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Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Dive to Death -- Dec. 13, 2013

The prison was on lockdown and during the afternoon it was relatively quiet in the cell house. Without my headphones on I was writing a letter on a steel table near the front bars. Before I completed it, I heard a clang followed by a couple of thumps. Initially, I thought the noise was a fight but because the penitentiary was on lockdown I speculated a gallery worker had fallen down some stairs. My neighbor periodically stumbles due to back and leg pain. However, after a brief silence, there was a scream and a great deal of commotion. Something much more traumatic than Hooch falling down a few stairs must have occurred. Later, I learned a prisoner had committed suicide by jumping off the 5th floor landing of the staircase.

My cell is on the 2nd floor and about 20 feet from the staircase. The screams caught my attention and I looked through the cell bars to determine what had happened. From my vantage point, I could only see part of the ground floor from the sergeant's office to underneath some of the staircase. However, I noticed guards converged to the other side while calling for medical personnel. Even men suited up in full tactical gear who were searching the adjacent cell block came through the interlock. No one knew what to do before a major walked in and began giving orders. She told all the guards to leave and give the paramedics space. For a woman, I was impressed by her ability to immediately take command of a situation. She deserved the rank of major and it was not due to seniority or some affirmative action policy.

At the onset of chaos, guards had told gallery workers to go to their cells to be locked in. This was standard operating procedure. However, when it was clear there was no security issue, guards never opened up these men's cells. My neighbor who I had thought had an accident stood nearby and I asked him what happened. He told me a man jumped from the top of the stairs. "What is his condition? Is he still alive?" I inquired. He told me there was a lot of blood and he thought he was dead. Hooch seemed rattled and like he did not want to talk about the matter. He walked off possibly to get away from my questions.

Medical personnel from the prison Health Care Unit were slow to arrive. Health care at Stateville is always slow whether or not it is urgent. After a lull, prisoners began shouting, "He's alive! Get the med tech!" They continued to yell for medical personnel for a minute. I believe they finally arrived going through the interlock and underneath my gallery. I never saw any of the response team. I assumed the man was dead and there was no hurry. The shouts for a med tech probably came after the corpse twitched. About an hour passed before my cellmate and I saw a gurney being wheeled outside with a man half covered on it. His head was wrapped in bandages. Because Anthony was on the top bunk and I was still sitting by the bars, he got a better look out the dingy cell house windows. He told me the man appeared to be a white prisoner and he could see he had many tattoos which caused us to speculate who on 10 gallery may have killed himself. Strangely, a more vigorous debate opened up between us about whether the man was dead.

Anthony's proposition that the person was still alive was preposterous to me. I told him anyone who jumps from nearly 60 feet onto concrete is "jacked" (prison slang with various negative meanings). My cellmate countered that he had seen a few people jump off the roofs of buildings three stories high. They were fine or just had minor injuries. I said this was certainly possible if landing feet first and onto grass, but this man sought death and probably dove onto the concrete. Then I spoke about how long it took medical personnel to respond and the fact that they slowly wheeled him away on the walk could have only meant he was dead. Anthony responded that they did not care about prisoners. On death row a friend of his committed suicide and they had plenty of time to save him before he bled out but they did not. To end the argument, I told him I will give him 100 to 1 odds the man did not survive.

The penitentiary was on lockdown because Internal Affairs got a tip there were drugs in B House. I have a tip for I.A.:  there are drugs in all the penitentiaries and every cell block at Stateville. However, this does not mean the administration should take everyone out of their sells all day and search from top to bottom. A much more practical solution is using drug sniffing dogs and drug tests. Almost as if the warden read my mind, the following day some prisoners in C House were dropped. About 20 men were selected but none tested positive. Due to the lockdown, it was difficult getting news about the suicide even from my neighbor who was working at the time.

I tapped on the side of his cell with my plastic mirror. This is similar to knocking on a person's door outside of prison, and I waited for an answer. Hooch did not respond, but his cellmate came to the cell bars to talk. I asked him a number of questions about what he knew. Looking at Leprechaun through my mirror and hearing his vague answers, I got the feeling he did not want to talk about the subject due to Hooch being nearby. One thing I did learn, however, which greatly surprised me was the name of the person who jumped to his death: Angel Garcia.

