A " Silent Death” in Avenal State Prison


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© Jack Cashill

September 3, 2009

Steven Nary was a naive 18-year old sailor when he fought off and unintentionally killed a known sexual predator trying to rape him. In San Francisco, that is considered murder.

Last month, more than 13 years after the incident, Steven was denied parole for at least five more years despite an admittedly “impeccable” prison record.

He sent me the following plea from California’s Avenal State Prison. He titled it “A Silent Death.” He writes in long hand. I typed but otherwise did not edit this excerpt.

A Silent Death

For prisoners who are doing long sentences, especially those serving life, there is a silent death occurring around them and within them that very few people talk about.

Put on your thinking shoes and walk backwards. Think of all the people in your life and all the experiences you have had over the last five years.

Now do it for the last ten years and then twenty years. Now take yourself out of all those experiences and erase your physical presence with those people, but keep in mind it still occurred, but without you. Do you feel any different? You should!  Hold on to this feeling as you continue reading.

There is an isolation and helpless feeling that all prisoners have to deal with. A close friend dies of cancer or other illness; parents grow old and pass away; a girlfriend or wife can’t wait any longer and leaves; kids wonder why daddy missed every single one of their firsts, that is, first step, first words, first A in school, first love and so on.

Long term prisoners often find that friends and family come to believe that their loved one may never come home and distance themselves. Everything the prisoner knew has changed or died leaving him behind.

Prisoners, especially long term prisoners, are filled with self-hate, regret, and remorse for their actions and those hurt by their actions.

They are also confused on how to make amends and reconcile to a world that believes them to be monstrous regardless of their accomplishments in prison and the sentences they have served or are serving.

Rarely are these feelings shown in their fullness because they are internalized behind hardened prison masks.

How does all of this and more manifest itself? Within these walls, prisoners show signs of how they live in misery, but they do it amongst themselves.

As the words are being placed on this piece of paper, a riot is breaking out on the yard between Hispanic and Black prisoners. All their rage and anger lashing out at each other, and yes, killing each other.

I discussed this topic with a 20 year-old kid. I remember him saying, “Yeah, that’s true,” only to go out to the yard several minutes later and stick a seven-inch shank into another prisoner’s neck. The kid dug his own grave, but how many more will follow him?

Drugs and alcohol are abused to the point where the end results in death because you owe hundreds of dollars that can’t be paid back or death because you use every day to the point of being a walking zombie.

Suicide is as common as everything else. Seeing it is just as bad. It does something to you when you see a guy who you thought had everything going for him, but gets denied parole. So he goes to his cell, puts plastic on the ground and cuts his wrists, dying a few hours later or seeing someone jump off the tier; a sound you will never forget.

Every prisoner has a breaking point and every prisoner straddles that point sometime during their incarceration. The violence and politics that go on in prison vary tremendously, many of which go unspoken. But very much carried in the hearts of the prisoners who experience it.

Beyond what occurs on the yard or how the prisoner feels, he will always present himself as being O.K. if he gets a visit. He will dress to impress and be more talkative about the outside world.

If outside volunteers come into the prison, again, good dress attire and little said about the silent death occurring within them. Letters to friends and family will always be written highlighting more good than bad.

All of this to show that they are O.K., thus playing into the “having it too good” stereotype. Why? Because friends, family, volunteers, chaplins, priests, and anyone else who touch the life of a prisoner brings them hope for the future and hope in the few minutes of escape from the insanity.

Every ounce of hope moves a prisoner closer to living a life of “life” not “death.”

I write this to be a small voice to all those who know of someone in prison. Please, be a light of hope for them.

I recently straddled my breaking point, nearly cashing it all in. All I could think about is the hope that people have brought to me, the hope of seeing friends and family again, the hope of a better education, the hope of having my own family, the hope of a good job, the hope of being a member of church, and so much more to hope for.

If I didn’t have the hope and the people to bring that hope to me I surely would be dead. And as the years go bye, prisoners see their hopes slowly go away, and their lives slowly become a silent death; Keep hope alive.

Steven can be reached at:

Steven Nary
A.S.P., 250-1-55-up
P.O. Box 9
Avenal , CA 93204

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