Tales from A Woman's Prison
“ I Made The Bitch Walk ” by Courtney Norris
As soon as Mrs. Tolbert returned from the hospital, we crowded
around her to find out what happened.
“They admitted her”, she said, “But shit, ain’t nothing wrong with
her. When we got there, she said she needed a wheel chair
cause she was so weak. But huh! I made the bitch walk!”
Later that afternoon, we got some more news. When the doctors
x-rayed her, they found a tumor the size of an orange, on her brain.
They had to operate immediately.
Margaret Johnson died on the operating table.
As news of her death spread, so did an eerie silence, a dread.
This could have happened to any of us, and there’d be no one
to help us. We felt helpless, scared, angry and lost.
Another woman had died a couple years ago, but they knew she
was sick and got her to the hospital right away. That’s not what
happened with Margaret Johnson.
Margaret use to work in the sewing factory, but one day she didn’t
come to work. If you didn’t work, you had to stay locked in your room.
The next day came and she still didn’t get up to go to work. The next
day, the same thing. It got to the point where she couldn’t shower,
or get out of bed.
They sent her to the nurse’s station a couple times, but they
couldn’t find anything wrong with her. They figured it was just
depression. Margaret told them her head hurt all the time, so they
gave her some pain pills. She was told she had to go to work or
she would be written up.
Being written up meant getting a violation that could land you in
segregation for a day or for months, according to the seriousness
of the incident. After 2 weeks of not going to work, the officers
wrote Margaret up. She went before the board and they gave her
3 months in segregation lock up. The whole time, they said Margaret
sat there holding her head in her heads, not able to look up or even
nod that she understood what they were saying.
The warden and officers figured she was trying to get out of prison
by pretending to be sick or mentally unstable. If that were the case,
it meant going to a better place than prison and you had a better chance
of getting out a lot sooner. Naturally many had tried, but few were ever
diagnosed with problems that got them released to a mental institution.
They didn’t believe Margaret was sick, but we did. We kept asking,
writing for her to be taken to the hospital for a real evaluation, but
the warden and nurses refused to do that. All the officers assigned
to segregation, except Mrs. Tolbert, tried to help Margaret. One
officer that we all trusted, even brought her a couple of joints to
smoke. Margaret was too sick to even smoke weed. Once we
knew that, we were 100% sure she was so sick she could die
anytime. No one refused a joint in prison. Even if you didn't smoke, you
still took the joint to give to someone else.
At the same time, the general population was being revved up
for a sit-in to demand college courses and better medical treatment.
I was involved in that. I desperately wanted to take college courses
and get a degree in the time I had left in prison. Like many others,
I didn’t want to waste away there and have no skills or higher
education when I did get out.
I had been in prison for 3 years and already had a GED. I also taught
GED classes and graduated 25 women who were much older than me.
I redid the library and ordered new law books, skill training
lessons, languages and good novels. I throw out the books
by writers like Donald Goines. All he wrote about was pimps,
whores, drugs and killings. Most of these ladies had lived that
life, so they didn't need to read about it. Didn't need it glamorized.
The library was my house now! I put in Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes,
Jean Toomer, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Nikki Giovanni,
writings by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so on....
Once all the walls were repainted, chairs and windows cleaned,
I encouraged women to submit their original art work to hang
in the windows and on the walls. Our gallery was featured on
the local news and generated an income for several ladies.
We had reading classes for women who couldn’t read and for
those of us who just loved hearing good stories. Story telling
night became the biggest library night of all. There was barely
room to fit everyone in. I ordered large mats to put on the floor
and had the ladies bring their own pillows for extra comfort.
For one hour we’d sit there, eyes wide with excitement, anxious
to hear the next adventure that would take us far far away from
the hell we were in. Afterwards we’d go back to our rooms and
fall asleep like babies after drinking warm milk.
After the library project, that was as far as I could go. I had 4 1/2
more years before I was eligible for parole. To increase my chances
of getting out and for my future, I wanted a college degree. I started
working on convincing the administration that college courses would
be the best thing for us and a huge plus for them as well. Educated
people are less prone to commit crimes.
That was in 1962, so having college courses in prison wasn’t as
common as it is today. In fact, it was almost unheard of unless
the prisoner took correspondence courses by mail, at their own
My request was sound, the benefits for the inmates and the
prison were outlined perfectly, but the administration refused
every proposal we presented. They said there was no money for it.
The greatest objection was that communities would resent criminals
getting free college, when they had to pay for the same kind of
education. I understood that, but the benefits outweighed any
objections. To enlist help, I wrote the local papers and TV stations,
telling them why we wanted college courses in prison and how it
would stop the recidivism rate.
