Ivan Denison is the pen name of a man currently held at Indiana State Prison (ISP), who has served 30 years of a 71-year sentence for attempted murder and resisting arrest. Three and a half of those years he spent in solitary confinement. In the following piece, Denison writes about his experiences as a “suicide companion.” In a letter to Solitary Watch, Denison explained that the suicide companion program at ISP began in 2008, enlisting paid and volunteer incarcerated men to watch men deemed suicidal and log their actions.
People on “suicide watch” are typically held in a bare “strip cell,” removed from social interactions and usually without basic furnishings, hygienic items, or clothing beyond a “suicide smock.” Some strip cells contain holes in the floor rather than toilets. This method of isolating people on suicide watch has been widely implemented in prisons across the country, under the rationale that suicides will be prevented by blocking access to anything that may be contrived to aid suicidal actions. Suicide watch in many cases becomes a substitute for mental health treatment, and has received criticism not only for its cruelty but also for its inefficacy.
Denison claims that the poor conditions of the strip cells at ISP, in fact, deter people from expressing suicidal thoughts. He describes the case of 34-year-old Ryan Nieves, who attempted suicide by setting himself on fire at ISP in November 2018 in what Denison imagines as a “silent protest.” By his own admission, Denison can only speculate about the feelings and motivations of Nieves, and of his charges in the suicide watch cells. But he believes their suffering is exacerbated by isolation, deprivation, and the lack of adequate mental health care at ISP. “I’m still hoping for change,” he wrote in his letter, “but I think it won’t happen until some outside agency gives the ISP psychologist some input. Hopefully someone will read my article and act to help us in here.” —Valerie Kiebala
Flames surged out of cell A-250, well fueled by rolled-up newspapers, books, cardboard, and clothing collected by the cell’s lone occupant, Ryan Nieves. He wanted the fire to be hot, and quickly intense, and it was. An accelerant had been poured. The paint blistered off the walls. The inflammable plastic mattress shriveled, melted, and surrendered to the fire. The complete immolation of the cell’s contents only took a few minutes, a fact attested to by the rapidly responding firemen. Everything inside was destroyed.
Inside the burnt cell, calmly reposed, was Ryan Nieves, barely alive.
He hadn’t screamed, hadn’t uttered a word.
• • •
Most suicides are preventable. Upon this fact is built the framework for diverse suicide prevention programs, and most succeed in lowering the suicide rate. Here at Indiana State Prison, however, the suicide rate has been abnormally high for years, despite a suicide prevention protocol in place. The mortality rate in general is abnormally high, averaging better than a death a month over the past three years, a grim statistic that hasn’t warranted a downgrade in accreditation or any other sanction.
That the conditions at ISP are miserable, with little for prisoners to do besides die, probably pleases the authoritarian wing of taxpayer society, and if they had their wish, more prisons would have the frequency of death we experience here. Perhaps that was what Ryan Nieves was protesting.
Still, despite Ryan’s attempted suicide, I suspect he didn’t really want to die. If he was in despair, he simply knew better than to ask for help. Help is not what you get here. He had been housed in D-cellhouse until a month before, where he could look down upon the four bare strip cells used to detain prisoners on suicide watch, and he knew that any confession about thoughts of self-harm would land him in intolerable conditions where his despair would only deepen.
I work as a suicide companion in D-cellhouse. I sit twelve feet outside the cells, with an extra layer of diamond mesh wire separating us so that no items can be passed.
They wear nothing but a knee-length dark blue smock, an accoutrement affording little relief from the cold air or frozen steel bunk they must endure, sans mattress. They have nothing in the cell. Toilet paper only when needed, no soap. A bright light shines incessantly. In contrast, I sit in a padded chair, wearing a coat, sipping hot coffee, an incongruity they must find annoying.
The suicide companions have been trained NOT to counsel these prisoners, for two reasons. The staff psychologist does not want our counseling to conflict with hers, and she doesn’t want us to feel guilty if someone we counseled went on to commit suicide.
One companion asked, “Wouldn’t we feel guilty if they had committed suicide and we had failed to use the opportunity to talk to them?”
“Just don’t talk to them” is the unwavering directive.
So these prisoners, each suspected to have some capacity for self-destruction, and many possessing mental health issues, are kept isolated. No conversation. No TV. No radio. No books. No religious services. No phones. No mail, not even legal mail. Complete social disconnection.
