Flames surged out of cell A-250, well-fueled by rolled-up newspapers, 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 took only 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, stiff as a corpse, but still alive. He hadn’t screamed, hadn’t uttered a word.
We have a suicide prevention program in place at Indiana State Prison; unfortunately, it deters people from asking for help. Most American prisons use a program similar to ours. When a prisoner shows some evidence of self-harm, (such as cutting one’s self), or voices suicidal thoughts, that prisoner is stripped bare, put into a thin smock and placed in a bare observation cell, sometimes for up to 30 days.
I’ve worked as an observer in this prison’s program— the position is titled, “suicide companion,” and it pays the prison-rich wage of fifty cents an hour in exchange for one’s conscience. We record what the prisoner is doing every fifteen minutes, but say nothing to them, per the prison psychologist’s steadfast order. Ignoring our fellow prisoners’ suffering and deteriorated mental condition must somehow be therapeutic— but I know this is not how suicidal people are treated outside the prison walls.
They have nothing in the cell. Toilet paper only when needed, never followed by soap. No shower shoes, no socks, no underwear, no washcloth, no towel, no toothbrush, no soap, no razor (of course), no mattress, no pillow, no blanket, no sheets, no TV, no radio, no phone, no religious services, no mail, not even legal mail. No visitors, no conversation, no psychological services. No food besides what comes out of a light sack lunch, the items handed to them one at a time, or silently placed on the dirty floor.
So is it any surprise that someone who’s contemplating suicide would avoid seeking help from this program?
I’ve worked as an observer in the suicide watch unit. The position is titled, “suicide companion,” and it pays the prison-rich wage of fifty cents an hour in exchange for one’s conscience. We record what the prisoner is doing every fifteen minutes, but we say nothing to them directly, per the prison psychologist’s steadfast order. Is ignoring our fellow prisoners’ suffering and deteriorated mental condition somehow therapeutic? All I know is, this isn’t how suicidal people are treated outside the prison walls.
Ryan Nieves was familiar with the conditions in the suicide watch cells because he’d resided in a cell directly above them just a few weeks before the tragedy in cell A-250. Ryan knew that asking for help would only have prolonged his agony, so he kept his suicidal thoughts to himself and planned his death carefully.
Most prison suicides are from hanging. Fire isn’t high on anyone’s list of ways to exit this world, and it takes incredible discipline to sit still as flames rise around you. Almost every time you hear of suicide by self-immolation it is some kind of protest. I’m reminded of the Buddhist monks martyred in such fashion on the streets of Saigon in the early 1960s, protesting the Vietnamese government.
Perhaps I am wrong to impute a motive behind Ryan’s attempted suicide, since I never spoke to him, but I am aware of the hopelessness that permeates this place, caused by the constant dullness, inactivity and lethargy of living in a place where life seems to have no value and no meaning.
But we don’t need a suicide note to understand why Ryan ended his life, because his actions suffice. He suffered an unimaginable death 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.
Ryan Nieves #153862 attempted suicide on November 14th, 2018. He was airlifted to a burn unit in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and survived. The author is no longer working as a suicide companion.
Ty Evans #158295
Indiana State Prison
One Park Row
Michigan City, IN