The Inmate I Took Under My Wing Didn't Survive Prison
Illustration by Matt Chinworth
The day I saved Dana, I broke my streak. In all my years as a correctional officer, I had never gotten into an altercation with an inmate.
Dana was barely 22 years old when she was sent to Bedford Hills, the maximum-security New York women’s prison where I worked. She looked particularly small that night as she walked back to her cell. Several inmates began heckling her from behind. I didn't think anything of it.
Then they jumped her.
I’ve always taken the younger ones under my wing. To be a kid who is in for selling drugs or theft, among all these adults who’ve murdered, is just not easy. It’s not right, either. I would tell them to stay out of trouble, and remind them that the time was not necessarily lost, and that they could finish school inside. Do your year or two and start a new life on the outside, I would tell them.
I watched Dana get beat up by a gang of women while I radioed for help. No one replied in time. At the academy, they teach correctional officers not to get physically involved without backup. Even if the inmates look like they're going to kill each other, they tell us to wait. But I couldn't just stand there and watch her barely-five-foot frame get beat up. In that moment, she wasn’t an inmate to me—she was a child.
I jumped in and broke up the fight. I asked her if she knew the other inmates and she said no—she hadn’t been at that facility long. I escorted her back to her cell, where she thanked me.
Generally speaking, I understand that people are in prison for a reason. What that reason is, though, I’d rather not know. I don't want to be treating inmates a certain way—it clouds my judgment.
After that day, Dana would stop and chat whenever she saw me walking around. She had a soft voice. “How are you doing?” she would say, and I would tell her to stay strong and stay out of trouble. She would always say, “I won’t get into trouble. Don't worry, Ms. D.”
During her time at Bedford she mostly kept to herself. She was never confrontational toward other inmates, and as far as I know, she did stay out of trouble. But what I failed to realize was that staying out of trouble was as much about mental health as it was about physical safety.
I really got to know Dana in the spring of 2010. She had been transferred from the facility to Mt. Vernon Hospital, after she had tried to choke herself. I was working suicide watch and assigned to look over Dana in a room that had been stripped bare. There was no furniture for fear she might engage in self-harm. She didn't even have a bed and was sleeping on a pad a little thicker than a yoga mat.
I was there when she woke up. We started talking about her life before Bedford. She was from a rural area and spoke with a slight lisp and a country accent. She told me that she had been raped by a family member and had his children. We sat together the entire day, just talking.
“I hurt myself because I don't want to go home anymore,” she said. “He just keeps coming at me.”
She told me that the only way he would leave her alone was if she wasn't living anymore. I asked her what would have happened to her kids had she managed to kill herself. She didn't know, but she loved them. My heart ached for her.
I looked into her eyes and told her, “You have to be here to protect those kids. They need you. Promise me you won’t hurt yourself again.”
I’ve responded to a lot of self-harm. Once, an inmate slashed her arms with a can-opener because she was being transferred to a facility away from her family. I’ve had inmates swallow forks, spoons, batteries. Shucks, I once even had an inmate ingest parts of a fire-alarm. When these things happen, you're the first one there, and have to make those decisions that can be life changing.
Inmates with mental health issues have psychiatrists around during the day, but how many inmates are they really going to get into it with? Nobody wants extra paperwork. I had a lot of time to sit and listen on the 24-hour suicide watch.
I remember being taken aback by how easy it was to talk to Dana. She was so calm and relaxed when we spoke. That day in the hospital, she promised me she wasn't going to try anything again, but that she just had to figure out where she was going to go, because she couldn't go back home.
In the months after our conversation, I didn’t see or hear about Dana. Inmates that harm themselves are usually a subject of conversation among officers, so we know to keep an eye out if they've tried anything recently. Then, later that summer, I came back from vacation and a CO gave me the news.
They told me that around midnight one night, Dana had used a strip of sheet to hang herself. She was dead. I froze.
Later, I found out that she was still warm when the COs found her, and that neither of the officers had initiated a life-saving response. I didn’t know yet that Dana had tried to kill herself at least four times in the last two months. Helping is part of our job, and that day those officers failed. One was disciplined and the other retired.
I later learned that the only reason this was even possible was that the security log had noted that Dana, while still under observation, had been singing with another patient. That’s when she was dropped from suicide watch and transferred into the general population. Two days later, she was dead.
Dana was incarcerated for the non-violent crime of grand larceny. At 22, she was serving two to four years. When you spend enough time at work and interact with inmates on a daily basis, you begin to earn their respect. I knew I had Dana’s respect because she never gave me any problems. To this day, I wonder if the outcome would have been different, would she still be here, had I been at work that day. If I could have talked to her, she might have thought twice about it. Maybe I could have saved her again?
I pray she’s at peace now. That’s all she ever wanted.
If you are feeling suicidal, visit the website of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call toll free 1-800-273-TALK (8255) at any time. A listing of similar helplines in other countries can be found here.
Kimberly Davoren, 38, was a correctional officer employed by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision from 2005 to 2014. She has since left corrections and is now seeking a career in mental health.