An excerpt from the first chapter of The Warden’s Girl
Behind an imposing electrified chain link fence covered in coils of razor wire, the tall shadow of Veronica Striker fell over the frosty ground. Flanked by several CO’s, the warden of Ferryforth Female Correctional Facility began walking the grounds of a prison housing over a thousand stolen souls, locked behind the concrete and bars of a world that no longer wanted them.
She was a handsome woman, her features naturally hard, but not without beauty. Now approaching her fiftieth year, Veronica had almost three decades of experience; first in the military, then in corrections.
She had brown eyes and shoulder length caramel hair dappled with gray. She didn’t dye it, that would have been a vanity too far in her opinion. Veronica was not given to vanity. She was given to function over form. Her clean cut gray suit hit all the right lines, giving her a businesslike appearance. Stoic and stern, that was how she appeared as she walked the yard toward Cell Block C, her feet clad in long black boots with a flat heel.
Veronica looked the part, her dark eyes rimmed with black lashes capable of peering into any inmate’s soul, her sharp brows ready to rise or fall with necessary suspicion or skepticism. With her military background, Veronica was physically fit and mentally tough. Both were necessary in dealing with over a thousand female inmates, every single one of whom would test the boundaries if given the chance.
“Hi Ms Striker,” a young lady in inmate browns waved on her way past. A small but steady stream of inmates were off to their work assignments. They were the ones with the lowest security ratings, those for whom a minimal amount of supervision was required.
“Hello, Inmate,” Veronica replied. “Put your hair up, please.”
The inmate scooped her long dark hair off her shoulders and pulled it back into the ponytail that was mandatory for inmates. No hair on the collar. Shirts tucked in at all times. Shoes shined. The prison had military style standards and Veronica enforced them rigorously. It was the little things that mattered. Keeping order led to mental control. Mental control removed a lot of the necessity for physical control. With an average staffing level of one CO to every thirty inmates, it wasn’t physical force keeping the prisoners in line most of the time. It was sheer force of personality.
Ten new inmates had just arrived, a small group from a jail down state. The CO’s had handled their processing, an unpleasant process every inmate had to go through. The pat downs were intimate and thorough, so much so they usually left the inmates shocked. They were one of a hundred indignities those who lived within the walls were compelled to endure as part of their penance to an allegedly decent society.
She thoroughly expected to encounter ten slightly traumatized inmates. It was unfortunate that such extreme measures had to be taken on entry, but failure to be thorough led to drugs, weapons and other contraband being bought into prison. Lives depended on the searches they performed.
“Hello, ma’am,” the wing’s head CO greeted her. Chuck Shailer, a woman with a broad face which could smile or scowl with equal intensity.
“Anything to report, Chuck?”
“The new intake’s pretty standard,” the CO said. “We’ve got ourselves a couple high risk convicts already got themselves some time in the hole. The others are toeing the line alright.”
“Good to hear,” the warden said. “I’ll go check in on solitary after this and greet our new guests there.”
“Uhm, ma’am. There is one I’d be keeping my eye on…. she checked her sheet. “Number 3636442. Inmate Charlotte James.”
“She giving you trouble?”
“No ma’am,” Chuck said. “She’s been the model prisoner. That’s, uh, the problem. She’s a little too model, if that makes sense. Totally co-operative, seems to know everything we’re doing before we do it.”
“She a repeat visitor? Previous experience on the inside?”
“I don’t think so, ma’am. I checked her paperwork. The conviction has been redacted, but she doesn’t look like a repeat offender to me, and I’ve never seen her before.”
Chuck Shailer had been working in corrections for twenty years, and repeat offenders tended to become known to prison staff. Veronica was impressed at her ability to pick potential problems up before they happened.
“I’ll have to look into her file when I get back to the office,” Veronica said. “Let’s say hello first.” They were just a few feet from the cell now and she could practically smell the fear and anxiety coming from the cinder block interior.
Most new inmates came in terrified one way or another. Some of them cried, some of them tried to look tough, most of them had a deer in headlights stare and a stammer whenever they were spoken to.
Veronica made it her business to meet every intake personally. There was no better time to get a gauge of her girls than the moment they first arrived. First impressions told her what a woman was really like. Later on, they’d start to get comfortable, maybe develop a few bad habits. Or they’d turn the corner, take advantage of the rehabilitation programs and show marked improvement. There was no way of telling day one what an inmate’s fate would be, but Veronica liked to have a baseline to reference future behavior.
It sounded like there were already a couple of feisty young ladies in serious need of rehabilitation, and of course, the one who was triggering the CO’s spidey sense for trouble. It was a keen instinct in most experienced staff and Veronica was not one to write it off lightly. In a very real way, that was what had saved many lives, a hunch to search one inmate’s cell rather than another, or the decision to take a step back and call for reinforcements before engaging with an inmate who suddenly seemed too friendly.
A calm, friendly inmate on intake was of more concern to Veronica and her team than one that came in kicking and screaming. Kicking and screaming at least made sense. Calm inmates were the ones who had an agenda, or even worse, a plan. There hadn’t been a single successful escape in Veronica’s tenure, but that was because she was always aware that it was a possibility.
She turned the corner and approached the group cell holding half the new inmates. The new prisoners stood by their beds, looking stiff, uncomfortable, confused, angry, and sad. The usual range of emotion. Warden Striker spotted the difference right away. There was one standing by her bed not with the blank glazed look of disconnection which told her there was someone with an acute lack of empathy in their midst, but casually, as if it were a bus stop. She just didn’t look worried.
“Hello, ladies. My name is Warden Striker,” she introduced herself to the little group. “You’ll be seeing a lot of me during your stay here. In addition to the COs, I’m a point of contact for any problems you might have here. If you see me walking the yard or the dining hall or the halls, know I’m there to speak to everyone, so you can approach me as needed. Just keep it respectful and we’ll get along fine.”
Striker ran her prison with a hands on approach. She was the ultimate authority in these women’s lives, all the more reason to be in daily contact with them. A woman’s prison was nothing like a male facility. Women formed close, often intimate relationships, and if she wanted to stay on top of the events in the prison, she needed to be part of those relationships.
“Some of you will be with us for a few months, others have longer sentences. All of you follow the same rules. They’re simple enough. Keep your hands to yourself, respect others and their possessions, make sure you’re where you need to be at roll call and lock down. If you have a problem, report to your CO, write a letter, or speak with me when you see me on rounds. There’s never any reason for you to take matters into your own hands here, understand?”
“Yes ma’am,” the inmates chorused dutifully. They had already been drilled on proper speech protocol and they were all complying nicely. Judging by their intake sheets, this was going to be a quiet group. None of them were in on seriously violent charges, it was a mix of robbers, drug users and… Inmate James.
Veronica looked for a reason to call the prisoner out, but couldn’t see one. Her uniform shirt was tucked in, her hair was up off her neck, she was looking dead ahead as they’d been told to, and her bunk was among the tidiest in the room.
“Inmate James, step forward,” she ordered.
The young woman did as she was told. Maybe she wasn’t that young. She looked about thirty. Maybe that accounted for some of her self-possession. She was a fairly tidy thirty years old. Most prisoners her age wore the marks of drug use and rough lifestyles on their faces. This one looked like she’d been in a library for the last two decades at least. Not quite innocent per se, but untouched.
She had calm brown eyes and silky brown hair which would have fallen to her shoulders or even longer if it weren’t tied back. Her skin had a pretty caramel tone dotted with freckles over her nose and upper cheeks. There was something innocent, and yet, not quite innocent. She was pretty in a restrained sort of way, the sort of way some people mistook for being plain, but which Veronica found quite charming. Classic all-American girl next door, that’s what she was .
