Pain is Universal by Ashleigh Smith

Last Thursday a girl from my hometown who has been doing time just a little longer than me hung herself. She didn’t die here because ironically it’s against policy for suicides to actually die here. But, officers talk, gossip gets around, and by midafternoon we all knew she was in fact gone. Amazingly she ended her life in the most secure unit on the grounds, segregation. Just goes to show how invisible we all are to the correction officers tasked with watching us. Suicide is tricky on the mind though, triggering memories so far down I forgot their existence.

I had an older sister I grew up with, and  we were close once upon a time. Close enough that Angela’s suicide suddenly unearthed the memory of all those cries for help in her late teens and early 20’s. Those nights when my dad would get a call from a hospital and suddenly my big sister and I were having a slumber party (at age 17 and 20), while she slept on a pull-out bed in my room recoupering from whatever hell she was battling her way out of. I didn’t realize that I was there as a constant because everyone was scared to leave her alone, even to sleep, I just enjoyed the normalcy of my sister and I being under the same roof again, like it always used to be. Eventually whatever angst was robbing her of her will to live was exorcised, and luckily I never caught the commit suicide gene so that was the sum of my experience. Easy enough to tuck away while trying to navigate these 15 years in prison.

When I was convicted of my crime, the sergeant leading me back to the jail asked me to promise her something while we were in the elevator. Perplexed at what she thought I had to give at that particular moment in my life I looked at her. She asked me to promise her I wasn’t going to kill myself. I was baffled, that wasn’t even on my radar, I assured her I wouldn’t and that was the end of that.

Then I got to prison. There are people unable to acclimate to change, that cannot find it in themselves to function in an environment like this. The first one I met was a 22-year- old girl, mother to a little 2 year old daughter who had 7 years left. So out of sorts in here, she fell prey to 2 predators that taunted her for days until she ended her own life. She was my neighbor.  I always think of the last time I saw her in the visiting room with her little girl and how there wasn’t a photographer that day, so her daughter doesn’t even have a picture of their last time together. Mental health came to offer us counseling, but soon life was back to normal.

A few months later I was at the chow hall picking up my tray off the line when a stream of gossip flew through the building at once. Another girl, I used to work out with her sometimes, had ended herself. I realized that she had the same sentence as me and the same charge. When I called home there was fear in my dad’s voice. He asked me if he was ever going to get a call with news like that. Again baffled, I assured him that no, that would never happen.

The problem with suicide came to a boiling point Halloween of 2010 with a suicide pact going around. The staff not knowing what else to do had us sleeping with count lights on and the doors open. Still more death followed, 6 suicides in a calendar year. Since then it’s been fewer and father between, every time a little less shock, less “help” from mental health to deal with our grief, with our trauma that is the reality that we live in. Calling home, this wasn’t a subject my family wanted to dwell on. It was one of my first conscious censoring of my life here. I think with the suicide issue here a part of me died as well, I realized how separated I really was from my loved ones.

Last Friday there wasn’t even a semblance of mental health aid. I heard an officer say, “Well she owed lots of people money for drugs, and you know she was a lifer.” Apparently it’s okay with sending the message that lifers should take themselves out, especially in the case that you owe the administration sanctioned dope peddlers money.

I think back to those almost adult slumber parties with my sister and her blatant refusal to acclimate to change, coming out in the same way it does with the women in here. My sister and I don’t talk anymore. She wouldn’t deign to communicate with a convict, seeing herself as having nothing in common with someone like me. Maybe if somewhere in our pain of feeling alone and hopeless we should try to remember the similarities. We all hurt the same no matter what side of the fence we’re on.

Ashleigh Smith (WHV) (MI)

*I created Lettersfromchristopher in 2019 to draw attention to the plight of America’s incarcerated. Please, submit a comment if your heart moves you. Your thoughts and words are refreshing wells of relief, and the writers of this blog express gratitude for your kindness.

Read more of Ashleigh’s posts by typing “Ashleigh” into the search function at the top of this page.

5 thoughts on “Pain is Universal by Ashleigh Smith

  1. Diana M.

    Ashleigh, such a poignant (moving) message to everyone on our planet. If we truly want a “forward-moving” world, we should “keep” each other in our care. Every life is precious. Who are we to pick and choose who to care for???? Thank you for writing this very meaningful message.

  2. End Mass Incarceration

    Fort that officer to say that because someone owed money for drugs and was a lifer, that it was no surprise that poor woman killed herself is shocking for it’s indifference & lack of empathy. For Shame. 😠

  3. Sandra

    Ashleigh, you’re a strong woman and your story is important to me because suicide has touched my family. I lost my older sister when I was a freshman. You’re right we all hurt the same no matter what side of the fence we’re on. Thank you so much for your willingness to be vulnerable in this space.

  4. christopherm001

    Suicides behind bars are preventable. What Ashleigh talks about isn’t unique to her facility. There are 1699 prisons in the U.S. with an average suicide rate of 7 per year. That’s 11,739 preventable suicides. The approach by administrators needs to change. But first it takes awareness of the trauma incarceration itself inflicts upon those that are incarcerated, which is shockingly absent In the U.S.

    I recently wrote about trauma in NY Prison Journalism Article titled “What Caused His PTSD? This Prison, Right Here” –Christopher

    *Posted by admin on behalf of Christopher

  5. prisonreformisoverdue

    My daughter is in prison in Washington because of an abusive husband. It has been 4 years she suffers from mental health issues and gets very depressed. Ashleigh I pray every night that she makes it home to us and that she can channel your strength. I do all that I can to bring attention to the struggle of our girls and lack of good mental health care in prison.💔

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