THE GIRL SCOUTS SAVED MY LIFE


girl scouts1

“Would you like to buy some cookies, Mister?”

I turned to see the girl scout. She was about eleven years old, her auburn hair pulled back in a ponytail. She wore a dark green shirt and khaki pants. A light green sash decorated with pins and medals was draped across her chest. She smiled up at me, showing braces. She stood behind a table loaded with boxes of Girl Scout cookies. I stopped at the table and examined the boxes.

“Do you like cookies?” I said.

Her smile broadened.

“Everybody likes Girl Scout cookies,” she said. “Want to buy some?”

“What’s your favorite kind of cookie?” I said.

She looked down at the boxes of cookies on the table.

“I like thin mints the best. But they’re all really good. My mom likes the Samoans.”

“Samoans?” I said.

“Yeah,” the girl scout answered, “the kind with chocolate and coconut in them.”

I pulled a twenty-dollar bill from my wallet.

“A box of thin mints, then,” I said, handing her the money, “and a box of Samoans.”

The girl scout took the twenty-dollar bill, picked up a box of thin mints and a box of Samoas, which are delicious, unlike Samoans, the natives of the Samoan islands, who are delightful people, but do not taste very good. She held them out to me. I shook my head.

“They’re not for me,” I said. “They’re for you. And you can keep the change.”

She stared down at the twenty-dollar bill and the boxes of cookies in her hands. Her eyes grew wide.

“Really, Mister?” She said. “But why?”

“Really,” I said, smiling down at her. “And if you must know the reason, it’s because I never did say thank you.”

“Thank you to me?” She said. She looked confused. “Thanks for what?”

“I owe all the Girl Scouts a thank you,” I said. “You don’t know it, but a long time ago, long before you were even born, the Girl Scouts saved my life.”

I was seventeen years old when it happened. The church I attended had an annual campout, and my friend, Sean, a petty officer in the navy, a young man with a light complexion and a military regulation haircut, talked me into going. I threw the only camping gear I had, an old green army sleeping bag with a broken zipper, into the back seat of Sean’s little blue car.

“Is that all you’re bringing?” Sean said, looking at my sleeping bag. “You don’t have a tent?”

“No,” I said, “who needs a tent?”

“You’re going to need one, knucklehead” he said. “It’s cold in the mountains. You should at least bring a jacket.”

“I’ll manage,” I said. “It’s like eighty degrees outside.”

“Okay,” Sean said. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

We headed to the campground located in the mountains east of San Diego. The church had reserved about half of the campsites, and we were greeted by familiar faces. The campground was surrounded by hundreds of tall oak trees. Sean drove slowly, following the small asphalt road winding through the campground, passing church members near recreational vehicles and tents. Some rode bicycles, others busied their selves cooking over barbecue grills or putting up tents. They waved at us as we drove by, and we waved back. We passed the campsite of a group of girl scouts, all in matching green uniforms, scurrying in every direction, erecting tents, preparing a fire ring, setting up lawn chairs, all under the supervision of a brunette woman in her early thirties. I paid them little attention.

Sean parked at a campsite and began setting up his tent. He worked meticulously, paying attention to every detail, carefully hammering the tent stakes, evenly spaced, into the rich, dark earth, inserting the tent poles, raising the small, green tent to a perfectly formed A-frame. He unrolled his sleeping bag and laid it neatly out on the tent floor. He gathered stones and built a fire ring, digging a hole in the center of the ring to contain the fire. He removed firewood from the trunk of his car and stacked it in neat rows next to the fire ring. Finally, he hung an electric lantern on a small pole near the entrance to his tent.

I grabbed my sleeping bag with the broken zipper from Sean’s car, and threw it on the ground next to the fire ring. Done. Sean grinned at me, shaking his head. I guess you could say we were opposites.

The day was warm and pleasant, lulling me into a false sense of security. Who needed a tent in San Diego, after all? But as night fell, so did the temperatures. Sean built a fire, and I huddled next to it. Campers from the church group roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over the fire and were generous enough to share with me. But, as the night grew colder, they retreated to the comfort of their tents and recreational vehicles. Near midnight, Sean also turned in, climbing into his tiny tent, leaving me alone by the fire, which by that time was little more than dying embers. I moved as close to the warmth of the fire as I could, lying down on half of the sleeping bag, covering myself with the other half. Somehow, despite the cold, I managed to fall asleep.

I awoke just after dawn to near freezing temperatures. The sun was coming up over the tops of the mountains, but it provided very little warmth. My muscles ached from sleeping on the cold, hard ground. My body shook, my teeth were chattering. My breath came out like steam in the freezing air. There was nothing left of the fire, but a few hot embers buried under gray ashes. No firewood remained. Wrapping my sleeping bag around me, I scoured the nearby area for anything that would burn; cardboard, soda boxes, paper towels, dry twigs, anything I could find. I blew on the hot coals until my small collection of flammable materials ignited. The warmth from the fire was wonderful, but fleeting, as the paper, cardboard and twigs ignited, flashing hot, then burning out. I searched for more items to burn, desperate to get warm, but soon ran out of flammable materials. The fire died.

I needed to burn something bigger.

Wrapped in my sleeping bag, I broadened my search, passing several campsites, including the site belonging to the Girl Scouts, to a nearby meadow, finding bits of wood, parts of fallen branches and more twigs. I brought them back, placing them in the fire ring, blowing on the coals until the fire sprang back to life. The bits of wood burned longer than the cardboard and twigs, but they, too, burned out, leaving me cold and miserable.

I needed to burn something much bigger.

I headed back to the meadow, my sleeping bag draped over my shoulders. I looked passed the small pieces of wood. Something bigger, I thought, something much bigger. That’s when I saw it. An old, round log, two feet long and a foot and a half wide, lay on its side near one of the large oak trees. Surely that much wood would burn for hours. Gleefully, thoughts of a warm, roaring campfire in my head, I picked the log up. It was heavy and cumbersome. I struggled under its weight, carrying it in both arms, stumbling as I went, tripping over the sleeping bag, which was draped over my shoulders. I passed the campsite of the Girl Scouts. A large flip chart rested on a stand. The brunette scout leader flipped through the pages of the chart, preparing for a class, I supposed. I noticed the words Stop, Drop and Roll on the front page of the chart. A fire extinguisher sat on the ground next to the flip chart.  A couple of girl scouts watched me as I passed by, stumbling under the weight of the log, tripping occasionally on the edge of my sleeping bag.

I made it back to the fire ring and dropped the log directly in the middle of the hot coals and waited for it to ignite. Smoke rose up from the log, and the part touching the coals turned black, but it did not catch on fire. I blew on the coals, and they turned red for a time, but still the log did not burn. I grew desperate, my hopes of a warm fire dissolving before my eyes. I remembered one of the church members at the campsite next to ours had a bottle of lighter fluid near his barbecue grill. I went to the campsite and “borrowed” the lighter fluid. The bottle was about half empty. I sprayed the log with lighter fluid and, bending over, blew on the hot coals. The log ignited in a blaze of blessedly warm fire. I stood as close to the fire as I could, soaking in the warmth. But, to my chagrin, the fire was consuming the lighter fluid, and not the log. As the fuel burned out, the fire died.

“That log will never catch fire,” Sean said. I turned to see him standing up from the entrance to his tent. He stretched and yawned, wiping sleep from his eyes.

I poured the rest of the “borrowed” lighter fluid onto the log. The fire sprang up again, lapping up the fluid. I exulted once again in the warmth. Then, just as before, the fire died. The log was smoking, but it wasn’t burning. Sean stepped up beside me, looking down at the log.

“It’s too big, Knucklehead. You have to split it into firewood before you can burn it.”

“Do you have an axe?” I said. He shook his head no.

I shook the empty bottle of lighter fluid and headed over to the other campsite looking for more. There, sitting on a folding table next to the church member’s recreational vehicle, was the answer. Of course. A two gallon can of Kerosene. Now that would light anything. I “borrowed” the can of kerosene and headed back to the fire ring, feeling triumphant. Sean was on his knees, straightening the inside of his tent. The campground was coming to life, and a few church members were sitting in chairs not far from the fire. I unscrewed the lid from the top of the kerosene can and poured it eagerly over the smoking log. Nothing happened. I bent down and blew on the coals. They grew redder, but the kerosene did not catch fire. I examined the can. It was kerosene. The warning “highly flammable liquid” was written on the front of the can. So why wasn’t it lighting? Frustrated, I tried once more. I poured the kerosene over the log.

PHUMP!

The kerosene lit with a small explosion, rippling the air around the fire ring and scorching my eyebrows. Everything seemed to slow. I watched, frozen in place, as the fire climbed from the log and up the stream of kerosene, entering the can. The can grew hot in my hands. Fire spewed from the opening. Someone once told me a can of gasoline would explode if it caught fire. I figured that was also true for kerosene. I saw the church members sitting nearby and worried the can would explode, injuring them. I had to get it away from people. Turning away from the church members, I tossed the can, using both hands, but stumbled just before tossing it. The can left my hands, spinning in the air, end over end, the fiery liquid pouring from the can as it revolved in the air, covering and igniting the ground, the nearby bushes and my right leg. It landed about five feet away from me. My right leg was on fire. The ground was on fire. The bushes and leaves around me were on fire. Thinking the can might still explode, I made the brilliant decision to kick it further away. I ran toward the can and kicked it hard with my right foot. It flew, spewing more fire, landing upside down in the top of the nearby bushes. The rest of the kerosene poured from the can, setting the bushes on fire. I stood, watching the fire as it grew, consuming the bushes and dry leaves. I felt no pain, but I smelled burning flesh. Acrid smoke enveloped me. Everything burned around me, and I was growing dizzy from the fumes. The world was on fire, spinning before me. My knees were going limp, and I felt myself falling. I was going down in flames.

“Stop! Drop! Roll!” A girl shouted.

Someone grabbed me from behind. I felt small arms around my waist, pulling me to the ground. I fell, landing on my left side. The girl behind me was covering my right leg with a wet blanket. Someone in front of me was using a fire extinguisher, putting out the fire.

“Stay down,” the girl behind me said. “You will be okay.”

Moments later, the fire was out. A girl of about twelve years old came into view, seeming to appear from the smoke and the misty white residue of the fire retardant. She had long, dark hair and wore glasses. A light green sash was draped across her chest, over her dark green uniform. Her pins and medals glistened in the morning sunlight. She carried a red fire extinguisher in her right hand. I craned my neck to see the girl who had pulled me down. She was a heavyset blonde girl, wearing a sash and uniform like the girl in front of me.

“We need to get him out of the smoke,” the girl scout with the fire extinguisher said. She joined the girl behind me. Taking me by the arms, they pulled, dragging me away from the smoke. I heard clapping and cheers. Dozens of campers, drawn to the commotion, were applauding the brave actions of my two young rescuers. It must have been quite a sight; me, covered in soot, sitting in the dirt, my right pant leg, black and charred, the two girl scouts looking down at me with concern. And in the middle of all the commotion, my lungs still filled with poisonous smoke, I forgot to say thank you.

Sean drove me to the closest clinic. He was my friend, which meant, of course, he laughed at me the entire ride, and would, for many years, tell the story of the brave and stalwart actions of the Girl Scouts to everyone we knew.

At the clinic, the physician, a man in his early forties, removed my pantleg with a pair of shears. The skin on the inner part of my ankle had melted down to the underlying facia and came off with the pantleg. He removed the dead skin around the burn with surgical scissors and dressed the wound. Sean sat in the treatment room, watching the procedure. I winked at him.

“Doctor,” I said, looking down at the dressing on my leg, “do you think I will be able to kick a field goal in a couple of weeks?”

Sean shook his head and smiled. The doctor thought about it for a few moments. He nodded.

“As long as you change the dressing as ordered, and keep the wound covered during the game, I’m sure you will be able to kick a field goal in a couple of weeks,” he said.

I grinned at Sean.

“That’s amazing, Doctor,” I said. “I’ve never been able to kick a field goal before.”

–Dedicated to the memory of Sean Mescher, my faithful friend–

WHEN THE CLERK CAME TO WORK


Inmateghost22

A PRISON GHOST STORY

“It really happened, Taylor,” Kellogg said. He sat behind his desk in the Facility Three Yard program office of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. He wore the bravo class uniform of a correctional sergeant, khaki shirt with three stripes on each arm, depicting his rank, and a black uniform ball cap to cover his brown, thinning hair. I sat across from him, leaning back in a chair, one booted foot on the desk. “I don’t expect you to believe me, but I was there. I saw him with my own eyes.”

It was first watch, the graveyard shift. The inmates were locked up for the night, and the prison was staffed by a skeleton crew. What better time was there to tell ghost stories?

Prisons are replete with tales of supernatural apparitions, purported to be the spirits of murdered inmates, or officers who spend their lives after death eternally haunting the halls of their former places of employment. During my academy training as a correctional officer cadet, I worked a short time at Old Folsom, the second oldest prison in the state. The stories there revolved around the spirits of inmates hanged for murder. A warehouse stands now where the gallows used to be. Officers on first watch were required to conduct security checks of the facility. New officers often reported they heard men weeping and wailing in the old warehouse. Experienced officers either stopped reporting the sounds or stopped entering the warehouse altogether. Another tale at Old Folsom prison had to do with a certain housing unit. Officers routinely counted inmates and grew accustomed to the idea that, in that housing unit, they were never alone during count. They felt the presence of an unseen officer walking the tiers with them, and even heard the jingling of his keys.

“I don’t know, Kellogg,” I said. “I’m not calling you a liar, but this place can do funny things to a man’s senses. And you did say you were sleeping.”

“Yeah, I was sleeping, “Kellogg said, “but I was awake when I saw him. He was there, as real as you are, standing on the second tier, looking down at the dayroom floor.”

“What did he look like?”

“He looked like an inmate. He was a white guy, covered in tattoos. Even on his face. He was wearing his blues. I thought he had gotten out of his cell somehow. I’m just glad I didn’t think to notify central control. They would’ve thought I was crazy.”

As the story went, it happened when Kellogg was still an officer, working overtime in the control booth of housing unit seventeen on Facility Four. The control booth was a large room in the second story of the housing unit, with thick, unbreakable windows. The control booth officer provided gun coverage for the yard from his back window, and coverage for the officers inside the housing unit through slots in his front windows. He also controlled the opening and closing of the housing unit and cell doors from a panel on his desk. During the day, it was a busy job, but at night, when the inmates were locked in their cells, it was one of the easiest jobs in the prison. And an officer, especially an officer on overtime, could find himself struggling to stay awake. Kellogg had succumbed to the struggle that night, and was fast asleep.

“Something woke me up,” Kellogg said, “I felt like someone was up in the control booth with me. I didn’t see anyone, but I felt it. I got up and looked around, but no one was there. I looked out at the dayroom, and there he was, clear as day, leaning against the second tier railing, just staring down at the dayroom floor. I shouted at him, but he ignored me. I called down to the officers, but they were sleeping in their office. They wouldn’t wake up. The inmate started walking toward cell 217, and I started shouting at him again. He never even looked at me. He got to the cell door, but didn’t stop walking. Taylor, man, I’m telling you, he walked right through the cell door like it wasn’t even there. I don’t know what to think of it, but I know it happened.”

“And you don’t think it was a dream?” I said.

“No dream,” Kellogg said. “When my shift was over in the morning, I left the control booth and went to cell 217. There were two inmates locked up in there. I talked to them.”

“What did they say?”

“That’s the thing,” Kellogg said. “At first they didn’t want to talk to me. They thought I would think they were crazy. When they did talk, they told me they woke up and saw an inmate, the same inmate, standing in their cell, staring out their back window. And, just like that, he was gone. He was there one second, and gone the next.”

I took Sergeant Kellogg’s story with the proverbial grain of salt. I did not dismiss it outright. Who am I, after all, to judge another man’s ghost story? But to say I believed it would not be entirely true. I had witnessed many unexplainable events in my life, and tried to keep my mind open to possibilities, but I also nurtured a healthy cynicism.

Another strange event happened in the prison infirmary. I wasn’t a witness to it, but I talked to the doctor and nurses involved, who swore to me that it happened. Inmates with severe medical issues were kept in cells that were basically hospital rooms, equipped with medical beds and televisions. A man convicted of serial rape was dying. He was a belligerent old inmate, rude and caustic, especially to the female staff members. He was in the last few minutes of life, and was still conscious. He looked up at the television from where he was lying in bed, and cried out in fear. Scrolling on the bottom of the screen were the words, YOU ARE GOING TO HELL. The Doctor was in the room with two nurses. They changed the channel, but the words remained on the bottom of the screen. YOU ARE GOING TO HELL. The inmate took his final breath, staring up at the television screen. Perhaps the story was true. Perhaps not. I kept an open mind.

It wasn’t until I had an experience of my own that I decided Sergeant Kellogg may have really seen a ghost. It happened to me. It happened when the clerk came to work.

There were many jobs in prison for inmates. Inmates were cooks, they worked in the laundry, as porters in the housing units and a variety of other positions. Being an inmate clerk required intelligence. To be the lieutenant’s clerk required even greater intelligence. The lieutenant’s clerk had to be knowledgeable of yard procedures, and had to be able to read and write well. When a yard discovered an inmate with these capabilities they held on to them. Most lieutenant’s clerks had long sentences, and many held the same job for ten years or more. The Facility One lieutenant’s clerk, Inmate Jensen, had been the clerk for at least fifteen years. He was an older man with gray hair, a pale complexion and bifocals. He was quiet and unobtrusive, never out of line with the officers, but was always professional and courteous. He became part of the furniture, so to speak, his presence so common in the program office that he often went unnoticed. He had been convicted at the age of thirty for murdering his wife’s lover after catching them together in his bed. He was in his sixties, and had spent more time in prison than he had lived outside prison. His life inside the wall was routine. He got up every morning, put on a clean, pressed inmate uniform, waited for the control booth officer to open his cell, then headed to the program office. Five days a week, every week for more than fifteen years. He never talked about paroling. Like many lifers, I am sure he hoped to one day be free. But Inmate Jenkins would spend the rest of his life in prison.

The rest of his life. And one more day.

It was early on a Monday morning. I entered the Facility One Program office. I was scheduled to work as one of the yard officers, and grabbed my equipment, baton, pepper spray, radio, keys, from the equipment locker. I barely noticed when Inmate Jenkins entered. He looked around, and seemed a bit confused. I was too busy donning my equipment to pay much attention. He headed back to his work station, an alcove just down the hallway with an electric typewriter on a large wooden desk. I finished cinching up my duty belt and keying the microphone on my radio to make sure the battery was charged. Inmate Jenkins left his work area, the same look of vague confusion on his pale face. He walked to the front door of the program, which was propped open for the officers to come and go, and stepped out onto the yard. I checked the schedule of duties, which was posted to the wall, to see what extra duties I had to perform.

I heard shouting from one of the first watch officers at the back of the program.

“No freaking way!” he yelled.

I stepped out into the hallway to see what was going on. The officer, a middle-aged Hispanic man, was staring from where he stood at the end of the hallway, out through the open door. His eyes were wide with surprise, and not a little fear. I followed his gaze to the empty yard.

“What’s happening?” I said.

“Jenkins, man. I just saw Jenkins!”

“Doing what?” I said. I looked out at the yard, but did not see inmate Jenkins.

“You don’t get it! He’s not supposed to be doing anything.”

I scanned the yard again. No inmate Jenkins. Where could he have gone?

“I don’t see him at all,” I said.

“Taylor,” the officer said, exasperated, “Jenkins is dead. He died at the infirmary last night!”

I looked at the officer, sure he was messing with me. I grinned.

