After three days on his cellblock at the D.C. Jail, Rashann Howard knocked on the plastic window of the unit’s security bubble. He needed a transfer to another cell, he told the correctional officer manning the station. Either that or his new cellmate had to go.

Howard had a sound reason for the transfer request. The night before, July 27, 2002, he had acquired an unwelcome bunkmate.

The cell door had popped open in the dark, and a CO had ordered Howard to vacate the bottom bunk, on which he was sleeping. Gerald McNeill, his new cellmate, had seizures, the CO told him. They could happen anytime, day or night, and the doctor didn’t want McNeill’s frame—he was 6-foot-6—falling from the top bunk. So the bottom bed was now McNeill’s.

Cell 50 was small. With McNeill in there with him, it got smaller. The toilet and sink were combined as one compact steel unit near the door. A small metal desk with a fixed stool lined one wall, a double-decker bunk the other. This left a patch of open space about the size of a tub—enough room for push-ups and not much else.

Howard didn’t care much about losing the bunk. Nor was he intimidated by McNeill. It was more personal than that. “I don’t want no flashbacks,” Howard told the CO as he fitted his sheets on the top mattress.

A few summers before, Howard and his cousin had cared for their grandmother, who also experienced seizures, dramatic episodes of unpredictable length that often ended in a trip to the hospital. His grandmother would lose all control over her body, and there was little Howard could do to help. Let someone else take care of McNeill.

The CO in the bubble referred Howard to a sergeant, who referred him to a lieutenant, with whom Howard would speak the next day.

His second night with McNeill, Howard was wakened from his sleep again. The bunk was shaking. “I was like, boom, ‘Are you all right?’ I looked down, and the covers were moving.” Howard jumped from the bunk, and, lifting the sheet, he saw McNeill’s head jerking repeatedly toward his chest, his eyes somewhere in his forehead. His upper body convulsed its way over the mattress toward the floor.

Howard screamed for help, a cause promptly taken up by startled inmates in neighboring cells. He sat on the bottom bunk and cradled McNeill’s neck in his elbow as saliva foamed onto his arm. He used his free hand to tilt McNeill’s head back. Howard had learned with his grandmother that this was how you prevented someone from swallowing his own tongue.

McNeill’s tremors subsided within minutes, just as two COs and two nurses appeared at the cell door. McNeill began to breathe heavily and to drift toward post-seizure unconsciousness. One of the COs ordered Howard to get McNeill dressed; he complied.

Why am I doing this? Howard asked himself. Why didn’t I just refuse? With the COs and the nurses lingering at the door, he worried that if he didn’t clothe McNeill, no one would. Maybe they needed him dressed to take him to the hospital. “I’m thinking, They’d leave this guy in here all night! Dude might die here, f’real. I couldn’t live with that.”

Howard puzzled over his task. First, the undershirt. He positioned himself behind McNeill and pushed the man’s torso forward. Propping McNeill up with his knee, he looped an armhole over one arm, then the other, and slipped the shirt over McNeill’s head. That was the easy part.

The one-piece jumpsuits were sometimes tricky to put on oneself, let alone someone else—a big, unconscious someone else. The job required Howard to straddle McNeill while at the same time crouching under the upper bunk. He lifted one foot and pulled a jumper leg partway up McNeill’s calf, then lifted the other foot and pulled up the other jumper leg. He did this little by little, switching between legs until he reached McNeill’s waist, at which point he called it quits. With his T-shirt on and his bottom half covered, McNeill was respectable enough to travel, he figured. If they wanted, they could do the rest themselves. “I don’t even know this guy from day one and I’m touching his boxers,” Howard would later say.

Howard unfurled an extra sheet on the concrete floor, and with the help of the nurses, the guards, and an inmate, McNeill was lifted onto the makeshift stretcher. Each of them grabbed hold of a corner and two clutched at points along the side, and McNeill’s limp body was carried to a gurney.

A CO who spotted Howard out on the tier ordered him back to his cell.

Every inmate in Howard’s sector had complaints: broken toilets, melting heat, bad ventilation, whatever. Howard’s gripe, though, couldn’t be remedied by the custodial staff: His cellmate had a chronic condition, he said.

Howard feared he was being dismissed as another whiner; his request for a new living situation didn’t trigger much action. The morning after McNeill’s first seizure, Howard spoke with a lieutenant, as instructed. The lieutenant directed him to a jail supervisor, who wouldn’t be in the unit for a couple of days. Howard decided to be patient. He would let the system do its thing.

By that summer, though, the system was facing new challenges of its own. In June 2002, a federal judge lifted a long-standing court-imposed jail population cap. The inmate count jumped from an average of 1,718 at the end of 2001 to 2,105 on the day McNeill came to Cell 50. On the morning of June 16, 2003, the total was 2,374. Outraged by two fatal stabbings at the jail in December 2002, the first homicides there in almost five years, the D.C. Council recently moved legislation capping the population at 2,014 inmates. A final vote on the measure is scheduled for July. The Department of Corrections and most of the local law-enforcement community are lobbying to quash it.

