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Posts Tagged ‘Breast cancer behind bars’

Big News In Arizona. We’ve had a Presidential Pardon. It made international headlines and gave me a very bad dream. This Pardon brought back memories I can never forget.

On July 19, 2002, I entered my first jail, in Maricopa County, Arizona. I was a well-educated fifty-seven years old woman suddenly face to face with another world. I was afraid; I was shocked; I was very, very sad.

I was also very sick. In February I’d been diagnosed with stage 3B breast cancer and told my survival odds weren’t great. I’d already had six sessions of chemotherapy, with all the accompanied nausea. I wanted to curl up in a fetal position with a cozy blanket, soft pillows and crackers. Instead I got handcuffs, a thin plastic mattress, sickening food and vomiting.

The first time they handcuff you is a shock. Some guards make them so tight they cut into your flesh at every move. Shackles are worse. They serve their purpose; they restrict your steps and are heavy and cruel on bare ankles. The holding cells are filthy, and there are only hard concrete benches and one open toilet. At some odd hour, they bring baloney sandwiches, but no trash bag so everyone just piles the trash in a corner for the mice. Thirty-two women are crammed into an 8×12 tank. It’s desperately hot. There is no more room to sit or move so some women just stand, looking dazed. The theory is that this inhumane treatment will inspire people not to come back. It doesn’t work. It just succeeds in dehumanizing them so they have no dignity or hope left.

I was kept there for twenty hours, waiting to be processed. The noise, the heat, the smell, the meanness of the guards all contributed to a feeling of fear and despair. I didn’t know such a place could exist in the United States of America —  the beacon of civilization for the rest of the world. I didn’t want to believe that a human being could create this hell and others were willing to work in it.

Finally, we newbies were moved out to Estrella, the woman’s jail. There our clothes were taken, we were strip searched and given uniforms of black and white stripes. Then we were escorted to the dorms. I could feel the heat all the way down
the hall. When we walked through the door at the end, it felt like Dante’s Inferno. One hundred seventy-eight women in racks of bunks three tiers high.

Eight showers that didn’t drain and eight toilets, all without doors. One sheet, one thin blanket, no pillow allowed. One uniform, one bra, one pair of panties, one pair of socks. Anything else is contraband. Anything else is country club.

Everyone sweats and smells and struggles to stay clean. The evaporative coolers had been broken for two months. Mid-July and 115º outside, but no repairs in sight. Of course, office air conditioning was fixed quickly, and the offices were freezing.

The lights were kept low to ease the heat. Too dark to read, my only respite. Time felt upside down. The meals added to that. Two meals a day, always the same. Breakfast at mid-morning, always a sack with baloney, six slices of white bread, two slices of fake cheese, one old orange and crackers. In the late afternoon, 
dinner of unrecognizable mix and smell served on a brown tray. The windows were small and very high so there is no feeling of time.. Meals are irregular and time is twisted.

It felt like a 21st century concentration camp and, because of the heat, we were living in the ovens. Everyone in black and white stripes. Everything done to denigrate, debilitate and demoralize. It’s big business designed to create a revolving door of job security. Most inmates are poor. No one cares.  Once behind those walls, you become a distant memory to the world.

The first night in the dorm, one of my neighbors literally vomited her insides out all night long, completely ignored by the guards. Heroin withdrawal. I’d never heard such suffering and agony. How could anyone survive that?  It was my first exposure to drugs and I was horrified for her. But despite my inexperience with drugs, and with a huge age difference, the kindness of these drug-addicted women overwhelmed me.

These young women shared their meager possessions with a generosity unseen in the world I’d known. I was profoundly sad and frightened and they embraced and comforted me.

“Don’t worry. You’ll be safe. We respect our elders.”

I was there six months. The time was filled with sleeplessness, constant shaking, incessant noise, terror, the men in black and tears. I’m ashamed to say I cried enough to float the damned place away. Yet It’s Still There.  Add to that, nine indescribably rough trips to both court and the hospital, each one twenty-four hours of agony and exhaustion.

In the middle of this, I had my mastectomy. They told me I was the first woman to ever have a mastectomy while there. The medical staff didn’t really know what to do with me so they mostly did nothing. I’ve been a patient with cancer and an inmate with cancer. There is an ocean of difference between the two. The feelings of despair and loneliness were overwhelming until the women rallied around me. In that wretched, cruel, unfeeling place, these women comforted me and surrounded me with love. Society saw them as addicts, thieves, prostitutes and murderers. I saw them as victims of incredible violence, too often raped and beaten by  fathers, uncles, brothers, boyfriends, husbands and pimps. One woman told me she was glad she was there. She felt safe. Her husband and her son couldn’t touch her there or beat her up. At first, I thought she was an anomaly but she wasn’t. There were so many like her.

I can never forget those women whom society shuns and ignores. I can never forget that place. When THE PARDON was announced, all those memories flooded back, as vivid as if it was yesterday. Ironically, I remember that time more clearly than the morning my beloved husband died. The noise, the clanging doors, the jingle of chains, the terror of the men in black, the intimidation, cruelty and horror of the place all came flooding back.

It was created with pride by “the toughest sheriff in the country.”  Not only did this man and his crew terrorize our Latino population, violating a court order in doing so, his lack of basic human decency caused the death of too many inmates and racked up millions of dollars in law suits paid for by tax payers who didn’t seem to mind and continued to vote for him. . .until they didn’t. And now we are here, looking at a man found guilty of only a criminal misdemeanor, only that. So many crimes against humanity, heart-breaking and unconscionable. Yet they cannot be attributed only to him; the staff, the guards, the voters are also culpable. There is blood on the hands of everyone who cheered him on. And now he has been pardoned.

