Prison Shenanigans, Part Deux

We’re coming up on the end of Wright’s month, and I am sad to see it go. This was a great read for me–like I’ve said a thousand times here already, I’m a Speculative Fiction gal. I always kind of thought that reading nonfic would be like studying in high school: excruciating. I love reading and I love learning, but there are certain subjects for which I’ve no capacity for retention–history, namely. I always felt like if I dared to read something true, my old history teacher (pick a history teacher, I hated all of them) would show up at my door with a pop-quiz and a pink slip.  But this was a blast. So hooray to Bill for proving me wrong.

Here’s an excerpt from his next venture, JAILHOUSE DOC.


In addition to my time as the physician at the supermax prison, I was medical director at the county jail. If you’ve ever wondered about the jail violence you see on TV, here’s a sample chapter from my new book, Jailhouse Doc.

The Revenge of the Bunks

I never really appreciated how dangerous beds could be until I started to work in prisons. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t come to medical with bruises and lacerations from falling out of bed. Even people on lower bunks come in with bloody noses, black eyes, concussions and even broken bones.

Second only to falling out of bed are those who fall on the stairs or slip in the bathroom, sustaining similar injuries. It’s pretty amazing. You’d almost think someone had beaten them up.

I had one patient who came to medical with a forehead laceration and bruises on his chest. He told me he fell out of bed. In the middle of the day. We returned him to the housing pod, and would you believe he slipped getting into his bunk and got a laceration above the other eye. Talk about bad luck.

Admonishing him to be careful, we again sent him back to the housing pod. He at least lasted until the next day, when he came down with a broken jaw. Fell taking a shower and hit his face on a faucet. This got him a trip to the oral surgeon. He got his jaws wired shut, which probably helped in preventing further injuries. In jail, as in life, it’s often better to keep your mouth shut.

If a patient had a fight, we could put him in protective custody or at least change his housing pod. Since we dealt with skewed personalities to begin with, patients took their attitudes along with them when changing pods. It often meant that accidents just happened in a different location.

Jails aren’t pleasant places to begin with. Add overcrowding in a population already dripping with testosterone, and you’re going to have some disagreements. Things usually got rolling for medical when someone called a Code Blue.

Code Blue meant everyone RAN to where the action is. You could literally get run down by puffing deputies if you were negligent enough to stand in a hallway. Best to just peek out a doorway.

Fights, man down, or medical emergencies brought a swift cadre of deputies and medical personnel to deal with the crisis. Being old and slow, I usually waited for the situation to stabilize until I ambled in.

If a Code Blue occurred in the tower, things were a little different. The tower had three levels with four flights of stairs per level. If we got the call from one of the upper floors, the nursing staff took the elevator.

Most Code Blues turned out to be minor incidents or false alarms. If not, in about ten minutes I’d see a couple of roughed-up inmates escorted through medical to separate holding cells. I repaired any damage from the altercation, and after the sutures and bandages the miscreants got some time out to contemplate the error of their ways.

Other Code Blues were more serious. Seizures were pretty common, chest pain less so. Most of the time I waited in medical for the troops to bring their trophies back for examination, but sometimes I made house calls.

Terrance Lewis was back in jail for the third time that year for burglary. He didn’t want to be there and let everyone know it. Finally he felt a demonstration was in order, and he took a dive headfirst off the second-level tier in his housing unit. He did a good job, and I was called up to the unit.

Terrance was lying unconscious in a pool of blood. Head lacerations always bleed like hell anyway, but this looked worse. His head was actually misshapen from contact with the concrete floor. I checked his neurologic signs and wasn’t encouraged. We got him strapped to a back board with his head and neck stabilized, and sent him off to the hospital.

I really didn’t expect him to be back, but about ten days later he showed up on my clinic roster. He still had a hell of a headache and walked unsteadily, but against all odds he was alive. Truly amazing.

What appeared to be a lethal plunge could turn out to be relatively minor. Another prisoner who dove headfirst to the ground from the second tier only ended up knocking his front teeth out.