Angel was a prisoner celled on my gallery and I had spoken to him on occasion. The week before we had bench pressed on the yard together. I recall he seemed to be in a good mood listening to music on his Walkman and dancing in part to it. Jesting, I asked him if he thought he was at a mariachi party. Later, he razzed me for struggling with pressing the 220 pound weight. He said whatever I was doing in the cell, I needed to stop. I did not know if he was referring to my regular cardio-calisthenic routine or joking that I was looking at porn. The only odd conversation I had with him came later when I mentioned how ridiculous it was the administration would not allow us to buy dental floss. There was no way prisoners could use it to cut through bars. Angel responded that it was not to prevent escape attempts but strangulation. "Strangulation?! There are numerous things a convict could use to strangle a person: an extension cord, cable wire, shoe laces," I said. There were endless possibilities and I told Angel to just think about it. This seemed to alarm him and he exclaimed he did not want to think about it and put his ear buds back in his ears so he could not hear me continue to list things.

Angel has only been in this cell house for several months. When he first arrived, I sat at the table with him in the chow hall. He told other men there that I.A. had threatened to send him to Menard if he did not provide them with information. He did not want to be sent to the penitentiary in southern Illinois because he would be far away from his family. I did not inquire why he was put in Segregation or what security thought he knew. I had only had one conversation with him previously.

I first met Angel a few years ago. We were both leaving the visiting room at the same time. He asked me if I was that person with the blog site, but it was more of a statement rather than a question. Angel was the first prisoner to approach me about the matter and I wanted to deny it. However, he went on to say his girlfriend had recognized me and had read a number of my posts. Unlike another Hispanic men who later found out about my blog, he kept the information to himself and did not have a problem with it. Contrarily, he seemed impressed and said it was a good idea. I appreciated his sentiments and the fact he kept my secret.

My cellmate and I speculated why he would commit suicide. The movie "Its a Wonderful Life" had recently been on television and Anthony spoke about how many people get depressed during the holidays, particularly prisoners who could not be with their families. We also spoke of the effect shortened days and less daylight has on some people. It was an odd phenomena to me because I contrarily liked the dim light and darkness. However what seemed most likely to be a factor was that Angel just came off a visit. That is why he was outside his cell during the lockdown and had the opportunity to run up the staircase, climb the railing and leap off. Something must have occurred during his visit to put him over the edge.

The warden and a few members of I.A. were in the building after the suicide. A black female guard went cell to cell on my gallery asking men what they had seen or heard. I told her I did not see anything but I did hear the fall and the screams that followed. She asked if it was the inmate's or staff, but I could not answer. A Mexican a few cells down from me seemed to know something others did not or were not willing to tell I.A. The man was taken out of his cell and brought to their offices to be questioned more thoroughly. Later, I learned Angel had apparently been planning to kill himself for some time. He gave away nearly all of his possessions and had a last meal of sorts.

A psychologist also did rounds in the cell house. Fortunately, I was asleep when she stopped at my cell. These shrinks are not very competent and only go about talking to prisoners out of formality. Furthermore, the conversation served little or no function. When the administration became aware that I had autism I was placed on the list for mental health services. Engaging in talk with a psychologist does nothing in itself. What would improve my life is accommodations and better living conditions. The psychiatrist has prescribed me Klonopin and the antihistamine Vistaril to help me cope with stress and sleep better. It is only somewhat helpful and does not address the underlying problems in my environment. My cellmate told me when I awoke from my nap that the psychologist simply asked how we were doing and expressed disappointment that I was sleeping. "How nice," I said sarcastically.

Workers were let out of their cells Friday morning. I spoke to a black man while he was sweeping the gallery. He told me he did not personally know what happened, but he spoke with a prisoner just moments ago who is in a cell just above where Angel hit the floor. He was of the opinion that Angel was definitely dead. The movement prisoners saw later which caused them to shout for help was involuntary spasms. He went on to say he would never commit suicide and you can never give up. This attitude seems very prevalent amongst the black population and it is very rare for them to kill themselves despite how they will most certainly never be released. I tend to believe it is not only a mental toughness from living in the ghetto but because prison is relatively less of a punishment for them. Contrarily, upper and middle class Caucasians from the suburbs have a radical departure from the lifestyle they are accustomed to when they come to prison. Furthermore, blacks and to a lesser extent Hispanics have many friends and even family members in the penitentiary. One black man I know was incarcerated with his father, two half brothers, a cousin, and he knew numerous people from his neighborhood in Chicago.

