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Life Inside

‘You Shouldn’t Have Used the D-Word’

Saying “I’m depressed” to jail staff landed Nicholas Brooks in solitary. But with his peers, he has found a way to speak freely.

An illustration shows a man with medium-toned skin and dark curly hair on the left in the foreground, looking concerned, and a man on the right with light-toned skin and long brown hair with his hand gesturing towards his head. In the background, the two men in prison uniforms sit at a table. Barbed-wire fencing is woven through the illustration.

Growing up, I was privileged, but my family was dysfunctional. My dad was a famous songwriter, my mother a Playboy model, and their divorce was messy. Living with my dad in Manhattan, I had a trust fund and no sense of responsibility.

I landed in jail on New York’s Rikers Island in December of 2010. My girlfriend drowned at the Soho House hotel, and I was arrested for killing her. While I was awaiting trial, my father died by suicide.

I considered ending my own life after I was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. I knew I didn’t drown my girlfriend, but I also knew she would be alive if I were a more responsible person.

When I told a staffer who did intake on Rikers Island that I was incredibly confused and depressed, he told me I shouldn't have used “the D-word” and put me on suicide watch. I was led to an empty cell, stripped naked and handed a smock. They told me this was to prevent me from using my clothing, shoe laces and sheets to fashion a noose. The isolation was torturous, and it made me think even more about suicide. In the nearly 12 years that I’ve been incarcerated, I have never talked to a mental health professional.

Even though I don’t feel safe speaking with the prison therapist, that doesn’t mean that I don’t need somebody to talk to. I grew up in therapy and understand the importance of mental health. But in such a violent environment, it’s rare for men to talk about their feelings.

After speaking to an incarcerated journalist friend of mine about my struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide, he suggested I interview other prisoners with similar issues and write about it.

I liked the idea of discussing mental health without the fear of being placed in an isolation cell. And maybe understanding the struggles of others would help me get out of my own head.

I set out to find a fellow prisoner willing to open up about their mental health issues. At Sullivan Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in New York's Catskill mountains, it wasn’t hard.

I introduced myself to a prisoner with the nickname “Tori” in the west yard, a small blacktop with two basketball courts, a pull-up bar and a caged-in weight area. He was 23 and smaller than most guys in the yard. His face and neck were tattooed with familiar symbols, but he had assigned them his own meanings. He said the teardrop under his right eye represented all the times he didn’t cry. His dollar sign stood for “money as the root of all evil.” The “R.I.P.” on his neck meant “reborn in prison.”

Tori hung out with the bugouts, which is a not-so-nice way of describing people in prison who suffer from mental health disorders. He and his crew stood out. He usually wore a colorful T-shirt and played basketball. One of his friends wore a blue plastic court-ordered helmet to protect himself from epileptic seizures.

When I told Tori what I was writing, he seemed baffled. But after I told him a bit about myself, he warmed to the idea. “I'm with it. We gotta let people know what's happening inside,” he said, as a man picked up a cigarette butt off the ground right next to us. “By the way, I'm openly gay and wanted you to know that, so maybe you don't wanna talk to me anymore.”

In prison, there is a strict social hierarchy based on violent and homophobic stereotypes of masculinity. Murderers and gang members are at the top; rapists, child abusers — and homosexual men — are at the bottom. As Tori and I sat at the stone table, I noticed stares from prisoners and corrections officers coming our way. But I assured him that this didn’t matter. “Bro, I couldn’t care less if you’re gay,” I said. “No judgment here.”

Over the next four months, Tori told me his story. He was born in Jacksonville, Florida. His dad was a truck driver, his mom a janitor. Tori was placed in foster care at age 4 and would bounce around from home to home until he was 13. After his mother died from a drug overdose, he was arrested with a gun. He was 14.

Tori went to Okeechobee Youth Development Center, the juvenile lockup where he would remain until he was 18. When he got out, he moved in with his sister in Rochester, New York. A year later, in 2018, he was arrested for robbing a man for drug money. “Molly was my drug of choice,” Tori told me. “Without drugs, I would become really paranoid and delusional. I didn’t know about my mind sickness yet.”

Only after he was incarcerated was Tori diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and, later, anti-social personality disorder. He needed professional help in a safe environment, with doctors who treated him as a person, not an inmate. Prison simply added trauma to an already traumatized person.

The next time I saw Tori was a month later and by accident. We ran into each other on the yard during night recreation, and he seemed irritated. He told me how he was living in an “assisted daily living” housing unit for men with low IQs and serious mental illnesses. Throughout the week, he participated in programs like a book club and film classes, and he went to group therapy. But as we sat down at a stone table, he described a unit more rehabilitative on paper than it was in reality.