A young female car thief named Angela Brodkins tried the same thing. Sort of. The deputies were putting Angela in her cell on the second tier when she just disappeared. They scrambled to the rail and saw Angela contorted on the concrete below. Code Blue.

I examined Angela, but she was in excruciating pain, writhing and screaming. Ah well, off to the ER for evaluation of her injuries. Turns out there weren’t any. Wow, that was lucky. Maybe Angela bounced.

A review of the videos showed the deputies turning away to unlock the cell. Angela, quick like a bunny, hopped over the rail and lowered herself to the first tier. She lay down and arranged herself on the floor awaiting discovery. I’m not sure what point she was trying to make, but she did get a free trip to the hospital and some nice pain meds courtesy of the ER staff.

We had our share of persons trying to harm themselves. One prisoner managed to get a staple and scraped away at his arm in secret until he actually hit an artery. The cell looked like it was spray-painted by a maniac—and I guess it was. The nurses that had to enter the cell ended up bagging their clothes and wearing leftover scrubs from the inmates the rest of the day.

Jails are mostly for holding accused persons prior to their trials. There were lots of people there for short-term sentences as well, a month or so. The jail just isn’t set up for long-term confinement. The average stay is just shy of a month, but occasionally we had longer stays.

Mary Cummins was an obese diabetic woman with chronic lung disease from years of smoking. She had three or four other major illnesses, but her most distinguishing feature was her narcissism. The world revolved around Mary.

She was in jail for wrapping her daughter’s infant girl in duct tape and placing her in the bathtub under a cold shower until the child was nearly dead of hypothermia. The infant’s crime? She had knocked Mary’s glass of Jack Daniels over while crawling on the floor.

The child had permanent brain damage and will be institutionalized for the rest of her life. Her mother, Mary’s daughter, didn’t intervene during this water boarding because she didn’t want to upset her mother.

Mary was convicted and sentenced to forty years in prison, but for an unknown reason she was to spend the first two years incarcerated at CJC. I try not to be judgmental with my patients, but Mary was an exception. If Jabba the Hutt landed in CJC, he could be Mary’s twin.

Because of her numerous ailments she had to be housed in medical with her own private cell. She played everything to the hilt, demanding special diets and referrals to specialists for her real and imagined medical demands. Constantly whining and complaining about everything, I couldn’t help gnashing my teeth thinking of the little girl she’d tortured and robbed of a life.

Mary had a lot in common with my old patients at Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP), the state’s maximum-security prison. One constant shared by nearly all the CSP inmates was a complete lack of empathy. They had no feeling whatsoever for the people they had injured with their crimes.

If they shot someone while attempting to steal his car, it was the victim’s fault for not immediately giving them what they wanted. “He made me shoot him because he wouldn’t give me the keys,” would be a typical comment. Mary was the same way. It was clear that she gave her granddaughter no more thought than she might a petty annoyance. I came close to hating Mary, and it took all my professional willpower to tend to her medical needs without some thought of retaliation. The words of my first warden at CSP came back to me: “People go to prison as punishment, not for punishment.” It wasn’t my place to punish Mary; I was her doctor.

Mary was a demanding narcissist. No medical care was ever good enough for her. She treated the infirmary like her private hotel and the nurses as personal servants. I’ll admit that most of her niggling demands fell on my deaf ears when I thought of the little girl she’d brutalized. I like to work with my patients to make their lives as healthful and comfortable as you can be in confinement, but in Mary’s case I just didn’t care. For one of the few times in my life, I wouldn’t have been upset to come in and find her dead in her cell.

That I could feel this way about a patient bothered me. It went against all my training, but I had to recognize that the emotion was real. I remembered a grook, a short poem, by the Danish writer, Piet Hein, which seemed to cover the situation:

An Ethical Grook

I see
and I hear
and I speak no evil;
I carry
no malice
within my breast;
yet quite without
a man to the Devil
one may be
to hope for the best.