The piece was aired, but the warden still turned us down. We had
no choice but to stage a sit-in. While some women wanted to
complain about better food, I strongly objected to that. I wanted
college courses and better medical care, to be the only issues.
We were criminals. Even if we didn’t do all the things we were
charged with, we were still there for committing crimes. To me,
we were blessed to even get 3 meals a day. For Free! I asked the
ladies if their victims got 3, free meals a day. No one answered, so
that demand was thrown out.
After dinner, about 100 women stayed in the cafeteria, refusing to
go back to our cells. We sat quietly until the warden came in.
One by one, those of us who were designated to speak, got up
and presented our case.
Afterwards, the warden issued a command for us to disband, go
back to our cells or he’d call in the Riot Guards. As we sat quietly,
a half an hour later, the Riot Guards came in. We started singing
“We shall overcome” and marched out of the cafeteria as the
Guards told us to do. They herded us into the gym, ordered us
to sit on the bleaches, while they formed a parameter in front of us.
It was very scary. All those big tall men, against us. They had on
heavy riot gear; helmets, shields, guns and tear gas canisters.
The only weapon we had was the desperate need to be educated
beyond what was presently being offered.
The order was issued again for us to leave, in an orderly fashion
and return to our cells. Some did get up and leave. Most of us stayed.
The Guards then herded us outside, intent on getting us back to our
cells, but we plopped down on the grass and held hands.
Mary stood up and told us not to say or do anything violent, no matter
what. To be as quiet and as calm as possible. The moment she sat
back down, the tear gassing began. Damn it! It stung even with my
shirt over my face. Coughing, crying, but offering no resistance, the
Guards eventually handcuffed all of us and led us to segregation.
There were so many of us that they had to put 5/6 in a cell, that
usually held only 2 people. After a couple of hours of bringing in
more mattresses, we calmed down enough to find out who was
where and how everyone was doing.
Margaret Johnson was also in segregation, but she was in the next
hallway away from us. We could talk loud enough for her to hear us,
but we couldn’t see her. When we asked how she was doing, she
was so weak she could barely answer.
Every morning, we were let out to shower and walk around a bit.
We kept trying to get to Margaret, but the guards wouldn’t let us
out at the same time they opened her cell. We knew something
was seriously wrong.
After a couple of weeks, we refused to go back in our cells unless
we could see Margaret. The guard knew we wouldn’t hurt her and
she also knew something had to be done to help Margaret. She had
tried to help, but no one listened to her either.
She opened the door to hallway and we almost threw up from the
smell and sight of Margaret Johnson. She was almost a skeleton,
lying in her own waste! Even though she had dark skin, her face
had a whitish pallor.
The guard opened her door and a couple of us lifted her up,
took off her clothes and walked her to the showers. Her lips were
so dry and cracked that it hurt to wash her face. As we cleaned
her up, others got her a clean mattress, clean sheets and clean
Since the guards let Margaret waste away, Rosy decided we
couldn’t let her go back in that cell and die. We followed what
Rosy said and trusted her completely.
We got Margaret dressed, but Rosy didn’t put on any clothes.
While we distracted the guard, Rosy, butt naked, marched
Margaret out of the building and took her to the nurses station!
It was lunch time, so over 200 woman saw Rosy naked, carrying
that sick girl, who didn’t even weigh 90 lbs. Some started clapping,
others just starred, wondering what was going on.
Rosy said, as soon as the nurses saw the condition Margaret was
in, they called for a guard to take her to emergency! The nurses
hadn’t seen her for 2 months and didn't know she had deteriorated
Rosy held Margaret’s hand until the car pulled up, kissed her forehead,
told her she’d be alright now, and came back to the segregation building.
All while being butt naked. She had a really nice body too, but somehow
no one noticed because of the situation.
The warden had the segregation officer let all of us out of the cells
and into the Rec. room. He knew they were in trouble for letting
Margaret get that bad off and was trying to calm us down by giving
us privileges. It worked. After weeks of being cooped up in a tiny
cell with 5 other women for 22 hours a day, it was a relief to get stay
out, walk around, and watch TV.
Around 2 pm, we got news that the guard who took Margaret to
the hospital, was back and on her way to segregation. We huddled
around her the moment she opened the door.
That’s when she told us she made Margaret walk from the parking
lot to the hospital entrance, instead of requesting a wheel chair.
“I made the bitch walk.”
We resented what Mrs. Tolbert had done and the way she was
saying it, but in prison, you learn when to pick your battles.
This wasn’t the time.
A couple hours later, we got some more news. Margaret Johnson
didn’t have to worry about coming back to prison. She died on the
When Mrs. Tolbert got the news that Margaret had died, she
fainted and had to be taken home. A lot of us had heard her
bragging about making Margaret walk and we told everyone else.
