A Million Ways to Die in Prison



by Daniel Genis

Murder, suicide, illness, old age: These deaths stalk us all, but in prison, they collect us so much more cheaply.

Before my decade of incarceration, I had never seen a dead body. By the time I was done, I knew the many ways death can claim prisoners.


It took two years of heroin addiction followed by five counts of armed robbery for me to get sentenced to  12 years in 2003. I had graduated NYU just a few years earlier and begun a career in publishing, but the addiction got the best of me. I may have expressed my contrition during the robberies enough for the newspapers to dub me “the Apologetic Bandit,” but the judge gave me the minimum of 123 months. I was released in February 2014 without meeting death, but I watched him pass often enough.


The euphemism most commonly used by convicts for dying is to “be taken off the count.” We were all counted thrice a day; if it didn’t add up, everything stopped until it did. One way of legitimately coming off the guards’ count was to die. Release, pardon or the Rapture were other legal options. But death is most common.


The three basic ways for prisoners to die are old age, disease or violently.

Violent ends can be self-inflicted, at the hands of fellow prisoners, or caused by the guards. Death by illness is often avoidable, but preventative care that could treat conditions that later kill doesn’t exist inside. And some procedures are not afforded prisoners. While they can donate organs, convicts cannot receive them. Medical neglect takes many lives as well. Expensive treatments for the elderly are usually avoided in favor of palliative care; there are two separate facilities for dying in New York state. All the junkies try to transfer to them, for the abundance of morphine.


Old age is the saddest and rarest way to go; I witnessed it only once. Sentences making such outcomes inevitable were once rare, but many inmates are serving them now. I met a 20 year old with a sentence of 50 to life; he had used an army rifle to kill two pedophiles he looked up on the Internet and hoped to live long enough to make parole. Because he was a virgin.


As prisoners die, every year there is a new oldest convict. In 2007, the oldest prisoner was 90 and dying. He was paralyzed from the waist down, a World War II veteran and had six weeks to live. There is a procedure called “compassionate release” allowing terminally ill men to die at home. He made the grade and we all said goodbye. But at the gate, the ancient man’s wheelchair was turned around. The compassionate release was cancelled and he was sent back to his cell. The pre-war records in Albany revealed a conviction the fellow earned at 16 before going off to war. Today it would be considered a felony, classifying him as a “two-timer” and therefore ineligible for special release. He died in his cell a few weeks later.


Prison is a dangerous place to get sick. I spent four years in a prison where each handicapped convict was issued an underpaid inmate assistant. This arrangement demonstrated how easy it was to die. The invalid’s life depended on his helper’s good will. Using a finger to stimulate the paralyzed prisoner’s rectum, allowing him to defecate, was no doubt the least favorite part of the job. A cheerful convict was found dead by his devoted caretaker one morning. He cried crocodile tears, as it was his fault. The pair had argued, and the assistant ceased performing this most onerous of duties. The paralyzed convict couldn’t tell, and when he died a few weeks later, poisoned by his own feces, it was all written off as an accident. I happened to run into the superintendent the day we got the news, and blurted out a question in an unguarded moment.


“Why did he need to be in prison anyway? He was 80 and in a wheelchair.”

The super stopped, took the time to remember the established reply, straightened his lapels and told me that “a man in a chair can pull a trigger just like you and me.”


Meeting one’s end violently is the most common, however, whether at the hands of another inmate or one’s own. Harming oneself is against the rules. Early one morning I was passing out hot water, when a man showed me a bucket of blood from his slashed wrists and asked for help. The night before he bought a lot of crack-cocaine on credit with no way to pay, intending to kill himself after smoking. Then he lost his nerve and decided to live after all, and I called for help. He was saved, but there were consequences. First he served 90 days in solitary for breaking the rule against self-injury. Then he was returned to the same unit to face his debts; the drug dealer asked for this favor and got it.


Obviously, incarceration increases one’s odds of a violent death. Living in a society openly governed by force with those who have demonstrated their familiarity with it increases the danger. There are steps to lower the risk: Don’t join a gang, don’t get high, don’t gamble or owe anyone—all fairly obvious. Also important: don’t join the dating pool or compete for the attention of homosexuals. If the most common reason for jailhouse murder is money, the second is jealousy.


I did 10 years without being scarred; I fought infrequently, only when I had no other option, and mostly in the beginning. Nevertheless, I saw a man die 10 feet from me in my first year. I knew both killer and victim but not the reason. I knew only that the hit was commissioned; the man who took the contract was a specialist. He had come to prison with a parole date two decades away, but by the time I met him he would have to be Methuselah to ever see a board. With few other options, he became a hitman and killed many times. The victim was himself dangerous, and also the strongest man in the yard. He could lift a concrete table. But he couldn’t stop the shank to his heart.


