I found myself paralleling a hearse on the highway earlier this week as I was driving home. I quickly realized it wasn’t just anyone inside that coffin but the body of a fireman killed in the line of duty. As we traveled up interstate 91 together, I watched hundreds of firefighters salute their fallen brother on every overpass we went under. They brought out the largest American flags and hung them from the highest ladders in the company to honor a man that gave his life to save someone else. It sent chills up my spine and goose bumps down my arms. There aren’t many things I miss about being a correction officer, but that unbreakable bond is one of them. Knowing that whatever happens within those walls, the ones sharing that uniform with you always have your back. You go through things together no one else understands and bond over the tough times in ways I can assure you would appall the average person.
I had been on the job less then a year when I saw my first suicide. I can’t seem to remember his name but I’ll definitely never forget his face. He was a young kid, early 20’s and housed in G-Block, a two-tiered mental health unit of about 100 inmates that didn’t have the capacity to handle general population for a variety of reason. They ranged all over the spectrum on levels of insanity, mental health issues and drug induced brain fog. Needless to say, it was a difficult unit to work in. Some of them hadn’t showered in months or combed their hair since the 80’s. I could go on for days with G-Block stories but for today I’ll just stick with this one.
It was a normal, hot and smelly day in prison. The facility had no air conditioning and by mid-July the heavy damp summer air seemed to become trapped within the cinder block walls. The chill nights and summer showers that cooled the grounds were no match for the inside temperatures. No number of fans or open windows helped create a breeze, they more so just blew around the smell of farts and body odor. The heat rolled through the hallways and housing units like a dense fog. Even the walls would sweat. The chow crew was running the last meal of the night, I had just been relieved off post for my dinner break and was walking down the long corridor to our break room when I heard the call come in. “G-block to station 3, I have a code purple cell 46, roll the medics”. My heart dropped along with my lunch bag as I quickly turned around and sprinted down the hallway. Lunch break is a blessing and a curse in prison. The breakroom is air conditioned but while there you suddenly become a first responder to incidents. Since chow was still happening it was slim pickings for officers and as I sprinted down the hallway I looked around and no one else followed. I neared the control room and saw an arm sticking out of the window with keys and tools. This meant I was the first one to run by. I got to the G-block door and it was already open. There are a few simple yet firm rules in prison, the main one is always keep your door locked. No matter what. Another is never bring the control room keys into the unit, if they get lost, you’re fucked. Both of those rules were broken that day.
I entered the unit and was met by my lieutenant, he threw me a camera as he ripped the suicide tool out of my hand and together, we bolted up the stairs. He told me to start recording as we approached the cell, I panned to the right and saw the lifeless body. He was African American but at that point you’d have no idea. His face was completely grey. Two officers were in the cell holding him up with the crafted bed sheet noose still wrapped around his neck. The lieutenant reached over, cut the top of the sheet and his head flopped down like a newborn baby. His neck was so stretched out and elongated, his eyes were rolled back into his head. He was dead, very dead. Or so I thought. We proceeded to give him CPR until the medics arrived, I wasn’t willingly taking that ambulance trip so once he was transported, I returned to dinner. I ate as fast as I could then returned to my assigned unit where I’d sit alone for the rest of the night with a room full of inmates. I did a great job acting like nothing had just happened. Later that night after work I stopped at the grocery store. I remember walking up and down the aisles feeling so strange and different. Like I had just seen a dead body, because I had. I had seen dead bodies before, but this for some reason was different. The image of his faded face and giraffe neck sat in the center of my brain like an old film, flashing on a reel whenever I thought about it. Still to this day whenever I think about that memory, I see that image of his flopped over head hanging there just before they cut him down. I don’t think I’ll ever escape it or many others. In the scheme of horrors to see in life, this was nothing. But this experience made me empathize even more with those whom have witnessed true nightmares.
I heard through the grapevine a few days later he survived, I was astonished. To my knowledge we never got his heart beating before the medics arrived and based on the looks of him. He had been hanging for quite a while. A few weeks later I was assigned to G-block for the night. It was the first time I had been in the unit since the incident, on a normal day I didn’t look forward to working there and this day was no different. Given the instability of the unit, the well being of each inmate needs to be verified every 15 minutes. This makes for a busy night of walking and definitely lots of chafing. I walked the lower level first then made my way to the top, peering inside every cell to ensure no one else was swinging. I came to cell 46, looked in, stopped and looked in again. It took a minute for my brain to register what I had just seen. There he was, the same kid I saw swinging from the rafters just two weeks prior, alive with a big smile on his face. The only noticeable difference was the scar around his neck from the noose. I suddenly felt flooded with a mix of emotions that I sat with for quite a long time. You have to be in a pretty dark place to hang yourself, no matter the circumstances. Just when you think you’ve escaped, you’re brought back to life only to return to the same exact place. That place being prison. Same cell, same cellmate. I can’t think of a bigger mind fuck then that. So, in my darkest of times, I think of him and it puts my life into perspective. I feel fortunate and lucky to have been dealt these cards in life, something I will never take for granted.