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A Nevada Prison Doctor's View From The Inside

A blond woman stands on the grounds of a prison, between a guard tower and a mulit-level brick prison buildilng.
Lauren Casto
Dr. Karen Gedney stands between a prison and a guard tower. Gedney served 30 years as a prison doctor and details the trials and triumphs from a career inside.

To pay back a medical school scholarship, Dr. Karen Gedney was required to work four years in an underserved area, and she got assigned to the Northern Nevada Correctional Center back in the 80's. It's a medium security facility outside of Carson City. Gedney ended up staying her whole career. She says the job was a 'calling' that provided her the chance to be a real healer. Her new book, 30 Years Behind Bars, chronicles her experiences as a prison doc, and KUNR’s Holly Hutchings spoke with her about it. 

Dr. G, as she likes to be called, entered the field of gray buildings and chain link fencing her first day as a prison doctor with a dry mouth and her heart beating out of her chest. The cold cement walls and loud buzzers granting permission through multiple doors felt unwelcoming and stark. The doctors before her didn’t last long on the inside because it was not considered a great career move to take this job, and most who gravitated toward it tended to have dings on their records. 

The four-year payback requirement for the scholarship passed and Gedney stayed to continue the work she had started. She enjoyed having the freedom to practice medicine that was based on patient needs. As a so-called "jack of all trades" internist, the prison gave her the opportunity to treat a multitude of illnesses.

The AIDS epidemic was raging in Gedney’s first few years on the job. She pioneered AIDS treatment in the Nevada facility and says she was one of the first doing drug treatments for HIV in the prison world. She also was trained in oncology and began treating those stricken with cancer.

“If you’re an internist, you cannot get more interesting medical cases," she said. "Also, you have the ability to have tremendous impact because I didn’t have to deal with insurance companies telling me, ‘You can only see this patient for 15 minutes. Keep churning people out. We have to cover overhead.’ I had the unique ability, if I needed one minute with a patient or one hour with a patient, I made that decision based on medicine.”

Normally, Dr. G wouldn’t see her patients with guards present. She generally felt safe in the prison; however, her sense of security was rocked one day when a model prisoner held her hostage in her office for hours.

Kenneth James Meller, who went by 'Moth,' was an extremely bright Vietnam veteran. He first tested the waters with her by opening up with his emotions, and she worried that his depression might lead him to commit suicide. Eventually, he began to transfer his emotions to her and developed an attraction to her.

“He was never, ever violent in the prison,” Gedney said. “So the dilemma is, what do you do? And I thought I could help him. He ended up taking me hostage to get himself killed. It’s like suicide-by-cop. It was all planned. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing.”

That day was Friday, the 13th, and the hostage situation lasted ten hours. It came to an end when sheriff’s deputies threw a flash-and-band grenade into the room, causing a flood of brilliant light that forced Gedney to the ground. Shots then rang out and Moth was killed a few feet from Gedney.

It was tough to come back to work, but on the following Monday she was there. The compassion and outpouring of care from inmates was what helped her get past the dark days after the incident.

One thing that changed during her time at the prison was the snap judgement that she used to make when seeing a drug addict, homeless person or, of course, a prisoner. Many inmates gave her immense hope for their futures. Many got their educations while inside, and some have gone on to have successful careers when released. She says the right encouragement and fostering of their talents can lead to those positive outcomes, and providing that support to kids is a crucial tool in keeping them out of prison to begin with. That's why Dr. G and her husband currently mentor kids who are at risk for going to prison.  

Learn more about 30 Years Behind Bars here.

Holly Hutchings is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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