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The Bob Gurtler Column

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


Every day it's some new little thing

Monday,June 2, 6.30am

Number One cell is talking to himself again, he sounds like Norman Bates having an argument with his mother. I just relieved the third watch and they said he'd been at it all night.

Also I was informed that #11 has been removed. Yesterday #11 saw me writing. He said 'I want to write a letter home'. I gave him two sheets of paper and a precious envelope. Then he wanted a stamp. I asked him if he had $s in his account. He said he didn't. I told him that if he didn't have any $s he could still mail the letter. Then he asked me if he could use my pen. Never lend your pen! Ink is too precious. I have a short two inch pencil so I said 'here, you can borrow this'. Later, I asked for my pencil back. He started yelling that he didn't write the letter yet. I said I had to go and I needed my pencil back. Then he started yelling that I gave him the pencil to keep and that he'd 'poke my eye out'. etc. Then he ran into his cell and locked himself in! Well, I told the next shift that they should keep an eye on him. The next morning he gave my pencil back! This guy was very musculer and angry.Pacing pacing back and forth all day. He probably could have poked my eye out without the pencil! This incident is just a typical occurance. Every day its some new little thing. At least no one tried to hang himself.

Being locked up in this ward all day with these men who are under observation is one of the strangest circumstances I've ever found myself in. At times there's a feeling of complete helplessness, as some of these men seem too far gone. They are kept on heavy medication it seems just to keep them in a stupor. Does the psychologist on duty truly believe in his heart that he's helping these men? Or is he just burned out on the whole thing? I'm feeling pretty much burned out! This job has long since lost its feeling of novelty.

I can only imagine how the doctor and the social workers here feel. I deal with only one dorm a day. Whereas the doctors have 100 to deal with.

Friday, June 6

Today I had a new partner. I'll call him Z. I told Z about the black dog and he immediately started to formulate a scam. He spent the rest of the day trying to con me out of addresses of people to write to. His wrists were covered with slash marks. His pupils were mere pin points (He was clearly on heroin). He was also extremely muscular and covered with scars and tattoos. He spent the day running around the dorm trying to con and scam the other inmates out of whatever they have of vaue. Nasty.

But I did say a few things though in the beginning of the day during 'Quiet Time'. We talked about suicide attempts. That's when he showed me his wrists. He proceeded to tell me the story of how he was in a mental ward pretty much like the one we were working in. How he was put in solitary for extended periods for attacking people. How he would slash his wrists to get a trip to the hospital: a break from solitary. Or a break from the routine of prison life. 'Pretty drastic,' I said.

Then he told me he'd been in and out of prison his entire life and that these tactics are 'basic survival skills'. I found it incredible that he could even get the S.P.A. (Suicide Prevention Aide). He told me that 'it's the best job, because you can make moves'. What he meant by this is that S.P.A.'s can work in all different dorms and acts as runners, moving contraband and messages around! Something that I don't do. But I can understand. Some of these men who hold S.P.A. jobs are very seasoned prisoners! They can spot when a suicide is going to make an attempt!

At one time, I'm told, there was a $50 bonus if an S.P.A. was able to stop a suicide. The poicy didn't work because of the simple fact that the place is full of scam artists who will fake a suicide to split the reward! It's actually a bit funny.


Started my shift a few minutes ago. My partner is already nodding off. The two correction officers are dead asleep, so I can walk random tours of the 18 cells in this ward. They all seem to be at peace now. Asleep, well behaved. Not screaming or flinging shit or spitting.That all comes later when they wake up.

Or maybe not. Maybe today will be one of the quiet days. When we play dominoes and talk of Michelangelo! I sure hope so. They took the Egyptian away I see. He hadn't eaten a bite in 30 days! And was withered away to 90lbs. Every day I would tell the officers and tehy would just shrug their shoulders. I guess the 'inspector' must have come by.

The guy who swallowed all those batteries from the little radios we can buy for $15 at the community store has gone too. Lead poisoning? It seems some men will go to extreme lengths. I don't think that those two really wanted to die. They just want help. Or to get out of here. The ward is incredibly boring. After a while I can understand why some men could go baghouse!. And so, I'll walk another 'tour' to make sure they are all breathing. Thirteen sleeping souls. Five empty cells. Room for five more.

Seven am and I wake up the guards and turn on the tv.News, all bad. Don't really care about the weather. The next shift arrives. We watch the news together. Eight-thirty and the locks on most of the doors click open. Some come out to shower. Most just stay in bed, some start screaming obscenities. Those doors will stay locked for now.

We open them to hand them their lunch things and change linen, sheets covered with stink. Those screamers are the exception in this ward. The other ward is all screamers. I've been there. One ward is worse than another.

At 2:00 I finish for the day. I go to my cell and lie down. And I wonder if I've actually prevented a suicide or even made a difference...


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