We watched him dying. Everyone on our wing had their own diagnosis.
“It’s jaundice. Look at how yellow he is.”
“How can you tell? He’s hispanic.”
“Next time you get close to him, look at his eyes. They are yellow.”
“I bet he has liver cancer. Look at how skinny he’s gotten. If he weighs a hundred pounds I’d be surprised.”
Several of us wrote requests to medical. “You really must help this man.” Somebody took a guard quietly to the side of the dayroom after our requests went unanswered.
“You see that guy standing on the wall next to 101 cell?”
“He’s dying. When you do an in and out, take a close look at him. He never goes to chow, his celly says he has chronic diarrhea. Somebody has got to do something for him. Medical is ignoring us.”
At first, our attentions were discreet. But later we openly made pests of ourselves, asking him daily if he needed help, if he was feeling okay. His stoic refusals led us to believe he was committing an agonizingly slow suicide. Finally, medical responded, though we were certain it was too late. He refused treatment time and time again. To the Warden’s credit (how word reached him nobody is sure), when he saw the man in the infirmary, he was having none of their official resignation.
“What are you doing for this man?”
“Nothing. He’s refusing treatment.”
“Oh, hell no! He’s going to the hospital. Now!”
That was the last we saw of him. We’ve heard nothing since about whether he lived or died but we kept him in our prayers.
It’s probably like this in other states but certainly in Texas, the prison system is loathe to even hint that they employ people who care about inmates. Thus, every nurse station is labeled an ‘infirmary,’ every form requesting medical care is a ‘sick call,’ and you pick up your medication at the ‘pill window.’ Outside. Rain, snow, sleet, or shine.
To say that prisons do a poor job of delivering health care is a gross understatement. Prison Legal News has been at the forefront of reporting and litigation on behalf of inmates who’ve suffered medical malpractice. You can find, in their archives, article upon article describing lawsuits against prisons which have neglected inmates to the point of serious injury and death. In many cases, suffering could have easily been prevented.
A libertarian-minded person might argue that government hires the least qualified since they pay below-market labor rates; look at the VA for instance. There may be some truth in that. Yet, incompetence alone can’t account for such widespread malpractice. Diseases that are routinely vanquished outside prisons are rampant and life-threatening inside them. When is the last time you heard of someone dying of a staph infection or sepsis in a hospital? It happens rarely because staph and sepsis rarely go unrecognized or untreated. In prison?
“Here’s an Ibuprofen. Go back to your cell.”
And that is after one has waited up to 72 hours for the infirmary to respond to your sick call request.
This indifference isn’t because medical staff are incompetent but because they’re trained to be belligerent. That sounds like hyperbole, doesn’t it? it’s not.
Not all belligerence leads to injury or death. Most refusals to provide care merely result in dramatic cost savings. Let’s face it, garden variety colds and flus resolve themselves. Nobody dies. They’re uncomfortable is all. Inmates will be forced to work anyway, threatened with disciplinary hearings which can jeopardize parole chances, a win-win for prison wardens.
Not all malpractice results in legal action. Very few inmates have the resources to litigate a malpractice suit.
An inmate on my unit, we’ll call him Bob, was diagnosed with brain cancer his last time down. He was given an emergency parole but was convicted of another DUI and sent back to prison. After arriving, he was transferred to the Mumford Unit to have his tumor removed. The surgery required that doctors cut away a piece of Bob’s skull. Once his tumor was removed, the piece of bone that had been cut away was fastened back to his skull using four screws and two metal plates.
About five months ago, Bob showed me a two-inch piece of bone that had pushed itself through a wound in his scalp. Also pushed out of his scalp was a titanium screw. Alarming to say the least. Bob put in a sick call request and the nurse was concerned enough to schedule a trip to the neurologist.
Going to see a medical specialist in a Texas prison is an ordeal. TDCJ does not have the resources to employ specialists at every unit. Depending on the type of specialist, an inmate might have to be transported hundreds of miles by bus, cuffed to another prisoner. In the worst case, you’re chained, shackled and hog-tied. Prior to travel, you’re required to pack all of your property and inventory it. Then at 6 AM, you’re taken to a holding cell where you can wait up to four hours for the bus to arrive.
