Lives in Crisis

A lifer works to save lives in an Oregon prison, which increasingly houses the mentally ill

In one Oregon prison, when a prisoner is experiencing a crisis, another prisoner may be called in to calm emotions. These crisis companions are on call 24 hours a day. I am one of them. I began serving my life sentence 28 years ago.

***

Jerod won‘t come out of his cell. The guard has called me to E540. Hiding? You can’t hide in prison, even under your sink. Fear is a mind shadow, attached, dark, an inaccurate representation of self, without detail or feature, always on the opposite side of light. Jerod is afraid.

I sit down outside his cell. He is trembling, waiting for someone to wave a magic wand, say the right words. I am not him.

“You’re going to starve.”

No reaction.

“You’re going to be taken to the mental health building.”

No reaction.

“Talk to me or I’m going to leave.”

“Please don’t leave.”

Progress. “Get your ass out from under the sink. You look ridiculous. This is not working and you know it.”

Crawl. A litany of complaints following, whining… It’s not my fault scenarios, my childhood was… 

I listen. Two hours die. I listen. No magic wand, demons survive. I use words; the right words don’t exist. When afraid of snakes, handle snakes. Jerod can’t see his snakes, coils of history hiding under a dark sink.

***

Steve has eaten his radio. There’s a guard standing outside my cell telling me to report to the mental health building. It’s a long walk in the early morning cold — dark, wet, gray walls, dripping buildings, silence.

Half awake, I’m wondering: Why would anyone eat his or her radio? How much time, what degree of determination, would it require? Every day is different for me, but this is very different, as uncommon as the many mental health issues infecting this maximum-security prison. It’s becoming a mental hospital with bars, chains and challenged staff.

When I arrive at cell front, Steve is sitting on his bunk waiting for an ambulance. The guard is pissed off. Paperwork. Steve talks. I avoid the obvious question. He is frustrated, angry, unable to explain. The ambulance arrives. A week later, Steve is back.

There’s a guard standing outside my cell telling me to report to the mental health building. Long walk. Steve is sitting on his bunk waiting for an ambulance. He has ripped open his sternum-to-pelvis radio retrieval incision. His guts are in his lap.

The guard is pissed. Paperwork. The ambulance arrives.

A week later, Steve is dead.

***

Twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day. I am a veteran. I am alive. Steve is dead, hanging from a braided rope in his cell. I couldn’t reach him. I’m supposed to help. I’m a mental health worker. I couldn’t help.

I’ve been dead. Is this how I looked? I’m alive. How do I look? Is life ugly? Causes are caused by causes by causes by causes. Understanding is impossible.

He left me a note: “Fuck the world.”

Wil, an 81-year-old crisis companion and yoga teacher, is serving a life sentence at an Oregon penitentiary. He is a member of Lauren Kessler’s Lifers Writers Group.