By Jeff Baker

There are worse ways to die than alone in a prison cell, but Jimmy Simms had been found stabbed lying on his bunk and the guard on duty testified that Simms had been alive and talking through the cell bars with the inmate on the janitorial crew about an hour before his body was discovered. The guards searched the cell for anything that could have been used as a knife, and if you've never seen a cell search they tear up everything. But in this case there wasn't a lot to tear up; Simms was on lockdown status after a fight and so his cell had been stripped down to bare essentials.

Bunk, sheet, thin mattress, behind the toilet, in the toilet, in the toilet paper roll, in the binding and pages of the Bible which was the one thing of his they'd let him keep. The guards searched all that. They checked his blue prison-issue button down shirt which he'd hung from the sink. Then they took the sink apart and searched it.

Nothing. No knife anywhere. Simms had been found stabbed in the gut at the back of his cell on his bunk. The cell next to his was unoccupied and they searched it. No knife. Simms cell, number A307 was at the end of the corridor. The only thing on the other side of it was a solid stone wall.

And that was when they grabbed the two inmates on the janitorial crew and started grilling them about the murder. And I was sure that they hadn't done it and damn sure that I hadn't done it!

One of the only good things about being locked in a cell 22 hours a day is it gives you an airtight alibi when things go wrong. From what I heard Simms was stabbed at about 3:30p.m. and died about an hour later. And I'd been back in my cell, locked-in tight since right before 3:00.

In prison, you usually don't want to stand out. But when you're a 6' 7'' redheaded convict built like a linebacker it works to your advantage. Corazon, the guard on duty, said he remembered seeing me standing by Simms' cell talking with him, "probably about a half-hour before he was killed." He remembered hearing us laugh. When I was grilled at the hearing about Simms' death, Corazon pointed out that I'd stopped at Simms' cell and stood there for a few minutes talking, right before the alarm went off signaling that the exercise period was over. On a usual afternoon I go back to my cell, thankful that I haven't gotten jumped on or otherwise attacked, and grateful as the cell door closes behind me with the grating grinding sound from the gearbox over the cell door. I always give it a glance as I walk in or out of my cell. I hated being locked up, but my cell was still a comparatively safe haven in the violent world of the prison system. But I knew I had it luckier than a lot of guys I knew. I could relax in my cell. I tensed up every time I heard the grating noise of my cell door sliding open or shut. It always reminded me of a TV documentary I'd seen where a small boat was crushed between two ships, with an accompanying noise just like the cell door opening.

I always felt like the little boat getting squashed, even as I breathed a little sigh of relief.

The news was all over the prison next morning at breakfast. Standing in the chow line to pick up my food tray I quickly got an update on what had been happening. They had dismissed Koffmann, who'd been one of the guys on the janitorial crew outside Simms' cell (and had been in Millington since about 1962) as a suspect, and had focused their investigation on Dean Dewayne. Dewayne was in solitary confinement (what I called "the hole") prison officials having determined that he was the last person to see Simms alive. They were going to have a hearing and probably screw him over for the murder. I could see where they'd believe he could've done it. He was young with bunchy muscles, stringy brown hair that was usually in his eyes, and a nose that had probably been broken in a couple of fights. I knew him from the weight room, we both spent some of the hour we got out of our cells in the afternoon working out. Dewayne looked capable of causing some quick damage. But I couldn't ever have imagined him killing anybody. He lacked guts and was easily scared, and would always back down from a fight. Another dumb kid who wound up way over his head.

I sat down at the table after my usual wary glance to see who was sitting behind me and beside me. I'd caught a casual glance of my cellmate busy in the back of the kitchen, shoving a stack of used trays into the kitchen's dishwasher. Just like the one I'd used when I'd worked at that restaurant next to the airport in Wichita when I was in High School. I was only half-paying attention to what was being said when I heard somebody say my name. I looked up, and heard my name again from behind me. Followed by a jumble of words like "saw Simms right before he died."

"Crap," I muttered under my breath, realizing that was also a description of the breakfast slop, runny watered-down oatmeal, that I was forcing down. I had a bad feeling about all this. I tried to wash it down with orange juice from the sealed container on my tray. I stared at the yellow glob that was supposed to be eggs. I finished the oatmeal instead, leaving the eggs untouched. And when I got back to my cell my bad feeling was confirmed. They usually are in prison.

In this case, it was in the form of a guard banging on the bars of my cell while I was brushing my teeth, and telling me that I was to report to a hearing regarding the Simms killing "at 1400 hours tomorrow."

