By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Cells From Hell
One nurse says her futile efforts to improve the women’s infirmary at the Orange County Central Jail Complex have broken her body and haunt her dreams
Black water spills out from the pool in sharp bursts with each wet body that Teresa Matthews slaps down against the cement. The moon hangs like a halogen bulb over the bobbing babies in the water. She dives in and grabs one, maybe two at once, their bodies slippery and limp in her arms. There are more. She can’t get to them before their tiny mouths, pulling for air, succumb to their descent.
“Help me!” she screams. She begins CPR on the ones on the cement. She dives back into the pool.
Matthews jumps out of her sleep, disoriented and sweating. After a moment, she remembers: same dream, different night.
This time, her husband may give her a hug if she’s woken him with her screaming. She will then most likely retreat to the living room, where she’ll sit wide-eyed until the sun creeps over the hills, too afraid, she says, to go back to sleep.
A registered nurse, Matthews used to spend her days treating inmates—perhaps a woman who had gone into early delivery or a man who was on suicide watch—in the Orange County maximum-security central jail system, one of the toughest medical- and mental-health settings for a nurse.
Co-workers remember the 20-year veteran as a caring, no-nonsense nurse who put her patients and fellow nurses before everything else. She had a knack for coolly managing the sickest, wildest, most troubled male and female patients with focus and calm. Today, the former amateur surfer can rarely leave her house because she’s riddled with disease, near-paralysis and fear.
In 2003, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, fatigue and fibromyalgia, a debilitating chronic condition with widespread muscle, ligament and tendon pain. She and her doctors trace the beginning of her illnesses to Matthews’ three-year crusade to try to put an end to the gross inequities she says persist at the Orange County Central Jail Complex when it comes to female-inmate patients. Several nurses—most of whom spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, asking that their names be changed for fear of retaliation—say their concerns with regard to patient safety in the women’s and other medical areas in the jail have fallen on deaf administrative ears.
(Matthews is not Teresa’s real last name; in an effort to preserve her security clearance at the jail, she asked that a pseudonym be used for this story.)
Matthews says that the majority of the 18 years she spent as a nurse within the jail system were good ones. “I loved working in the jail. The nurses were fantastic, and the deputies were amazing.” But the problems started, she says, when she became a senior nurse at the women’s jail and began tackling the county’s Health Care Agency (HCA) administration, trying to make changes she felt were crucial to patient safety.
HCA administrators say they are unaware of any reason for concern in the women’s area. “We’re dealing with an increasing female population, and we’re not hearing any concerns from staff or anyone else,” says Institutional Health Services Director Maureen Robles, who oversees both the correctional medical services and mental-health departments within the jails. “If there ever was a concern, I don’t know what it was, or if that’s relevant if we’re not experiencing that now.”
But what some say is a deep-rooted rift over equipment, staffing and housing between nurses and the HCA was brought to light in 2006 following the death of female inmate Vicki Avila at the women’s jail infirmary. Grand jurors told HCA administrators to improve emergency-nurse training and equipment at county jails. “The nurses didn’t have the machine they needed to use on the inmate. They had to go and borrow it,” says “Karyn,” another jail nurse. “It’s still a huge problem.”
Matthews took a job at the maximum-security jail fresh out of nursing school in the early 1980s. “It was a lot different back then,” she says. “There have been a lot of improvements over the years, but most of them have been made to the men’s jail.”
Matthews worked full-time at the jail for about a year before working for a few years in labor and delivery in Long Beach and in surgery in Fountain Valley, to earn her stripes in other high-pressure medical settings. She returned to the jail soon after and spent the next 15 years there.
In 2000, Matthews was offered a promotion and full-time position as senior nurse at the women’s jail. She accepted. “I had no idea what was going on,” she says after beginning her new post. “I worked at the men’s jail since 1983, so when I went to the women’s jail after my promotion, I was absolutely horrified.”
As senior nurse, Matthews oversaw a small team of nurses who worked in the women’s dispensary, the first “sick call” stop for patients; the women’s infirmary, where the medical and psychiatric patients who needed more attention were observed by a nurse day and night; and a dormitory-like ward, where patients who didn’t require full-time observation were sent to recover.