Graphic of A E T N Logo Graphic of P B S logo

Mothers in Prison Interview - McDougal

Loading the player...

Susan McDougal spent time in seven jails and prisons over 22 months for refusing to testify against Bill and Hillary Clinton during the Whitewater investigation. Since her release, McDougal has been speaking publicly about the women she met during that time, arguing for their rights and using her celebrity to draw attention to the growing female prison population in America. AETN interviewed McDougal in May of 2001 about her experiences.

Susan McDougal Interview

INTERVIEWER: Can you give me a little background on your incarceration history? Where were you and how long were you in each place?

SUSAN McDOUGAL: Uh-huh. At, the first place was in Conway, the Faulkner County Detention Center and I was there from September to a little bit before Thanksgiving. And then I was transferred to Fort Worth to a Federal Detention, Federal Correctional facility, which would be a federal prison and I was there from right before Thanksgiving to just before Christmas. And then I was moved again for that holiday to Sybil Brand Institute in Los Angeles and I was there a long time, eight (8) months, something like that and then I was moved, they closed that facility down actually while I was there and they opened up a facility called Twin Towers in Los Angeles and I was there for about three (3) months. And then I was in Oklahoma at the Oklahoma Detention Center, which is, it's not really a prison. It's more of a federal jail. And then I was in the Pulaski County Jail in Little Rock, Arkansas.

INTERVIEWER: Why did they close the Institute in Los Angeles?

SUSAN: Oh, it was horrendous. It was horrible. It was very old. They'd had numerous earthquakes and there were cracks all in the ceiling and the walls. There was actually an earthquake while I was there but they left us in there and the guards all ran out and people were screaming. It was horrible. Big chunks of the ceiling would fall down. Rats ran everywhere. Roaches just crawled up the walls and on the ceilings. It just, it was horrific. There was nothing to have done to that facility but close it down.

INTERVIEWER: What was the new place like compared to that?

SUSAN: Oh, the new place was horrible too. The new place, I think, was more horrible for human beings than the older one because people were used to having to cope with filth and rodents and things like that but the new facility was high tech. You never saw anyone. If you wanted something, it was a glass cell and if there was anything that you needed or if you felt ill or something like that, you would push a button but no one every answered the buttons until it was very frightening to be in that place and not to be able, and to know actually that you could not have reached someone if you had wanted to, even if there was an emergency or something. You know, I was locked in about 23 hours a day in that glass cell. You couldn't hear things. The glass was so thick you couldn't hear anything while you were in there and there are cameras every where, lights on 24 hours a day and the whole thing was glass. It was just terrible and it was really horrible. By the end of the three (3) months that I was there, I was really having a hard time because I was just, you know, in total deprivation. I couldn't hear anything. There was really no interaction whatsoever.

INTERVIEWER: Did it make you that much madder to be put there?

SUSAN: Oh, it made me hate them. I mean, it made me hate them. I wasn't so angry because there were so many people helping me and I was getting so much mail and I was reading a book a day because people were sending me books from all over the country and they were interesting. You know, books with letters inside to say that this book has meant a lot to me and this is why, I don't mean devotional books, I just mean regular books. In fact I had just started unboxing them. It just makes me happy every time I got through them to remember what a gift it was to get them. And so, no, I wasn't so much angry as it just made me, it stilled my resolve and it made me hate them very much whenever they could do things like that. No much to me but to a lot of the women who were there who mentally ill and were so terribly mistreated.

INTERVIEWER: Before you ever went in for the first time, what ideas did you have about what the other prisoners would be like? Did you have prejudices about them?

