dannie martin: long day's journey into death

Another excerpt from Committing Journalism, by Peter Sussman and Dannie Martin. This is an essay by Dannie Martin (Red Hog) that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Long Day's Journey Into Death

Phoenix, Ariz. (July 2, 1989) — The little chapel here at the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix was filled to overflowing on Tuesday, June 13. Convicts shuffled in out of the hot sun, holding their caps in their hands. They were attending a memorial service to pay their last respects to fellow prisoner John Chaffee, thirty-two. He had died the day before in a Phoenix hospital.

Chaplain James Rivett led off the service by playing "Rock of Ages" on a guitar as the cons sang along. After the old hymn of comfort, the chaplain began speaking: "I've been approached by many convicts, and I know there's a lot of anger among you," he said, "but this anger can destroy you."

He went on to say that he had been in contact with John Chaffee's father in Chico, California, and that the father was grateful for the concern of fellow prisoners and the excellent medical care provided to his son by prison authorities.

At this point, the solemn atmosphere turned restive.

"Who told you to say this shit?" an angry voice asked from the crowd.

"Nobody put me up to it!" the chaplain exclaimed defensively.

He then launched into an anecdote about how his own father had died of an undiagnosed liver ailment. He ended by saying that nothing could have been done to help John Chaffee anyway.

"Did they put your father in the hole for complaining?" another voice yelled out.

"I don't have to listen to this bullshit," another convict muttered as he put on his cap and stalked out.

Most of the two hundred or more mourners stood up and followed him out. It was a pitifully small group — probably about forty — that heard Rivett play "Amazing Grace" at the close of the eulogy.

A froth of anger and frustration brewed among the convicts who milled around in front of the chapel. Chaplain Rivett had already been nicknamed "Dick Tracy" by many convicts because of what they feel is his tendency to act like a rigid cop. But the consensus was that he'd outdone himself this time.

John Chaffee's death was a prolonged, undignified affair that unfolded like a Stephen King horror story. Everyone here, including some staff members, are tainted by the shame and guilt of watching it happen.

It doesn't help that in spite of being a first-term convict serving a short sentence for bank robbery, Chaffee was a nice guy. He was deeply involved in Alcoholics Anonymous here and was eager to learn a trade and turn his life around.

Top officials here don't like to be interviewed by convicts, so their detailed views on John Chaffee's lengthy death agony are not available to us, but here's how the young man's last months looked to his fellow convicts:

Chaffee's medical problem first became apparent in late February. He had signed up for a morning class in heating and air conditioning. He also worked afternoons in the kitchen. The class takes about seven months to complete.

A week or so into the first phase of the class, he began showing up late, sometimes as much as an hour late. Many of those mornings, he seemed disoriented and unfocused.

A convict instructor who initially thought he was drinking or using drugs pulled him over and told him that if he didn't shape up, the staff instructor would fire him. He even offered to purchase Chaffee an alarm clock to help him get up in the morning.

"That's not the problem," Chaffee told him. "I can't sleep at night. I'm having these headaches, and there seems to be pressure on my brain. I'm getting to where I can't remember things very well."

He began going to sick call at the prison hospital here. But in order to see a doctor, one must first convince a physician's assistant (PA) that something is seriously wrong. Chaffee wasn't able to convince anyone.

When a convict complains of severe pain, medical staff members usually think he's trying to con them out of drugs or malingering to escape a work assignment. The fact that Chaffee was a former drug addict probably didn't help him at all.

One PA — who likes to tell convicts that he is a doctor — listened to Chaffee's complaints and told him his illness was "psychosomatic." When Chaffee asked him what that meant, the PA replied: "It's all in your head."

By the end of March, he was seen many times emerging from his cell in the mornings crouched over, holding his head in his hands, and staggering like a drunk.

He began to pass out in the cellblock, and each time he went to the hospital he returned and said they told him he was malingering or that his problem was "psychosomatic."

On March 8, he took a job in construction mechanical services (CMS) because he could no longer cope in the class on heating and air conditioning or in the kitchen. For a while, he received excellent work reports in CMS. His boss said he was a very good worker.

Around the beginning of April, his problems caught up with him there also. He'd lost more than twenty pounds of weight and was looking haggard and haunted. His memory was failing completely, and he could no longer perform his duties.

His boss went to the hospital and told them that Chaffee had been a good worker and that there was indeed something wrong with him. At that time, he was finally granted a "medical idle," which allowed him to miss work.