Bob was shackled and hog-tied on his trip to the neurologist. Not once, not twice, but three times was he sent, each trip excruciating and humiliating. On the third trip he was able to converse with the specialist.
“Bob, I have good news and bad news.”
“Okay, what’s the good news?”
“The good news is you’re cancer-free. Your MRIs are negative. No sign of cancer at all.”
“That is good news! What’s the bad news?”
“We can’t see any sign of missing bone, nor can we find any of the screws we used to re-attach the piece we cut out during your surgery.”
“They aren’t showing up. I can’t explain it really.”
Bob literally has three screws loose in his head somewhere. Unless he lodges a serious complaint, the medical professionals obligated to care for him have officially washed their hands of him.
Perhaps you’re still not convinced that belligerence is cultivated. TDCJ contracts its medical care to a corporation called UTMB* Correctional Managed Care, at several of its units. Outsourcing indemnifies it from medical malpractice lawsuits. It also jeopardizes its reputation for being tough on inmates by using a company that has the word ‘care’ in its name.
Another inmate at this unit is suing TDCJ and UTMB for injuring him and neglecting to treat his injury, namely a separated shoulder caused by an officer’s assault. The suit went to trial (Charles R. Adams v. Lieutenant Bailey, et al., – Civil Action No. H:12-CV-02520). The transcript of the trial contains UTMB’s admission of professional belligerence towards inmates.
Dr. Erin Jones, who interned as a psychiatrist and has not even one hour of experience in osteopathy, was called as an expert witness by UTMB’s lawyers. In spite of her lack of experience, she was allowed to give testimony on Adams’ shoulder condition. More interesting was the beginning of her testimony on behalf of the defense.
Q: Then when you went to work for UTMB in the correctional managed health care system did you receive any kind of training?
A: Yeah, we had training that’s called NEO.
Q: What is that?
A: New Employee Orientation. And it’s — working in corrections is very different from working in free-world medicine. And so we had to learn —
Q: Explain to us why. What is different about it?
A: Well, there is a lot more patients that want something for secondary gain. There is — basically eighty to ninety percent of our patients are either lying or exaggerating on their symptoms to try to get something. [Treatment, perhaps?]
And then, my job every day — and it’s a challenge — is that I have to find that ten to twenty percent that are really sick and take care of them because they need my help, you know. But then, you know, I don’t want to waste my time on something that’s not real, you know.
There you have it. A UTMB employee admits, under oath, that UTMB trained her to treat up to 90% of her patients as if they are lying. It’s truly absurd for Dr. Jones to complain that her job is so difficult. Imagine coming home from work and reporting that you had a terrible time disregarding 90% of your duties. Whew!
“That ten percent I did was hard but I enjoyed doing it.”
Jones offered no empirical evidence to support the claim that such a high percentage of inmates are lying and I suspect that its because UTMB doesn’t offer any either. Plain, common sense suggest the claim is a fabrication. Texas inmates are charged a $100 annual co-pay for any non-chronic care (even though they are not paid for their work). Chronic care is care for issues such as diabetes, cancer, or pre-existing conditions discovered during prisoner intake. Why would an inmate lie ‘to get something’ when it costs them $100 to do so?
It’s preposterous to conclude this unless you are interested in getting paid for work you refuse to perform. Planned, systemic belligerence. It’s not health care, it’s not medical practice, it’s hate medicine. No amount of honey can make it palatable.
*University of Texas Medical Branch
We’re pleased to introduce a new contributor to our blog, Eric Burnham.
My name is Eric Shawn Burnham. I was born April 21, 1979 in Las Vegas, Nevada, but I grew up in Oregon and California mostly. I came to prison in 2001, and I’ve been at EOCI ever since.
When I was 21-years-old, I took another man’s life while intoxicated, and I was given a 25-to-life sentence in prison. I deeply regret the actions of my youth, and I’m ashamed of the lifestyle I was living that led to the death of another human being at my hand. But as much as I want to, I cannot change the past. I can use it to shape my future, however.
