What It's Like to be a Doctor in a Supermax Prison

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Aug. 8 2014 11:47 AM

"I Was Scared to Death"

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This article originally appeared in Business Insider.

After 30 years as an ear surgeon and a short-lived retirement, William Wright replied to an ad for a physician position at the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP), the state's maximum security prison housing the most violent and dangerous adult male offenders. 

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His eight-year experience as a general medicine doctor at CSP is now the basis of a book called Maximum Insecurity: A Doctor In The Supermax. Business Insider spoke with Wright recently about what the prison is like from a doctor's perspective. 

Wright sought the position at CSP because it was different from anything he'd done before, and he even thought it would be fun.

But that wasn't how he felt on his first day. “I was scared to death," he told Business Insider. "I had never been inside a prison, let alone worked in one.” 

Wright felt claustrophobic and particularly intimidated by one of his first patients, young death row inmate Nathan Dunlap. In 1993, a 19-year-old Dunlap murdered four employees and seriously injured a fifth at the Aurora, Colorado Chuck E. Cheese where he formerly worked, before stealing cash and game tokens.

"He kind of smiled at me and he said, 'You’re scared of me, aren't you, Doc,'" Wright recalled of the moment he began his checkup. "I said, 'Well, you know, I'm just here doing an exam.' And he said, 'I be the baddest guy you’ve ever seen.' And he was.”

Gradually, Wright became more familiar with his surroundings and the characteristics of his patients. They were always escorted into his office shackled by their arms and feet, with at least two guards no more than five feet away. Some inmates tried to bribe Wright by offering to get him expensive contraband, like a Rolex watch, in exchange for helping them smuggle letters past censors or haul drugs.

Others pestered him with requests for things they didn't need, like painkillers, sleeping medications, and special shoes and diets. Such efforts were typically their only reason for being nice.

"Many of them are extremely charismatic. They're your best buddy. They'll just be so nice and helpful and respectful, until you say no," Wright said. "And then it's all over. They can turn on a dime and it's like flame comes out of their eyes."

The prisoners in CSP were "almost universally" sociopaths devoid of feeling empathy for anyone else, Wright said. “These guys aren’t ashamed of what they’ve done. They’re pissed that they got caught, but they don't really have much understanding about why they’re in prison, because to them they're just doing what they should be doing.”

Nonetheless, they were human just like anyone else when it came to the physical conditions Wright treated them for, ranging from warts to heart attacks. 

That was even the case for Marvin Gray, an inmate so massive that six guards accompanied him to Wright's office, rather than the usual two. Fastened with extra shackles, Gray was intimidating to the other hardened convicts at CSP. The 3o0-pound Gray was a serial killer, leader of a white supremacist gang at CSP, and had a reputation for multiple rapes against fellow inmates, according to the Denver Post.

But Wright treated him like any other patient. “We got along great ... He was a big guy and because of that he had bad knees," Wright said. "I would see him and inject steroids into his knees, and he’d feel better. It’s kind of like pulling a thorn out of a lion’s paw.” 

In order to perform his duties as best he could, Wright remained professional toward the inmates, avoiding discussing anything beyond their medical conditions. "I think probably the thing that helps the most is I treat them with respect. It's always 'Mr. So-and-So' and I never give them any grief about anything," Wright said. "It's just strictly professional, and if I show them respect, they show respect back, and that works out pretty well.”

He also didn't seek to learn the crimes his patients had committed, although some voluntarily told him. "It's really none of my business in the first place, and I'm afraid that it would change my attitude toward them,” Wright said.

To maintain his safety, Wright remembered never to let the inmates come between him and the door or allow them to pick up something as a weapon. Only one inmate tried to attack him. “I was telling him something he didn't want to hear, and he was pissed off about it," Wright recalled. "He's sitting on the gurney shackled hand and foot and yet he took a dive at me and all I did was sort of step back and push him down. He didn't get very far and the correctional officers were on him like white on rice.”

Wright was able to find subtle humor in his surroundings. When he took one muscular, six-and-a-half-foot inmate off seizure medication because he didn't need it, the prisoner began faking epileptic fits whenever he visited the clinic. "It got to be kind of comical," Wright laughed. "I'd just step over him and tell him not to trip anybody." 

That prisoner claimed he wanted to become a preacher when he was released. "When he got out, darned if there weren’t a dozen people who picked him up at the bus stop, and they were all 'Kumbaya' down to Texas together to start a church," Wright recalled.

The inmates weren't the only source of humor. When he couldn't fit his legs underneath his desk because his chair was too tall, maintenance staff improvised by cutting a 2x4 piece of wood and placing the slabs under the desk legs. 

Wright details that humor in his book.

“I wanted to show them what it was really like to function inside a supermax prison," Wright said. "Nobody knows what happens behind the walls, and it's not like what you see on TV. I think think it's funny as hell the stuff that goes on there.”

Nowadays, Wright runs the infirmary at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility housing medium security inmates, but he says he's willing to return to CSP if the state needs him there.

Cory Adwar writes for Business Insider.

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