Cliff Died in Prison

Cliff died in prison back in 2002. He was just 47. Lung cancer turned his prison bid into a life sentence. I guess I knew Cliff. We met the day I moved into a cell with him in the Hancock Building.


"Let me get out of here so you can get settled in." he mumbled, collecting his pocket radio and deck of cards before leaving for the common room. He was a small man with graying hair and moustache. A prominent scar creased his right cheek from ear to chin. His voice had a quaver in it when he was nervous. I understood his anxiety. The first few days with a new cellie are awkward. Who is this guy? Does he have some issues I should know about? Is he clean?

Cliff was clean. Clean and quiet. He almost never spoke unless I spoke first. He'd chuckle at my jokes, but didn't seem to have any of his own to tell. He lived a simple life: no TV, no books, no canteen to speak of. He spent his days in the cell, sitting at the concrete desk, listening to the Red Sox and playing solitaire. A good day was when the Sox and he both won.

Cliff had few visitors. He sometimes mentioned a sister who lived in Mass. He never saw his ex-wife. I don't know if he had any kids. He got a prison job in the visiting room taking Polaroid pictures of other inmates and their families. Sometimes he'd talk about the pictures he'd taken; snapshots of other people's happiness. He wanted to get them right.

We didn't talk about our crimes. I got along with him. He got along with me. What difference did it make why we were here? Why risk ruining an amicable relationship with nasty details from the past? After a few months we moved on. I went to the South Unit, he to another pod in H Building. I would occasionally pass him in the yard, alone on his way to the visiting room. After a while I stopped seeing him. I thought maybe he had gotten out.

"Cliff’s in the infirmary." An inmate-orderly told me. "He's got lung cancer. He's dying."

"How long has he been there?" I asked.

He shrugged, "A few weeks. He looks awful."

"They should let him go." I said.

"They don't care if you die in prison. Besides, I don't think he has any place to live on the outside."

He's right, I thought. Maybe I should visit Cliff. Who else does he have? I filled out an Inmate Request Slip to ask permission to visit him in the infirmary. I never got an answer. I heard Cliff died a few weeks later.

"How did he go?" I asked the orderly.

"Rough." He shook his head. "They had him in the ward with three other guys until he got incontinent. He was coughing up gobs of bloody stuff. I had to clean him up and carry him in my arms to the isolation tank. He was just skin and bones."

"You mean he died alone in the tank?"

"That's the way you die up there."

"Was he in pain?"

"He cried every time he moved. They tried to get him to swallow pain pills. I don't think it was helping."

I went to the memorial service for Cliff. It was held in the prison chapel. There were about a dozen of us there. The guard's radios crackled outside in the hall disturbing the silence. We spoke of Cliff. He was quiet, we said. He was uncomplaining. We sang "Be Not Afraid" and silently prayed that we would not have to die in prison.

After the 20 minute service, I asked a few who were there what they could tell me about Cliff. What did he do before prison? How did he get that scar? What was his crime? Nobody knew.