In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I was touched by the articles on the indignity of prison life in your October 1996 issue [“This Prison Where I Live”]. During my own time in prison, one of the things that most struck me (though I got used to it later — you get used to everything eventually) was the total loss of authority over my own body. We endured strip searches, even “cavity searches,” at the whim of guards who might or might not have had a reason.
Another, less well-known invasion we prisoners suffered was being used as “practice” patients for medical students. I experienced this myself, and have heard the same from inmates at other prisons. The way I understood it, the students were required to perform standard procedures a certain number of times before they could graduate. On some occasions we had multiple vaginal and rectal exams. The students were clumsy, and the exams were longer and more uncomfortable than usual, because there was discussion and teaching going on during them.
Other times, we received more specialized examinations, whether we needed them or not. Most common were rectal exams with the colonoscope and sigmoidoscope. These exams were sometimes painful, and we never got any sedation. Also, we had to have powerful laxatives and several enemas before hand.
Such medical procedures are uncomfortable and embarrassing enough under the best conditions. They were even more so for us, because no attention was given to our modesty, our comfort, or our pain. We had no choice but to participate; it was clear there would be “consequences” for any woman foolish enough to refuse.
I’m grateful that at least they didn’t do drug experiments where I was incarcerated. But I still resent being forced to act as practice dummy for medical students who needed to get rid of their clumsiness before working on patients who “mattered.”
Having spent the last sixteen and a half years at the California State Prison for Women, I wasn’t too eager to read “This Prison Where I Live” [October 1996], but curiosity finally got the better of me. I found the descriptions of prison life pretty chilling. Of late, I find life here pretty chilling, as well, as politicians continue to strip us of all our rights and amenities in order to appease the public’s cry for vengeance. The picture the public receives via the media is worlds apart from the life I know here.
I was particularly drawn to the story “Grass Soup,” in which Zhang Xianliang describes how, in 1960 China, prisoners were required to collect and eat wild greens, as no other food was provided for them. This prison provides inmates with three meals a day. Those Chinese prisoners might have thought this a feast, but as a vegan with allergies to wheat and dairy, I find the highly refined, processed, prepackaged food here a dietary nightmare. I much prefer the beautiful collards, vitamin-rich purslane, and tangy mustard and dandelion greens that grow in abundance on the yard here. The grounds crews are told to keep these “weeds” cut to ground level, but I still manage to find enough each day to sustain my good health.