Edna swung the ratty broom along the concrete floor. The bristles were worn and broken in many places. The broom made an abrasive, scratching sound as she brushed it across the floor.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

The broom’s yellow handle had been broken, probably during one of the frequent fights among the inmates.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

The handle had been repaired with gray duct tape that curled at the edges.  Edna gripped her fingers around the taped portion, trying not to think.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

The steady rhythm of coarse brushing was the only sound that broke the silence.  Edna let it fill her mind.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

She brushed the broom along the edges of the floor, next to the wall, efficiently removing the dirt collecting at the baseboards.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

She evicted the cobwebs tightly enfolding a small nest of insects in one corner.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

She dug the broom into the cracks in the concrete, unhinging small pebbles and rocks that could be used as weapons.

Sweep.  Sweep.  Sweep.

Her back ached. She disregarded it.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

A light sheen of perspiration emerged on her forehead. She ignored it.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

Dust covered her clothing and clung to her face. She paid no attention to it.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

Tears collected in the corners of her eyes.  She blinked them away rapidly.  It was the dust, she told herself. Only the dust.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.

Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep.



Edna gazed at the concrete floor, still clutching the broom.  The floor was as clean as it was going to get.

The guards would not return for another 30 minutes. When they arrived, they’d put out the furniture. Then the other prisoners would come back in, fifteen minutes later. Before then, Edna had more work to do.

Edna shifted the broom in her left hand. She tried to work out the kinks in her low back with her right hand. No luck. She tried stretching. She moved her hips forward and back, to the sides, trying to work out the ache.

It didn’t help.

She gave up. She looked around the room, knowing what had to be done next: the windows, filthy from the food fight yesterday.

She would rather be in the SHU.

Her back really hurt.

But this was her work detail. And this week she was alone, because Gladys, Monica and LaShonda, the other members of her crew, were either dead, sick, or no longer in prison.

Gladys had been on the wrong side of a guard’s heavy flashlight. The rumor was that Gladys, 65 years old, had resisted the man’s advances on her. He had a certain peccadillo for older women. He had used his flashlight on her head to persuade her to stop fighting. She didn’t stop fighting, though, until she had no more fight – or life – left in her.

Monica’s TB had been acting up and she was in the infirmary with a 104-degree fever. She was being quarantined under a clear plastic tent.

And LaShonda was out on probation. LaShonda always claimed she hadn’t killed her boyfriend. But even if she had, the man sounded brutal. Edna didn’t think his death was the kind of tragedy anyone should have to suffer for. After 9 years in prison, Edna thought that maybe some people needed killing.

This all meant that Edna was alone on lunchroom cleaning duty. She didn’t mind. She really didn’t like most of the other prisoners, including her former workmates. She had nothing in common with them. As for Gladys, Edna had found the woman repulsive. Gladys had been a lifer before her untimely death. She was always quick with a knife or shiv. Gladys had killed three or four men; Gladys herself couldn’t remember for sure. Edna didn’t think those men deserved it. Gladys’ stories seemed to be about killing for convenience, not for cause. Gladys killed because it was easy. Apparently, the guard with his flashlight was not such an easy target. Too bad, because he was one man who would have actually deserved a shiv in the gut.

Monica, who was in for dealing coke and spice, a synthetic form of marijuana with the unfortunate side effect of death, scared Edna. Not because she was violent, though. She was scary because of her hacking cough. Edna didn’t want TB, period.

She missed LaShonda though. She had felt a bond with the woman, the bond of the innocent in a den of the guilty. The bond of the innocent in hell.

And Edna was innocent. She did not kill or harm that child. Ten years ago, she had seen an ugly man with a twisted nose choke a poor boy to death. Edna had screamed for help, but no one came fast enough. The child murderer ran away, so fast, like he was sprinting for a gold medal at the Olympics. No one else saw him.  There were very few video cameras, not like there are today. Edna gotten down next to the child and pulled him onto her lap. She tried to help the poor thing breathe. It was no use. First the neighbors, then the cops found her like that. Blamed her. The boy was one of the little orphans that sometimes wandered down from the orphanage a block up.  Edna always felt bad for those kids. She wanted to help, but she didn’t feel up to being a single mother.

The child had died in her arms. Or had already been dead when she pulled him to her. Edna didn’t know.

Her kinship with Lashonda was based on shared innocence. She didn’t belong in that hellhole anymore than Edna herself did.

Edna furiously shoved these thoughts away. She knew they did her no good. She rammed the broom into the little utility closet. She grabbed the clean rags and a pail.  She slammed the closet door shut, then marched over to the large sink, next to the window. Just as she turned on the water full blast, a guard walked into the lunchroom. That guard. Gladys’ murderer.

A shot of fear hit Edna’s belly. She dropped the pail in the sink and stared at him. He leered. She quickly looked down at the pail. With shaking hands, she reached for the faucet. Smirking, the guard turned and sauntered out of the room.

Edna put her hands on the edge of the sink and let out a shaky breath. Thank god I’m only 45, she thought.


The TV droned in the background. It seemed to play an endless loop of commercials.  Edna had always hated “the ads”, but here in prison, the 15- and 30-second spots seemed to be a special kind of torture. They presented the endless possibilities that none of the women here could even begin to reach for. Getting the perfect man?  Making lots of money? Achieving success? Least of all, finding happiness??? Here, in a prison of murderers, thieves, and the insane?

She sighed and turned back to her game of Solitaire. Monica, now recovered from her bout with TB, approached her table. Edna couldn’t help it; she still didn’t want to be friends with the woman. The prisoners had been told that Monica was no longer contagious, but none of them believed that. Monica was avoided like the plague that she carried.

