New Jersey’s most dangerous women can be found in a four traffic-light town not reachable by public transportation. From Newark, take Interstate 78 to Clinton, turn left at the traffic light. Across from the Walmart Plaza lies the entrance to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility. EMCF is a two-hour trip by car from Manhattan, but for those visitors without vehicles there’s a prison bus that leaves from Midtown on Friday evening and arrives eight hours later. All must prepare to be searched and to stow their possessions in a locker before visiting an inmate. No water, no sodas, nothing but your flesh covered appropriately, i.e., no halter tops or bustiers.
Seen from the air, the prison appears like a wheel-shaped medieval city, its modular units the beige color of the inmates’ uniforms surrounding the century-old Warden’s Hall. Instead of a moat guarding the fortified walls, double strands of razor wire coil between watchtowers to isolate the beings inside. The violent offenders. Murderers and kidnappers. The crazy. EMCF’s website lists notable inmates. Amy Rose Locane, the actress who starred in the first season of Melrose Place, served three years in Maximum Compound for vehicular homicide. She tops the list.
Inmate Krystal Riordan, known to true crime bloggers as the Jen-Slay Hooker, is not listed as a notable.
Maximum Compound revolves around the sun but the air is darker and more confined. Upon arrival prisoners are housed temporarily in the reception area, then divided according to the length of their sentence and the severity of their case. EMCF assigns those convicted of violent and more serious crimes to Maximum Compound where the day is rigidly structured with four headcounts a day. Those convicted of drug offenses, which carry shorter sentences, are assigned to Minimum Compound where rules are more relaxed.
Understand, these aren’t the femme fatales and sex-selling dahlias, not the thieves and drug dealers, not the welfare cheats or DUI violators; these women are the violent offenders. They don’t pull up in a Porsche; they’re transported under armed guard. They’re young, they’re ghetto, white trash, a few are middle-aged college graduates, some will get their GED here and take college classes, others will become senior citizens, and some will die here. They’ll arrive pregnant, psychotic, post-traumatically stressed; they’ll deliver their baby here, or have a hysterectomy. They’ve got dreads, and natural blond locks, they’re tattooed like a graphic novel and wearing the last address of their baby daddy inked on their wrist. Many of these women have killed or kidnapped an employer, neighbor, husband, child, or a stranger.
Maximum Compound women arrive encumbered with their crimes and the weight of their sentences. They arrive put-upon and willing to use anyone.
It’s a rule-bound world, a world where dance competitions and making birthday chili and rice for your girlfriend co-exist with fight blood on the floor. Although time is filled with a job, a routine, a Mess Hall schedule, real time stales. It doesn’t flow; it pools around you, goes stagnant. Each day is similar from the view of a locked world, a day hard and long to get through, and the years flying away. There are no hickories or maples or quaking aspen, no huge-eyed deer. No smell of burning pretzel dough. No strolling into a Starbucks for a coffee tall. No dressing to go out looking edible as tiramisu. The outside world stands still, remembered. The inmates in Maximum Compound number their absence from the outside in decades. Television and electronic tablets are their windows. Rules, rules. Yet life teems here—new inmates arrive, new friendships, new loves, and new hates.
I’ve been a friend to this prison planet, this Maximum Compound where the most dangerous women in New Jersey live, the ones the media portray as topping the depravity index. Women like Krystal.
There are online galleries of the earliest nineteenth-century mug shots that portray women with their crimes scrawled across the bottom of the image. Theft of shoes, bed sheets, onions, poultry. The stench of poverty. Jane Farrell, a cleft-chinned 12-year-old girl, her dark eyes unfathomable, her frayed jacket and skirt thin as potato sacks, arrested for stealing two boots and sentenced to ten days’ hard labor. Ann Sterling filched a gold watch, 17-year old Isabella was caught thieving a waistcoat, and 60-year-old Alize carried off a chicken. Rebecca Feinberg’s mugshot is labeled A Jewish Prostitute, her specialty: “Whilst the man is in bed, the bullies rifle through his clothes.”
I lose myself in the women, seated with their hands flat against the abdomen, fingers splayed. Hands examined for missing fingers. Life was rawer then—women boiled soaps from bones and lye; they butchered and chopped—fingers and thumbs lost to the ax, the knife, the grist stone. Women sentenced to hard labor for skinning or stealing the clothes off the back of a child, for ringing the change or shortchanging customers.
There is Krystal’s EMCF mugshot, the softest among the many bruised and battered faces. A schoolgirl has wandered into an alternate universe, a demonic one, an American beauty in an American nightmare. Krystal is a beauty; her height 5’9”, her skin, the plush pale of an eighteenth-century baroness whose face never sees sun. Incarcerated for over a decade, Krystal has moved beyond the headlines that once depicted her as a monster. In a later picture I find online, Krystal stands, in the sneakers, white knee-length shorts, and short-sleeved T-shirt inmates wear in warm weather. Summers in the New Jersey heat, there’s no air conditioning to cool inmates in Maximum Compound, as only the administrators can control their climate. Winters, Krystal wears gray sweats, an undershirt, a hooded sweatshirt, and tie-up boots.
