Noah’s Story

An inmate-orderly listens to a young man in the prison's mental health unit

As told to M2

Where do you want me to start? That my father was a raging alcoholic whose 10th grade education never allowed him to get more than a minimum wage job? That my mother was bipolar and would disappear for months at a time?

Would it help you to understand why I act the way I do? Why I came to prison? Would it make you feel better about having to spend your time sitting outside my cell for hours listening to me?

Maybe I should talk about being locked in the basement along with my siblings during the months that my mom was gone. The routine was always the same: He would march us downstairs with a box of saltines and a jar of peanut butter, tell us not to fight, and then walk back up the stairs. The sound of the lock turning, the front door slamming as he left. A double mattress on the floor, a few books and a Home Depot bucket in the corner we used as a bathroom. That was our life for hours while he sat on his favorite stool at his favorite dive bar.

Should I tell you I started school for the first time at age nine, my mom sticking around long enough to get us away from the monsters in the basement? Would it surprise you to know that soon after, when my mom disappeared again, I was sent to foster care, separated from my siblings? After six foster homes, I was sent to a state youth “boot camp” and alternative school. Out on the streets at 16.

You say that I live in my own world, self-absorbed and needy. You say that I am a manipulator. What if I told you that I learned to manipulate by negotiating with men twice my age about what they could do to me if they would let me stay at their place so I wouldn’t have to sleep on the street or in shelters that were just as unsafe as the street when you are 5’3” and weigh 115 pounds. What if I told you that at age 22 I have never been touched by someone who loves me?

I walk the streets. I am picked up by the police. They take me to jail. Why do the police touch the crystals that keep me safe? I tell them not to touch them, that they are full of my energy. They laugh and throw them on the ground. Do they think it’s funny when I am bullied in county jail? Does the judge who sentences me to prison really believe he is doing me a favor, that I am in a place where I could change the trajectory of my life?

Why is it that the only person who visits me here is the same man who marched me down to the basement and locked the door behind me?

M2, an Oregon inmate, worked as an orderly in the prison’s mental health unit. Noah was one of the young men he spent time with and listened to. M2 is a member of Lauren Kessler’s prison writing group. 

Criminalization of mental illness has wide ranging and devastating consequences. In 44 states, a jail or prison holds more mentally ill individuals than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital.