Suicide in the Box

For the Mentally Ill, Solitary Confinement Can Be a Death Sentence. The Stories of Two Men Who Never Made It Out.

On any given day, about 5,000 of New York State's 65,000 inmates are on 23-hour lockdown. Some are left in their own cells; others are taken to a "Special Housing Unit"; still others are moved to a high-tech supermax prison. These forms of solitary confinement go by various names: "keeplock," "the box," "the hole," "disciplinary lockdown," "the SHU." None of these words, however, come close to describing the harrowing nature of these prisons-within-a-prison. Imagine spending all day every day trapped in a 70-square-foot room, surrounded by only a toilet, a sink, and a cot. Time slows to a near halt. The passage of minutes is marked by the drip of the faucet, the jingle of keys on a guard's waistband, the screams of other inmates, the scraping of a food tray through a slot in the door.

Punishment here takes on a new, more extreme form. It's not just boredom and monotony, the usual banes of prison life. For mentally ill prisoners, life in the box can quickly become an invisible torture as their minds fill with delusions. And there is no limit to the number of months—or even years—a prisoner can be locked up this way. Solitary confinement is the penalty for a wide range of transgressions, everything from failing a drug test, to refusing to obey an order, to assaulting a guard. Between 1997 and 2000, New York State opened 10 new facilities specifically to hold inmates in 23-hour lockdown.

Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry of Queens has proposed a bill that would keep mentally ill inmates out of the box. The Correctional Association, a prison watchdog group, recently released a report titled "Lockdown New York." The report contained two especially disturbing facts: Almost a quarter of the inmates in solitary confinement are suffering from mental illness. And of the 48 state prisoners who killed themselves between 1998 and 2001, more than half—25—died in disciplinary housing.

Elsie Butler visits her son's grave at least twice a day.
Photo: Jay Muhlin
Elsie Butler visits her son's grave at least twice a day.

All of this attention to the needs of mentally ill prisoners comes too late for Jesse McCann and James Butler. They never knew each other, but there are disturbing parallels between their life stories. Both end the same way: Each young man left prison in the back of an ambulance after hanging himself while confined to 23-hour lockdown.


On the afternoon of June 3, 2000, James Butler tied a bedsheet around the ceiling vent in his prison cell, looped the sheet into a noose, and stuck his head inside. At the time, he was locked in Fishkill prison's "Special Housing Unit," which everyone calls "the box." Several years earlier, James had been diagnosed with manic-depressive illness. He hanged himself after being in the box for nearly 200 days in a row.

He first entered the prison system in 1997 for selling drugs. In 1999, he was assigned to a work-release program. Six months later, he was back in prison—for assaulting an ex-girlfriend and going AWOL from the program. After an administrative hearing, he was sent straight to the box. Soon he was hearing voices; he said they belonged to other prisoners who were plotting to kill him.

James died at age 36, leaving behind four sisters and his mother, Elsie. On a recent Sunday, she sat on a leather sofa in her Poughkeepsie home, surrounded by paperwork—letters and cards from her son, scrawled notes about the calls she made to the prison on his behalf, the State Commission of Correction report investigating his death.

Elsie, a 62-year-old social worker, still calls her son by his pet name, Pumpkin. When she talks about his death, it seems like barely any time has passed at all.

James Butler, 1963–2000

Elsie Butler: I had five children—four girls and one son. James was the next to youngest. He was loving, sweet. He wanted to become a scuba diver. He had these little flappers, and he'd flap around on the floor in a tight bathing suit. He'd be on the floor in the living room, and he'd just flap, flap, flap all over the place. Diving on the rugs. He had the goggles on.

I was like a mother hen. Wherever I went, all five of these little people were with me. I kept my kids when I was separated from my husband. Raised them all by myself. I didn't have a car. I didn't get child support. I didn't get anything. I just prayed a lot. It wasn't easy for me. I was working two jobs and went to school.

When James got to 16, I don't know what was with my baby. He would be taking things. He would take a little pair of sunglasses. Or he'd take little stuff from Kmart, the dime store. I'd say, "Why did you take that? You have money." He'd say, "I don't know." "You don't have to do that, Pumpkin."

He did very poorly in school. They said Pumpkin had some issues. He was slow. And they wanted to give him medication. But by me being a young mother, I said, "No, no, I'm not going to let you give my baby medication." I thought I was protecting my child. Now I wish I had.

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