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One Day (of 2,920) in Prison
Najet Miah
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Editor’s note: Represent writer Najet Miah, 18, is in her second year of an eight-year term in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. This is her account of a day inside.

My morning begins at 3 a.m. I’m up this early to pray, and my body has adjusted to awakening naturally. I recite my prayer in Arabic and prostrate myself (lie face down). I feel closest to God in prostration—connected and humble. Everyone else is asleep. I go back to bed reassured that I will make it through these eight years in prison. I’ve embraced Islam in here, and it has moved me toward wanting humility and peace rather than violence and status.

I was arrested in August 2011 and convicted in May 2012 of attempted murder, gang assault, assault, and possession of a weapon. I was 16 when I was arrested. I’m in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women, about an hour north of my home in Queens.

At 6 a.m. the lights turn on, awakening the 76 women in my dorm, or unit. (There are four dorms in the facility, housing a total of 800 prisoners.) I sleep on the top bunk of a small room that I share with a roommate. We scurry to one of the five functioning showers because nobody wants to wait on a line. The unit’s showers and bathrooms always smell like cigarettes and urine; I usually hold my breath.

I slip on a long-sleeved, plain-colored shirt from home. It matches my hijab (Muslim head-covering) for the day. I hop into a state-issued pair of green pants and button-up shirt, which is labeled Small, but hangs loosely on my petite, 5-foot frame. Unfortunately, these oversized costumes are necessary to go to our programs or jobs. We can wear our own clothes to leisure activities like the gym or yard, which we can do any time between 1 and 8 p.m. We can also wear our own clothes when someone visits.

Visits happen in a large room with 50 tables about four feet away from each other, but everyone is usually so engaged that they are not bothered by how close other groups are. There are many children, including newborns. It’s sad because the little kids don’t understand what’s going on and why they can’t leave with their mommy when the visit is over. But during the visits, people seem happy. Kids run around, and couples show affection: They can kiss and hug as long as their hands remain visible. A photographer will take pictures of you with your family.

A Home in the Mosque

There are no visitors for me on this particular day. I eat some fruit, then kill time by reading or studying until 8 a.m. movement line is called. I read spiritual and self-help books, and the Quran.

Movement line is how inmates move to our jobs and programs and only lasts three minutes. If we don’t make it before the doors secure, we risk a ticket, which costs us the little freedom we have.

At 8 a.m., I make my way to the mosque, my favorite place in the prison. I’m the Muslim clerk, and I stay in the mosque alone, studying, cleaning, praying, and creating lessons for the class. I have four or five devoted students, and I make homework for them. I teach Arabic, which I learned from my mother, because all Muslims have to pray in Arabic.

This is a relaxing time for me; I find solace being alone and contributing to the Muslim community. Not to mention the mosque has a soft carpet and a variety of Islamic movies to watch.

11:05 a.m. is count time. That signals all inmates to return to their beds in their units to be counted, to make sure no one is missing. (No one ever is.) I lie in bed and study or pray until the count is cleared and the silence is broken. After my afternoon prayer, the second of five, my mind wanders to my family, who visit me every other weekend.

image by Kasey Lee

With that thought, I run to the phone booth to call my mom. The phones look like payphones, but don’t take quarters; our families receive the bill. My mom and I chat and my last words are ma-salama-bye (“Go with peace” in Arabic). My parents are Muslim, and they are beyond happy that I chose Islam by myself in here.

I wait at the door for 1 p.m. movement. We walk outside to get to all our programs. This facility looks like a large, beautiful gated community with many trees, geese, and flowers. I power-walk to the mosque, taking as many deep breaths as possible: Fresh air is a precious commodity.
The yard is open in the afternoon and evenings. It looks like a big city park with a softball field in it. There are about 10 benches where women gamble and smoke.

Keeping Boundaries

I usually study in the mosque and help my chaplain until 4, when I go back to cook. It’s almost time for chow, which occurs three times a day in the mess hall (dining area) where all 800 prisoners can eat if they want. Unfortunately, the mess hall doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be eating cockroach-free food off clean trays, so I don’t eat there very often. We have a stove on the unit where we can cook food from home. We store that food in picnic coolers, sold at the commissary. Ice is distributed twice a day.

The stove is in the noisy, large rec area where 75% of the women sit and play cards at the tables. After eating salads that I’ve prepared on the unit all day, I’m ready for a meal. I interact with some of my peers while I cook, but I mostly keep to myself. Most friendships in here aren’t genuine. It’s common to befriend someone to gain food, status, or sexual favors.

To repel these situations, I don’t look at people and I act like I don’t know they are there. I do what I do and rarely talk to anyone. Most people don’t even bother talking to me because of this attitude. It’s a gift, this shield I can put up.

I do have a small circle of friends: Yoneli, whom I study with; Ana and Maria, who only speak Spanish so I translate for them; and Penny, who is trying to better her life for her children. They all have a real desire to change and move forward. They only talk to me about productivity and refrain from cursing, gossip, and idle chatter. I appreciate them respecting me enough to keep that away from me. It lets me know that I can be a good example even though I’m the youngest girl in this prison.

When my friends aren’t around I listen to the conversations around me as I cook. “When I go home, I’ll keep on stripping because I love fast money!” “I don’t regret my crime because she shouldn’t have provoked me.” “I need to find a rich man when I get out.” “Yeah, my baby father used to hit me too: That’s why he’s dead now.”

Shocking as these stories are, I’m also grateful to learn about other people’s experiences. I’m lucky that I haven’t been the victim of the things these women have. I’m learning to judge less because the women here come from backgrounds and circumstances I’ve never known.

I joined a gang in my early teens, and I have been violent myself, but I come from a stable home and was a good student in school. Now I’m trying hard to lay the groundwork for a productive life when I get out. I want to be a doctor.

It’s 5:30, count time again ’til 6:30. I eat dinner, and depending on what day of the week it is, I spend 6:30 to 9 p.m. studying for or attending my college classes, or tutoring others. I’m taking two classes this fall, taught by teachers who travel from Marymount Manhattan College. All classes are in the evening. There are computers for typing up our papers, but that’s the only time I touch a computer. I write all my mail by hand.

After schoolwork, I say my prayers for the night and go to bed, just to start all over at 3 a.m. That’s my day in prison. I’m trying to make the best life I can here, but I miss my family, and I miss having choices.

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