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.

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

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.”

She was never given a response in writing, she says. “When they’d say they couldn’t afford it, I’d look for cheaper ways to do it, for temporary solutions.”

She sent letters to supervisors Donna Brecker, Mike Ross and Nicholas Vainas, as well as to Williams. She gave statistics and detailed various temporary and permanent solutions to the problems. Some suggested moving patients from this area to this or that building, and she outlined how to do so effectively. She naively assumed, she says, that by going through the proper chain of command, her supervisors were taking her concerns to OCSD, who would need to work with the HCA to approve any facilities changes.

“All I wanted to do was bring the women’s area up to the same standards of care as the men’s for the female patients and nurses who worked there,” Matthews says. “I used to tell them, ‘Please, please, just fix it, because if you don’t, people are going to sue when this comes out in the news. They’re going to sue for loss of relatives or children or for their right to have an adequate medical area.’”

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