I spat out my toothbrush and sputtered out "Speak English!"

The guard stared at me for a second. I was 24 years old. He had to be younger. He glanced at the paper in his hand.

"Mister Matthews, you are ordered to report to, oh hell, you go to the Warden's office at 2 o'clock tomorrow afternoon."

"Hey, that's my free time!" I said sarcastically.

"Well, you'll get an escort," the young guard said as I rinsed my mouth out.

"Great," I said sitting on my bunk. I looked around my cell as the guard walked off. Except for the steel lockers to one side of the room, and the small table with its stack of newspapers this could have been the cell Jimmy Simms had been killed in.

I let out a long breath as I leaned back against the cold stone wall, my head pushing against the bottom of the bunk above mine.

"This is just great, Matt," I said to myself.

I spent the rest of the morning alternating between sitting in my bunk and pacing my cell. During my free time in the afternoon I walked over to A-Block and tried to get a good look into Simms' cell. No such luck. There were a couple of guards and a bunch of other people in suits and ties, including Warden Daily. I knew better than to go up to them and ask if I could have a peek at the crime scene. I thought that would help me to figure out all the possibilities of this and what I might be up against at the hearing tomorrow. There was no love lost between me and Simms but I had not wanted to see him die. And nothing would make me believe that Dewayne had killed him.

I spent much of the rest of the afternoon and evening after dinner, standing at my cell door, trying to ignore my cellmate's sour body odor as he lay in his bunk and read through the newspapers and girlie magazines he subscribed to. I had stood there and clenched the bars and watched what was going on outside my cell hundreds of times, but I'd never really studied the framework or patterns of the bars before. I tried to imagine Dewayne standing just outside my cell and stabbing me in my gut through the bars, tried to see him dropping the blade into the mop bucket, mopping up any blood and walking away whistling. And none of that made any sense.

If I'd been stabbed I would have screamed and probably fallen over. I would have tried to grab Dewayne if he'd stabbed me. And I knew it couldn't have happened that way.

It was around lights-out at 9:00 p.m. when I realized the only way it could have happened. I was pooped, I suddenly felt how tired my legs were from pretty much standing up all day. I staggered to my bunk, stripped to my shorts and barely remembered lying down and pulling the thin blanket over me.

"I wanna see my lawyer!" Dewayne said as the guard led him, in a brown jumpsuit, his wrists cuffed in front of him, into the small room with the long wooden table where they held hearings for inmates at Millington Correctional Facility. He glared angrily around the room but there was a totally lost look in his eyes. I noticed he'd combed his hair back. The guard led him to a chair at the far end of the room at the end of the table. I glanced down at my blue prison-issue shirt and jeans, remembering a couple of times I'd been thrown in the hole and had to wear one of those thin, brown jumpsuits. At least I wasn't in handcuffs, but I did have the one guard, Officer Brewer, standing behind me.

The door opened and Warden Daily walked in, nodding at the guards who stood up a little straighter. He gave me a glance and stared for a second longer at Dewayne who swallowed hard. Daily was about fifty, I figured, tall, dark suit-and-tie, graying hair, neatly trimmed. He was, from my personal encounters with him, no-nonsense but fair. I respected him, but didn't like him. He sat down at the end of the table opposite Dewayne.

I didn't recognize the two suits who walked in behind him and sat down at the edge of the table next to him, but I guessed that they were board members. The three men began pulling papers out of the file folders on the table and I heard a wooden squeak as Dewayne shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

Warden Daily pulled his glasses off and looked up.

"Dean Roger Dewayne," he began. Dewayne cut him off.

"I want my lawyer," he said.

"Mr. Dewayne, this is a hearing not a trial. You don't get a lawyer." Warden Daily said, studying one of the pages. He read aloud the official report of the "suspicious death" of Millington Correctional Facility inmate Jimmy Simms. And read out a bunch of legalese.

And that was when they asked me about everything I'd seen there, why I was there ("I knew Simms, he was on lockdown so I walked over to A-Block after my workout. We get an hour or two out of our cells every day. I knew he hadn't been out of his cell for about three days after he got in that fight.")

What we talked about ("What we're going to do after we get out of here, how this place sucks, how the Warden is a doofus.")

