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Life Inside

The Agony and Isolation of Tearing Your ACL in Prison

“There wasn’t enough ibuprofen in the world to combat the pain I was experiencing.”

Want to feel as alone and vulnerable as possible? Try tearing your ACL in prison.

It was December 2017, and from the onset, I could see that I was in for a ride thru B.S.-ville. After sustaining the injury during a basketball game, my knee had swollen to three times its normal size, and I experienced a level of pain that was entirely new to me and that I can’t put into words. The day of the incident, I was given a pair of crutches, an ACE bandage, an ice bag and a handful of ibuprofen, and was told that I would see the doctor in two days.

Needless to say, there wasn’t enough ibuprofen in the world to combat the pain I was experiencing. Add to that the fact that I lived in an upstairs dorm, far from the chow hall, which meant that eating food became out of the question for me.

And my first medical visit left me feeling like I was somehow in the wrong for being injured. After I was interrogated by the doctor, I was told, “Just stay off it for a few days and keep ice on it.” Her tone was cold and dismissive, giving me a glimpse of what I was about to endure.

Torture may be an understatement to describe my first week and a half. I was paranoid about getting attacked while in my vulnerable physical state; I felt like a wounded gazelle in a lion’s den. Simple tasks like showering and using the bathroom were the hardest, and also the scariest. Sleep was almost nonexistent, because I couldn’t move my leg.

I told my family, and even their tone was one of “sorry to hear that, but what do you want us to do about it?”

The only good thing about those first days was that a few of the guys I dealt with on the regular started bringing me food, and made sure I ate. These were supposed to be hardened criminals, lifers, the dregs of society—yet here they were, exhibiting the exact opposite.

But then came the second doctor’s visit. When the doc saw that my knee hadn’t progressed, she assumed I hadn’t followed directions. I did my best to assure her that I had.

I was dismissed for the second time and given the same instructions.

Soon, word of my injury traveled through the prison to the “jailhouse physical therapist”—an inmate who happened to be a former state track star—and he sent word that he wanted to see me. After about two minutes of feeling my knee, he diagnosed my injury as a torn ACL.

Then another doctor’s visit. I remember arguing over whether I needed an MRI. "You're in prison and that's an expensive procedure," the doctor said. "Besides, you don't wanna have surgery in prison, do you?"

I left with more ibuprofen, feeling doomed to hobble like a peg-legged pirate, forever.

A month had passed and the only progress I made physically was going from the use of two crutches to one, and the only time I left the dorm was for chow. This is where Part Two of my ordeal began, as the depression set in. I had never been or felt so helpless in my entire life. I’ve always been the independent type, but at that moment, I needed the financial support of my family and couldn’t get it; I was becoming a burden on the guys who were helping me out; and I was certain that my leg, which had always given me at least some range of motion in the confines of a closed prison, was shot and wouldn’t be fixed.

At that point I did the only thing a vulnerable person can really do: I talked to my mom.

Case in Point

An examination of a single case that sheds light on the criminal justice system

The only “weapon” that we prisoners have sometimes is outside help from loved ones. I remember going into I.H.S. (Inmate Health Services) later that day expecting to hear more of the same—and then realizing almost immediately that something different was going to happen.

“I spoke to your mom,” were the first words out the doc’s mouth.

I was more shocked at her tone of voice than her statement. I could tell that her newfound knowledge of my support system was the reason for her pleasant tone. And I grinned—inwardly.

“I don’t know if they’re gonna let me, but I’ll try and get you an MRI,” she continued.

It gave me joy to watch her backtrack. It also gave me some much-needed hope, and restored my faith in humanity (somewhat).

The doctor told me that I needed to work on improving my range of motion, so naturally I went and found the jailhouse physical therapist again, and I filled him in on what was happening. He examined my knee again and told me that if I followed his directions, I’d be off crutches and walking normally in no time.

Then I got the MRI, which came back and confirmed what my physical therapist and I had already concluded: the ACL tear.

The weeks went by and I was slowly returning to my normal self, but for some, it seemed as if my situation was still grounds to pick on me. Take for instance the time that a C.O. didn’t let me eat breakfast because he said I’d arrived too late (because of my hobbling)—yet my bunkie had just walked in 30 seconds ahead of me. The guard could see that I was on crutches, but still threatened to write me up for tardiness.

Then there was the time when I was on the phone and another inmate came over and proceeded to hang my phone call up, just to start something. He had the audacity to challenge me, virtually a cripple, to a fight. I did my best to kick his ass with the one good leg I had, but I ended up getting sent to the hole for a week. I began contemplating suicide for the first time in my life.

Luckily, some time after my surgery, which I did eventually get, and with a bit of support from a close friend, I ended up fighting my way out of my funk. Today I’m continuing to rehab myself, the way the prison system was supposed to do all along.

Olethus Hill Jr., 32, is incarcerated at the London Correctional Institution in Ohio, where he is serving 19 years for burglary and kidnapping.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction said in an email that it was prohibited from disclosing medical records and did not respond to a follow-up request for comment.