By Steven “Walks On The Grass” Maisenbacher
Headaches, Heartaches & Spiritual Challenges
Jason has left, I’m by myself but another Native is in the block. He had several falls to the addictions of his past while in other units. He had ended up going to the hole but coming out clean and sober and with that mentality in mind, he decided to come to Unicor and move down here. That put him in my block, but at the time I had Jason and since Jason and I had agreed not to just up and move out on the other person, I told the other brother I had a cellie and he could not move in, that I wasn’t going to break my word to Jason without giving him a chance to make arrangements to have a compatible cellie.
But once Jason left, the other brother asked, no begged, me to let him move in claiming his current cell mate was a problem and involved with all the things he was now “done” with. So I sat him down and told him that Ghost had handed the pipe down to me, that I was the pipe carrier for the Native Americans here on this yard and the spokesman for the Native group even before I became the pipe carrier. I made it amply clear that I live a certain way and there are things I will not tolerate or things that cannot be done in this cell because I have my pipe and the pipe for the group living here with me. See, our pipes are considered to be living entities by most Native Americans; they are reservoirs for our prayers and the spiritual wellbeing of the users of the pipes. So I let him know I would not tolerate any drugs, drug usage or gambling or alcohol or alcohol usage, nor would I allow any pornography, these are the rules. So if I let him move in he will not violate these conditions otherwise he would have to move out.
He really wanted to move in with me and of course he agreed, said he would never disrespect me or the pipe so we got with the counselor and made it happen. Things went well for a month and a half, up until I went to sick call. I still had the hacking cough and it was producing copious amounts of nasty stuff so finally I had enough. I went to sick call and saw (my now) favorite nurse. I sat down in her office and pulled out a vitamin bottle with a sample of the coughed-up stuff and said I thought I might need some antibiotics. She immediately agreed, said she would start the antibiotics but added she was going to need to get x-rays and some other things to see what is going on. She has me cough a fresh specimen in a bottle to send off to the lab and I’m to start the antibiotics. But then I told her I had had pneumonia a month before and didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to get us put back on lockdown. Well, she kind of flipped out like, “What?!? Are you serious right now? You could have died!!”
Yeah, I’m thinking sheepishly. So ok, I didn’t so let’s just get over it and fix this nastiness still coming out of me. Ten days later I am no better. I see the doctor this time and they put me on an even stronger antibiotic, plus they go ahead and do the x-ray that was ordered 10 days previously. The x-ray technician was out for 2 weeks so it took that long to get to me.
I go in, the tech says, “Chest against the plate.” click, whir, click… “Ok, breathe, now turn to the left and press your side against the plate.” Click, whir, click… “Ok, that’s it, have a seat on the bench while I review it.”
She leaves the door open and I have a clear view into the room. All of a sudden she steps to the door and says, “Doctor, can you please step in here for a moment.”
I see them looking at the monitor where my x-rays are posted, she is pointing and gesticulating. Then I hear her say, “OK, I will.” She was talking about having the radiologist read it ASAP and return the report. This was at about 1 p.m. so I went on back to work. At 3 p.m. as we are waiting to go in for the day the foreman calls me to the door and tells me they want me at medical. So I go over, and as I walk in the door I get a weird feeling, it’s strange, just felt like there was doom and gloom in the air.
The doctor comes out to get me and takes me back to her office. “Mr. Maisenbacher,” she says, “I have good and bad news.”
“OK, give me the bad so we can water it down with the good.”
She looks me in the eye and tells me they have found a mass in my left lung, and it does not look good. So the good news, they will do everything they can to get me out of here to where I can be treated or made comfortable, but first they want to do a CT scan.
The news is devastating. I just couldn’t believe what I just heard. I want to cry but don’t dare. Can’t allow myself to feel like I’ve given up. All I could say was that I will do whatever is necessary to beat this. “I don’t die easy,” I say, “I’m kinda hard to kill.”
The doctor offers me some pills for depression and anxiety. I decline. “No, I want to face this on my own terms, not under the fog of some drug, but thanks.”
I walk out the door, this is the hardest walk of my life. I have made it thru 37 years and just when the end is in sight with only 17 months left to serve, to be told I probably had cancer, and to have the doctor suggesting it might not be treatable…so many emotions I couldn’t name one other than the one biggest one: Why would the Creator change me, turn my life around, just to take it before I could ever get to freedom and have a chance to live the changes and share the beauty of these ways.