The prison was taken off lockdown today and there were normal operations. On the way into the chow hall, I had the misfortune of being around an obnoxious inmate who was insinuating that Angel was a pedophile. Normally, I would not have said anything, however, I do not like the man nor people who spread untrue slander. I rebuked him for his lies and told those listening that Angel was convicted of murder and was sentenced to 70 years. I contemplated hard slapping the prisoner who rambled there was "one less child molester" in the prison. However, it would have made no difference. Earlier in the year someone had beat him up for his disrespectful behavior and his demeanor only changed for a brief time.

I sought out the company of my acquaintance Steve who is celled almost directly in front of where Angel fell. Finally, I learned all the details which alluded me earlier. Steve was near his cell bars when the incident occurred. He told me the clang I heard followed by a double thump was because Angel did not directly hit the concrete floor. His head smacked onto the edge of a steel food tray. On the ground, Angel was facing upward and blood was pooling out of his shattered skull, even from his eyes. The screaming I heard was not from any convict but a black guard who does not work in this cell house often. In fact, nearly all of the staff working Thursday were irregulars. Despite how a few of them were shocked and did not know what to do, a Code 3 was sent over the radios. A long time passed before anyone from the prison's Health Care Unit arrived. The first nurse to come on the scene was a woman many prisoners at Stateville oddly find attractive. She was as useless as the guards and let out an "Oh, my God." It was not until later that more competent nurses and then paramedics from an outside hospital tried to help.

I asked Steve if there was anything which could have been done and if he was dead on contact. He was no doctor but speculated that if the paramedics had immediately been there he may have lived on life support the rest of his years. He described how when they finally moved his head to wrap it, the skull fell apart and he could see brain matter. If he had a pulse before, he was then dead. A doctor from the prison actually tried opening his trachea because he was apparently drowning in blood. Thus, he was not killed immediately, although he was certainly not conscious despite the movement of his arm. The scene looked horrendous, but Steve did not think he endured any prolonged pain.

From other prisoners I learned the reason Angel committed suicide was because his girlfriend or wife told him she was moving to Texas along with their children. She had already told him of her plans before she visited him and I assume he just wanted to see her one last time. Women can be a source of much sorrow for incarcerated men. I cannot count the numerous times I have seen even the most hardened convicts disturbed when their girlfriend or wife separated with them. Some men have nothing but that relationship and when it is gone they are as well. I still remember a white man from the Cook County Jail who was desperately trying to save the relationship with his wife and children. He asked me to draw pictures of him with his family, as if this would make a difference. I told him he had to let go. "You are going to prison for many years. This is your world now and theirs is out there," I said to him, but he would not listen. Before he was sentenced, she had left him as I knew would happen eventually.

I wrote many girls over the two decades I have been incarcerated. However, I always broke things off after a period of time. I realize no woman can remain faithful and the relationship is doomed to fail. I made one exception to a pretty Scandinavian girl who promised to wait for me indefinitely. She seemed to have all the qualities I was looking for and I really wanted to see if things could work. I greatly enjoyed corresponding and talking to her on the phone. When she stayed in the U.S. during her summer breaks and I was able to see her were some of the best moments of my imprisonment. Eventually, though, I awakened from fantasy and told her to move on in her life without me. It was difficult and still years later I am bitter that we were never given a chance. This week I learned she had a baby and was in a relationship with a man. The news renewed my unhappiness. More than anything, however, I am angry. I am angry at an unjust system that has taken everything from me.

This morning a couple of chaplains were walking around. They were not the prison chaplains, but from an outside church. For some reason they stopped at my cell to talk to me and Anthony. I do not need any prayers or God in my life. I also care less for comforting small talk. I want justice. The man and woman were friendly people with good intentions, but they did not understand. I was not at all disturbed by the suicide and I have seen and I have been around much worse things. Most of my life has been a series of brutality, oppression and anguish. If I believed in an afterlife as these Christians do, I would have killed myself a long time ago. While in the Roundhouse I often contemplated taking a swan dive off the top gallery. However, then these twenty years of suffering would have been done in vain.