In 2003 I earned my G.E.D., and in September 2015 I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Counseling, graduating Summa Cum Laude (3.98 GPA). By mid-2017 I will have earned my Master’s degree in Counseling. In addition, I’m accumulating CEUs (Continued Education Units) in order to meet the requirements for state certification as an alcohol & drug counselor. (I’ll still need 4000 hrs. of clinically-supervised counseling after I’m released.) My education is important to me because I’m dedicated to helping young people avoid making the same mistakes I made.
I work as a tutor in the G.E.D. program here at the prison, and I love my job. It doesn’t pay well, but it gives me the opportunity to help young people and practice my skills.
Personal growth, to me, means becoming the person I was designed to be. I’m not too sure where the balance is found between nature and nurture in the formation of my spirit as a unique human being. I do know, however, that I’m just one incarcerated man trying to overcome my past mistakes and make a positive impact on this crazy world. I kind of think that’s what life is all about: taking the bad and using it for good.
Finding My Purpose in Prison by Eric Burnham
Can the prison experience be good? Inmates are crammed into small cells or overcrowded dorms like sardines, surrounded by some of the most difficult personalities on the planet, and ordered around by self-righteous, often power hungry and abusive authority figures. The cramped living quarters are physically uncomfortable. The lack of privacy is emotionally exhausting, and the empty nature of prison friendships is socially unfulfilling. The boredom is mind-numbing. The loneliness can be crushing, and the inflexible power structure imbeds anger into one’s personality. The incarcerated person is completely isolated from loved ones — few things hurt more than knowing your friends and family have moved on without you. Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow, however, is knowing this is all self-inflicted. After all, if you admit it’s your own fault, you are then responsible.
We are so pleased to partner with Ashley Asti. Ashley creates organic custom skin and body oils to honor the skin and soul, with a commitment to ethical creation, sustainability and wellness. She is also one of our adopters.
Each month, Ashley Asti donates a custom oil “to an individual who deserves access to loving self-care, nourishment, and celebration but who may not be able to afford one of my oils on her or his own.”
I was thrilled and grateful to be the recipient of my own custom-made oil this month. Along with the oil, Ashley provided a lengthy description of every ingredient in the bottle and its function.
In Ashley’s own words:
I set out to write women who are incarcerated because I wanted them to know that they are not alone. I wanted them to know that they are loved and supported and that their stories and lives matter because, the truth is, we heal with love, not isolation. But what I’ve gotten in return is a gift far greater and far more precious than any I can offer.
The letters these women, these now friends, send me are lessons in life. I am moved by the strength they hold, the endurance they convey, the powerful rumblings of faith that seem to lift themselves up off the page. These women are my sisters in spirit, guiding me.
I stand with Adopt an Inmate because caring about and respecting all living beings matters, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. Because, in truth, we are destined to bring ourselves down until we know that dehumanizing one dehumanizes all. Bars, isolation, and violence are no longer the answer. We must find better ways to heal and co-create justice.
See these additional worthy organizations that Ashley partners with.
People hate us. It sounds melodramatic, but it is true nonetheless. We’re hated by each other, by people on the outside, and by people working on the inside. By ‘us,’ I mean incarcerated persons. Offenders, inmates, convicts, prisoners. And there are people who make it their mission in life to let us know that hatred is all we deserve.
An inmate can be persuaded otherwise through cards and letters. Phone and visitation are also effective ways to do this, but it all starts with mail. You can’t visit me or receive a phone call until one or two letters pass between us. Therefore, those who staff prison and jailhouse mailrooms have the power to wreak havoc on an inmate’s psyche. The mailroom is the hub of most love entering or leaving prison. Limit mail? Limit hope.
This isn’t lost on people working in mailrooms nor those who make rules and regulations governing mail delivery. Some examples:
Stickers – Many prison mailroom employees around the country believe stickers are abhorrent. It is unclear why adhesive is so detested. Prison mailrooms consider it so dangerous, mail will be returned to sender if any adhesive-backed material is attached anywhere on a piece of mail – including an address label. It is a wonder why stamps exempted from the no-sticker rule.
