Sunday, September 20, 2009

Cruel Intentions

Introduction: In February 2006 the US District Court found that inadequate health care at California Department of Corrections facilities was killing inmates at the rate of 60 per year.

Certain sounds you eventually grow accustomed to in prison--steel doors clanging shut, the jangle of guards' key rings as they saunter by, even the sound of your cellmates' urine splashing into the toilet.

Other sounds grab your attention and raise your hackles in an instinctive rush of survival adrenaline. Even the slightest difference in a normal sound can wake you out of a sound sleep or pull your attention from the numbness of boredom into full-alert.

It was just after 5:00 am on February 3, 2007. A not-quite-right noise dragged me from the depths of sleep. My eyes adjusted to the dim light in the cell and a chill swept over me. My cellmate was standing near the front of the cell in his underwear urinating on the floor of the cell. He then began wobbling back toward the bunk waving an arm searchingly back and forth as if blind.

I guided him back to the lower bunk and asked if he was okay. His only response was to lie down on his side and curl up in a fetal position.

Worried, I turned on the cell light to see him better. Fear clutched at my intestines and I swore under my breath.

There were blood stains all over his sheets and blankets. A steady trickle coming out of his nostrils ran over a thick, caked-up trail of congealed blood that led down one side of his face.

I called his name; gently at first, then with increasing volume and urgency. Still he did not respond. Springing to the cell door, I hammered on it with my fists and yelled "Man Down!" to alert guards to the medical emergency. Even though the early morning watch was still on, there were at least two guards stationed in our building which housed about a hundred inmates.

Again and again I pounded on the door and yelled "Man down!" Other concerned inmates awakened by the calls for help, added their voices to mine. I knew the guards would respond quickly as this is universally recognized as a call for emergency medical help.

Though their office was less than thirty yards away, five minutes passed as I continued to yell for help. Ten minutes. Surely, I thought, the guards could not ignore this emergency.

At least 15 minutes passed before two guards casually walked up to our cell door. Quickly I explained about Elijah's deteriorated and non-responsive condition. I showed them the bloody pedding and recounted his earlier intensive head pain and relayed my fear he was suffering from a stroke. The guards, somewhat disdainfully, said they would summon medical help.

As I cleaned up the urine I thought about my cellmate and the previous days' events. Hot spikes of anger flashed within.

An African American in his late twenties, Elijah was a rare prisoner. Humble, considerate, and respectful of others, he was the sort of person all prisoners liked regardless of their race or creed. He was a friendly soul in an unfriendly place.

The previous day, during the noon hour in our cell, he had been suddenly stricken with a massive, debilitating headache. The pain contorted his features, squeezed involuntary gasps from his lips and literally knocked him to his knees. In growing alarm I watched him violently heave the contents of his stomach into the toilet. I summoned the guards and they escorted him to the medical clinic.

A short time later Elijah, propped up between two guards, skin ashen and looking worse than when he departed, was returned to the cell.

As he managed to tell me in between grimaces of pain what occurred in the medical clinic, I could only shake my head in disgust. The head nurse performed a cursory examination herself and pronounced he was 'faking it'. Despite Elijah's protests, she insisted he be returned to his cell, refusing to allow him to see the doctor who was a mere few feet away in the very next cubicle.

I feared for his life. Medical staff had not refilled his prescription for high-blood pressure medicine. Despite his repeated written submissions requesting a refill, it had been 3 weeks.

In the Los Angeles County Jail, I had know a robust Cuban inmate in his late thirties who had also complained of similar intense headaches that the medical staff turned away day after day. Before a week had passed he was found on morning curled in a fetal ball...dead from a burst blood vessel in his brain.

Every time the guards came by to count or to feed us, I begged them to help Elijah get medical attention. They said there was nothing they could do as it was "Medicals' 'call'".

As the minutes and hours slowly ticked away his pain became worse and he became more groggy. It was agonizing to watch him wracked with dry heaves, head hanging over the toilet. Never had I felt so helpless and frustrated to prevent another person's suffering. I could only watch as he tried to go to sleep shivering and shaking beneath four blankets. Finally, exhaustion claimed him and he slept. Perhaps an hour later, around midnight, I dozed off also.


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