Saturday, March 20, 2021

Cruel and Unusual


March 2, 2021

Four days later, I am still recovering from my ordeal this past Friday. On Thursday, February 25, 2021, I took another one of several scheduled medical trips to the Lake Butler RMC prison hospital for tests. This one was a CT Scan for the neurologist, Dr. Gama, who is treating my myasthenia gravis condition. A separate MRI will be scheduled later.

I rode to Lake Butler in a fifteen-seat Ford transport van with another prisoner receiving cancer treatments. We left Lake C.I. around five-thirty a.m., got to the prison hospital early, and returned to Lake C. I. during lunch. Not counting the handcuffs, waist chains and leg irons, it had been a fairly pleasant, uneventful day. Little did I know that in less than twenty-four hours I would experience the road trip from Hell.

Friday, three-nineteen a.m., the guard woke me from a sound sleep to tell me to get dressed for a medical trip. Two days in a row? They must be serious about getting me tested and treated. Three RMC specialists had ordered these tests and procedures in July, 2019, but unbeknownst to me or anyone else at the time, the quack resident doctor at Tomoka C.I., Dr. C. Calderon, now retired to Puerto Rico, had come behind the specialists' orders and cancelled them. Oncologist Dr. Roy Montoya had discovered the discrepancy when I missed follow-up oncology consultations for over a year.

It appeared that the specialists, private practice physicians on contract with Centurion, the corporation that provides healthcare to state prisons, were trying to make up for the lost year. I wondered how badly my medical conditions had deteriorated in the past year-plus. A lot.

Two other prisoners from my dorm were going on the Friday medical trip. When we got to the gatehouse, where we would don our shackles and chains, we found two more prisoners waiting for us, a total of five--a crowd. One was a very large man on aluminum crutches, going for surgery on his broken right ankle that had become infected. He'd snapped bones in his ankle during a fight with his cell mate, his foot getting wedged behind his footlocker when he fell the other way. He would take up two seats, easily.

The fifth fellow traveler was a psych patient from the mental health unit who had sliced open his belly, to see what his intestines looked like, he explained. He was going back for a checkup. When asked, he confirmed the rumor that another psych patient had castrated himself the previous week, but had survived, contrary to the ''inmate dot com'' rumors of his death. Where are these people getting these sharp objects? I wondered.

They escorted the five of us to the front sallyport gate, where our transport van awaited us. I noticed an oddity immediately. This van was totally enclosed, no windows or grilles, except for the front windshield and two doors. This was one of those ''dog box'' vans we'd heard rumors about for years.

Surely you have seen one of those K-9 pickup trucks with two kennel cages in the back, each cage holding a howling dog, a bloodhound, a drug-sniffing dog, or perhaps a couple of bird dogs. I doubt that you've seen humans stuffed into such cages, and especially not seen four large grown men wedged into such a '''dog box,'' as they call them. If someone crammed four large dogs in one dog box, the Humane Society would have them arrested for animal cruelty. Not so for humans. Why were four of us packed into one small dog box while the psych patient would be confined alone?

It seems that psych patients from the mental health unit are prone to hurting themselves (no kidding!), so they can't be transported in the standard vans with seats. Instead, some sadist designed a van with two dog boxes, two steel containers seven feet wide by two-and-a-half feet deep, stuck in the back. Stretch your arms out in front of you, from a seated position, for the average person, that will be about two-and-a-half feet. Now picture four large men perched on a narrow steel bench, shoulder to shoulder, squeezed in like the proverbial sardines, for hours, in pitch black darkness. Unlike the K-9 dog kennels constructed of steel wire or grilles you see in the backs of pickups, the dogs clearly visible through the screens, fresh air wafting, the prison dog boxes were just that, solid steel boxes.

Cruel and unusual punishment, forbidden by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

I've never suffered from claustrophobia, but when that last prisoner with the crutches and bandaged leg was physically pushed inside the dog box so the guards could close the door, I knew what those Japanese commuters in packed subways felt like at rush hour. When they slammed shut the outer door, plunging the dog box interior into darkness, I felt my blood pressure rising, my breathing quickening, and realized I was on the verge of a panic attack. I couldn't take a deep breath. Neither could the men on either side of me, at least not at the same time. Too tight.

This Ford van's shocks were shot. Every bump, every pothole, slammed up through the narrow steel bench into my unsuspecting buttocks. I've lost about twenty-five pounds of weight in the past two years, and there wasn't much padding back there to begin with. It felt like every jolt went directly into my pelvic bones. Could they be driving through a field of tree stumps? It felt like it.

My fellow passengers fared no better. Every hard jolt brought groans of pain. Every hard left turn sent us sliding down the narrow slick bench, piling into each other like bowling pins.

That was during the first fifteen minutes. I couldn't imagine enduring two hours trapped inside that torture device. Heaven forbid if any of my fellow travelers started screaming. It would be contagious.

