Question Time: Suicide

DJ Jonty Skrufff asked: what was your greatest moment of despair in jail?

For various reasons, it took me years to openly talk about the time that I contemplated suicide in jail. Firstly, I broke the law and deserved to be punished, and I’ve always feared coming across as self-pitying if I mentioned being suicidal. Secondly, fresh out of prison, I wasn’t in the right place psychologically to look back at that time in my life. Being asked to write a self-help book last year forced me to go back in time to when I was suicidal. Here’s how I described what happened in my new book, Lessons: 

“Lockdown, everybody!” a guard announces at 8pm in the maximum-security Madison Street jail in May 2003.
We trudge back to our tiny two-man cells, slam our doors and rest on our bunks. A burly redneck guard enters our cell to perform a headcount. As part of a security procedure to check if an escape is in progress, he bangs a cane against the vent, the cement-block walls and a tiny bulletproof window caked in filth at the back of the cell.

Just before lights out at 10pm, movement starts at the cracks in the decrepit walls, accompanied by rustling. American cockroaches the size of almonds are lining up like an army waiting to invade, shuffling against each other in the competition for space, with their long antennae protruding. They move ever so slightly back and forth as if they can barely wait. As soon as a guard hits the light switch, they flood the room. Every now and then, one drops from the ceiling and resumes crawling on the grimy cement floor. Having arrived before me, my cellmate wisely chose the top bunk to avoid the cockroaches pouring from the gaps around my bunk brackets, inches away from where I sleep. Walking to the toilet, I crunch a few cockroaches under my shower sandals. When I grab the toilet roll, a cockroach darts from it onto my hand, tickling my fingers. My arm jerks, losing both the cockroach and toilet roll.

Nauseous, I sit on a stool, wondering how on earth I’m going to get to sleep, disgusted yet in awe of how alive the walls look. Tired of flicking them off my feet, I cocoon myself in a sheet and lay down sideways on my bunk, crushing a few cockroaches. The only way they can crawl on me now is by entering a breathing hole I’ve left in the sheet. Inhaling their musty odour, I close my eyes, but I can’t sleep. Listening to the swamp-cooler vent – a metal grid at the top of a wall – hissing out tepid air, I feel cockroaches moving on the sheet around my feet. Am I imagining things? My eyes keep opening to see if they’ve infiltrated my breathing hole. With my body cramping, I rotate onto my other side. Facing the wall, I’m repulsed by the cockroaches zigging and zagging just inches away. I return to my original side. The sheet traps the heat of the Sonoran Desert to my body, coating me in sweat, aggravating my bleeding and itching skin infections and bedsores, some of which look as if I’ve spilt battery acid on myself. The ticklish sweat tricks my mind into thinking that the cockroaches are on me. I want to scratch myself, but I know better. From sweating constantly, the outer layers of my skin have turned soggy. Squirming on the bunk fails to stop the relentless itchiness of my skin. Eventually, I succumb to scratching myself. Clumps of moist skin detach under my nails. The heat trapped by the sheet is unbearable. I discard the sheet, resigned to giving up my body to the cockroaches. They start out tickling my feet, limbs, palms…

Having not slept properly since my arrival in the cell several days ago, I start hallucinating and hearing voices whispering threats. Facing a maximum 200-year sentence, I’m at breaking point. Although I committed crimes and deserve to be punished, no one should have to live like this. I’m furious at myself for making the series of reckless decisions that put me in here, for losing absolutely everything and for causing my family to suffer. I remember what my life used to be like…

And just look at me now. Reduced to nothing. Maybe never getting out of prison. Do I really want to spend the rest of my life in this kind of environment? Hell, no!

I think about taking a razor blade to my wrists and bleeding out. The thought gives me an unexpected sense of comfort. I now have a choice. I’ll wait until a guard does a security walk, slash my wrists deep and just lie here with the cockroaches. The guards won’t notice until the blood starts spilling from the bunk and by then it’ll be too late. I wonder how long I’ll take to die. I imagine that when I get so weak that I can’t move the cockroaches will crawl all over me.

Before committing suicide, I want to say goodbye to my family by taking a last look at their photographs. I grab an envelope containing the maximum seven pictures permitted in my personal property. I stare at the caring and loving faces of my mum, dad, sister and the fiancĂ©e who talked me into quitting the Ecstasy business. Tears pool and spill and streak down my cheeks. I close my eyes and see my mum weeping at my funeral. She’s going to get a call saying her son’s slashed his wrists in an Arizona jail cell. I can’t put my family through that. Shivering and sobbing as silently as possible on my bunk, I hate myself for lacking the courage to end my life – unaware that it takes more courage to carry on.

Webpage for Lessons 

Signed copies of Lessons available on Amazon UK for £4.89

My new Life Lessons talk to schools

Click here for the previous Question Time

Shaun Attwood

Welcome Banged-Up Abroad Viewers!

If you have any further questions for me, please Tweet me here, post them to my Facebook here or post them in the comments below.

My life story is a book trilogy. Please click here for the UK Amazon listing of my books Party Time and Hard Time, which Raving Arizona was based on. I also have a new book out, Lessons, about the hardest lessons I've learned in my life. 

If you are inclined to see how deadly the Maricopa County jail is, then here’s a video of guards murdering a mentally ill inmate:

Here’s a video of an Aryan Brother gang member murdering an inmate who has refused to beat someone up for the gang:

Here’s my full hard hitting talk to schools, which includes much more graphic detail about the jail conditions than the episode. Show your kids one of the versions here if you don't want them to take drugs:

My video about jail strip searches including foreskin searches:

My tips on surviving jail: 

Shaun Attwood

Fleecing an Oligarch (Guest blog by Leigh Sprague)

Leigh Sprague is a former lawyer sentenced on March 2014 to serve 50 months in Lompoc Prison Camp, a federal facility in California. Prior to his arrest, Leigh spent years working in Russia for various oligarchs.