“Okay,” I said, “Jenkins is dead. Go on. I just saw him a minute ago.”

The officer stepped out onto the yard, looking around. He shook his head.

“I don’t get it, man,” he said. “They told me he was dead.”

“Well,” I said, “they told you wrong. Maybe it was another Jenkins.”

He thought about it, looking at the empty yard. He nodded to himself.

“Yeah. I guess so. That has to be it…”

“Here,” I said, “come with me.”

I entered the program office and he followed. Sitting down at the computer, I put in my password and logged onto SOMS, the information system for officers. I searched for Inmate Jenkins on Facility One. His information flashed on my screen, his housing unit and photo identification. I checked his status. It showed he had discharged from prison the day before. I looked up at the officer, who stared over my shoulder at the computer screen. His mouth was open. His eyes were wide. There, directly under Inmate Jenkin’s photo were the following words: Status- Discharged. Cause- Death. Location- Office of the Coroner, San Diego County. Inmate Jenkins was not only dead, he was discharged to the San Diego County Coroner’s Office.

His body was in the morgue.

Occasionally, I read articles in the newspaper or watch news stories about people convicted of heinous crimes. Some are sentenced to life, some to life plus fifty years. I worked with inmates who were sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. We all assumed they would leave the prison when their first life sentence was over. After all, a man has only one life to give. But now I wonder whether that is entirely true. How many inmates served their sentences of life, only to find they had a lot more time to do?

THE MAD HATTER


MAD

My first experience with Doctor Teitelbaum was at the Hub in the Correctional Treatment Center of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California. I stood in front of the wrap-around desk that contained the daily sign-in sheets for the MTAs, chatting with the officer on duty, when I heard a voice behind me. The voice was a warbled mix of falsetto and feminine baritone.

“I wish to be escorted to the Facility One Clinic. I was told to meet MTA Taylor here.”

I turned to get a view of the speaker. She was a heavyset woman in her early fifties with a shocking amount of frizzy, dyed red hair, sticking crazily out from under a wide-brimmed, magenta hat. She was wearing what might have been a workout suit of a shiny material in two different shades of purple. Her shoes were yellow sneakers and she carried a large, red leather bag. Small, beady eyes peered back and forth between the officer on duty and me, through large glasses on her pale, moon-shaped face. Taken aback by the sharp disparity of her appearance among the uniformed officers and scrub-wearing medical staff, I would not have been entirely surprised if she had told me she was there to don a bright red nose and make balloon animals for the inmates.  I was the MTA assigned to Facility one clinic. An MTA, or Medical Technical Assistant, was a position unique to the California Department of Corrections. It was both a medical position and a peace officer position. MTAs responded to all medical emergencies and ran the day to day of the clinics on the yard. The department would soon do away with the position, and we would be given the choice of being either nurses or correctional officers. I would later choose to become a correctional officer.

“I’m MTA Taylor,” I said, “I don’t believe we’ve met before. Can I ask what your business is at the clinic?”

She made a dramatic flourish with her left hand and raised her odd warble of a voice, affecting the style of a Shakespearean actor.

“I am Doctor Teitelbaum,” she announced not only to me, but to every person in the nearby area, “I am the new Psychiatrist.”

Five minutes later, I was escorting Dr. Teitelbaum across the plaza to the Facility One Clinic. We reached the Facility One gate, and the gate officer checked our identification.

“Are you new to the prison system, Dr. Teitelbaum?” I asked. I knew entering a prison yard for the first time could be an overwhelming and frightening experience.

“I am new to the prison system, Mr. Taylor, but not new to those imprisoned by mental illness.” Her eyes took on a fevered, dreamy, faraway look. “I am here to help men escape their prison.”

The gate officer, a black man in his late forties, looked at her, then looked questioningly at me. Talk of helping inmates escape was not something taken lightly. I assured the officer that Dr. Teitelbaum was using a euphemism.

“It’s Just talk,” I said. “Dr. Teitelbaum doesn’t mean escape from the actual prison, but the prison of mental illness.”

Dr. Teitelbaum looked wordlessly up at the officer through her large glasses. The gate officer frowned but opened the gate. He looked Dr. Teitelbaum up and down, taking in the full oddity of her attire. He grimaced and rolled his eyes.

“It’s on you, Taylor,” he said. “It’s all on you.”

We stepped onto Facility One Yard. The prison yard was a large, oval strip of land surrounded by a track a third of a mile long. Inmates wearing blue CDC uniforms walked around the track, returning to their housing units from morning chow. They walked counter clockwise in the same direction, with occasional reminders over the loudspeaker to “Keep moving on the track.” Prison is nothing if not redundant.  Inmates see the same colors every day; blue and gray inmate uniforms, green and khaki officer uniforms, gray prison walls. You can imagine, then, the reaction among the inmates when they saw Dr. Teitelbaum entering the yard in her purple ensemble, magenta hat, red hair, yellow sneakers and a large red bag. Inmates stopped on the track, pointing.  Inmates standing in the pill line in front of the clinic stared. Some appeared hopeful, no doubt thinking, as I had earlier, that she might be some form of entertainment. Others laughed, and I heard a few jeers.

