I stand in front of the stainless-steel mirror in my cell in the solitary housing unit. My face is bare of any makeup—there is nothing covering this up, no making it any prettier. This is me, facing myself. Facing what I did. “Say his name,” I whisper at the mirror. “SAY HIS NAME!”
I brace myself to sit on the slab of metal that serves as my bed in my cell. “Thomas Vigliarolo,” I whimper. “His name is Thomas Vigliarolo!” The crescendo of sobs breaks me. “I’m sorry, Mr. V!” I call out. Weak from the years of carrying this weight, my voice drops again to a whisper as I beg for his forgiveness. “I am so sorry, Mr. V. I am so, so sorry that I didn’t help you.”
Cries echo throughout the unit—my own, and the cries of the women around me. In this place, our cries are our only release. We cry for ourselves, and we cry for each other. With each other.
For many of us here, imprisonment began long before the day we registered in prison. Feeling trapped and isolated began years before we found ourselves confined to a six-by-eight cinder block room with no clock to mark the time. A prison worse than any government facility is the feeling that nobody loves you. Nobody wants you. You belong nowhere. As the men in my life told me from the time I was a child: Donna, you are nobody, and nobody will ever love you. Years . . . decades . . . lives of abuse and neglect spurred many of us to make one desperate decision that finally, ultimately led us here. Too often, by the time a woman commits a crime, her only goal has been survival.
For that lapse in judgment, that poor decision—that mistake— it’s likely she will forever suffer the worst prison of all: the inability to forgive herself.
I’ll never forget waking up to my friend’s words: He’s not breath- ing. It was a turn of events that I could not fathom. Even now, half a decade after leaving prison, not a day goes by that I don’t think about Mr. Vigliarolo. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of his family, the fear they must have felt as they imagined him in fear, wondering where he was for eleven nights and worried for what he might have been experiencing.
Say his name.
I’m sorry, Mr. V.
I know what it’s like to fear for the safety of the person we love. Family is protection. I know this because on the day I gave birth, that was my fiercest vow to my daughter: I’m not going to let any- thing bad happen to you. And I know this because, beginning in my childhood, I lived a life of suffering and tough choices for two decades, until I finally found my family in the most unexpected place: prison. In spite of all the pain I’ve experienced in my life, I’ve never wanted anyone to die. But it is here, in this most unlikely place, that I found the protection and support I needed to turn my life around.
I am Donna—but here, for twenty-seven years, I was inmate.
This is my story.