Apparently, my bras are not up to par. Unlike the average woman, I don’t come close to owning nine. Nor do I wear a dizzying range of styles: lacy numbers the equivalent of gift-wrapping, bras that disguise the fact that women have nipples, stretchy sporty contraptions so favored that they are worn as outerwear, or glue-on cups. Me, I go for comfort. I am loyal to the same plain brand that took me years and much unhappy experimentation to find. You might think that the multi-billion-dollar bra industry would be able to get the fundamentals right but you would be mistaken. All bras irritate like a hair shirt.
In my younger days, I went without and still believe in a woman’s right to constrict or flop at will. Medically, I am on firm ground here, supported by no less than Dr. Jean-Denis Rouillon, who studied 330 women’s breasts for fifteen years and concluded that breasts gain no benefit from being denied gravity. (Why doesn’t it surprise me that this good doctor is French?)
As a feminist, I object that when I volunteer to visit four men in maximum-security prison, the Bureau of Prisons dictates what I wear under my clothing. I understand that skimpy, provocative and skin-tight garb might be unsuitable for prison visiting rooms but the Bureau doesn’t insist that male visitors wear jock-straps to hide their wobbly bits. But I grit my teeth and comply because I take my volunteer work very seriously.
Eight years ago, when I first laughed to my friends about Taliban prison rules, they said, “Why are you doing this?” I didn’t know how to answer. My motivation was hidden, even from me. Why did I feel such a tremendous pull toward men trapped in ruined lives when I was already giving too much to a husband that was trapped in a different type of ruin?
My husband of ten years had lost a fifth of his brain two years prior. It made him hard to predict or understand. He’d been a genius. And he still scored in the ninety-ninth percentile for some cognitive tasks but he scored in the first for quite a few others. His fertile mind had been excavated and I was still seeking him in jagged crevices. Peering into sinkholes. Truth be told, I was looking for myself in those same places. I gave up a job to look after him. I’d been the wife of a charming professor but suddenly, my life had become confined and dull. Prison was scary but it felt like a different country and gave me something to think about when I was house-bound.
For years, during monthly prison visits, I felt snug and confident in my choice of underwear. But one day, I lined up to clear the prison security check, anticipating no problems, when a bosomy woman in front of me tripped the alarm on the metal detector. Cascades of her waist-length hair, peroxide-blond and permed to the coarseness of camel hair, did not hide the tension that suddenly gripped her shoulders. I’d not seen her before. She was probably new and nervous.
An officer wearing epaulets on his white shirt motioned her to the side and slid his hand slowly along the length of his electronic wand. “Put your feet on the footprints,” he said, indicating a rubber mat. She held her arms above her head, opened her legs and averted her eyes, trying not to see the hairy hand skimming her bold curves. As a seasoned prison visitor, I couldn’t help feeling a little smug. They wouldn’t have to wand me. I knew the routine: shoes off, no belt or scarf, no jacket and money in a transparent purse.
The officer frowned at her. “You wearing an underwire bra?”
Only in prison, I thought.
Reddening, she whispered, “Yes.” I could see that she was younger than I’d realized.
“They’re not allowed.”
That’s new. I swallowed, suddenly not as sure as I had been. I was wearing one, too.
She looked stricken. “Can I go through to the restroom? I’ll take it off and come back.”
Flushed but stony-faced, the officer shook his head. “Sorry, women must wear a bra.” She was turned away. Many visitors travel from out-of-state to visit loved ones and years can pass between visits. I hoped she hadn’t come far.
I began worrying about my own prospects. The four men I visited relied on me. I was their only visitor for decades and I was anxious to get in. One of my favorite guards, a small cheerful man with blond curls, motioned me forward. With a sinking heart, I walked through the metal detector. Surprisingly, the alarm was silent and he waved me on.
I should have taken the warning to heart. It was time to seek different underwear. But who wants to shop for intimate apparel based on Bureau of Prisons criteria? Don’t they know how hard it is to find any comfortable bra? Foolishly, I convinced myself that the wires in my bra were smaller than the previous woman’s, below the threshold needed to trigger the alarm.