Inmates were lining up in front of the clinic for pill line. They were allowed medicine in their cells, but psychiatric medicine had to be administered at the clinic. Much of what occurs inside a prison is in reaction to lawsuits filed by inmates. The California Department of Corrections had settled or lost several lawsuits filed by inmates who suffered due to poor medical standards and nonexistent or inadequate psychiatric treatment. The courts ordered the department to remedy the problem, and the department struggled to hire physicians, psychiatrists and other medical personnel. Because of this, hiring was the priority. Anyone with a medical license could obtain a contract position working in the prison. The standards were quite low. Over the years, I have worked with fine psychiatrists and physicians. I have known and respected dedicated psychologists. I have also known the ones who, in the departments rush to fill positions, fell through the cracks of the screening process. To meet the requirements ordered by the courts, Inmates were screened for mental health related issues. This was appropriate and necessary, but it also had a tremendous impact on prisons. Suddenly, inmates were being diagnosed with bipolar, schizophrenia, psychosis and antisocial behaviors. They were placed on psychiatric medications, which required follow-up appointments with the psychiatrists. Soon, thousands of inmates were on medication, and more psychiatrists were required to meet the need for follow-up appointments. The increased numbers of psychiatrists resulted in even more inmates being placed on medication, which required even more psychiatrists and psychologists. The day Dr. Teitelbaum first walked into Facility One Clinic, the cost of psychiatric medication at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility had exploded to well over one and a half million dollars per month. This did not include regular, physician-prescribed medication.

Psychiatric medication can be divided into three categories: Anti-seizure medication, uppers and downers. If you pull back the curtain of psychiatric and psychological jargon, you soon realize that psychiatric medications are drugs, plain and simple. I remember a conversation with one of the contract psychiatrists. He was a in his late forties, an agreeable man without the typical airs psychiatrists are known to have. We were having lunch in the MTA office in the clinic. The inmates were locked up in their cells for count, and we were alone.

“Do you know what I do for a living, Taylor?” He asked.

I smiled at him across the desk over my lunch.

“As far as I can tell,” I said, “you’re a psychiatrist.”

“Well, of course I’m a psychiatrist,” he said,” but I’m not talking about my title or license. I’m talking about what I actually do.”

“Well, Doc,” I said, swallowing a bite of a tuna sandwich, “I may be crazy, and you’re better suited than I am to make that determination, but it seems to me you talk to inmates about their issues, then come up with a diagnosis and a treatment plan. Does that about cover it?”

“Well, that’s certainly how we phrase it, but that’s not the heart of it,” he said. “What I really am is a licensed drug dealer.”

“Do I need to get my handcuffs out?” I said. “Is this a confession?”

He grinned.

“I did say licensed, Taylor. But licensed or not, that’s what I am. Have you ever really thought about what psychiatric medication is? Drugs, Taylor. That’s what they are. They’re uppers and downers, and I prescribe them to drug addicts in a correctional facility. If I wasn’t licensed to do it, I would be sitting in a cell instead of sitting here having lunch with you.”

“Now, Doc,” I said. “I think you might be selling yourself short.  I’m sure you’re doing a lot of good. There’s a big difference between what you do and what drug dealers do.”

“A difference in motivation, I agree. But not in what I do. When I first started, I opened an office in the city, and advertised for clients. I wanted to help people, I really did. But you know what kind of clients I got?” I shook my head and motioned for him to continue. “People started coming into my office with memorized symptoms. I knew they were just telling me symptoms, so I would prescribe them specific medications. It was obvious. But I had a lease and bills to pay. You know what I did, Taylor? I prescribed the medications they wanted. After that, word spread, and clients kept making appointments. Over half were drug addicts wanting legal drugs.” He pointed to the nearby medication cart. “That’s what they are. Drugs, man, drugs.”

I had experienced the effects of the medication myself about a year before, when someone handed me a bottle of liquid risperidone, a medication prescribed to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some of the liquid had spilled and was on the side of the bottle. I touched the liquid with my bare hand. The medicine seeped through my skin and entered my bloodstream. For a good hour, I was euphoric, laughing and extremely talkative. My voice seemed to reverberate back to me in stereo. Though the medication never touched my lips, part of my upper lip went numb. Even today, whenever I recall the incident, that part of my lip turns numb. Like the good doctor said, “Drugs, man, drugs.”

The pill line was very long, reaching from the pill line window to the track about fifty yards away. Close to a thousand inmates were incarcerated on Facility One Yard, and half of them were on psychiatric medication. An MTA stood inside the medication room window, handing inmates their medication through a rectangular slot. The MTA, a balding pale-skinned man by the name of Ford, looked at Doctor Teitelbaum as she passed by. He smiled at me and shook his head. Several inmates looked at the new psychiatrist, then looked questioningly at me. I ignored the questioning looks and made my way to the clinic. I opened the clinic door and led Dr. Teitelbaum to an office in the back.

