This article was published in collaboration with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom covering the US criminal justice system.
As count time neared, I went to the janitor’s closet here on death row to get some hot water to make a coffee. But it was closed. Someone passing by told me that one of my friends had locked himself in there.
This was alarming. We all use the closet at different times, usually to get water. But no one locks himself in.
I knocked a few times and called my friend’s name. There was no response. My spirit began to sink. I alerted the officer in the control booth and asked her to send another guard with a key to open the door.
One arrived quickly, inserted the key into the lock, and pulled the door open…
My friend had just hanged himself. His body dangled limply. The tips of his sneakers faced away from the chair he’d used to reach the overhead pipe that connected a twisted bedsheet to his neck. His eyes were closed. His body was still. He’d succumbed.
The guard went into shock upon seeing the body. He turned away, bent slightly, buried his head in his hands, and wept.
I had to shout at him, “Cut him down! Cut him down!”
The guard gathered himself and ran off to get a knife, while the officer in the control booth started yelling frantically at us over the intercom, “Lock down! Return to your cells! Lock down! Lock down!”
But we were the only ones there to help. Big Mac, a muscular prisoner with massive strength and an even bigger heart, wrapped my friend’s body in a bear hug and held it up to relieve the pressure on his neck until the guard returned.
“He’s still breathing!” Mac yelled. “Hurry! He’s still breathing!”
My spirit lifted.
More officers and medical staff arrived. They administered CPR, put an oxygen mask over his face, and started an IV drip. A nurse tried to talk to him: “Can you hear me? Do you know what happened?”
My friend seemed responsive as they wheeled him out on a stretcher. His eyes were open. He looked disoriented but alert.
As we were finally locked into our individual cells, I was left alone with my thoughts.
Apparently, my friend had been locked in the closet for nearly 30 minutes. Others knew he was in there, probably with an idea of what he was going to do, and were either indifferent or wanted him to kill himself.
I ran their comments back in my mind while it was all happening. In monotones, they’d said, “Yeah, he locked in the closet.” “He been in there ’bout 30 or 40 minutes.”
I realized I hadn’t been paying attention.
Then I thought of the hooded glances I’d gotten as I went to alert the guards about my friend — as if I were spoiling the fun. When he was responsive after being cut down, they were disappointed. They were like vultures, circling for death.
Living on death row is a contradiction. Some become overwhelmed by the perpetual thought of death looming over our heads, the denial of all physical contact with loved ones or any other human beings, and the daily indignities to our personhood. Others fight like hell and cling to the tiniest semblances of life: a letter, a visit, a handshake, a smile.
It’s easier to succumb. There is no disappointment when there are no expectations. We don’t live on death row; we wait to die.
Death is constantly reinforced. From our clothing (red jumpsuits) to the walls of the unit (also painted blood red), every day is a crime scene. When we go outside, we’re surrounded by guards on high platforms with high-powered rifles pointed at us.
Suicide attempts should be expected here, perhaps even welcomed.
Now I’m questioning myself. Were the other prisoners right? Was I wrong to alert the authorities? Should I have just let him die? Isn’t that what he wanted? Is death preferable to death row?
When later asked why I did what I did, I paused. “I didn’t think,” I said, defensively. “I just responded…”
But this was my friend, as much as there can be friends here. When he finds something funny, his laugh is rich, joyous, from the gut. I remember the day he cried when he found out his mom died. I told him not to worry and promised to always be on hand for him if he needed.
I meant what I said. He’s always been kind and shared whatever he got and never asked for anything in return. He’s my friend.
I had just talked to him, that day. I don’t even remember about what. But I’m praying he lives as much as I hope that he forgives me. ●
Paul Brown, 53, is incarcerated at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is serving a death sentence for a first-degree double murder committed in 1996.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety declined to confirm or deny any details of the suicide attempt described in this essay.