This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
One morning, I am woken up by an officer telling me I’m scheduled to be on a bus ride to the hospital with other prisoners, also known as a “medical chain,” the next day. Lately, I’ve been experiencing a series of irregular heartbeats that cause me to pass out and become a burden on the staff, which apparently has become enough of a nuisance for them to refer me to a cardiologist at a hospital in Galveston, Texas.
As I rub the sleep from my eyes, I begin the task of strategically packing my property into potato sacks, otherwise known as “chain bags.” I dread the misery of the next three days: seemingly endless riding on a cramped bus; suffering from motion sickness while handcuffed to an inmate with bad breath; having to use the onboard toilet while trying to keep balanced; and, worst of all, strip-searches and an inventory of my property each time I enter or leave a facility.
On about four hours of sleep, day one begins with the Blue Bird’s departure (that’s the type of bus), transporting myself and about 25 other female prisoners. Our first stop, after an hours-long drive, is a men’s prison, which just so happens to primarily house sex offenders.
We are offloaded behind two sets of fences lined with razor wire and escorted to dirty segregation cells where we will stay for a few hours so the drivers can change shifts. The male prisoners stare at me like I am a piece of fresh meat; one of them grabs his crotch, and the officer escorting us orders him to face the wall as we pass.
By 2 AM, we are on the bus again, after having a total of seven hours of sleep in the past two days. Soon, we arrive at the hospital’s waiting area, and for another eight hours we sit on benches so narrow it’s impossible to stay upright.
After all that, I meet the cardiologist, who seems awful rushed. He administers an EKG—the same thing the unit healthcare provider at the prison had done—and confirms, “Yep, it’s beating too slow…” (duh) and then, “We will have you brought back here in two weeks for some more tests.”
And then he was gone. Five minutes later, I am back in the waiting area watching the clock for our departure.
On day three at 2 AM, on a total of nine hours of sleep, we are back on the Blue Bird again, and this time we’re not stopping—not for a person in need of medical attention, not even for a fight. Their reasoning is that a “situation” could be a decoy for an escape attempt; if anything does happen, the bus driver must wait to pull into the next closest prison, which could be anywhere from five to 50 miles away.
All I want is to be back in my bunk in prison. At once, the irony of it all hits me: For years, all I’ve ever thought about is getting out. Now all I want is in!
I sit back in my seat and observe the free world out of a quarter-size hole in the metal that covers the bus window.
There is not enough moonlight to show the clouds. We could be at 2,000 feet or 22,000, which is also how I feel in relation to my past and future: unanchored, floating between them. How did I get to this point? What good will this dreadful experience do for my future?
Outside I see people under streetlights, pumping gas into their vehicles; a man on his cellphone who looks lost; a worker passing bags of burgers through a drive-thru window. At a red light, I see a woman—who appears to be a prostitute—jump out of one car, straighten her mini-skirt, and hop into another. Later, I see homes and businesses in various stages of construction, taco stands, and a couple on the side of the road assessing a fender bender they just got into.
What catches my attention the most are the children. When you live in a place where they are absent, they seem suddenly strange, with their short little legs chasing their mothers into stores. If they only knew the value of the freedom they possess.
I think back to driving to work, paying the bills, the free world in all its normalcy.
I think back, also, to a decade ago, when I sobered up just in time for my daughter to be born. I remember watching her finish her bottle, before reaching her tiny fingers toward my face. I’d thought about how perfect she was.
But I couldn’t wait to get high once she was born. Two months after that, I was 30 pounds lighter and would soon stand before a judge and a caseworker to determine the placement of my child. My cousin offered to be an adoptive parent, wanting nothing more than the chance at what I had been so freely given, yet so easily taken for granted: motherhood.
My daughter, with her big, forgiving eyes, deserved so much more than I could give her, and it would only be a matter of time before my unwillingness to change, to get sober, would taint her perfection. To continue holding on felt selfish.
Finally, one day, I handed her small squirming body to my cousin as a tear slipped from my eye.
Who knows what could have become of my daughter had I dragged her through a lifestyle of drug-induced dysfunction? Maybe one day she will appreciate what I did and want to get to know me.
As the wheels on the bus go round, my mind spins, thinking about the many mistakes I’ve made. The memories serve several functions; one is to dampen the longing for freedom that is stirring in my soul because I didn’t cherish my freedom when I actually had it.
Some incarcerated people say it is easier not to think about freedom at all.
Suddenly the ride is over. I step off the bus, and the early morning sunlight assaults my eyes. With one last look at the Blue Bird, I realize that I will never forget this trip. And I don’t want to forget: It reminds me that no matter how painful, I cannot forget that time is valuable, and that I may yet become a free bird again.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice did not respond to a request for comment on "medical chain" bus conditions.
Deidre McDonald, 34, is incarcerated at the Carol Young Complex in Dickinson, Texas, where she is serving a maximum sentence of 30 years for forgery offenses stemming from a drug addiction.
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