Monday, August 27, 2018

Another Long Road Trip to the Prison Hospital

Dateline: Thursday, August 16, 2018

4:27 a.m. I am awakened by a guard standing over my bunk in the dark.

"Norman, get dressed."

For a moment I am confused. Oh, no, I think, I'm getting transferred again. Thursday is transfer day

"Where am I going?"

"I don't know," the young guard said. "You're going on a road trip."

Oh, okay, I think, Lake Butler, the main hospital for a couple dozen prisons in the North Florida region.

I've been dealing with skin cancer for over twelve years, and underwent laser treatments several years ago. I haven't had any follow-up treatments or medical care for this issue for ten years, under the previous healthcare providers, despite my repeated requests. A few weeks ago I insisted that the local doctor take biopsies and send them to the lab, since it was obvious that the skin cancers on my scalp and forearms had returned. The transport officer told me that my appointment was with the oncologist. That made sense. The biopsies must have been positive.

I rode in a van with two other prisoners going for checkups and treatments at the Lake Butler Reception and Medical Center hospital. Private practice doctors contract with the health care service to come in a couple times a week to consult with hundreds of sick prisoners from dozens of prisons. One prisoner claimed he'd had colon cancer surgery, which had spread to his liver. The other was being treated for leukemia. Other men I met in the hospital had lung cancer and other terminal illnesses. My skin cancer didn't seem so threatening after hearing their stories, although thousands die of it every year. 
Two courteous transport officers loaded us down with manacles, leg shackles, and chains, helped us struggle to our seats in the transport van. The trip to the prison hospital took over two hours, and I spent the entire time trying to see "civilization" through the tiny squares of the steel grills that encased the rear seats of the van. All those people racing to work on the interstate, exiting and lining up at fast food drive-thru's, getting on school buses, commuters with no ideas of the human cargo in the unmarked van stopped beside them at the red light.

Something that struck me while rubbernecking at the passing scenery was the dichotomy of wealth and poverty juxtaposed in both urban and rural landscapes. Falling down houses with junk cars and rusting appliances in overgrown front yards intermingled next door to expensive-looking homes spread out on large tracts of landscaped grounds. Most of the cars surrounding us appeared new.

It was a different story upon arrival at the prison hospital. Inside, hallways were crowded with very sick prisoners sitting on benches on one side, and lined up in dozens of wheelchairs along the wall, making it difficult to navigate the narrow path. I sat on a wooden bench across from the office of Dr. Montoya, the oncologist, with several dozen other men waiting to see him. Other dozens waited to be called by the cardiologist and the eye doctor.

A heavily-guarded prisoner wearing a bright orange jumpsuit and chains shuffled down the hallway, escorted by several large guards, entering Dr. Montoya's office ahead of everyone else. The orange jumpsuit signified a Death Row prisoner, who gets the same medical treatment as everyone else. The authorities don't want condemned men to get sick and die before their executions. He didn't look any different from the rest of us, except for the distinctive clothing.

After the guards took the Death Row prisoner away, other guards escorted seven bedraggled women prisoners ahead of us to see the doctor. Gazing at the sick men surrounding me, I thought the male prisoners looked bad, but the appearances of the female prisoners from Lowell, near Ocala, shocked me.

Years ago, Florida women prisoners received better treatment than did male prisoners, tenuously explained by the fact that the women at Lowell were more organized, filed mass complaints and federal lawsuits over their treatment, and wouldn't take the abuses that male prisoners seemed to passively accept and tolerate. While the men wore blue uniforms--shirts and pants, the women were issued dresses, and could order jeans and white blouses from home. No more. Now the women are issued the same shapeless baggy pull-up blue pants and buttonless blue pullover shirts. Their ill-fitting uniforms were incredibly wrinkled the unhemmed pants legs dragged the ground, and they wore thin flip-flops or generic Crocs on their feet. Greasy, stringy hair indicated they had no access to shampoo, or funds, since hygiene items were sold in the prison canteen, not provided by the prison. Obviously, women prisoners no longer receive special treatment.

I felt terribly sorry for those women, who looked like addled homeless alcoholics and addicts rousted from an abandoned building. They appeared stripped of their self-esteem, a very bad sign in prison.

Hours dragged by. Finally the nurse called "Norman." I went in to meet Dr. Montoya, who was very polite and courteous. The biopsies were positive. The skin cancers had returned. The doctor laid out my treatment options, first with a PET scan in two weeks, to determine whether the cancers had spread to any organs. Two weeks later, I would return for a consultation concerning results.

We finally left the prison hospital at two p.m., and got back inside Tomoka C. I. after five. I returned to my dorm, where seventy men waited to rush to the chow hall for meat loaf and mashed potatoes.

No one missed me. They didn't even know I had been gone. I took my seat in the day room and watched the local news, robberies, carjackings, and murders. Another day in prison.

Charles Patrick Norman