Stripped and Strong

Peter is in the prison suicide tank again. I've lost track of how many times he's been in there. So has he. The suicide tank is shock therapy for suicidal inmates. If you don't like your life now, let us show you just how bad life can get. The tank is in the prison infirmary. It is a bare room with windows to the hall where a guard watches. Creature comforts consist of a foam mattress on the bare floor, a four-by-four-foot canvas blanket, and a strong-cloth jumpsuit.paddedcell There is no toilet or running water. Meals are soft foods passed through the door. The suicidal inmate is stripped and left in the tank alone to think about the meaning of life, and the final judgment. This is called "stripped and strong" in prison jargon. Cleats embedded in the floor allow really recalcitrant individuals to be tied down. Most inmates relent after a few days of this treatment. Some paint the walls with food and feces and scream themselves hoarse. Those that hold onto their disordered thinking eventually end up in SPU, called "spew" in prison jargon, the Secure Psychiatric Unit.

Suicidal thinking is endemic in prison. We lose a few inmates by suicide every year. Most go by hanging. Prison slang for suicide is "to hang it up." There are other ways to extinguish the life force within these walls: wrist slashing, diving from tiers or top bunks, medication overdose, none are as reliable as the noose. One prisoner committed suicide here at New Hampshire State Prison for Men with a plastic bag over the head and cellophane tape around the neck. Death like that requires extraordinary will power. The guards found him the next morning, in bed in the fetal position.

Peter's M.O. has been hanging. I first met him at his prison job teaching high school classes to other inmates. He is a small man in his early forties with a full head of dark hair and a shy smile. Peter is well liked around here. His soft-spoken manner hides a well above average intelligence. He is the best chess player in the prison. He is equally comfortable discussing theology, science, or literature.

On the day we met, his neck was prominently ringed with the dark necklace of a scar. It took months to disappear. After hearing that the Family Court had denied him visitation with his young son, he locked himself in his room and hung it up with shoelaces from the ceiling vent. Only an alert fellow inmate saved him by pounding on the pod door. The guards cut him down, unconscious but still alive.

Suicide, whether inside or outside the walls, has always been an enigma. Whatever compels a man to end the only life he has ever known, to cast himself into the abyss, is known only to himself. He takes that knowledge with him to the grave. Those of us who have come near that precipice can only comment on what brought us to the brink. For me it was the intense shame of knowing that I had, for reasons not understood by myself, broken the law, caused irreversible harm to my family and others, and was about to be indicted, lose my reputation, lose my job, lose my possessions, and quite possibly lose my family. But for the concerned intervention of my brother-in-law, I might have acted on my plans. I say, "I might have," because I do not know whether I have the courage to go through with suicide. I don't like pain.

Peter has certainly known shame and loss. He was a well-educated, successful executive in an international company who got slapped with consecutive sentences adding up to twenty to fifty years here at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men for a domestic altercation following a nasty divorce. After arrival, he spent an extended period of time in SPU, "stripped and strong." Peter's latest round of suicidal thinking was provoked by the addition, at the request of his ex-wife, of five to ten years onto his sentence by the three-judge Sentence Review Board, giving him essentially a life sentence under New Hampshire's Truth in Sentencing statute. I can only begin to imagine his anguish at these losses and the guilt he must feel.

Most successful suicides in prison are long-termers like Peter. Psychologists writing about suicide emphasize the feelings of hopelessness found in suicidal individuals.  Prison is a good place to lose hope. Hope is a tough thing to kill. It can be kept alive by a single person, perhaps a mother, on the outside who cares, or the shred of possibility that somehow, someday a judge might modify the sentence. As time passes in here, even these little things are lost. If a lifer doesn't make the transition to a spiritual, "life beyond death", source for his hope, he faces the stoic's dilemma so eloquently stated by Seneca: "I will not raise my hand against myself on account of pain for so to die is to be conquered. But I know that if I must suffer without hope of relief; I will depart, not through fear of the pain itself, but because it prevents all for which I would live."

Some on the outside may think it's a good thing if a lifer kills himself. The inmate himself is exacting the death penalty the State is unwilling to perform. I have no sympathy for this line of thinking. The death in despair of a fellow human being is always a tragedy, regardless of that person's past. To drive a person, in the name of justice, to the desperate act of suicide is the same tragedy.

It need not be this way. But, to introduce hope into the administration of justice requires ideas and attitudes not frequently found in the halls of government these days. To be tough on crime too often means to favor unmitigated vengeance, to espouse the time-worn and hope-killing philosophy of "lock 'em up and throw away the key." To build hope into the justice system requires a willingness to favor restitution and reconciliation over retribution and revenge, to have the vision and the courage to offer men who have made terrible mistakes the kind of sentences that give hope of a second chance.