“This is your office, Dr. Teitelbaum,” I said, opening the door and switching on the lights, illuminating a small office with two chairs facing each other across a wooden desk. Dr. Teitelbaum entered the office and sat heavily in the desk chair, plopping her large red bag down on the desktop. “I will bring a schedule of inmates and inmate medical charts in a little bit.”

“Patients, Mr. Taylor,” Dr. Teitelbaum said. “They are not just inmates. They are my patients, and I cannot wait to see them.” She looked up at me through her large glasses, the faraway gleam returning to her eyes. “I assure you they have never seen the likes of me.”

“Yes, Doctor. I believe that may be the case,” I said. Despite her decidedly odd appearance, I fully intended to give the new psychiatrist the benefit of any doubt. Part of my philosophy was, and still is, not to judge a book by its cover. “Would you like the door closed or open?”

“Please close it,” Dr. Teitelbaum said. “It is time for my calming ritual.”

I nodded and exited the office, closing the door behind me. I had a busy day in front of me and had to prepare for it. Leaving Dr. Teitelbaum alone in her office, I grabbed a cup of coffee from the already brewed pot in the treatment room, sat down at the desk, and began organizing the inmate medical charts, dividing them between medical and psychiatric patients, making sure each chart had fresh doctor’s notes to write new prescriptions on. I was absorbed in the ritual, when I heard Dr. Teitelbaum singing opera in what I thought might be Italian, as loud as she possibly could. I stepped out of the treatment room. MTA Ford was coming out of the medication room.

“What the heck is going on, Taylor?” He asked. I stood outside Dr. Teitelbaum’s office door. The opera continued in her warbled voice. Inmates peered through the clinic windows, wondering why the pill line had stopped, hearing the Italian opera coming from inside the clinic. I shook my head and knocked softly on the office door. The Italian opera continued inside. I knocked louder.

“Dr. Teitelbaum?” I called. The opera persisted. I shrugged at MTA Ford and opened the door. Dr. Teitelbaum was sitting behind her desk. Her eyes were closed, her hands lifted above her head, moving dramatically back and forth, conducting an orchestra which only she could hear. Seeming unaware of my presence, she continued her performance, her voice straining to reach soprano levels, then falling to baritone lows, all at the top of her lungs. All I could do was wait for her to stop. For several minutes, the opera continued. Then, with one final crescendo of screeching soprano and faltering baritone, the performance came to an abrupt end. Slowly, she lowered her hands and opened her eyes, blinking in the light of the office. She stared up at me through her large glasses, acknowledging me for the first time since I entered.

“Is there something I can help you with, Mr. Taylor?” She asked.

“Well…” I said, “Uhm…What I mean is…”

“My singing, Mr. Taylor. Is that why you are here?”

“Well, yes, Doctor,” I said. “It was a little surprising.”

“I find opera to be calming, Mr. Taylor. It is part of my morning ritual. It lowers my stress level and prepares me for the rest of the day. Now, if you will excuse me, my routine is not yet complete.”

“Will you be singing again?” I asked.

“No, Mr. Taylor,” she said, “I will be meditating. Close the door, please. Let me know when the first patient arrives.”

I left Dr. Teitelbaum alone in her office. MTA Ford had overheard the conversation.

“She’s crazy, man,” he said.

“What can we do about it?” I said.

“We need to tell somebody. I mean, she’s a real mad hatter.”

“I’m not in for telling,” I said, a phrase used by both inmates and officers.  It meant you were not a snitch. Snitches were equally hated by inmates and officers.

“This is different, Taylor. Somebody has to know.”

“Let’s just see how it plays out,” I said. “What’s it going to hurt?”

Ford agreed reluctantly and returned to the pill line. I continued to get ready for the medical and psychiatric appointments. Dr. Wong, the physician, a diminutive Asian man with thinning hair, wearing a doctor’s smock over slacks and a dress shirt, arrived. He knocked on the clinic door and I opened it. He entered the clinic.

“Good morning, MTA Taylor,” he said.

“Good morning, Doctor,” I said.

“Is it a good morning?” He said. I opened the door to his office, letting him in. He asked me the same questions every day.

“A fine morning, Doc.” I said.

“A fine American morning?”

“Yes, Doctor,” I said, “It’s a fine American morning. There’s coffee in the back. Want a cup?”

The doctor smiled, nodding.

“Is it American coffee?”

“It was purchased in America,” I said.

“Then yes,” he said. “I want an American cup of coffee.”

This routine had played out five days a week for nearly a year. Doctor Wong, a transplant from Asia, who had lived much of his childhood struggling to feed himself, who somehow not only made it to the United States, but became a medical doctor, loved America with a fervency bordering on insanity. It wasn’t a fine day unless it was an “American” day. He had a headache once, and I brought him a Motrin. He asked if it was “American” Motrin, taking it only after I assured him that it was.

“Good, Doc,” I said. “I will bring it to you.”

I returned to the treatment room to get the doctor a cup of coffee. I heard low humming coming from underneath Dr. Teitelbaum’s office door. I ignored it. She said she would be meditating, which was fine with me if she did it quietly. I poured Dr. Wong a cup of coffee and brought it to him, placing a schedule of inmate patients on his desk. He took the cup of coffee from me and sipped it.