Monica stopped a step or 2 from Edna’s table. She looked apologetic and sheepish, but she bravely asked, “Do you want to play rummy?”

Edna glanced up at her and considered this. Her endless solitaire game was gratingly boring. Rummy sounded good. How far away could she sit from Monica and still play a game of rummy?

Edna nodded. Monica looked briefly elated. But then Edna indicated the chair at the end of the table and scooted one chair over, so that there was one chair between them. Disappointment flashed through Monica’s eyes, but she smiled bravely and sat down.

Edna asked, “When did you last wash your hands?”

Monica answered, “I’m not contagious–”


“Five minutes ago.”

Edna looked at Monica, then suddenly felt ashamed. Very ashamed. She said softly, “I’m sorry Monica. I guess I’m sick of cards. Would you like to watch TV?”

Monica’s voice trembled a bit. “Sure,” she answered.

They shifted their chairs and started watching the television. An ad for cat food came on. It had a bouncy white kitten with blue eyes, called Snowball. Edna wondered what had happened to her three beloved cats. She hoped they had managed to escape the locked apartment when she was taken away. She hoped they managed to find new homes.

Then a commercial for gum came on, featuring a woman in a hang glider. The woman shoved off the edge of a cliff and soared over the Grand Canyon in glorious freedom. A singer crooned the jingle in a smoky alto. Edna knew her voice had sounded like that. Well, at least it had 9 years ago.

Commercials. A special kind of torture.


Edna arrived at her cleaning shift five minutes early, as always. The guards had already put out her cleaning supplies. She reached for the broom… and let out a small cry of delight. It was a new broom!

Edna marveled at the perfect wooden broomstick. It was free of duct tape! Its unbroken surface would not give her slivers. The head of the broom was thick and lush with bright red, perfectly intact synthetic bristles.

Edna took her new broom to the corner and began sweeping. The sound was heaven! Instead of the abrasive scratching of the previous implement, this broom swept with a soft whooshing sound. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, went the broom as she brushed it across the floor.

It was also efficient. She figured that she collected three times more dirt in half the time than with the old broom. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh!

She only regretted how quickly the job was done.


LaShonda wrote. She had said she would, but Edna wasn’t going to hold her to it. But there it was, a letter from the outside.

LaShonda was doing well.

She was happy for her friend.

And unaccountably sad.


The evil guard had stepped into the lunchroom right as Edna was beginning her sweeping. She immediately started shaking. She could not enjoy the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh at all. She stayed in the far corner as long as she could. She only looked at him out of the corner of her eye. She went over the same spots again and again.

Thankfully, he was called away.


“…..innocent. Our investigation… serial murderer… innocent.”

“What?” Edna couldn’t concentrate with all the noise in the visitor’s room. And the man’s words confused her. She tried to remember who he said he was. “Did you say you were from the Innocence Project? I thought you gave up on me, a long time ago.”

“No, I’m Robert Friedman. I’m a detective. We may have found the man that killed Thomas Gregor. The little boy everyone thought you killed?”

“You were the detective,” Edna remembered. Suddenly angry, she flared, “But you convinced everyone I was guilty!”

The man said brusquely, “Well, if I was wrong, we’ll soon find out. We need to do a photo line-up.” The detective twisted around, catching a guard’s attention. Turning to Edna he said, “We need a private room for this.”

When Edna finally understood what was happening, shock hit her. Her mouth dropped open. She felt all the blood rushing to her head. Could it possibly be… over?

A large guard, Roger, lumbered over to their table. Edna liked this guard. He was kind. The detective explained the situation, and the Roger’s eyebrows shot up. He nodded and signaled for Edna and the detective to follow him. He led them to the social worker’s office, which was empty. “Go on in,” the big man boomed.

The detective laid out 6 photographs on top of the cluttered desk. Edna instantly pointed at the photo with a man whose nose might’ve been broken in a boxing ring, or a drunken brawl.

“Take your time,” the detective cautioned.

“No. It’s him. I saw that ugly man end the life of that little child. Just choked it out of him.”  Edna’s voice shook. “Then he ran like he was in a race. The poor baby died in my arms.” Edna looked at the detective. “Do you believe me?” she asked. “Do you believe me now?”


Her anger rising higher, Edna demanded, “Do you believe me now?’

“Yes,” the detective said, more emphatically.

“Do you believe me that I didn’t do this terrible thing? Do you believe me that I was just a secretary and a nightclub singer?” Edna was shouting now. “DO YOU BELIEVE ME NOW???”

Roger took a step or two into the room.

“Yes, Edna.” The detective replied coolly. “Yes, I believe you now.” He collected the photos. “Sorry. You’ll be out of here by the end of the week.” He strode out of the room and nodded to the guard.

Edna stood in the office, trembling. She looked at Roger, and the tears she had forced herself not to cry for 9 years finally came out. She sank to the floor and sobbed. The guard leaned over and rubbed her back. “It’s ok Edna. You get to leave now. It’s ok.”


Edna became something of a celebrity in the prison. An actual innocent person!  They asked for her autograph, as though she were a famous actress. Some believed she was just lucky. Others declared their own innocence and called their lawyers.

On her last day in prison, several prisoners had finally been assigned to clean with her. The new crew uniformly resented her. Edna’s freedom was so close that they could taste it. They made her do all the sweeping, thinking they were punishing her. But Edna was glad to hear the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, one last time.


Edna clutched her meager belongings to her chest and walked through the TV room one last time. The TV blared commercials, and out of habit, she stopped and watched: first cleaning products, then a pain reliever. Then the commercial about the gum came on. The hang glider soared in blissful freedom over the Grand Canyon. The singer purred the jingle in her smoky alto.

Edna turned on her heel and walked out.

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