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.

I've been praying for the last four years that somebody listen to me. That somebody else besides myself know what this child has gone through. I'm tired of crying. I'm tired of holding my head down. If I don't speak my peace now, I'll never have the opportunity again.

I brought a lawsuit because I knew I had to get the word out some kind of way, so that the correctional facility and their staff be more attentive with the mental health inmates in their care. I know it won't help my son. But for the other mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers who have a similar situation as myself—my hope is that they not have to spend their Christmas at the cemetery crying over a grave site where their child is buried.

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.


Jesse McCann, 1983–2001
Jesse McCann's 50th day in state prison began when he woke up in a standard cell at Downstate Correctional Facility. It ended in the box, when he fastened a bedsheet to the window frame, knotted it into a circle, and hanged himself. The date was March 16, 2001. His 18th birthday was two weeks away.

Since childhood, Jesse had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals. One doctor said he had "oppositional defiant disorder"; another diagnosed him with "intermittent explosive disorder." He was arrested for burglary at 16, then picked up for grand larceny at 17. While in Ulster County Jail, he attacked a guard and was convicted of assault. He was sentenced to up to three and half years in state prison.

Fifteen days after Jesse arrived at Downstate, in Dutchess County, he got into a fight with an inmate and was sentenced to 30 days of 23-hour lockdown. Soon after this punishment ended, he got into another fight, this time with a guard. Jesse was sent to the prison's "Special Housing Unit." Eighty-five minutes later, an officer discovered him hanging from his cell window.

Jesse left behind a mother, a father, and two brothers. His father, Guy McCann, lives in a modest second-floor apartment in Kingston, 20 miles north of Poughkeepsie. Jesse's high school picture and his faded Yankees cap hang on a wall in the living room. On a recent afternoon, 50-year-old Guy sat at the kitchen table, his fingers circling a cup of coffee, and told the story of his son's short life.

Guy McCann thinks his son might have had the same disease he has.
(Photo: Jay Muhlin)
Guy McCann: Jesse was very, very intelligent. Never studied. Straight A's. It was so easy for him. The teachers loved him. When Jesse was three, he could name every state in the country. And before he hit five, he could spell every state. He knew every president. Scholastically, life came easy to him. Emotionally, life was a death trap.

I knew he had a chemical imbalance from the time he was a baby. Jesse and I both had seizures when we were children. He had seizures ever since he was six months, and it went on until he was around four or five.

He was combative and confrontational. He'd go out on the street, and someone would say something at him, and he was ready to throw hands. And in school he had behavioral problems. He grabbed a picture off the principal's wall one day and smashed it on his desk.

When I'd get on his case about something he did, his face would turn red. You could see the color change right in front of you because he was so light. He would blow up. He would either throw something or run out the door or become confrontational himself. I would ignore him while he ran his mouth. Then, about five minutes later, he would apologize. And we'd talk, and then he was OK. That was the only way to handle him.

I have what they call tuberous sclerosis; I have on-the-brain tumors. What that does is, involuntarily, your emotions can fly. And with age and maturity, you learn to control that. Jesse was never diagnosed. But his eyebrows and his eyelashes are two different colors, and that's a sign of tuberous sclerosis. I was only diagnosed with this three years ago; if I had known this years ago, I think things might've been different today. Jesse might still be alive.

Jesse was eight when his mother split. That's when his behavior really started escalating. He would run away. Just a lot of anger and not knowing how to deal with it. He started hanging out with the wrong crowd. It started off with stealing from stores. He was very street smart; he picked up on how to get over.

The first hospital he went to was Benedictine. I think that's when he was 10. He went for a weekend stay there. We had him in Family House three times. Family House is like a respite for teenagers. Then he went to Four Winds [psychiatric hospital] for substance abuse and erratic behavior. Then he went to Rockland Children's Psychiatric Center. He was there twice.

Jesse was 150 pounds, 5 feet 7, and built like a rock. He got his GED when he was 16. He took the entrance exam to Ulster Community College when he was 16, and they were going to accept him.

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