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.

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.


SIX MONTHS IN THE BOX: JAMES'S STORY

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.


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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.

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.


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.

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.


DEAD AT 17: JESSE'S STORY

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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.


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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.

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.

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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