Now we were ready for that battle. We were gonna kick her ass
the next time we saw her. We didn't get a chance too.
Mrs. Tolbert immediately resigned as a correctional officer and
we never saw her again. Apparently, her conscience fought the
battle for us.
From what we learned in the next few days, the tumor on her brain
had been growing for years. The stress of prison increased the growth.
No, Margaret Johnson had not been faking.
Funny how family member suddenly appear when there’s money to
be made. Margaret’s family, who never came to visit her, or they
would have known how sick she was, filed a $100 million dollar
law suit against the Dept. of Corrections and the women’s prison.
The hospital called a press conference to tell the public about
Margaret Johnson's condition when she was brought in; and how
the prison ignored her condition for several months. The hospital
was not going to take responsibility and risk being sued too.
Many of us, especially Rosy, received letters asking us to testify
for her family. We agreed.
To counter the law suit, our segregation time was eliminated,
taken off our records and we were back in the general population
The prison minister was called in to have a special service for
Margaret. I stood in the chapel doorway. I just couldn’t bring myself
to go all the way in and sit down.
I’ll never forget how the preacher started the service;
“When God calls one of his children home, it’s no one’s fault. We must
believe that God has a greater purpose for the ones he calls home.
We must trust God. It‘s no body‘s fault.”
Without realizing it, I started talking. I heard myself say, “This could
happen to any of us. The best way to honor Margaret Johnson is
to get out of prison and never come back! “ I left the chapel, went
back to my room and cried myself to sleep.
I had no family at all. No mother, no father, no relatives. I was
completely alone. Raised in an orphanage from birth, I had went
through a series of foster homes until I stabbed one foster 'dad' for
trying to rape me. He lived, but he lost the ability to rape little girls.
By then, I was too old to adopt out, so I stayed in state care until I
left at age 14 and started fending for myself.
What I did or didn’t do, was my doing or undoing. I decided to fight.
Fight for college, fight to better myself. I would never commit another
crime ! I was absolutely certain of that!
I was doing time for a robbery I did commit and second degree
murder charge for a killing I didn't do. The guy involved in the robbery
just couldn't leave it alone. We got away with the robbery, but that fool
went back to the dept. store we had robbed. The security guard had
punched him during the robbery, so he went up to him, without a mask on,
shot him and ran out. When he got arrested, he told on me as well, hoping
they'd cut him a break. He got life and I got 50 years, with parole review
after I did 8 years.
Two weeks after the funeral services for Margaret Johnson, we got
notices saying the prison was getting fully accredited college courses.
Anyone with a high school diploma or GED was eligible to enroll.
Within days, all the classes were filled and we had to request more.
The warden agreed, requested more money and more professors
to teach classes. A month later, I was sitting in class, on my way to
a Masters Degree.
I know, you’re wondering if there was a catch. Of course there was.
In the real world, there’s always a catch. In order to take college
courses, we could not testify in Margaret Johnson’s case. We
could not be involved in any case against the Dept. Of Corrections.
Rosy was offered early release from prison, in exchange for not
testifying. Of course she choose freedom.
Margaret’s family did get a settlement. We heard it was around
$20,000. 00. I was glad they didn't get more because they didn't
deserve it. Life’s just funny like that. They didn’t visit her, she died
and they got to live off money as a result of her dying.
Before we were hushed up, we told their lawyer everything we knew
about Margaret. I wonder if her family ever thinks about what she
suffered being locked up in segregation, with no one to help her.
How she felt not being able to walk 4 feet to use the toilet; lying in
her own waste until an angel named Rosy took a stand.
Although I completed all the courses, I didn't get my degree. I got something much better;
my freedom! I made parole! I was still young when I got out, but I felt incredibly old.
Grateful, but much older than my actual years. Never the less, Freedom tasted great then
and still does.
I immediately got an ‘out of state status’ so I didn't have to report to a parole officer.
Not having to report meant I could travel anywhere. I worked, traveled and helped those
in need. From feeding people on the streets, to conducting business/family seminars,
and talking to teenagers at juvenile centers, my main mission was to expose and stop
abuse in homes. Since it was the #1 cause of men and women being in prison, it had to stop!
To make sure people listened, I opened each meeting by saying that I had been in prison.
When I had their undivided attention, I told them about my life, Margaret Johnson and others.
I ended every seminar, every talk with these words:
“If you feel sick, tell somebody. If you‘re being molested, tell
somebody. If there’s violence in your home, tell somebody. And
if one person doesn’t help, tell somebody else. Keep telling until you
get the help you need. Don’t stop and don’t give up. Do this for
yourself and please do it for Margaret Johnson. Be the voice she