Mike was sentenced to fifty years to life for stealing $200 from a convenience store. Mike was a Jehovah’s witness. Mike was my cellee. And Mike was sick.
When I first moved into the cell with Mike, I wasn’t sure what to think. He was old, at least he looked it. He walked with a cane and slept with a CPAP strapped to his face. Other than his apnea, Mike didn’t really know what was wrong with him and the prison doctors certainly didn’t know either. What he did know was that it was getting progressively harder for him to walk each day.
When I moved in, Mike had already been waiting six months for the “emergency” transfer he so desperately needed which would house him in a medical facility where he might get better treatment. A bed had been made available at a medical prison a few months earlier, but the transfer had been cancelled. Something to do with not taking patients who’d previously been treated for depression with medication.
So, Mike got dramatically worse each and every week I lived with him. He was slow and mobile when we first met. He would make the exhausting trek from the cell to the chow hall to the pill line and back to the cell twice each day. He would make the journey out to Greystone Chapel every Saturday afternoon. The rest of the time he spent in our four foot by nine foot broom closet lying on his bed, reading his Bible, writing home to his wife, or watching television.
Two months later, Mike was no longer mobile. He couldn’t walk. I brought him breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a tray from the chow hall beneath the suspicious gaze of the guards who were convinced I was actually trying to double up on meals. I fetched the nurse to make sure he got his meds, and the cops just thought I was trying to get the pills for myself.
Mike continued to get worse. He cried to himself on his bunk because he was in so much pain. He often fell down trying to get to the toilet at night. I would catch him when I could but I wasn’t always there, in time or at all. I’ll never forget the look of shame on his face when he opened his first pack of adult diapers. Day by day, I felt like Mike was slipping away and I felt powerless to do anything about it.
The fellas on the yard told me that I needed to move out of that cell for my own well being. You see, if Mike died while I was living with him, the guards would assume that there was foul play; I would go to the hole until an autopsy cleared me of any potential murder beef. I would lose my job in the welding shop. My classification hearing would get delayed which meant my actual release date could end up being further out.
I spoke with my homeboys to see if there was any way I could talk to the cops about what was happening but that was a no go. It could be misconstrued as snitching, even if well intended. I talked with my most trusted friends and they, too, thought I should take care of myself and move out. But none of these people knew Mike. To them, he was just that guy that lived with me.
I decided to stay in the cell with him. Of course, I was scared. I was scared of the idea that Mike might die in the cell with me there and I was scared of the idea of going to the hole and having my whole program fucked up. But I think I was more fearful of what it would feel like to move out, abandoning him to whatever knucklehead may end up in the cell with him. Would he bring him his food? Would he help him out? Would he tolerate the multiracial Jehovah’s Witness crowd that sometimes gathered outside the cell to check on him?
So, I stayed. And one locked-down afternoon, I discovered Mike motionless and breathless in the cell with me. His arm, hanging over the edge of his bunk, hadn’t moved in a couple hours. I couldn’t see his face because he covered up his respirator with a towel while he slept. I shook his foot and no response. I yelled his name and nothing. Finally, I walked up to the head of his bunk and removed the towel, only to see his purple face with the CPAP strapped to it, bubbles blowing from his mouth.
“MAN DOWN!” I yelled from my cell until the cops, nurses, and gurney showed up. They used a sheet to drag his pale blue body off of the bunk, out of the cell, and onto the tier. A nurse pronounced him dead by swiping her fingers across her throat. The cop standing next to me quietly uttered, “Snap crackle pop”.
I was escorted away in handcuffs and locked into a coffin-sized, plexiglass-lined cage, pending transfer to the hole. Anxiety had the best of me. I raged with all the selfishness of somebody who saw the immediate future and dreaded all of it. I struggled to find my breath and had to squeeze to the bottom of the cage where there was air.
Four anxiety-ridden hours I remained in the cage. A guard finally approached and I was set free to return to my cell. “Go pack up your cellee’s shit,” he told me.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because somebody brought him back to life in the ambulance. You didn’t kill him because he ain’t dead now. You’re a lucky motherfucker,” the guard said nonchalantly.
I learned later that Mike is brain dead. A vegetable. In a sick twist of fate, Mike got the emergency medical transfer he so desperately needed. He was hooked up to life-support in order to serve out the remainder of his life sentence. If he could remember anything, his last waking moment was me bringing him breakfast. Scrambled eggs, tortillas, and salsa.