Being Sick in Prison Ain't No Fun
Well, it finally happened: I got sick.
Boo-hoo; poor me.
Thank you for indulging me for a second there: I guess you could say I was searching for some sympathy. You know that feeling-sorry-for-yourself, bring-me-some-soup feeling of being sick? That urge to crawl under the covers and mope around until the virus goes away? I've got that. Big time. It's just that I have no comfy bed to crawl into, no soup, no one to complain to. Try complaining about an illness around here and all you'll see are inmates' backs as they run in the opposite direction, away from your deadly germs.
But before you go out and buy me get-well cards rest assured: it's really just a chest cold. I'm not dying, just feeling a little out of sorts. So I'm not really complaining. Except maybe I am. The fact is, it's no fun to be sick in prison. When you're sick here every little thing - from getting medicine to treating your heartburn - is like pulling teeth; often, obtaining the cure is almost worse than the illness. And my sickness is pretty minor. Just imagine what it's like for those suffering around here from serious illnesses. I see it every day and it's awful: men hauled off for shoddy operations then dumped, catatonic and in terrible pain, back onto their bunks to recuperate as best they can. But that's a subject for another post.
A minor sickness here - a cold or the flu or a bit of barfing or diarrhea - starts with a 6 a.m. visit to the nurse at a nearby camp. Miss the "sick bus" - as I did - and your doomed to carry out your day as you normally would: no medicine and no permission from the nurse to "lay in" (as a day off from work is called around here). The result? Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work you go. Even if where you work happens to be the chow hall. In my case, I've been busy all day sneezing into the food. You're also out of luck if you happen to get sick on the weekend: no nurse, no sick call, no medical help.
Let's just say you manage to get sick right on time: on a weekday before 6 a.m. What you need to do is to stand in a long line for an appointment with a health care employee (the word nurse seems overly generous) who suffers from a "Nurse Ratchet" complex. She takes delight in belittling patients and doubting your illness. She also slams the door closed every few minutes for cigarette breaks behind the building. If she happens to be in a good mood and you manage to successfully plead your case, you'll get one of those prized lay-ins for the day. If your illness extends beyond then you'll have to make your way back and plead your case again.
What will most likely happen, however, is that you'll be subjected to a suspicious stare and ordered to get out and get back to work. If you're truly sick you'll have to come back over and over and over again - each morning at 6 a.m. - until you have successfully proved that you are really on death's door. A neighbor of mine has a serious and debilitating hernia: he spends his days pushing protruding body parts back into place. The treatment recommended by the nurse? Aspirin. Lot's of it.
Don't get me started: stories about prison health care could fill hundreds of posts. For perspective: I ate lunch with an inmate who fell deathly ill with spinal meningitis and other illnesses while locked up. He eventually lost his leg and spent a year in a prison medical facility. Over chicken legs, he told me about the crazy old cons in wheel chairs who used their disabilities as a free pass to "talk punk". Apparently threatening or hitting a wheel-chair bound con resulted in a one-way ticket to the hole. These men - all in their 60's and 70's - used that pass to scream insults at and threaten their fellow invalid inmates. His bunk mate, an invalid dying of cancer, stabbed a pencil through the ear of a deaf inmate, also dying of hepatitis, outside their bunk.
I can think of nothing worse than dying in prison: knowing that you'll never be free again, that the last thing you'll see is an uncaring nurse and the bars on your window. Yet every day many, many do. If you ask me, there should be a policy of compassionate release for terminal inmates. There's not. But that too is a topic for another day.
I'm actually surprised it took as long as it did for me to get sick. From day one, I've been looking around me at the close quarters, haphazard hygiene and stress of prison wondering when the next epidemic will hit. The barracks seem specially designed as a virus incubator. But despite the fact that my Bunkie and some other neighbors came down with the flu, I was spared. Until now. But I'm pretty sure I'll survive with just a bit of temporary suffering. I'm just thanking my lucky stars I only have a bad cold. As should be clear by now, it could be much, much worse.