The Bad Thief

There is a chip in the paint on my bunk bed where Keith hanged himself. Like everything else in prison, penitentiary paint is cheap. Even a suicide’s shoestring rope is enough to nick it. That scratch is all that is left of Keith now. In the year or so that we shared a cell, Keith and I never really became friends. But this is not unusual. Prison life is not very conducive to genuine emotional bonding. To survive behind bars, you have to be constantly on your guard against the infinite variety of smiling manipulators. Years can pass before you accept another man as your associate or stickman and extend just a little trust to him. Even then, you never call him your friend. In the penitentiary, that term is reserved for homosexual lovers.

So Keith and I lived side by side, or above one another in our bunk beds, in our 7-foot by 12-foot concrete box while remaining essentially strangers. Of course, we sometimes passed on prison gossip, discussed politics and shared brief memories of uncontroversial parts of our pasts. I learned, for instance, that Keith had betrayed his wife with an Indonesian woman while working overseas as a Navy contractor in the 1980’s. But it was not until after his suicide that I found out why he had come to the penitentiary in the 1990’s: for aggravated sexual battery on a minor.


What little I did come to know of Keith in our year together, I liked a lot. He took a shower every day; he always used headphones while watching his 5-inch TV; he did not steal from me; he did not try to rape me or start a consensual sexual relationship with me; he did not use drugs or brew homemade alcohol; he snored within reasonable limits; he kept quiet during my four daily centering prayer sessions, and he did not press conversation on me when I did not want itwhich I never do. All this made Keith an ideal cellmate for me, a veritable gift from heaven. For all practical purposes, he was invisible, unnoticeable, absent.

Now, of course, he is truly and permanently absent. And I miss him.

The last time I saw him alive was on April 27, 2004, at 6:10 a.m. I had performed centering prayer from 5 to 5:30 a.m., as I do every morning, and then read my Bible and wrote a letter. He got up once to urinate while I prayed, and his T-shirt very gently brushed my arm as he passed. Ten minutes after six, as I left the cell to go to breakfast, I saw him stirring on the bottom bunk, as if to rise and follow me. Just like every morning.

We had waffles that day, but I did not see Keith come through the chow line. So I left the dining hall early and returned to our housing unit to wake him up, to let him know that if he left immediately, he could still make it to breakfast before the chow line closed. I remember looking at my watch: it was 6:30 a.m. In a rush to ensure that Keith did not miss his waffles, I jerked open our cell door, and....

The cell lights were off. Keith appeared to be sitting on the floor with his back against his bottom bunk, and I could see some blood on the front of his white T-shirt. I thought he had lost consciousness because of diabetic shock and then experienced a nose bleed.

According to what other inmates told me later, I shouted, Oh my God! I remember running to get the guard from the dayroom and returning with her to the cell. She was the one who turned on the light. And that is when we saw the white rope made of shoestrings, tied to my top bunk railing. Both of us could see immediately that Keith was dead.

After that, everything went crazy. Other inmates from surrounding cells, alerted by my initial shout, crowded around the open door to catch a glimpse of the dead guy. The guard I had brought to the cell was now also shouting Oh my God repeatedly, until someone pointed out to her that she really should radio for help. A few minutes later, some male guards arrived with a nurse, cut Keith down, and attempted C.P.R. They tried very hardI’ll say that for thembut it was too late.

Meanwhile, still other guards had shepherded the other prisoners into their cells and put me in the now-empty dayroom. I watched them carry Keith past me on a stretcher. Then I just sat there for an hour or two.

Next came the inevitable interrogations: the institutional investigator, the assistant warden, an investigator from Virginia Department of Corrections headquarters, and finally a whole group that included all of the above plus a psychologist and a computer expert. We think you know something you’re not telling us, the assistant warden announced ominously. In the penitentiary, this is known as squeezing my balls. Amazing how everything in prison has to be someone’s fault, even a suicide.

