By Reginald Sinclair Lewis
Among the numerous draconian policies implemented by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, one requires Security Level 5 Inmates - (Or the RHU and Capital Case inmates) - to move to a new cell every 90 days. This is annoying rule inmates dread, particularly the peaceful Old Heads on death row forced to move next door to some loud mouth, or some disrespectful young fool always trying to act tough, cursing, and blasting his television and radio all day and throughout the night.
So when they moved fellow death row inmate Bernard McGill next door to me, the tightness in my chest loosened. Bernard is one of our more mentally unstable brothers who suffers from a Multiple Personality Disorder, or Schizophrenia. But he is unfailingly polite and respectful.
We call him "Bernie Mac" because he's turned pan handling into a fine art. He puts his food hustle down. Bernie Mac hits me up almost everyday -- but I don't care. He's grateful for anything I give and thanks me profusely
“How you doin' today, Brother Salahud-din?”
“I'm good, B. How you doing today?" He knows I like it when he calls me by my Muslim name. Bernie Mac likes it when I call him, simply, “B.”
“You got any coffee?” He asks politely.
I pass him coffee through the bars. I already know what’s coming next.
“You got any cookies?” I pass him his favorite vanilla cream cookies through the bars.
Bernie Mac says, "Thank you, Salahud-din."
“You're welcome, B.”
He personally memorizes the names of every death row inmate on the block and locks them in the card catalogue of his mind for future reference. He used to flush his toilet relentlessly until he flooded his cell and the entire block. The putrid odor of rotting feces was unbearable. The administration finally took his television and radio to prevent him from electrocuting himself. But Bernie Mac has his own internal entertainment center. From his cell I hear a vicissitude of sounds that rises and falls, depending upon his mood.
He possesses the tough, gritty voices of Gangster Rappers Jah Rule and DMX. It's a hypnotic euphony anchored on a swirling vortex of driving rhythms. The defiant lyrics of Tupac Shakur spitting tragic, Shakespearean tales of love and pain and social injustice.
Some days I hear the rapturous, staccato-tongued sermon of a Preacher rousing his congregation. The stentorian baritone pontificating on worldly affairs with a professorial eloquence.
A Dashiki-wearing character chants: "Say it Loud! I'm black an' I'm proud!" And he often explodes into rage and rants about child molesters and pedophiles. The sound of gunshots rumbles up from his throat as he exacts street justice and comeuppance. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Fellow prisoners often tease him: "Don't hurt nothin', Bernie Mac!"
One day, a shocking, eerie, ear-piercing sound of an infant wailing shook the entire cellblock. It was Bernie Mac. Perhaps the infant was alone, abandoned, hungry, or someone was abusing the poor child. I hear him dancing on his toes like a boxer. Vicious left hooks and right hands whistle on the wind as he destroys an imaginary opponent.
He pounds his chest and roars like a barbaric post-war survivalist in Mad Max, the movie.
But the most dominant voice that often emerges is the one that takes on the persona of a Mob Boss: “Mother____" he snaps, “You don‘t want war! I‘m Frank Nitti...I'm Nino Brown...I'm Big Al Capone!"
There are countless prisoners trapped in total isolation in dark, cruel gulags all across this country. Prisons designed to enforce sensory deprivation that gradually chips away at the human spirit, soul, and mind. The mental suffering causes some men and women to crack. They become totally divorced from any semblance of reality and their minds form alternative realities as a coping mechanism. Locked in a cell 24 hours a day is torture.
For well over 200 years, the U.S. Congress has enacted statutes that provide treatment for federal prisoners "Who are or shall become insane during the term of imprisonment."
Yet in Pennsylvania, such treatment for those who have passed over into the dark side is non-existent. Year after year the mentally ill are left to languish in their own filth, feces, and squalor. Due to significant budget cuts, the largest mental hospitals for the criminally insane were forced to shut down. The prison nurses dispense a few psychotropic pills but that's all the treatment the mentally ill inmates get. I've never even seen a prison psychiatrist stop by Bernie Mac's cell to check in on him. Perhaps they've resigned themselves to the harsh reality that he is just too far gone to be helped. So what purpose does it serve the State of Pennsylvania to continue to house the mentally ill in ill-equipped, understaffed prisons, year after year, at an estimated annual cost of $36,000 to $40,000?
Reginald S. Lewis #AY2902
SCI – Graterford
Graterford, PA 19426
Copyright 2012 R. S. Lewis