Letters From an Angel

Teala Volkamer, Wake Forest University School of Law JD ’23

Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women 

8966 US-231, Wetumpka, AL 36092 


I don’t even know why I’m writin’ you, I guess I don’t have anyone else to write to. I’ve been put in the hole and don’t have anythin’ better to do than write. The cage is so small if I stretch my arms out real wide, I can just touch both walls. Ain’t even got anythin’ but a mattress. The only reason I even have some paper is cause there’s a newjack workin’ the hole. I don’t think he’s figured out it’s just supposed to be me and my thoughts in here. 

It’s funny, my first memory is visitin’ you in prison. Some karma. I remember Gran and I hopped a bus at 2:45am to make it to the prison. Gran didn’t want to risk her old clunker breakin’ down on the three-hour drive, so we took a community bus. I remember the bus makin’ tons of stops along the way to pick up other kids visitin’ their parents.  

I remember the bus pullin’ up in front of the main entrance, you know the one, with Julia Tutwiler’s name hung low over the metal bars. I remember standin’ outside in the freezin’ air tryin’ to sound out the letters. I had just started learnin’ to read, though ‘prison’ hadn’t shown up on a spellin’ test yet. Gran wrapped her arms around me from behind spellin’ out Julia Tutwiler Prison for me.  

I remember walkin’ through those front doors. However cold it was outside, it must have been ten degrees colder inside. Between the mean stares of C/Os lookin’ down on me mixed with the feelin’of sadness that sits thick in the air here, I was chilled through. I sat silently as someone read out the long list of rules: don’t touch the prisoners, don’t give the prisoners anythin’…the list went on for what felt like hours. 

I remember you. You looked happy to see me, but you still seemed sad. Even at five years old, I could tell you were beaten down even though I didn’t understand why. I’m startin’ to understand, mom. I feel like I’m bein’ chatted out with no one to talk to. The only thing that brings me any peace is knowin’ my daughter is safe. 

When we left the prison that day I cried. Gran said you couldn’t come home with us because you made a mistake, but I didn’t get what mistake could be so big that it kept you from me. I remember that night Gran prayed for you. Gran spent a lot of time prayin’ that God would forgive whatever mistake you made. And I know she prayed that I would live up to my name and not make the same ones.  

I guess it’s too late for prayers now. 


Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women 

8966 US-231, Wetumpka, AL 36092 


I wish you’d been around more when I was little. Maybe then I wouldn’t be doin’ a dime. Gran did her best, but I still spent a lot of time bouncin’ between folks. Between her day job servin’ down at the diner and house keepin’ at night she wasn’t around a whole lot. Most days I was shot ‘round between school, Cousin Shelbie pickin’ me up right at 3, and Uncle Richard watchin’ me after he got off work at 6 until Gran could make it home. 

This was real formative to who I am. I knew Gran loved me, but I felt like such a burden. I did my best to keep my head down and not make trouble. Between puttin’ food on the table and payin’ for rent, she had enough to worry about. Seems like no matter how hard I tried though; trouble found me. I guess it’s not so different from now.  

When I was seven, this blonde little girl in my class who looked like she’d never had a bad day in her life got real talkative on the playground about me. Her name was Bea, or somethin’ snappy like that. She had gathered a real big crowd and was explainin’ how her mom told her that you were in prison because you were a bad person. I’ll never forget the look on everyone’s little faces as she explained how because my mom was in prison it meant that I didn’t have a mommy and that I might be dangerous too. 

Yeah, I molly whooped her for sayin’ that. But can you blame me? She and her mom just assumed you were dangerous. They didn’t know you were charged with dealin’ drugs, or that you dealt with addiction. They didn’t know you tried multiple times to get clean but never could. I ended up rippin’ Bea’s dress durin’ that fight. At the time I said I didn’t mean to, but between us I wanted to do worse than that.  

When I was twelve, I got called out in front of my whole class as the expert on prisons. 