SUSAN: Oh, oh, I remember seeing the scene on television, you know, I thought they'd be hard and they'd be tough talking and everybody would say that they were innocent and they shouldn't be there and it was going to be a, you know - I really had a plan that I was going to stay very quiet and stay to myself, keep a separate low profile. I was not going to complain about anything because I sort of, you know, decided my own fate by not testifying and so I was determined not to complain and to stay very low key. My plan was to read all the great books of the world. I was going to read every great book that I had never been able to read. You know, I just didn't have the time for and when I got there they didn't allow books. They only allowed the Bible at that jail and they took my books away. And I remember thinking, what am I going to do? You know, what would I ever do sitting, you know 24 hours a day in a cell? And that's the only time my lawyer cried was when I called him and told him I couldn't read. There would no books there. I had gone to Ouachita Baptist University and so I had already read the Bible pretty, very carefully. I had a really good, you know, teaching on the Bible. I told them that but it didn't matter to them that I had already read it. So, it's really what started my involvement with the women there and I think it was a blessing because I didn't have anything to read. I was lying in my bed looking at the ceiling wondering, you know, how to spend the time. Some women came to my bed one day and asked me to read to them, asked me to read the Bible. They had the King James Version of the Bible. They said they couldn't understand it and they couldn't read it and that was shocking to me that they couldn't read it. And I found out later that most of the women who are in county jails or in the country never finished high school. They had a terrible time, you know, just reading the most basic things much less, you know, the King James Version of the Bible and making sense of it. And so, I can remember very well thinking, you know, the hypocrisy of my reading the Bible to women there when I felt so far from any spirituality myself, when I felt so far from sort of feeling that I couldn't teach them anything about the Bible because I was really angry when I first went to jail. I was so angry and really felt that there was no fairness and there was very little for me to feel grateful for. I was worried about my family. My parents were old and I was so worried but as that, as I got down off of the bed and sat down on the floor to read to them because there's what really, what touch me was that these were women who couldn't read and so I sat in the floor and I started something called "How did we get here?" that day, while all of the women talked about how they got to jail and it was really something for me because I had never really, you know, examined or explored my own, how did I get here? You know, because that was sort of a, you know, framing, the independent counsel or the investigation, but how did I get in that place where that happened to me, you know. Sure, there were things that were unfair and things that were not, you know, certainly the way our justice system is supposed to work but how did I get there? You know, what had happened to me? And so, I listened to their stories and I came to love them all and understand how they'd gotten there and to understand it is to, you know, have absolute feeling for all of them. I tell people all the time I never saw anyone that didn't deserve a chance the whole time I was in jail. I mean, they, most of the women there had led such horrible lives and that's not just me. You know, a lot of people have said, "Oh, you're such a bleeding heart" or, you know, you have, you know, this level of event but even the Justice Department says that almost two-thirds of the women in jail have been horribly sexually abused and mentally abused before they commit their first crime. And if you listen to their stories, it's not stories that they give you for sympathy. They almost say it in a matter-of-a-fact way the most horrific, most horrible stories that you can imagine. I'd say in the most matter-of-a-fact, like you would say that you would went to the grocery store. And so that day changed my life. I couldn't even feel sorry for myself after that. I couldn't even start to say, you know, oh, my gosh how did this happen to me or how did I end up here? I listened to their stories and seeing what they'd been through and the things that they'd overcome. There was this one girl who said, we were in a church group and she said my father used to pick me up by the ankle and bash my head against the wall. My mother would go in the other room and put toilet paper in here ears so that she couldn't hear me screaming. And she said, "How can I believe in a God because if I were God I would never have let something like that happen to anyone?" And to hear the stories was to understand how this girl got addicted to heroine and how she was in the car that day that the driver, she was a passenger, the driver hit a policeman and now she was in jail for attempted murder of a police officer. If you'd hear the story of her whole life was to understand and so every jail I went to after that, the women would sit down with me because most of the them knew who I was. By the time I got there it was in the news every day and there was a television in every jail and so most of the women wanted to meet me and they sit down with me and go through, you know, how did we get here. It changed my life.

INTERVIEWER: Tell me one story in particular that really kind of typified what these women were like.

SUSAN: Well, it's hard but I would say the most shocking thing that I heard, if you want to know a story, would be how many women were sexually abused as young girls. And if you think about it, it makes sense. I was usually the oldest one in most of the jails that I was in. So, you've got a bunch of young women and they've never finished high school and they had trouble reading and why did it happen? How did they get off the path from school? Well, something happened in the home and so a lot of these women were beaten as children or sexually abused. I remember sitting in a circle at Sybil Brand Institute on the floor in Los Angeles and a girl was just talking. She was saying, "Well, you know, my step-father came in and started sleeping with me and I still was going to school though but then he started sleeping with my little sister and I could hear her crying and I started sneaking out of the room at night. I'd crawl out the window and I'd go sleep at the service station down the road and they left the bathroom door open and I was still going to school. I'd sneak back in the morning and get dressed and go to school but then some boys in the neighborhood found out I was there and they started raping me" and she got pregnant and so she said "I dropped out of school and I started hanging around with the wrong people. I got in with the wrong crowd and that's how I ended up here. I was doing drugs, and you know, I just got in to it and that's how I got arrested." And I remember listening to that story and just the horror of it and nobody in the circle but me were even shocked and so I asked them, "How come nobody" seemed to really, you know, feel anything or register anything while she was talking?" and she said, "Susan, everybody in here has got a story about that. Everybody in here could tell you horrible things that's happened to them because every woman in jail is very poor." If you have any money at all you would have gotten bail or if you have a family that takes you in and you don't have to stay in jail awaiting trial. And so most of the women are horribly poor and, you know, a great deal of minority are women. And so, the stories are just horrific but I will never forget that one girl. She must have been 19 years old and that began when she was 12.

INTERVIEWER: Do you remember what happened to the baby?

SUSAN: No, I don't remember but I'm sure she lost it. I'm sure that, and most of the women who are in jail, their children go to social services because their families are already overwhelmed and their families have struck them out years ago. Most of the women that I met never made a collect phone call to anybody. There was nobody for them to call who would accept a collect phone call. A shocking thing is that the women never saw a lawyer. They had appointed lawyers but the public defenders are so over, you know, so over case loaded that they never get down there. Most of the women see their lawyers for the very first time the day they go to trial and they never know when that is. Most of them get called out for trial but they never even know that that's the day that they're going.

INTERVIEWER: Tell me a little bit about some of the mothers that you met.