I thought I would feel more, more pain and more outrage. Instead I feel nothing except a great sadness for all the people who have experienced his hell. But I won’t let his cruelty destroy my hopeful heart. There is no hope for him and people like him. There is, however, hope for our world if passionate, clear-minded people pay attention, speak out and work for change. “Enough is Enough.” Enough denigration, humiliation, cruelty and lack of accountability.  Our country is better than that. We are better than that.

To those who read this and feel the need to attack me and defend the sheriff, first remember America is the Incarceration Nation. One in three Americans now has a criminal record. We incarcerate more people than Russia or China! It’s easier than you imagine. Our jails and prisons are indeed over-populated with minorities, but that is changing with the opioid crisis. We are criminalizing everything and you could be next. Then suddenly you’re inside in black and white stripes, and you are horrified, outraged and very empathetic. Funny how that works.

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Pale Pink Ribbon 2It’s October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The world of pink –  ribbons, t-shirts, give aways and things to buy. We race for the cure. We stand up to cancer. We support our loved ones battling or surviving the disease. We hear stories of women who have taken the journey, but there is one population we never mention, women with breast cancer behind bars.

Can you imagine the feel of shackles on your ankles? Hard, cold steel that does just what it’s supposed to do. It cuts into your ankles and restricts your movements to baby steps. Even when you are very careful, you wind up with blisters or ankles rubbed raw. And the weight alone drags you down.

Now imagine handcuffs. They too are designed to restrict but they can chaff and cut, especially if the guard who cuffs you is having a bad day. His bad day becomes yours, but your blisters are yours alone.

It’s two o’clock in the morning and the halls of the jail are bustling with guards dragging chains while inmates stand restlessly against the cinderblock walls. Dirty cream walls, faded black and white stripes, clanging, clashing cuffs and shackles. All that plus the commotion of fifty female inmates and ten khaki clad jail guards prepping us for the trip to court.

I’m not going to court; I’m going the the hospital to have my breast cut off. It’s time. I’ve had the poison. Now it’s the slashing. Then it’s the burning. Poison, slash, burn. That’s what they call chemotherapy, mastectomy, radiation. Poison, slash, burn.

I’ve been cuffed and shackled since two AM. I’m exhausted and freezing. The old morgue where they keep us for several hours is like an ice rink. Despite the cold, there are those tiny little roaches everywhere. They add to the despair.

Finally, when everyone else has been called to court and I am alone with my fears, I hear my name, “ALLEN. MOVE IT OUT! Followed by armed guards, I shuffle out to the jail van, jangling as I shuffle. The backs of those vans are cages, not designed for safety. There is a metal bench, but no seat belts, so I lurch each time we turn a corner. I cannot balance myself because of the cuffs and shackles and sometimes I crash to the floor. I’m bruised and shaken to my core.

Finally we arrive at the hospital. I shuffle into another holding cell and wait several more hours, still alone and very afraid. I’m crushed with a feeling of shame that I’m now much less than human. Four hours later I’m escorted to the OR. There the cuffs are removed, a gown is thrown at me and eventually I’m lead to the operating table.  Still shackled, I climb upon the table and they begin the very painful search for my very small veins. At last, as I begin to go under, the shackles come off. The guards will stay in the corner to watch as my breast comes off.

Five hours later I wake up in the jail ward, bandaged and sore but alive and still alone. On this particular journey, no one touches me except the surgeons with their knives and the nurses with their needles. I ask for a pastor or a priest, someone to pray with me, but no one comes.

When I finally return to the jail, the women surround me with love. At the darkest time in my life, the drug addicts, the prostitutes and the thieves looked after me and I will NEVER FORGET THEM. It is nineteen days before the medical department sees me to clean up my incision, take out the stitches and see if I’m healing.

This is the way all women experience breast cancer in prison. There is no comfort or solace. They go alone, they suffer alone, they return to their prison alone. Some might think that they deserve it, but I don’t think anyone deserves that kind of horrific treatment. It is devastating and demeaning to all of us as human beings.

It’s a dreadful journey inside or out, but there are many ways to take it. It’s one thing for Robin Roberts, Christina Applegate, Cynthia Nixon or Sheryl Crow to face cancer. They have the very best doctors, loving family and friends to surround them, and the entire world to care. They are deemed heroes by the press.

I wonder how they would handle the isolation and the incredibly hostile indifference that inmates face.  The lack of information, attention and care. I’m lucky. I have been both a patient with cancer and an inmate with cancer. There is a world of difference. I was diagnosed before I went inside. I’d already had six sessions of chemo. I went inside with a bald head, my medical records and a high profile identity. I think that’s the reason I got treatment. Gina, my young cellmate, didn’t have that advantage and she died a painful death, not of breast cancer but of myeloid leukemia. There are many, many others who have died of cancer and medical neglect. They fought so bravely though pain, fear, neglect, hostility, exhaustion and isolation.

Ask yourself how you would handle this kind of journey? These women are mothers, wives, and daughters, many in prison for addiction or low level drug crimes.When they should be healing, they are worn out fighting for treatment, constantly reminded that nobody cares, nobody cares, nobody cares.

In 2013, 296,980 American women were diagnosed with breast cancer and nearly 40,000 died of it. Everyone who battles this disease is a hero. It is harder than you can ever imagine. I am free now and miraculously still alive, but there are thousands I’ve left behind in jails and prisons all over the world, alone and afraid with their cancer.

Everyone deserves a prayer, but please send a special one to all those invisible women who face this journey alone. No one should be alone with cancer.

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