By Stanley Cohen. This article was first published on Caged but Undaunted.
[Please note that this series was written while Stanley was imprisoned at Canaan, however, portions may have been expanded, added or reworked since his release. As a result, there may be some inconsistencies in tense which are, overall, minor in relating his story. ..ed]
Designated a “Level 2” medical facility, the forced labor camp at Canaan where I serve my 18-month sentence is the prison care counterpart to “Obamacare”… long on PR and little else.
Canaan’s medical facilities, until recently headed by a chain-smoking former long-term local coroner who liked to quip “we are all going to die,” are remarkable not for the quality of their care, but rather institutional indifference and incompetence… particularly at the camp. Inmates both past and present, as well as health care professionals imprisoned there themselves with significant experience in a number of fields, describe the medical care as simply “shocking.” By all accounts medical care at the prison complex has a reputation… even in emergency situations… of being substandard and dramatically delayed with broken appointments and essential tests deferred, often for months, including necessary x-rays, blood tests, and other specialized procedures.
Medical staff are known for trivializing prisoner complaints and can often be heard belittling inmates, telling them not to be babies, to get on with it, and to stop “malingering”… a term used often by administrators and guards alike whenever prisoners complain of illness or injury. Not surprisingly, prisoners, some with serious conditions, often wait (some too late) to seek medical help rather than to be subjected to such verbal abuse. Staffed by physicians, dentists, psychologists and assistants described by other health care experts as largely lacking in the requisite knowledge and expertise to meet the current necessary standard of care, no privilege exists between medical personnel and inmates who are often reminded that as BOP service providers, the information they obtain about mental and medical health is shared with lay personnel and administrators. Lacking in sophisticated equipment and skills, and ill-prepared for specialized follow-up care and procedures for prisoners referred out to local hospitals for emergent situations, numerous are the instances where prisoners pay a terrible and inhuman price for the loss of their liberty.
Thus awakened a few days ago by the routine blare of screeching inane announcements and on my way to the filth and stench of the bathroom with 130 others, I suddenly found myself walking through puddles of fresh blood. No, not the result of a fight or stabbing, the trail of blood traced back to a prisoner’s bunk whose vein had ruptured and bled out because of raging, unchecked diabetes. Like the 2 previous occasions when the same vein had ruptured, the prisoner was eventually provided a Band-Aid to cover the seeping and told to “watch it.” A fellow prisoner, a physician on the “outside,” tried to clean up the spill with but a small bottle of sterilizing solution as blood was spread by other prisoners racing to ready for work.
Three days earlier, a prisoner waiting for count collapsed striking his head on the floor with the echo of his skull crashing against it heard throughout the barracks. Lying on the cement floor unable to respond to questions from other concerned prisoners as to where he was, or why, or what had happened, he sat dazed as the guard who responded nonchalantly called in an “incident ”over his radio, simply reporting a prisoner had “fallen out” and that someone “might want to come down and take a look at him.” For an hour, the prisoner, who had suffered his second inexplicable collapse in the last few months, waited for help to arrive… none did. Eventually, unseen by medical personnel, he was ordered to report to the medical unit in a separate building some 150 yards away. Dazed and unable to walk without assistance of fellow prisoners, he reached the unit through blizzard-like conditions. An hour later, he was removed from the prison by an outside ambulance.
How much better off was this prisoner than an earlier one who collapsed on the floor during “count” and remained there unattended to for some 3 hours by guards who marked him as a “malingerer,” ordering other inmates not to assist him.
Or the one who laid on his bunk for months complaining of severe stomach pain, receiving scant medical attention save for a diagnosis of indigestion and cramps and ordered to return to work. Not much later, he fell off a ladder. Taken to a local hospital and diagnosed with a hip fracture, it was discovered with little examination that he had colon cancer. Soon thereafter, he died.
Or the 91 year old World War II veteran, yes, 91 year old prisoner, convicted of a white collar offense almost a decade ago that has recently relapsed and faces certain death from cancer. To him, death would be a welcome companion, as his life all but ended with the passing of his wife of 60 years who languished at home alone in their bed while he underwent difficult and painful treatment for his first brush with cancer far from their home. He was not permitted to attend her funeral.