Warden Daily stiffened after that, but I reminded him that Simms had said it. That was when they began grilling Dewayne. I almost expected him to cry but he stuck with his story, the one I believed. He even went into detail about where and how he emptied the mop bucket and stored the mop. Then they started questioning Corazon about what he'd seen right before Simms had been found dead. He told them about how I'd been there and had left Simms right before the bell rang signaling the end of the exercise period and that I'd headed back to my cell, leaving Simms still alive.

Corazon got to the part about Simms talking to Dewayne while Dewayne was mopping the cell floor. It was nothing I hadn't heard before, but something about the Warden's expression as he listened made me tense up. Corazon finished telling about having last seen Simms alive as he'd walked to the back of his cell and Dewayne had pushed his mop bucket further down the hall. Then Brewer described looking in the cell later and seeing Simms lying on his back on his bunk with a bloodstain on the front of his t-shirt.

"I could see he wasn't breathing," the guard concluded.

"So you opened the cell to investigate?" Warden Daily asked. "Didn't you realize it could be some sort of trick?"

"I always assume that, sir," Brewer said. "I followed standard procedure. But one good look at him told me he was dead."

One of the suits spoke up.

"You considered that it could be suicide?"

"Yes, until we couldn't find the knife," said Brewer. "We searched the entire cell. Not one sign of anything that could have been used as a weapon. And these inmates," here he looked pointedly at me, "can rig a knife out of anything."

"So you're saying that someone got into his locked cell and stabbed him on his bunk and left him for dead, taking the knife with him?" Warden Daily asked.

"That was what it looked like," Brewer said. "But that didn't explain about the shirt."

"Oh yes, the shirt," the Warden said, pulling a sheet of paper out of the open file in front of him. "It says here that inmate Jimmy Simms was killed by a stab wound just under the chest which caused internal bleeding. At the time of his death, Mr. Simms was wearing a regulation white t-shirt the front of which was bloodstained, even though the shirt was tucked into his pants and no cut of any kind was found on the shirt."

Dewayne's mouth dropped open. One of the guards shook his head in amazement.

"So, somebody stabbed him, tucked in his shirt and left him for dead?" Daily asked without a hint of sarcasm. He returned the paper to the folder and went on.

"Officer Corazon, you said you saw Simms walk away from his cell door. How far away from the cell were you at that time?"

"About thirty feet away," the guard replied.

"So, you couldn't actually see into cell A307 any further than just the cell door?"

"No, sir," Corazon said.

"Is it possible that instead of walking, Mr. Simms was actually staggering back and that out of your sight in the cell he collapsed on his bunk?" Warden Daily asked.

"That is possible, sir."

"And I would guess the reason you couldn't find the knife was that Mr. Dewayne pulled it out of Simms' body as he staggered back, hid it in his mop bucket and disposed of it later," the Warden said. "Does that sound reasonable to you?"

"Yes, sir," Corazon said.

Warden Daily picked up the file folder and pushed the papers in so they fit neatly.

"That should be all," Daily said. "I believe we have enough evidence to charge this man," he glanced at Dewayne, "with first-degree murder." The suits nodded. Dewayne was breathing hard now and his eyes were wide. He looked around the room quickly, desperately. I figured if the room had a window he would've probably lunged for it.

"Except that's not the way it happened," I said. The guards glared at me, I went on. "May I say something?"

Warden Daily's face had "no" written all over it.

"May I say something, sir," I added.

Daily scowled but nodded. The "sir" must've done it.

"Make it quick," he said.

"I've been locked-up here for two years now, and I understand this place pretty well," I said. "You're not looking at this the right way."

"Mr. Matthews," the Warden said.

"You need to think like a convict, not a cop," I said grinning. "You need to consider the possible reason he was killed, and the one person who would have killed him for that reason. The one person who could have been in that cell and would have killed him." I looked the Warden in the eyes. "Simms did it himself."

The warden didn't react, . Dewayne shifted in his seat, looking uncomfortable in the handcuffs.

"The thing that bothers everybody is 'where'd the knife go?' If Dewayne did it, he stabbed Simms through the bars of his cell and then took the knife with him, maybe in the mop bucket he was pushing, and got rid of it later. But Officer Corazon saw Dewayne walk away from the cell as Simms walked to the back of his cell, out of your sight. If he'd been stabbed you would have seen him fall or heard him scream or yell. But you didn't," I said, looking at Corazon. He shook his head.

"I didn't. I didn't see anything wrong at all," he said.

"Because he was still alive. He probably did it right after that. You didn't find a lot of blood in that cell, did you?" I asked.

"No, we didn't," Corazon said, not used to being cross-examined by a prisoner.

