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Life Inside

I’m Having a Cancer Scare. But Prison Healthcare Is So Degrading, I’ve Quit Seeking Answers.

“Not knowing what is going on with my body will catch up to me, but I refuse to be treated inappropriately.”

Last summer, I went to the healthcare building because I had pain in my groin. I was frequently and weirdly urinating, and I felt a small lump on my upper pelvic area. Fear immediately set in my mind because of my family medical history.

My father had testicular cancer when I was 12. He never spoke about the surgery he had, but in the months after he went under the knife I noticed him moving a lot slower and his diet was limited to green pea soup. He slept through the days and changed his blood-spotted gauze pads throughout the nights.

While my dad survived, cancer killed my oldest auntie, my great-auntie and my grandfather. I also had friends whose uncles and mothers died of cancer. This disease had the drop on so many people I loved, I feared that my time to fight was coming up.

My physical exam this summer was one of the worst I’ve ever experienced. I stood before a nurse and a medical practitioner — both female — with my arms up in the air and my uniform and boxers down to my knees. I was a little cold and highly embarrassed. Even worse, a male CO stood behind me, on the other side of the bed. He didn't speak, but his hands revealed his discomfort: First they were in front of him, then one went to his holster, then both landed on his hips.

After squeezing both of my testicles, the practitioner suggested I had a hernia or a strained groin. “You guys work out too hard,” she said. “Cool it for a month.”

I hadn’t worked out in months, but I didn't push for further screening because I was afraid the women would think I was deriving sexual pleasure from being touched.

Some of the high security level prisoners I’m grouped with may complain about pain with the aim of being felt up by a nurse, but there are no sexual misconduct tickets in my file. In the 13 years I've been incarcerated in the MDOC (Michigan Department of Corrections), I haven’t done anything to suggest an ulterior motive for my medical exams.

Sitting on the white paper-covered hospital mat with my pants still down and my arms still up, I decided that I wouldn’t come back to this healthcare building, at least until my transfer to a lower security level comes through. I’ve been on the list going on three years; officials blame COVID for the delay.

I’ve also seen how older prisoners with prostate cancer are humiliated. My neighbor across the hall had surgery for it and was still wearing an adult diaper over a year later. He was only 62.

“I keep having to pee. I wake up all through the night. But I don’t want no chemo; that's how my brother and sister died,” said my neighbor, who can’t read or write.

“I got the cancer cut out,” he continued. “But I think they cut too much or something. I was supposed to have been healed. Sometimes I still pee on myself. It's embarrassing.”

After my exam, I could relate to his shame. Plus, everybody knew he wore diapers because COs in the bubble would call out his name over the P.A. system and announce, “Healthcare is calling! Diaper pick up!'” Everyone would laugh and tell jokes as my neighbor waddled down the hall like a wet duck.

The laughter didn’t seem to bother him until the day he came back with a pack of diapers instead of the more discreet Pull-Ups he was used to. He said the healthcare workers were clearly holding in laughter as they handed him the package. This is the kind of ridicule that deters prisoners like me from getting medical attention.

Not knowing what is going on with my body will catch up to me. But I refuse to be treated inappropriately. Until I’m transferred, I’ll continue to feel sharp pains and groan throughout the night. And I will continue to pray.

In an email, MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz wrote that Buckley's claims about his medical exam “have been shared with [Baraga] health service staff for review and follow-up.” He attributed the delay in Buckley’s transfer to COVID-19 restrictions and a lack of available bed space. Of Buckley’s claim that housing unit officers publicly announced his neighbor’s diaper pickup, he wrote that “there is no evidence that the conduct disclosed in this statement by [Buckley] had merit.”

Demetrius Buckley Email Demetrius A. Buckley is a poet and creative writer. His work has been published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, RHINO, Mangoprism, Filter, The Arkana Journal and Apogee. He's working on a memoir: “First 48: The Fall of Winter Kings” and is the 2021 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize winner for his poetry collection “Here is Home.” He is serving a 20- to 32-year sentence for a second degree murder at Michigan Reformatory (RMI).