A boy hung himself in the downstairs unit this morning. A gaurd found him in his cell, strung up from the ceiling.
I say he was a boy, but he may very well have been a full-grown man. It’s hard to tell a person’s age in prison. The oversized athletic wear–the mesh shorts, sweats, and t-shirts–tend to make a everyone look small and childlike, as if the compound were a playground rather than a medium security prison. And they certainly do act like children.
This boy, this man, this person, was black and lived in a cell by himself. I heard someone, another black man, identify him as “red,” and it is this particular detail, which is all I really know of the boy, that has stayed with me and which now encompasses his entire identity–the boy I call Red.
Before coming to prison, having lived in a predominately white world, I never noticed that there were hues of dark skin just as there are hues of white. But now that I’m in the minority, I see an entirely new palette: muddy reds, mustard browns, purples as black as raisins.
Hearing of Red’s death this afternoon made me think back to when I first arrived here and grappled with my own suicidal thoughts. I too considered hanging myself, but having no anchor or rope, I turned my attention to the bottle of Aspirin I had purchased from commissary. I fantasized, very briefly, about downing all 100 tablets, climbing up into my bunk, and dying a quiet death. (The prison psychologist later told me that ingesting a bottle of Aspirin would not have killed me; it would, however, have likely caused serious and long-lasting injuries.)
What I don’t understand, what is bothering me most about Red’s suicide, is the question: Why now? Why did he kill himself in the final year of a 12-year sentence?
My former probation officer told me that leaving prison, for many, is harder than entering. There’s even a term for it– institutionalized. It refers to someone who has grown so accustomed to life behind bars that they fear being released back into society. These are the people who, for whatever reason, wind up back in prison, back to what is most familiar.
Is that what happened to Red? Had he become “institutionalized?” Did he wake up one morning and see nothing but failure waiting for him on the other side of the fence?
What fate awaits me on the other side of the fence?
Another thing that’s been bothering me: Had I not heard of the suicide from another inmate, I would never have guessed something was awry. As I sit and write, the familiar sounds of prison life just beyond my cell suggest nothing out of the ordinary. The sound of someone peeing next door, a toilet flushing, the banter, the lively sports debates, the clanking of dominos, the shouting on top of shouting, everyone trying to be heard, seemingly unaware of there being one less voice in the crowd. Life as usual.
Back in high school, when a student killed himself, the school mourned for weeks–prayers around the flagpole, a moment of silence after the pledge of allegiance, grief counseling. But who’s mourning for Red? Were they both not lost and in need of help?
We righteously defend the value of life–protect the children, adopt a pet, save the rainforest, eat sustainably, fetuses feel pain, and so on–but when a person makes a mistake, as all people do, we segregate, cage, and institutionalize them. And then we criticize them when they fall and are unable to see that their failure, Red’s failure, is our own.