I’m shaken for real! While walking back all I could think about was how to face this with my family, I just couldn’t call everyone and tell them about this. I need my cousin, Sings Many Songs, she is the one person who always says the right thing. She is so full of compassion and understanding that I sometimes just shake my head when I think of the wise things she says, able to always show me a better way if I feel I’m faltering.
So I get back to the block and go into my cell, I tell my cellie, they just called me to medical to tell me they found a massive mass in my lung and they are going to send me to a medical center. He looked at me and said nonchalantly, “You’ll be all right.” His tone was so cold and unfeeling, I would later find out he was using drugs and under the influence of narcotics at that very moment. So I called Sings, and when I told her the entire story she was as floored as I was. I asked her to please call my brother and email my friends to tell them what is going on. I just couldn’t face all the questions that I couldn’t answer. I was just not prepared to deal with any of it yet and while I had managed to put on the brave face for everyone so far, it was in fact a weak cover for the distress I was actually feeling,
I couldn’t think or do anything but trip over the fact that I was really, really ill and may not be able to get thru it. It was tearing me up and I just couldn’t talk to anyone about it. Evidently medical didn’t have the same dilemma, they told everyone, revealing medical information about me without my permission to all sorts of people. Granted, they were all staff, but they still didn’t need to be briefed on my medical condition. A couple days after the news, on a Saturday morning I was sitting in the day room and watching TV when in comes the chaplain and his assistant. He sits down at the table with me and tells me how sorry he was to hear the news and was there anything I wanted to do or say. Then he asked if I was alright.
Well no, actually I’m not. I don’t know whether to cry or laugh. I don’t know whether to fight it or just die. I don’t know anything other than the fact that if I did know anything he would not be the person I would want to confide in with anything or for any reason. See, I’ve been around the block a few times with these prison chaplains and there is one thing I know. If they want to be a cop as bad or worse than to be a chaplain, it’s not worth the time to even attempt to trust them with your inner feelings or problems, because they are seeing everything from a “cop” perspective and mentality. Chaplains are quick to say they are being paid to be both a cop and a chaplain, then from my perspective, usually the cop part is more important to them than the chaplain part. Maybe not in all of them, but certainly some, and this is a shame because guys in here really do need genuine spiritual guidance.
Anyway, they sent psychology as well. She didn’t even have to decency to call me to her office and offer to sit down with me to talk. She came to Unicor and called me to the front like I was a side thought to just get out of the way. So naturally my answer to everyone was “I’m fine, I’m dealing with it.” I just told them I would fight it however I have to and blew it off with, “I don’t die easy,” but inside I was dying every moment.
I kept praying for strength, especially in my dawn prayers. Normally I get up daily between 4 am and 5 am to pray then I will lay back down and wait for them to open the door, then it’s off to the races. But during this time my prayers were in my thoughts, dawn, noon and night until I went to sleep. So the first week goes by, and medical decides to do an x-ray every week to see how the pneumonia and the mass are progressing. Then here comes a bit of good news, the first x-ray shows the mass has diminished greatly.
Looking at the X-ray, the doctor tells me, “This is not cancer. Cancer doesn’t just start shrinking like that.”
I’m still not sure what the heck to believe, so I just keep praying and stressing and wondering what I will do if I have to have surgery or whatever. Then the next week same thing, the mass was still about the same, but the lung seems to be clearing of the milky looking part that all but filled it in the first X-ray. So the antibiotics are definitely working now and the pneumonia is going away. Then the fourth week, on March 11, 2021, they come get me from work, lock me up overnight then take me out the next morning for the CT scan. When I get back to the institution I have to be screened by the doctor and while he is seeing me, he calls the hospital and they tell him they find absolutely nothing of a dreadful nature! The lesion in the lung had been part of the pneumonia, just what I had hoped it would be all along.
