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Life Inside

I Watched a Man Die in Prison. His Last Words Haunt Me.

“There is hardly a day that passes when I do not see his face.”

In 1993, California’s Pelican Bay State Prison was one of the worst prisons in the country. Violence permeated the place, the smell of blood literally filling the air. The main yard was even divided into four sections by chain-link, razor-wire fences, so that whenever something happened, the fallout would be confined to a limited number of inmates.

On that particular day, the rain had stopped, allowing the sun to shine—a rare thing at such a dark place, where the average yearly rainfall was 71 inches. It was strange for me not to be with my homeboys enjoying the warmth, and the safety in numbers.

Instead, I found myself watching a poker game at one of the concrete tables bolted down throughout the yard. Four people were playing; the game was dealer’s choice, usually five-card draw.

These games didn’t typically draw an audience, since you had to be quiet out of respect for the players. This was just what I wanted: some peace and quiet, a spot to be alone with my own thoughts.

After four or five hands, though, I began to notice an unusual number of onlookers: I counted nine, not including myself. Two of them, Hector and Jose, moved directly behind Marco, one of the card players, all on the other side of the table from me. Their movements seemed unusual to me, though I couldn’t quite name why; maybe it was how they seemed so purposeful.

I also saw that everyone around me was very slowly moving away.

This was no longer the spot on the yard I wanted to be, I realized. A group of six guys was moving on Marco and his three friends, and I had no one around me for help if anything went down. But I couldn’t just leave, either, because one of prison’s rules is that no matter what, you can’t warn someone who’s going to be “moved on” that he is in danger, or alert the “cops” (the guards) of what’s impending. All movements must appear normal. So I decided to wait until the end of the hand, a natural transition, before taking my leave.

Yet behind bars even more so than in life, the best-laid plans never work out. Just as I was getting ready to walk away, Jose grabbed Marco’s head, pulling it back, as Hector produced a rather nasty looking knife, about 6 inches long. He tried to run it through Marco’s neck, but somehow, the would-be victim was able to break Jose’s hold and get to his feet.

The cold look on Hector’s face morphed into surprise.

Now, everyone else in our section of the yard was trying to get out of the way as quickly as possible. One of the card players got under the table; I was backing up, since I at least had the action in front of me. Jose was throwing punches at Marco, who blocked them while also blocking Hector’s knife, all the while trying to keep them from surrounding him on two sides.

The problem was, they were all moving gradually in my direction.

Just as I was really starting to move, I heard the crack of the P.A. system and a voice from the guard tower behind me yelling, “GET DOWN!” Immediately, most of us, including myself, followed the order, throwing ourselves to the ground—but Marco, who was still fighting for his life, couldn’t.

Laying on the ground and hoping for the best, I heard a rifle discharge a round from up in the tower. That’s okay, I thought to myself: just a warning shot.

The tower officer repeated his command to “Get down!” But Marco, Hector and Jose were determined to keep going. Within three seconds, another shot from the tower rang out.

I was still close enough to the fight that a guard with bad aim could have hit me with his bullet.

Life Inside

Essays by people in prison and others who have experience with the criminal justice system

Instead, the next thing I knew, Marco was laying there, still, about four feet away from me.

As the cops swarmed the area, they first took the knife from Hector, then placed him and Jose in handcuffs and escorted them off to a holding cell by the central office. They hadn’t looked at Marco yet.

But I did. I’d seen Marco around but had never talked to him. Now, I noticed that he was about 20 years old, with beautiful brown eyes, looking back at me. I noticed the hole in the middle of his head, just below his hairline. I noticed the drop of blood running down his face.

Then I could hear his voice, saying, “Please tell my mom and dad I am sorry, and that I love them.”

I tried yelling back to him, “But how do I get a hold of them?!” But no sound came out.

Then I watched the pupils of his eyes grow large. I saw gray matter begin to ooze from the hole in his brain. And as he put his head down, I knew that he had died, right then. I could feel death take him.

The whole fight had lasted maybe a minute. Finally, the cops moved to Marco and noticed the hole in his head. They knew from experience that he was dead, so they left him laying there and instead searched me for injuries, running their hands over my clothing and looking for blood. Then the next closest person, then the next, until everyone in the area was patted down.

Then one by one we were escorted back to our cells.

To this day, I do not know when the cops finally moved Marco’s body, or what happened to it after I was sent in. I don’t know whether, and how, his family was notified of his death.

I do know that I felt something for a moment that day but pushed it away. When you live day by day with death, you cannot afford to feel.

Reaching out to them at that time was out of the question. If you personalized every incident of violence, you would go insane.

Now, 25 years later, I am haunted by that fact. I am sorry and ashamed that I did not even try to deliver his final message. There is hardly a day that passes when I do not see Marco’s face, and relive in my mind that briefest conversation I had with him. I feel his death still, and I cry for him and for his family.

So much time has passed that I am not sure they would even take comfort in hearing from me, or whether it would just bring up a painful memory. But still I wish I could find them and tell them: Your son loved you. All he thought about in his final moments was you.

Kenneth Capogreco, 54, is incarcerated at the California Institution for Men in Chino, California, where he is serving a sentence of life without parole for first-degree murder.