I have been reading a Tami Hoag novel about a young woman kidnapped and tortured by a serial killer. The author conveyed convincingly the victim's terror at being tightly-bound and held in a car trunk: the darkness, the bumpy ride over bad roads, the pain, the not-knowing your fate. I could empathize with her. All I was missing was the strip of duct tape across my mouth. The dog box was comparable with a standard car trunk in size and disposition. Imagine the four of us tossed in a car trunk. I thought, don't give these people any ideas.

The pitch black darkness, the sliding around corners, the jarring bounces, the disorientation, the pervasive ''not knowing,'' all contributed to my growing claustrophobia. It seemed like the trip north would last forever. I felt like giving up, but didn't know how. There was no stopping this runaway train. There was no respite.

There are several things wrong with my back: deteriorating vertebra/spine issues; arthritis; sciatic nerve. In August, 2016, while disembarking from a prison bus in the rain at Cross City C. I., I slipped on the slick steel top step and fell backwards several feet, landing on my back on the wet concrete. Remarkably, I was able to shake it off and get to my feet after a few minutes. The damage was done. None of the eight sergeants saw anything, nor would they give me their names for witness statements. They scattered.

Since that time, I have suffered from chronic and persistent lower back pain. Every bounce and jolt of the van pierced like knives into my already-injured back. There was no way to lean one way or the other to relieve the agony. I gritted my teeth and hung on. I shifted from one butt cheek to the other — in minutes I felt my pelvic bones numbing and bruising. I would shift my weight again. I leaned forward as far as I could, then shifted again. My thought was that whoever designed these dog boxes and those who authorized their use on prisoners should be forced to share a three-hour rough ride in a dog box. They would shut down the practice immediately.

I wondered if the others were enduring the same suffering in the overcrowded box. Of course they were. The air thickened from the lack of ventilation. I felt groggy, and worried about carbon monoxide, the invisible killer. My luck — survive over forty-two years in prison only to suffocate in a dog box. I silently prayed, over and over, Lord, please deliver us from this Hell. At least an hour passed. No relief.

The man to my left began yelling for air. He couldn't breathe. I thought of George Floyd. The man to my right yelled louder. Did sound penetrate the dog box? I joined in. Suddenly cool air began flowing from an overhead vent. We could breathe. The guards could hear our shouts.

Eventually we arrived at Lake Butler and had to endure more waiting to get processed onto the grounds. It's almost as difficult entering a prison as leaving one. The side door opened. Light! Air! The guards unshackled all the steel restraints.

I was scheduled to see the gastroenterologist, Dr. Li, in preparation for a colonoscopy, my first. Dr. Li asked why the procedure hadn't been done in 2019. I repeated my story of the quack prison doctor nixing the original procedure. After a ten-minute exam Dr. Li rescheduled the colonoscopy. Another trip to Lake Butler loomed in my future.

By ten a.m. I was done. Two other men were also done. I had hopes that we would get out early and get back to Lake C.I., although I didn't relish the return trip in the dog box. It was not to be.

Hours went by. The prisoner waiting for ankle surgery was last on the schedule. The surgeon took his lunch hour. The wooden benches were almost as numbing to sit on as the narrow steel bench in the dog box. At least I could get up and walk around.

Four p.m. The prison hospital resembled a ghost town. The halls were empty. The dozens of prisoners from institutions all over central Florida were gone with their escorts. Nurses packed their see-thru lunch bags and went home. The only other prisoners besides us were three men from Hamilton C. I., also waiting for their surgery patient.

Around six p.m. the guards reported that our guy was in surgery. He came out at seven. We were ready to go, but we couldn't leave. Why? The hours-long count had not ''cleared'' yet. Lake Butler's long counts were worse than Lake's.

We sat. The mental patient showed us the bandages covering his belly and told us about the mental health unit. I learned that the psych patients are served better food than general population prisoners. They also watch first-run DVD movies all day. Cut your wrist, watch a movie.

Count finally cleared. The guards hurriedly chained us up. They were exhausted, too. Now we were facing another count deadline. If we didn't get back to Lake before ten p.m., we'd get caught by the ''master roster count,'' and be forced to wait outside the gate another hour until that count cleared.

The return trip mirrored the first one: interminable pain and suffering. But we beat the call for master roster count. Ten p.m. We stiffly climbed out of the dog box. The two transport guards had to help me out, but I made it. The chains and shackles came off. Then we had to wait for the ten o' clock count to clear. We went to medical to be cleared back to the compound. As I entered C Dorm, they called the eleven o' clock count. My God, people! No one is missing.

My next stop was a hot shower. I let the water run on my back. Relief.

By eleven-thirty I was horizontal on my bunk. Several neighbors came by to ask where I'd been. I gave them the short version. I'd been roused in the predawn darkness. I'd been gone all day and half the night, about twenty hours. Maybe a total of six or seven hours crammed in the dog box. All for a ten-minute consultation. And more trips on the schedule.

I just hope those psych patients quit mutilating themselves, and allow me to make my trip in peace.


No comments: