Being Sick in Prison

I am sure that everyone can universally agree that being sick is no fun. Learning how to be good at taking care of yourself when sick is a part of the prison experience that often gets overlooked when people talk about incarceration. Of course, violence and fear are far more glamorous and attention-grabbing than runny noses and vomit. I can’t say I’m above this trend considering I’ve written multiple posts about prison violence and am only now just getting around to writing about sickness thanks to a head cold.

Incarcerated people are subject to a series of conditions which make it hard to avoid being sick and difficult to do proper self-care when we get the flu or a cold. The first of these is that many of the people who came to prison as juveniles seem to have an inability to understand the concept of “cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough”! They came to prison as kids and many of them have never quite managed to grow up, so they still act like kids. This makes them what pathologists like to call “disease vectors” and I refer as “plague bearers.” Combine this with the recycled air in the living units and this means that at any time I may end up walking through somebody’s free range sputum cloud. With 760 people in WSR, that’s a lot of people to pass the common cold through so, much like Louis Pasteur’s petri dish, there is a plethora of pathogens to be had by all.

This is then exasperated by sick building syndrome. WSR is roughly a hundred years old. There’s mold in the walls and who knows what living in the HVAC system. However, I am fairly certain a family of semi-sentient slime molds live the shower drains. These add up as stressors on the body’s autoimmune system and makes fighting off all those mutant “more than common” colds much harder.

So when, like myself, someone gets a cold in prison what is there to do about it? First off, under no circumstance do you ever go to medical. All they’re going to do is place you on quarantine meaning you can’t leave your cell for any reason including taking a shower. Sure, your meals get delivered to your cell front and you don’t have to worry about getting infracted for skipping school or work. I can’t speak for anyone else but, having to live in my own filth while competing for ‘America’s next top snot monster’ is not on my To Do list. So I stay in my cell, shower twice a day, and generally do my best to keep my cold to myself.

The next thing is eat. Prison food is bad enough as is, trying to keep it down with a queasy stomach take skill. I’m sure you’ve heard that old folk saying “drown a fever, starve a cold.” That’s bollocks. Being sick burns a ton of calories; anything you can eat and keep down is for the good, even if it’s total junk food. Supplement it with a multivitamin, and drink as much tea as you can. You can’t expect your car to drive without gas and a fully charged battery and you certainly can’t expect autoimmune system to do it’s job without the fuel and nutrients it needs to function.

There are two philosophies for this next part.

I say fevers, runny noses, and other symptoms are a good thing. They are the tools the body uses to kill off and flush out disease even while they make us miserable. Thus, I limit the amount of cold medicine I take to one aspirin at night so I can get 4 hours of sleep and a cough drop during the day to make it easier to breathe.

Other people take everything they can get their hands on in a desperate attempt to male themselves feel better. The trouble with this is by taking cold meds they are limiting their body’s autoimmune response which means it takes them much longer to get the disease out of their system and thus spend note time as a plague barer.

One of the things a lot of people new to prison wonder is “where do all these diseases come from?” They assume the prison is a closed system meaning everyone should eventually become immune to everyone else’s germs? Well… It doesn’t work that way. C/o’s pick up random diseases out in the world, then come it work and give them to incarcerated people. Generally volunteers have the wherewithal to stay home when they’re sick, whereas DOC employees prefer to share the contagion with literally everyone in the prison.

Being sick is no fun, but being sick in prison is worse. Some people have friends and partners that will help take care of them when sick, but many people (like myself) don’t have a network of support like that in here and the few people I do have can only do so much. This is why it has been so important for me to learn how to take care of myself and, because nobody else has the means to do it.


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