SUSAN: Most of the women are mothers. Almost two-thirds of the women in jail are very young and they are mothers. I think the hardest thing for any woman that I met was always talking or thinking about the children that they left behind. It's hard to describe but any activity, like say that we got pens or pencils or crayons or just anything, the first thing the women would do would be to sit down and draw pictures or write letters to their children. Most of them women have been drunk or high on drugs and this is the first time they're sober in a long, long time and so what they have been doing is all coming back to them and a mind that free of drugs and alcohol and the shame and the guilt. It's overwhelming because they'd left it behind. That's why they're high or why they're drunk is because they can't cope with all of the terrible things that they've done with their children, to their families. I think the one thing that people need to know more than anything else is for the women. I don't know how it is with the men but the self-hatred is unbelievable. I mean, they never say, "I'm innocent. I shouldn't be here." Most of the women there take full responsibility for everything they've done and for a lot of stuff they haven't done. A lot of them feel responsible for what's been done to them and in the most horrible ways they take responsibility for the beatings that they took or running away from home and getting out of school. I mean, the fact that what you expect to find is a bunch of women saying, "Gee, it wasn't my fault." Women, and women who are hearing this will know personally, how often we take things on ourselves that are not ours to take and that's why I think they never quite get a foot on the ground when they get out because they're so full of this self-hatred that they really never get a good start once they get out of jail because it's kind of a failure syndrome. I mean, if you can't forgive yourself and if you hate yourself that much, the only thing you can do is go back to drugs and alcohol and they've screwed up. They've lost their families. They've lost their children. Just the process for going back and trying to find your kids in the social services system and reclaim them, it's just unbelievably hard. And for someone with no education it's almost, it seems like too much of a mountain to climb.

INTERVIEWER: It seems like we're setting the stage for them to fail and go back.

SUSAN: It's a system that makes no sense. For one thing I never saw a drug or alcohol abuse program in the jails and that is where women first have their contact with society. If they're ostracized or living on the fringes, they're doing drugs and alcohol, they don't know what it is to be a good neighbor. They're arrested. They're in jail. They have 24 hours a day, seven (7) days a week while they're awaiting trial and we do nothing. I mean, at that point, it seems to me, an AA group or a drug intervention group and that person might never have to be arrested again. That person might actually go back out in to society and be a good neighbor or be a good citizen but what we do is usually give them a slap on the wrist the first. Maybe a slap on the wrist the second time. Maybe a jail time the third time and then we send them away to prison. They lose their children and they become repeat offenders and in prison they get drug and alcohol intervention once they are sentenced to a long term prison but it seems to me that if we could get them early on, what a difference it might make to not have lost the children in the first place and for those women not to be re-arrested. I remember Mark Jargus, Pat Harris and I, when we first started meeting these women in the county jails, we bailed them out if their bail was like less than $200.00. If their bail was $150.00, there were women we could bail out for $50.00 that had been in there for months. We would bail them out but they would be right back. You know, they had no where to go and a lot of the jails will release women at midnight because they can count on the state census for the next day and get reimbursement money. So, I've often said, if I were released at midnight without a penny in my pocket and nobody to call on the phone, I'd go get drunk or high, you know. I mean, it's like the system, it is the hardest thing possible to try to make it once you get out or we're just giving them no help. If you go back to the county jail and you talk to the women there and you say to them, "What's on your mind? What is the most thing you're most thinking about?" And they'll tell you, "I'm scared to get out" because they don't want to fail. They don't want this to happen again but they've haven't the vaguest clue how to make it and they know that.

INTERVIEWER: What are some of the differences you saw in the prisons and the county jail or were there a lot of similarities?

SUSAN: Oh, it's very different. Most of the women in county jails are so poor and they're there for possession of some drug or public intoxication or prostitution or petty thievery. I mean, there was a girl who was so beautiful, pregnant. Just a lovely girl who'd stolen bread from a grocery store but she had stolen food many times and so she was in jail. She was a crack addict. In Arkansas I was amazed at how many women are in for crack addiction. I'd never had any - I'd never known anyone and they were amazed that I had never known anyone who had smoked crack. This was in Conway, Arkansas and it's just endemic. I mean, it's an unbelievable explosion in the minority core neighborhoods. It's what people get arrested for. In federal prison, which was the only prison I was ever in, most of the women are there for aiding and abetting. Say that their husband is a big time drug dealer or something and they set up deals to pick up cash or, you know, things like that. It's a very different world entirely from small town jails. You know, I was in, even in Pulaski County Jail, the women there are very poor and they're in for very petty crimes. 80% of all women in jail, they're there for non-violent crimes, crimes they that they've done to themselves mostly, you know, drugs and alcohol abuse, prostitution.

INTERVIEWER: Tell me a little bit about their husbands. I know you'd said the women were telling you how they'd taken a fall for their husband or a boyfriend and you got really mad about that.

SUSAN: Yeah, I did. I had to deal with that because it is an amazing thing and people who work in prison will tell you, that women will tell you time and again the story and you'll see but, you know, that you're hooked up with some boyfriend or some husband or, you know, even the abuse that I talked about earlier of the step-fathers, the brothers, the fathers in the home and you start getting a little angry about what is going on here? Why are women complicit in this behavior of allowing men to direct with them in a path that is only going to end in destruction. One of the things that really shocked me was how the women defended the men, or whoever it was. They come in beaten, bloody. I mean, broken arms, bloody faces, just really, you just really wouldn't believe the condition they were in and yet they were always making an excuse. "Well, he was drinking and I was mouthing off at him." But women tend to be very protective of the men in their life and for, you know, whoever they're with. One of the interesting things though that you find is that on men's visiting day, the place will be filled with grandmothers, mothers, children. In fact they have to stagger them because there's so many visitors that the men have to have different days but the women, hardly anyone comes. The men are long gone. New girlfriends. The families are ashamed that the women, you know, are in jail and it's just totally different, hardly any visitors at all for the women and that's not just my observation. I was at a meeting and I was saying, "Isn't it amazing that there so many - you don't have to worry so much about the men being beaten up or abused because their wives, you know, start a campaign to go and I said, "Isn't that funny?" Because the women have no one to stand up for them. I can't tell you the number of women I've seen on the phone calling and calling and calling and that man is gone, not accepting the phone calls, they're long gone.

