Last week I called the prison reentry program that I go to each week to let the staff know that I was stuck in horrible traffic and would be a little late. The woman who sits at the front desk, my usual point of contact said, “Turn around. Go home.” At first I thought she was giving me an out. It was pouring rain, traffic sucked, and I was still far away. It took me a second to process the different tone in her usually chipper voice.
“What’s going on?,” I asked, not anticipating what I was about to hear.
“One of the residents was found dead in his bed this morning.”
After a string of “ohmygods,” I asked who it was. Even though she knew it was me, she had to formally ask who she was speaking with before she could tell me more. Protocol of disclosure. At first I couldn’t place the name–I’ve seen hundreds of guys in the almost two years I’ve been going to this particular program. Residents are referred to as “Mr. So-and-So,” and until she described him as “the one who always wore the dark shades,” I couldn’t place him. But then, I knew.
I had worked closely with this man who I called “Ice-T” because of his dark glasses. He was a career criminal, close to 50, in and out of prison for a lifetime of drug and violent crimes. While helping the group I lead create resumes he literally had not one job that he could include. I have worked miracles with other men and women with no official job histories, but this one was particularly challenging. He had never learned to read or write.
I sat with him one-on-one and had him dictate whatever we might spin into a skill set. Truth be told, and I’ve said this about only a handful of the men and women I’ve worked with, his affect and appearance would have made it incredibly difficult for him to interview well, let alone be hired. Of course I would never say this to him or anyone else, and I just do the best I can to instill the confidence they need to keep moving forward.
After hearing of his death, most likely a heroin overdose, my mind and heart propelled themselves onto the staff and what it must have been like for them. They are an incredible and dedicated group of people who genuinely care about these men. I learned of the rapid series of events, how his roommates are the ones who found him, lifeless in his bottom bunk, how staff tried to resuscitate him, how the other residents were locked-down in the basement, to his body being brought out, in a body bag on a gurney, right in front of the staff at the front desk, and out the front door.
I thought of the youngest residents, the 21-yr olds who had just served their first bids, newly released and not yet totally hardened by things like this. Even though the older guys have dealt with violent and accidental deaths throughout their lives, I’m sure they haven’t become inured to it.
After my mother and a man she was involved with were found dead close to 30 years ago in the high-rise apartment we lived in , I became curious about how they were brought out of the building. Were there people in the lobby? Were they taken out a back door? I have had dream upon dream of my asking the doorman and front desk employees what happened, and often it’s become legend, an event not to be forgotten. The thought of my mother being reduced to a body in a bag will haunt me for the rest of my life.
It sounds like a cliché to say things like, “I just saw him last week,” or “He seemed so ready to stay clean,” but those are the things we say when we don’t have any real access to the inner-workings of someone else’s mind, when we can’t process how, in this instance, a person, a living, breathing person, popped his head into my classroom just to say hello and now, he’s gone, a person reduced to a body bag on a gurney.