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A silhouette of a man walks across a concrete space with shadows of bars surrounding him.
Photo by Mahbube Baqeri on Unsplash

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or suicidal thoughts, round-the-clock help is available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Veterans Crisis Line and Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, and the Crisis Text Line by texting “hello” to 741741.

Around 10 a.m. on July 22, 2021, I stared out my window toward the back of the compound and watched an ambulance, fire truck and sheriff’s car trail one another onto the prison grounds. 

I didn’t pay too much attention at first and drifted into thought. But then I heard a commotion outside of my cell. Several inmates were returning to the housing unit from their worksites. 

Suddenly, I felt a chill. Something was wrong. 

Count time — a routine when corrections officers ensure everyone is accounted for — came and went, but we had yet to be released. Hours passed before we learned anything. Finally, around 3 p.m., another worker returning from his worksite, yelled, “Hey ya’ll, we’re on lockdown because somebody just hung himself!”

I lay in my bunk and stared at the ceiling. Why did he do it?

When the cells finally opened up, I jumped out of my bunk, slipped into my state-issued boots and exited my cell. 

I scanned the wing from the top walk and watched everyone going on with their lives, as if nothing had happened.

Throughout the rest of the day, I went back and forth on my thoughts about suicide. Eventually I felt that the man who killed himself was now at peace from whatever war raged inside him. 

Deaths in the COVID-19 ward

As I write this, my mind is consumed by the fear of death — and all the times I’ve been forced to confront it while locked in this prison. 

During the pandemic, I worked in the prison hospice. I sat with COVID-19 patients and watched them fight for their lives, only to eventually succumb to the disease. 

There were times when I would stand in the unoccupied hospice cells and allow silence to envelop me, knowing someone had just died here. Sometimes I would touch the bed or run my hand along the top of the empty locker to try and feel remnants of the energy of whoever died. 

Many thoughts passed through my mind during these times alone, but the biggest one was always: What does it feel like knowing you will die in a cold prison cell and never experience freedom in the outside world again?

A cry for help

After my cousin Johnny — who is incarcerated with me — and I learned about our fellow prisoner’s suicide, we went outside to get some fresh air. As we stood in the prison yard, an unfamiliar face approached us. 

The man said he remembered me from back when I was a facilitator for a prison drug and alcohol program. He had liked the way I taught class. 

His father had just died, the man said, and he needed someone to talk to.

The death of his father, the revocation of his hard-earned status, the not knowing why or how it happened — all of it was taking its toll on him. 

The man had another concern. For some reason, he said, the prison was punishing him. According to the man, officials had removed him from honor status and placed him in a lockdown wing. He was not used to all of the noise and said he was struggling without the privileges that he had worked so hard to earn with good behavior. 

Then he asked, “What should I do, Antwann?”  

I gave him what little advice I could and tried my best to console him. But I knew he was dying inside. 

This man’s situation — and his sense that he was subject to an arbitrary punishment — is not uncommon. 

Going through this — day after day, year after year — you begin to lose hope, feel unworthy and tell yourself, “Maybe I have no place on Earth, anyway.”

A family member dies

One day, I saw a medical cart leaving the housing unit I lived in. At first I thought it was just another medical emergency, sadly common because of all the sickly and elderly patients housed there. 

I decided to head back to the unit. Several inmates ran up to me, saying my cousin Ron-Ron had just fallen. 

The whispering and gossip about the cause of his death ran rampant. It took three days to learn the truth.

On an early Wednesday morning, I noticed my other cousin, Johnny, on the phone with his head down. When he finally looked up at me, I saw the pain in his eyes.

Ron-Ron had suffered a massive stroke, leaving him brain dead. A loved one had to make the decision to pull the plug. 

I returned to my cell, lifted my head to the sky and yelled, “God, why? What do you want from us? Why are you allowing us to die in prison this way?” 

‘You get used to feeling worthless’

Being surrounded by so much despair, it has been difficult not to wonder what God has in store for me. 

On some level, I know the answer to that. My sentence is life without parole — a sentence that creates a pit of misery and can cause people to eventually self-destruct. 

I would like to be rehabilitated while I’m alive here, as would many other people who feel remorse and want to change for the better. 

But it’s hard not to feel like true rehabilitation is a distant hope. Everything in here has a price tag, from the canteen items to calls and emails to loved ones to the music and games that we purchase for our tablets. I feel like a walking dollar sign. 

What’s more, prison is a day-to-day assault on the mind and soul. Along with being stuck in a profoundly chaotic environment, some officials act like it is part of their job to add to the suffering we already endure. There are those who use their positions to take out frustrations on us. There are racists who let their prejudice reflect on their dealings with us. 

Over time, a feeling of helplessness builds to an almost intolerable level. If you lash out and retaliate against the animosity, then you run the risk of getting even more time added to your sentence. 

You just get used to the feeling of worthlessness — because that’s how you are treated regardless of how much you have changed or how many rehabilitative programs you’ve participated in.

Tears flow from my face onto this paper for the simple reason that no one on the outside truly knows the pain that comes from being in prison. 

Who will be the next person to give up hope in prison and die without getting a second chance? Who will be the next person to decide to end their own life, just to gain peace?

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.

Antwann Lamont Johnson is a writer incarcerated in Missouri.