INTERVIEWER: It seems society can accept those kinds of failures in men, but a woman it seems she has to be shunned.

SUSAN: This is truly a double standard. With the guards, with the system and in society that women are held to a higher standard than men are and that once they fail they are seemed to be, I mean, they need to wear a scarlet letter. You know, it's much worse. A guy can be a guy, you know, and have, "Oh, I was in jail, you know, I was drunk" but not a woman. I think a lot of it has to do with children. People are very unforgiving when it comes to what happens to children in the world and women are the primary caregivers. And so, when you see a woman who has children and she has messed up and she's gone to jail, we can really find it not hard to be angry with her, to hate her but the husband's no where to be found.

INTERVIEWER: You talked a little bit about them taking the books away from you and that was kind of a shock to you. What do you think it was like for the women in there to get things like, you know, a piece of paper or a crayon and have something from the outside world?

SUSAN: Well, you know, I often had people in jail tell me, you know, it's not so bad for these women, Susan, because they had such, you know, terrible lives. They had nothing on the outside and so it's not so different for them in here. But I don't think until it's you, you can actually realize what it's like to be stripped of every single thing you have and in the Pulaski County Jail, they took everything single thing you had. I mean, often you did not have underwear to give you back. They would give you a uniform that would be torn up or really in terrible shape and no underwear and I would tell them, "Women have to have underwear." I mean, it is a biological fact that we must have them but they just didn't have them to give you. I mean, that is like the most primary thing you can imagine or be in a jail cell and start your period and not be given, you know, Kotex or Tampax and not have anything that you can do for yourself, you know. I mean, I'm talking about the most primary things. When I was in isolation they would sometimes, I was in a part of the jail that there weren't other people held, they would forget to bring food sometimes. They would forget, you know, even to bring fresh laundry because I was held in a different area and they were all so busy. There's nothing like being locked in a room and being unable to do the simplest things for yourself and to have nothing. I remember thinking about a bathroom that I had once that was mirrored and had just shelves and shelves of cosmetics and things and thinking, you know, I have a bar of soap and a thing of shampoo and I'm fine. It wasn't that I needed more, that I missed those things. It was just that sometimes, even those simplest things were not given to you. One of the things about being transferred is that you lose your comb, your shampoo, your blanket and it might take days to get another comb or a toothbrush. I mean, it could take up to a week if your family doesn't get the money to you and if your family doesn't have any money, you might not get it. I mean, just the simplest things. One of the things that we did at the Conway jail was we did like a welcome wagon packs where, you know, we would save up our stuff as the women were there and when women would come, we would have a little sack or a comb and a toothbrush and some toothpaste and a bar of soap because often times it would take, you know, a long time to get those things.

INTERVIEWER: I've heard stories about the women saving pads and tampons because they aren't given enough.

SUSAN: Oh, yeah. Asking, and the men just laugh about it, if you ask a guard, you know, and you say, "I need Kotex", they'll just laugh about it and you might get it and you might not. When you come back from court you're strip searched because you've been out of the jail and you might have gotten some sort of contraband and that means your Tampon is taken out and your cavity is searched and you don't get anything until you get back to your jail cell. So, the blood just runs down your legs, you know, until you get back to your jail cell. I mean, it's just the most elemental of things that robs you of your humanity.

INTERVIEWER: Can you believe that that's still going on in today's society?

SUSAN: Well, it just seems like such an easy thing to be kind. It seems like such an easy thing to do that you wonder why it can't be done. Like letting women hold their children. I mean, I can't tell you how people couldn't stand to come and visit me because they would see the babies and children screaming behind glass begging for their mothers and they couldn't bear to come see me because you could hear them crying and screaming. "I want to stay with you mommy. Let me stay with you mommy." And just to let the woman hold her child. I don't understand why that's such a terrible thing. The children are the ones they punish. Three (3) out of five (5) of those kids will end up in jail. And why not let them touch their mothers? I don't understand that. If even if we believe that punishment is what we are going to do, not just incarceration, but if we want to punish the women for their crimes, why punish the children and have another generation of kids who are angry. I remember when the Jonesboro shooting happened, I was in Los Angeles at a jail and I remember the women saying, "That could be my child", they're so angry. And one of those little boys was away from his mother and they said, "That could be our kids shooting up the school killing people because they never get to see them." They never get to touch them. I was in jail with a 17 year old girl who hadn't touched her mother in three (3) years, saw her behind glass. I went up to the people who ran it and I said, "I will give up all my visits if you'll let this girl have contact with her mother."

