30 Years Behind Bars
This is a work of nonfiction. In order to protect their identities, I changed the names and identifying details of colleagues, officers, and inmates — except for one name, which is a matter of public record. The events, timelines and conversations that took place were recounted from the journals I kept, from the writings of the inmates, from newspaper articles, and from my memory.
Karen Gedney, M.D.
I looked at the phone in my hand, and thought: so I’m going to prison for the next four years.
It was 1987, and the National Health Corps was placing me in an under-served area to pay back my medical school scholarship. I had known this day was coming, but it never occurred to me that I could be sent to a male medium-security prison.
Part of me was thrilled that they were sending me to a facility close by, so I didn’t have to relocate to a different region. The other part of me wondered what it would be like to be a prison doctor.
I hung up the phone and went into the den to share the news with Coley, my husband of two months.
“Coley, do you want to hear where I’m going to be sent for the next four years?”
He turned toward me and shut off the television with an expectant, slightly worried look.
I sat down next to him. “We don’t have to move, but they’re placing me in the prison system.”
Coley stood up and enveloped me in a bear hug. I knew he was relieved about not moving. “It’s going to be a good opportunity for you,” he murmured.
Coley was an optimist; even his business card displayed a Chinese phrase that was said to represent both crisis and opportunity. His attitude acted as my true north, and I valued that influence. I had grown up with a German mother, whose pessimism and anxieties were a byproduct of her experiences in World War II as a child. She had taught me to see every cloud; Coley taught me to see their silver linings.
We were still dating when I first told Coley about my commitment to the Corps. “When I get my placement, would you come with me?” I had asked.
His handsome brown face had broken into a sly smile. “Not if you get sent to some backwater in Mississippi.”
Remembering that moment, I gave Coley another squeeze before letting go.
“You know,” I said, “I just had the oddest memory. Remember how I told you that I decided to become a doctor when I was nine years old?”
He nodded his head and leaned back into the couch.
“Well, when I was a kid, I used to fantasize about healing wounds. You know, like the cowboy who got shot, the Indian who got stabbed, the spy who was poisoned. But they were always men, in my stories. I never thought of doctoring women. I find it a bit funny now that I’m going to be taking care of an all-male population for the next four years.”
Coley cocked his head and studied me. A small smile turned up the corners of his mouth, “Well, you’re a healer.” He rubbed his chin. “So, when are you going to tell your mother?”