Read the Livingston County News cover story on Jon Fontaine’s lawsuit and A Jacket off the Gorge.
[written by Susan Ashline; as told by inmate Jon Fontaine]
A huge crash awakened me in my cell at Mid-State prison. It was early – 5 a.m. – and all the lights were on. It was August 2014.
I ran to the door, joining the other inmates who’d craned their necks to the hallway, trying to figure out what was happening.
Mid-State used to be a mental hospital, so the cell was a room with no toilet or sink, and no actual door.
The corrections officer working the overnight shift on my unit only left his office for two things: the midnight and 6 a.m. head counts. He did not make the required half-hour rounds. Instead, he would sleep in his office.
I saw a guard we called “Dirty Red” standing in the hallway, just outside another inmate’s door. Dirty Red was notorious for mistreating prisoners. But one act got him beaten senseless by another guard. Dirty Red would piss in the inmate ice machine. Each housing unit had one, like the kind you’d find in a hotel. But he failed to consider that officers used those ice machines, too. And then, one found out about it.
Dirty Red wasn’t even supposed to be on our unit that night. That, along with his reputation and the crashing locker led me to one conclusion.
“They’re fucking up Shadow!” I yelled.
More inmates rushed to their doors.
Shadow was a white guy with a long, black pony tail. He was super quiet and played guitar. We talked every day.
He’d been battling the prison administration and the Office of Mental Health (OMH). He wanted – needed – his bi-polar medication. He’d taken it his whole life, he told me. But the administration wouldn’t let him have it. He felt fine, they insisted. They argued he’d been cured of his mental illness.
And he’d mock them. “Miraculously cured,” he would say.
Knowing he wasn’t cured, and riding an emotional roller coaster, Shadow started filing grievances and writing letters. Everything was getting denied. Their reasoning? Shadow shouldn’t be granted “special treatment.” By that, I suppose they meant expecting to be able to continue taking medication he’d been taking for years.
His cries for help denied by Mid-State administrators and OMH staff, Shadow resorted to filing an Article 78. It’s a form of lawsuit used to challenge an administrative decision, action or policy. You can’t get money from an Article 78. The most you can win is the administrative action you’re seeking.
In this case, Shadow wanted his mental health medications. He’d been feeling ill for so long.
I knew Shadow had just filed the Article 78. I’d surmised this was just another retaliatory beating in typical prison guard Gestapo fashion. I figured a couple of officers – certainly Dirty Red – waited until the early morning hours to storm Shadow’s room in a gang assault to teach him a lesson about challenging the administration. Of course my mind would go there. That stuff happens epidemically in the prisons.
I heard bangs and thuds and a mix of voices – shrieks and hollers. I saw more officers rushing the scene, some carrying medical bags; one with a defibrillator.
I read the panic on Dirty Red’s face. I saw it in his hands. They shook so violently that he dropped a package of gauze pads and another officer snatched them.
Shadow’s locker came sliding out of the room into the hallway, creating a smeared trail of blood.
I heard the AED beep its warning. An electronic voice spoke commands on how to restart a heart. Then, a voice crackled over the two-way radio, “The ambulance is here.”
Guards picked out four inmates standing in their doorways. A folding canvas stretcher opened and then disappeared into Shadow’s room. It came out moments later, carried by the inmates.
As it passed through the doorway, I saw Shadow’s feet. Then, I saw his arm dangling from it, like his locker, cold and gray.
“Look at how bruised he is!” someone shouted.
He wasn’t bruised. He was dead. I knew it, and I hollered it back.
The stretcher gone, we were allowed to make our way to the bathroom one at a time. We would have to walk past Shadow’s room, squeezing by the metal locker splattered with blood.
When I got to Shadow’s room, I gawked.
Blood spray ran down the wall where the locker used to be, leaving a blank outline. Shadow’s chair was in the far corner. A huge pool of blood was on the floor and leading from it, trails of bloody footprints.
I moved on to the bathroom, but stopped again on my way back. This time, I looked at the locker blocking my way. On the side that would’ve been closest to Shadow’s chair, was a message written in blood:
“Now how do I feel?”
Later, we learned what happened. In the early morning hours, an inmate on his way to the bathroom passed Shadow’s room and saw him slumped on the floor in blood. The inmate ran to the officer on duty and found him sleeping in his office, so he woke him.
Shadow, who’d been miraculously cured of bi-polar disorder and no longer needed medication to control his mood swings, had sat in the chair in the corner of his room and, with his state-issued shaving razor, cut his wrists and used the blood to ink a final argument for treatment.
Now, how do you feel?