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The Bob Gurtler Column June '03


In prison, you have a lot of time to think... the late Bob Gurtler, a former inmate of Riker's Island Prison in New York, who worked on suicide watch

watch, sent us his thoughts...We continue to publish them so that his words carry on


My Brother's Keeper

So they just called chow! I crawl out of my nice cozy bed, grab my cup and spoon, put on my slippers and shuffle down the hall. It's very damp here on Rikers and the walls are sweating. Cold concrete. After an awful meal of chicken bones and rice, we all retreat to the end of the cell block, and smoke smuggled tobacco that was either brought to us inside someone's asshole, or purchased off a corrupt guard. Rolled in toilet paper wrapper a thin cigarette fetches $3. They are really awful. We pass one around and each one takes a pull. It's really more of a social thing where we feel solidarity of sorts. They also smuggle in marijuana and heroin. But that is beyond most price ranges. And so a day off goes by.

...a day off from my job as an S.P.A., it's the highest paying job here on Rikers Island ($20 a week). S.P.A. stands for Suicide Prevention Aide: the suicide watch. Basically my job us to prevent men from killing themselves. This is accomplished by making rounds of the 'M.O. ward' (which stands for Mental Observation). There are several of them in this building alone, and each one is different. Some are better than others and some are worse! Much, much worse! I never in my wildest dreams would have believed if you told me one year ago I'd be doing this 'job'.

The experience started for me on July 26, 2002, while I was sitting in the park in Greenwich Village, where I have lived most of my life. I have never been to jail before. So imagine my shock to be sentenced to two to four years (for drug possession with intent to sell). Well when an undercover cop was brought to me by an acquaintance asking where he could buy a few bags of heroin I should have known better! But I took his money and went and got it for him! Three bags: he made sure to 'give' me one of them (for my trouble) and voila 'Possession'. Anyway, I've got one year to go.

Well, enough of how I got here, and back to the job description. After being here one week in August of '02 they called out, 'Who wants to take the S.P.A. test'? I raised my hand.

After an orientation class the test was given I passed! A week later I received my first assignment. The intake house. I got bed #1 in a room of 50 beds. At 10 I would start. I'd stay awake at night and walk up and down the aisles making sure everyone was still breathing. Some men would take offence. I really don't blame them. At first they said 'Are you a cop now'? I'd look up and see the two female guards asleep. I was really doing their job for them. When the captain would come buy I'd wake the guards up and they would pretend they were up all night. And give me a cigarette! So this went on for a few months. Quiet nights when I'd write a few letters or a poem to send my sweetheart in Dublin. Quiet nights watching over 49 men.

Occasionally stopping to talk with a sleepless soul who would be going through some very serious emotional stress. Suicidal depression, suicidal attempts. After a while I understood that a fellow inmate is easier to talk to for these men. Not the psychologist in a blue uniform for he don't trust them either. They don't seem really to give a shit and they turn a blind eye to real problems, like prolonged periods of intense anxiety etc.

After a few months I was moved to a different part of the jail, where there were no S.P.A.s. No job means no $s for tea bags or peanut butter or coffee at the little jail store where we get our creature comforts. So I filed a grievance. A month or so later I was woken up in the middle of the night and told to pack my things. I was going to an S.P.A. house! There are two of them here. One is a dormitory with 50 beds, and one is a small private cell block with 31 cells. And that's where I am. All the inmates in this cell block are S.P.A.s. Thirty one of us and a clerk who makes the schedule. We work seven days a week, eight hours a day. Sometimes double shifts if someone has to go to court. We get send to any one if the 11 M.O. wards in teams of two. It's better to have a partner when you have to deal with a violent out of control criminally insane man, or a man just hell bent on suicide. Especially when you're locked in there with time. You see the police usually asleep behind thick plastic glass.. And anything can happen at any time. Of course as I have mentioned some houses are worse than others. And most days or nights go by smoothly.

But every day has its own special moments. Lately, I've been working the 6am to 2pm shift. At 6am, breakfast is just over and everyone gets locked back into their cells. They are all asleep now so I go from cell to cell on my rounds, peeping in on them on a staggered schedule every five or ten minutes. I wonder how much a civilian would be paid for this type of work in a mental hospital.

I often wonder how qualified I am for this job. My training consisted of a half hour lecture and a simple multiple choice test. My real training came from doing it eight hours a day for the past eleven months!

Just try to imagine. Every day having to deal with people who are in very serious trouble mentally. Who have committed such crimes as matricide or killing a child. We had a few famous cases in here! A policeman who went crazy and was shooting his rifle out his Manhattan apartments windows. And a 21 year old kid who shot two undercover police in the back of the head. We had a guy who burned down a night club causing multiple deaths. We had the Wendy's Killer who shot seven people after robbing the Wendy's restaurant. He tied up the staff in the basement and executed them all except one. He was sentenced to five life sentences plus 100 years. These are the types of men I am surrounded with, eat my lunch with, play cards with. Some have multiple self inflicted slash marks on their wrists. And I've held up more than one man by his knees yelling for the guard to cut the wet twisted sheet from his neck. And I've done this every day for almost a year. Am I qualified?

I speak to these men about their personal problems every day while the prison psychologist sees them once a week! Am I qualified? Tea and sympathy. Ands there are times I wonder at my own sanity. When the things I've seen invade my dreams. Only to awake and find it's time to go to work. Every day...

Cruel and unusual. well, I suppose the unusual can become usual. As I'm sure has been documented in cases of concentration camp guards. One can get used to anything. Well, I wouldn't feel so much like a 'cupo' in a concentration camp if the guards didn't say nasty things to us. After all we are still prisoners, we get searched and called names. But that's OK because sometimes we get a cigarette. So it should balance out, right? And so a feeling of solidarity...

Am I my brother's keeper?

Who will keep me?

I will continue to write and send my thoughts to the black dog in he hope that someone can benefit or get something out of my observations. I welcome any correspondence and will answer any and all correspondence. I have signed no confidentiality agreements so I can be honest and truthful, which I feel is best for everyone. But of course the only name I will mention own.

I am not afraid!

Send no contraband!

Until next time, take care of yourselves & each other

Bobby passed away on sept 22 2006

Check out Bob's other columns

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