When he arrived at the D.C. Jail, Howard disappeared into the swelling ranks of inmates around him. He was young, just 21, and lived alone in an apartment in the Parklands area of Southeast. If he hadn’t been in jail the summer of 2002, he would have been studying auto technology at the University of the District of Columbia and hanging out at the pool at his friend’s apartment complex, instead of playing paramedic to McNeill.

The summer before, Howard had been pulled over by police, who found a baggie containing a half-gram of pot in his car. A year later, he was summoned to court but failed to appear. So now he was being held without bond pending his next court appearance.

Luckily for Howard, his best friend, Stu, was in the cleanup detail on the same cellblock, Northeast 2. Detail didn’t get paid for scrubbing the showers and collecting the food trays. And yet, somehow Stu could get things. He was Howard’s hookup.

A roll of toilet paper was worth a lot by jail standards, equal in value to a cigarette or a dollar’s worth of canteen items; there were times of shortage at the jail when COs had to pass it out by the sheet. But Howard always had wipes, contraband matches, and Newports, a brand the jail canteen didn’t carry. Stu would also whip up his specialty for Howard: a tuna-mayo-mustard-honey concoction they simply called “the Hookup.”

Northeast 2 was laid out like any other cellblock in the jail. It was gray and white and shaped like an L, with an upper and a lower tier of 20 cells each. At the elbow of the unit was the bubble, where a single CO locked and unlocked all 80 cell doors and the sallyport, which led to the rest of the jail. The common area was equipped with phones and metal picnic tables where inmates played cards during their periods of out time. Just up the stairs, inmates watched TV in plastic chairs.

Through Stu, Howard earned himself quasi-detail status, and he often didn’t even have to work for the privilege. His big perk was unofficial sanction to hang out in the common area with detail at times when other inmates remained in their cells. Some of Howard’s neighbors resented his free ride and called him a kiss-ass. But then he got McNeill for a cellmate. He wasn’t so lucky anymore.

Shut in with McNeill for 12 to 14 hours a day, Howard quickly discovered that seizures were only part of his new predicament. “I’m goofy, but he was crazy,” Howard says. “Like mental crazy.”

“One day he would be all right, but the next he would be all twisted….He’d be laying in his bed talking shit.”

McNeill called himself Bo Diddley Slim and boasted of having once been a bouncer at a club somewhere in Northwest D.C. He would talk about whipping some dude’s ass, his girlfriend’s friend, or maybe he stole his friend’s girlfriend? It didn’t matter. Howard wasn’t listening. McNeill ranted to himself for hours at a time. On the street, you would put on your mental blinders and walk right past a loose nut like McNeill. Here, on the top bunk, Howard’s methods of evasion were to fake as if he were sleeping or to lose himself in the Bible that his last cellmate had left behind.

In quieter moments, McNeill might ask Howard to read aloud to him from the Bible or from a magazine. Or the two might play checkers. “He was a badass checkers player,” Howard concedes. “He destroyed me. He was talking shit the whole time. But it was fun.”

Then, the next day, McNeill would turn on Howard.

“He accused me of: ‘You took my towel. Where are my shoes at? Where are my cigarettes at?’ What can I say? I’d be like, ‘Why would I use your towel, with where it’s been on your body?’” recalls Howard.

But reason didn’t always impress McNeill. After McNeill returned from his first seizure, for example, he discovered that his cigarettes were missing. A CO had seized them because of McNeill’s medical condition, and he told McNeill so. But McNeill wouldn’t be swayed. He still blamed Howard.

If Cell 50 had a thief, it was McNeill, who would pilfer cigarettes from Howard or steal his deodorant. Howard didn’t need anything from McNeill; he got everything he needed from his hookup. Sometimes he’d even share a cigarette with McNeill. “He can disrespect you whenever he wants to, but you got to respect him,” is how Howard describes it. “Basically, he came in and took everything. Anything he wanted, he got.”

Howard figured that the cigarettes and deodorant weren’t worth a confrontation with his cellmate. McNeill was sick, he thought—he had a problem in his head. If McNeill acted up, maybe he had skipped his medication that morning, as he often did. You didn’t mess with people like that. You played nice. You did push-ups, 500 a night. You rolled over on your mattress and closed your eyes.

When the cell doors opened, Howard would go over to Stu and vent. Stu would remind him to let it go, tell him to “maintain his composure,” according to Stu. Howard wasn’t scared of McNeill. “I’m not scared of anything on this Earth,” he claims. But he wanted out.

“He was mental; he had seizures; he was a bully. And he was obnoxious. That was enough for me,” says Howard.

Northeast 2 was a general-population unit where the cells were filled with pretrial detainees. The protective-custody unit downstairs, in which inmates were kept in cells alone for their own safety, wasn’t an option for Howard. Down there you were treated as if you had hurt somebody. You were confined to your cell for 47 hours at a time, let out for an hour to shower and make phone calls, and then shut up again for another 47 hours. Besides, he was told that a guy who had killed one of his friends was down there.

