Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Access to adequate medical treatment isn’t always afforded to everybody in need — especially if you’re poor or don’t know the system. This is probably no surprise to most of us.

How many of us have just had to learn to live with an untreated physical ailment because medical costs were just too high? Or had to literally rearrange our whole budgets just to purchase a much-needed prescription? Or better yet, how many of us have probably had such a terrible interaction with ‘that doctor that just wouldn’t listen’ that then just further discouraged us from ever seeking professional medical treatment again? And I won’t even start with medical insurance.

I’m sure we’ve all had to deal with at least one of these situations at one point or another, no matter our economic status. If not, consider yourself lucky.

While these experiences may or may not necessarily always be the norm for everyone, within Washington state prisons, this is the medical system.

Which is why when I was awakened one evening by a sharp unknown pain in my foot, my pain was not my only concern. Barely even able to place any pressure on my foot, I slowly climbed down from the top bunk and hobbled down the hallway to the restroom, hoping that it was just a cramp. But when I realized that this pain was something I’d never experienced before and wasn’t going away, I knew something was terribly wrong.

I made my way back to my cell, carefully climbed back up the ladder, laid in my bunk, and stared at the ceiling. The whole time I quietly hummed an old school Timmy T song, trying to forget about the pain and hoping to somehow get back to sleep. Unfortunately, “One More Try” was not bringing me any relief any time soon — at least not that night. The pain was unbearable — thanks for nothing, Timmy!

I contemplated what to do next. In prison, there aren’t not too many options, so my think tank session was pretty brief.

One: I could go through the “normal” protocols, which would require me to fill out a medical request form (commonly referred to as a medical “kite,”) place it in the mail, and wait for the medical department to place me on the list to be seen by a provider. A response can take anywhere between a couple weeks to a few months depending on the prison — more often than not, one should expect to receive the latter. By then, what’s the point? And all they’re gonna do is recommend that you purchase some ibuprofen from commissary anyway.

Two: I could declare a “medical emergency,” which would shut down movement throughout the whole facility until its nurses could come and transport me to the medical building. However, depending on whether or not it was a weekday, there’s no guarantee a provider is even on site. Not to mention how the guards shame those who choose this option by turning the whole ordeal into a spectacle of some sort. Option two, in essence, is just a sped-up version of option one, plus the extra embarrassment.

Both options would require me to pay a $4.00 copay just for being in the medical building. While $4.00 doesn’t seem like much, $4.00 has a totally different meaning to somebody only getting paid 42 cents an hour… before taxes. And since there was no assurance that I’d actually receive any significant treatment, y’all do the math on that decision.

So I chose to do neither. Instead, I called my wife as soon as the phones turned on to whine like a baby. She’s the only person who puts up with me. While she recommended I declare a medical emergency, we settled on Google. According to our research, I most likely was having a gout flare-up. Though the information was useful, it did nothing at all to ease my pain.

I decided to send in a medical kite and waited to hear back while my foot worsened. After over a week of no response, my wife called down to the prison and pressed anybody who would listen. She must’ve pressed the right buttons because the next day, I was called down to medical. There, I was given a steroid shot to ease my pain, while the medical staff did what any reasonable person would do: consult Dr. Google.

That following week, a lab result confirmed that what I was experiencing was indeed a gout flare-up. As the pain in my foot intensified, that would be my last time receiving medical treatment for the next two months. All I could do was wait to see what came next. I sent in kite after kite to no avail.

When all was said and done, it took nearly four months and more inquiries from my wife for me to finally receive any real treatment and prescribed medication to help prevent future flare-ups. Today, I’m walking like a human being again, although the pain comes and goes.

Though it took months for me to finally get some treatment, the fact of the matter is, I actually got treatment. Many people behind these walls never do. And what’s even sadder, is that many people die in these cages because of that — alone.

While I’m blessed to have a wife that had the skills and agency to advocate on my behalf, many people here don’t.

Language barriers, technological obstacles, financial struggles, fear, embarrassment… all play their usual roles. And those who suffer the most? Non-English-speaking prisoners facing poor economic circumstances.

People shouldn’t have to jump through hoops just to receive medical attention, y’all. A person shouldn’t have to choose between food for the week and seeking out medical assistance. More importantly, nobody should ever have to die alone in captivity just because they don’t speak English or can’t afford a copay. Yet this is the cruel world we live in.

I wanna conclude this month’s installment by remembering all those we’ve lost behind these walls to inadequate medical treatment, and demand that those still here be treated with dignity and respect.

Until next time, keep dreaming!


Felix Sitthivong is a journalist, organizer, member of Empowerment Avenue, and advisor for the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG). Through APICAG, Sitthivong has organized immigration, social justice and youth outreach forums and has designed Asian American studies courses, an intersectional feminism 101 class and an anti-domestic violence program. You can reach him with questions for “On the Fence Line” via Securus (WA #354579) or write to him at Felix Sitthivong #354579, PO Box 900, Shelton, WA 98584.   

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