INTERVIEWER: What about their children?

SUSAN: For women, the biggest problem is the children. I mean, that's the horrible thing. To think that we can rehabilitate someone when they're in the system, the Social Services Department. They say what we're really doing is protecting the children. What do they need more than anything else? I mean, I think beyond a doubt, all studies show these kids need to see their mothers. So, if we're really protecting the children, Social Services, you have those kids, ought to bring them up there and let the mothers see them, no matter what the children - the women have done, the children want to see their mothers and they're being hurt. They're being, they're developed mentally delayed. Their educational skills are lessened. They - studies show that just contact with parents in prison could change a kid's life just totally in the school system. And so I don't understand. I mean, I know that money is an issue but one (1) out of ten (10) people in Texas is either in jail, in prison, on parole, you know, that was the front page article the last time I was there and we have got to start directing the money that we're using to keep these people in jail, to try and keep people out of jail and that's what we're not doing. Because it's really the prisons that are becoming over crowded and we're not doing enough when we first arrest people and put them jail to see that they don't come back.

INTERVIEWER: Instead of treating drug addiction, we want to punish them. It's like sending someone to prison for cancer and expecting to punish the cancer out of them.

SUSAN: It's - well, the most of the drug addiction and alcoholism, for these women is a trying to blot out life because their early life was so horrendous that they can't cope and so, I don't think it's so much that they are like some alcoholics, inherited from their families or it's in the DNA. It's not so much that but I see this as community wide. These women all know each other. They all live in the same communities. They are very poor. They are very uneducated and they see no hope in life and so they drink and they take drugs and they get arrested. And it just continues because they get re-arrested. Then you have to put on your application that you have been arrested. That you're a felon. You can't get a job and it's just impossible to ever change your life at that point. It's hard enough for us who are college educated to changed our lives once we see this going in the wrong direction but can you imagine what hopelessness you would have to think first deposit, first month's deposit, last month's deposit, pay the rent, try to get a job, try to get my kids back and get them in school and I don't even have a high school education. I just got out of jail. I have no money and no help. I had everybody in the world wanting to help me when I was in jail. Everybody in the world, and even I cannot find beds to put these women in when they got out in the halfway houses. No where for them to go. I remember Mark and Pat getting hotel rooms and putting them up when they would be on the street. My brother would go to Salvation Army and get clothes for them to wear when they would get out and just, you know, he'd just go and say, you know, "She's about medium height, you know, 150 pounds" and he would go and just get what he could for them to put on when they would get out.

INTERVIEWER: That's more than most of them ever get.

SUSAN: Oh, they just don't have any help and yet, they want them to get out, you know, they'll come back.

INTERVIEWER: When you first told Pat and Mark about jail, can you remember what that was like to have to tell them what it was really like inside?

SUSAN: Well, I was determined that I was going to be non-complaining and that we were going to get through it and the first call that I made was really shocking because they were all so upset and I didn't know why because I told them, I said, "Most of the women in here are very nice to me and I'm okay." But it was that picture on the cover of USA Today of the shackles and, I mean, I don't think anybody was really expecting that and it really shocked my lawyers. It shocked, in fact it shocked America because I got 50,000 letters the next week, really from all over the world of people saying, "What, what is going on?" But I tried really hard to put a good face on jails and not to make it any harder on my family and the people that cared about me, than I had to. So, I didn't really share a lot.

INTERVIEWER: At what point did you start asking them to help the women?

SUSAN: Oh, to help the women. You couldn't help but get involved if you were coming to see me because their families were there and their children were there and you were told, the visitors would talk, you know, while they were waiting for hours in line to get to see the inmate and so, you couldn't help but get involved but I will say, Mark always said I was the only client he ever had that came down and talked about all the other cases rather than my own because most of the women had - they didn't even know when they were even going to court, you know. And so Mark would call and find out the court dates and it kept the focus off of me for myself and it gave me some of the reason for being, you know, rather than lost time. It was like the most wonderful time because I was being able to reach out to other people that I never would have met. And it so it was a wonderful time for me. I wouldn't trade a day of it.

INTERVIEWER: There was so much attention drawn to you during that time, how did that make you feel knowing that a lot of women who were there never received any help?

SUSAN: It was great because those women loved it. I mean, they would put make-up on me. We would make it up. They would crush colored pencils for rouge. They would, you know, I don't know. We would just - they made up all sorts of things. They once did my hair in toilet paper rollers, you know, and everybody kind of got caught up in the spirit of it. If someone was coming, Stone Phillips or Geraldo or someone they knew, oh, just to know that someone they knew was going to go speak to a famous person, which is just more than they could stand. It was just like the best time of their lives, you know, and they all felt a part of it. When the letters would come, we would all sit and everybody would open letters and read them aloud, my letters, which of course, nobody ever got letters but me and so it became a Susan McDougal sort of rally, you know, because everybody was a part of it. I can remember once watching a local Little Rock station. The guy on there said, "Well, Susan McDougal's gone to jail but we'll just see how long that lasts" and all the room just yelling at the TV and saying, "Yeah, we'll see. We'll see how long it lasts, you know." Because everybody was really caught up in the fact that they were a part of something that they could think of was larger than themselves and that they were accepted in to.