“Thank you, MTA Taylor,” he said. “That is a good American cup of coffee.”

“You’re welcome, Doc,” I said.

The pill line ended about half an hour later. Inmates began arriving for their medical and psychiatric appointments. I let them in, checking their identification and medical ducats to the schedule, patting them down for weapons and contraband. I checked their blood pressures and told them to stand on a scale to check their weight. Afterwards, they waited together on a long, wooden bench in the clinic area. I opened Dr. Wong’s desk and placed the first inmate’s medical file on his desk. I opened Dr. Teitelbaum’s office door to hand her the file of her first patient. She was still humming lowly to herself, her eyes closed.

“Your patients are arriving,” I said, placing the file on her desk.

“Five minutes more, Mr. Taylor. I am not quite done with my calming ritual.”

“Fine,” I said, “let me know when you’re ready.”

She closed her eyes again and began humming to herself. I left her there, closing the door behind me. Ten minutes later, her office door opened. She was holding the file I had given her. She looked at the inmates who were waiting on the bench.

“Mr. Williams?” She called. A black inmate in his mid-thirties stood up. He looked at the psychiatrist, then looked at me. He raised an eyebrow.

“For real, Taylor?” He said.

“This way, Mr. Williams,” Dr. Teitelbaum said.

The inmate shrugged and entered the office. Dr. Teitelbaum closed the door. I opened it again.

“Doctor” I said, “the door has to be open at least enough for me to hear what’s going on. For your protection.”

“That is unacceptable,” Dr. Teitelbaum said. “There is a such thing as patient confidentiality.”

“This is a prison,” I said. I motioned toward Inmate Williams. “He is an inmate, and I can’t leave you alone with him.”

Her face turned a bright shade of pink, but she took her seat behind the desk.

“Very well, then,” she said. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Let us continue.”

I exited the office, leaving the door open about a quarter of the way. More inmates were arriving for the medical and psychiatric lines, and some already seen by Dr. Wong were wanting to leave. I patted down a couple inmates to make sure they left with only what they had arrived with, and let a couple more inmates in. I entered the treatment room where MTA Ford was busy transcribing new orders from the medical charts.

“How’s the Mad Hatter doing?” He asked.

“Just seeing the first inmate now. I guess we have to wait and see,” I said.

It did not take long to learn how Dr. Teitelbaum was faring with the inmate. I heard Inmate Williams cussing loudly and Dr. Teitelbaum shouting in her unmistakable voice. The inmate shouted back. Dr. Teitelbaum released a hysterical scream. MTA Ford and I ran from the room, ordering the inmates in the clinic to get down. They lowered their selves to the floor. I pulled a canister of pepper spray from my duty belt and entered the office, shouting for Inmate Williams to get down. He complied, immediately leaving his chair and sitting on the office floor. Dr. Teitelbaum was standing behind her desk. Her face was red and glistening with perspiration. Her magenta hat was in her hand, and her red hair was in disarray.

“Are you alright, Doctor?” I asked.

Dr. Teitelbaum stared up at me. Her lips trembled. Her round face quivered with indignation.

“What is the meaning of this, Mr. Taylor?” She shouted. “I will not be interrupted during a therapy session!”

“You were screaming at each other,” I said.

“This is therapy, Mr. Taylor,” she said. Her entire body was shaking. “Do you not understand? This is therapy!”

Inmate Williams held up his hands.

“I didn’t do anything to her, Taylor. I swear it, man. She’s a crazy lady.”

Dr. Teitelbaum twisted her hat in her hands, staring angrily down at the inmate.

“I am not a crazy lady,” she shouted. “I am the psychiatrist!”

Leaving his office, Dr. Wong walked up behind me. He looked at Dr. Teitelbaum. He saw the inmate on the office floor and examined the psychiatrist, who stood, shaking visibly, clutching the magenta hat in both hands. Dr. Wong shook his head.

“This,” he announced gravely, “is simply unamerican.” He turned from us, entered his office and closed the door behind him.

Dr. Teitelbaum lasted a month or so longer, the need of the department to fill medical positions outweighing the need for competent providers. She never got any better, though her shouting “therapy” was ended by order of the chief psychiatrist. I was in the clinic on her last day. She was wearing her now infamous magenta hat and was attired in yellow and orange, rather than purple. We made it to the end of the shift without major incident, and I was sitting in the MTAs office. She stuck her head into my office.

“Mr. Taylor,” she said, “as you probably already know, today is my last day. The establishment was just not ready for my special brand of treatment.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Doctor Teitelbaum,” I said, not meaning it in the least.

“Yes, well,” she said, “I am going into business for myself.” She handed me a purple business card. The card read, DR. Teitelbaum, Psychiatrist extraordinaire, and included her phone number. “If you are ever in need of psychiatric care, call me.” She looked at me through her glasses, that dreamy, faraway look in her beady eyes. “I am not cheap,” she said, “but I am the best…”