Less than a year into 23 hour a day solitary confinement my grip on reality deteriorated to the point where death seemed a better alternative than life. There was something about the idea of death and total isolation that eclipsed the future like a tsunami on the horizon. It blighted all hope that tomorrow would be a better day. Tomorrow only brought uncertainty, fear and despair.
I spoke with a few guys on the block every now and then, learning a little about them. Four of us faced the death penalty. J-Will, the only juvenile among us, was looking at life for murder. The kid was wild and angry, as if his inner animal ruled. He seemed unable or unwilling to chill out despite a bunch of meds, but I couldn’t blame him since we all suffered in some way. Most of us internalized what was being done to us, whereas he made his pain into a weapon, banging it on the door or commode or screaming in a rage.
Four-High might as well have been the jail’s mental ward. Richard, a pasty looking middle-aged man, awaited a plea bargain after having his death sentence and conviction overturned for prosecutorial misconduct. He thought, very seriously, there were listening devices in the air ducts and refused to talk above a whisper lest the jailors hear him. During his hour of rec he skittered around the dayroom speaking to a few people in a hoarse mutter, then he hurried through a shower and back into his cell. He rarely used the phone.
Choppy seemed normal, but could be as rambunctious and violent as J-Will. He faced 127 years for a string of robberies, assaults and shootings. Because he refused to cooperate with the D.A. and his co-defendant was testifying against him, Choppy took his aggression out on the jailors. The only time he wasn’t angry was when he teased Richard for his paranoia and effeminate ways. Choppy would go so far as singing, “Mary had a little lamb” or reciting “Mary, Mary quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” whenever Richard came out for rec. Though Richard tried to laugh it off in his usual “aww shucks” manner it was obvious the teasing got to him—especially when everyone called him Mary.
At times the interplay between the two was entertaining, then reality closed the door on any amusement. Rod and Jimmy also faced the death penalty and both were loony in the way a lot of time in solitary confinement makes crazy people a lot crazier. Rod passed his time making animal noises, talking to himself or wrestling with his mattress. Jimmy sang, clapped and danced to imaginary music day and night. I don’t think he slept.
My issues were more self-destructive. One day I stopped eating, fed up with the bland, meager food. Self-hatred gnawed at my stomach and after a week it became this leaden weight that complimented my constant depression. I grieved for the victims, my wasted life and the loss of liberty. There were only the familiar cracks in the wall, a meaningless roadmap with one exit.
I wanted to die.
One evening after the midnight count, I stripped a sheet from my bank and tore it in half lengthwise. One end I tied to the bar over the window, the other I tied around my neck in a slipknot. Because the window was so high I rolled up my mattress and stood on it, took a deep breath and let it out, then kicked the mattress to the floor. As the full weight of my body jerked to the end of the sheet I swung once to the left and right. My bare feet flailed against the wall as I choked, then the sheet ripped, dropping me to the metal bunk. I lay there for a few minutes catching my break and massaging a burned throat, disappointed, but determined to kill myself.
The next day during rec I walked out of my cell and ignored Richard’s prattle, J-Will’s banging and Rod’s rooster impression. I climbed the stairs with my soap and towel in hand as if heading to the shower, but stood at the rail when I got to the top tier. From the top rail it was 25 feet to the concrete. I got on top of it and jumped.
Even in my emotionally wretched state a deep-seated need to survive forced my hands and feet out in front of me, turning a headlong dive into a half-assed roll. The fall didn’t knock me unconscious, but I felt as an insect might when it smacks into the windshield of a speeding car. It was incredibly painful, but more than that was the utter shame and defeat of another failure in a life full of them. There would be no easy escape.
My high-flying act was punished by the jailors. It wasn’t that I violated any rule against self-harm so much as caused a lot of paperwork with a trip to the hospital for x-rays and a cast. Upon my return I was stripped naked and shackled to a bunk in an empty cell. With the A/C on high the cell was frigid. Several hours later a folded paper gown slid beneath the door, it was to be my only covering for the next three weeks.
Days later a shrink stopped by the cell block. He didn’t care what my problems were and refused to answer me unless I prefaced a statement with “sir” or “Dr. LeStrange”. He was there to determine if I represented a threat to the safety and security of the jail, asking me repeatedly whether I still wanted to die. My answers were terse and noncommittal because I knew it didn’t matter what I told him, Dr. LeStrange was not there to help me, and would make certain I stayed naked.
During my hour of rec they shackled me to a table near the phone or handcuffed me in the shower while a guard watched me wash. If I refused to shower they threatened to use a fire hose, which wasn’t an idle threat because I saw it done to a Mexican kid the year before. I ate because the alternative was a feeding tube. They watched me day and night to be sure I hadn’t discovered some surreptitious way to commit suicide.
As miserable as the situation was, the shock and pain of the fall cleared my mind of any delusions regarding death, my confinement, or escaping fate. I would face what was to come. Choppy and Richard visited during their rec periods, teasing me about the paper gown and thumb-spike cast on my wrist. J-Will even dropped by, saying “Man, you’re crazy! I didn’t think you’d do it, then you go flying through the air and WHAM! You looked just like a frog. Except they land better.” I could only laugh.
It was an odd place to feel a sense of comradery, but it helped to know I was not alone. We were to be tried for our lives, removed from society as if we never mattered, despite our shared humanity. It hurts to think of being cast off like so much trash, but since my time on Four-High I’ve come to understand that I am not alone and this has helped me to remain strong through the toughest of times.