Life in the cage
When an overwhelming number of inmates get sick, the Health Department is called in to find the source of the epidemic, which is often linked to high levels of bacteria in the water supply.
Pissing in the cup had been an agonizing ordeal; I felt a few razor-sharp pebbles pass through me and drop into the cup.
Pssst! Don’t drink the water!
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
Growing up, I recall many people talking about the beauty of Mexico—the women, the food, the countryside—but they would always offer this last bit of advice for those who ventured to go there, “Don’t drink the water!”
American vacationers would come back to the states with diarrhea or other stomach ailments, so naturally they blamed it on the water.
In prisons statewide, employees will privately tell you the same thing about water supplied to prisoners. “Pssst, don’t drink the water.”
Everyday, prison staff brings its own bottled water to drink. I noticed this early on in my imprisonment, and knowing that something was wrong with the water, I have chosen not to drink it.
Some of the older prisons in California, such as Folsom, San Quentin, and Soledad, have outdated pipes that are extremely rusted, full of calcium, iron and lime deposits, and it would take a lot of money and time to replace them.
When an overwhelming number of inmates get sick, the Health Department is called in to find the source of the epidemic, which is often linked to high levels of bacteria in the water supply. Administrators usually opt for a quick, cheap fix, just enough to bring the bacteria levels down to a safe level. As far as I know, rarely has the government replaced the entire system of pipes, or built a new well.
Many inmates boil their water, which they get from the faucet, before drinking it, hoping this precaution will filter out potential contaminants or disease-ridden bacteria. I’ve tried my best to not drink the water for the last twelve years. I stock up on lots of canned V-8 juice and sodas from the prison commissary and drink those instead.
I woke up one Saturday morning at 6 with a serious pain in the left lower quadrant of my back. Excruciating. I knew it wasn’t a pulled muscle. It felt like a constant sharp stabbing, like someone was squeezing my kidney. I lay in bed for an hour, thinking it would go away, but the pain persisted. It was a three-day holiday weekend, so I knew that the prison clinic was closed, but I felt that I had to get help; I had to do something immediately.
I started to sweat, to tremble. I felt like crying. I got up and called the cellblock officer to the door.
“Can you write me a pass to the clinic?” I asked him. “I’m dying man—extreme pain in my kidney.”
“Yeah, I’ll write you a pass. Just wait till we finish serving breakfast. I’ll come back for you,” said Officer Lopez, who was cell-feeding inmates because of a prison lockdown.
While I waited for the officer, I drank a V-8 juice, changed into my prison blues, and began pacing, hunched over in pain. Twenty minutes later, Officer Lopez arrived at my cell door.
“Valdez, you ready?” he asked as he opened the cell door. He could see that I was trembling, and that I couldn’t even stand up straight. “Hey man, do you need me to call the gurney?”
“Nah, I’m all right. I’ll just walk up there.”
We Latinos, we have pride. We don’t want other inmates to perceive us as weak, so if I had been seen carried out on a gurney that would show a sign of weakness. I took the walk to the clinic, which was about four hundred yards down a long corridor, wincing with pain, but holding onto my sense of pride.
When I arrived, there was an elderly white guard wearing bottle-thick glasses at the entrance to the clinic. He moved with a snail-like pace. I waited about ten minutes before he came to the door to open it for me. I handed him my emergency pass and my prison I.D. He looked at me, concerned, speaking with a raspy voice of a veteran smoker.
“What’s your problem, son?” he asked. “You know we only take emergency cases today.”
“Man, I’m in pain. I need to see a doctor. Can you get me in to see someone now?” My tone of voice must have shown my desperation.
“All right, come on in. Sit over there in the cage. I’ll get someone to see you.”
I waited in the cage, a large rectangular chain-link structure that resembles a dog kennel. I tried to lie down on my back, but it didn’t help; the pain persisted. I was getting angry because the old man was taking his time to get medical staff.
Finally, a half hour later, I was called to see the head emergency RN, a Filipina lady in her fifties who wore trendy Gucci glasses.
“Mr. Valdez, I don’t see you are having a heart attack or other serious emergency,” she said imperiously. “You need to go back to your cell.”
“Look at me…I need help!” I said anxiously, yet smiled, hoping that a positive attitude would help the pain go away.
“Look at you! You are laughing. You must be faking. You aren’t in pain. What do you want? What are you trying to get from us?”
“Please, call a doctor! I’m in pain!” I begged.
“OK, sit right there. Don’t move out of that chair. I call the doctor.”
As angry as I felt toward her, I understood her reasoning. She was trained to show no compassion towards inmates because some inmates try to manipulate medical staff for shampoos, laxatives, lotions, and other personal goods, to sell to other prisoners. How does prison medical staff differentiate between the hustlers and those with genuine medical problems?
I sat there for another thirty minutes as she prepared paperwork for me to fill out. I could hear her gossiping with another nurse. “This guy thinks he’s sick, coming in here on my time, trying to get something. He probably wants pain medication to get high…. So, what did you think of this week’s Desperate Housewives?” she asked her co-worker, taking a sip of bottled water.
“Girl, I think I really like Teri Hatcher’s role. You know, she came out on the cover of Vanity Fair. She shared a dark secret that she was molested by an uncle growing up.”
“Really? She is a survivor, for sure. She is an angel.”
Their conversation continued for another ten minutes as I was falling off my chair. I couldn’t sit still; I whimpered like a wounded animal, gnashing my teeth, frustrated to have to listen to them talk about mundane subjects while I was in dire need of medical attention.
“OK, Mr. Valdez, come here. Fill out this paperwork. We can’t do anything till you fill this out.”
