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Experiencing a stroke in prison can often be made worse.
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On Labor Day weekend, the pandemic protocol at Mule Creek State Prison in northern California was finally lifted. Inmate bands were playing in the recreational yard. I was lounging on my bunk, listening to the faint pounding of a bass guitar filtering through the plexiglass window overlooking the yard.

I remember turkey buzzards circling in the skies above the nearby hills and the steady rhythm of  “House of the Rising Sun.” Maybe luck was turning in my favor, I thought. It had taken me 25 years — and a lot of self-reflection, rehab and self-help — to get to a low-security unit.

I didn’t think much of it when dizziness suddenly overcame me, pushing me deeper into my mattress. I was 66 years old. I thought I was losing myself in my daydreams.

But then I felt a haze of distortion. It felt like something was flooding my veins from my head to my arms. A throbbing brain ignited into a wildfire of panic as my entire right side went numb, then dead.

In a last-gasp effort, I raised my left arm to get a cellie’s attention. I was going down hard. I was experiencing a stroke.

When I woke up I was surrounded by medical staff. I was put on a gurney and rushed onto a golf cart used as a medical emergency vehicle. They took me to the medical clinic.

I was barely coherent. My blood pressure was over 200. I remember lights flashing, beepers beeping and medical staff running to and fro.

“Do you know where you are?” the head nurse asked me.


“On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your pain?”


Many prisons around the country provide abysmal health services, and other Prison Journalism Project writers have reported on the lack of adequate medical care, but on that day,  I was one of the lucky ones. My facility sent me to San Joaquin Medical Center immediately.

The 30- to 40-minute ride passed in a blur. The ambulance crew was attentive and congenial, checking my vitals every few minutes. If it had taken a few minutes more to get there, I would have suffered from permanent brain damage, the doctor told me later.

At the hospital, I received a CT scan and an MRI. They administered a flurry of shots, IVs and pills. I thought I’d stay the night, but my symptoms calmed and they took me back to the prison.

When I got back to my cell, my cellmates joked that they were ready to divide up my property. They insistently expressed their disappointment that I pulled through. I took it good-naturedly. If they had not acted quickly, I might not have made it. I was still dizzy, but I was glad to have survived.

Two days later, I relapsed. This time my escort was not so friendly. I was cuffed, shackled and left sitting up in a hard-backed seat. The bumpy ride felt like torture. It illustrated how different medical care can be depending on the assigned staff. I vowed that I would never take another transport. I would die here before I subject myself to that again.

In the aftermath, I struggled with dizziness and foggy thinking. I had trouble sitting up, and I had difficulty forming complete sentences. I was also depressed and afraid of relapsing.

I’m better now. I’ve been reading books about cognitive therapy and brain trauma, so I can better understand how to self-heal. Thought control is huge. I’m a longtime practitioner of meditation, which helps.

Nine months prior, a doctor had asked if I wanted meds for my slightly elevated blood pressure; but he said it wasn’t serious, so I declined. Now I realize the meds may have prevented the stroke. Blood thinners and cholesterol meds are keeping me alive. 

I don’t know what treatments patients receive in the outside world, but I feel fortunate to have access to conscientious medical staff who have been good to me. I know that is not the case in many prisons.

By a stroke of luck, I’ve been allowed a reprieve, one more chance to make it right.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

David “Razor” Babb is the founding editor-in-chief of “The Mule Creek Post,” a newspaper published out of Mule Creek State Prison in California and a 2008-2009 winner of the PEN Prison Writing Award in the essay category. He is also the author of numerous books including “Icicle Bill,” “Goodbye Natalie,” and “Last Lockdown.”