My husband and I are huge fans of the television program 60 Minutes; recently, an episode aired that included a story on the lack of care for inmates who suffer from untreated mental illness. As I watched the segment, tears formed in my eyes; I looked over at my husband and, before I could utter a single sound, he said, “Miss Mary. I’m thinking about it, too.”
In the south, it is common for people to add the salutation of “Miss” before a woman’s first name to demonstrate a certain level of respect; my friend Cecilia’s twin girls call me “Miss Tara,” not because I’m a million years older than they are, but because they’ve been taught to show respect to adults. I also think of it as a term of endearment.
When I landed at FCI Coleman, I was assigned to one of four “units” within the women’s “satellite camp,” as it is called; while the exact numbers varied by day, there were approximately 140-150 women in my unit and we were divided into cinder block cubicles of 2-3 inmates. Miss Mary was one of the matriarchs of the unit to which I was assigned; she was preceded by her reputation and I was somewhat intimidated when we met.
Tall, broad shouldered and confident, Miss Mary projected a commanding presence, yet I determined very quickly that I need not have been anxious; I began to enjoy my chats with Miss Mary. She was born and raised in rural Georgia and, after spending time in several different federal institutions and surviving numerous transfers, she’d finally made it to Florida yet she did not see her family often. A victim of Nancy Reagan’s “war on drugs,” Miss Mary was a nonviolent drug offender who’d been dealt a significant blow, early in life, via a decades-long sentence with no second chances.
I don’t know how old Miss Mary was when I met her; I would guess that she was in her late 50s. She was employed, during her time in Florida, by UNICOR, aka Federal Prison Industries; it’s an odd operation. They have a huge warehouse at FCI Coleman and Miss Mary did warehouse-type work – mostly manual labor – driving a forklift, moving heavy boxes and filling orders for the various customers (mostly employees of the federal government) who purchase items from the company. I have no doubt she could have easily lifted me over her head, maybe with one arm.
One day, on a weekend, Miss Mary complained that “something didn’t feel right;” she couldn’t seem to put her finger on it, but she felt oddly fatigued and out of sorts. There was no medical care available to us on the weekend, so she planned to attend “sick call” on Monday. After returning to the unit from work on Monday, Miss Mary said that she’d been told by the nurse – or whatever she was; the staff members in health services did not display their (lack of ) credentials – to take some ibuprofen (she would be required to purchase it from the commissary), get more exercise, and lose some weight.
Day after day that week, Miss Mary would return to sick call, every morning, and as she continued to express concerns about her health she was repeatedly given the same message; no tests were administered, other than a routine blood pressure check, and she complained that she was "not taken seriously."
On Friday, just before lunch, I returned to the unit from work to grab something from my room; there were always a few women in the unit, for various reasons, and I stopped off in the bathroom before leaving. The bathroom was near Miss Mary’s cubicle and I heard a young woman shout while I was in there; after finishing up, I walked out to see her, frantic, asking me what she should do. She said that Miss Mary “had a seizure” and that she didn’t think she was breathing anymore. We sent another woman out to get help and I walked down to Miss Mary's room with this young woman.
Miss Mary was down on the concrete floor, head turned to the side, and she’d obviously wet herself; she looked calm, peaceful, and was unresponsive. As a rule, inmates are not allowed to touch one another; we certainly would not have been allowed to administer any type of life-saving measures. We were paralyzed.
Moments later, two paramedics walked in, followed by two correctional officers; they demanded that we leave the building. They were in no particular hurry, and I have no idea what they did after we left. I remember that we were all shuffled into a central location and many of us could see the ambulance from the windows.
If an inmate dies at a prison facility, there is much paperwork and investigating to be done. Under normal (outside of prison) circumstances, if life-saving measures, such as CPR, are initiated, paramedics are to continue those measures until the patient is taken to a medical facility and all options are explored. Miss Mary was dead before they arrived, yet she remained in the building for a considerable length of time before she was placed in the ambulance; no one was performing CPR or pumping a bag on their way out. We were told that she was still alive and that she was being rushed to the nearest hospital for treatment; we never saw Miss Mary again.
I’ll never know what really happened to Miss Mary; I’ll always wonder what information her family was given and how it was received. I'll wonder what recourse her family may have had, if they had the resources. I’ll wonder about the outcome, had she been provided with the appropriate care, had she been treated as a human being instead of as an inmate. I'll never know, and I’ll never forget her.