Lyle C. MayThe sound echoed around the cell block, crashing against the concrete wall with the force of each angry blow. A few guys yelled out, “Hey man, why the noise?”

I say the blows were angry because there’s no other way to describe somebody mule-kicking a steel door with everything they have. All of the frenzied emotion generated within a 7 x 9 cell is channeled onto the surface of a door that refuses to open again. Again and again and again.

It was 2 a.m.

The kicking stopped before the guards made it out on the block to find out who was responsible. In the wake of the noise, squeaky boots and keys punctuated queries of “Who’s kicking their door?!” When no one answered, they left.

After a few minutes, a new sound started ricocheting off the walls. Higher in pitch and frequency, it was easy to distinguish a bar of soap being slammed into the side of a commode, like the sound of a demented alarm clock. BANG! BANG! BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG!!

It went on for a merciless minute. Then three. Guys started yelling, “Quit man, come on stop!!” Finally the guards came and the banging stopped.

The guards walked around each cell looking in and promising a reward, “Come on fellas, tell us who it is. We’ll give you an extra breakfast tray. Tell us who it is and we’ll stick him in the drunk tank naked.”

Nobody spoke up, but we salivated over the temptation of an extra breakfast tray of eggs, an extra shot of orange juice, another spoonful of grits, and sleep. But only silence.

After awhile they left.

Then “Hey J-Will, what’s up man? Why you dragging us?” It was as much a plea to stop as any I’ve heard. Everyone was awake now, and very angry.

In prison, night’s hourglass has extra holes in it. When sleep comes, gone are all the plodding daylight hours, confining walls and thoughts of fetters. Sleep is relief for most of us. The only end to suffering we’re ever likely to come back from. With this blessed comfort comes dreams of love, companionship, peace, life and all of its complexity. Desires so vivid and deep, reality is a disheartening comparison. Sleep cannot be degraded, beaten or chained.

In Sleep lies our freedom.

When sleep eludes us, the pain and isolation of imprisonment oppresses other thoughts. Then, the beast within takes over and you act out and do funny things.

Crazy, irrational, maddening things – such as imposing your suffering on others. Why should they have peace? Why should they get to escape when you’re in hell with those unrelenting demons – fear and regret?

About 10 minutes went by before Jay-Will kicked his door again. It seemed to have gotten louder somehow, as if the echo travelled farther. And that’s when I realized that the emergency exit door was open and three guards had managed to sneak on the block without anyone taking notice.

They carried a fire extinguisher that wasn’t anything of the sort. It was mace. Industrial strength, riot-sized choke-you-to-death mace. They keyed open the food slot on Jay-Will’s door, thrust the long nozzle through, and sprayed him like some troublesome cockroach.

J-Will screamed.

He was a kid – 16, maybe 17 at most. No hair on his face or chest, so skinny I could count each rib from 20 feet away; his cheeks sunken and pocked with acne, skin stretched taut around small bones. Just a kid a few years younger than me.

Two of the guards laughed and walked off as the other watched his victim writhe on the floor. He was choking and crying and coughing.

The two guards returned with a black device known simply as “The Chair.” Black and boxy, The Chair is a restraint device used to punish problematic inmates. The guards sat it in the middle of the dayroom over a drain in the floor, dragged J-Will from his cell and cut off his jumpsuit with a pair of scissors.

One of the guards handcuffed J-Will behind the back and jerked him upright by the wrists, eliciting a cry of pain. They forced him into the chair and strapped in his ankles, hips, and chest. “Please,” he begged. The guards ignored him as a rubber mouthpiece was shoved between his teeth and what looked like a football helmet with a visor and earmuffs was strapped to his head. Then they left.

The chair is design to recline its occupants at such an angle that one’s weight is entirely on the cuffed wrists. The legs are up high so unless you’re really tall, your feet don’t touch the ground. The helmet immerses you in your suffering, shutting off sight and sound. J-Will would have to stay that way for four hours.

“Damn,” said an old man. “They got that young boy hemmed up.” It was quiet except for J-Will’s muffled moans. Laying on my bunk, wide awake in this nightmare, I wondered if sleep would ever come. The walls glowed with reflected fluorescent light, ridiculing notions of freedom in the night. I knew then that dreams are delusions, the only defense we have against anguish. As I began to drift off, images of The Chair skittered through my skull and when sleep arrived, it was dreamless.

“I am tired of tears and laughter,

And men that laugh and weep;

Of what may come hereafter

For men that sow and reap;

I am weary of days and hours,

Blown buds of barren flowers,

Desires and dreams and powers

And everything but sleep.”

-Ngernon Charles Swinburne

“The Garden of Proserpine”

Lyle C. May is on Death Row in North Carolina for two murders. 

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