Occupy Scabies: The Ten Year Anniversary

Since everyone is publishing their ten-year anniversary Occupy Wall Street reminiscences, I’d figure I’d do the same — not by offering commentary on how good or bad it was or what it all means to us today, but by reprinting something I wrote a few months after Occupy Los Angeles was violently broken up by LA cops, an event that I got to witness personally from inside a jail cell. Enjoy!

—Yasha Levine

Scabies: My parting gift from LA’s metro jail

By Yasha Levine • April 2012

It’s just past 2:00 pm out here in Venice Beach. The sun is out and a cool breeze is blowing from the Pacific Ocean. Outside my window, surfers are walking towards the beach . . . a young woman glides by on her bicycle in daisy dukes and a tank top. There’s a man lazing around in the shade of a dumpster. But I can’t enjoy the warm spring weather. I’m quarantined in my apartment, my skin is crawling with tiny parasitic mites that have tunneled into my skin and have turned me into a giant breeding vat. I’ve barely slept in days, and I scratched myself raw. And I owe it all to Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa and the fine men and women of the LAPD. Not only did they throw me in jail for covering a political protest, but they gave me scabies, too.

Until a few days ago, I thought my scabies was just a gnarly poison oak rash that I had picked up in the Santa Monica mountains after losing the trail and having to cut through the overgrown backyards of multimillion dollar mansions. For weeks the rash kept getting worse and worse, and I finally went to a doctor to get some relief. But it turned out that poison oak was the least of my worries.

“You have scabies,” said the doc, sucking in his breath through his teeth and shaking his head. It took him no more than 30 seconds to diagnose my condition. “The track marks are a dead giveaway,” he said, and pointed out a couple of elongated welts about a half-inch long creeping up the side of my right ring finger. These “tracks marks” were actually burrows made by  mother-parasites as they tunneled right below the surface of my skin and laid eggs in the process. I had dozens of similar track marks of all shapes and sizes on both hands. As I stared at my hands in disgust, the doc moved to the sink and violently scrubbed his hands with medical soap. Our contact was minimal, but he wasn’t taking any chances. And for good reason.

For those who don’t know, scabies is a highly contagious skin condition caused by an infestation from tiny, burrowing arachnid parasites called the Sarcoptes scabiei. The little buggers use their pudgy claw-limbs and stringy suction-cup grapples to latch on to your body during skin-to-skin contact and then instantly mobilize for a full colonization. Their goal: to turn your dermal layer into a vertically integrated parasite production machine. You are their food, their shelter and their toilet. Unlike many other parasites, scabies crabs go through all of their reproductive steps on one host—as in “you.” Mother-parasites use incisors on their hind legs to plow your skin like a fertile field and lay their eggs just below the surface. After the egglings mature into larvae, they burst through to the surface of the skin and look for a suitable place to start burrowing again, this time to drill personal breeding vats where they will mature into full-grown, fertile adult parasites.

Here’s what two scabies parasites look like copulating:

And here is a description of their chitinous sexual organs and mating patterns from A treatise on the parasites and parasitic diseases of the domesticated animals. Note the “vulvo-anal slit”:

The male organ is situated between the two last logs, on the middle line. It comprises a small number of strong chitinous pieces that form a complex genital armor, and which protects or directs the penis. Behind this arrangement there are often two circular  suckers, placed symmetrically on each side of the middle line, and which serve to fix the male to the female. The posterior border, in regard to these two copulatory suckers, has usually two prolongations or lobes furnished with several bristles, which may have a share in copulation.

In the female the anus serves also as vulva; and for this purpose, at a certain period, it assumes large dimensions, being then designated the vulvo-anal slit. When the young female has become fecundated, and is therefore an ovigerous female, this orifice becomes of a greater size, and is a special organ for ovulation.This ovulating vulva (the tocostoma of Railliet) is seen on the inferior surface of the cephalothorax, at or behind the second pair of legs, appearing as a transverse slit with wrinkled lips, and sometimes provided with accessory chitinous pieces.

All that construction work, copulation and defecation sends your immune system into red alert mode, triggering a monster rash and a crazy itch that’s impossible to ignore and not scratch raw. If left untreated, the scabies repeat the whole process over and over again until your skin hardens into a crusty scabies super-colony that could take months—or even years—to eradicate.

