Saturday, June 8, 2013

Death by Indifference

ADMIN NOTE One of our regular writers Bill Van Poyck has had a death warrant signed with a scheduled execution date of 12 June 2013. Many avenues are being worked on and his attorneys are filing briefs for a stay of execution.  We are not giving up hope that Bill's sentence can be commuted to a life sentence where he could be released for time served (26 years), getting him off death row. Please sign the petition on Bill's website HERE and spread the word. Thank You.

By William Van Poyck

Spring 2013

I jog around the Florida State Prison death row rec yard – just a small, fenced-in concrete pad – as I have countless times these past 24 years, counting my laps, lost in thought, internal monologues playing out in my mind.  Only rarely now do I consciously notice the small marks indelibly carved in the concrete: M.S.P. ’79.  Usually my feet pad across them without thought or reflection.  But occasionally I’ll pause, perhaps kneel down to brush sand from the grooves, and my mind flies back 34 years, to the day I stood next to Michael Price – long dead now – while he used a stick to memorialize himself in the freshly poured concrete as we – the prisoners on the disciplinary squad – completed the court-ordered expansion of the yard.  Watching Mike, I resisted the youthful impulse to add my own initials; I’d always heard it was bad luck to scrawl your name on jail walls, supposedly it portended you’d one day return.  And I never wanted to come back to F.S.P.  Little did I suspect that just nine years hence I’d be on the row myself.

But on this day as I pass that spot, simply walking now, I cannot help but notice, the initials seemingly call to me on every lap, urging me to recall all that has transpired across the four full decades I’ve lived behind bars.  My thoughts are focused on the many prisoners, and more than a few friends I’ve watched needlessly die due to the apathetic, incompetent “medical care” (oxymoron alert!) found in the prison arena.  I know the source of these reminisces for I’ve just watched my good friend Tom – a fellow traveler full of rolling-stone mischief and a lopsided grin, healthy in September, dead by February – die painfully, just another in a far-too-long list of like victims of medical non-practice.  And now my brother Jeffrey, 19 years into his Federal bank robbery sentence may soon join Tom, and for the same dismal avoidable reasons.

Tom’s life jumps the tracks when he awakes one morning with a blood-stained pillow and a tongue nearly bitten in half.  Barely able to speak, he related this to me with a thick brogue, puzzled over this turn of events.  I suggested he’d suffered a seizure in his sleep and urged him to try to see a doctor, even as I knew how difficult that would be.  Tom began stopping the nurses daily as they made their rounds passing out meds, showing them his shredded tongue, explaining, in a halting voice what had occurred, talking like a man with a mouth full of marbles.  But the nurses, barely showing up, only recommended he submit a sick call request form.  Tom dutifully obeyed, but when the responding nurses appeared at his door to examine him they refused to schedule him to see a doctor.  One nurse gave him a few Tylenol, another told him to gargle with salt.  A third nurse looked at Tom’s now raw and swollen tongue and opined that “Well, you know, some people do that do get attention,” then walked away.

Meanwhile, I’d noticed that Tom was not just speaking strangely, he was thinking oddly, as if suffering some mental impairment.  He told me the entire left side of his body was weak and numb, and his slurred speech became more pronounced.  He was sleeping 18 hours a day and constant, pounding headaches plagued his waking hours.  I could hear Tom shuffling around in his cell like an old man.  One evening he suddenly dropped his supper tray when he inexplicably lost the ability to grip.  That’s when I told Tom I believed he’d suffered a stroke and I encouraged him to “declare a medical emergency” which by rule requires immediate response by medical staff.  Over a 6 – 7 day period Tom declared a medical emergency three times in his futile effort to see a doctor, but each time the responding nurses found a reason to discount all of obvious problems.  One nurse focusing only on Tom’s tattered tongue rather than his obvious stroke symptoms, claimed he only needed to see the dentist.  Another nurse threatened him with disciplinary action if he persisted in declaring medical emergencies.  When he finally got to see the dentist he was issued more salt for his tongue but nothing for his self-evident debilitating state.  Everywhere Tom turned he met an implacable wall of indifference.  It was painfully sad to see Tom, once intellectually sharp with a razor-edged wit, descend into a mental fog from which he was helpless to extricate himself.  He knew he was messed up but he could not figure out what to do about it and was genuinely puzzled about why nobody would help him.  For 15 days I watched Tom’s condition progressively deteriorate; all the while I raged over the blatant indifference by a mean-spirited medical staff ostensibly dedicated to helping others.