Before the crack epidemic expanded the prison population, “jail bodies” were not even prosecuted in court. In a rather frank appraisal of the value of an incarcerated life, killing a fellow convict was punished by time in solitary up until the mid-80s. The more cynical of the old-timer cops, whom I plumbed for stories they loved to tell, said that the convict-killers should have gotten medals for public service. These days murdering a prisoner takes the assailant to court. Short trials produce convictions and sentences, but the time is often run concurrently, not adding any time to the sentence. The bids are nowhere near the standard 25 to life judges hand out for intentional murder. Prisoners’ lives are just worth less.


Getting away with murder, in prison’s claustrophobic and snitch-ridden environment, is hard but not impossible. Ground glass is put in food to cause internal bleeding, and nicotine concentrated by boiling can cause a heart attack. Foggy nights are good for stabbing. But if by chance you are a prison guard, avoiding detection is much easier.

Thomson Prison in Thomson, IL

I was shown how much the value of my life had shrunk on my very first day in the state system. A notorious sex offender got off the bus with us. After processing in everyone else, the cops took him somewhere for a reminder of their thoughts on “rapos.” He was old, frail and handcuffed; 20 minutes later they had a crime to cover up. Something had gone wrong in that room and the guy was dead. His corpse was quickly re-shackled and returned to the bus. The paperwork was spotless: he had died in transit, the conjunction of a weak heart and long trip. I had nine years ahead of me and plenty of transit. Therefore I decided not to remember anything if anyone came investigating. But no one ever did.


Suicide attempts are also common and many succeed. One left an image I can’t forget. One morning I got shampoo in a package. Because of an error, there were more of the blue bottles than I could use in the years left me. Selling off the extras, I saw my neighbor marvel at the scent and murmur that he wished he could afford one. Knowing the fellow to be both poor and harmless, I quietly gave him one.


Later that day he made a call from the row of phones in the yard and reached his wife for the first time in six months. After their talk he went in and immediately hung himself. We later learned that she had left him and was hoping he would catch the hint.


They discovered his body after it had had a few hours to hang. Removing it, the police grew tired of the dead weight and left it in front of my cell while resting, long enough for me to get a good look at his blue face. It was the same hue as the shampoo. I checked his cell and learned that he hadn’t tried it. They moved a new guy in that afternoon.


A prisoner is a ward of the state while incarcerated, so the authorities are responsible for his safety and there are procedures to prevent suicides, which can get expensive for the prison and the state. The families of suicide victims often sue and can win large settlements. (But only for the family; inmates cannot be awarded more than $10,000 because of an  extension of the Son of Sam Law.)


Once, when occupying a cell in near a phone, I saw the suicide prevention protocols in action. A boy fighting with his girlfriend exclaimed, “What do you want me to do, kill myself?” At that unlucky moment, his call was being randomly screened. A squad soon arrived to take him away, and I saw the sergeant punch him in the face even though he went quietly. He spent three days in a rubber room wearing a plastic smock before returning. I asked what the violence was for. It seemed that the cops knew perfectly well that he was not in danger of suicide but had to act anyway because of protocols, and the Sergeant resented his dinner being interrupted.


When guards go off the count, things get hectic. The scorned party in a love-triangle, he blew his head off while serving overnight tower duty in 2007. He used the powerful assault rifle issued to all guards on tower duty. However, guns are never allowed inside prison walls, so the stairways to the towers are outside. The guard left a note, but the joint was shut down for days as investigators looked for a way to call this murder rather than suicide. It made sense with so many suspects at hand, less so with the tower entrance separated from them by a forty foot wall.

Inside H Block 4

Another way to die in prison that I did not list is officially; the death penalty in New York has not been used since 1963, even with the law bouncing back and forth. However, I did live in an old prison with a death house. I was once rewarded for some help with a visit to it, and sat in the electric chair for a moment. Apparently all of the staff had done it at some point, but as a prisoner my experience was rare. I did not feel the tortured souls of the departed but noticed that the viewing chamber for the witnesses was built much like peep shows are, emphasizing the observer’s dominance over the star of the show. Apparently, the staff held Halloween parties there.


Now that I am free, I have Medicaid and doctors no longer assume I am malingering. I am not watched to make sure I swallow my pills. As a free man, even on parole, I can sense that my life has value again. Today, I’m less likely to die. And that feeling is priceless.

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