As a porter in his unit, it was Tori’s job to pass out soap, toothpaste and toilet paper. He also had to clean the cells of men too ill to do it themselves. A coworker and friend of his had left the unit, leaving him with twice the work. “I’ve been off my meds for 45 days, and I haven’t slept in two days,” he told me. “I’m so tired of this. I just can’t take it anymore.”

I just can’t take it anymore. I had said those words many times over the past 12 years. Now somebody was saying them to me. As Tori pulled on a Newport, I noticed scores of faded, crisscrossed scars along his forearm. I suggested he talk about his problem in group therapy or speak to his counselor, but then I realized I was staring at his scars. “None of that stuff helps,” Tori said, looking down at his arm. “What’s crazy is that I learned all this bad behavior in prison.”

Tori told me his first suicide attempt in prison took place in early 2019 at Coxsackie Correctional Facility in upstate New York. He was hearing voices in his head and was stressed out due to a loss of recreation time, no access to a phone, and no mail coming in. So he broke a state-issued razor and cut the inside of his thigh. The guards found him unconscious in a pool of his own blood, and he was rushed to an outside hospital.

Listening to Tori's story made me feel empathy, but it also brought back my own bad memories.

On May 22, 2011, a guard came to the day room where I was watching television and told me I had a legal visit. When I arrived at the plexiglass visiting cube, there was Jeff, my father’s friend and my lawyer. I knew something was wrong.

“Nick, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but your dad killed himself earlier today,” Jeff said. “I know this is hard.” After a period of silence, I asked how my dad did it. Jeff told me he overdosed on pills and used some kind of device to deprive himself of oxygen.

My dad was facing his own prison time when he ended his life. He had used his position as an Oscar-winning composer to “couch cast” young actresses, and in June 2009, he was indicted for sexually assaulting or raping 11 women. He was in his early 70s, in bad health, and he didn’t believe he would survive in prison.

For someone who had so much talent, he also caused so much damage. But I still loved him as a son loves his father, and when I learned of his death, I was heartbroken.

When I returned to the unit, a reporter was on the television in the day room talking about a man found dead in his apartment from an apparent suicide. I went to my cell, and climbed into bed. I felt completely shattered. I knew I needed to speak with somebody, but I was completely alone. And I couldn’t find the words to express my grief, anyway.

After his suicide attempt, Tori transferred from Coxsackie to a mental health unit in Great Meadow Correctional Facility. Staff from the Office of Mental Health would show up throughout the week, but most of his interactions were with guards who were minimally trained to deal with people who had serious mental illnesses.

Eventually, Tori had an argument with a guard who wouldn’t let him use the phone. “I made a comment, ‘If I don’t get a phone call by lights out, you’re in trouble,’” he recalled. “At lights out I tied my head inside the toilet. The C.O.s found me wiggling around, and they cut me out.”

“When the doctor asked me why I did it, I told him I was depressed. They put me on suicide watch.” He told me they put him in an empty observation cell wearing nothing but a smock. An officer watched him for 72 hours.

“Don’t feel bad; they put me in the smock, too,” I told Tori. We marveled at how, in our darkest moment, when we needed a safe, warm environment, they stripped us down and placed us in a cold, empty cell.

I didn’t see Tori for a couple of months. As the Christmas holiday approached, I sent him a message through another prisoner from his housing unit to meet up with me. Christmas is a brutal stretch of time in prison because it is a reminder of how detached we are from our loved ones. When I didn’t hear back from him, I began to worry.

Fortunately, I ran into Tori when I was delivering special holiday meals to his block. He lit up when he saw me. He had a fresh buzz cut and looked healthy. I told him I liked his new look and gave him a tray of rice and chicken. He thanked me, but then sadness entered his eyes. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me I was his first real friend since one of his buddies on the unit had hung himself. I understood why Tori felt so emotional. Like him, I felt alone and was grateful for his friendship.

As the months passed, Tori stopped coming out to the yard. But I was still feeling good about what he’d said about us being friends and all. I knew that the next time I saw him, I would have an ending to my piece.

But there was no happy ending. I was naive to think our interactions for this story helped or healed him in any way. One evening, while I was walking in the corridor heading to the library, I saw Tori on the line, waiting to clear a metal detector. We chatted, then he rolled up his sleeve to show me fresh cut marks on the inside of his arm. “I’m sorry, man,” he said. “I relapsed.”

The New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision would not comment on personal medical information included.

Nicholas Brooks, 36, was born in London and grew up in Los Angeles and New York City. He is currently incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York State. He is the president of the Academic Scholarship Organization, where he raises money for the children of incarcerated people. He has been published in Open Campus.