Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

Weeks have passed since Steve died right in front of me. I was surprised by the emotions that surged through what was supposed to be a hardened heart. People “out there” think we have hard hearts. Look, I’ve wrestled with bitterness like every other felon and I am deathly afraid of it taking root. But every heart is different.

Donny, known as Panda, arrived in the dorm around the same time as Steve in November of last year. Panda was an educator, a band teacher. He was Chinese-Vietnamese and loved to socialize. He was involved with tutoring men, so they could obtain a GED high school equivalency degree. He was a good teacher. Steve noticed and said, “I think you have the ability to teach stock trading.” 

Their brief exchange sparked a conversation that led to friendship. Steve was from California. Panda got his degree at the University of Southern California. Their talks reminded me of a crescendo artfully placed in the score of an epic composition. They were friends heading in the same direction.

On February 24, Panda went to Chow Hall with the rest of us. On the way, he saw Steve exercising. Twenty minutes later, he returned to see Steve lying on his back on a bench in the dayroom, coughing with arms outstretched and flopping. Most of us thought Steve was just catching his breath, not dying. Panda did, too.

A few minutes later, he walked up to Steve. “It must have been one hell of a workout,” he said.

Shortly after that, the staff rushed in and initiated CPR on Steve. The crisis lasted about half an hour concluding with Steve’s body being rolled out on a gurney, an automated compression machine strapped to his hands. I’ve never seen anything like it. So mechanical. So hopeless. 

“I was nervous and scared,” Panda said. “I’ve seen death on the street and in prison. There’s a hardness in me because of life experiences, but I was really concerned about how it was affecting the others who were watching.”

I asked him how he would remember Steve.

“I will remember him as a servant leader who didn’t complain about much,” he said. “Compassionate. He was a good friend.”

The dorm is home to the Ambassador Project, a project for men to mentor other men and become servant leaders. Ryan, also known as SkyNet, is a leader in the project. I asked Ryan how he came to know Steve. 

“Met him when he entered the project. He was a good dude. I think he was an educator,” Ryan said.

He didn’t see Steve struggling because he was asleep. But he was awoken by the noise of 10 people trying to resuscitate Steve echoing through his cell. He saw him being rolled out, too. He prayed. “It was shocking to witness him die,” Ryan said.

“How will you remember him?” I asked.

“He was a guy in control of himself. Steve did something because he chose to do it. I guess you could call him a coach, a mentor. He got nothing out of it. Material gain, I mean. He contributed to people’s lives. He wasn’t perfect, but he was damn sure trying.”

Mike, who goes by the name Wall Street, entered the project the same time Steve did. He knew him from taking a best commencement speeches class together through the Exchange for Change program. He and Steve had a little history together. 

When I asked what people said about Steve, he answered, “He was a stock trader. A market analyst. Spoke of him as the stock market guy.”

Mike said, “He was a very straightforward person. Blunt. Always spoke his mind. Easy to get along with. Had a passion for the ‘grunt’ work. Grunt work is doing what it takes to achieve a goal. He was an advocate of creating a life of habits. Loved to quote Aristotle.”

Mike saw Steve jogging in the dorm before he left for breakfast that day. When he got back, he saw him at the fountain getting water. 

“I came to my cell to do my morning routine when I heard a commotion. It seemed like seconds from the time he was at the fountain to when the nurse and staff were working on him,” Mike said.

“What were you feeling?” I asked.

‘When I saw his face turn purple, I knew I just lost a friend. We lost a mentor. I knew in that moment that I lost him.”

“How did the people in the project handle it?”

“The project gave a brief eulogy that evening because of the chaos from the investigation during the day,” he recalled. “People moved on too fast. Perhaps they internalized it. Nothing has been said since.”

Steve was truly Mike’s friend. I asked how Steve would be remembered and I thought Mike’s response was worth documenting.

“I will always remember Steve. I will think of the way he emulated the idea of developing excellence through the process of developing good habits.”

Our nation is shocked by the abuses we see broadcast on a daily basis. George Floyd’s homicide, shown for all to view, is sad. We’re galvanized. We’re enraged. But what about the death of unknown people across the globe? Or in our country and in our communities? What about the loss of one in our societies of retribution, in an American prison?

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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J.H.

J.H. is a writer incarcerated in Florida. His high school literature teacher published his first poem in a journal for Seminole County. Nearly 30 years later, Ms. Susanna, an instructor for Exchange for Change's creative writing course, encouraged him to pickup writing again. Now in his 50s, he finds the possibility of realizing his dream to be a writer uplifting. He has asked that his full name be withheld.