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.

From 16 up until he died, that child was in and out of jail. He'd walk out of the house and get in trouble. No high crimes. He had a problem with cocaine. I had a VCR; it took me a long time before I noticed the darn thing was gone. I even found food missing out of my refrigerator. I had this coat, and I kept looking for it, but I couldn't find it. Then I said, "Pumpkin is taking stuff out of the house." I took my keys from him.

He couldn't find work, and he'd sit here and cry like a baby. I'd been talking to him about going to get some help. But I think he was more ashamed than anything. He'd say, "I ain't going. I ain't going. Ain't nothing wrong with me."

Once he tried to stab himself in the stomach with a butcher knife. My daughter called me on the phone and said, "I think Pumpkin is losing his mind." We called the police. The police came down and took him to Saint Francis Hospital. He stayed there for a while.

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.

I think he did two and a half years in prison. From there he went to work release. He was working through a temp agency, doing some work making cabinets. He didn't get into any trouble. He was supposed to be in this house at 11 p.m.; he slept on the couch.

I thought he had made it. I really did. He said, "I work every day. I go to my [parole] board in December. And I'm not going back there. I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to church. I'm getting my life together." He was on the right foot. He was doing really great. We were very happy. And people that knew him said, "I can't believe Pumpkin goes to work every day!"

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, he had a confrontation with a lady friend. He went back into Fishkill Correctional Facility. They were saying he was AWOL. He couldn't call because he was in the box. He told me they gave him medication that made him sleep all the time. When he'd come down for a visit, you could tell he had just woken up because he still had sleep in his eyes. He was real depressed. He said he couldn't take it, to be confined in this little box. It was horrible.

He weighed 240 and he was 6-4. I could tell something was wrong with him because he used to love to eat, and now he picked at his food. He'd eat the popcorn and maybe half a sandwich, but he didn't really want it. He started to lose weight.

When he'd come out on those visits, he'd say he was all right, but he wasn't all right. His eyes were red. He'd tell me he cried all night. He was nervous. He was rubbing his hands. He seemed like he was scared. Sometimes he'd just put his head down and say, "I can't take this."

I'd get two or three letters from him a week. He talked about his life being threatened by other inmates. I'd go see him every Sunday until he sent me a letter telling me don't come, because he said somebody was going to hurt me. He said somebody was going to follow me home. Whether this was factual or he was hallucinating—I don't know. To keep him from being all worried, I said I'll stay out until you tell me to come in.

I spoke to the supervisor, but nobody paid any attention to me. It fell on closed ears. I talked to quite a few people. I was pleading for his safety, pleading with them, "Just move him, so I can re-establish a relationship with him. So I can visit him, so he can talk to me."

One day I came home around three or four, around late afternoon. I saw the machine blinking. I just pushed the button; it was the operator telling me to call the prison. Father Licata from the correctional facility said there had been a terrible tragedy with my son. I didn't know what a tragedy was. Did he get cut? Did he get stabbed? He told me my son was dead, and I just screamed.

I had a white chair in my bedroom. I was balled up in that chair for about three months, and I didn't move. I was in like the fetus position. I'd get up, take a shower, change my clothes. I only ate because it was necessary or I would've died. I have diabetes. And I dried up to a size 10. I wear a size 12 now, but I was so skinny then that I had to get new clothes.

I go to the graveyard every day. In the wintertime, when they have the worst snow, I carve a path to his grave so that I can get there. I don't care if it's raining or sleeting or hailing, I go every day. That's one of the ways that I find a little peace. Sometimes I go five times a day, three times a day, two times a day. At least two times. I go in the morning, and then I go back in the afternoon.

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