"That's because he used his shirt. That white tee shirt. He held the knife to his gut, pulled the shirt over it and slammed himself against the wall. That's why there was no cut in the shirt." I sighed. "He probably did that so there wouldn't be any blood for anyone to see if they walked past the cell and casually glanced in. They'd just see him lying on his bunk. He could die in peace that way."

"Mr. Matthews, assuming I believe any of this, why does a man who is up for parole in five months kill himself?" Warden Daily said.

"He was serving time for forgery, right?" I asked.

"And felony drug possession," the Warden answered, after checking the file.

"But that wasn't the only thing he was guilty of." I said again, with another sigh. "I found out by accident that before he got locked-up he had been molesting young girls in his apartment complex."

"And why didn't you tell anybody about this?"

"Because I've never snitched on anybody in my life," I said, getting a little angry. "I know what happens to pedophiles in here. I've seen enough people get hurt in this place," I said with all the honesty I could manage. The room had gotten very quiet.

"Besides, I got to hold it over him, so he left me alone." I said. "And I knew that what goes around comes around, and in this case, it did. Anybody here watch the news? Remember that high school coach who shot up that storefront with a rifle a few months ago?"

There were nods around the room except from Dewayne.

"Simms told me that was the father of one of the girls he'd been molesting. His guess was the guy shot up that storefront so he'd be put in here so he could take Simms apart. Ask yourself this, why did a little wussy guy like Simms start getting into fights about a month ago? So he'd be thrown in solitary, and kept out of the general prison population."

"He could have asked for protective custody," Brewer started to say.

"And when you asked him why, what would he say? He'd be outed as a child molester and everybody in here would treat him like a shrimp in a shark tank. By getting in trouble he probably figured that he would be put in the hole and buy himself some time. But he realized it was just a matter of time before he became shark food."

"So where's the weapon? How did he get rid of the knife?" the guard asked.

"He flushed it down the toilet," I said with dead seriousness.

"Get this man out of here, that is the most ridiculous" the Warden began.

"Hold it! Hold it!" I said, holding up my hands as the guards moved in on me.

"All right," the Warden said. "Let him finish." He glared at me. "You've got one more minute."

"I don't know what your toilet is like in your house, but the ones in the cells must have some kind of high-pressure system in them. You can flush down about anything if it's the right size. Simms stabbed himself, flushed his weapon and then lay down on his bunk to die. To escape."

I leaned back in my chair and tried to look casual. Warden Daily stared at me for a moment. Then he pointed at Dewayne.

"Un-cuff him and take him back to his cell. This hearing is over. Case closed." He glared at me, "Except for you."

They put me in the hole for a week, trying, I guess, to find something to charge me with, but couldn't. I didn't mind. Peace and quiet in solitary after the bad couple of days I'd had was fine with me. I spent a lot of that week lying on my bunk and staring at the cracks in the ceiling. They were talking about building a new "facility" and tearing this one down. That was also fine with me. When I closed my eyes I could see Simms' grin as he stuck the knife under his shirt and shoved himself against the cell bar. He'd told me that was what he was going to do to "mess with everybody's head" and had bribed me to get him a couple of t-shirts from the laundry so he could be seen by "that idiot guard" without a bloodstained shirt. I didn't believe he was going to kill himself like that, especially not right in front of me. When he did it, my laughter at the joke we'd been sharing died into a gasp which Corazon didn't notice.

Simms probably flushed the shirts he kept putting on down the toilet like he'd planned, but before that, he did something he hadn't told me about; he handed the knife he'd used to me, I guess to implicate me as his killer. An improvised extra to his suicide, or part of the plan all along? He'd sure hated me enough.

I'd looked around, Corazon wasn't watching, I had a second to act so I reached up and dropped the knife in the open top of the gearbox over the cell door. Being six-foot-seven does have its advantages sometimes. And I knew that no guard would ever put his hands in a gearbox, or think of looking in there. If they did, they'd find a bunch of shivs and knives, probably some from years before.

The state was going to bulldoze this place in a year or two and the knife would be buried in the rubble. I wouldn't miss either one.

Like I said, sometimes you have to think like a convict.

A lifelong native of Wichita, Kansas, Jeff Baker drives a delivery truck by day and writes when he can. He drew on his experience working with former inmates (in a mall food court) for the background of "Cell A307." Though Mr. Baker claims to be a recovering Luddite he has just started an author's page on Facebook.

Copyright 2011 Jeff Baker. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.

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