And the counseling we are not supposed to interfere with? Nonexistent. Joshua Love, a five-time internee, told me he had yet to receive one word of therapy at ISP. “All I get is this torture chamber.”
Love, doing a 63-year sentence for a drug-related murder committed when he was 18, has been classified as seriously mentally ill and has done a majority of his time in disciplinary segregation, where the stress of isolation often compels him to haphazardly slash himself. He’s a “cutter,” and we deal with several such repeat customers, because cutting one’s self evidences a desire for self-harm, and that’s all it takes to be placed on suicide watch. That they are being manipulative and aren’t actually suicidal is a distinction most psychologists are aware of; but in prison, due to the liability incurred when found “deliberately indifferent,” there is no effort to distinguish between the two. Harm yourself in any way and into the “turtle suit” you go.
Every fifteen minutes I must write a line on a form, describing what the prisoner is doing. Troy Shaw, in the midst of a ten-day hunger strike, insisted I write that he “wasn’t suicidal when I got here, but I am definitely suicidal now.”
Another man two cells away kept vowing to throw feces unless he was given a mattress. “I’m not suicidal!” First timer. He unhappily learned to sleep on bare steel. Others have made good on their excrement-tossing promises, devolving into the zoo animals that protest their artificial habitats the same way.
Some of our regular tenants actually say the magic words and choose to be on suicide watch, usually when hiding from creditors or predators. A last option safe harbor. Quite a few of the deaths at ISP are murders, so the strategy makes sense.
The suicide cells are also used as a makeshift punishment block for the “toonheads” that freak out from smoking hallucinogens. A few weeks ago, a man screamed for four hours, with his head bent over the commode as he splashed toilet water on his scalp. “They’re gonna get me! The door’s unlocked!” He feared an attack on his life, the OPPOSITE of suicidal. He drove my blood pressure from its usual 120/70 to 151/90.
When the prisoners are asleep, I watch mice and large cockroaches traverse from cell to cell. When they’re awake I see barefoot men, filthy, enduring cold floors with vacant stares. Nervous rocking. Asking what time it is, as if it matters. Outbursts of frustration. “Torture” is a word I hear often. Prisoners in the upper tiers taunt them: “Kill yourself! Jump off the bunk! Bang your head on the wall!” This is the communication they get in lieu of our counseling or any professional therapy.
I haven’t been free since 2005, so let me ask the readers: Is this how suicidal people are handled on the outside? Is it normal protocol to strip them down to nothing and keep them isolated from the world? Is this the treatment recommended by the American Psychiatric Association?
• • •
Ryan Nieves was one of the prisoners residing above the suicide watch cells, and he knew that whatever emotional problems he was having would not be alleviated by admitting to anyone that he was suicidal. The truly suicidal know to stay away from this place. Ryan heard the agony below and surely did not wish to add that agony to what he was already feeling.
He stayed quiet.
He kept his thoughts to himself—which is what solitary confinement does best. He achieved social isolation in a building where there is literally another human being every ten feet.
He finished his term in disciplinary segregation, moved out to general population, and began collecting combustible materials.
Could we have talked him out of it? We’ll never know. We have a suicide prevention program that deters people from asking for help, and maybe that’s why our suicide rate doesn’t budge.
The conditions in the suicide watch cells need to change.
Ryan Nieves had other options if he wanted to die. Fire isn’t high on anyone’s list of ways to exist this world—hangings are the norm here. That he chose to burn recalled for me the self-immolations of the Buddhist monks martyred as a protest against the Vietnamese government in the early 1960s. Almost every time you hear of a suicide committed in this fashion, it is some kind of protest.
Perhaps I am wrong to impute a motive behind Ryan’s attempted suicide, since I never spoke with him; but I am aware of the conditions in this prison, and I am aware of the hopelessness that permeates this place, a product of the inactivity, lethargy, and constant dullness of living in a place where life seems to have no value and no meaning. Where programs have dwindled to almost nothing. It’s a life of lockdowns, chow, and rec, and not much else.
We don’t need a suicide note to understand the force of what Ryan did, or why he did it. His actions suffice. He suffered in a torturous way in order to escape the daily chronic torture of solitary confinement, and he did it in order to make the outside world aware that this torture exists.