No wonder Shailer had made note of her. She stood out like a sore thumb even though she was wearing the same white intake uniform with the word INMATE printed across the back in bold lettering as the rest of them.
A lot of first timers came in eager to prove that they were not going to be problematic. They obeyed instructions to the letter, sometimes even enthusiastically. But Inmate James didn’t strike her as one of those women either.
“You understand what I just said, James?”
“Yes ma’am,” James said with a casual smile. “Thank you, ma’am. Looking forward to making your acquaintance more fully ma’am.”
Veronica was a split-second away from calling James out for being a smart-ass, but the words had been delivered with a genuine tone, and there was no smirk or eye roll which would have indicated that she was being sarcastic.
“Fall back, inmate,” Veronica ordered.
Charlotte James did as she was told without another word. Veronica had an uneasy feeling about the way the inmate was behaving, but there truly wasn’t anything she could complain about, or even make a note of. She truly was pretty close to perfect. Odd. Very odd.
“See what I mean, ma’am?” Standsworthy caught up with her down the hall as Veronica continued on her rounds.
“Mhm. You’re not wrong, but we can’t bust someone on the first day for not being frightened enough. She might be on a benzo or similar. Could be helping her to take this in stride. Let’s give it a few days.”
Just then, the sound of an alarm going off in another quadrant made her forget all about Inmate James. Flanked by her team, Veronica headed in the direction of the chaos. She arrived to find the section in lock down, several keyed up CO’s standing around a smaller female CO who was sitting on a concrete stool which had been built next to a similarly concrete table in the open rec area between the cells.
Veronica called them to stand aside, worried that somebody had been hurt. The CO sitting down was Sally Dempsey, a relatively new hire. Veronica was glad to see that the CO was shaken, but not obviously injured.
“Sit Rep?” She glanced at the closest CO that wasn’t Dempsey.
“Inmate Ellie Sweets just tried to slash Dempsey. Made herself a shiv of toilet paper and toothpaste.” The CO held out the item in question between her gloved fingers. Little sheets of paper had been painstakingly wetted and glued together with toothpaste dozens of times, then sharpened against the stone of the walls to create a blade more than capable of piercing soft tissue. There was a collection of these prison weapons locked away in Veronica’s office. She kept it to show new hires just what they could be up against. This was going to be a prime example of ingenuity. It must have taken Sweets hundreds of hours to make this thing.
“Where’s Sweets now?”
“She’s been restrained and put in solitary, ma’am. Dempsey’s a bit too shaky to walk right now. We’re giving her a minute to get herself together so we can take her to the infirmary.”
Veronica crouched down in front of the trembling CO. Sally Dempsey was in her early twenties, a curly haired red head with usually happy green eyes. She’d been reluctant to hire someone that young, but Dempsey had a passion and a compassion which Veronica admired – and she needed the work. That was true of most all CO’s. They didn’t take the job because they liked pushing people. Sadists were weeded out in the application process, and after all her years in corrections, Veronica could see them a mile away. Most CO’s took the job because it got them a steady salary and state benefits. And, ideally, because they wanted to help people.
“How’re you doing, kid?” She put her hand on Dempsey’s knee and felt the shivering the young woman could not control. It was a kind of shock she was at risk of going into, following what had probably been the biggest adrenaline rush of her life.
“I don’t know what I did wrong, ma’am,” Dempsey shivered. “I mean, one minute everything was okay, the next minute she was just screaming at me, and I saw the weapon she had and I… I don’t even remember what I did next. I must have done something wrong. What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing,” Veronica replied. “You kept yourself safe, and you kept the inmate safe in the process. This is what we deal with here. It’s rough, I know. You take a break, okay? Once the medic clears you, I want you to go on home. And you call me if you need anything.”
“I’m alright, ma’am,” Dempsey said, her melting gaze welling with tears. “I’d like to stay, if that’s okay.”
“Okay,” Veronica nodded. “But if you find yourself getting stressed, you report to my office. This stuff can sneak up on you.”
“Yes ma’am,” Dempsey nodded.
Veronica would have preferred it if she’d gone home, but getting back on the unit would send a message to the inmates that Dempsey wouldn’t be intimidated.
“Well, you wait until the medic clears you either way,” she said. “Ladies, take care of Dempsey. I’m going to see Inmate Sweets.”
With one last round of reassurance for the trembling CO, Veronica stood up and strode toward the solitary block. It was the worst part of the prison, often noisy thanks to those who couldn’t stand their own company for more than a few minutes being forced to spend twenty-three hours per day in lock down. It wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Veronica approached the cell Sweets was being held in. It was small, about six foot wide and eight feet long. It was kept secure by a reinforced door with a heavy perspex window designed to allow CO’s to be able to monitor inmates without risking their own lives in the process. Unlike many of the other cells, it was not barred. Far too many incidents of inmates hurling their own excrement to allow for anything remotely resembling an open plan. As it was, opening the food slot could be a dangerous exercise for CO’s, who wore thick long aprons and plastic coverings on their shoes when doing the meal rounds, just in case the previous meal came back through the slot in fully digested form.
It wasn’t hard to tell which cell contained Sweets. The woman was shrieking at the top of her lungs. It made sense. Sweets was serving life, and doing her time as hard as it was possible to do. Veronica could hear her screaming all the way down segregation block. The shouting stopped abruptly as the inmate caught sight of Veronica and rushed to the door to plead for clemency.
Anyone who didn’t know Ellie Sweets might have been inclined to give it. She was a small blonde woman who looked like a slightly puffy Shelly Long. She, and others like her, were the reason so many CO’s were wary of innocent looking inmates. It didn’t matter how small or how innocent someone looked, a sharpened object in their hand did the same damage as in the fist of a six foot male.
“Now I told you to cut that shouting out last time you were in here,” Veronica said, resting the flat of her hand against the door and leaning into it as she spoke through the scratched perspex shield. “You’ve got yourself in trouble again, Sweets. Serious trouble.”
“I’m gonna kill her,” Ellie said in suddenly dulcet tones, her voice high pitched and as innocently cultured as a 1950’s housewife. “I told you I was going to kill that screw bitch. I hate her.”
It was like listening to a cartoon character swear a death wish, eerily incongruous.
“Well you know you’re going to be spending a long time in solitary, don’t you, Sweets.”
“Yes ma’am,” the diminutive blonde grinned. “I’m going to be right in here talking with myself and making another shiv for that bitch.”
There was nothing in the cell which could be used for shiv making. Ellie didn’t even have access to books, writing paper, or pens. The toiled paper was severely limited to the extent that it would have taken her another hundred years to make a shiv like the one Veronica had confiscated. And yet Veronica believed her. The inventive genius of an unbalanced inmate could beat Leonardo DaVinci any day.
“I’M GOING TO MAKE A SHIV FOR SHIVA! BLOOD WILL RAIINNNNNNNN!” Ellie threw back her head and howled suddenly.
“You’re going to cut that yelling out, or you’re going to end up gagged,” Veronica said sternly. “You want to pray, you can do so quietly.”
Ellie needed serious help. Unfortunately, pre-trial, two out of three psychologists had determined that she was fit to stand trial based on the fact she ‘understood’ her charges. She may have understood her charges, but Ellie was tethered to consensus reality by the thinnest of strings. The ‘screw’ she insisted she was going to kill was a role that ended up being filled by different CO’s at different times. One moment Ellie was coherent, the next she was in a blood frenzy. Solitary was all they could really do for her. Veronica had tried to get her transferred to a psych facility multiple times, but her request was yet to be granted.
“We need to get that one back on her meds,” she said to her deputy. “See if you can get her on the psychiatrist’s list.”
“And keep yourselves safe. Six people on that cell, okay? That door doesn’t open unless you have a full team on hand.”