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Cellblock Care?

October 1999

A Positive Living reader shares an account of his experience behind bars. Living in jail is a tremendous emotional strain under the best of circumstances. For someone with HIV, hepatitis, diabetes, fatigue, cirrhosis and neuropathy, jail is, at the very least, a challenge to one's patience.

An extended stay at the Los Angeles County Jail could very well be a death sentence.

For all of those who have never been in this situation, you will likely find yourself thinking that the following couldn't possibly be true. Not entirely, anyway. Surely some of this is exaggerated. Isn't it?

The unfortunate few who have been in this situation, however, know that this is not an embellishment. Every word is true. Why hasn't someone written about this before? (I wondered this myself, so I'm doing it now.)

I know that I'm spoiled. (So here's a well-deserved plug.) Since 1998, I've received medical care through AIDS Healthcare Foundation at the downtown and San Fernando Valley clinics. Their service has been prompt, courteous, efficient and thorough. The administrative and health care professionals at AHF clinics are legitimately concerned for the welfare of every client.

The most difficult part for me about being in jail was coming to the realization that these people really didn't care. Not even a little bit.

My first clue was at the inmate reception Center, where I had an intake interview prior to the perfunctory medical screening.

"If you want to sleep in a bed tonight, you will answer 'no' to all of the following questions," a deputy warns. "If you answer 'yes' to any question, be prepared to be right here for at least the next 24 hours."

"He can't be serious," I thought. He was.

"Are you HIV-positive?"




"Do you know which one?"


"All three."

"A, B and C?"

"That would be them."

"Don't be smart. What drugs do you use?"


"Are you sure?"



"No." (Finally!)




"No." (There's two.)

"Heart disease?"


"Wear glasses or contact lenses?"


And on it went. Yikes! I didn't realize just how sick I really was.

Over the next 31 hours -- of course I counted; what else did I have to do? -- I was being shuffled back and forth between a 12x12-foot holding cell and a cold metal bench in the "reception area." I was given four sandwiches (two of which had rancid meat), four apples, and four 8-ounce cartons of a fruit punch-flavored drink. I was weighed, had my blood pressure and temperature taken, then was sent back to the cell to wait some more. Between feedings, there was little else to do but try to sleep on the cold and filthy, cockroach-infested concrete floor.

It seemed as though I had just gotten to sleep (although I later discovered it had been over six hours), when I heard, "Davison!"


"Last three."

"Huh?""You Davison?"


"Last three!"

"Last three what?"

"Booking number, asshole! Do you wanna get outta here today?"


"Last three!"

"Eight sixteen."

"Go sit out there if you wanna see a doctor. And shut up! No talking!"

All righty then. Not a problem, really -- nobody here I really wanted to talk to anyway. Finally, I'd get to see a doctor. 10:15? Hmmm. It must be light out. My back hurt, I was exhausted, and I kept trying to get comfortable on that stainless-steel bench, but the blue cotton pajamas they gave me to wear, just couldn't get a grip, and I kept slipping off.

"Hey! Sit still! And bump it up there. C'mon, nuts to butts. Tighten it up." (And I wonder who thought that up?)

Nearly an hour later, I was again called in to see yet another nurse. She took my temperature, blood pressure, stuck my finger for a blood sugar reading, and asked what medications I was currently taking, in what dosages and how often.

"Go back outside, and the doctor will call you."

At a little after six that evening, I finally saw a doctor, who wrote the order for my HIV medications, but refused to order Ibuprofen for the pain in my legs and feet, telling me to go to "sick call" on Monday and I would be taken care of then. When I asked if I could have anything now, he said to ask the nurse when I was given my medication.

Some eight hours later, I received my first dose since Friday morning. It was now 4 a.m. on Sunday.

I politely asked the nurse dispensing my medication, for some Ibuprofen or aspirin, but was curtly rebuffed with, "The doctor didn't order anything for you for pain."

"But, he said to ask you."

"I can only give you what the doctor ordered."

"Is the doctor still here?"


"Is there any way that I can ..."


"But ..."

"Go to 'sick call.' "

There it was again, that "sick call" thing. I'd have to find out about this, but it was obvious that she was in no mood. I said thank you, went back to the cage from which I'd been summoned, and to my surprise, only a few minutes later, I was on my way to a bed.

I was led down the hall and up the broken down escalator to cell block 4400, where I was introduced and directed to go to cell number 12-D. As the automatic door closed me in, I found myself in the filthiest place I'd ever set foot in. Greeted by a pair of roaches, as I set my "bedroll" on a crusty metal bunk, they brazenly waved their antennae, leaving no doubt in my mind as to who the intruder was here.

Less than two hours later, I was rudely awakened by an obnoxious, screaming harpy yelling at the top of her substantial lungs, "COUNT TIME! COUNT TIME! COUNT TIME! Get the fuck up and get dressed, asshole! It's COUNT TIME!"

Yikes! She was talking to me. I threw on my pajama top and sat up on the bed. Although I don't remember laying back down, the next thing I do remember is someone yelling and banging on the bars.

"Hey, do you want something to eat?"

