Prison is an ugly place. Its physical structures are designed to reinforce a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.
Casual cruelty is a fixture in these ugly places. It occurs on a daily basis among the kept and too often between the keeper and the kept.
The medical cage was cruel. It was nothing more than an inmate holding pen located one floor below the basement in the New Orleans Charity Hospital before the hospital was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It would accommodate about two dozen shackled inmates who had been transported to the hospital from prisons across the state for medical treatment not available in the prison setting. Inmates waited for hours manacled in the cage to “see the doctor.”
The medical cage was filthy, which personified the entire hospital. The sub-basement area reeked from odors of filth, infection, and disease. The floor of the medical cage was seldom, if ever, mopped. Dirt and grime were etched both into the floor and walls – a common characteristic of inmate holding pens. A urinal was located in the common area of the cage while a toilet was encased in a separate screened cage. Inmates needing to use the toilet were locked in the screened cage before their restraints were removed. The smell of human defecation often filled the medical cage, overwhelming all the other odors.
The inmates in the medical cage were the most sick in the state’s prison system. They were infected with cancers that needed chemotherapy and radiation; weakened and debilitated by heart disease; or handicapped with paralysis, severed limbs, or physical deformities. As their vital organs failed, they were assigned to “go to Charity for treatment.” By the time they arrived, most had become “dead men walking.”
Diseased inmates were handled and processed like hazardous waste. Each inmate had a medical horror story that generally began in the prison health care delivery system and was perpetuated by the Charity Hospital system.
It was in these system that I learned about a white boy called Mark.
I was sitting in the medical cage six months before the Katrina destroyed the facility. It was December 2004. I was waiting for an EMT – a test ordered to determine the strength of my muscles. I suffered from a severe case of ptosis – a condition so acute that I was legally blind. I had to tape my eyes open each day so I could see. Preliminary diagnosis at Charity led doctors to believe I suffered from either myasthenia gravis or Kearns Sayre Syndrome. I hoped not. I did not want to die old, weak, and crippled in prison. I would have preferred a knife in the back. There was no dignity dying old and wretched in a prison infirmary.
Sitting a few feet from me was the skeletal of what was once a man – forever bound to a wheel chair. His skinny body, nothing more than flesh over bone, was balled up into a grotesque knot in the chair. He peered at the outside world from under a soiled prison jacket that covered his entire body. His eyes were sunken into darkened holes, but amazingly his brain still functioned with clarity.
“They don’t know what I have,” he said. “I’ve begged them to cut off my right leg. It hurts so bad – the pain never stops, always throbbing, just throbbing pain. The leg’s useless now. Cut it off – stop the pain. I’ve begged them. Instead, they put me in diapers and strapped a bag on me for my piss. Just cut off the leg – give me some relief. I asked them what’s wrong with me. They say, ‘you tell us.’ They don’t even know what’s happening to me. At least they could cut off the leg.”
I was a prison reporter, much like the old “crime beat” reporters. My brain was my recorder. It was always ready to click on; to record and preserve some prison moment that would otherwise go unnoticed.
“A Buick Roadmaster was the finest car ever made,” the skeleton voice said. “My father owned one, a 1955 Roadmaster. That’s when a car really was a car – made of steel and heavy metal. The cars today are fiber glass junk – nothing but fiber glass. You can wreck one with a foot. They are as useless as my legs. But a Roadmaster – that was one fine automobile. It would take you anywhere in this country, without complaint.”
The man’s brain was still alive. It processed information and recalled memories. Now it was trapped in the shell of a body. I could only imagine the fear and pain he must have endured watching the physical body shrivel up, life gradually wasting away from its limb. Many times that brain must have recoiled in utter disbelief, horror, and, finally, hopelessness.
“You know that crazy white boy Mark at WCI,” the skeleton voice said. “You know what he did? He castrated himself! Cut his nuts out with a razor blade. He’s a crazy motherfucker. He tried to hang himself, but it didn’t work. He was in lockdown. He kept asking the freeman for a razor blade. Freeman said, ‘bitch, you ain’t gonna do shit, you just fakin’ yoah ass off.’ So the free man finally gave Mark a razor blade – and, you know, that crazy motherfucker cut his balls out. I mean he cut the whole sack off. Then he cut his throat and then he cut himself all over. There was blood everywhere in that cellblock – it took them hours to clean it all up.”
What would make a man sever his own testicles before cutting his throat?
Prison cellblocks are bastions of human madness. They are designed to punish misbehavior and confine mental health problems. The worst prison guards are assigned to supervise these cellblocks, known in the Louisiana prison system as “extended lockdown.” The guards that supervised the state’s lockdown system when I was there were brutal, ignorant, mean-spirited, sadistic, and quite often homosexual predators. They relished their positions of absolute power that allowed them to torment, harass, and agitate the inmates held captive in those man-made cages.
Extended lockdown inmates overwhelmingly suffered from a litany of mental health disorders, including retardation. The “block” was a place where they could get lost in the noise, disease, and deprivation imposed by this punitive system. Throwing feces and urine on each other was a natural dispute resolution mechanism. Every aspect of life in extended lockdown was restricted – hygiene, sleep, food, reading, writing, and faith. Something as simple as a roll of toilet tissue or a sharpened pencil became a precious commodity.
The mind and body deteriorates in that lockdown world, consumed by the monotony and the continual activity of punishment. Most lockdown inmates do not have the love of family to keep them alive with hope. They slowly suffocate from human neglect. Madness becomes preferable to reality; suicide a natural choice over life. The brutal realities of daily life in a cell can so depletes one of hope and purpose that it can force the mind to accept the hand severing the testicles.
“His balls were as useless as my legs,” the skeleton voice continued. “God, I wish I could cut off my leg. My right leg hurts so bad – and these white-coat motherfuckers don’t even know what’s wrong with me.”
Silence suddenly stilled the holding pen. Each man was quietly assessing his own life situation.
A prayer formed on my lips: “God, please do not let me die such a death.” The prayer was consumed by the silence of the moment.
“What did they do to the free man who gave Mark that razor blade?” another voice asked.
“Nothing. The bitch is still working the ‘block.’ You know they gonna protect their own. Everybody knows he gave Mark that razor blade. I mean, who really cares?”
The mixture of anger and defeat in that voice explained the kind of hopelessness that provoked Mark’s self-mutilated suicide. Life in a cellblock is so hopeless with utter despair that it can warp rational thought and cripple the heart with primitive rage. Suicide becomes a natural selection, much like choosing the best apple in the bunch.
I can only assume that is what happened to the white boy called Mark. He felt as useless as skeleton’s legs.
These are the stories my prison reporter mind recalls. They visit me every so often, a reminder of what was and a reminder of how lucky life now is.