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A Black woman holds her shoulder in pain
Illustration by Blueastro on iStock

When I entered prison, I was a healthy and vibrant 25-year-old woman. I will turn 44 this year. That is almost two decades of wear and tear on what was once a perfectly healthy body. 

It has been 18 years of walking on concrete, of sitting on metal stools and hard plastic chairs. Eighteen years of sleeping on a mat that is barely 5 inches thick and provides little cushion from my metal bed. I understand that prison is not designed for our comfort, but it should not be the cause of our deterioration either. 

About 10 years into my 22-year sentence, my body began to decline. My back started to ache, resulting in many visits to see on-site medical staff, as well trips to an outside specialist at the University of Virginia.

It has taken many years of trial and error to find suitable solutions. Now, many shots and pills later, the treatments have become ineffective. I seem to have built up a tolerance to my medication. 

These shots are officially called trigger point injections. I have received up to 20 at one time, the maximum permissible for one medical visit. 

These are painful injections, used to treat knots in muscles, and I have been receiving them for close to three years now. Over time, they can sometimes weaken your muscles as a side effect. 

Like much of the medication we are given in prison, it can provide some temporary relief, but the side effects can almost offset the benefits. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I have tried numerous other medications, which also come with side effects. Who knows what condition I will be in if these potential downsides emerge? This is one of the pitfalls of incarceration: Our medical care is substandard. In fact, women at my former prison filed a class-action lawsuit in 2012 for unconstitutional health care, and problems still exist at that prison.

I am scheduled to be released next summer. I want to return to the outside world as healthy as I possibly can, in spite of the obstacles to wellbeing that prison erects. I’m going to do my best to make sure my remaining time builds me back up and doesn’t break me down.

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.

Chanell Burnette is a writer incarcerated in Virginia.