A photographer comes on visiting day and the inmates can purchase pictures with their State pay. Everything runs through Commissary: the real food, the fun food, the legal pads and birthday cards, the vented hair brushes, panty liners, and foam ear plugs, dental floss and toothbrushes, shampoo and bar soap, sneakers and shower shoes, thermal tops and sweatpants.
I’m really struggling. I have 1 bar of soap to my name. Is there any way you can send me $30 by next Wednesday so I can order? I feel like a bum.
—Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387
Once you’ve befriended an inmate, the Maximum Compound of requests comes at you, things that only someone on the outside can finesse. Please help me buy a toy for my daughter’s birthday from Kmart or Toys R Us. Some type of fashion design kit of lip glosses or a cute purse from Hey Kitty. You, who can make duplicates of court documents, who can google and download welfare applications, who can xerox copies in full color of the nameless photographs that come in stacks. The photographs are so old, especially those of the outside: photos of three girls sticking out their pierced tongues, arms thrown around each other; girls in indigo-blue robes graduating, choir girls singing; girls in slinky club clothes blowing lipsticked kisses.
Some photos are taped so they stick to the glass of the Xerox machine and you feel the heft of something precious in your hands. Many are of children—brown-eyed boys and girls ages 2 to 7, infants in flannel footsie pajamas; many of the children’s photos are old and those pictured have grown and left behind the selves they are here, but to their mothers, the children are fixed; they do not change.
The newest inmates have Facebook pages and you can print pictures from their photo gallery, but no gang signs or middle fingers allowed, unless you color out hand signs with a marker. The recent photographs are from the inside of Maximum Compound—a parade of women in pairs standing before colorful wall paintings (as if an altar) wearing winter’s gray sweats or summer’s T-shirts. They are lovers, friends, and bunkies. Many smile with lips pressed together. Not quite the blankness or shock of a mugshot, but hiding something all the same.
Anything with glitter is great. The girls go crazy over that. We use it for make-up and art so when you see a card with glitter, send it.
—Krystal Riordan, Inmate #661387
Krystal lives in the locked land of EMCF, where she has a cell to herself and works on the grounds detail. She mows lawns, paints, waxes floors, takes out the trash, and moves people from maximum to minimum security units. Generally, she’s a people-pleaser and the inmates and guards like her, but that can change in an instant. A slight. A perceived insult. Last winter, a new inmate punched Krystal in the face in Mess Hall. She could avoid punishment only by letting herself be hit. It’s almost impossible to let yourself be attacked, to feel the fist in your face, as if whoever is clocking you will do it again and again, the fist forcing you into facing left while the rest of your body twists right. A corkscrew.
Krystal punched back and officers punished both women. Depending on their offense, women are assigned to North Hall, South Hall, Hillcrest, or Stowe I and II. It’s North Hall’s individual cell where Krystal is first assigned because of the seriousness of her crime, her kidnapping and accessory after the fact to homicide. She likes moving from unit to unit in her job, the way she used to love rush-hour traffic. South Hall also houses in cells those convicted of murder, aggravated assault, and kidnapping, those with behavioral problems. Hillcrest is a semi-dorm for 60 inmates, those here for robbery and drug convictions, those who’ve earned low points with good behavior. Write-ups by officers for breaking one of the infinite rules result in high points. Like fruit flies, the rules. Stowe I and II house 200 inmates in semi-dorm conditions, those whose sentences are measured in years rather than decades.
Nights at EMCF, Krystal struggles to sleep, which is almost impossible without headphones. Lights go out at 10 p.m., but quiet never reigns. The shouting between cells in North Hall shatters the stillness. The youngest inmates stay up all night and the chatter never stops. Nights, with foam ear plugs in, she lies on her bunk remembering movies she’s seen. In one, a jet opens the sky with its tail of mist. Terrorists on a plane. The clouds herding like elephants. An explosion brewing. Panning shots of caves, temple ruins, islands—chunks of burning meat over the sea’s fire. If you talk like that with the street pimps, their eyes roll back. She starts making up her own movies.
The Mess Hall food trays disgust her. Nights, she dines in the best restaurant in Acapulco, and on her plate, a pyramid of shrimp enchiladas. Yummy. She casts herself as the Marriott maid who cleans the room of Tristan Wilds, a hot black actor from The Wire. Soon they’re sprawled in the loungers; the remains of breakfast, scrambled eggs and muffins, spilling everywhere. Raspberry jam and butter for lube. She wears a long, billowing white robe. The robe spreads across the aquamarine pool’s surface like a napkin. The blue color of her eyes, she dives in. This is the movie—the one in which she escapes Draymond and her own fate.
Nights, Krystal is bitten by spiders and her elbow and forearm swell up. When the redness starts to fade, a lesion appears on her arm, then another on her leg. Krystal goes to Medical and is told that the spider’s venom has caused a blood infection. The poison is oozing out through those spots. The spots are like weeping red eyes that open on her torso. Where the poison seeps out, it eats away at her flesh, leaving deep and painful wounds. The inflamed sore on her leg makes it impossible to walk and then the soaring fever sets in. Antibiotics and Motrin are at last prescribed. I wonder if Dray is finally leaving her body. Pour rum over yourself and strike a match—ultimate flambé. His dark poison, his love.