there I have a friend.

I shall keep to myself, I must not recall,

That nobody cares for me at all.

I shall never admit, as time flys (sic) by,

That nobody cares for me at all.

The people around me, they just can’t see,

The pain and the misery that’s killing me.

I will keep on waiting for a letter each day,

Until they take these bars away.

I will not admit, as I suffer this hell,

That I am locked and forgotten in my prison cell.

♠ ♠ ♠

 

4 thoughts on “Echoes and ghosts: Prison women left their teardrops on the cell house floor

  1. It’s an excellent read. It put me inside the prison and gave me a look into the daily life as a female inmate. The new mom nursing her baby broke my heart. I can’t imagine handing that baby to a stranger. I wish we could know what happened to that young mom when she was back in society. I’m also impressed that the female guard was a good person. She really cared for the inmates.

    • Thanks, Nancy. At least for young people, it appears too many crimes result from a combination of immaturity and substance abuse. Let’s hope this inmate eventually found her way to a better life.

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