Eventually, everyone appeared to agree that I was just as surprised and shocked as I appeared to be. So I was told that I could leave and that I should pack up Keith’s property.

Of course, this was really the responsibility of two guards assigned to this task, but they were too scared to enter the hangin’ cell. With the help of another prisoner, I swept all of Keith’s belongings into several enormous black trash bags, so the investigator could rummage through everything latereverything except Keith’s Diet Cokes, that is. The other inmate kept all of those, as well as two bars of soap and a deodorant. Such is penitentiary life.

Perhaps I am no better. My first priority after packing Keith’s property was to get a sponge, broom and mop bucket and remove any trace of him. That cell never got a cleaning as thorough as the one I gave it on the day of his death.

By then it was nighttime. So I took a shower, turned off the cell lights and climbed into my top bunk. Then I climbed back down, turned the small light on again and returned to bed. Sleeping alone in that cell with no lights at all was more than even I, with my 18 years of penitentiary experience and toughening-up, could stand.

The next morning, someone in authority must have figured out that I should not have been allowed to return to the cell and spend the night there. So I was told to pack up my own belongings and move into another cell for a week. Meanwhile the hangin’ cell was officially, if belatedly, put under investigation.

That investigation failed to turn up any clue as to why Keith took his life. According to the institutional investigator, who discussed this matter with the chief psychologist of the Department of Corrections, suicides who are truly determined to die neither signal their intentions beforehand nor leave any explanatory letters afterward. But among inmates and staff, of course, there was plenty of speculation.

The prison’s computer class, where Keith had worked as a teacher’s aide, had been the subject of an investigation in the week leading up to his death. One theory was that computer-generated child pornography had been found on the hard drive, and Keith had killed himself to escape the consequences. Because of the nature of the crime that had sent him to the penitentiary originally, the discovery of kiddie porn in his possession could conceivably have led to his civil commitment as a repeat sex offender upon completion of his current prison sentence in 2016. But one week after the suicide, the assistant warden assured me that child pornography had not in fact been found in the computer class or anywhere else.

Another theory was that Keith had sought admittance to this prison’s innovative Sex Offender Residential Treatment (SORT) program, a nationally recognized success. Under the current correctional regime, however, he would have had to serve another full decade behind bars before he could enter SORT in the last two years prior to his scheduled release. Wanting to change yourself is not enough to earn a second chancenot any more. But Keith read newspapers and thus was aware of the political realities affecting prisoners, so he could hardly have been surprised by the complete mercilessness of the system.

So in the end, what the few of us who liked Keith are left with is a mystery. He wanted out, a sentiment all of us understand, and he found a way. What many of the rest of us have been asking ourselves is why we are not following Keith’s way of making parole. No one wants to say this out loud, of course. But I can see it in the slumped shoulders, and I hear it in the joking advice to keep hangin’ in there, buddy. Was Keith a kind of penitentiary prophet, showing us all some ugly truths about our own lives?

In the housing unit where he and I lived, there are many inmates who will most likely die behind barslifers who will never be released. Currently 127,677 prisoners are serving life sentences in this country’s state and federal penitentiaries, one out of every 11 inmates. In the federal system and six states, lifers are officially ineligible for parole, but even in those states whose laws technically still allow the release of such prisoners, parole grants are virtually unheard of for those serving life.

The comparatively small penitentiary where I am housed holds at least two men who have spent over 40 years behind bars, several with more than 30 under their belts, and literally dozens in the 20-plus-years club. With only 18 years of incarcerationalmost half my lifeI am actually considered a fresh fish around here.

But we lifers, we are the dead. Our executions may be stretched out over four or five decades, but in the end, life without parole produces exactly the same result as lethal injection: 127,677 human beings killed by their government.

All of us lifers know this, yet for some reason we are not the ones who kill ourselves. Keith, a man who actually had a firm release date, albeit 12 years from now, is the one who committed suicide. Why? I do not know.

