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Bars of an empty prison cell
Photo by fotokon on Depositphotos

Life is never easy in a two-man cell. If you’re lucky, you’re able to find someone compatible with shared interests, mutual respect and whose habits can be tolerated in such close quarters. But eventually, we almost always have trouble.

My cellie Wally was different. He was sort of an old hippie like me, only he grew up in another town. We’d both fallen into the trap of drugs and the criminal lifestyle that went with the culture. These days, though, the only vices that either of us indulged in regularly were coffee and cigarettes. We also had similar tastes in books and music, so a lot of our time was spent reading or jamming to the oldies.

I usually wake up early to piss. I try to be as quiet as I can while I fumble around in the dark. One such morning, I rolled me a smoke. 

There’s plenty of dope in prison, but it’s getting harder to find plain old-fashioned weed or tobacco. These youngsters like their synthetics: fentanyl, Suboxone, K2. I suppose it’s a lot easier to smuggle in, and a hell of a lot harder for the dogs to detect.

I noticed Wally laying there, staring at the ceiling. 

“Hey, bro, you got that lighter?” I asked. “Wally! You OK, man?” 

He wasn’t blinking or nothing. Wouldn’t even answer me. 

When I nudged him to get his attention, I jerked my hand back. His skin was as cold as the concrete floor.

I flicked on the light in a panic. His pants were wet, and there was a trail of coagulated foam running from his mouth down the side of his face. His skin was encrusted in the dry salt of tears and sweat. 

For a split second, I drifted off, wondering how long I’d been sleeping under a dead man. Then I snapped back to reality and started flushing every bit of contraband down the toilet. I felt a tinge of guilt about my selfish thoughts. But they don’t write up dead men for infractions. Shit, I’ll be lucky if they don’t try and charge me with the old guy’s murder.

Officers hadn’t even finished counting. They’d yet to roll the cell doors open for the first out of the day. 

I hollered for somebody to get the guards, and I pissed a lot of people off. They screamed back at me to “shut the fuck up!” 

“Wally is dead!” I yelled. “Get the fuckin’ law up here now!” 

After a moment of quiet, all hell broke loose. People beat on their lockers and banged their cups on the bars.

About a mile away through the window, I could see a herd of deer munching on the fresh new grass in the stubble of a hay field. It was barely light enough to see. 

Here I was, spiraling away in my head because I felt some kind of way about my day getting ruined. Poor old Wally wasn’t ever gonna see the sun rise again. 

The doors opened and I leaned up against the wall next to the windows. The sergeant told me to turn around so he could put handcuffs on me. 

Once we got away from the other guards and medical staff, he said in a low voice, “Look, you’re probably OK in all this. It’s just procedure, you know. You’re not in any trouble, but I gotta do my job.”

I only had to be in administrative segregation in solitary confinement for a couple of days. They searched my stuff and asked a bunch of personal questions. 

Turned out, old Wally had been doubling up on nicotine and fentanyl. Both of his arms and legs had fresh patches. Scars on his skin from chemical burns suggested he’d been doing this for a long time.

They asked me if I thought he had killed himself intentionally. I told them I didn’t know. 

Wally was a lifer. Even if he had considered death to be his only shot at early parole, that was strictly between him and his creator. 

We’d talked about damn near everything over the past few months, but suicide was never mentioned. There are some things folks don’t talk about in here.

Our demons are personal. Lord only knows, I sure got enough of my own.

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.

Brian Fuller is a writer incarcerated in Texas.