Here is a letter I sent out to some friends after working at a for profit prison in Montana. I was reminded of this while listening to the amazing Hari Kondabolu and W. Kamau Bell podcast Politically Re-Active.
Just a little update on what is happening in Nat-land. As many of you know I just spent the last two weeks working in a prison infirmary. I was both nervous and excited about spending time in a prison. In a blatant display of my ongoing infantile view of the world I’m still fascinated by crime and criminals, I guess I will always be 12 on the inside.
The first thing to know is that you don’t want to know. All criminal information is public information by default. As such you can fire up the google and find out why people are in prison. Don’t. If you have to work with people who have done terrible things it will be substantially more difficult to make small talk when you know that they are what your nightmares are made of.
The second thing to understand about prison is that the lighting is horrible. Terrible in a way that can easily induce headaches. The third thing to know, it is loud. The hard, grey and beige colored surfaces resonate every sound. These things alone would drive a well adjusted person crazy. I can only guess at how these impact the already unstable felons, constant low-grade stressors that prevent rest.
The last thing to know, you cannot get healthcare in a prison. This is largely the result of the inability of the prison I was at to find doctors who are willing to live in rural Montana. As a result the on-call doctor is often listed as the local hospital. This presents a number of challenges but the most glaring is that the doctors at the hospital don’t have access to the inmates’ medical records. The result is inmates just waiting until there is a doctor on shift.
For inmates who need constant medical monitoring they are put in to 8’x12′ cells without windows. This includes patients who are on suicide watch. When I asked about the obvious negative impact that living in dark cave might have on someone with a deteriorated mental state I was told “Well, it’s for security.” This sort of blanket non-answer was what I was told about most of the dysfunctional structures I observed. You might have guessed, correctly, that most inmates will just avoid medical help to avoid being stuck in those cells. Dealing with patients in those cells was where nearly all conflict in my time came from. One patient, had gone to surgery and needed to see a doctor before he could be discharged. There was no doctor on shift for several days though so he just had to sit in his hole. He was pretty upset. By the end of his time in there he was in pretty rough shape mentally.
As I say this please don’t be confused, I am not advocating for the “easy” treatment of people who have done more harm than good to society. What I am advocating is for humane systems. As a healthcare provider it is disconcerting to me that the stated goal can be care when what is happening is harm. This sort of upside down logic that war is peace and freedom is slavery was whole-heartedly embraced by the people working there. It is easy to understand. If you remain concerned in a place like that you’d go crazy. There are large systems in place determined to keep that prison and the criminal legal system the way it is. Rather than fighting for a system that reduces recidivism it is easier for the guards and everyone else to write the inmates off as less than human and hope they don’t get out. The loss of humanity is tragic and predictable.
Despite all of that my time there was amazing. Although it wasn’t the clinical experience I was hoping for I did learn a lot. I was hoping for more medical experience but instead it was more like working in a doctors office, taking vital signs, filling out paperwork etc. However, I did assist with two emergency situations (an attempted suicide and a heart attack). Those were both interesting. I was able to talk to some kids (an 19 and 20 year old respectively) about problems solving skills and how to avoid coming back to prison when they got out. Lastly, I was able to teach one inmate how to meditate, which hopefully can be a relief for his mental distress.
If you made it this far thanks for sticking through the rambling letter. I hope you’re all well.