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What It’s Like to be a Cutter in Prison

"This isn’t a place that provides treatment, help, or even empathy to those who suffer from stress, depression, and mental illness."

It was just a small cut, I thought. Self-harm, yes, but not self-destruction.

Yet 21 stitches later I’m sitting on a metal bed in a 9-by-12 cell on Mountain View Unit’s Crisis Management Center — a.k.a. “the psych center” or “the icebox” — left with nothing but my thoughts. No clothes, no books, no hygiene products, not even a pair of panties to hold the pad between my legs.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

They’re afraid I’ll choke myself with my underwear. This is the protocol for suicidal inmates.

“But I told you I don’t want to die!” I scream to no one in sight, desperate to hear something other than a cacophony of my own thoughts.

I thought I was just trying to relieve a little stress. But that didn’t stop them from putting me on suicide watch for three days.

Every female offender who comes here for “observation,” no matter how timid, is treated the same: humiliated, dehumanized, and with extreme caution.

“Well I do want to die!” a voice from the cell next-door to mine screams. “Why did they cut me down?!”

I look out my cell door and see that another psych patient-inmate has flooded her cell. Toilet water is running underneath her metal door and into the hallway.

That must be why they only give us four squares of toilet paper at a time.

My mind travels back a few years to when I was 30, and I stood before a district judge to accept a plea bargain for the crime of passing a single counterfeit $100 bill, to feed my addiction to drugs.

“Thirty years!” the judge announced, as he slammed his gavel and avoided eye contact with me.

Who’d want to look at me anyway? The day before, I had shaved off my long, curly, beautiful hair, and the dark circles under my eyes from the stress of facing decades in prison had me looking crazy.

“But I asked for rehab! I need help! Why prison?” I cried to my public defender. The judge had a bailiff remove me from the courtroom.

That evening I did what I often have done over the years: Feeling the pressure of emotional overload, I cut myself. Of course, opening up the skin is painful. In fact, people think it’s pain that cutters seek, but that’s not quite right. No, at least for me, it’s the rise in blood pressure and heart rate, caused by the rush of adrenaline — a chemical that’s right up there with dopamine, which I used to get from a hit of dope. They call it the “reward pathway.”

We all have our vices, some more self-destructive — and dangerous — than others. Mine is cutting. When I do it, I inspect the injury in awe like a med student would during an autopsy.

It’s a rare occasion in prison: to see and feel something real.

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“Well, get me some help!” I scream in frustration, back on suicide watch.

“We’re gonna get you some help, alright,” an officer says, into the window of my door. “You’re up next to see the shrink.” He opens the tray chute and tells me to back up and stick my arms through the slot so that he can cuff my hands behind my back.

The metal grazes my stitches on the way through, and I wince at the pain. But at the same time, in some twisted way, I also bathe in my private feeling, which distracts and comforts me.

A sheet is thrown over my naked shoulders, and I’m ushered down the hall by two officers, who each have a hold of one of my arms.

I glance down the hall at the Death Row wing, and find it ironic how many of the women in the cells around me want to die, while the condemned prisoners are fighting for their lives, as I am — one appeal at a time.

I peek into the windows of the cells along the hallway. To the left, there’s a putrid smell: A lady is sprawled out on the floor in her own feces, staring blankly at the ceiling.

“Is she dead?” I ask one of the officers, mortified.

She smirks, shrugs her shoulders, and says, “She damn sure trying.”

Finally we enter the shrink’s office. It’s a bouffant-red-haired lady who, also without making eye contact, states, “So what’s your deal? Got girlfriend problems? Don’t like your job assignment? Or are you trying to get out of a disciplinary case by coming here?”

I’m sure many inmates use imaginative psychological ailments as a way to manipulate the system. But did this woman actually think I would cut myself to get a different job assignment?

My failure to respond gets her attention. She looks me in the eye for a second, then at my bandaged arm, holding the sheet to my naked body. Her look now tells me that she wants me to tell her what my deal is.

But what is my deal?

I once again think back to the 30-year plea agreement. I think about my first parole review, which got denied — because I had a rap sheet and history of substance abuse, both of which will never change no matter how much time I do.

The lack of help from the system frustrated me. But I picked my head up and did another year in prison, disciplinary-case free, a model prisoner.

Parole review number two produced the same result: denied. Reasons? Same as the last time.

The frustration wasn’t so easy to handle the second time. Having a 30-year sentence for a nonviolent crime, and being denied treatment for reasons I couldn’t hope to change, left me feeling hopeless.

So I went back to self-harm.

“Hey,” the bouffant-haired lady says. “You want to talk or what? Are you suicidal?”

“No,” I say meekly. “Just relieving some stress.”

“Okay,” she says, and closes a file. “You can return to your unit in two days.”

A guard lifts me up under the arms so that I’ll stand, and I’m ushered back to my cell, stripped of my sheet, and given a stiff piece of cloth they call a “fire-safe blanket.”

For the next two days I am cold. I eat PB&J and bologna sandwiches every meal and have no human contact. I count the bricks in the walls and pace the cell until my feet have blisters. I vow never to get sent here again.

This isn’t a place that provides treatment, help, or even empathy to those who suffer from stress, depression, and mental illness. Instead, it punishes you for it, by putting you in the most torturous and humiliating circumstances possible — making me more, not less, likely to turn to cutting.

I can’t help but recognize the common thread between the court system and the mental health crisis protocols of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Their ideas of treatment are highly punitive and directly contradictory to what is needed.

I take one final look at my latest incision and run my fingers over the protruding, hair-like stitches. I take a deep breath and grasp for a fragment of hope, the only thing that keeps me going.

Maybe next year’s parole review will send me to rehab.

Deidre McDonald, 34, has been incarcerated since 2013 at the Carole Young Complex in Dickinson, Texas, for forgery offenses stemming from a drug addiction.

In July 2018, after submitting this essay for publication, her parole was granted by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. She will be transferred to a supervised rehabilitation program later this month.