Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Suicide Squad



“Hey, man, you’re too late!” comes the first shout to greet me. I tune out the other comments and catcalls as I enter the section and make my way to the backstairs, nodding and raising hand to cells as I go. The mood is more subdued than usual, but it’s not as much as you might expect.

Walking down the narrow tier on 2–row, I’m stopped by a black pool of congealing goo coming from the next cell down. The “house” I’m headed to, that I been called out to visit, is still many doors away.

“Kinda stinks, don’t it?” Says the guy in the cell beside me, his hands and face pressed to the open food slot in his metal door, at knee level.

I glance over, shaken. This is the first time I’ve ever seen so much blood, outside of a movie. I cringe at the thought of how much more must be covering the cell floor.

“They just left a couple of hours ago,” says the guy. “Took a video and all that crap. Didn’t even try to save him, though. No CPR, nothin.”

I doubt if it would’ve helped anyway. I say, “Where’s the SSI?” The janitor. I pity the inmate who has to clean this up.

“Haven’t seen him. Probably still passin’ out Johnies.” (Paper sacks with a hard-boiled egg and two slices of bread with a smear of peanut butter [it’s disingenuous to call it a sandwich]). Our breakfast, now, this past year or so. And too often our lunch and dinner.


A tug on my pants leg beckons me to crouch down to the guy’s level, where we can better converse. Overpowering the metallic smell of blood, now is the reek of feces and urine and unwashed body emanating from the 3 x 12” black hole. Though prepared, I still have to fight a gag reflex and breathe through my mouth. Like most prisoners in solitary, this poor fool probably hasn’t been given a shower in weeks.

I recognize him now, in the gloom. Old school. “Hey, how’s it going, Jerry? You hangin’ in there?”

“You should come last night,” is all he says.

“Yeah, well. . . “I’d only learned about the situation minutes ago. “Who was it? Emilio, right?”

“Yep. Dumb mother****r. I tried to tell him, six months is nothing. I’ve done almost 3 years in this sh**hole.”

Emilio had been new to 12–Building, to segregation. He’d recently been denied parole and started acting out, fighting. We talked a few times before, on some of my regular walks, days ago, but he hadn’t seemed any more depressed than normal. Which is a pretty sad statement when depressed is the normal around here.

Of course, I wonder if I could’ve said anything to Emilio that would’ve helped. I try to replay our brief conversations over, in my mind, but nothing sticks out. He was pissed off and frustrated and lonely as hell, but who isn’t when they’re thrown into a cramped, filthy cell without running water, for weeks on end. That’s the one thing he mentioned. I remember now: his sink didn’t work; he had to fill his cup from the toilet. And he had no mattress or sheets either, but that’s usual for new arrivals to seg. And he’d been pretty freaked out about all the mice and roaches. And all the noise 24/7, the screaming . . .


“I couldn’t do it,” I muttered to myself. Then louder, to Jerry: “I don’t blame him. I couldn’t do it either, man. I mean yeah, he made the wrong decision, but. . .

“He kept hollerin’ for psyche. . . For somebody,” Jerry interrupts. “Like, for hours. He didn’t just make a wrong decision, dude.” I shrugged. “But nobody came. Until way after shift change.”

This didn’t surprise me. Our unit, like prisons across the country, is dangerously understaffed. I’ve never understood why anyone would want to work here, or settle for working here, and clearly that thought is catching on. Guards are quitting in droves, and new recruits don’t last long at all. So, buildings that should have a minimum of a dozen guards, have to make do with two or three. Which means the one hour recreation prisoners are supposed to receive each day, i.e. fresh air, at least, if not sunshine or room to move, has become a distant memory of “better” times. And hours go by between count times, when a guard walks quickly by the cells, clipboard in hand, barely sparing a glance for the tragic soul inside, ignoring whatever pleas or entreaties come through the door.

 In general population, fights and sexual assaults are more prevalent among those forced to share a tiny cell.

Some prisons are kept on perpetual lockdown because there are not enough guards to respond to a crisis, should one arise. Other, smaller prisons are closing.

However, the worst side effect of this understaffing issue, for both prisoners and the communities to which they’re supposed to return  someday,is the vastly reduced number of rehabilitation and wellness programs available, limited as they were before. Education and vocational classes are canceled more often than held, due to security concerns. Psychiatric departments are also understaffed, and counseling is virtually nonexistent. . . A joke, really. So, unless an inmate takes the initiative, and has the ability, to rehabilitate himself, a prison is nothing more than a warehouse for the living dead.

Which brings me to the reason I’m squatting beside a giant, coagulating pool of blood and some roaches, I now notice, stuck to its edges. The number of suicides of prisoners across the country is rising at an alarming rate. We had three just this past week. So, our unit has created a suicide prevention team to help solve this PR nightmare and potential liability problem. Officially, were called the “Hope Squad” but everyone, including the warden, calls us the “Suicide Squad.” We’re summoned at all hours to talk with other inmates threatening suicide, or to just walk the buildings, the tiers of cells, to see if anyone simply wants to talk. But really, we all know that our job is to replace the guards and psychologists that we’ve never had enough of in the first place. And that’s fine, if it gets results.

But it’s not fine, as the newly empty cell beside me attests. I’m not a trained counselor. I can’t do anything about the cruel and inhumane conditions these guys are forced to live with. I can’t do anything about the voices in their heads. I can’t prevent them from screwing up and being sent to solitary or high security, or being denied parole. I’m just a nice guy who knows how to listen. I can be tough on the idiots who do drugs (which, unfortunately, is most of them these days). But again, I can’t really blame them: both drugs and suicide are the only ways they can “escape’s. . . One is just a bit more permanent.

“Are you here to talk to somebody?” Jerry asks me.

I nod and look in the direction I’m heading. “Yep.”

“Like Washington?”

I nod again. Poor Washington has had some trouble coping lately. He’s been talking a lot about hanging himself. And the cutting has gotten worse.

“I don’t get it, man” says Jerry as I stand to go. “Why do you care about that dude? I mean, they don’t.”

I can’t help but agree with that last part.

“They sure as hell don’t care how we live,” he says matter-of-factly. “So why should they care how we die?”

As usual, I don’t know what to say. I just shake my head and stare at the puddle in front of me.

Then I jump across.

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