by Eric Lincoln Miller
Book Review: 30 Years Behind Bars: Trials of a Prison Doctor
By Karen Gedney, MD
DRG Consulting, LLC, $14.95, 384 pages
Karen Gedney took the Hippocratic Oath over 30 years ago, and accepted an assignment at a state prison in Carson City that was originally supposed to last 4 years. In a trial by fire as a young woman doctor placed in a men’s penitentiary, she confronted cold indifference at best by prison administrators, and downright hostility by nurses and other medical staff on the yard.
It turned out that the State of Nevada had been sued for millions of dollars for not providing adequate medical care for its state inmates. In the era of President Reagan, there was a push to privatize prisons and get government out of the business of running them. To say that life in Dr. Gedney’s prison yard was dysfunctional would be an understatement. In the beginning she didn’t have a supervisor, a handbook of procedures, or anyone to turn to for guidance or questions. She was thrown into a kind of lion’s den and expected to fend for herself.
Two years into her assignment she was taken hostage in her office and sexually assaulted by a suicidal inmate. The ensuing lockdown and siege lasted for hours, leaving the inmate dead and Dr. Gedney’s office covered in blood with a big hole in the wall where a grenade had been thrown. This happened ironically on a Friday the 13th, a couple of weeks before Halloween. Dr. Gedney, however, did not miss a beat and she showed up for work on Monday to find her office in disarray and not one of her coworkers or administrators saying anything about what happened. The remarkable thing is that the ones who really cared, the ones who reached out to her with real sympathy and concern were the inmates themselves. In fact, they were outraged at what their fellow prisoner had done. “He broke the convict code,” one of her patients said. The outpouring of support on behalf of the inmates was completely disarming to Dr. Gedney. They had responded to her because she actually cared about them, she had tried to help them, and this made all the difference. She spent the next 28 years as a dedicated physician in that yard.
Dr. Gedney is a great storyteller and she reaffirms by writing her life story that all human beings deserve respect, that even in the harshest of conditions one doctor can heal the mind and body and do the real work of corrections. She never sugarcoats the harshness of life behind bars, she tells it like it was — the gritty politics of “lock them up and throw away the key,” the different personalities of the wardens and administrators who came and went, and the challenges of providing care in a jail environment. She establishes the fact that running a more efficient prison system comes from compassion, the idea of treating everyone with respect and dignity. It turns out that this is a good business practice — it’s cost effective.
Ultimately Dr. Gedney not only tells a dramatic and heartfelt story, but she establishes herself as one of the best in the business, starting out as a naïve young physician who survived a world she was ill-prepared for and turned it into a calling.
Eric Lincoln Miller is the founder of 3ibooks Author Services, helping professionals create books and tell their stories in a compelling way. He is based in Reno, NV. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org