When I first sat knee-to-knee with an illiterate robber, a mercenary, a sociopath and a man imprisoned for armed assault, the conversations were agonizing. We couldn’t rely on common interests or even shared values. One man in particular could have been speaking Urdu for all I knew. It was his lack of teeth. A Dixie accent didn’t help my Australian ears and his voice was as hoarse as shucked corn husks jostling in a sack.
But I came to care for those men. In important ways, I was no different from them. Ringer’s love for his mom endured a quarter of a century without seeing her. In the midst of killing and savagery, Wulf’s comrades-in-war experienced heightened bonds and acute loyalties. Earnest found protection and belonging among gang thugs. Dodge loved the father who pimped him for sodomy. And I loved a man diminished. A man who no longer knew how to love me. We thirst so much for love that all these ties bind.
And years of visiting had bound me to four inmates. “You’re it, “ Wulf, the mercenary had said to me. “I need you. I need to talk to you about what’s going on because you’re all I have.” Like most prisoners’ families, his abandonned him when he needed them the most.
Next month, when I wore the same bra to prison and was denied entry, I cursed silently then begged. Probably not many people beg to get into a penitentiary but I did and it didn’t help. Then I remembered the scissors in my car’s first aid kit. Once inside the car, I locked all the doors and pulled down the sun visors. These actions earned me four inches of privacy for the top of my head but they made me feel better before I yanked up my shirt. Maybe if I turn sideways, I’ll present less of a spectacle for the officers in the guard tower. But then I realized that at any moment, someone could park their car next to mine and I’d be fully exposed. I gave up on modesty.
First aid scissors are sharp. Hurriedly stabbing them at your chest while hunching in embarrassment is not a good idea. But heck, I was already shredding my forty-dollar bra, why worry about bloodstains? After slashing a large enough slit to grab one end of the first wire, I tugged hard. It didn’t budge. I tried again with both hands, yanking and groaning for extra impact. For a terrible moment, I thought it might be welded in place. Here goes, I thought, giving it everything I had, worrying that I might spear myself if it came out all of a sudden. It did, but caused only a minor flesh wound. Finally, the other one came out comparatively easily with just a tad more blood loss.
With high spirits and a little less lift, I hurried back to the prison reception and spotted a woman standing alone in the parking lot. I could hardly miss her. Without any show of discretion, she was manipulating her bountiful bosom with both hands. I stared at her crisp slacks and flowered grandma blouse. She didn’t look like a woman who would fondle herself in public. She looked up, eyes wide in dismay.
“I know your problem!” I laughed. “Come to my car, I’ve got scissors.”
“Oh, my God. You’re my angel!” Tiny clots of mascara smudged her eyelids. “I started out in a dress this morning but they sent me home. Said it was inappropriate!” With an indignant flick, she sent her wavy hair back over her shoulder. “It was down to here,” she said pointing to mid-calf. “And it buttoned up to my neck. It didn’t show nothing!”
As I led her to my car, she heaved a sigh. “I flew in from Sacramento, yesterday. My ride’s gone. I can’t get these things out and I didn’t know what to do. You really are my savior!”
Handing her the scissors, I motioned her to sit in the front seat while I busied myself with the contents of the trunk. When finished, she tossed two enormous metal semi-circles onto the carpet. Later, I caught several friends, male and female alike, eyeing them suspiciously. Discretely silent, they no doubt wondered why there were two bra supports of vastly different sizes, spooning on the floor.
Back in the prison reception, without underwire support, I bounced confidently through the metal detector.
I frowned and back-tracked. I removed my barrettes.
I unclipped my earrings.
Do they want me to yank out my fillings? Turning to my favorite guard, I threw up my hands. “I have no more metal on me!”
He had shorn his blond curls to stubble. Smiling apologetically, he said, “I can only let you in if you clear the detector. Try again.”
