This post is about a man who died while I was in jail. It was difficult to write as it touches on a lot of the horrible parts of jail but I would encourage you to read on if you have the emotional capacity since telling this story is important. It feels complicated to have focused so far on the bad things that happened in jail and I promise to tell the stories that I celebrate from this time in future posts. As always you can:
SKIP TO THE MUSIC
The first time I watched someone die was when my Grandpa was taken off of life support. He was surrounded by much of our extended family who had all come to say our goodbyes in person. We surrounded the hospital bed and took turns squeezing his old wrinkly hands and speaking our words of love. When the time came to turn off the machine we all cried and hugged each other and my Grandpa died surrounded by generations of people who loved him.
I didn't know the second man I watched die at all. He had come to our range the day before and was scheduled to ship off to the penitentiary. I have no idea how old he actually was, he had that look that could apply to a well preserved 60 year old or a 35 year old who'd lived a rough life. Either way his scraggly beard and stringy build didn't pose a threat to me and given that he was clearly prison savvy I didn't have to worry about trying to prevent violence from landing too heavily on him. I barely noticed his presence. He was a Stranger.
The range was still establishing a pecking order after being uprooted by G20 prisoners, all of whom were now released except me and one other guy who they called Famous. Famous and I spent most of our time keeping our heads down, reading whatever garbage fiction was available and sometimes trying to rapidly coach newcomers on how not to get beat up.
Some time after the Stranger died, on my way to court I heard a new arrival ask his friend about the jail dynamics. The reply:
“Soft. You got nothing to worry about as long as you don't land on 10C. That place is the jungle. Alarms going off every other day, people getting mashed up all over. I heard two people died there.”
At this I jumped into the conversation, “No, it was just one person. The other guy was a different range on the same unit.”
“And how do you know all this?” responded the newcomer.
“10C is my range,” I said.
But this was my first time in jail so up until that conversation and especially before watching the Stranger die, I thought that was just how things were. For me the time was mostly just boring. Wake up, work out, read trash, eat trash, answer letters, rinse and repeat.
Only for a few moments every couple of days would it stop being boring.
And when it stopped I would immediately wish it would go back to being boring.
When he arrived the Stranger sank into the background and stayed there until one night when I woke up hearing faint cries for help. After the lights were dimmed for the night, total silence was an iron clad rule of the range. Breaking this rule brought on physical violence. Two doors over, the Stranger's cellmate was torn between respecting this rule and getting help for the man convulsing on the floor next to him. Finally, better sense won out and he started shouting loudly and pounding on the door.
In this particular jail all the cells are along the same wall at the back of the range so for now I couldn't see what was going on. The first guard to arrive was careful not to break his arrogant swagger as he walked slowly across the range to peer into the Stranger's cell. Whatever he saw qualified as an emergency as he immediately radioed for backup and began shouting orders at the cellmate.
When the other guards arrived they dragged the Stranger, mid-seizure, out of his cell to where I could finally witness what was happening:
The guards surrounded him and began jeering and shoving at him with their feet.
“He's fuckin' faking it. I've seen this before.”
“Buddy wants to go to the medical range.”
“Get up pussy.”
Seeing this unfold I became entirely disembodied and felt as though I was re-watching the end of a horrible movie. I found myself hoping the guards were right and that the Stranger would get up and be okay.
But he didn't.
Eventually his body stopped convulsing and the guards briefly forgot their roles as they backed away to stand in awkward silence like little boys. But by the time the paramedics finally arrived to wheel him away, the men were back to complaining about paperwork.
And that's how the stranger died, surrounded by people who didn't know or care about him.
The juxtaposition of the two deaths I have witnessed is sometimes unbearable for me. I feel happy and honored to have been part of sending my grandpa off the way we did. It was a beautiful way for him to die.
I feel so devastated and outraged that the stranger had to die the way he did. It's not fair. Prison takes so much away from people and is more violent as a whole than even the worst things we get sent there for doing. Spending a mere handful of months in jail has left me with routine nightmares and survivor's guilt. Thinking about those institutions churning out their violence and trauma and mass producing toxic masculinity is intolerable for me. I now find it almost impossible to do prison abolition work, work that is so important, because when I try to focus on the reality of prisons I shut down.
I want to end with some words that are far too late.
Here's to you Stranger. Whoever you were.
I'm sorry I didn't learn your name or take the time to try and break through the overwhelming shit of your last days alive. I care about you and I care that you died that way.
I hope you've found peace.
Here is an interpretation of Pachelbel's Canon I did as part of an experiment into digital retrograde piano. The piece was composed to be reversed and looped and accompanied by strings. I have made some good progress on the project but will wait to share the result until I have a proper acoustic recording. In the meantime I think this is a pretty little stand-alone piece for solo piano.