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.

One night I went to bed at 10, and Jesse ended up hanging out with two guys he hadn't hung out with in a long time. The three of them were walking around drinking. They ended up at a trailer that was empty. One guy went over and pried open the window and started taking stuff. Jesse told me he wanted to leave, but he didn't want to be a punk, so he stayed there. They stole baseball caps, costume jewelry, Nintendo games—junk.

They gave him probation on that and let him go. He was 16. He walked out of court, walked down the street, and bumped into a couple of his brother's friends. They went down to Kingston Plaza, and they were looking for money to buy some weed. One of the kids saw a truck running by the pizza place—it was a pizza delivery guy—and saw a wallet sitting there. Jesse kept watch, and the kid went over and grabbed the wallet. There was 26 dollars in there.

The cops came. They found the wallet in Jesse's back pocket, and it had three credit cards in it. Because of the amount of the credit cards, it was grand larceny. There's his second felony. They threw him in jail.

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 saw him twice a week. I'd go up on Saturday, and I'd go up during the week. The more depressed he got, the more he acted out, the more lockdown he got. At least six months of the time, he was in solitary confinement. They put him in this little room all by himself. Honestly, the isolation killed him. He was becoming more distant from the world. He didn't know how to read the situation. His anger was increasing. He told me, "Dad, I can't handle this anymore. I just wish I would die." I thought he was feeling sorry for himself. I just tried to stay strong for him.

More than one guard came up to me and said, "Get your son out of here. He's not right for prison; he's not a criminal." But I didn't know what to do. I had no way to get him out of there. Being poor and being in the situation I was in—a single dad trying to make ends meet—I couldn't afford a lawyer.

I called the judge. I called the assistant DA. I called the DA. I spoke to them, and I explained that the kid needs rehabilitation, not incarceration. I said, "I'm not asking him to be on the street; I'm asking you to get him some help." They just wouldn't hear it.

I get a phone call on Friday at 4:30. Brrrring. "Hello." "Hi, is this Mr. McCann?" "Yes it is." I don't remember the guy's name. Reverend So-and-so from New York State Department of Corrections. "OK, what can I do for you?" "I'm sorry to tell you but your son died at 11-something Friday morning."

I cursed the guy out. I thought it was one of my friends being a jackass. I went crazy. "What the hell are you doing?" I couldn't believe that somebody would actually call me. I mean, somebody dies in 'Nam, and somebody shows up at your door with a flag. My little boy dies, I get a phone call.

I just sat here in the house for three days. I was just so depressed. I didn't know if I should get angry, or crawl in a hole and die. I didn't know where my emotions were going. I had no clue. I mean, I didn't really admit my emotions to myself for four months.

I just don't want to see this continue. My son is already dead, but it doesn't mean other people have to die the same way. Because I went through this personally, I hope that I can help other people not go through it.

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