A cell partner began complaining about him moaning all night, and Chaffee was moved to another cell with a more understanding cellie who gave him a bottom bunk and did what he could to comfort him.

During his long ordeal, Chaffee was prescribed several drugs. Sinequan — a mood-altering drug often prescribed for anxiety — was prescribed for a while. A friend of Chaffee's said that Chaffee later received prednisone and some type of tranquilizer.

By April, Chaffee was telling friends that the PAs in the hospital were getting mad at him for being a nuisance. Several times, when he arrived late for medication, they told him they were closed and he had to return the next day.

He began approaching prison lieutenants and custodial staff, begging them to help him. Convicts passing by became embarrassed about hearing him beg and whine. But most understood and sympathized with him.

Typical of the official responses is what I heard a lieutenant tell him in front of the mess hall one day: "Well, just get on back to work and go to sick call in the morning."

By the end of May, his situation became intolerable. He was passing out regularly in his housing unit and stumbling and falling as he made his way down the sidewalks outside. At times, he was bent over like an arthritic old man, holding his head in his hands and moaning.

Convicts — many of them angered or scared by his pain — began to berate him.

"Stand up for your rights, man!" they yelled at him. "They can't do this to you!"

He agreed, and sometime near the end of May he went to the hospital, determined to get some help. No one saw him for a few days after that because he was locked up in Isolation.

He was released from the isolation unit on June 2, and during the few more days he remained with us, he told his friends that he couldn't go back to the hospital. He said they told him they would lock him up if he complained again.

When someone suggested that he see the warden, Chaffee explained that he had already talked to him and that the warden had promised to have a neurosurgeon examine him.

Chaffee had reached the end of his rope and unknowingly was very near the end of his life. By this time, even many convicts were convinced that he had a brain tumor or aneurysm of some kind.

On June 5, at the noon meal, he was holding a food tray and staggering, trying to make his way to a table. A convict who thought he might be drunk took him by the elbow and told him to cool it before the lieutenant saw him.

Chaffee looked at him out of bleary, unfocused eyes and replied: "I wish, man. I wish."

It's about a fifth of a mile from the mess hall to Navajo A, the cellblock where he lived. The mess hall here has glass walls. After Chaffee finished eating lunch that day, many of us watched him walk back to the cellblock. It was a pitiful sight.

His legs were stiff as boards, and his head and neck protruded at a strange angle. He would take a lurching step or two and then stop and wave his arms, as if to recover his balance. It took him more than twenty minutes to cover the distance to his cellblock.

Chaffee was walking his last mile, and considering the pressure and his unrelieved pain, he made an admirable job of it.

The next morning, June 6, he collapsed in the cellblock, and a wheelchair was dispatched from the hospital to pick him up.

Two convicts who work in the hospital said that Chaffee was pushed through the waiting room to the trauma room at the rear of the hospital, where he sat in the wheelchair all day, slipping in and out of consciousness, until a mobile CAT-scan unit was called in at about 4:30 P.M.

An evacuation helicopter came in after dinner and flew him to an outside hospital. He died on June 12 of complications from a brain tumor.

The day after the aborted memorial service, several of the convicts who had walked out of the chapel were summoned to the lieutenant's office, where they were told that if anything happened over the Chaffee matter, they would be transferred.

One convict told me that a lieutenant told him he would "be history." He already is.

On Friday, June 16, about thirty convicts here were gathered up in the afternoon. By the time dinner was over, they were on a bus and gone. Their personal property was still in their cells here when they left. Among that bunch were some of those who had been summoned to the lieutenant's office, along with some of Chaffee's best friends.

There's a lot of paranoia in the air here now. Convicts are asking: "Who's next to roll?" It's a hard blow to be placed on a bus without your property and shuttled from prison to prison. I've been that route a few times myself.

But it's effective. Convicts who were once willing to talk to me now clam up when I ask for details about Chaffee's final days. I know of unit staff members who tried to intervene with the hospital for Chaffee during his painful last months. They refuse to discuss it with me. Several guards also were sympathetic but apparently were unable to get anything done for him.

Most of what I've written here I observed myself. Chaffee had told me that his boss at CMS intervened at the hospital to get him a "medical idle." He asked me in May if I could possibly write something about his plight. I told him the public wasn't really interested in a convict's medical problems.

The PA was right. It was all in his head.

Chaplain Rivett may have been able to convince Chaffee's father that he received "excellent medical care." It will be a cold day in hell before he convinces anyone around here.

No comments: