The Implications of Trying to Kill Yourself on Death Row
Is dying sooner better than being executed later?
Illustration by Tyler Boss
This story was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
While sitting on my bunk, I heard some guys hollering "MAN DOWN!"—our code that an officer had entered the pod.
My ears perked up: a door slamming shut, unintelligible conversation, an outburst of cursing, and someone yelling, "I don't see why y'all gotta punish us for what one man did!"
That got me up and to my door.
My cell is in the corner of the L-shaped death row. Stepping out, I could scan the entire 50-foot-by-70-foot dayroom, where a black-suited officer stood out amid all the red. She leaned against our red stairway's red railing, explaining to guys wearing red jumpsuits why she had closed and locked our janitor's closet, which was also red.
Then she left through the sally port to our pod and walked away.
The inmates who'd heard the news directly from the officer made their way around the pod to share it with the rest of us. A 50-ish, beefy white guy, wearing a gray T-shirt that was too small and black nylon shorts (our approved informal attire)—and who relished bearing bad news—lumbered toward me. His face wore a fake-grave expression.
"Well, looks like we ain't gonna be able to use the janitor closet's faucet for hot water anymore—you know some guys'll die without their hot water," he said, fishing for a response.
I draped my forearms over the railing and cocked my head. I tried to embody indifference, saying nothing. This guy's presence irritated me.
"Yeah," he continued, "we gonna have to use our own sinks, and they don't get as hot..."
"What happened, man?" I cut him off. I knew the implications of not having access to the closet.
He grinned. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I get why somebody'd want to hit the ejection switch, but why make it harder on all of us? That's some selfish shit, man. Right? Anyway, today she said that that guy upstairs, the short guy with the scraggly beard? She said he killed himself..."
"What? He died?"
"Well, now wait, she didn't say that EXACTLY. She said he hung his neck in the closet."
"Did he die or not?" I was exasperated.
"I don't know, I doubt it. Now we gotta find somewhere for our hot..."
I didn't wait for a response. I went to my cell, hung the privacy sheet across my doorway, and plopped on my bunk, in a small rage because of this guy, but also the administration.
Typical. The no-more-closet rule was a knee-jerk reaction. How could it stop a man bent on suicide? He would just find another route.
The next morning, on the way to breakfast, I saw four or five men crowded around the sergeant's office asking whether the guy was going to be OK. The sergeant told them to calm down, that he had survived, but that he was being sent to Mental Health. Someone sucked their teeth, and they all went on to chow, shaking their heads.
My stress level was peaking, and I wasn't the only one.
Over the next few weeks, petty arguments erupted over nothing and everything. During recreation, we were more aggressive during our already notoriously rough basketball and volleyball games. There was a spike in sports-related injuries: twisted knees, cracked ankles, herniated discs, torn rotator cuffs.
We exercised to exhaustion. We woke up in the middle of the night to crank out push-ups, sit-ups, squats. Angry faces paced the pod or did wind-sprints outside—all to keep the monster out of mind.
The suicide attempt had reintroduced us to fear. Men "checked out," their gaze turned inward. Conversations drifted off.
One night, I sat on my bunk and closed my eyes. Someone's words echoed in my head: I get why somebody'd want to hit the ejection switch, but why make it harder on all of us?
Part of me agreed that because we're so intertwined in here, we owe certain things to one another. Then again, this man was in a dark place if he thought that dying sooner was preferable to being executed later.
It had taken me years to come to terms with my own death sentence, with the fact that I would one day be executed. Suicidal thoughts had come with it, as if they were stapled to my warrant. After all, my death had already been deemed by a court of law to be socially acceptable.
Even before my trial, I had attempted suicide, slitting my own throat. After surviving and going to prison, the suicidal thoughts were still there. But the risk of failing again was high—there's no easy way to die on death row.
Still, at least once a day for years I had scanned my catalog of death methods. I had drawn strength from this knowledge, like a man with a powerful secret, hiding lightning in his pocket.
But suddenly, sitting on my bunk, I realized that I actually couldn't remember the last time I had seriously considered suicide. It had been at least a year. After thousands and thousands of days, consecutive days, of considering suicide, I had stopped. Why?
Death Row is unique within the prison system: Men aren't shipping in and out regularly. For the most part, our population is static. We live shoulder to shoulder with each other for decades. When one of us dies, it's like losing a tooth, a digit, a limb.
In other words, I had learned to care, and be cared for. And I wanted this same respite for that poor guy upstairs, too. But what could I do, I wondered.
Shortly after he returned from Mental Health, I saw the man in question through the Plexiglas windows separating our dining halls. He slouched against a wall while everyone else ate together in clusters of two or four at the stainless-steel tables. He looked deflated; his eyes were on the floor. His posture spoke of shame, isolation, and defeat.
Since he was on a third-floor pod, having a lengthy conversation with him would be unlikely; I'm on the first floor. So I sent him a note, saying: "I see you. You have my sympathy. But I don't know what else to do… Just know that I don't judge you. Rather, I see myself when I look at you. I don't consider you weak or unstable, only human."
This man and I don't know each other, only about each other. We've never had an actual conversation. Sometimes, we pass each other in the halls on the way to or from an appointment, a meal, commissary. We can't really stop and speak, and besides, what would we say? But our eyes always seem to find a way to meet. And those moments communicate everything: You are not alone.
With a nod of acknowledgement, we both keep it moving.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-8255.
George T. Wilkerson, 35, is on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he is awaiting execution for two counts of first-degree murder that he was convicted of in 2006.