Q: How did you become a medic at an Army prison?
A: I went through the same training as other soldiers—guns, camping, that kind of thing. Then I got my training in EMT and military trauma. At graduation, they come up with orders, and I was sent to a base in the rural U.S.
When I first got there, there was supposed to be someone there to meet you, like a sergeant. I was waiting and waiting—I was confused why no one was there to meet me—and they finally found me and told me I was late.
I was assigned to a troop clinic first. Then my platoon sergeant assigned me to the prison clinic to make it more shipshape.
Q: Who is in the prison?
A: There weren’t really any terrorists—all those guys get sent to Guantánamo, I guess. It’s mostly guys from across the U.S. who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the Army, adultery is punishable by eight months. They have a lot of dumb rules—if the guy is an overall bad soldier, they will try to find a reason to get him in trouble. There was one guy who was in there for doing drugs and having an orgy. But I guess I should say for accuracy’s sake that one of those girls might’ve been 16.
Another guy was always coming in for his leg. This was his third prison, because he escaped from two others. I think when he escaped the second one he jumped off a 20-foot wall or something.
Q: So no terrorists?
A: We housed some terrorists, and some guys were kinda not super-nice to them, but nothing like what was on the news. Anyway, when I first got there, I worked with a physician’s assistant who was very nice and thoughtful and compassionate, and he told me to respect all religions—he was a religious man—and to step over a person’s prayer rug. And that may seem obvious, but it always helps having a good example. I don’t know what I would’ve done without him saying that; there are plenty of bad examples that get reinforced. Long story short, the inmate didn’t trust many people, but he acknowledged that I stepped over his rug, which occupied nearly all the floor space, and he always trusted me after that.
Q: What was your typical day like?
A: I would show up at 5 or 5:30 a.m. and start sick call. The night before, people would write down what was wrong with them. They give the paper to the sergeant and in the morning they march on down to the clinic. They write bogus stuff on their slip to protect their medical privacy.
Q: Why are they concerned with protecting their privacy?
A: Well, I think it was hard to keep things secret. For one thing, they had a system for finding out why people were in the prison. People would ask a new inmate why they were there, and sometimes they would tell them and sometimes they wouldn’t.
The warden had an inmate sweeping and doing chores for him. This guy would go through the personnel files and photocopy the person’s record and tell people.
One guy was in for some pretty bad stuff and that inmate made 70 or 80 copies of the guy’s record. Then another guy in the cafeteria put a copy underneath every guy’s plate.
Q: Did you have any other duties?
A: I had to be there anytime there was a riot. I remember one time—it was New Year’s 2005—and the guys from D-Block decided to have a riot just for the sake of having a riot. When I got into sick call the next morning, around 5:30, the entire 30 or so guys were there. It’s regulation that after a fight everybody has to be examined. When I walked in, I said “What the hell’s going on?” and everybody started hollering “D-BLOCK! D-BLOCK!” They all got put on lockdown and may have had some time added to their sentences, but they were very democratic about deciding to have a riot, and they all participated, and all had fun.
Q: What kind of illnesses did you usually treat?
A: We had a lot of strep throat, brown-recluse bites … Those are nasty. You have to lance them with a scalpel.
Q: Do prisoners share cells?
A: Most prisoners are in individual cells.
Q: Do they have big group showers?
A: Not for 50 guys or anything. There are maybe four or five guys in the shower at once.
Q: Did you prescribe drugs?
A: I did prescribe some narcotics, like Tylenol with codeine. Some inmates would take them—the guard verifies it—but some would hide it in their upper jaw so the guards can’t see. One time, I walked into the laundry room and the sink was chopped in half. They said so-and-so was standing on there, lifting up the ceiling tiles, trying to hide medicine.
I guess prison life is like TV shows, except the guys weren’t super-violent.
Q: Is there any way to legitimately get out of the Army before your contract is up?
A: I knew a guy—he and his roommate dislocated each other’s shoulders and then were put on restricted duty. They just kept dislocating each other’s shoulders until they were discharged. The last I heard, he has trouble lifting a chair because his arm falls out of place.
Q: Anything else you’d like people to know about the Army?
A: I want to say that the Army prison system gets a bad rap and that, for the most part, the soldiers working in the prisons are nice people. Most of us were kids between 18 and 22. In fact, one inmate came in for sick call and told me that he was depressed because he was spending his 20th or 21st birthday in jail. He was kind of consoled when he found out that I had spent my last three birthdays in jail, and that he actually had more free time, more sleep, and more up-to-date medical records than me.