Kathy Morse is a member of our online White Collar Support Group that meets on Monday evenings. Caution: her story is horrifying and very graphic. I admire her courage in sharing it to bring truth, awareness and light to the darkest of conditions in prison; conditions no person should have to live through. – Jeff
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.- Anais Nin
I broke the law, I stole $283,000 from my employer, I was guilty and I knew it, I own it.
Two months after I was fired from my job I surrendered, was booked, arranged and released on my own recognizance all in the same day. Fast forward 10 months and I am running around town doing errands with my 19 month-old daughter napping in her carseat when I saw the red flashing lights in my rear-view mirror. I had missed a court date because I was home sick in bed with pneumonia and the judges clerk had misplaced the doctors note which was faxed to them, a warrant for my arrest was issued, which because I resided in New Jersey made me a fugitive from justice even though every day I was travelling in and out of Manhattan to work. Going about my daily life.
I was remanded to the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island. My time at Rosie’s was fraught with pain (both physically and mentally), a loss of dignity, self-esteem, self-respect, heartbreak and trauma. I became numb, I had to separate myself from what was going on around me and how illegal and morally wrong it all was because at the time there was nothing I could do to stop it. I had to turn off my emotions and any indignation I might have at how not only I was being treated but how others were treated as well. I was threatened, verbally and physically, I was taunted and spit on, I had property stolen from me, I was extorted, I was preyed upon and yes I was sexually assaulted (once) and mentally abused on an almost daily basis.
I was Sexually Assaulted while at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island. It’s Time to Tell My Story. – Kathy Morse
I spent my time at Rosie’s living in a dormitory type housing unit with row upon row of metal cots totaling 62, a bathroom that contained 6 toilets separated only by a 3 foot tall wall but no door or curtain, the shower room consisted of on open room with tiling on 3 walls, shower heads one after the other lined one wall and hooks for towels on one wall, no shower curtains, no low walls to separate you, in other words no privacy, it was all out there in the open to share with 61 other women. For someone like myself who is rather modest about their body it was very uncomfortable to get used to, very painful. Trying to use the toilet while the person next to you wants to have a conversation as if you were sitting next to each other on the subway is a bit uncomfortable, intimidating for me so taking a shower with 6 other women whom I do not know in an open room can be rather overwhelming if you are not used to such a situation.
I was raped on this Unit, it was 5 upper (at the time, in the Annex), in the shower. When I moved from reception after clearing my TB test I asked the officer where I was going and he replied, “Don’t worry, you are going to the ‘Hilton’ of housing units, the girls there will take good care of you,” At the time I wondered what he meant by this comment and why was he doing me a favor of looking out for me, why me, who was I but a white middle age mother from New Jersey who stole money from her employer. A woman who did not sleep or eat and paced in her cell at night, kept quiet and to herself, only came out to talk on the phone and cried a lot. So what was it about me that made him want to send me to the ‘Hilton” of housing units?
I walked into the unit with my white pillow case overflowing with my bedding and was greeted by a variety of facial expressions, none of the least I found to be overly friendly it was downright frightening, overwhelming and yes intimidating as hell.
The day after I arrived on this Unit I started to hear muffled conversations referring to me as “Martha, Martha Stewart” – why because I was white, I had highlighted hair, I was a middle aged woman? I kept quiet and to myself, I only got up to use the bathroom and telephone. I could not eat, anything I tried to eat came right out of me. The name “Martha” continued to be mentioned when someone passed me. I was trying to figure out strategically when would be a good time to shower, when would there be the least traffic in the bathroom during the available shower-time hours when I could shower alone, so I sat on my bed and tried to figure it out, see if there was popular times, if there were certain groups who when in at certain times. Surely there had to be some block of 10 minutes when I could take a shower alone. I thought I had it figured out, it was a weeknight when a popular television show was on, the bathroom was deserted and I made my move to get a shower.
I went in the bathroom, it appeared the coast was clear, others were either in the day room yelling at the television, talking on the telephone’s, laying on their beds or playing cards with others. I got undressed, turned on the water, started to feel the warm water hit my face, run down the front of my body when I was grabbed from behind. One person got my face and neck, another pulled my arms behind my back while another grabbed my ankles. Another pushed me in the back of my knees causing me to go down, I tried to struggle out of their hold to break my fall but it was not possible. They were pulling my hair and jerking back my head whispering in my ear to be quiet, to not struggle or yell out and they kept over and over calling me “Martha, Martha Stewart” “Martha, we are going to teach you a lesson, this is what we do to snitches.”
At this point they had me down on all fours someone grabbing at my breasts while another was trying to shove the handle of the mop into my anus. I was struggling, trying to yell out in pain but nothing would come out, I had lost my voice and all I could feel was the searing pain in my backside, I could feel it being shoved in there, they switched to the handle of the toilet plunger and shoved it in as well, at this point I was seeing stars, the pain was unbearable and I smelled blood, I could feel its stickiness on my kneecaps. It felt like it went on for hours, the in and out of the wooden poles, the yanking of my hair, the grimy hand over my mouth, the ripping of my breasts, I had bit my lips to not cry out and they too were bleeding, I could now not only smell and see my blood but taste that metallic taste as well. Their last words to me were “have you had enough, Martha?” and they let me go and walked away. I lay there on the wet tile floor like a torn apart rag doll bleeding from my mouth and my backside, the smell of my own feces in the air, my breasts aching, my knees raw. I pulled myself together, washed away the blood and feces. I saw laying on the floor the mop and plunger they used to assault me with and they both had my blood, my body fluids on them, I simply did not care as I stumbled out of the shower, grabbed some sanitary pads to soak up my blood and crawled into my cot and just laid there too afraid to move, the pain was unbearable, the bleeding, the stickiness between my thighs. I was numb, I was cold, shivering, and could not get warm.
