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Photo collage of gladiators fighting in front of a prison with concertina wire
Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi

Nobody was prepared when the alarm went off and halted everyone in their daily routines. The sharp, ear-splitting cacophony could have been a banshee’s wail or some siren signaling the apocalypse. 

From my cell window, on the second tier, I observed a throng of corrections officers dash off toward the gymnasium like a swarm of angry hornets. The truth is that scenes of anarchy have become a regular occurrence here at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Greene. Only residents suffering from a mental illness, and steeped on psychiatric medications, were undisturbed. 

But for inmates like me, who suffer major neurological distress, loud clamoring can trigger a seizure episode. In fact, almost anything can trigger one — from pounding music to inconsiderate, omnipresent, incessant howling from other residents.

Often, these are the howls of an anguished mind. Amid all the howling uproar, some residents respond in anger. But there are some sympathetic residents who scream at the prison staff, requesting help for their fellow residents in need. “How could you let a poor man suffer like that?” one yelled. “Can’t you see the man has issues? Do something!”

Some studies have found that traumatic brain injuries and other forms of neurological conditions are more common among incarcerated people than the general public.  

During the latest round of anarchy at my prison, I sighed and took a break from my work at the typewriter. Strolling down the tier, I was not surprised to see many fellow inmates staring out of their respective cell windows, fully engrossed with the commotion outside. It was as if they were spectators in ancient Rome, watching gladiators fight in the Colosseum. Inmates have dubbed violent facilities in our commonwealth “gladiator schools.”

For convicts dealing with a mental illness or other disability, it would be better to be housed in one of our state’s “medical jails.”

My state offers a facility for the sick, ailing and geriatric at SCI Laurel Highlands. There is a hospice on the grounds staffed with top-notch medical personnel to oversee the ill and aging. Aid is given expeditiously and with sufficient care. Inside this facility, the atmosphere imbues a sense of compassion with a warm bedside manner, as opposed to the traditional contempt and negligence present in most other prisons. 

But the devil is in the details. With an interested eye trained on discrepancies and misguided, policy-driven loopholes, even an amateur would quickly learn that this facility is offered more as a reward than as needed medical housing.

It takes years of good behavior to accrue enough credits to even become eligible for this medical sanctuary. Only a select few are granted access. That’s bad news for prisoners like me and other aging convicts who could at any moment suffer one last seizure and learn that they were right all along: Help is never going to make it in time. 

But that’s OK. Only five more years to go before I am eligible for quality care (I am 42). I might even make it that far. In the meantime, I’ll just keep my head down and hope for the best, because — well, let’s face it — gladiator school is always open and nobody is exempt.

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.

Shawn Younker’s writing has appeared in prison journals, newsletters and magazines. He is incarcerated in Pennsylvania.