Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Me with Daniel (conversation with a prison nurse)

Daniel is a nurse who has been in the mental health field for ten years. I was acquainted with him, via phone, by another nurse who worked at the Union City Jail with him. He has worked at two jails and three prisons.

D* I did some part time work for two months at the Fulton County Jail in the mid ‘90’s, maybe ‘94. I needed the extra cash but later I told them, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you”. I knew it was a matter of time before the inmates were going to sue the county and win. And a few years later they did sue them.

J* What were some of your experiences?

D* Officers would wander off from nurses. They are supposed to be by you. Inmates were wild there. I was routinely having inmates coming on to me sexually. More men than women. The building was about five years old but on the inside it looked like it was fifty years old. It was so battered and poorly maintained. The doors weren’t secure, windows were broken. The officers were fairly indifferent and out of shape. They couldn’t have picked up a gun if they dropped it on the floor.

The building didn’t feel like circulation was very good. The inmates were getting TB but not really being cared for.

J* This was at Fulton County?

D* Yes. Some years later, in ‘96 perhaps, I worked for a couple of months at Metro State Prison. Metro is not too bad. It’s a medium sized facility with about 740 beds or something. Fairly compact, laid out. It was a pretty well run place from the security standpoint.

J* What would I be surprised at?

D* How many health problems there are. Metro was a woman’s diagnostic facility. All women who went to prison went to Metro first. Roughly 400 were on medication routinely. Inmates tend not to be a healthy population.

There were hardly any inpatient beds. You had all these people released with mental health cases with no safety nets.

The prison industry is now the largest in mental health service.

D* If you show any discomfort about being there, the inmates will eat you alive. Things are better for the medical staff than the officers. The officers are treated as the enemy. The inmates usually know that the medical staff is there to help them. I only had a few inmates give me trouble.

J* Did any of the inmates get clingy with you?

D* Not really. Being tough is very important.

J* Why did you leave corrections?

D* I needed a break from the inmates.

I remember there was one inmate in the hole who had killed an officer. Some days he was fairly outgoing and would recite his terrible poetry and rap to me. I would just listen and say, “Thank you for sharing that.”

J* Were you ever alone with him?

D* Oh noooo. These people can be locked down super securely. There was always an officer present.

There is a super max prison that was being built, and this guy, the terrible rapper, he was in line to go there. No, I was never alone with them. The CERT team handled him when he was out of his cell. He would be in chains from the waist down even to go to the shower.

If he was in a good mood, then he might be OK, but if he wasn’t, he flipped. Once I asked how he was doing and he went off. “How the fuck do you think I am! I’m on death row! I’ll kill you!” He was seriously unstable. Back in the ‘50’s he probably would have been committed to a mental hospital and been there for life.

Another guy on death row was a guy who had gotten a lot of attention in the news. He had killed a lot of people in one day. He used to scare some of the staff by speaking in these demon voices.

(laughs) There was one guy, he was on death row too. He honestly believed that he had a pick up truck outside the prison and that he had a job at night at a gold coin plant. He would get angry with the guards because they would make him late for work.

J* Are the death row inmates and general population inmates ever connected?

D* No. I mean, if there is a death row inmate who is in the hole, then he might be able to hear someone in general population from another cell. Death row has their own section. There is extra tight security there. In some ways, there is a little better accommodations. They are more heavily staffed. Their treatment is more closely monitored. The officers are more careful with how they handle them.

For instance, in Jackson, there isn’t a lot of TV action going on for the general population. Maybe a movie once or twice a week, but for death row, there’s lots of TV.

J* Why?

D* I don’t know the ins and outs of that.

On death row, they have their lawyers looking out for them. The state doesn’t wanna stir up any problems. I don’t know if these numbers are exactly accurate but it’s something like $20,000 per year spent to lock someone up in general population and like $6,000,000 over the life of the case for a death row inmate.

That one who used to tell me his rap…

J* The terrible rapper?

D* Yeah, he had a life sentence because that county couldn’t afford a death row case.

J* No way!

D* Yep. There is so much money that’s spent. Like with Brian Nichols, a couple million, but that’s not even the end.