I was starving, I was exhausted. My head was pounding and my legs hurt. Of course I wanted to eat, I even longed for the putrid flesh on the dried-out bun that I had thrown away the day before. Or ... Jesus Christ! What day was it anyway?

The following day, I was transferred to the Wayside facility, in Saugus.

There, I went another three days without my medication. Just when I was pretty much convinced that "sick call" did not really exist -- a legend among the locals, but something no one had really seen or experienced -- I heard it, like a whisper in the dark.

"Sick call."

I had just closed my eyes again after the 6 a.m. "Count Time" and was sure that I was dreaming. But I heard some shuffling-about downstairs, looked below, and sure enough, there was a line forming by the bars. I got up and ran down the steps, and asked someone in line, "Is this sick call?"

"Yes," he replied.

"I thought I heard someone say that."

"Oh, you HEARD it?"

"Just barely, thought I was dreaming, actually."

"They do that on purpose, you know. They really don't want people to see the doctor."

"Do what?"

"Whisper 'sick call' in the morning. I just knew from past experience to stay up after 6 o'clock count."

Now it began to make some sense -- their not wanting you to see the doctor. From what I'd observed, most of the deputies on duty were playing video games on their laptop computers or reading the newspaper or a book, for somewhere between four and six hours at a stretch. If all of these inmates demanded some form of attention -- medical or otherwise -- this would seriously cut into their quality time with the internet, Sega or the L.A. Times.

I stood in line and was reluctantly assigned a number to the back of my hand with a magic marker, identifying me as one of the lucky few who may now advance to the next level. Little did I know then, that the struggle had only just begun.

After breakfast, the nurse came by with a roll around cart, escorted by a deputy. I was No. 9, and as we were directed to line up in sequential order, I waited, as each person ahead of me, described in great detail their individual ills. I approached the nurse, showed her my hand with the permanent "9" on the back, and told her that it had now been three days since I had been transferred here and I hadn't yet received any medication. She said I would get it that morning at "pill call."

I stepped aside, naively satisfied that this would indeed be the case. I went back upstairs and waited for the "pill call" nurse to come by. An hour or so later, she did.

"Davison, eight-sixteen," I announced when I reached the front of the line. By this time I was well aware that the "last three" was really as important as the name.

"I'm sorry, there's nothing here for you. Next."

"But, the sick call nurse said ..."

"I'm sorry, you'll have to get on the doctor's line."

"How do I do that?"

"Go to sick call tomorrow morning."

"But, I was at sick call this morning. Is there any way that ..."

"I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do."

"But ..."


"What's the problem?"

"Never mind."

The following morning I again stood in line for my number, and queued up for sick call. I told the nurse that I needed to get on the doctor's line.

"What's your problem?" She asked.

"Well, the nurse yesterday said I needed to get on the doctor's line to get my medications."

"What do you take?"

"Viramune, Zovirax, Epivir, Motrin."

"What do you take all that for?"


"Oh. Well, all right then. Name?"

"Davison, eight-sixteen." (Feeling like a pro.)

"Eight-sixteen what?"

"Oh, that's my last three." (HELLO?!)

"I need your whole booking number, if you want to see a doctor."

Now, doesn't that just figure? Just when I thought I had it down, they go and change the rules on me. I never saw a doctor that day, but that evening, (for only the third time in six days) I did receive my medication.

Over the next couple of weeks, I learned to get by within the system, such as it was.

Every Monday through Friday at sick call -- illness is not allowed on the weekend -- I got aspirin to replace the Motrin that I never was able to have prescribed. I did, however, notice that I seemed to be losing weight. This feeling was confirmed by my mother one Saturday, during a visit.

"Marc, you've lost weight, haven't you?"

"Well, I think so, actually. I don't know why, Mom, but, forget about seeing a doctor here. I don't think one really exists. I said something to the nurse about it a couple of days ago, and her response was, 'Well, what do you want me to do about it?' I just said 'Never mind,' ya know?"

"I know, Marc, but I think you need to see a doctor. It's really noticeable and that worries me."

"I know, Mom, but ..."

"But nothing, Marc, I'll call up here on Monday."

Late the following Wednesday morning I was summoned to the infirmary and greeted by an extremely agitated R.N.

"What is wrong with your parents?" she demanded. "They keep call and call here. You tell them to stop it now!"

"Well," I replied, "There's nothing wrong with my parents, however, I think they're concerned that there might be something wrong with me because I'm losing weight."

"You have to expect that! AIDS is a wasting disease. You tell them to stop bothering us here!"

Ay Caramba! Oy vey! Jesus Christ! And YIKES!! I don't know exactly what I expected, but I know it wasn't that!

A few minutes later, we came to a mutual agreement. She would allow me to see the doctor. He would write an order for Motrin, 400 mg tid and Sustacal, once in the morning, and I would call Mom and Dad so they would stop "bothering" the medical personnel. Having concluded our negotiations, the doctor was brought in to fulfill his obligation as agreed.

A few minutes later I was on the phone to my parents to let them know that a treaty was in the works, and to call off the air strikes -- at least for tonight.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

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This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
See Also
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