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Life Inside

My Cellie Was the Father I Never Had

“Prison was where I grew to love one of the finest human beings I have ever known.”

Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a special Life Inside series about fathers and incarceration. Read the previous essays about next-cell neighbors, dancing in the prison gym and a surprise meeting.

I was born in 1964 on the South Side of Chicago. I grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes, where poverty, crime, gangs and drugs shaped my perception of life. At the tender age of 11, I began smoking weed, drinking wine and hanging out with the street toughs in my neighborhood. I joined the notorious Black Gangster Disciples, a large and violent gang in my neighborhood.

Looking back, I believe I was trying to fill the void that the absence of my father left in my life. My father and mother married as teenagers. Three months after I was born, my father was gone. I’ve met him, but we are virtually strangers. The gang became my surrogate family. The leaders in the gang were our uncles; some even treated us like their sons. Decades later I would realize that what I mistook for love and acceptance was really just manipulation and exploitation.

Predictably, I dropped out of school, and became more involved in criminal activity and drug use. By age 24, I was on death row for murder. In 2003, the governor commuted my sentence to life without parole.

I arrived at Stateville Correctional Center in January 2003, after 16 years on death row. The “Ville” is known for violence, mayhem and degradation, yet in this “hell on Earth,” I met a kindly old man whom I came to love as a son does his father. Charles “Doc” Smith and I met in the spring of 2005 in D House. I was placed in the cell with him early one morning, and by 2 p.m., we were drinking coffee and playing chess.

When I walked into the cell, Doc’s first words were, “I hope you aren’t gonna be a problem, young man.” Doc never called me by my given name. I was either “Sonny” or “youngman.” I resented this initially, but in time I came to see that he used these labels affectionately.

Doc and I were cellmates for about three months, but then I got a job and wouldn’t see him again for six or seven years. In just those three months, Doc developed enough of an appreciation for how I treated him that it would lead to us being cellmates again seven years later.

One morning after all those years, while I was exercising in my cell, an officer came and told me, “Pack your property. You’re moving today.” I was mad because I didn’t request a move, and was comfortable where I was. I would learn later that unbeknownst to me, Doc had pulled some strings and had me moved in with him.

When I got to my new cell and saw Doc sitting on the lower bunk, I exclaimed, “Who is this old codger in my cell?” He smiled and said, “You just try to live long enough to be an ‘old codger.’”

We shook hands, and Doc explained how I came to be his cellie. “Man, I had a cellie who was crazy!” he said. “He was stealing my stuff and when I confronted him, he threatened to beat me up. Now I ain’t no chump, sonny, but I’m too old and too sick to be humbugging.”

I asked Doc: “So you had them move me—why me?”

“You were one of my best cellmates,” Doc replied. “You’re clean. You’re respectful. And I figured I’d live with you til I transfer to Dixon.” (That’s a medium-security prison for the aged and infirm.)

I quickly learned why Doc needed a cellmate of a particular disposition. He had cancer and sometimes soiled himself. Additionally, he was in the beginning stages of dementia. He would go to the toilet but sometimes urinate all over the floor or defecate and get all the feces all over the toilet. Needless to say, this did not endear him to his less compassionate cellies. I, on the other hand, liked and respected Doc. I did not like cleaning up his mess, but one day I’ll be old too, and I would hope someone would show me a modicum of kindness.

The first time it happened was somewhat comical. I was asleep and awoke to a horrendous odor in the cell. I got up and turned on my lamp and there was Doc, pants half-down and feces everywhere. I said, “Damn, Doc! What did you do?”

He looked so embarrassed, and sheepishly replied, “I’m sorry, youngman. I had an accident. Don’t be mad. I’ll clean it up, I promise.” Doc was on the verge of crying, he was so ashamed.

I looked at this man who was so pitifully not the man he’d once been, and I was determined to help salvage his dignity. “Don’t trip, Doc. I got you. We’ll clean this up, and nobody will even know,” I told him. It took close to two and half hours to clean Doc and the cell but with bleach, soap and disinfectant, we got it done.

We had a few more episodes like that but with time and patience, we developed a system, and Doc had fewer and fewer accidents. He would also forget to bathe, so part of my morning routine became helping him wash up, brush his teeth and shave. I think he was grateful because I never made a big deal out of it. I’d jokingly inquire each morning, “Doc, can you tell me what today is?” to which he would reply, “Yes, Sonny. Today is …” then whatever day of the week it happened to be. I’d say, “No sir, Doc. Today is ‘Let’s wash Doc Day!’” and we’d both laugh.

Life with Doc was far from a burden. Doc was educated, cultured, well-read and wise. He’d tell me about his dentistry practice in Oak Park before his incarceration. Doc was one of the first black men to own and live in neighboring River Forest, another prestigious suburb of Chicago. He had met the elite of black society, including Mayor Harold Washington. He’d regale me with tales of parties he attended, women he dated, places he’d been.

Doc and I mutually loved chess and tennis and boy, did Doc know a lot about the sport. His favorite female player was Chris Evert, and on the men’s side, Andre Agassi. Doc knew the history of tennis and would talk to me for hours about it.

In 2016, Doc finally got approved for Dixon. The night before his transfer, we stayed up all night watching tennis and playing chess. The next morning, before he left, Doc did something he never did. He hugged me real tight and told me, “Sonny, it has been an honor and a privilege to know you.” I was so shocked cause Doc absolutely abhorred any type of physical affection. He’d shake hands and that was that. That morning, he hugged me, and it felt like a father hugging his beloved son.

In less than a month, Dixon sent Doc back to Stateville. His cancer was terminal, and he did not have long to live. Doc died that winter, and I mourned him like we had known one another for a lifetime. When you think of bonds of love and familial cohesion, you don’t think of prison—but that was where I met and grew to love one of the finest human beings I have ever known.

William Peeples, 55, is incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, where he is serving a life sentence for murder and aggravated battery.