I was talking to one of the psychiatrists who said he used to be a death penalty supporter but changed his mind because it’s just not worth it. All that money.

In Jackson, there was a section reserved for the best behaved of the death row inmates. I think it’s death row, maybe something else, but this guy I'm talking about was on the mental health block often. He looked old as dirt. A lot of these folks lived hard. I figured he was in his early 70’s. I found out later he was 42! Not real stable. He was always polite to me though. He ended up doing some rules infractions and lost his recreation time for a couple of weeks. He just lost it.

When I would go to his cell I had to tell him everything. I had to say, “Get out of the bed. Walk to the bars. Pick up the cup. Put the medication in your mouth. Drink the water. Swallow.” I had to tell him everything. When he was confined like that he fell apart. When he got his recreation time back after a while, he was back to himself.

There was another guy who was kept at the end of the row where he couldn’t be heard by everyone. He would be huddled in a corner in his cell with a sheet over his head laughing loudly. He was hallucinating that he was in there with his brother and his brother was telling him jokes. (laughs)

If you told him to do something and he didn’t understand you, he would ask what’s wrong with you. (laughs again) He meant it too. What’s wrong with you? Most mentally ill people usually know that they are mentally ill. Not him. It was YOU.

J* You ever journal these stories?

D* No. I probably should though.

Let me tell you this, at Jackson, there was this officer who was really great. He was in a supervisor position. He could get any of the officers to do anything and he had solid control of the inmates.

J* Because they feared him?

D* Maybe on some level. Some level respect.

He could tell them to jump and they would really ask how high. He would yell at folks and get ‘em shakin’ a little bit. One day I was watching him and noticed he was having fun with this.

J* Is he still there?

D* No. He took a private security job. A shame to see him go. Good officers develop their own style.

Some inmates would only respond if you cussed them out. But there is a certain style with which you could do that. Some new officers would come in loud and cursing. The inmates would see through that and not show them respect. The best officers were the middle aged women.

You know, prisons only work because the inmates agree to be inmates. They could take over the place in fifteen minutes if they didn’t agree to that. The thing is though, they couldn’t agree or come to that kind of unity. The ones who are mentally stable look down on the mentally ill inmates. This race against that one. This gang against another.

J* So it’s to the guards advantage that the inmates don’t get along.

D* Well, in a way. Not that they encourage it though.

Lockup is a criminal world. The guards can’t catch all of it. There are sex crimes and so there are a lot of STD’s in prison. It’s a violation for them to be having sex, so there are no condoms.

J* But they know that they’re having sex, why don’t they give them condoms?

D* That’s against the law. The inmates steal latex gloves from the medical staff. And they get other things. The trustees are not very trustworthy. They pass around information.

J* What kind of information?

D* Staff movement, who’s on staff, they pass contraband, materials for making drinks. If they know an inmate who is depressed, they give him razor blades and encourage him to kill himself.

J* Why?

D* Entertainment.

They do a bad job a lot of times and end up having to get treated. It’s messy. The blood and marks.

J* Where do they get razors anyway?

D* Inmates are good at hiding things. There was an inmate who was boasting about being so good at hiding things, mostly in his mouth. He wanted to prove that he could hide his pills in his mouth. So I gave him his pills, gave him water, watched him swallow. He opened his mouth and the officer shined the light in his mouth. Saw nothing. The inmate closed his mouth then spit out the pill.

After that I gave him more water and he took his pill. I think.

There was an inmate who used to hide razor blades in his nose.

J* What kind of razor blade?

D* Like the kind in a disposable razor.

J* Ouch.

D* Sometimes they cut into their penis and hide things there.

J* What?

D* Yeah. They cut a little bit, let it heal. Cut some more. Then some more. Soon there is a pocket there. The officers are supposed to squeeze the penis when they search them but they don’t.

J* Are there a lot of mental health inmates in Union City?

D* A lot. But many didn’t get treated.

J* Because…?

D* It was too expensive to treat them. There are a lot of illnesses and diseases not properly treated. MRSA is very common in jails.

There is a lot (pause) a lot going on.

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