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Life Inside

When Your Cellmate is Mentally Ill

Spending 20 hours a day with someone else’s delusions.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

I wonder if he is going to hang himself.

That stray thought entered my mind one day eight years ago, when a troubled old man I’ll call Rob was my cellmate.

Even before Rob moved in, I’d already heard he was a bit...off. I told myself I’d just listen to him spill, one time — get it all out — so we could coexist by ignoring one another.

But on the day Rob arrived, he didn't look like he had a mental illness. No bug eyes or Manson beard or nothing. A little below average height; a receding hairline. I had no idea what he’d done to earn his 20-year sentence.

The first thing he asked me was if I liked rap music. I said that I did.

“You’re welcome,’’ he said.

“What do you mean, ‘You’re welcome’?”

“I mean you’re welcome for me writing all them songs you hear,” Rob said. “I wrote all that shit back when I invented rap in ’85. I just wish motherfuckers would give me respect for it, you know?”

“Well thanks, man. I appreciate it,” I replied.

I guess no one had ever thanked him before, because in that moment, he looked at me like I was Jesus holding a pardon.

“What about Prince, man? Do you like Prince?” he asked.

“Yeah man, I like Prince. Who doesn’t like Prince?”

Rob grinned and looked to the left and the right like little kids do right before they tell you a secret.

I’m Prince.”

“If you’re Prince, then who’s the guy on the radio?” I asked.

“That’s my homeboy acting like he's me. We figured it all out when I got my time. He’d be me while I's locked up. I wrote all them songs he does back in ’87. He just be lip-syncing and acting like he playing guitar. That’s me on a tape. He stacking all my money for me when I can have it, after I’m out I mean. I used to write him and tell him to send me some, but the state’ll steal it. Last time he sent me a mil and the state jacked me for it. I wrote a grievance but it didn’t go nowhere so I told him from now on just hold on to my money for me.”

I listened to Rob’s rant in its entirety that day — from the minimum wage being $145 million a day to his performance with Dr. Dre at the Grammy Awards. It took about six hours, but since we were confined to our cell for 20 hours every day, at least it was something to do.

As the weeks went by, though, it got worse. Rob was so medicated that he couldn’t wake up sometimes, and he would piss all over his bunk. I was on the top, and the stench never failed to yank me awake.

I would get down and wake him. Sometimes I would be forced to slap him. I’d make him get up, clean himself, and wash his sheet.

The days were bad, too. I suggested he listen to the radio so he could make a list of all the people stealing his music. He thought it was a great idea and spent most of his waking hours making those lists.

Two weeks after Rob moved in, I met a guy who knew him five years ago at a different unit. He said that the psych department there had placed Rob in solitary because of his erratic behavior — covering himself and his cell with his own excrement, sometimes eating it.

The Rob I knew was apparently the G-rated version.

I wondered if Rob had changed because he had truly been treated or helped, or if the psych department in our unit just gave stronger medication.

Either way, it didn’t last. One day, I was cleaning up our shared space and found a sealed bag of shit under his bunk. I slapped him awake and confronted him, but he denied knowing anything about it.

A few days later, I wrote a letter to psych and tried to explain what was going on. I never heard back, and they never came to see Rob.

I no longer gave him coffee or allowed him to listen to my radio. I figured that if I froze him out, he’d eventually try to get himself moved.

Then, one night, I was reading in my bunk when, out of the blue, he piped up.

“You know you can die and come back.”

I ignored it but he kept repeating it.

“Rob, what the hell are you talking about?” I eventually said.

“I got my head cut off once but put it back on. Another time I woke up in a coffin and had to dig myself out.”

“Rob, you can’t die and come back.”

“Yeah you can, ‘cause I did it.”

I closed my book and looked down at him. “I tell you what Rob. You know how you’ve been asking for a bag of coffee? You hang yourself off the vent and when you come back I’ll give you a bag of coffee.”

Our cells aren’t perfect squares. One wall sits at an angle and is made of steel instead of concrete. It’s where our light and toilet/sink combo are attached.

Seven feet or so off the floor is a small vent that’s supposed to let heat in during the winter. It has a steel grate over it so that we can't stash stuff inside.

About 30 minutes later, Rob got up, went over to the toilet, climbed onto it, and tied his sheet to the vent. He secured a knot around his neck.

I started to think about what I was going to do if he actually hanged himself. There was no way I could get a guard in there before he died.

No one gave a damn about Rob. Why was I supposed to care about him when nobody else did?

I sat there pretending to read.

In fact, I decided, if Rob hanged himself, I was going to let him die. When they find him, I'll just claim I was asleep, I thought. Suicide in prison isn’t that rare.

Rob took the knot from around his neck and stepped off the toilet.

“I know you can die and come back, but I ain’t sure how many times you can do it,” he said.

I just shook my head and told him to take his sheet down.

A few days later, Rob got into a confrontation with an officer and was transferred. I never saw him again.

Johnathan Byrd, 33, is incarcerated at the Connally Unit in Kenedy, Texas, where he is serving a life sentence for murder and aggravated assault.