Doing a Nickel

Where nickels and dimes are spent.

It’s nothing new, but here I am again, confessing that in the ’70s, I did a nickel at a women’s prison in Massachusetts. (If you’re not a TV crime drama junkie like me, you may not know that “a nickel” means a 5-year sentence.)

I did the whole nickel, no parole. My accomplices served with me.

For 5 years, two other Sisters and I traveled from Boston to the outskirts of Massachusetts once a week, to bring college to selected inmates. Our crime, you might say, was the desire to teach—anyone, anywhere, anything.

Sister AC, a crackerjack English professor worked with the women to produce a newsletter. Sister JM, an art teacher, lugged supplies through the gray halls and led a drawing workshop. I taught math for GED prep.

Our students were mostly young women and mostly serving time for  prostitution and/or drugs. They were in a medium-security prison, usually with sentences of a dime or less. Their stories are for another time. This is about their jailers.

Some days were scarier than others—not because of the inmates, but because of the administrators. I can still picture the female warden who ran the place. Her wardrobe was less colorful than the prisoners’ uniforms; her manner more dour. She did everything she could to discourage us and to let us know we were Nothing But a Nuisance to her and her guards. They had to bother inspecting our bags, unlocking the gates, unlocking the classroom, ushering the students to the room. And then reverse the process 3 hours later.

I remember one day, let’s say it was a Tuesday. We arrived as usual, after about an hour’s drive, ready to be searched, growled at, grudgingly admitted.

“Nuh-uh,” the guard said. “No classes today.”

“Why not?”

He gave us a duh gesture. “Today’s a holiday. It’s the 4th of July.”

Of course we knew that, but figured our students probably wouldn’t be with the free people, sitting by the Charles River watching fireworks while the Boston Pops belted out the 1812 Overture.

“The students are here, right?” Sister AC, the senior member asked.

“Yeah, they’re here.”

“And it’s Tuesday,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Class day,” Sister JM said, hoisting her art supplies onto the inspection table.

“You people are a nuisance,” the guard said.

We smiled and went to work.

We learned a lot during our nickel. Enough to convince us to go straight.

 

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