Pictures – There is a major industry which supplies provocative photos to prison inmates. Inmates pick from proof sheets supplied by various companies and take their choices to the mailroom when they are ready to order. Personnel review photos after they arrive to ensure they aren’t too revealing. They will also carefully scan any photo sent by family members. An inmate I know was told that a picture of his four-year-old daughter had been rejected because she was flashing a gang sign. He later found out she was holding up a peace sign.
Address rules – Letters from prison require complete return addresses in case they contain threats or illegal instructions. The USPS doesn’t care as long as the ‘To’ address is deliverable. I once absent-mindedly omitted the city and zip code of the return address on a letter. Rather than add this to the envelope, a ten-second operation, the mailroom employee grabbed a carbon-copy form, filled out the violation details, stapled it to the envelope, and sent it back for correction. After I completed the missing information and dropped the letter back into the mailbox, it was rejected once more (in triplicate) because I had used an abbreviated first name (Rick, instead of Richard).
Handmade items – Some mailrooms will reject homemade cards – something children love to make for loved ones in prison. An inmate on my wing needed to mail a large drawing but couldn’t afford the 8″ x 15″ envelope from commissary. He made his own envelope. The mailroom rejected it, claiming that the envelope “couldn’t be properly inspected.” Someone donated an official envelope and helped transfer the stamps from the rejected envelope. Technically this was also a rule violation. Inmates aren’t allowed to give commissary items to one another. Its considered extortion. Don’t give a friend a stamp or an envelope — it leads to rape. Or so one would think.
Stationary – Families in Texas were once able to send their incarcerated loved ones writing pads, pens, pencils, and even stamps. No longer. Other states have followed suit and force inmates to purchase stationary at inflated prices.
Postage – Commissary sells various stamp denominations but nothing else that might be useful. For instance, USPS offers a flat rate box which is economical — compared to stamps — if one needs to send home books. Because mailrooms are notorious for banning books, inmates often have to pay return postage for a rejected book. Not only will the mailroom refuse to sell you a flat rate box but they will also inflate the number of stamps required to send bulky items. Because they can, prison scum.
Eff Ewe – Maine recently tried to ban all non-legal mail to any of its prison inmates. Only judicial notices and legal correspondence would have been allowed. If the people of Maine hadn’t stopped the proposal, I have no doubt that many other states would have done the same. They may even yet try.
There are some reasonable rules regarding mail delivery which aim to ensure prison security, say, don’t send explosives or metal files through the mail. Yet, when you look at many rules and more importantly, the way they are enforced, it’s obvious that safety is merely a lame excuse offered for efforts to drain hope from the incarcerated. On its face this seems odd, doesn’t it? Why would prison officials want to squash an inmate’s hope? Because they don’t know who they’re supposed to serve. If they were intent on serving society, they would turn out hopeful, educated individuals who are ready to lead positive, productive lives. Instead, they make decisions which tend to embitter and degrade their charges— the very thing which leads to recidivism— costing society dearly.
Of course, not everyone can be educated. Not everyone can be turned from their anti-social behavior. Certainly though, belligerence and hatred greatly lowers the odds that one will leave prison better than when they entered.
The prison mailroom should be a conduit for love and hope and it is in many cases. It could be more, and you can be a part of that more if you’re on the outside reading this.
You could adopt a inmate, for instance. If you’re so inclined, you could also help by raising awareness about spiteful prison mail policies. Share this. End hateful prison mailroom practices.
Rick Fisk, Dalhart Unit, TDCJ
Initially when I began reading this book, I thought it was going to give me all the reasons why I needed to change my thinking (as an inmate), yet offer not much in the way of breaking down how I could do it — thankfully I was wrong! Houses of Healing is a remarkable guide on how one can truly delve deeply within themselves to peel back the many layers and discover why they are who they are and how they can begin to emerge into the person they know they can become.
This book’s author has created and taught a well-known program within prison walls for over the past two decades. Through this program, countless inmates have come to discover their true selves, inner passions, and potential by first confronting the pain and turmoil they suffered as a child and slowly but surely learning how to work through it. You might be thinking this could only happen with a therapist right there to walk you through such a tumultuous journey — I thought the same. However, Casarjian composed this book to act as a surrogate counselor, walking with you every arduous step of the way, ultimately leading you to a place of healing and self-discovery.