So naturally I’m leaving medical so elated I’m actually laughing uncontrollably. This has been one heck of an emotional ride. I had been convinced I was dying and then there was hope, then the attempts to counsel me by both the chaplain and psychology services, and every staff member they told, all my unit team, all the cops at work, and I am totally without any stupid cancer! Insane! I thought I should sue them for mental and emotional distress, but at this point I’m just glad to be ok. But hold on… it gets better…
March 12, I get back to the unit and call Sings to give her the news. We are both beyond pleased and happy. After our call, I go ahead and take a shower and I’m thinking a nap is in order so I go and lay down. Now its 3 p.m. and my cellie comes in from work. We really haven’t been talking because he is using drugs and I refuse to have even the simplest conversation with him. Now its lock down for count and all of a sudden, the cop comes, unlocks the door, asks my name and then tells me I have to go to the lieutenant’s office.
“Don’t worry you are not in trouble.”
OK, whatever, I go up there and see two more cops dressed in what looked like hazmat suits. I can hear a lieutenant loudly talking in the office saying something about “He has been walking around my compound with TB for weeks!”
I’m pretty sure they couldn’t be talking about me, but when they come out it’s, “You’re going to the hospital to be tested and have tests run for TB.”
“WHAT?” I argue, “Look you got the wrong man, I just got tested for cancer and I’m clear, so I know it ain’t no TB.”
They tell me I don’t have a choice, either I go or they put me in the hole and get a court order to do it, but either way, “You’re going.”
So I say, “You know what? I’m sick of you people, let’s just go and get it over with.”
So off to the hospital I go. We get to the Coosa Valley Medical Center, they get me admitted and I’m placed in a negative pressure room, a private isolation room, with 2 cops in the hallway right outside, 24 hrs. a day. I’m shackled to the bed, with handcuffs and a long chain to the bed, but I’m alone with a TV and a remote and this is where I would stay for the next seven days. Over the course of that week they did 38 blood tests, ran 3 different antibiotics through an IV line 24 hours a day and gave me breathing treatments 4 times a day. They also had me do 3 sputum tests for TB and the piece de resistance, a bronchoscopy under anesthesia so the pulmonary specialist could run a tube down my throat into my left lung to look around with a camera and take a scraping of the lesion area. This doctor told me herself the next day that there was no reason for them to bring me there. They could have isolated me at the institution, done a skin test, and gotten the same results.
All this time I was not allowed to make any phone calls and my family was given no information as to where I was or what was wrong. I knew my loved ones on the outside would be worried sick wondering what had happened to me. Later I would learn that indeed my brother and Sings had been calling and writing emails to the warden and even high-ups in Washington, only to be ignored or get the usual bureaucratic run around. Further evidence that the BOP cares nothing about the emotional angst of inmates or their families.
An excerpt from one email asks: Was Steven whisked away so rudely that he couldn’t even take his paper with phone numbers with him, so even if someone was kind enough to hand him a phone he may not have been able to recall a number? Or is something more secretive going on? Where in the massive BOP bureaucracy can we find a modicum of compassion?
Despite the BOP’s extreme covert policies and problems with the pandemic, we insist Mr. Maisenbacher deserves better than this totally bizarre and inhumane treatment. He and those who truly care about him deserve some answers now. Whatever he is going through, we know Steve desperately needs kind, loving support and assurances now!
By the time I got back to the prison, the cough was totally gone, the pneumonia fully healed and I was 100% with a clean bill of health. When I was discharged from the hospital after having every test possible run to determine if I was contagious with anything, they put me in the hole in a quarantine cell, without any of my personal property, not even a list of phone numbers for another 14 days. Fortunately I was able to remember one number and I was able to call Sings.
WHATEVER Ok so maybe I had it, maybe I didn’t, But whatever I did have, damn near killed me. I laid in a bed in a cell, in this place, Couldn’t breathe, couldn’t eat, just lost in space. In this place you don’t dare, Never let ‘em know you are sick, Cuz you will be tossed in isolation, And forgotten is their trick. Now I’m still not together, And coughing every other space, But at least I’m alive, Able to sit here and elaborate. I’ve been ill before, But never just left alone to hallucinate, And I’m glad I pulled thru cuz I’ve got an outdate, And I’ve come too far to give it all up. So here's my message to you, And any others that may ask, Whatever I had, Sure kicked my ass... Whatever... Steven Walks On The Grass Written during his illness amid the Covid-19 quarantine, Jan 29, 2021
Thanks for reading and sharing my story!