L. LeDonne was incarcerated from 2017 to 2020 at York Correctional Institution, Connecticut’s state prison for women. She was 54 years old when she was sent there. LeDonne now lives in Shelton, Connecticut. She continues to make music and has received grants to launch a non-profit music program for formerly incarcerated people to help process trauma and PTSD. More information about her works can be found at Ledonnemusic.com.
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I already knew our housing was suspect. I had heard rumbles of overcrowding and had heard of the news stations lurking about the gate. The Department of Corrections was filtering the overflow into the west side gym. It was a decent example of an institutional gym now littered with filthy, wall-to-wall black metal bunks. People were on top of each other literally 24 hours a day. We were confined to our bunks when not on rec (recreation), a measly six hours, spread in increments throughout the day. It was a noisy, fluorescent-blaring box and we were expected to function. This was my first initial realization I was in maximum security and I was in trouble.
Most of us were in limbo, this being the first stop into gen-pop (general population) awaiting our trials and our verdicts.
The not knowing became all-consuming. Fights erupted constantly, usually over phone calls, or stealing food or someone’s girl. After the formal count was conducted at 3 pm, I quickly fastened my jail ID badge onto my left upper chest area, a requirement and a possible Class B disciplinary ticket if not adhered to. I hurried to the bathroom not feeling well—I was having a tough time digesting the cuisine. It wasn’t fit for a queen, or an animal for that matter.
As I closed the bathroom door behind me, my attention was hijacked by a female CO’s shrill voice “Give me your badge now!!!”
My stomach fell. That anxious nausea that kicks in so hard when you know you’re about to go down. I knew what it meant to have your ID taken. It meant an afternoon stroll to the hole, segregation, SEG.
I was led by a strong grip on my arms, already cuffed so tightly behind my back, by four oversized male COs. An excess of force on my petite stature. I made the bad decision to remind one of the COs that he was being a bit “aggressive” with the way he handled me not
knowing this would start a war with this particular CO that would rage until the end of my stay. I refused to lower my head, an effort the guard tried to thwart by pulling upwards on the cuffs to force my head to lower, causing pain.
I could hear the women shout about the absurdity of my punishment and say my name. “L! BIG L! L!” and “Let her go!” It empowered me and gave me hope as I struggled to hold my head high and not fall to tears like I had witnessed so many before me do. I was small, white, and not young anymore, but I refused to show fear. More importantly, I was determined to set an example.
Upon arrival in the cold, dreary backdrop known as “SEG,” I could already hear the madness that occurs under such dire conditions. I heard the yelling between two girls recently brought in for fighting. One girl’s nose was sprawled across her face, covered in crimson streaks that had not yet dried, confirming the violence. I watched the COs chuckle and laugh as they placed bets on which girl would win if they let them fight, and they decided to place them in our rec cages (my dog had a nicer one) outside to see it play out. I was appalled by their barbaric behavior. “Video et Taceo”—I see and I am silent”—had become my survival mantra.
I was brought into a cell, stripped, searched, and given stiff red scrubs. The finality of the door slamming shut will reverberate forever in my psyche.
I was now alone and cold. I took the threadbare blanket to the bottom bunk because it felt safer, a little cave-like. I lay down on the thin foam mattress, my hips immediately sore as I tried to find some semblance of comfort. I struggled knowing my privileges were revoked. No phone calls, no mail. I knew my Mom and my friends would seriously worry after seven days. I was resigned to the fact there was nothing I could do. The vents in each cell doubled as make-shift phones, allowing the girls to communicate with each other. The voices competed with each other, each one shouting over the next.
The nonsensical talk continued well into the darkness. Arguing and fighting over nothing. It was a little hard for self-reflection as to how I ended up here. There was nothing for me to do to occupy the endless hours. Oh sure, a blank-faced woman with steel eyes came around with books on a cart which I couldn’t read because I wasn’t allowed my glasses. Let me correct myself—they were pieces of books. Books with no beginnings and books with no endings. So appropriate for this demographic. Many of us shared the same screwed-up beginnings, no hope for endings…just torn pages of life.
I tried to meditate, to remove myself from this hell. I was cold, I was hungry, and I knew how much my mother would be worrying, lying awake wondering what happened and why I hadn’t called. It was hard to find stillness in such turmoil.
Medical care was a whole other issue. A giant pink elephant no one of authority noticed, and if they did, they didn’t care. I had been on estrogen for decades due to an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured and resulted in a hysterectomy in my twenties. I was almost two weeks unmedicated and was catapulted into full-blown menopause with excruciating leg and foot cramps and bouts of manic hormonal mood swings.
I kept telling myself it was only temporary and caused by lack of estrogen to make it somehow easier. I have played the piano and written songs since I was a small child. It was my way to cope, my way to process feelings I couldn’t quite put into words, or a way to express the words that came to mind but just didn’t give my feelings the proper validation. It was heartbreaking for me to know I wouldn’t be able to put my hand against those cool ivories that called to me and soothed me since some of my very first memories. The only remedy I knew was to write, to create, so I would be able to cope with the circumstances surrounding me.
And it came: “I did it gotta ticket now I’m going to seg”
I wrote the hook, then the verses, and sang them over and over and over. I had to! I couldn’t write it, it wasn’t allowed. So I practiced until an abrupt tap tap tap on the long thin glass of my cell door broke my focus. “Do you need mental health?” a tall, too-tanned nurse inquired. “No,” I smiled. “Not even close.” I knew it was morning by the banging of a rude CO asking me if I wanted my allotted hour outside. It was 5 am, 15 degrees out, and with no coat, to hang out in a dog cage? Yeah I was good on all that!!!
I lay back down and heard the clanking of keys, the snap of the bracelets, and one of the girls being taken to the shower—a feat hard for a magician as we had to maneuver washing while cuffed.
And then I heard it!!!
I DID IT
NOW I’M GOING TO SEG
She was singing my song. And then the others joined in. I smiled so big, because I had accomplished what I had planned. In the words of the famous DJ Danny Tenaglia, “Music is the answer.” We needed to make a connection. We needed hope. And as we sang together, the healing was able to begin.
Listen to L. LeDonne’s “SEG SONG”: