Several of my fellow residents and I tried to improve conditions for the prisoners. We began staffing regular clinics in the jail, and at the minimum security Dade County Stockade, and we were able to substantially cut down on transfers to Ward D.
One late afternoon, as I was leaving the jail clinic, one of the guards asked me if I would mind checking on an inmate he was concerned about. He said he looked like he was in a trance, that he hadn’t moved or batted an eye since they brought him in the night before.
We walked up to the fifth floor, accompanied by a surround sound cursing cacophony. “Hey Doc, look at this!” “Fuck you!” Screams. Urine thrown.
The young man was alone in his cell, sitting in a lotus position, staring straight ahead. He was slender and wore an overlarge white jumpsuit. He was handsome and Hispanic, with dark brown curly hair. His name, the guard said, was Jose, and he’d been brought in the night before on a burglary charge. The guard had no more information.
Jose was motionless, catatonic. I suspected he was schizophrenic—although seeing him sitting like a baby-faced Buddha on the cell floor, it was difficult to imagine him stealing anything the night before. He did not respond to any of my questions. I picked up his hand and felt his pulse, holding his wrist, and he kept it there, chest high, when I let go. He had very long fingernails on his thumb and pinkie. Probably not a guitar picker, but handy cocaine spoons, I thought.
The guard called downstairs for more help and a gurney. We picked Jose up and rolled him to the small jail clinic.
Ron, a physician assistant, was there starting duty for the night shift. He was tall, fit, and smiling, with short blonde hair in a flat top and a clean-cut, confident presence. This was the first time we’d met. Ron watched as I examined Jose. He had evident needle track marks on his hands and forearms, and he kept his arms in the same positions I put them in while examining, like a doll, unmoving. His heart and lungs were fine and his pupils responded normally, contracting to my penlight, but I didn’t even try to have him lie down—he was stuck in his rigid, cross-legged posture.
Ron nodded his head at me, and we walked into our small office. Ron told me he thought that someone had put a mojo on Jose—that he was hexed, and that his fingernails were a clue. “Santeria,” he said.
I’d just learned about Santeria the week before—an Afro-Caribbean belief system that spread from the Yoruba culture of West Africa to Cuba and the Americas. Joan Halifax, a PhD. student in anthropology, had given a fascinating talk to our residents about hexing, spells, mojos, and witchcraft among the mix of Cubans, Haitians, Puerto Ricans, and Bahamians living in South Florida.
I suggested to Ron that we might be seeing hysteria, a conversion reaction in which overwhelming mental stress can cause paralysis. But in any event, we ought to have him evaluated by the hospital psychiatrists, in Ward D.