I tried twice more, each time becoming more hesitant as the alarm screeched. A fellow visitor who had been observing my futile endeavors called out, “Walk straight down the middle and don’t pause!” Thanks to my angel’s advice, I made it through. And I say angel humbly because by that time, I realized my prison visits helped me as much as they helped the men I saw.
Everyone knows that to build a prison, they scrape the ground to bedrock. That to stay alive and avoid becoming some thug’s bitch, even non-violent prisoners must pounce and punch first. But while prison stews the meat from men’s bones, it is also a place of unutterable kindness. From the moment I met them, four inmates allowed me to witness their struggles to make sense of thwarted lives. They opened doors to war, squalor, abuse and prison, experiences I could previously only imagine inadequately. Watching for the moment when their eyes lit up, I overcame my shyness. Grappling with how much to reveal about myself and how to react to their harrowing stories, I honed a belief in authenticity. Later, during my own time of grief when I tried to make sense of the husband who divorced me, my felon friends helped me inhabit more of the person I wanted to become.
After about four years of visiting prison, I thought I had the procedures handled. Wearing what I believed was prison-compliant underwear and an outfit that on previous occasions had cleared security with no problems, I strolled through the metal detector.
I spread my arms in exasperation.
“Wearing a belt?” the officer asked.
“No! Can you hand-wand me?”
“We don’t do that anymore. Try holding your hand over the button on your jeans. Go through again.”
Remembering lessons learned from the last time, I walked through quickly and dead center.
“This is ridiculous! My bra has hooks and eyes, how about I take it off, you run it through the scanner, and then I’ll put it on again?”
He widened his eyes as though shocked at the idea. “We can’t let everyone see your underwear!”
I shut my eyes so he wouldn’t see them rolling. Oh, the irony. This, in the place where privacy is stripped away. A place that already forced me to risk arrest for public indecency for baring my chest in a prison parking lot. Telling myself to quit the attitude in case it began to show, I took a deep breath and prepared myself for one last failure. Shielding my button and zipper with both hands, I glided through the grey plastic archway as smoothly as if I were a Dalek from Dr. Who. On the other side, I stiffened, waiting for the beep. When it didn’t sound, I relaxed and chuckled. But it didn’t make sense: my clothing had not changed from my unsuccessful try to the successful.
A woman with short brown hair and glasses sidled up to me. “It’s to keep us on edge,” she whispered, turning her powdered face away from the guards. “The prisoners deal with this stuff all the time.”
I smiled, grateful that she put my frustration in perspective. We both knew that everyone gets messed around in prison, day-visitors and overnighters alike.
Months later, my house had been days without water, the result of a plumbing disaster, and I hadn’t been able to do the laundry. Groggy from an early alarm-clock rising, I groped in the normally undisturbed recesses of my dressing table to drag out a baggy dull tee-shirt that met the prison color requirements. Grimacing, I put my head through the neck-opening. My reflection in the mirror declared: Spinster-ista. I sighed. It was that or yesterday’s clothing and I would rather look drab than stink.
Nevertheless, that morning at the prison, I failed to clear the metal detector, twice. “You’re kidding me! I’m wearing a sports bra.”
I removed my earrings and went through a third time.
When I didn’t hear the buzzer, I grinned with relief but the officer said, “One more time, just to be sure.”
It’s all so rule-bound. But now this is capricious. Anxiously, I walked through for the fourth time and tripped the buzzer. “What’s going on? It’s inconsistent!” I shrilled.
He looked apologetic but refused to let me in.
Since that incident, I’ve begun to carry a wide Ace bandage for emergency chest-binding and my undergarments haven’t been the cause of minor security alerts for quite some time now. But I still worry. There are always new regulations. To cope, I try to mold my apprehension into a Zen-like acceptance. I approach each security check wondering: Which regulation will I violate today? And I’m still searching for that elusive prison-perfect bra. For something I wear so close to my heart, do no-metal bras have to be so thick and ugly? Is it too much to ask that they would also lift me up?
Gillian Haines is a transplanted Aussie. She lives in Tucson where she loves the saguaros and hummingbirds . The four prisoners she has volunteered to visit for the past eight years only know the desert’s thirst.