INTERVIEWER: It kind of gave them something else to focus on besides their own problems.

SUSAN: Yes. And it gave them a sense of being a human being, which many of them had never had.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever feel bad though that before, before you came along that they were just basically just being ignored?

SUSAN: Oh, I can't tell you. You get so many people who visit like churches or, you know, or groups and what they do usually is they have a program that they get when they come but nobody ever comes to hear these women, you know. When I sat down and said, "Tell me what's going on with you? How did you get here?" It was amazing how much they wanted to talk. I mean, before we came up with this idea that the talking, you know, and psychoanalysis was freeing, that it could make you see your own problem. I certainly saw that while I was there. They are so anxious to try to understand themselves or how they got there or what's happening with them but nobody wants to hear them. Who are they to listen to? Who are they to ever want to spend your time, you know, hearing their problems because all it is, when somebody comes in there, it's going to be a bunch of women talking about their problems but these are unique people with very unique stories, much better stories than mine.

INTERVIEWER: Do you feel like, if not for just a few differences, that you could have been one of those women?

SUSAN: No. No, I don't. Because in most cases those women never had a chance. They had drug mothers, alcoholic fathers or absent fathers and so from the day they were born, their chances of making it as a good neighbor, as a good citizen were lessened considerably. I never had any sort of, you know, my percentages were like 100%. I had an intact family, seven brothers and sisters. I lived in a small town where everybody supported each other. You know, I was a straight "A" student in school. You know, my percentages were really up there. So, for me to land in jail was rather anomaly, you know but, no, I never felt that way. But what I did feel like was, I would never have made it. If I'd been in their situation, I would never have made it. Everyone talks about how strong I am, you know, to have gone to jail for two years and not to have spoken before the Grand Jury and to have been through what I've been through but nobody knows what strength it takes to be six or seven years old and feeding yourself out of garbage cans, never having had what we know as a family meal. One woman told me that her father was sexually abusing everybody in the family, the boys, the girls, everyone. Even when they ate he would throw the food in the floor and they would eat off of the floor like dogs and you think about overcoming that and just being a good person. It's almost an unbelievable thing that you wouldn't be a Ted Bundy, you know, a serial killer having been abused that way but they're still trying to make it and they still have hope that when they get out they will make it but how? That's the question. They have no idea.

INTERVIEWER: You said in an interview, probably in Arkansas Times, you said one of the reasons you were speaking now is that if you have a voice you should use it. Why are you doing or making these speeches? What do you want people to know?

SUSAN: Well, that's two (2) questions. Why am I doing it and what do I want them to know? The reason I'm doing it is an interesting story. My mom was Belgium and after the war my mom and dad were stationed in Germany. My dad was in the U. S. Army and they went to the concentration camps and one of the things the U.S. Army did was make the local people come in to the concentration camps and my mother said over and over, you'd hear them say, "We didn't know. This is our own town and we just didn't know that, you know, people were being gassed to death and that they were starving" and that this was going on just outside, you know, in their city limits. And so I am determined that people will know what's going on. In every small town in America there is a jail. In every city you go to there are women incarcerated and I am determined that people will not be able to say, "I just didn't know what's going on right here in my city" and there's a woman who died not too long ago because she was put in a jail cell with alcohol intoxication and she died there but she was a drunk. They threw her in jail and that woman was, you know, unconscious when they put her there and nobody cared because she was a drunk but this is happening in our small towns where people really do care about each other and where we're neighbors but there's a segment of our population, the poor, mostly minority women but not all minority women, a lot of other women, and we are just letting them go and it's happening very young. They're dropping out of school and they're getting in trouble and we're just letting that happen. And so, I'm determined that people will know what it's like to go to jail and the things that I saw while I was there. And what I want people to know is that it's very easy to change it. It doesn't take that much to make sure that people in their local jail have enough food, that they don't go to bed hungry and thinking about food all night long and they have fresh water to drink. It's not that hard to do. And it doesn't take a lot of money to do that and we ought to care enough to make sure that people have a place to stay that's safe when they get out and that their children that are begging to see their mothers, they ought to be able to see their mothers. It doesn't take that much but people think it's an overwhelming problem but it's not and I want them to know that it's a simple problem but that people have to care in order to change it and they do. People do care about it. You know, when I first started this, people would say, "Oh, my gosh, there's so many thing in the world we have to worry about, you know." We hear about it all the time. Nobody cares about criminals. You know, nobody wants to hear about the plight of the criminals but when I tell people what I saw and what I saw in Arkansas, people are shocked and they don't like it and they don't want it to continue.

INTERVIEWER: You've said you encountered mentally ill people in jail. How were they treated?

SUSAN: I don't think people really want, even if they think you're a criminal, I don't think that they want to punish you or abuse you. I don't think anyone thinks that it's fair for a mentally ill person who's been arrested for trespassing or, you know, stealing something to have blankets thrown over their head and butted in to walls or beaten because they can't follow orders. In some of the cells there is feces and urine on the floor but people are so hungry because they don't even have enough mental capacity to feed themselves and they're just walking skeletons. After they're locked down, most of the time because if they're allowed out, they don't follow the directions of the guards. I mean, it's really a horrible thing that in this country we jail the mentally ill and when we try to get them placed somewhere else because, you know, I had lawyers that were willing to help me. There's no where for them to go. There's no where for them to go and so we have lock down cells where they are just kept in isolation all of the time until they're sent to prison and it's an unbelievable thing when you see the abuse that happens because guards are not trained to deal with the mentally ill.

