Oct. 17th, 2014

paulak_rumin8: Robert Frost (miles to go)
I used to work in a jail. I spent two years at the county lock-up, the sole nurse for the place, 23 years old and crazy oblivious to the fact I was quite clearly in over my head.

I was game for anything that came my way, which probably proved helpful. I was a very nice nurse. I had the tendency to see inmates as ordinary souls wearing a lot of orange and carrying unfavorable back stories.

The jail was deceptively large. It looked like a squat, single-story, brown brick extension of the much older, much larger, much more elaborate courthouse next door. But as it turns out, about 2/3 of the jail is underground. And about half of the inmates are not local. The county recoups a little of its criminal justice expenses with some (mostly) federal cell rentals.

The locals were primarily people with addictions doing what addicts do to score their substance. The Feds were of a different ilk. Some of them were street hoods, gang-bangers. Some of them were in all likelihood involved in gun-running and crime syndicates. Allegedly. At the county jail, they weren't convicted. Not yet.

I had an office downstairs. The walls were grey, painted cinderblock. There was a closet where I stored my files and a few supplies. There was a med cart that held the inmates' prescriptions and all the OTC stuff they seemed to crave (Tylenol, Benedryl, etc). There was a desk, also gray, up against the wall in front of the room's only window. It overlooked the F block across the hall. I kept the blinds shut. Too much orange looking my way otherwise. There was a desk calendar on which I daily crossed off the days, counting down to my wedding day. It was eerily similar to doing time.

Except I could get out and go for lunch at the wonderful little sub sandwich place across the street. And when I rapped on the dispatch room window, someone released the latch and let me out of the place.

Every morning, I would greet everyone, get a report form the officers on duty about what was up, healthwise, with the inmates, and receive an updated roster sheet. From that, I would compose a list of inmates who were due for their obligatory health intake and TB test, and the TB test reading 2 or 3 days later.

I spent a lot of time just waiting in my office to see people. You see, in corrections, and probably even more so at the county level, the health needs of the inmates are of minimal concern to the corrections staff. These people, from the law enforcement perspective, are already getting free room and board on the taxpayers' dime, and now I want to appropriate even more toward optimizing their health. What were they doing about these pressing health concerns on the outside, anyway?

The argument did have some merit, I can't deny that. The one line that always galled me, though, was the officer who used to declare with some regularity, "Too far from the heart to kill 'im." That was the typical response I would get from that guy to my requests for the contracted doctor to come see someone for a genito-urinary concern, or for someone with an abscess to go out for a tooth extraction.

I carried a pager at all times. Whenever someone was booked who was carrying a prescription med, I was paged to verify it and give the officers the okay to let the guy take the med. Sometimes people with diabetes get arrested. Sometimes people with seizure disorders, or heart conditions, or asthma go to jail.

One time I was paged because the booking officer believed the inmate was having a heart attack. When I asked him why he was calling me instead of 911, he responded that protocol said I was the first to be notified in an emergency. I had absolutely no sway over protocol, which was both frustrating and a little scary.

I've been thinking a lot about that period of my life lately. It coincided with a passing interest in public health. I pursued a graduate degree in that area for a time, before I read between the lines and saw that the answer to programs and policies geared toward public health that sucked up tax dollars like sodium polyacrylate was to keep throwing more dollars at it. Maybe I didn't know where my talents were best applied, but it couldn't be in an endless parade of grant applications and politicking.

I've been mining my past a little more deeply lately, remembering things and landing on interests that haven't crossed my mind in decades. For pity's sake, I'm listening to 1970's easy listening these days...CCR, John Denver, Simon and Garfunkel, The Velvet Underground. I'm digging in deeper, poking around in the more shadowy places, hunting down perspective. So far, it's led me back to jail. Sounds ominous, doesn't it?

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