My teacher picked me out of thirty-six students to talk on my “perspective” of the prison system. Her words, not mine. Every head in the room whipped ‘round to look at me as I shrunk down in my seat. I mumbled a bunch of vague nonsense, but she kept pressin’ me to share sayin’ it was mando that I participate. Finally, I snapped, shoutin’ somethin’ about how I didn’t have an answer to her stupid question. 

Yes, lookin’ back maybe shoutin’ at a teacher wasn’t necessary.  But the nerve of her targetin’ me to share my experience! Of course, I ended up with detention for that outburst. But detention turned out to be the least of my worries. I knew stayin’ late to serve detention meant 

Shelbie wouldn’t be able to pick me up and Richard would have to leave work early to get me. 

I know the last time you saw Richard you guys were in school. Well, he didn’t finish and ended up workin’ down at the body shop. Years of hard labor for minimum wage wore him down and his temper became worse than the smell of gasoline that followed him around. Gran always said he smelled because he wore that same pair of tattered work overalls, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t because he showered less than a hog who loves mud.  

As soon as I got that pink detention slip, I knew he’d have it out for me. Disruptin’ his workday and forcin’ him to give up an hour of pay? Any way I ran the possibilities in my head, the outcome was no good. Since I can remember, Richard had a habit of takin’ his frustration out on me. It usually started with a firm voice orderin’ me to hand him the remote or grab a beer from the fridge. If I didn’t move fast enough it would get worse with wrist grabbin’ and name callin’. What would happen after that still keeps me up at night.  

I guess I was june bug for takin’ it. But I didn’t have any options. I couldn’t tell Gran, she had enough to worry about takin’ care of us. So, I kept quiet. 


Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women 

8966 US-231, Wetumpka, AL 36092 


Gran’s prayers for me must not have been loud enough. ‘Round the time I was gettin’ ready to graduate high school I got mixed up with the wrong people doing’ the wrong things. It started off with me catchin’ a ride with them, but eventually I was dealin’. At the time it seemed harmless. By this point Gran had given up her job as a housekeeper. She was getting’ too old to work till 1:00am, so money was tight and some extra cash seemed like a good thing. Not to mention, takin’ hits from the stash helped me deal with havin’ Richard around. My new friends and I earned a rep ‘round school as dealers, and we worked our way in with the townies who ended up bein’ our suppliers. Honestly it was amazin’ we got away with it as long as we did. But eventually I found myself in a holdin’ cell at the county jail. 

The timin’ could not have been worse. My period was two months late and just the day before my arrest I had taken a pregnancy test.  

Positive. The two lines stared back up at me.  

I didn’t even know I could get pregnant. I was a late bloomer and had only started gettin’ my period the year before. And even when I did it wasn’t like I got it every month. So, I just assumed it meant I couldn’t get pregnant. So yes, maybe I was a ‘lil reckless. But maybe gettin’ pregnant was a sign, I had a chance to take care of a child, a daughter I hoped. I could be the person I had missed growin’ up.  

Hour one in that holdin’ cell. I was worried what Gran would think. I knew she never wanted me to end up like you. But somehow, I had. Even though I was tryin’ to help, I was headin’ down the same path. 

Hour eight in the holdin’ cell. My nerves started to get the better of me and I had already had two anxiety attacks. Also, I really needed to pee. I shouted out to an officer but he didn’t pay me no mind. 

Hour ten in the holdin’ cell. There was more than a little blood on my jeans. I figured out too late I hadn’t needed to pee, I was bleedin’.  I shouted out again to an officer, askin’ for help. 

The officer on duty stormed into the room. 

“Quit yer yellin’! I don’t wanna listen to you complain all day. Keep that up and you’ll land yourself in Tutwiler!” 

My pleas for a doctor fell on deaf ears. He didn’t care. So, there I was losin’ my baby girl with the threat hangin’ in the air of bein’ locked up right where you had been.  


Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women 

8966 US-231, Wetumpka, AL 36092 


10 years. That’s what the judge said I deserved. And 10 years in these hallowed halls of 

Tutwiler no less. I guess that officer wasn’t so far off threatenin’ me that I’d be sent to Tutwiler. 

I didn’t have time to think, much less tell Gran I’m sorry, before they stuck me on a bus with a bunch of frequent fliers. They didn’t hesitate to offer me all kinds of advice. More than one of them said the best way to fly under the radar was to go along with the C/Os, even if they made moves on me. They said C/Os had favorites, and for them life was as least slightly bearable.  

Not a single person asked me about losin’ my baby girl. It seemed like the C/Os were more interested in gettin’ me processed as quickly as possible. Someone handed me a single pair of blues and rushed me down the hall to my cell. Well, cell suggests a small space, but you remember Lady Tutwiler. It was actually a dorm room burstin’ at the seams with bunks. 

I was shown to my cadillac by an officer who looked close to me in age. Tall and skinny with a lewd smile on his face, he looked like he was capable of more than his weight suggested. As we walked through the room, he reached out, pushin’ me along by my back. I tried to walk faster out of his reach, but he just grabbed the back of my blues to slow me.  It was three weeks in Tutwiler before I got my period. In the three weeks I was there, I was given one pack of some sorry excuse for pads. The first time I tried to use one, it done slipped right out of my underwear. The pads were thin and had zero stick on them. So, I tried to make do that first cycle. I wrapped toilet paper ‘round the pads to make them last a ‘lil longer but 

that toilet paper was so thin it did damn near nothin’. I couldn’t buy any from the store because I had used up my savin’s on calls to Gran. I ended up reusin’ each pad three times to make it to the end of my period. I don’t know who picks these pads, but it has got to be a male, wouldn’t a woman know better? But then again, there are so few female C/Os that it probably is a man makin’ these ridiculous decisions.

That C/O who showed me to my bunk ended up bein’ a real robocop. He did bed checks every mornin’, writin’ me up for things as ‘lil as my sheets not bein’ folded down flat. 

Eventually I realized he was doin’ it on purpose, tryin’ to find excuses to hang ‘round, whether it was by my bunk or in the dinin’ hall. Several times he caught me alone in passin’. In an attempt to stretch out interactions, he would ask me to grab things for him: his coffee cup or the mop, anythin’ he could think of. I tried to ignore him, but it continued until eventually he got fed up with me duckin’ him.  

“Hey bitch, I’m talkin’ to YOU. I asked you to get me a pen from my office.” Getting’ up in my face he licked his lips and I caught a whiff of him. He smelled like gasoline and coffee. This guy was just another version of Uncle Richard. Another guy who would use me how he wanted.  

The warnin’s of other women rang in my ears. The best thing I could do was give him what he wanted. Besides, what options did I have? I could at least gain somethin’, anythin’ to make life a little easier in here. 

So, I stopped fightin’ back so much. If he asked me for somethin’, I did it. If he made a joke, I smiled. Before long he got bolder, offerin’ to bring me things women couldn’t get their hands on in here if I returned the favor. By this point I had suffered through months of periods. My toilet paper hack was far from perfect and the stress of bleedin’ through my clothes put me so on edge that I wasn’t sleepin’ at night. I desperately needed tampons, or at least a pad with a ‘lil stick on the back.  

So, I gave in. He promised that he could bring me a box of tampons, and not the standard cardboard prison ones they sold at the store, but the real drugstore type of tampons. All I had to do was let him take a few photos of me with his phone. It wasn’t until he closed the door to his office that I realized the photos would be more than a quick headshot. 

“Drop your jumpsuit.”

I hesitated. 

“Is your doped up brain really that dumb? I said drop it you worthless crack whore. I don’t have all day.” 

Every word out of his mouth felt like a knife. I didn’t see a choice. I needed supplies and there was no one else who could help me. So, I dropped my blues to the floor. As he snapped away, I focused my eyes on the wall behind him. Why do I deserve this? How was this fair punishment for my mistakes?  


