No one seems able to agree on how the custom of knocking on the mess hall tables got started. Some say the practice began in state prisons where inmates, pressed to eat quickly, exchanged knocks in place of formal pleasantries. Some argue that apart from expediency, knocking discouraged men from talking with their mouths full. Yet others claim that originally one knocked to be granted permission before joining a table. Today knocking is an optional courtesy by which men excuse themselves from the meal. For those of us who observe it, the custom has become so deeply ingrained that we’ve mused whether it might follow us when we leave prison. Imagine rising from a meal and mindlessly knocking on the family dinner table. From what other bizarre behaviors will we have to break ourselves? Someone once told me that his stepfather continued for years after prison to live a Spartan life, owning only a single spoon, cup, and bowl.
Bailey nodded as he passed, oatmeal in hand, and took a seat at an adjacent empty table. I knocked and gathered my coat and tray to join him.
“The remediation was yesterday,” he said when I sat down. “She took everything—the house, the cars, the savings. She’s allowing me ten grand and my old tools, except the power washer. She says she’ll need that to get the house ready to sell by March.” Bailey’s hands fluttered over his tray, rearranging his breakfast. He moved the apple halves from the left- to right-hand slot and swapped his cup between the opposing corner hollows. His fingers trembled as he unraveled his spoon from his paper napkin.
“Twelve years we were married. We had a daughter together. I raised her two kids from her first marriage like they were my own. And from that I walk away with a few grand and some tools. ‘What am I supposed to do with tools?’ I asked her. She said I’ll have my family to care for me when I get out. I’ll be fifty then. I don’t need my elderly parents supporting me into my fifties.” He picked up his milk, set it back down. “I want to quit.”
He looked up then, perhaps remembering my participation in the suicide watch program, and my obligation to report troubling behavior.
“But I won’t,” he added. “I won’t quit.”
Such fatalistic language is a strong indicator of suicidal ideation. At this past week’s quarterly training we reviewed this and some of the more subtle symptoms of suicidal intent, which can include giving away possessions and losing interest in once pleasurable activities. A sudden shift from overwhelming despair one day to extreme joy the next is another sign that a person might be thinking of offing himself. Dr. Blatt reminds us that when speaking of suicide, “offing” is not one of the preferred terms prescribed in the Bureau of Prison’s Suicide Prevention for Inmate Companions handbook. Neither is it acceptable to say “committed” suicide, as it sounds criminal, or “completed” suicide, as death is not a goal to be encourage. Rather, when saying that someone has bit the bullet (also not a preferred term), we are directed to use the neutral and rather fussy formulation “death by suicide.”
One of the companions, Ledbetter, raised his hand. It’s true, he said, that joy can sometimes preempt suicide; he himself recalled feeling relieved after he’d settled on the decision to kill himself.
For those of us whose attentions had wandered, we were unsure whether we’d heard him correctly. A few of us had likely been transfixed by the drug posters hung about the classroom. One provocative image showed a young woman’s heroine-addled body overlaid with cutaways of her diseased gums, shriveled liver, and elephant-gray vulva. I’d been straining toward the handsome youth on the methamphetamine poster, hoping I might see penis, but Ledbetter’s head was in the way. He went on, recounting to the class how prior to his suicide attempt he gave away all his most prized possessions, finalized his will, even tidied up the house so as not to be a burden to the survivors. The classroom’s old grade-school desks creaked uneasily. Dr. Blatt seemed at a loss.
“How did you do it?” I wondered aloud.
“Hanging,” he said.
Later during the break, Ledbetter told me that it was by divine intervention he survived. He doesn’t know exactly what happened after he blacked out, but when he came to, it was to find he’d somehow regained a foothold atop the overturned paint bucket, which had miraculously righted itself.