INTERVIEWER: Are they allowed any sort of medical attention?

SUSAN: Well, it's, it's hard to say because I don't want you to think that the people who run our jails are cruel, sadist, heartless people. They're not but it is an overwhelming thing and not a problem that they've dealed - that they have been trained to deal with. And so what happens is, you have a doctor who will come by to see them but they, they can't be forced to take medication, for instance. You can't force an inmate to take a certain medication and even if they give them a medication, they're very ill, you know and they're in a locked down cage and it just - they get sicker and sicker and sicker. And so, jail is not the place for the mentally ill. There was a woman in Little Rock, Arkansas that was put in dry cell, which is a concrete one with nothing in it, no where to sit, nothing, no toilet, no sink, just four (4) walls and in the middle of that dry cell is a drain and a person had tried to kill themselves by tying their uniform to the drain and it's such a horrible room to be in. I mean, it's just unbelievable when you look at it. And so, when you're put in there you only have a paper gown so that you can't harm yourself and this little girl had had an accident and been arrested that same night and she had lost one of her legs in this car accident. So, the picture, if you look at it, if you're looking in the cell, is this girl with one leg hopping around in four (4) concrete walls with a drain in the middle of the room. They've taken her crutches so that she won't hurt herself. I could hear her cry all night long. She wouldn't eat or drink, just getting sicker and sicker and sicker and the doctor said, you know, he couldn't force her to take an anti-psychotic drug and so my question was, "What are we going to do?" I mean, how long is this going to go on? It'd been going on for weeks. She was so thirsty she was peeling skin from the dead skin on her lips and eating it she was so hungry.

INTERVIEWER: I remember you talking about that in one of your speeches.

SUSAN: It is not a thing the guards want to see or that they want to deal with but they're forced to. I had a correctional officer tell me that if he had three times as many lock down cells, he could fill them with the mentally ill. That says something about our country, that that's how we deal with people who have mental problems and that there's no where else for them to go. I've seen people, and I was, for some reason, many times I was - because I was a high profile prisoner, I was put in the lock down areas and so I would see them throw themselves off second floor balconies or try to strangle themselves or, you know, just, because it's just such a horror to them. We, you know, we've had many expose' of mental institutions back at the turn of the century and how horrible they were and how people were just locked away and left to starve or to be beaten or to be abused but the jails are the new places that have got to be exposed for what's happening. The sexual abuse of the mentally ill is horrible. I mean, I have seen guards line up to see the women nude or ask her to do things, you know, to show certain parts of her body and things when the women weren't able to take care of themselves.

INTERVIEWER: When people were coming to interview you, were you telling them about the things you had seen?

SUSAN: Yes. Yes. I think that had a lot to do with why Sybil Brand got closed down because it was just so unbelievable to go there. When the media started going in, you know, photographing what was going on. There was huge pressure on the city of Los Angeles to close it down. And some of the good things that happened to me happened because of a lot that the media, you know, showed on the jails.

INTERVIEWER: You were able to use your status and focus on some of your issues.

SUSAN: Yes. I was able to use a political thing about the President because nobody was really interested in me either. It was because it was about the President of the United States and that focus kind of shed a light on all of the darkness of county jails, which nobody really knows what goes on in there. Nobody really wants to know, you know.

INTERVIEWER: Did you meet any people who have been in a whole family in and out, in and out of jail?

SUSAN: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I was in jail with grandmothers and mothers and children in Conway.

INTERVIEWER: What does that say to you about our system? That a whole family structure ends up in prison?

SUSAN: All of those were in there for drug dependency. They were smoking crack. They were drinking, you know. It was just, I guess just like you would learn any other trade or business from your parents. That's sort of what happens to the kids. You know, they just get in to that same sort of mentality. I don't think, and I can't stress this enough, they don't have a clue how to be a good citizen. How to be a member, a productive member of society. They don't have the first idea how to start to get an education once they dropped out of high school. Have you ever looked at the equivalency test for high school? Because I've tried to teach it in jail and I'm pretty good. Okay. I'm pretty, you know, well-rounded in English and grammar. It is impossible. I mean, to try to teach someone who dropped out of the eighth grade a high school equivalency test. It's almost impossible to do. I mean, I don't know how they ever hope to go get an education once they have a baby, you know, and they're trying to take care of this child. They don't have a high school diploma. It's the hopelessness of it, which is why we have got to start intervening early and not just letting it go on. When people ask me well, what should we do? Find out who's dropping out of school. Public schools are our best hope for these people who are on the edges of our society. That's where we see them. That's where we first get to talk with them and be with them. I've had schoolteachers after my speeches come up and say, "We know they're being abused. We know these kids are in trouble and we aren't doing anything about it."

INTERVIEWER: What are we able to do?

SUSAN: I think the focus now is on testing. It's on, you know, promotion and on, you know, our schools are for teaching the three (3) "R"s, reading and writing and arithmetic. You know, and we don't understand that that is the first place where we get these kids that are in trouble and it's where our society has a chance to really make a difference in lives. And I know that we're getting away from that focus in our public schools now. We're going back to, you know, teach the basics and get them out of there but if we don't see that all of these kids are going to end up being the people that our society ends up paying for in the end. We are really stupid people.