In the oligarch's sprawling Moscow headquarters, I walk into my cell-like office and flip a switch. I squint into the sudden light, catching my reflection in the mirror at the rear behind my desk: my hair’s a mess and my pale skin has a pallid ghostly yellow glow. Disgust rises up in me. I quickly switch off the overhead light, and step into the room.  The door closes behind me with a muffled thump. A beam of weak, diffuse light shines through the window from an outside streetlamp, leaving the room in a dark shadow. Stumbling forward, I bang my thigh on the corner of a desk. I wince and sink down into a chair while flipping the lid of my laptop.

I grab the mouse and open my e-mails, holding my breath. The overtaxed computer begins to hum.  Several seconds later Outlook opens, revealing hundreds of unopened messages.  With a sinking heart, I scan the frantic subject lines, many written in capital letters.  I click on a random message.

“Leigh, what the hell is going on?  We need to talk IMMEDIATELY. Ollie [the oligarch] is making threats.  I don’t understand any of this.”

I scroll quickly through the remainder.  More of the same.  E-mails from the auditors, e-mails from the bank, e-mails from every minion in the joint, all with one basic message: What the hell did you do?

What the hell did I do? I ask myself.

Well, I stole $10 million from the oligarch, for starters. And went back for more. I had helped him set up a secret illegal account in an offshore jurisdiction that he needed for a transaction he was planning. He ended up paying for the transaction with other financing, but that money remained in the account. For the oligarch, it was pocket change. He just forgot about it. After a couple years had passed, I remembered about the money, how it was just sitting there, and decided to put it to good use. I set up some offshore companies and a bunch of wire transfers. Because the account had been set up in secret, there weren't the usual control mechanisms, and I had authority to direct the funds. A year later I went back for another $5 million. That time around, I was sloppy.

From the e-mails, I see that now they're onto me, although they don't yet know about the initial theft, just the botched second attempt. I think back on the years I've spent in the oligarch's employ, terrible, miserable years during which I helped him increase his fortune and launder the money he stole as the Soviet Union collapsed. I bore witness to business, Russian style, and I can't say that I liked it very much, the corruption, the brutality, the greed. I started out as an idealistic, honest minion in the oligarch's army, but over time became corrupted and corrupt. When I stole the money, I told myself that I was taking from a thief. I convinced myself that he deserved it. But that reasoning is faulty, I realize now. I spent the money on myself. It was greed, pure and simple.

I sit back, take a shuddering gasp, suddenly realizing that I’ve been holding my breath. Sweat pours down my forehead, into my eyes. My hands shake on the keyboard. My worst fears are now confirmed. But how did I get past the guard? Where is everybody? Is this a trap? Here I am in the heart of the oligarch's domain and no one seems to care. I jump from my desk, glance about my office. It is, to put it mildly, a mess. Incriminating documents are strewn everywhere. I’m one irresponsible thief. A strange thought flits through my mind: did I possibly want to be caught? Perish the thought. Now I want to escape. The fight-or-flight instinct kicks into overdrive. I grab piles of documents, and mash them into my briefcase.

At that moment, there is a loud knock at the door. I freeze with my hand in the air holding a fistful of documents. Another knock. My jaw drops: the whole door vibrates as if whoever is on the other side intends to knock it down. I wonder to myself whether, in my panic, I even locked the door. I run behind my desk, and crouch, like a burglar caught in the act, waiting for the door to open. I hold my breath, and wait. The silence is deafening, punctuated only by the frantic tick-tock of my heart. No more knocks. I slowly right myself and begin, once again, to gather documents.

Five minutes pass. I’m almost done. My bag bulges with documents. I scan the room one last time.  A ping of regret courses through me: I will never see this place again. To my surprise, I am sad. An ignominious end to my Russia experiment if there ever was one. But even this departure from the oligarch's grasping arms is better than no escape at all. Enough reminiscing for the moment. I’m not even close to home free. Back to the matter at hand. Have I managed to gather everything? Almost decidedly not, but some progress is better than none.

I walk toward the door. Another knock, even louder. I turn, preparing once again to hide, a trapped rat. I listen with horror as a key turns in the lock. My eyes are glued to the handle, which oh-so-slowly turns. There’s nowhere to run or hide. The door swings open. My mouth falls open. I straighten, as if this were any other evening in the office.

“Privet, Igor,” I say.

What comes next is a story for another blog entry. 

Shaun Attwood  

Meditating in my Hometown

Pictures taken by Mike Poloway during a photo shoot for this article in The Independent   

Shaun Attwood

From T-Bone (Letter 20)

A young man in my housing unit lost his eye last week and it was really something to see. His eyeball just popped out of his head. The only thing he could do was walk around, screaming in pain. The guards did nothing about it at all.
It happened over absolutely nothing. To really drive it home, his cellmate had to take the blame for it because prisoners are not allowed to tell the guard anything that is really going on in here. His cellmate had nothing to do with it.
It started over two young guys “playing the dozens,” calling each other names, seeing who could make other people around them laugh at each other’s expense. It got out of control, and one guy, just popped the other guys eye out, so it was dangling from his skull on its cord. This place is sickening when it comes to behaviour. It’s so childish but the consequences are deadly.

I now have two books featuring T-Bone, the hard-hitting Prison Time and a self-help book, Lessons from a Drug Lord– both include T-Bone fight stories

Numerous readers of Vice Magazine have requested I set up a donation page for T-Bone. Here it is.

Shaun Attwood