Suicide, Dr. Blatt tells us, accounts for about 40,000 deaths per year in the U.S., a figure roughly double that of homicide. More women attempt suicide than men, but men more often die from their attempts because they tend to choose more lethal means. The resolute male reaches for rope and hot lead, whereas the fainthearted female dallies with razors and pills. At least this was my interpretation of the statistic, as it left me feeling emasculated for once having fancied downing a bottle of aspirin my first week in Mississippi. I had made the mistake of mentioning this remote fantasy in a monitored phone call and promptly found myself sitting across from the prison’s chief psychologist.
“Do you know what swallowing a bottle of aspirin would do to you?” he asked. His office had been entirely bare except for a photograph of a cat taped to the wall behind his desk. I asked him about the picture, but he sidestepped and instead delved into what fascinating significance might be gleaned from my feline fixation. Somehow I doubted he owned any cat.
“Swallowing a bottle of aspirin wouldn’t kill you,” he continued. “It would only make you sick. It would make you so devastatingly and irreversibly sick that you’d wish you had never swallowed a bottle of aspirin. Do you understand?”
I stared over his shoulder, still miffed about the cat. “So you’re saying I should choose a better method.”
There was one other photograph in the doctor’s office, this one properly framed and hung near the door. It was of an aerial view of a maximum-security USP, a multi-tiered neoclassical fortress of whitewashed columns and arches, where the doctor had once worked.
“Now that was a prison,” he said, implying my then current residence was a country club by comparison.
“Do you want to know what your problem is?” he asked.
I was certain I did not.
“Your problem is that you are very self-centered. You say you hate this place, say you don’t know what the point is or what to do with yourself, indulge in these destructive fantasies. You do realize it’s not all about you? He leaned forward in his chair. “I understand that prison can be especially difficult for people who are intelligent; this place can be as intellectually incarcerating as it is physically. But rather than thinking about yourself all the time, you might try thinking about others. There are plenty of men here who haven’t had the benefit of an education as you have. Maybe you could lend them a hand.”
I wasn’t pleased to be pinned the self-absorbed brat that I most certainly was. I left the doctor and his dumb cat feeling triumphant that I was indeed misunderstood, downtrodden—the victim. When subsequently I signed on as a tutor, it wasn’t because I genuinely desired to help people but because it beat washing dishes in the mess hall. When I volunteered for suicide watch, it wasn’t because I wanted to save anyone’s life but because I thought the experience would be, in some vague way, interesting. The extra cash didn’t hurt either.
Surely it was by this lack of earnestness that I proved no brilliant tutor. None of the men I taught earned his GED, and I quit after a year, citing the job was “thankless.” Nor have I exactly been a leader in the cause of suicide prevention. I space out during watches, I avoid talking to the participants whenever possible, and once during a particularly boring shift I wandered off to the bathroom to masturbate.
At least a few companions have expressed similar ambivalence toward suicide watch. The complaint was again raised during training that the inmates placed on watch aren’t really suicidal. “Most of them are just faking it,” one companion said. It’s true some inmates only pretend to want to hurt themselves because they think they might gain something: sympathy, attention, resolution to some perceived injustice, a transfer to a posh medical facility. Dr. Blatt reminded us that it isn’t the companion’s duty to assess the intentions of the inmate on watch. To do so could compromise the inmate’s safety.
“You must remain vigilant,” she said, “regardless of whether you think the inmate is faking it. You don’t want to risk someone hurting himself because you made a faulty assumption.”
I wondered if I wasn’t making a faulty assumption about Bailey. Would he really quit? Throw in the towel? Sell the farm? (More nonpreferable terms.) I downed the last sip of my coffee and wadded my napkin. I decided to let the remark fly. Impassioned haste, I reasoned. It was getting late, besides, and I had clothes to drop off before the Laundry Department closed. How can I save other people’s lives when I’m busy trying to save my own?
I pulled my hat over my head and gathered my tray. As I reached for my coat, Bailey’s hand shot across the table and squeezed my fingers. It was a clumsy, self-conscious gesture.
“Thank you for sitting with me,” he said.
I knocked on the table. “It’s no problem.”