Luckily, mine hadn’t progressed that far. But by the time I saw the doctor, the parasite crabs had colonized every major part of my body. There were painful reddish welts on my shins, palms, soles, elbows, back of my knees and just about every finger on my hands—and I can feel the tiny welts on my fingertips hitting the keyboard keys as I type these words right now. My heels were encrusted with a scaly hard rash—a mixture of scabies track marks and poison oak. As I sit and write this, five days after my diagnosis, the scabies crabs have established a brutally itchy beachhead on my scrotum and have even managed to colonize my right ear lobe.

I’ve been sleeping most of the past week on the couch, but it’s too late: Looks like my wife Evgenia is beginning to show symptoms of a scabies infestation as well. This morning, she woke up with itchy, puffy track marks all over her hands and fingers . . .

According to my doctor, scabies parasites don’t usually attack anywhere higher than the neckline. But mine got a big boost from the poison oak. The rash I picked up in the Santa Monica mountains covered my shins, calves and ankles and oozed with a clear white liquid. It was on fire, and before long I was scratching my legs raw. The mites loved that—it was like tenderized meat. Plus, with all the scratching that I did, they hitched free rides to just about every part of my body, colonizing even a far-flung flesh like my right earlobe. They also got another boost from the cortisone cream that I started using in the hopes of reducing the itching. That proved to be a big mistake. There’s nothing scabies love more than cortisone, which helps soften and marinate the skin, and sends scabies parasites into a tunneling and egg-laying frenzy.

My big question for the doctor was: Where the hell could I have picked it up?

The doctor didn’t seem to care very much, though. He just shrugged his shoulders, simply telling me to launder my bedding and clothing and then started to write out a prescription for a powerful pesticide lotion that I had to apply all over my body.

In retrospect, I can understand why he hesitated to discuss where I might have picked up the parasite: Turns out most doctors consider scabies to be a sexually transmitted disease in “first-world” adult populations. So me being a journalist he probably figured I picked up the scabies at a border brothel somewhere or maybe while cruising for anonymous bathroom sex. He didn’t want to waste his time prying into the recesses of my sex life, especially after he learned that I was married. Who was he to judge, anyway? Better to just give me the pesticide cream, and send me off to have a good time . . . . And who could blame him?

But his hesitation instantly melted away when I mentioned that a few months earlier I had spent a couple of days in jail. He lit up. “Yeah, that’s where you picked it up,” he said, repeating it twice. But then our ten health insurance-allotted minutes were up and he pushed me out the door. “Come back in ten days so I can check up on you.”

As soon as I got home, I covered myself head to toe with the anti-scabies pesticide cream and I started researching the disease . . . . The more I learned, the more I agreed with the doctor: all the evidence pointed to me picking up the parasite sometime during my two-day stay at the Los Angeles Metro Jail.

The moment of the arrest.

I was arrested in the early hours of November 30, 2011, in downtown Los Angeles while attempting to report on the LAPD’s paramilitary eviction raid on Occupy LA. I was handcuffed with my hands behind my back and frogmarched to a prisoner transport bus, and spent the next two days bouncing around the central jail complex just a few blocks from where I was arrested. There were maybe a hundred of us there, and we spent hours sleeping on the floor of a prison garage, hands handcuffed behind our back. We were crammed into tiny holding cells with no place to sit or lie down except on the floor right next to the toilet. And I remember more than once waking up in a confused daze and looking up the urine-stained toilet bowl hovering above my head no more than a foot away. I spent my last day in jail, passed out on a prison cot with my head tucked under a ratty blanket to blot out the bright lights that stayed on 24 hours a day. Where did I pick it up? It could have been anywhere, but I think the bedding was the most likely infection vector.

The timing of my incarceration perfectly matched the incubation period of the scabies mite: I was in jail about three months before the first scabies symptoms showed up, which is in line with all the scabies literature. There is often a long delay between infestation and symptoms, and it could take a few weeks to a few months, or more, before you realize that your epidermis has been turned into a giant breeding container for a colony of parasite crabs.

I wouldn’t be the first one to pick up scabies in jail. Fact is, jails and prisons flare up with scabies outbreaks all the time. The CDC specifically names jails as one of the top destinations for scabies infestations. No sex required. It’s just a matter of probability.