INTERVIEWER: It seems amazing that we ignore the emotional side of these children.

SUSAN: And where else do we see them? Are we going to hope that these parents who are, you know, their children are eating out of garbage cans or being abused, are going to take them to church? Now, we're now hoping that church based affiliated programs are going to, you know, fill in the cracks where, you know, government can't do it, is what we're saying. Well, do you know what? We are the government. We are the people. We are the government and if we can't do it, then it can't be done but I do believe we can. It just doesn't take that much to really make a difference. I mean, we ought to be able in our public schools to see the kids that are on the margins and lend a helping hand. It ought not be that hard to do.

INTERVIEWER: When did you first start speaking on this issue?

SUSAN: Um, I would imagine that it would be after, you know, I got out of jail and I was asked to speak about Whitewater or about the criminal justice system or people wanted to hear about the independent counsel because the law was coming up for renewal. So, there were a lot of opportunities for me to speak and what I would do is speak just a little bit about those subjects and then just a whole lot about women in jail.

INTERVIEWER: Have you been able to move on to where you just talk about the women?

SUSAN: I don't do that. I don't do just talk completely about women in jail because, as I say, don't book me for a lunch speech because this is awfully, you know, hard stuff to take. It's very draining to me and it's emotionally hard to hear. So, what I try to do is talk a little bit about Kenneth Starr and my dealings with him, which, you know, I try doing that in a humorous way but I do have so much anger and resentment that I do try to do it in a humorous way or I talk about, you know, the many trials, you know, becoming an arch criminal at the age of 45, you know. I try to talk to the other things too.

INTERVIEWER: When you do these speeches, do you find that there are a lot of people who, you know, a lot of these people are focused on Whitewater instead of asking you about the prisons?

SUSAN: Yes. Yes, that would be true. I think that there are Whitewater-0-files. I mean, I had people who have walked the entire Whitewater development, who know the lots and also what happened to lot 26, for instance. You know, which I find very humorous but there are people who are very caught up in Whitewater-o-mania and they come to the speeches sometimes and want to ask very directed questions.

INTERVIEWER: What do you tell these people?

SUSAN: I ask them to wait until I talk, you know, until I've talked to all of the people who are, you know, more interested in day-to-day subjects that I'm interested in like women in jail and things like that but if people are truly interested in that, I will talk with them about it. Not that I remember what happened, you know, to who bought lot 26 or anything like that but I respect that people have, you know, interest in national topics. I have to tell you, I am so bored with Whitewater, so up to the top of my throat with it that, you know, if I never had to talk about it again, it would be fine but I understand that people are interested.

INTERVIEWER: We still have people saying that we should punish, punish, punish, punish.

SUSAN: Yes. It's true but one of the gray things about speaking to lawyers, for instance, or to judges who want to hear about Whitewater or hear about, you know, my time in trial. They'll ask certain aspects of trial procedure and they'll say, "Would you come speak on, you know, being a witness in a criminal proceeding? And then I get across the board with all kinds of people who actually have a direct impact. I mean, I've had prosecutors who've written to me after my speeches and said, "You know, this is what I am doing." I mean, here are concrete things that I intend to do because I heard you speak and so, when you say, people who come to hear me talk about women in prison, I would say mostly those people are liberal but I am asked to speak to groups like the National Associations of Mental Health and things like that. We do across the board people from all ideologies and a political spectrum who are interested in how people are treated.

INTERVIEWER: How do you think those of us who aren't or don't have a celebrity status can get the word out?

SUSAN: It is so easy and that's what I tell everyone. All you have to do is go to your local jail. It is a public facility. The sheriff is an elected person and if you say to him, "I'd like to know, you know, I'd like to speak to some of the women here" or "Could you show me, you know, what their fresh water supply is" or "What kind of foods they're given?" "Is there any kind of education program?" "Are women allowed to touch to their babies when they come?" "Are children up to the age of seven (7) or six (6) allowed to actually have contact visit in my local jail in the town where I live?" That guy is going to respond because he wants to be re-elected and they do tours through the jails all the time. Most people are too scared to talk to the inmates, which is a shame. I mean, I've been in jails where the people walked by them on the outside, and kind of flirtedly looked in to see what kind of, you know, women were in there. But it doesn't take that much to get, say a woman's group, you know, a woman's advocacy group together and say, "Sheriff, we would like very much to go in and talk to some of the women and see what we can do to make a difference in their lives." Most of them welcome it. Most of the sheriffs, you know, that's fine. If you want to take some time off for the inmates, that will be fine.

INTERVIEWER: What can we do to better serve the children?

SUSAN: Um, for one thing, the children, there needs to be, it's done in social services. There needs to be some way that those children can interact with the parent that is incarcerated. For the loss of that parent is a horrible blow that that kid may never recover from and then we're going to end up dealing with his, you know, psychological problems, his educational problems whether we like it or not. Whether you want to deal with it or not, we'll end up dealing with it because that's what happens. And so there needs to some sort of system where we can get contact there.

Back to Top