I do know that I wish I had listened to Keith, even to his silence. So much of my life now is spent on centering prayer, the prayer of inner silence, that I was grateful to have a taciturn cellmate like Keith. Someone mature enough to keep quiet, watch his television without bothering me, and let me do my praying and writing. Someone who did not need a babysitter. So I failed to be my brother’s keeper. Admittedly, Keith seems not to have wanted someone to talk him out of hanging himself. But the fact is that I never even tried.

When I turn to my Bible as I struggle with Keith’s suicide, I find two passages that shed at least some light on his death: the stories of Samson and the so-called bad thief.

You will recall that thanks to Delilah, Samson was finally captured by the Philistines, bound...with bronze fetters [and] put to grinding in the prison (Jgs 16:21). On one occasion, while being taunted in the great hall by about three thousand men and women [for their] amusement, he pushed down the columns and killed at his death...more than he had killed during his lifetime (Jgs 16:30). So Scripture tells us, anyway.

As a prisoner myself, I can recognize another prisoner’s fantasy. There is not an inmate alive who has not dreamed of ending his own pain in a grand final gesture and taking as many of his captors with him to the grave as possible. Whoever wrote the story of Samson’s suicide was perhaps a convict himself, and he expressed a very important and sad truth about life in the penitentiary: hopelessness kills. I am sure that Keith would have pushed down the columns of the great hall if he could have. But in the end, even this satisfaction was denied him. And that would have only added to his hopelessness.

The other Bible passage that has given me at least a little perspective on Keith’s death is the description of the bad thief at Jesus’ crucifixion. Traditionally, Christians focus on the good thief, the repentant onethat symbol of mercy in extremis. But most of America’s 127,677 lifers, and almost certainly my cellmate Keith, identify more closely with the bad thief, the one who died without hope and with curses on his lips (Lk 23:39).

Much like modern-day jailbirds, the bad thief had probably learned that central rule of prison life with which I began: do not let anyone get close to you! An occasional associate or stickman is acceptablebut no friends, please. Trust no one! Especially not some nutcase on the cross next to yours who claims he is the Son of God. Yeah, sure, buddyand I’m the Shah of Iran. Let me do my time, and you do yours. And keep the noise down, will ya!

That is how I lived while sharing a cell with Keith: I failed to recognize him as a child of God. The light eternal, the light that shone before the creation of the universe, this light was flowing through Keith every single day that we were cellmates, and I did not see it. God’s beloved son was in the bunk bed below mine, but I was too busy praying and writing to pay attention.

This is how all will know that you are my disciples: if you love one another, Jesus said at the Last Supper (Jn 13:35). I was a poor disciple, and I am sorry. May God have mercy on Keith’s souland also on mine.

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11 years 11 months ago
I would like to thank Jens Soering for his periodic contributions to America, which provide a poignant reminder of the humanity of the men and women in the American prison system (12/6). He returns the faces to those who have been forgotten and cast off and reminds us all that regardless of guilt or innocence, ultimately the discussion is about a person. I sincerely hope to see more of Mr. Soering’s writings in the future.

As someone with a family member who has been in and out of the prison system, I have personally seen the suffering inflicted upon prisoners and the recently released. Modern prisons are designed to punish rather than rehabilitate and do little to maintain the dignity of prisoners, the same dignity found in all of us. Further insult ensues upon release, when a person returns to society supposedly having paid his or her debt, only to find the stigma of “ex-con” attached and new challenges. This family member was guilty; he served his time but desired change and found it almost impossible without the support of those around him and eventually ended up back in trouble.

Dorothy Day said it best when asked in an interview about criminals when she responded, “God loves all men, and all men are brothers.” As Christians we are called to love and support those who are most marginalized among us; and while it is easy to focus upon the poor, the homeless or the hungry, it is just as easy to forget those who have been imprisoned. God doesn’t give up on the incarcerated; why should we?


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