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Life Inside

The Doctors Say I’m O.K, But Then There’s This Pain…

A fretful prisoner struggles with an ever-growing list of symptoms.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

"Again?" replied my cellie, Jay, after I asked him to step out for the third time in 90 minutes so l could use the toilet.

"My doctor says it's normal," I insisted.

Actually, I don't feel normal. I'm always tired, no matter how much sleep I get. Last week, I nodded off at a meeting — even though I was outside and standing up.

My mouth and eyes always feel dry, despite my drinking 100 ounces of water a day. My bowel movements, according to what I learned on an episode of Dr. Oz, could indicate cancer. (I don't have internet access, so yeah, I watch Dr. Oz for medical advice on a personal 15-inch TV.)

Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night with cramps in my calves. I occasionally get electric shock-type feelings in my toes. I have sciatica that never fully healed, and there is a bump on the base of my lower spine that stinks. Plus I have Raynaud’s disease, which means less blood circulates to my fingers and toes when it gets cold.

Also, my blood pressure charts around 88 over 65, though the nurses say that's a good thing.

The doctors who work for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation say my problems aren't life threatening or even medical. All my blood and urine tests read normal, so they think my issues are mental, maybe caused by depression.

In so many words, the doctors have called me a hypochondriac.

I don't feel like a hypochondriac, though. Yeah, maybe I am a little depressed, but who in prison isn't? That's the nature of this place — it's sad. But it's also unhealthy: The prison largely serves and sells processed foods, and they keep us in cages.

How can I eat like this for over a decade, sleep on a thin mattress over a metal bunk, and still be healthy?

Or maybe I am paranoid. I remember how it felt to walk past the poster in North Block, the one that had the faces of the men who died here from old age or natural causes, all within the same year. As I stood before them, noticing how young some were, I thought about what it would be like to die with the last thing I saw being prison bars, guards, and my failures.

Any one of those men could have been me. I am 47, with at least another 13 years to serve. I, too, could die behind bars, alone, 3,000 miles from my family back home in New York.

That’s why I need to know if I’m crazy or if medical is missing something. I need answers, whether for peace of mind or to save my life. But how do I get information from inside this system?

I have complained about my slowly worsening health issues since 2003. With every new symptom, I file a request to see the doctor and jump through hoops to get an appointment. At least seven of them have said the same thing: I'm healthy. I don't believe it, though, because I don't trust the system to care about the quality of life of a man convicted of murder.

I don't want to end up like the guy in West Block in 2015. They say he went to medical complaining of chest pains. He was sent back to his cell. Hours later, we heard he died of a heart attack.

I also need to take care of myself to have some kind of quality of life on the outside. I want to go home able to make up for missing my sons’ whole lives — by being the best grandfather ever. I will teach my grandchildren how to play basketball while my boys take their wives to see Broadway shows I’ve bought them tickets to. I don't want to endure decades of miserable conditions just to die among strangers who don't care about me — or go home with a chronic condition just to be a continuing burden on my family.

I saw on Dr. Oz that cleanses help, so I tried one with the only food I had access to that qualified: apples. For three days, I held up the line on the way out of the chow hall, stopping by the kitchen worker passing out the fruit. Ignoring strange looks from fellow inmates, I took away four apples at a time.

I had to stretch out the apples through each day, watching the minutes tick by until my next scheduled snack. It was voluntary torture.

At the two-and-a-half-day mark, they served hamburgers in the chow hall, and I decided to forget Dr. Oz and bite into some meat.

I felt lighter after the two days of cleansing, but all my symptoms remained. Next, following my doctor's advice, I went to see the mental health department, hoping to rule out hypochondria.

On the day of my appointment, I checked in with the officer at the desk.

“Have a seat," he said.

I went over to a knee-high metal bench and sat in a room packed with men. I thought to myself, Damn, there are a lot of people seeking mental health help in here… I felt like I was at the DMV.

After about 15 minutes, an older lady with short hair and brown eyes called my name. I followed her through a maze of corridors to a small office, where she signaled me to sit in one of two chairs.

"So your doctor referred you here," she said.

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"Yeah, they think I'm a hypochondriac."

"Why do they think that?"

I told her. We talked for about 30 minutes.

She asked about my family, my job, my general feelings and my odds of going home. I told her that my mother just visited in July, my writing career was going well, and, with upcoming changes in the law, I could be home earlier than expected. My only complaint was being incarcerated.

She said it sounded like I had a mild case of depression. She advised coming back to mental health to see someone on a regular basis.

I agreed, albeit while disappointed that getting to the bottom of this wouldn't happen in a day, and headed back to my cell.

"What they say at mental health?" Jay asked.

"They said I'm not crazy."

Jay laughed and said, "I guess you have to use the bathroom."

"My doctor says it's normal," I replied, and we both laughed.

The next day, after jumping down off my bunk, I noticed that the bottom of my left foot hurt. I sat down on the toilet, took off my sock and looked at it, and saw a purple growth under the skin.

This time I didn't report the problem.

Rahsaan Thomas, a 47-year-old inmate at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif., is a contributing writer to The Marshall Project. He is serving a 15-year-to-life sentence for second-degree murder, with a 35-year enhancement for using a firearm. He shot and killed two men he says were armed and stealing property from him.