On the evening of September 11, 2012, I heard Tom collapse in his cell, then his voice, weak and bleating, calling out my name, begging for help.  I immediately began yelling for the wing sergeant, “Man down! Man down!” while violently kicking my cell door to make a racket.  The sergeant arrived, took one look at an almost paralyzed Tom, sprawled on the floor, unable to speak coherently, and called the clinic.  As Tom was taken away, slumped in a wheelchair, I feared it was the end for him.  An hour later an ambulance arrived, then took Tom to Shands Hospital in Gainesville.

Thirty-six hours later I watched Tom, barely able to walk, his head wrapped in a mummy-like white bandage and a crooked smile on his face, being led slowly down the floor to his cell.  He told me how they’d performed an emergency brain surgery, removing a large cancerous tumor.  I was shocked that he had been discharged so quickly.  Tom told me the prison insisted on it, that he’d actually been discharged the evening before and had spent the night before in the notoriously filthy clinic cell (the walls covered in dried blood, the floors dirty as a dungeon) while a bored guard spent the night taunting him about his impending death.  When Tom begged for a blanket to ward off the cold, the guard threw a dirty blanket into the cell.  Only after Tom wrapped himself in it did he realize it was permeated with pepper spray residue, burning his eyes and nose.

Although the surgeons had prescribed numerous necessary medications (anti-brain swelling drugs; blood thinners; pain medications) our prison doctor, who can hardly speak English and makes no effort to disguise his hatred for inmates, refuses to fill the prescriptions and Tom suffered greatly.  His bandages were seldom replaced, his head wound seldom cleaned.  Worse, a PET scan at the hospital had revealed a tumor in his lung.  More than two months later, after considerable gratuitous suffering Tom began radiation treatments on his head and chemo treatments directed at the lung tumor.  But by then Tom was too weak, too sick.  I watched him wither away, unable to eat, until finally they took my friend away.  When he dies two weeks later, alone in a clinic cell, I suffer an inability to summon words equal to my emotions.

Now I consider my brother Jeff and try to construct some meaning from his ill fate.  Two years ago he began experiencing pain in his throat.  For ten months he complained to the clinic about the increasing pain, the obvious (and growing) nodes easily seen in his throat, the clearly discernible swelling.  It was all in vain.  Only when Jeff awakens to learn he cannot swallow, and thus cannot eat or drink, is he permitted to see a doctor, who immediately diagnoses throat cancer and orders immediate surgery.  They excised a large portion of Jeff’s neck leaving an ugly wound.  The follow-up radiation permanently destroys his sense of taste making all foods “taste like mud,” but also destroying any cancer remnants.  The doctors then declare him “cancer free.”  However, a subsequent PET scan finds three small “spots” in his left lung.  Suspecting cancer, a biopsy is ordered and conducted, but the biopsy results are then “lost.”  With shabby logic as shaky as a three-legged stool, the powers that be decide not to conduct another biopsy.  Rather, they’ll just “watch” the spots to see if they grow (cancer) or remain the same (something else).  Now, a year later, a second, belated scan showed that the spots have doubled in size.  A biopsy (finally) confirmed it is cancer.  Now Jeff awaits treatment, logically wondering if both cancers could have been avoided had he not been forced to wait so long simply to see a doctor.

Squatting down in the rec yard, fingering the worn grooves of Michael Price’s initials, plucking the chords of distant memories, I remind myself that these are just two representative examples of such third-world negligence.  Hell, calling it negligence is too generous; it’s ruthless and deliberate indifference by any measure.  Filling a ledger with similar, or worse, stories I’ve witnessed over the years would be easy.  The sad reality is, that here in Prison Nation life is cheap and becoming ill or injured too often, means a death sentence. 

Bill Van Poyck

William Van Poyck  #034071
Florida State Prison
7819 NW 228th Street, 
Raiford, FL 32026-1160

If you enjoyed reading this chapter of Bill's book, you can purchase Quietus HERE
And you can read more from Bill at his blog HERE


Maggie Macaulay said...

I am appalled when I read about the standard of medical care in prisons. Whilst I'm sure there must be some exceptions, the care seems to be non-existent and I wonder how someone who enters a caring profession reaches the point where neglect is acceptable to them?
The title of this post is particularly chilling.

Jan Naumann said...

This is just SICKENING, as any reported practice from behind these walls. Please take time to write to the International Council of Nurses to point out this unaccepptable malpractice of trained medical personell! As a nurse, I am deeply ashamed of those subjects, misusing their profession in such a way. This is inexcusable.