On the outside, as they say in prison, consumers have choices over the goods and services they purchase. If you don’t like the food at one restaurant, you eat at another; if you don’t like the selection or prices at one department store, you shop some place else; and if you don’t like your medical provider you seek another doctor.
In prison, however, there is only one dining hall which serves terrible food with little nutritional value; one commissary that sells overpriced goods; and one medical clinic whose services are slow and in-comprehensive. There are no choices.
This particular facility houses about 1,800 inmates (this number is expected to rise to 2,000), and the medical staff consists of only two doctors and one dentist. Last Sunday, I submitted a request to see the doctor because of a rash on my inner thighs. The appointment was scheduled for Wednesday, and I waited for an hour only to be told, rather apathetically, that my appointment had to be rescheduled.
I was upset but hardly surprised. While I was waiting, another inmate came into the clinic looking for a cotton swab because his ear canal was blocked and he couldn’t hear well. A staff member told him he’ have to submit a medical request before he could see the doctor. I though to myself, what’s the sense in making appointments if they’re not even honored? Just give the poor kid a cotton swab.
As I left the clinic, I was reminded of that Seinfeld episode where Jerry reserves the rental car but upon arriving to pick the car up is told that they ran out of cars.
“You know how to take the reservation, you just don’t know how to hold the reservation, and that’s really the most important part of the reservation–the holding.”
I didn’t hear back from Health Services until this morning when I was called in for a 9 o’clock appointment. The rash had now spread to my legs, crotch, and chest.
This time I brought a book. You should never go anywhere in prison without something to read, preferably something rivaling the length of War and Peace. I sat there in the waiting room for over two hours hating my life, hating the world, but mostly hating that wretched, God forsaken waiting room that stank of sweat, or as one inmate eloquently put it, “like a mother fucking hooker.”
As if things weren’t bad enough, Duke walked in to pick up a prescription. He sat down in the seat next to mine and asked if I was sick, and I said matter-of-factly that I had a rash, and I motioned to my crotch hoping he’d be turned off, but he didn’t seem discouraged. I tried looking more absorbed in my book, but he kept pestering me about the flooding Mississippi River, government wiretapping, and the recent death of Bin Laden. Finally, the next move was called, and Duke gave my shoulder a quick squeeze before getting up and leaving.
After nearly finishing George Orwell’s 1984, I was finally called on to see my doctor, a petite Mexican woman whose computer monitor was adorned with rosary beads and pictures of the Virgin Mary. She closed the exam room door and asked me to drop my pants.
During the examination, she received a telephone call. The psychologist wanted to see me immediately, so she entered a prescription for an antibiotic into her computer and sent me on my way.
Before even stepping foot inside the psychologist’s office, I knew precisely why I had been called there.
“It’s because you think I’m suicidal,” I said.
The psychologist laughed. “No, I don’t think you’re suicidal, but we do have a procedure we must adhere to in these situations.”
He was referring to a phone conversation I had with my brother a week ago where I mentioned I had had brief thoughts of suicide when I first arrived here. Obviously, phone calls are monitored, and the mere mention of the word “suicide” had sent up a red flag.
For the next half hour, I tried to convince the psychologist that I was not suicidal and that those thoughts I had two weeks ago were brief and never something I ever seriously considered.
He went on to ask me questions about my faith, sexuality, and the nature of my charge. On one hand, I was impressed to see the staff take suicide so seriously and act so swiftly. On the other hand, had I been given the opportunity to talk with a professional of my choosing, I would have much rather talked to my therapists back in Texas. Both were experienced and respected sex offender treatment specialists. They treated me as an equal, and they understood that the only thing separating myself from a any other person was one very bad decision.
Despite my best efforts to convince the psychologist I wasn’t suicidal, he insisted we meet again next week.
Before leaving, I thanked him and offered my hand.
“I don’t shake hands with inmates,” he said.