I’ve been in the hole for days now. I swear I’m gonna go psych if I’m in here much longer. The one upside is that I no longer have to interact with the C/Os except through the bean slot.

I had hoped that bargain’ with that officer for tampons would be the extent of my interactions with him. But instead, it opened a rabbit hole, with him always pushin’ for more from me. It wasn’t just him either, other officers and even some of the nurses constantly take advantage of the gen pop. They seem more interested in what we can do for them rather than what they could do to help us.  

The worst fear is always durin’ shower time. C/Os take some kinda sick pleasure in comin’ in and out of the bathrooms unannounced while we use them. They claim it’s routine, but I swear the only time I ever saw them enter the bathrooms was when they knew for certain someone would be usin’ it. To make it worse, there aren’t even shower curtains to hide behind. The best I can do is turn away and try to pull my hair in front of me. And even that doesn’t work well because C/Os are always callin’ for prisoner count when the showers are full which means steppin’ out the water, facin’ the officer, and stayin’ there until the count is finished. And it’s never a quick count either, with C/Os miscountin’ on purpose just to get a longer look.  I miss being able to shower alone. I even miss those locker room communal showers at the public pool when I was a kid. What a silly thing to miss. But anythin’ must be better than havin’ your shower be a free strip show. 


Got my period today, but no one’s even bothered to bring me my personal stuff, so I’m back to usin’ the spare toilet paper as a pad. I’ll give it an hour, if that, before I bleed through my clothes, but what option do I have? Laundry day happens once a week, and I don’t have a spare pair of blues. This isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with this. I’ve even told Gran to stop visitin’ because of the blood stains on my clothes. Not that Gran would care, but I can’t stand the thought of walkin’ through the vistin’ room with everyone starin’ at me. It’s embarrassin’, and Lord knows the C/Os get a good laugh out of it. 

The reason I’m in the hole? I couldn’t take the stains that were buildin’ up on my underwear. So, I gave in. That same C/O who offered me the tampons was more than happy to get me extra underwear, if I gave him somethin’ in return. And this time he was askin’ for somethin’ more physical than photos. I’m not proud that I did it, but I didn’t see any options.  

All that for a clean pair of underwear. 

I felt so guilty after my exchange with the C/O. Was I a bad person tradin’ sex for things I needed? But it wasn’t like I was tradin’ for a bundle, it was necessity. I ended up reportin’ my exchange on the PREA hotline. Well, I tried to. I made the call, but it must get filtered through the main office because that night I was pulled outta my bunk and thrown in the hole. No one will tell me why I’m in here, but it doesn’t take a genius to know why. I guess they hope I’ll  keep my mouth shut after bein’ worn down in here. And they’re probably right about that. 


I’ve been down in the hole for a week now. I’m pretty sure they plan on keepin’ me in here until they can be sure that my attempted report to PREA isn’t looked in to. I guess I’ll keep on writin’ until they let me out. I don’t know where you are, or even if you’re alive, so you’ll probably never see these letters. But writin’ makes me feel some kind of connection to you. I don’t blame you for your mistakes, because I’ve made the same ones. The best thing I can do now is try to survive. It’s obvious not a single person cares what happens in here. I could shout at the top of my lungs to ask for help and all I would get is a kick in the side tellin’ me I don’t need it. 


Note from the Author

Jannah’s experiences in the prison system are entirely based on real life stories of women who have been failed by the American prison system, and especially by the Alabama prison system during their time at Tutwiler Prison. The piece is specifically set in a time prior to the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) investigation of Tutwiler to highlight the myriad of problems that continue to persist in institutions that have not been subjected to the same level of scrutiny. In 2018, the First Step Act was passed and helped address two gender-specific issues, banning the shackling of women during pregnancy and, the provision of menstrual products free of charge. However, the First Step Act is targeted at federal prisons only, which leaves women in state prisons acutely vulnerable.

Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

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