Prisoner Suicides: The Danger of Manufacturing Hopelessness
By Ed Bowser
Ed Bowser has been incarcerated within the Massachusetts prison system for more than 30 years for a crime he committed as a juvenile. A former Chairman and current member of the Board of Directors of the Lifers' Group, Inc., Ed has been actively involved in prison reform throughout his incarceration and has earned several college degrees while in prison including a Masters Degree from the Boston University Prison Education Program. Ed can be contacted at: P.O. Box 43, Norfolk, MA 02056-0043.
Several weeks ago I heard the news of yet another prisoner who had committed suicide while in the custody of the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Steven Koumaris, though not yet 50 years old, had served more than 30 years in prison for a crime he committed as a teenager. At the time of his suicide in early October he was housed at the old Colony Correctional Center (OCCC) in Bridgewater.
What struck me most about this particular suicide was the fact that I knew Stevie many years ago. Our contact was superficial and based solely on the fact that we were both young "lifers" housed in the same prisons so I don't know many of the details of Stevie's life before prison. I do know that we both entered the prison system as teenagers in the mid 1970s.
I knew others over the years of my incarceration who have taken their own lives, but the news of Steve Koumaris' suicide seemed to be something I could not stop thinking about. The obvious question-why-weighed heavily on my mind. Reports of prisoner and staff abuses leading up to Stevie's death were already circulating around the prison system. At least one prisoner alleged that Steve had been sexually assaulted by two other prisoners and that staff response was anything but appropriate.
So, while the obvious reason(s) for Steve's death were becoming known-I became aware of what it was that disturbed me so much about his suicide: I realized that I could relate to the underlying feelings of isolation and despair that most certainly must have preceded his decision to bring an end to his own personal suffering.
Of course, it is impossible to know for sure what went through Steve's mind before he took a razor blade and cut two openings in an artery in his thigh and another in this throat. We can be sure, however, that he was not thinking that life was worth living or that there was some hope for a brighter future.
In preparing to write this article, I wrestled with whether or not I wanted to share my own personal experience with thoughts of suicide which arose after my second parole denial in 1994. My fear was that an admission that I had once contemplated suicide would result in my being labeled as somehow less stable. After a discussion with a respected Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, I realized that the subject of suicide in prison seemed more important to me than my paranoia about how I might be viewed because I once considered suicide.
Though people have different reasons for committing suicide, I am convinced that the underlying feelings that precipitate the act itself are universal. These feelings include: a very deep and abiding sense of isolation, hopelessness, despair, and loneliness. The magnitude of the emotional and psychological pain is so deep and so intense that it feels like the only way out - the only way to end the pain - is through death.
As noted above, my own experience with the thought of suicide arose after receiving my second parole denial in 1994. My first parole denial after serving 15 years was painful, but the second denial was a devastating blow. At the time the maximum allowable time that the Parole Board could set until the next parole review was 3 years. The idea of another 3 years on top of the first 3 year setback seemed like an eternity. I had already served 18 years at that point and had completed every rehabilitative program available to me; including earning a Bachelors Degree from Boston University; spending nearly 8 years in minimum security; completing 49 unsupervised furloughs and spending 5 days a week in service to the community through two programs that I was instrumental in creating.
When I received the news of my second parole denial and the attendant 3 year setback, I was being housed at MCI-Shirley medium where I had been transferred directly from my parole hearing. When the decision came several months later, I remember being called to the Institutional Parole Office. Once there I was met by the Institutional Parole Officer (IPO). The IPO told me that she had my parole decision and asked me to take a seat. I was feeling a combination of anxiety and fear. I remember asking: "Did I get a parole?" The IPO was as gentle as she could be in saying: "No, you were denied." I then asked: "When do I see the Board again?" When she said "1997" I repeated it in question form: "1997?" I suddenly felt as if I weighed several hundred pounds. I halfheartedly asked for a copy of the decision and asked if I could go.
As I walked back to my cellblock with the decision in hand, every step I took seemed to take every bit of energy I could muster. The buildings around me seemed to be getting bigger and I felt as though I were shrinking. By the time I made my way back to the cellblock I felt smaller and more insignificant than I ever had in my life. I felt as though I had to wade through the deafening din of life going on in the cellblock as I headed toward the telephone. Everything seemed distant and surreal. All I could think about was how the news of another denial was going to hurt the people that I loved and cared about. In particular, I was concerned about the impact that I knew this decision would have on the woman who had dedicated the last 11 years of her life to me. As I thought about the look of disappointment and pain in her face when I delivered the news of the first denial 3 years earlier, I walked directly past the telephone feeling the deepest sense of sadness and hopelessness I had ever experienced in my life. When I arrived at my cell I sat on my footlocker. I felt numbness come over me and it was as if I were looking at the world through a veil.
Though I don't recall ever having a conscious thought of killing myself I began shredding a bed sheet in to long strips. I then stripped down and headed to the shower room at the end of the tier just a few feet from my cell with the strips of bed sheet in my hand. Once I was in the shower I tied the sheets securely around the showerhead and turned the water on. I stood there in the stream of water thinking this will end it. No more disappointments, no more pain. As the water streamed over me I felt that water cutting through the numbness and I was again feeling the overwhelming sadness and pain. A sudden release of tears caused me to squat down under the stream of water. With my head in my hands I began to think of how the news of my death would impact my loved ones. The thought of them being told I was found hanging in a prison shower suddenly seemed selfish and grotesque. From outside of the shower I heard someone asking who was next in the shower. I said nothing, I simply untied the bed sheets gathered up my stuff and returned to my cell.
For me, what may have been the critical moment had passed. I was fortunate to find my way through the fog that clouded my thinking. Others, like Steve Koumaris, Mike Keohane, Manuel Tilleria, Anthony Garafalo, Nelson Rodriguez, Andrew Armstrong, Sean Turner, and Shane Acker - all men who committed suicide in Massachusetts prisons between March, 2005 and October, 2006 - were obviously so steeped in their pain, hopelessness and despair that they saw no other way out.
Recent conversation with other prisoners about the subject of suicide has been an eye-opening experience. While it is common in the testosterone filled cellblocks of most prisons to label anyone who commits suicide as "weak," the numbers of men who have admitted that they had considered and/or attempted suicide at some point in their incarceration is mind-boggling.
My heart goes out to the families of those who have lost a loved one to suicide while in prison. I wish I could say that it will never happen again, but the reality is that it will most definitely happen again, and probably soon. From March of 2005 through October 2006 there have been on average 1 suicide every 2½ to 3 months.
The Massachusetts prison and parole systems have manufactured a very real and very dangerous hopelessness among prisoners in Massachusetts. Over the past 17 years or so, the Department of Correction and the Parole Board have continued to implement more and more restrictive policies which have resulted in overcrowded conditions, prisoners serving longer sentences and ultimately stripping many prisoners of any hope for a brighter future-the net of which is guarantee that there will be more suicides in this so-called era of reform.