The Prison Public Memory Project recently received a note from Frances Drabick, a poet whose mother worked at the New York State Training School for Girls in Hudson, NY in the 1960’s. Frances herself also worked at the Brookwood Annex, the disciplinary satellite of the Training School in the 1970’s. She said she had written a poem about her experiences at the Training School and Brookwood. We liked the poem very much and so with her permission, we feature it here along with her introduction and some photos she sent to us.
My mother, the late Verna Drabick, worked as an assistant house mother and cook in the 1960’s at the NYSTS for Girls. She eventually retired as a nurse’s aide from the Firemen’s Home in Hudson, New York, two years before her death at age 67.
While working at the New York State Training School for Girls, my mother regularly, as did other staff, bring home a few girls for each holiday. These were some of my first experiences with these troubled girls, ages 11-17. If they were at the NYSTS because they had committed a serious crime, then they went to a women’s prison when they reached the age of 18. The state allowed and encouraged staff to bring their daughters to work for ‘social exposure’ for the court-ordered girls, not the other way around. They opened my eyes more than I did theirs. I developed a secret crush on one when I was fifteen. She looked like Halle Berry.
As a teen in the sixties, my mother had me tag along at least a half-dozen times to her ‘building aka cottage.’ In my later years, during summer’s home from college in 1971 and 1972, I worked as an assistant recreational specialist at Brookwood Annex, under the direction of the late and great Bob Van Ness. By then the NYSTS for Girls was called Brookwood Annex; a newer building at a new site in Columbia County. It was a complex that was completely fenced in. A prison, basically. Nightly, the girls were locked into their rooms.
Training School for Girls and Me
In the sixties I was in awe of them:
Court-ordered girls in saddle shoes, (the girls called them ‘black and whites’),
Short white socks, skirts with blouses tucked in after being told to do so.
Hair pics worn like tiaras. Scars on arms, scars from lip
To cheek, and tattoos of ink; track marks looking like dark prickly heat.
Some with faded slashes across small wrists.
Some holding a teddy bear, most holding attitude.
Hair shining young; or greased up, along with ‘ashy’ skin;
All under eighteen, my age back then.
A genetic spectrum of beautiful skin colors,
As they lined up in institution-type buildings of red brick
Scattered in order on tree-filled acres.
They loved to hear a train roll on not too far away,
And many said they’d ‘run’ if they had the chance.
But while inside, they lined up in front of their rooms
Waiting to be locked in at the end of the day
By my mother or someone else’s mother
Who was not their mother; a pretend mother.
A ‘House’ mother,
That guided them through three meals,
End of day snack that wasn’t smack,
Chores, recreation, church, classes;
And visitations that left some in tears,
Others in anger, fearing they would -
Or never would – go back to homes away
In Bed Stuy, Harlem, the Bronx, Rochester,
Where nothing would change
For them: Back to a lost parent, drugs, abuse,
Prostitution on the same streets.
A numbers game: ‘doomed to fail statistics.’
But I knew they were wise beyond my years,
When the Halle look-alike stood between my legs
As I sat on a big wingback chair in the TV room,
And asked me straight up at age 15, ‘You like girls
More than you like boys, don’t you?’ Shaking, I stood up,
Pushed her aside and lied, ‘No.’ I faked a headache
And stayed in the staff’s office. It was my last teen visit.
Her blunt truth scared me.
I was still in awe of them during my summer jobs of ’71-72,
At Brookwood Annex: placed in a country field
Where no trains were going by to fantasize jumping on
For a ride down the tracks to New York City; to run.
Only the free-to-be county kids biked by on their way
Out to Keeler’s Creek for a cool swim.
As a recreational aide, I saved one girl
From drowning in the small pool behind the building
Where they swam and splashed like little children,
But they weren’t little children
In their harder life, as I learned from senior staff:
That one very tough little Puerto Rican girl had married me,
And another physical fought her for me.
I learned about number codes:
1:14 = I love you! 14:1 = no more love!
Marriage and divorce took place between many girls
Like a clever card game behind staff’s backs.
I felt for the girls as staff made the girl who claimed me
Apologize to me for something I had no knowledge of taking place.
I stared at the self-proclaimed dyke who made herself my husband.
One summer day on an outing by bus, on a beach blanket at Lake Taughanic
I was surrounded by a dozen girls, when a 15 year old girl asked me (I was 21):
Is it ok for a woman to love another woman?
And I hid who I was in 1972: ‘No, only as friends,’ I lied
Like the state wanted me to do. The girls were wiser, braver than I was.
Who was training who, I thought, as my summer ended
With those terribly honest, and endearing girls
Raised in hell, only to return there
After their stint with the state was over -
Or hard time in prison came next to some at eighteen.
There was no real home waiting…
As one tall white girl reminded me as she leaped
From a high window because her 18th birthday
Was closing in on her too fast -
Her leg as her spirit fell to the ground below,
As another ‘runner’ took off into a field.
And I think of the spirit of that child never born
When I visited the young girl
At Columbia Memorial hospital – did any of us know
What was happening?
I cried the day I left my summer job for college.
A staff spoke as I walked out the locked doors for the last time,
The girls waved to me from inside the courtyard –
“Most are doomed to fail when they return to the streets. The streets
Have to change, too. That’s the real problem.”
He hugged me and thanked me for caring.
It didn’t make me feel better.
I think of those girls today. They are all women, now. I can easily visualize several of their faces, and I have a few snapshots the girls gave me of themselves standing in their best dresses, and small heels as they waited for visitors in the enclosed courtyard. I think it was a holiday… several families came by train through the Hudson Depot.
Frances Drabick was born and raised in Hudson, New York. She graduated from the Hudson City School System, Hudson Valley Community College and SUC @ Cortland. At 63, she is retired from both industrial and human service careers. She lives in Maine with her partner of 24 years. She has published works in professional and college journals and has earned two Pushcart Prize Nominations in Poetry. Her writings can be found at www.FrancesDrabickWritesIt.com .