Nicole and I go way back – we used to sling sushi together at a restaurant in Portland, Maine. Shortly after I moved to New York City in March of 2007, she was arrested for possession with intent to distribute controlled substances (three different counts for the three different drugs she was transporting) and sent to county jail in upstate Maine. She was 24.
Soon after she was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut – the same prison of Piper Kerman of Orange is the New Black fame. While she never met Piper, she has met Sister Ardeth Platte (aka Sister Jane Ingalls), who was in and out of the facility several times.
Nicole was in FCI Danbury from February 2009 and was released June 24, 2014 into a halfway house. While she is still currently on probation, she lives in Amherst, New Hampshire and keeps busy teaching Pilates and yoga at a local gym, working at an accounting firm, and being a full-time student working towards her bachelor’s degree at Granite State College. Since being released a year ago, Nicole has already earned her associate’s degree. Her goal? To start a nonprofit that creates job training for former prisoners. Needless to say, she’s not one who sits around.
In this interview, I catch up with Nicole and ask her about OITNB, her last day in prison, and how she stayed positive during her sentence.
Overall, how would you describe the conditions of the facility?
I was at both the FCI and the Camp (an adjacent satellite prison camp that houses minimum-security female offenders). In the show (OITNB), she mixes the two together. Both of the buildings are fairly old and as a result things leaked, things broke. The mattresses are old, the place was always broken and the showers were disgusting. You showered with black worms that turned into flies and they would send these people around from the safety department with spray but it never worked. That was probably the grossest thing about the conditions.
During my time at the FCI I wrote a 30-page proposal about how they could expand programs, I wanted to create better lives for people in the same shoes as me. Certain parts got approved instantly, and one of them was the Career Center. I developed the idea at the FCI but I created it at the Camp (Nicole was at the Camp from March 2014-June 2014). The Camp had more white-collar criminals and deportable aliens couldn’t be at the Camp. It’s a different level of crime, women at the Camp were a lot more educated and were mostly Caucasian. At the FCI, there were more people of color. The Camp held a little over 200 inmates and the FCI held around 1100. There was a lot more to do in the city than in the village – more opportunities at the FCI. I was able to stay there because I enrolled in several programs at the FCI, people didn’t want to be at the Camp because it was very boring. But it was also beautiful there; more freedom and they never locked the door.
How were you able to connect with positive forces in your life when there’s obviously so much negative energy around you?
I definitely had my moments. It was a challenge. Imagine living with a bunch of pissed off people. My biggest thing was I wanted to show people that we can still live in here. In the housing unit I lived in, every holiday we would create these parties and do fashion shows. It was one of the times in life where I thought, ‘I can either sit here and dwell in misery or I can make the best of what I have right here. I can attempt to work out, expand my mind, and make the best of it.’
You’re a vegetarian. How was the food for you?
It was definitely a step above county jail. It was worse towards the end. They did provide a nonmeat alternative – either soy or cottage cheese or peanut butter. Every day they served salad even if was just lettuce and carrots. At breakfast it was oatmeal, or grits or cereal and a pastry with fruit. Dinners were usually gross. I did work in culinary arts and they do feed their staff very well, so I got to eat what the staff ate while I worked there. My supervisor there was actually very interesting – Orlando Ortiz. He was a Grammy-nominated salsa singer who was once a semi-pro ball player.
What did you learn from your experience?
To appreciate the small things in life. I remember the days I would die to just open a fridge and decide what I want to eat. When I went hiking the other day, it was just so beautiful. I was thinking, even driving here, I am driving my own truck to go hiking right now. The freedom of choice. People don’t realize you get to go to your closet and pick out what you want to wear that has color on it. To choose what I want to eat, to choose what I want to wear, the freedom of choice is a beautiful gift.
Do you keep in touch with anyone?
A retired staff member, yes. On occasion I do email with one friend who is serving life. She’s been in 20 years and I feel like I need to be there for her. And there’s one other individual inside that I was a mentor to. I have to say a lot of people I did know have also gotten out and I am in contact with them through social media. At the Camp, I had a very difficult time dealing with people. A lot of them were straight up haters. The last few months they were jealous and they made my life hell. I didn’t want to stay in contact with them.
What was your last day like?
My last day, the girls made a little party for me. They got specialty food and made me fruit salad and hummus. The facility is actually on a beautiful piece of property overlooking mountains and trees. And that was how I spent my last night. You accumulate things. I spent my final morning giving things away to people and made sure everybody got a piece of me before I left.
Let’s talk about OITNB. During its first season, the series earned 12 prime time Emmy awards and the show is well loved by many. Have you watched it? What is your opinion of the show?
I’ve seen the first three shows. In a cumulative perspective, I have the experience she’s taken elements from both areas (the Camp and FCI) together. There is a slight exaggeration on some of the actions, but other than that she did a pretty good job at doing an accurate portrayal.
In the show, you see a lot of women wear makeup, – Alex, Morello, Red, these are characters who have statement looks – how realistic is this?
They do sell makeup in the commissary, you’re not getting MAC makeup, but definitely some Wet n’ Wild. That kind of stuff changes from who’s in charge and the warden. The selection is limited. People did sneak in makeup through visits or would get officers to bring it in. I couldn’t live without mascara; eye shadow I could live without but not mascara! Gangsta cops we would call them.
Alliances and friendships are also a theme in the show – usually revolving around race – do you find this to be true?
Obviously there are those divided lines, but I hear that happens more in the men’s facilities. Definitely people cross over the lines. I created a lot of my relationships through work. I met some of the worst people I ever met in prison and I met some of the best people.
What were your relationships like with the guards?
I have always been someone naturally friendly and that has gotten me far and I didn’t want that to change. A lot of people gave me shit for that. My attitude was: I’m going to need them before they are going to need me. I just tried to deal with them on a human level, and they were adverse with that at first. But I would be consistent. Respect goes a long way and through time you see who someone is. I was able to forge lasting relationships, I was a hard worker. It was a coping skill to stay busy. I did a lot of writing for staff at all levels and that earned me respect. Once I had the respect of the higher ups, the guys on the ground respected me. Just like on the outside, networking is going to get you further.
Recently, New York Magazine wrote an article about the lack of tampons available to female inmates. What was your experience?
They don’t provide tampons at all. Only pads. They are stingy with pads– you are only allocated so many per week, but most of the staff just kept it in their office. But they weren’t guaranteed since staff – they had to work in numerous units. At one point, they eventually stopped giving tampons out entirely; you had to buy them from commissary. People also used tampons to make strap-ons. You make the dildo with the tampon which is fastened to a pad using medical tape around a bra.
Do you think a show like OITNB is helpful or harmful about life in prison?
They do kind of exaggerate some of the staff, but there are some really nice staff people and there were people who helped me a lot. I feel worse for the staff that they are depicted like that. But does it happen as frequently as she portrays it? Probably not. I have to be in the right mood to watch the show and only if I’m with someone else. I won’t sit and watch it alone. People are kind of enamored with it and its funny to me because I lived it.
You’re in favor of the Donald for president. Why?
I am tired of politicians, America needs a businessman to tighten things up. He doesn’t owe any special interest groups for anything. He is paying for his campaign on his own. He is also telling it like it is. If he doesn’t have an answer, he tells you. Some people may call this ego, but I think a little bit of ego is necessary to run a nation.