Or to the 63-year-old physician sentenced to 10 years for illegally dispensing a modest amount of painkillers who is forced to shovel snow and ice despite having suffered nine “mini” strokes while at Canaan. Often seen shuffling, occasionally stumbling, as he walks in meaningless circles, “Doc” typically forgets his train of thought mid-sentence as he rambles on.
Or the sixty-something “white collar” offender convicted of security fraud and sentenced to 15 years who lays day in and out largely immobilized or asleep on his cot with a history of multiple heart attacks and strokes within the prison system including one of each while at Canaan. On the occasion of his last stroke, the ambulance “rushing” him to the hospital stopped for some two hours while its attendant took care of a personal errand. Maintained on ten different medications daily and suffering from likely recurring and untreated cancer, his complaints about recurring urinary infections and blood in his urine have gone completely untreated, as has his need for a necessary knee replacement and treatment for a torn ACL.
Or the prisoner who suffered a heart attack and underwent triple bypass surgery who was returned to his bunk one day later and left to sit in a wheelchair oozing pungent bodily fluids onto the concrete slab floor from his surgical tubes.
Dozens of prisoners, many young, walk around the camp with gaping holes in their mouths because the resident dentist, known as Dr. Pull ‘Em, typically does only extractions, no matter what the dental problem may be, performing no alternate procedures routinely done on the outside. When I went to see the dentist and was looking at an ex-ray with her, she ordered me to return to the chair, under threat of being sent to the SHU, after I objected to her plan to do an unnecessary extraction, and because I had earlier refused to permit her 19 year old assistant to perform a dental procedure on me. The assignment of her dental tasks to him, is very much the norm.
More than a few of the prisoners in Canaan are elderly and bed-ridden. Unable to control their own bodily functions, at times they urinate or defecate on themselves or the floor, often unknowingly, as they remain heavily medicated to keep them happy and asleep throughout the day. Frequently, hours pass before the waste is discovered, let alone cleaned up. In prison its business as usual.
Indeed, highly contagious skin rashes are endemic within the close knit quarters of the camp with little in the way of “prevention” but the use of napkins on bathroom and shower stall handles and on doorknobs. Typically, the few soap dispensers in the camp remain empty and not once during my 11 months at Canaan did I see any paper towels in the bathroom. Often, the toilets back-up, leaving puddles of excrement and urine all over the floor, on occasion running out into communal sleeping areas.
Like the penal colony “up top,” the forced labor camp below is filled with mostly prisoners of color, inner-city young men (and those who once were) imprisoned for years, many serving mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent, complaint-less drug offenses, so much the victims themselves of a destructive, morality-driven economic agenda that buys cops, builds prisons, and buries our young… and little else. The remaining camp prisoners are white, most above 55 years of age, most imprisoned for many years for so-called low-level “white collar offenses” while the bankers and CEO’s cut civil deals, pay fines, and go to the club for multi-billion dollar corruption and fraud that threatens the economic and social well-being of the country.
Currently, the race and age breakdown at the camp approximates that of the federal prison system nationwide. Thus, while Black men constitute but 6.5% of the US population, they amount to 40% of the federal prison inmates nationwide, and 60% of the population at the Canaan camp. By the very nature of camp placement criteria itself, none of the prisoners pose a threat to the community at large, yet they remain isolated and separated from family and friends for no purpose but retribution, plain and simple.
Indeed, I have met no prisoner at the camp who could not otherwise and safely be at home providing for his family, raising his kids, and contributing to his community though community service and other volunteer programs.
For those at the camp fortunate enough to escape the strokes, the seizures, and the surgical mishaps, life in the Gulag remains one very much filled with isolation, despair, and futility. For our partners, children and parents, they too are imprisoned, serving sentences identical to ours until our release as they struggle to hold together healthy relationships and families while trying to stave off financial disaster at every turn. For us, life in the camp is at its absolute worst when we hang up from the brief, periodic monitored phone call or email exchanges, powerless to do anything about the fears and suffering our loved ones go through while we earn from 8 to 12 cents per hour cleaning toilets, bagging lunches, and shoveling snow.