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This morning I went to the school building where I work and learned that Rob, an associate and brother in the struggle, was found unresponsive in his cell. He was later pronounced dead of unknown causes.

Rob and I arrived at Five Points Correctional Facility in the summer of 2013. With shaved heads and faces, we both had little or nothing in our property bags. We carried with us the heavy baggage of drug addiction and the history of institutions and prisons that are part and parcel to that life.

Rob was an Italian guy who wore his short hair slicked back, gleaming with pomade. He was always clean shaven. His prison greens spent days under his mattresses and looked freshly ironed, fitting his slight frame as if he had them tailored. Rob loved to laugh and seemed to have an endless supply of off-color jokes. Rob did a great job of neatly packaging his pain.

He, like me, carried the guilt and shame of drug relapse and re-arrest that stem from the need to feed the insatiable beast of addiction. At Five Points, we were both quickly assigned programs. He worked in the receiving room, and I was assigned to the state shop where clothing issues and exchanges took place.

Our stories were similar. Both of us had successes with sobriety, employment and being productive citizens in society. We both experienced the magnitude of trading in that freedom for the fleeting numbness of chemical escape.

Rob sold me my first black market TV. I remember him seeming anxious and not his normal calm, quick-witted self when the exchange took place for three packs of Newports. Drugs were plentiful at Five Points, as they are in most prisons and Rob was getting high in 2013, taking what probably felt like the easy way out of dealing with being back in prison. Being in no position to judge, I said nothing to him about the collective resolve we had made to stay clean. I left him in Five Points in 2016 and was moved to Green Haven.

Part of my work responsibility here at Green Haven is to facilitate orientation for new arrivals at the facility. About four months ago, Rob was sitting in a Monday morning orientation. He looked the same as when I left him at Five Points. I pulled him aside and asked him how he was doing. He told me that he was doing fine. Then I asked him about the drugs and he confessed he was really struggling with his addiction.

We socialized in different orbits here and our occasional encounters around the facility fell into a familiar routine of me asking him about his struggles and having mini on-the-spot Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings. Each time I spoke with him, he would tell me his addiction was about the same or worse. One day we were in the yard, and he offered to share a stick of synthetic pot with me. I was offended and stopped talking to him for a while.

One morning I went to breakfast and saw him sitting with the Alcohol, Substance Abuse Treatment (ASAT) group in the mess hall. When I saw him later in the school building, I expressed my hope that he was on the road to recovery.

He explained that he had not actually started the groups. He then expressed his utter despair over his inability to stop using drugs. He shared with me the devastation of his family no longer speaking to him because of his continued use. Since coming to Green Haven, he said he’d spent a couple thousand dollars on drugs and he just wanted to die.

He explained that just the day before, someone on his unit had overdosed, and he thought it was an easy way to go (that guy was revived). I think Rob was sharing his suicide plan with me.

I encouraged him to seek help from mental health services, but he said, “I don’t want to end up in a stripped cell, naked with a gown on in the looney bin alone and bouncing off the walls. The only reason I haven’t killed myself already is I’m afraid I’ll go to Hell.”

We talked for about 40 minutes. I did most of the listening. I can remember his pained expression and the vacant look in his eyes. I made him promise me that he would go to mental health when he got back to the unit. He promised me he would.

In the course of any day it is possible to encounter a multitude of hurting souls expressing any number of fears, regrets and traumas too numerous to catalog. It is overwhelming and I’ve become an expert at compartmentalizing my feelings and responses to it all.

That is what I did with Rob on the morning of Nov. 15, 2021.

During orientation, one of the DVDs that is shown is on suicide prevention. As a human service provider, I also had a host of trainings on suicide prevention. Rob demonstrated all the classic symptoms, but I failed to see them because I was too close, numb to the suffering and too compartmentalized.

Besides being sad at Rob’s passing, I’m a little mad at him for leaving me with a crisis of conscience, feeling like I failed to help him when he needed me. There are stupid moral codes in prison that insist I mind my own business. Well, hadn’t Rob made his business my business?

I’ve talked to several of my peers about Rob and my regretful failure to do more than listen. They all tell me I should have told someone in authority. In the same breath they tell me I could have done nothing to stop him if he was really intent on checking out. Neither of those critiques provide any comfort.

I pray Rob’s spirit has found the peace which eluded him in this life. And hope those of us left behind find new instructions in the playbook of being “My Brother’s Keeper.”

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.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.