Monday, September 21, 2009

Cruel Intentions Part 2

My thoughts returned to the present. His eyes closed, Elijah was making feeble movements with one of his arms. Over and over he would reach down toward his feet.

The movement drew forth an unforgettable memory for me. I was thirteen and a German Shepherd had just been slammed into by a speeding car. Unconscious on its side, blood matting its fur and pouring from it's nose and mouth; its limbs were making weak jerky paddling motions as if still answering some last instinctive impulse to flee.

Fifteen minutes had passed since the guards left our door. I swore under my breath. What was taking those damn medical staffers so long?

Twenty minutes passed. I went to the window in the door. Still no sign of anyone. Twenty five minutes passed. This is sheer madness! I paced the cell floor.

At thirty minutes I renewed my pounding on the door. Again, concerned inmates joined in my calls for help. Our collective yells of "Man Down!" thundered throughout the building, yet no one came.

My hands would become swollen, voice hoarse, and fifteen more precious minutes would disappear before two guards came to see what the emergency was. These two guards were from the day shift and remembered Elijah's poor condition from the previous day and acted quickly.

Fear, anger and frustration overwhelmed me as I watched them carry him away on a stretcher. He was now as still as a corpse. An ambulance rushed him to an emergency room at a local hospital. I was unable to discover more than that.

Outraged at his cruel treatment, the following day I fired off letters to Governor Schwarzenegger, the state Inspector General, a state senator and a federal judge. I provided copies of the letters to the chief of the medical staff at our prison. Hopefully, if Elijah survived, the extra attention (or threat of it) would ensure he received adequate medical care; and if he did not, then at least prison officials would find it difficult to bury.

Most importantly, perhaps these letters would prevent other inmates from needlessly suffering similar, shameful neglect that could cost them their lives. I operated under no delusions about the letters. At the California Correctional Institution--Tehachapi-- reprisals from prison officials were as prevalent as the stale air we breathed.

I was later to discover that the first two guards who responded that bleak morning did not alert anyone to the medical emergency and merely departed for their homes when their shifts ended. Such is the callous tissue that surrounds some men's' hearts.

Thankfully, Elijah did survive his ordeal. As fortune would have it, a top notch brain surgeon happened to be on duty and successfully operated on the aneurysm that had nearly snuffed out his life. I hear he has almost fully recovered.

As for myself, five weeks later, prison officials would repeatedly target me, falsely claiming I was involved in prison gang activity and conspiracies to assault staff (there would be no official disciplinary charges) and eventually succeeded in having me indefinitely confined in solitary isolation at the infamous Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison...where I still reside.

If I had a chance to do it all over again? I think you know... I wouldn't change a thing.

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.