Sunday, November 1, 2009


Dateline: October 9, 2009


Friday, October 9, 2009—still waiting for transfer to Sumter C.I.

Here is a word of advice—don’t get sick in prison. If you do, make certain your illness is minor. For God’s sake, don’t come down with anything serious. Especially be wary of indigestion.

Some years back a fellow prisoner went to medical at a central Florida prison complaining of chest pains. He told the nurse he thought he was having a heart attack. She told him it was indigestion, gave him some “Alamay” tablets, chalky pink, horrible-tasting antacids, and sent him back to his dorm. He collapsed and died on the sidewalk. Indigestion can kill you! Happens all the time.

This past Monday morning the guards awakened me at 3:30 AM, told me to get dressed, I was going on a medical trip. After years of being roasted in the relentless Florida sun (cutting down all the trees and shade in prison didn’t help), for the past several years I’ve been dealing with skin cancer, specifically squamous cell carcinoma, on my arms, scalp, and face. It is not fun.

An outside specialist, a dermatologist, has weekly clinics at the prison hospital at Lake Butler, in North Florida, a two- or three- hour drive from my prison home at Tomoka, Daytona Beach, depending on who’s driving. I haven’t driven in over thirty-one years. I could use the practice, but they won’t let me drive, for some reason. With the manacles, waist-chains, and leg irons, it would be difficult to shift and steer, anyway. The D.O.C. transports sick prisoners from across the state to see a variety of specialists—cancer, heart, and eye problems, particularly, referred by the local medical staff.

I’ve had several laser surgery treatments on my arms, scalp, and cheeks, and it is not pleasant. Last year I came out of the doctor’s office with the burning hair and flesh scents, and a prisoner waiting his turn for the procedure asked me if it hurt.

“Imagine someone holding a Bic lighter to your head,” I told him. No sense sugar-coating it.

This time I went to Lake Butler for a consultation concerning “actinic keratosis,” a precursor to the skin cancer. No lasers this time, thank God!

I was escorted (in handcuffs) out of my building before 4 AM to medical, to await my ride. I haven’t been outside at that hour in a long time, and craned my neck to see the full moon overhead and all the stars. Securely chained in the back of a van, doors padlocked, metal grills over the windows, a tight cage, I tried not to think of what would happen if a crazy driver smashed into the van, rolled it, and it caught on fire. There’d be no getting out. The Bic lighter held to my scalp didn’t seem too bad after all.

Staring through the steel mesh, taking it all in, my primary impression was how dark it was “outside,” in the night, away from prison. There is little darkness or shade in prison. Jack Murphy told me once that when flying across the country at night, he could identify isolated prisons from a long way off, square beacons of orange light beaming into the night sky. They burn cell lights all day long, and at night between 11 PM and 5:30 AM, cut the main fluorescents, but leave on dimmer “night lights.” It is never dark. One of the rules of the Geneva Convention regarding treatment of prisoners forbids “sleep deprivation” and the use of constant illumination as torture. It works. Those rules apparently don’t apply to us. With the lights, the racket, the slamming and clanging of steel doors, day and night, a twenty-minute nap is a luxury.

But “outside,” on the street, the absence of light, the darkness, struck me with its immensity. Mere blocks from the prison, twisting down a narrow, two-laned street without streetlights, tall trees on either side blocked off the sky and the dim light of the moon. I thought of the weekend visitors, the women,—wives, mothers, lovers—who parked on a sidestreet in the pitch-dark early every Saturday and Sunday morning, waiting for 7:30 AM, when they were allowed to enter the prison parking lot and wait for 9:00 AM visits. For the first time I realized the depths of their love, commitment, and sacrifice, to sit, alone, in that forbidding darkness, out of love. It gave me pause. Why can’t they be able to park in a safe parking lot?

The hospital at Lake Butler was as it always has been, filled with sick and dying prisoners. It’s not difficult to figure out which of these sad cases are nearing the end. One observation I made though, is the D.O.C. is actually doing a pretty good job concerning health care and treatment. The nurses and doctors are competent and professional, and patiently responded to my list of questions.

The highlight of the trip came along a lonely stretch of Highway 100, out in the middle of nowhere, when the van driver squashed a freshly-killed skunk. There was no mistaking what it was. The van instantly filled with choking musk. If the military could mass-produce skunk scent and drop it on al Quaida positions, the insurgents would quickly come out gagging, and surrender.

Several days later my wrists and ankles are still bruised and swollen from the steel restraints. Another word of advice—don’t ride in vans for hours in manacles, waist chains, or leg irons. It’s hell if your nose itches or you need to scratch your head. When the doctor examined me, he was concerned about the long, red bruises and abrasions on my wrists. I told him they were from the handcuffs, not skin cancer. He frowned at that.

Speaking of scratching, it seems many prisons are plagued with frequent outbreaks of some kind of skin disease colloquially known as the “itchy-scratchies,” for want of a better diagnosis. Last week one dorm filled with wheelchair prisoners, old men, and other impaired people was quarantined for three days with the “itchy-scratchies.” I should have known better than to mention that—now I have to scratch! Don’t you just hate that?

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