She uses a psychoanalytic approach (focused on tapping into one’s unconscious thoughts and influences that have, unbeknown to them, guided his/her behavior) to bring about this therapeutic breakthrough, whereby the “Inner Child” is the point of reference she asks her readers to get in touch with. The Inner Child, she suggests, resides deeply within all of us and, for prisoners in particular, this Inner Child’s unresolved conflicts that took place decades ago is often at the root of our self-destructive (i.e. substance addiction, violence, criminality, etc.) behavior. We are unable to change such embedded patterns of behavior without first getting in touch with the Inner Child that we’ve “buried” as a means to protect him or her — ourselves.
I read this book with an open mind, allowing the concepts and teachings to sink in. At times I wanted to disregard what she was saying, or dismiss what she was asserting as not applicable to me, but then I realized this was yet again a defense mechanism I was trying to use to protect my Inner Child. When I mentally let my guard down and absorbed what was being said, I noticed how stirred up inside I became and how some discovery and healing was happening as a result. When you read this book and instinctively find yourself shutting down, press on harder. There’s a reason you are having that reaction; chances are it’s because what is being said is exactly what you need to hear and apply to your own life.
Houses of Healing is a highly respected and recommended book, especially by those who have a stake in correctional rehabilitation (i.e. educators, counselors, support group facilitators), namely inmates looking to take their lives in a new direction. This may very well be your guide to truly coming to understand why your life ended up where it did and, more importantly, how you can begin to change both your long-held thoughts and harmful behavioral patterns. If there were one book I could recommend to anyone in prison who is looking to understand why they may have made a series of bad choices (without even thinking about it) that landed them in prison, are tired of living that way and wish to change, this would be that book. Give it a try: you won ‘t be sorry you did.
In 2013 Martin L. Lockett published his memoir, Palpable Irony: Losing my freedom to find my purpose. During his incarceration, he has earned a Certificate of Human Services from Louisiana State University, AA from Indiana University, BS in Sociology from Colorado State University – Pueblo, and an MS in Psychology from California Coast University. He continues to tutor in the GED program at the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, Oregon, and co-facilitates an impaired driver victims impact panel. He aspires to counsel adolescents who struggle with substance abuse.
This month at AI we’re coordinating with many of our angel volunteers to get holiday greetings out to prisoners all around the country.
Thanks to everyone who is helping in this effort, including Jen at Inmates Matter Too (and her volunteers), and many of our adopters, including our friend Ashley Asti (visit her shop for organic and ethical skin care products this month, and 20% of your purchase goes to charity).
Thanks to our supporters on both sides of the wall, we are less than $600 away from our goal of $3,000 for our website fundraiser!
From the letter above, which included a donation of six stamped envelopes from an Arizona prisoner:
“You have taken on an enormous task, and placed on your shoulders a heavy burden, because on your shoulders you now carry the hope of those who were hopeless.
Prisoners who have jobs get paid 35¢ an hour (some a bit more). So please keep in perspective that each letter you receive with a SASE represents two hours of raking dirt in 105° Arizona heat, or sweating in a humid upholstery shop. Their letters to you are no small investment but they are worth it to these men. Because they carry hope.”
Volunteers have been working around the clock in preparation for the launch of our re-designed website. Completion of this project will enable us to reach more adopters, and in turn, more forgotten inmates.
Send us some love this holiday, please help us raise
We are a registered domestic non-profit and rely solely on donations. no one at AI receives a salary, and 100% of donations benefit prisoners directly. If everyone reading this gave a few dollars, our goal would be met in an hour.
Everyone at AI headquarters and all our volunteers are pulling together to help get some of the backlog of mail cleared out by the end of the year. The office cats, Scout (top) and Boo (bottom) are always doing their part.
Check out the recent stamp donations – we’re so grateful!
Leah and I are using the holiday to put in a solid four days of work to clear out some of the back log of mail.
About 11:00, we had a surprise visitor bearing a holiday meal for each of us (provided by the local Elks Lodge:
AND, a personal donation of $500 to go towards our website fundraiser!
We are so grateful.
A blessed Thanksgiving to our entire AI family.