“You got to be kidding. I can’t even stand still and you want me to hold the pen and fill out paperwork?”
“Yes. No paperwork, no service.”
I frantically scribbled my name and prison number, jotting in my reason for requesting medical care. Then she called me over to an exam room to check my blood pressure and temperature.
“OK, sit right here,” she ordered. “Why are you shaking? It’s not that bad. Be a man.”
At that moment, I felt entirely hopeless.
“Your temperature is high. Heart rate high. Come here. Sit here again. I call the doctor.” I could hear her phone conversation from the next room: “101 temperature…very high heart rate. What do you want me to do?”
I couldn’t help but look at my watch, a couple hours had gone by, and still no doctor.
“Mr. Valdez, the doctor will arrive at 10:30,” the nurse announced as she re-entered the exam room. “Here are three Motrin pills for the pain.”
I got up and walked toward her. She handed me the white pills and a small Dixie® cup with water. They were horse pills, too large to swallow with the scant amount of water she offered me. I chewed the first one to get it down.
“Come on, why don’t you swallow them? You never take pills before?” She spoke mockingly. “Go sit in the cage. Wait for the doctor to come. In the meantime, here’s a cup. Go pee inside it, and bring it to me right away.”
After following the nurse’s order, I walked the long corridor, hunched over still, and found a place to sit on a bench. In a few minutes, the pills were kicking in and I felt the pain fade away. However, pissing in the cup had been an agonizing ordeal; I felt a few razor-sharp pebbles pass through me and drop into the cup.
As the morning passed, new arrivals came in for emergency care. First, a fifty-something overweight Hispanic man who resembled porn star Ron Jeremy.
“So why you here, man?” I asked.
“Look at my eye. It’s infected. I got up this morning and it had blood in it.”
He was right; a large red vein was exposed underneath his eyeball. “Can you see out of it, man?”
“Nope, I am having trouble seeing anything out of this eye.”
To pass time, we talked about prison life. Then the next man came in, a forty-something buff white guy, complaining to the old man at the door that he got bit by a spider on his hand.
In prison, many men are bitten by mysterious insects of unknown origin, bites that develop into large tumor-like injuries, like bites from the brown recluse spider that can cause necrosis of the affected area. Growths have to be removed quickly or else develop into huge scars. He walked over to us to join our conversation.
“So why you here,” I asked him.
“Shit man, I got up this morning to take a leak and the entire right side of my body was numb. I thought I was having a stroke. I looked at my hand and saw this gnarly lump. Look at it, man. My whole hand is swollen.”
“Damn, I hope that isn’t your beat off hand,” I joked.
“Nah, man. I use the other one,” he answered seriously. “Shit, where is the doctor?”
“Won’t be here till 10:30.”
All three of us talked to pass time until another inmate arrived, a forty-something bald black man, limping on one foot. He was arguing with the old guard at the front.
“Motha fucka. I gots an emergency, look at my damn foot. I can’t even put my shoe on. I don’t know why my foot is swollen, but you gots to let me see the doctor.”
“I’m sorry. This is not an emergency,” the old guard replied. “You have got to go back to your cell.”
“Look old man, I limped my ass up here, took a long time to get here. You go get me some medical help or I’ll file a complaint on your ass.”
The Filipina nurse came rushing to the scene, having heard the man’s angry voice filling the entire clinic. She was in charge of the clinic for the day.
“What’s the problem?”
“Look at my foot! That’s the problem.”
“This is not an emergency,” she insisted. “You need to sign up for sick call.”
“What? Sick call will take three weeks to see a doctor. What’s your name? I’m going to file a complaint.”
Perturbed and probably scared, the nurse gave in. “OK, come here. I see you now.”
In prison, credit has to be given to black inmates. They are the most outspoken and fearless when it comes to expressing a complaint. They cuss out staff with no fear of reprisals. Latino men like myself, we are timid; we let things go. We don’t want to bring heat to ourselves. Our pride gets in the way.
Minutes later, the black inmate walked over to us and sat down.
“Damn, what is going on around here? Can’t even see a doctor. Shee-it.”
At 10:30, the doctor arrived, a tall white Jewish man in his fifties toting a plastic bottle of Evian water.
“Mr. Valdez, I’ll see you now.”
I walked over to his office, where I sat in a chair and he listened exclusively to my problem. He offered his opinion on the matter, while taking a sip of the bottled water.
“You urine has crystals in it. Looks like you passed a kidney stone. Your file says you are thirty-five years old. That is uncommon for a man of your age. Do you drink an average of eight cups of water daily?”
“No, I don’t drink water,” I answered. “Just sodas and V-8 juices.”
“Oh. That is a problem. You need water. Sounds like you’ve got buildup in the kidneys. I’m going to run some more tests later this week, but for now, I’ll prescribe you some pills to break the stones and some pain pills. You need to drink a lot of water this week to flush out the stones. Your pills will be delivered to you after chow, due to the lockdown. Here, this is a plastic strainer. You need to urinate through it for a week. Any stones that come out, keep them. I want to take a look at them under a microscope.”
“All right. Thanks, doc.”
As I walked toward the exit, I asked the old guard for my I.D. He searched his work area clumsily at his usual snail-like pace, but couldn’t find it. He took a sip from his bottled water, which was perched on shelf.
“I can’t remember where I put your I.D. Are you sure you gave it to me?” §
Tito David Valdez Jr. writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. Listen to his radio segments on prison life on the nationally syndicated program, “The Adam Carolla Show.” Visit www.adamcarolla.com. David can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689. Visit www.inmate.com for information on David’s case.