A quick search of recent news brings up a couple of cases over the past few months in lock-up facilities around the country, including one happening right now at the Southern Regional Jail in West Virginia. The infestation has put the facility on lockdown and forced inmates to make their court appearances via video hookup. And that’s just what’s being reported in the news. Scabies outbreaks in prisons aren’t exactly front page—or any page—material, so it’s not like anyone notices or even cares. But go to prisontalk.com, the premier online forum for wives and families of people serving time, and you’ll read a whole lot of horror stories about scabies, as well as constant discussions and alerts about jails and prisons going on lockdown to stop scabies outbreaks–which seem to happen with alarming frequency.

The few stories that do cross the “important news” threshold either have to be particularly shocking or have some sort of sympathetic angle, like this AP story from 2006 about the disgusting conditions in California’s juvenile prison system highlighted by a lawsuit. Among other things, it appears that juvvies across the state, including Los Angeles, weren’t property sanitizing dirty laundry or even caring to wash shit stains out of dirty underwear, a practice that made it extremely easy for kids to pick up scabies, as well as lice, genital herpes and a bunch of other nasty parasites.

Of course this story just skims the surface of the problem. It’s not just scabies, but America’s barbaric Abu Ghraib penal system itself.

It was just a few years ago that a panel of federal judges ruled that California’s prison system is so overcrowded that the state was judged to be violating the Eight Amendment, which protects Americans against cruel and unusual punishment, just by keeping inmates incarcerated. According to the 2009 ruling, California’s prisons resembled third-world dungeons, where prisoners are triple-stacked and put anywhere there’s room: hallways, gyms, utility closets . . . and where infectious diseases roam unchecked and sick inmates die for lack of treatment. The reason: 150,000 inmates were housed in a system designed for only 80,000. At the time, the judges ordered California to immediately reduce its prison population by 25 percent, but the ruling was appealed. It took two years for the Supreme Court to uphold the decision, which it did on May 2011. But the news didn’t get much media traction . . . No, it seems we care more about a few hundred prisoners in Guantanamo than we do about the 2.2 million nameless inmates rotting in jails and prisons across the country, many of whom are serving time for non-violent offenses.

Out of jail, thinking that the worst was behind me…

But I wasn’t thinking about this when my family bailed me out. And scabies didn’t even cross my mind. I was glad to be out, and about the only thing I could think about was whether or not my car had been towed—and if it was, how much it would cost and how I would get home. Other than that, I considered myself lucky to walk away unscathed. Sure, I was sleep deprived and dehydrated, and my wrists were raw from the plastic handcuffs. But that was nothing compared with what many others had to endure in jail. Some had been hit with “less-lethal” bullets from shotguns. A bunch of people had been stomped and bloodied by amped-up cops, and were denied medical care in jail. I found out later that day that a fellow journalist had been viciously attacked by a gang of police for having the nerve to protest their violent treatment of the press, and that scores of people had been locked in cages on a prison bus for seven hours, forced to urinate in their seats and then remain in their own filth for hours, watching their urine mix together and slosh around on the floor as guards drove the bus aimlessly around LA and even stopped for a Starbucks/Pollo Loco snack break.

Here’s how Deirdre, who was not even inside the Occupy LA encampment when she was arrested, described her experience in a comment posted on The eXiled:

Our group of women were fed twice in 2 days (vegan or otherwise), not allowed soap, toothbrushes, showers, sanitizer, and in some cases, toilet paper.. some were denied our medicines. We were kept on a bus for nearly 8 hours with our hands ziptied (and for the person above talking about handcuffs not being fuzzy, these weren’t handcuffs, think about the way rubberbands make your fingers blue.. [sic] closer to that, for 8+ hours, not what they’re intended for, zipties are meant to be temporary). Forced to pee on the seats of the bus whiled the guards (sheriffs) laughed at us, denying us water/food while stopping at starbucks/el pollo loco. When we begged them to show their humanity they blasted Christmas music so loudly we couldn’t hear eachother.. for 6 hours straight. We were ziptied around 1:45, and not booked until 5pm the next day. Until 5 pm, we got no phone call. We were never read our rights, I never spoke to a lawyer…

Yep, when I got out of jail, I thought I was lucky to walk away more or less unscathed and untraumatized. Little did I know that the LAPD had a special delayed-release surprise waiting for me and my family.