I lay awake that night and many thereafter afraid to sleep, afraid that they would come get me for round two. Hearing their voices mocking me, calling me “Martha.” The next days were a blur, I would get up to change the sanitary pads, I drank as much water as I could and I just returned to the bed. It simply hurt to much to move, to walk, to even go to the bathroom, I was afraid that I was going to die. I laid in my bed at night, in pain, bleeding and would have conversations with my father who had died 15 years earlier and I would in my mind talk to him, ask him to protect me, to help me keep safe, I had children at home who needed me, I needed to stay alive but at the same time I wanted the pain to go away and I did not want this to happen to me again, I wanted to die, I would ask him if I could come with him and if he would keep me safe. I laid in my bed, covering my bruises, using sanitary pads to soak up the blood, I was losing weight and did not care. I was afraid to shower and did not care, I would soap up a washcloth and use that. I knew who did this to me, but my will to live outweighed my right to report them. It simply was not worth it.
I would call home but not tell them what happened, I made a decision that I would tell no one. My attackers would walk past me and address me as Martha and I simply ignored them. I no longer cared, I figured they had already violated me what more could they possibly do to me. Gradually the bleeding stopped, the bruises faded, but the ache in my chest remained, it would not go away. I had my almost weekly visits with my husband and 22-month old daughter and I never told him, I stuffed it, buried it. The only time it almost came out was every time I went to court.
When I saw my lawyer at court I would beg and plead with him to get me out, and each and every court appearance the judge would deny our request for release or bail. I wondered if I went in to open court and told everyone what was done to me if it would have changed the outcome, I sincerely doubt it. But each court appearance became worse. I cried, begged and pleaded, it got so bad I started having panic attacks and hyperventilating and on several occasions was in no condition to see the judge, yet no one asked what was wrong, they simply assumed it was because I did not want to be in jail, at Rikers.
I kept this story in for over 10 years. Never told the whole thing, not even to my various therapists, I kept it in when I attended trauma therapy, I kept it in when I have been interviewed for various publications. But now is the time, I need to get it out, I need to free myself from those mental shackles that have held me back. I feel no shame, I feel safe, and secure. I am in a good place now and know that I can tell this story without regret. I know that the officer who promised me that I was going to the “Hilton of housing units” had set me up, I realize that now. I know now that those women who attacked me thinking I was a snitch were wrong then, do I forgive them yes, I am at that point where I need to forgive and move on, to heal and I am okay with that. I am no longer numb, the thaw gradually happened over a period of time since my release 5 years ago.
I do believe that the trauma of my incarceration is still with me and will be for the remainder of my life, I still have PTSD but it is no longer as severe as it once was, I still have nightmares and flashbacks and those too are lessening over time. What this experience has helped me do is to bring my story and that of so many other currently and formerly incarcerated women incarcerated to the community, to educate them on what it really is like to be incarcerated in America, to reveal to them the horrors, the trauma of incarceration. Why, because with current trends within the criminal justice system there will come a day when everyone in the community will be impacted by incarceration, be it themselves individually, someone in their household, a relative, a friend, a co-worker a neighbor, everyone regardless of socioeconomic status will come in contact with incarceration and it’s better to be as educated about it as you can than to have it sprung on you like it was to me.
I was incarcerated for a reason, yes mostly because I broke the law and needed to be punished but also because it exposed me to a world that I otherwise would never have known about intimately, the things I personally experienced, I witnessed, I heard is nothing that can ever be taught in a classroom or read in a textbook. It has provided me with a once-in-a-lifetime education that I am using to bring about reform in criminal justice across the country. I promised the women that I left behind that I would make sure that their stories were told, that I would educate the public as to what really goes on behind bars to women and girls, that I would make sure to fight for reform. To never stop talking, begging and pleading, cajoling to bring about change for a more humane, rehabilitative and restorative approach towards punishment and away from the medieval mindset currently held across the country. This is why I do the advocacy work I do. I have a story to tell, many experiences to share and I will not be stopped or silenced any longer.
Some think I am blunt, I take that as a compliment, incarceration and detention and what happens in jails and prisons needs to be told bluntly, no need to make it pretty because honestly, the abuse, brutality and violence is not pretty, it’s traumatic, traumatic as hell to be honest no need to sugarcoat it.
Kathy Morse is an advocate on social justice issues, concentrating on incarcerated women and adolescents, more specifically trauma, sexual assault, dignity for women and girls, education during incarceration, family reunification, restorative justice and parole/probation reform.
Kathy holds a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Law and Justice from Rowan University (1981) and worked for over thirty years as a paralegal. A featured character in Rikers: An American Jail an award winning documentary produced by Bill Moyers she has participated on numerous panels following screenings of the film all over the United States. She is often interviewed by various media outlets regarding issues related to women, girls and incarceration in the US. She is a 2019-2020 Cohort in the Faces of Women Imprisoned speakers bureau.
A co-founder of “CloseRosies” a grass-roots campaign she focuses on issues faced by women & girls incarcerated in jails & prisons across the country. Initially created to draw attention to the women and girls detained at the Rose M. Singer Center (“Rosies) on Rikers Island the campaign has expanded to include jails and prisons across the country.
Kathy can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @kathymorse0914 @CloseRosies, Facebook: kathymorse0914, LinkedIn: kathym0914