This was an itch I could scratch, but there were consequences to the scratching. I tore at my inflamed flesh, but the intense burning only increased and spread. Despite this, I still didn’t stop. The scratching didn’t provide much relief at all. Truth be told, I was making my predicament worse, but it’s the only course of action I had control over. So I hollered for help, kicked my door, and scraped my skin incessantly until it bled.
Sometimes ignorance isn’t so much bliss as it is a recipe for disaster.
I was new to the joint at the time and was still learning the ropes, feeling my way blindly through dark and unfamiliar circumstances and surroundings. Up until that point in my existence, I had never in my life had any problems with allergies of any kind.
That was about to change.
As I am considered to be state property, the Department of Corrections has certain responsibilities and requirements they have to meet when caring for me. Being clothed, fed, and washed are the big three—though more often than not they’ll provide even these as stingily as they can get away with. Hand in hand with the clothed and washed aspects of those obligations are laundry services.
Standard operating protocol when I first arrived to the joint allowed that, three times a week on my designated days, I could put a laundry bag with my cell number on it down by the laundry room. The laundry porter would then wash it and return it to me. The state provided the necessary laundry detergent as part of their job to keep us convicts clothed and washed. What I didn’t know, and what no one bothered to give me a heads-up about, was that the powdered detergent the state provides is a coarse, industrial-strength concoction that the laundry porter generally applied to clothes as liberally as Rachael Ray splashes her EVOO. This was information that would have benefited me.
I made it a little past a week before symptoms started to manifest, and when they did, it wasn’t anything more drastic than a slight itch here or there that I could chalk up to dry skin. By my second weekend in prison, though, the allergic reaction had reached critical mass. It had been a slow burn all day Saturday, with me scratching my itches from time to time, but mostly trying to ignore them and pretend that I wasn’t itchy at all. But I was. So very, very itchy.
Though I hadn’t yet made the logical mental connection that my own clothes were the enemy, an angry red rash presented itself wherever fabric stretched or brushed over the sensitive surface of my flesh the most. The collar of my neck, my shoulders, chest, and armpits. My feet and ankles. My waistband and hip bones. Arse cheeks and inner thighs. The entire crotch area in general, actually. My body had become a grotesque relief map, with the rash serving as quarter-inch mountains. My urge to itch was becoming unbearable. I laid in bed and writhed against my sheets to create some kind of respite. But the bed-clothes had been laundered with the same evil detergent, and what I thought was a good idea was only making matters much worse. I had no fan to cool me down, so I tried applying cold wash-cloths, but they made my skin feel like it was on fire. Eventually, I simply couldn’t take it any more.
It was just past midnight, and sleep eluded me. My body wouldn’t relax or cease its burn, and my brain screeched in a panicked insistence that if the itching didn’t stop, I would die. My cellie, thankfully, was sympathetic. I sprang off my bunk and rushed to the door, where I began to scream for help.
“C/O! C/O! Upper eleven! C/O!”
I was in the cell farthest from the bubble, and no C/O likes having to do anything extra on the midnight shift. There was a button in the cell to press in case of emergency, commonly called the panic button, and pressing it was supposed to send C/Os running to the cell. But if an inmate did push it, someone had better be dead or dying; if not, somebody would be going to Seg. I pounded on that button for all my worth. I flicked on the light and stripped off my shirt so I could show off the extremity of my irritation if a C/O would show up. There was a continuous mountain range of dark red running from my neck to my knees and a separate formation in the exact shape of my ankle socks.
I kicked and yelled some more, then heard some confederates join my cause and call for the C/O to go to upper eleven. It was unexpected and strangely touching that my fellow inmates would come to my aid. My cellie jumped down from his top bunk and took over pushing the panic button, kicking the door, and hollering out for help. This assistance afforded me the opportunity to take my Inmate ID Card—don’t leave the cell without it, or risk a ticket—and drag the hard plastic over the tortured terrain of my body. The technique brought forth more blood and didn’t soothe me at all, but I couldn’t stop myself. Some part of me knew I was just making things worse, but I rubbed and scoured with vehemence and determination regardless. I wanted to cry. I wanted it to stop. No C/O ever came in response to my kicking, screaming, and button-pushing.
At the scheduled 2:00 a.m. count, when the C/O passed by, I begged him to open the door to see my condition. I claimed it was a “medical emergency,” which is a specific phrase that officers are trained to respect and take seriously lest lawsuits ensue. He called another C/O on his radio to come and assist, and once they popped my door, they shared looks of disdain and disgust over my appearance, what I had done to myself. I stood before them in just my boxers. From my neckline to my waist I was cherry red with inflamed irritation; only my forearms were spared from contamination. There was another shade of red sprouting in a couple dozen spots where I’d brought blood to the surface with my efforts, and my practically new white boxers showed evidence of rosy stains in a handful of spots. My fingernails were caked with the dried remnants of my own flesh and blood. They were looking at me like I was some kind of wild animal, but they didn’t understand. They weren’t encased in my skin and could not appreciate the extremity of my affliction.
Both C/Os, non-medical professionals, concurred that my situation didn’t rise to the level of an emergency, but they did assure me that when the nurse arrived to deliver daily meds around four in the morning they would pull me out so I could see her and maybe get some help. They left. I lay on my bunk in the dark, tried to breathe calmly and not itch. My entire body felt aflame, but that eventually worked in my favor because I couldn’t isolate a single body part to scratch. Instead, I remained impotently inert as my nerve endings shrieked and every part of me burned. I did not sleep a wink.
When the nurse saw me she was slightly more compassionate, but obviously annoyed at seeing a patient at such an early hour instead of just administering meds. I was given a glorious ointment of some sort, and I slathered my body in it morning, noon, and night for a week to gain some blessed relief. The nurse, kind heart that she was, also left word for the day-shift C/O that I was to be afforded the special privilege of having all my clothes and bedding washed in cold water to rinse out any of the stubborn detergent residue that had caused my allergic reaction.
This was my first encounter with this new prison’s bureaucracy and healthcare system; it wasn’t ideal, but not totally horrible. I did get to see a nurse, after all. It was a good lesson to learn and an introduction for me to a system that sees me less as a human being and more as a numbered object. I’ll never forget that it was my fellow inmates, strangers, who rallied to my aid and hollered for someone to help me, and that it was C/Os who were content to let me itch and burn. More than anything though, I won’t forget lying there, helpless, as the interminable fiery consequences of my allergy consumed me.