She emphasizes that medically ill and mentally ill women are placed in individual cells. “We certainly aren’t going to put mentally ill women in with the medically ill women,” Robles says, laughing. Later, when asked about the side-by-side proximity of the cells in the 15-cell cluster, she concedes that the medical and psychiatric patients are “in the same general area.”

Robles says she’s not really sure if patients can hear one another when there’s screaming in the women’s observation area. “Can they hear each other? I don’t know, it’s pretty thick glass,” she says of the windows on the metal cell door. “I don’t know.”

While she has been director, she says, no one has raised concerns about the situation in the unit.

Aaron McKinney
A nightmare in 2003 triggered the nerve damage in Matthews' right arm
Jeanne Rice
A nightmare in 2003 triggered the nerve damage in Matthews' right arm

But nurses who spoke to the Weekly disagree. “We had meetings with her. We would speak up and say what was going on. She said, ‘I’ll do something about it,’” says Agbahiwe. “After a while, you don’t speak up anymore because it falls on deaf ears. Or you’re punished somehow. So you just adapt, and when you can’t work anymore, you leave.”

*     *      *

Matthews, 51, shuffles across her hardwood, living-room floor like an arthritic old woman. She’s barefoot, her right arm in a brace and somewhat limp against her body. A recurring bullet-to-the-chest dream resulted in a torn nerve in her shoulder in 2003, leaving parts of her arm and several of her fingers numb. She calls to her old, black Chihuahua, Sophie, who hobbles around nearby. “Come sit next to me, girl,” she says gently.

She seems brittle. Her left hand trembles. She drags her right leg a little, as she’s adjusting to a new brace. Her waist-length locks are in an upswept bun that seems to balance precariously on her head. She’s 47 pounds lighter than she once was. When she speaks, her voice quivers.

Matthews has been disabled and unable to return to work for five years. Every day, she must lie still for hours because movement is simply too excruciating. She says the fibromyalgia manifests itself as a painful, eerie sensation of her ligaments and muscles pulling without any lubrication. If she leaves the house, she must bring along a wheelchair.

Her sleep is still erratic, bleak and haunted: Sometimes, she is vomiting rivers of decaying corpses—pregnant women and babies. “It must be because of all the babies we lost at the jail,” she says.

There are rape dreams, dreams in which fellow nurses are being injected with HIV, shooting-spree dreams and throat-cutting dreams. “They’re so vivid. I can feel it right here,” she says, running her finger across her neck. “I’ve lost my health, my career, everything. And it’s all because I wasn’t able to fix the women’s jail. If they fix it, I know I’ll get better.”

When she started in her senior post in 2000, she says, the inequities between the men’s and women’s facilities jarred her. “The old EKG machine in the men’s jail was replaced with a brand-new one,” Matthews says. “When I changed over, I noticed they had given the old one to the female jail.” She put in a flurry of requests, beginning with the new EKG machine. She created a supply room, reordered equipment for a proper treatment room and had the area painted.

She brought up her housing concerns for the women “very gently in that first year,” she says, “because you can be let go for anything.”

After that, she decided to begin documenting her conversations with her supervisors with requests in writing. “They were sending me to classes saying that if there are safety hazards, you need to fix them because it’s your responsibility,” she says.

When she finished her probation, she sent her first letter recapping the issues she’d been bringing up for the past year. “I was getting worried,” Matthews says. “I wanted a paper trail. I’d been telling them and telling them about things needing to be fixed, and nothing was getting done.”

She went through the appropriate channels, she says, because she didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. She began with her immediate supervisor, then went up the chain to two more supervisors and to the medical director, Williams. (The HCA denied the Weekly’s request to interview Williams.) “Whenever I would talk to a specific person about it and send a letter, I would cc the other people I had already talked to about it, so that they all knew,” she says. “I kept giving them ways to fix it, and they kept saying, verbally, that they couldn’t afford it.”

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