By George T. Wilkerson
Content warning: This piece includes strong language and graphic descriptions of self-harm and suicidal behavior.
Though I wished I were dead, suicide never even crossed my mind at first. It was 2005; I was 23 and had just been arrested. Almost immediately I was put in the hole: whereas I had been housed in an open dorm full of bunkbeds and smelly men and the chaos of activity, now I was put into solitary confinement—a single-man cell with nothing but blank walls, silence, and me.
The cell was located down the hall behind “Booking,” the intake area of the jail where arrested people were processed in (or out), fingerprinted, and so on. The duty lieutenant was a woman with a helmet hairdo. When I asked her about rejoining the regular population, she snapped, “We’re trying to figure out how to keep you away from your co-defendants back there. You just need to relax until we get it straightened out.”
Just relax? You’re not the fucking one who has to sit in this blank cell all day! I paced my cell, lay on my bunk, went to my door’s window to look at the brick wall across the narrow hall, paced, lay down. No books. No phone calls. No radio or TV, no one to speak with. I was in a sensory deprivation chamber.
How long are they going to keep me in this cell? The question may as well have been written in foot-high letters on every wall, as ever-present as it was. Days went by. A week. Two. . .
My emotions buffeted me. One moment I’d go berserk in anger, the next I puddled on my knees praying, and a minute later I’d sit cross-legged on my bunk like a transcendentalist.
I have to get out of this cell!
I exercised and masturbated to exhaustion. I slept so much my eyelids bounced off each other. Even as listlessness leached my will to move, I vibrated with energy; my head hummed and crackled with pent-up anxiety. I felt invisible, stashed like contraband in Booking’s ass.
I studied my paling reflection, warped by my steel mirror’s knuckle-dented surface. I looked like I’d been crying again. Had I? I couldn’t remember. I paced. I sat on the floor, hugging my knees. I ran to my door at every stray sound, willing someone to walk by; wedged my ear into the crack, straining to snatch a fragment of conversation. I lay down, I paced, I punched my reflection . . .
The helmet-haired lieutenant sent word through a grandfatherly officer: “You gonna be in that cell until you go to trial . . . Relax and get used to it.” Fuck! It takes years to go to trial. The image of “years” stretched into infinity, and I bordered on panicky madness. I’m not going to make it. I can’t stay in this cell. I have to get out of this cell!
I signed up that night for a shave. The next morning an officer delivered a cheap orange disposable razor. “I’ll be back in 10 minutes to pick that up.” As soon as he left, I broke the blade loose of its plastic housing, then sliced four three-inch lines into the top of my left forearm. Out oozed blood, into which I dipped my fingers to wipe red all over my faded orange jumpsuit. That should do it. It kind of looked like I’d been mauled by a mountain lion. I figured they’d send me to safekeeping for sure. “Safekeeping” was a housing status, where high-profile or troublesome people were sent to prison while awaiting their trials. And prisons granted access to what I needed: phones, outside recreation, cigarettes, library books, TV and radio, hot showers—Booking’s shower had no hot water.
But. . . what if it’s not enough? I approached my mirror, striped blood across my cheeks. I noticed tears streaking through the garish smears. You goddamn idiot. They gonna know this wasn’t a real suicide attempt. My heart pumped in my ears. I was squeezing the flimsy blade so hard, my hand trembled. My neck veins pulsed and bulged with tension. As if moving a stray hair, I reached up and scratched the blade across the right side of my neck, chopping the vein in half. Blood sprayed across the room like a silent red scream that smashed its mouth against the wall.
Wet heat wept down my shoulder, my chest, my back. I badly needed to pee, but my genitals had withdrawn into my abdomen, perhaps worried I’d apply the blade to them next. Now I was sobbing, groaning. My thoughts retreated; my razor spoke for itself. Frenzied, it slashed and slashed, tearing at my neck. I rained.
Up-and-down, my wrists slit open like astonished eyes.
Somehow I lost the blade, the microphone that gave my body a voice. I bounced around the cell, my blood a bonfire at its center. I whooped, slapped handprints across the walls, re-dipping my fingers into my open throat to leave my primitive graffiti. Over and over I howled, “YOU WILL GET ME OUT OF THIS FUCKING CELL!”
I don’t recall stopping, but there I stood, panting, in the middle of my cell, staring at my door’s window. No one. It had to have been 10 minutes by then, but time is elastic during psychotic breaks. On the floor was more of me than concrete, with more burning out of my neck and wrists in lazy napalm streams.
Somewhere in this, my fake suicide attempt had become real; getting out of my cell to go to safekeeping was secondary. Secretly, I actually did want to die. I think perhaps it had been thus the entire time, only I tried to convince myself otherwise. Suicide was weakness. A fake suicide, on the other hand, was both clever and courageous.
Finally, a guard strolled past my cell. He glanced in . . .
Kind eyes and laugh lines tried to make sense of the scene, his Yosemite Sam mustache twitching as he took it in: burgundy cave paintings on bright white walls; me splayed in a giant pool of coagulating blood. His face exploded with emotion and he shot toward Booking, screeching, “Gimme the key! Gimme the key! Wilkerson’s dead! Wilkerson’s dead!” I felt sorry for him, even as I felt a deep satisfaction. I chuckled and wiggled my body to make sure I actually was still alive.
Several pairs of boots stampeded down the hall. I recognized Helmet Hair’s indifferent voice, “Open the door—just calm down and open the door.” From the metallic sound of it, the key was clattering all around the keyhole. As my door creaked outward, I, Lazarus, came to life, sprang off the floor, and charged, shouldering into my sepulcher door. Raaaahhhh! RAAAAhhhh! RAAAAHHHH!” I roared, careening off the wall and past the three guards. They dodged away, looking utterly shocked, appalled, and frightened by the ghastly sight. I was in beast mode . . .
George had to be airlifted to a hospital in the next county over, receiving emergency surgery along the way. After being revived—and sewn together with hundreds of stitches—he did get put in safekeeping for a few weeks. He was then sent to another prison and sentenced to long-term solitary confinement: another year in the hole, which was, ironically, the safekeeping unit at that facility. But, since there were other men in nearby cells and since George had access to a Bible and cigarettes, he survived.
George T. Wilkerson is an artist, writer, poet, and Christian who has been on death row since 2006. Originally published by Vera Institute of Justice.