After waiting the requisite two days, Howard spoke with the jail supervisor about his transfer. It shouldn’t be a problem, said the supervisor, who referred him back to the lieutenant. The lieutenant told Howard that before effecting the transfer, they had to put his number in the system. The system attempted to match people in cells by similar offense. He would be put on a waiting list, the lieutenant said. (Department of Corrections spokesperson Darryl Madden says that the jail’s computer system has no record of Howard’s request.)

Howard wanted immediate action. He suggested three vacant cells on the unit he could move to. One cell wasn’t ready, he was told; either the cell door or toilet was broken. The second cell was reserved for detail. Howard has forgotten the reason he couldn’t move to the third cell. “It really meant nothing. It was irrelevant. It was bullshit just to get me out of their face,” he says.

A few days later, after the afternoon count, McNeill had another episode. This time, the door was popped more quickly, because detail was out on the tier and heard Howard shouting for help.

McNeill’s criminal record was less fearsome than it was sad. He was 45 years old, and his long rap sheet included a lifetime of convictions for petty theft, breaking and entering, and pot possession. Court records indicate that he suffered from alcoholism and seizures, and that he had been unemployed and without a fixed address for at least five years.

McNeill’s aunt, Edna Gunter, says he drops by her Deanwood home about once a year, but she hasn’t heard from him in over a year. “He’s homeless by choice, I guess,” she says. “He’s kind of mental.”

About seven weeks before joining Howard, McNeill had attempted suicide while in the supervised quarters of a mental-treatment facility, where, according to court records, he was staying pending misdemeanor charges of assaulting two police officers. Later, at a halfway house, he experienced difficulties acquiring his psychotropic medication. And in mid-July, he was remanded to the jail for what available records say were “medical reasons.” After standard medical, mental, and security screenings, McNeill was eventually assigned to Northeast 2, where he would be under no one’s supervision but Howard’s.

It would have been easy for the COs to overlook a guy like McNeill. There were about 150 inmates, and most times there were only three COs looking after them. Some of the inmates faced charges of shooting somebody; some were accused of traffic violations. Plenty of them were head cases. McNeill didn’t really stand out.

From the security bubble, you couldn’t see many of the cells themselves, or what was going on in them. Two COs made periodic rounds of the tiers, but might be dozing in the bubble when they weren’t.

The televisions were on more than they were off, even when no one was watching. The volume would be cranked to the maximum, and the concrete surfaces of Northeast 2 gave the sonic assault an added boost. Sometimes you had to yell just to hold a conversation with someone right in front of you. It often required the concerted effort of many inmates screaming from their cells to get a CO to respond to a call for help.

Howard virtually saw the third seizure coming. Early that morning, when the medicine cart came around, McNeill didn’t take his pills. “I was like, ‘If you don’t, you know you’re going to have a seizure.’ He said, ‘I’m a grown-ass man. I’ll do what I want to do.’”

Within hours, McNeill had another episode. Howard cradled his head and yelled for help, the door was popped, and detail helped Howard dress McNeill and carry him to the tier.

Stu told Howard that it was meant to be. “God probably put you in there for a reason,” he said. “Your grandmother had seizures—you probably know what to do.” That evening, after McNeill returned, there was yet another seizure.

Every day for the 16 days he was with McNeill, Howard would inquire about a transfer. “Anything yet?” Howard would ask the lieutenant. “I’ll let you know,” would be the response.

Howard assumed his polite, reasonable voice. McNeill wasn’t just another crazy inmate, he would say. “I was like, ‘Look, he needs to be somewhere. He needs to be looked after. What happens if I’m not there? He needs to be watched 24/7. He needs to be at a place like St. E’s,’” he recalls. But his warning didn’t seem to expedite the process.

“It got to the point where I didn’t have to say anything,” Howard recalls. “He’d just say, ‘I’ll let you know.’”

Howard had grown out of the his childhood asthma, but it was still on his medical record. He would lie about his condition acting up to get more outside rec or a trip to the infirmary. “I just said it to get away for a while,” he says. So he missed McNeill’s fifth seizure. He later heard that the cell doors were open when it happened.

And McNeill just kept coming up with

surprises.

One time, McNeill stood naked before the closed cell door, towel in hand. It was time to bathe, he muttered. But it wasn’t shower time—the door remained shut. He was ready to bathe, McNeill said. He lobbed the words against the closed steel door again and again. Yep, it was time to prepare…#to bathe. On the top bunk, Howard tried to sleep. Maybe McNeill should just shut the fuck up.

The cell doors popped open. But McNeill didn’t move. He was ready to bathe. “Well, go then,” said Howard, raising his voice.

Another inmate came by the cell to fetch Howard for basketball in the small indoor court, but coming face to face with the naked McNeill instead, he reflexively slid the door closed, and it locked. The guard popped the door again from the bubble. Still, no one came to move McNeill. Howard sure wasn’t going to. It seemed neither of them was going anywhere.

“I’m like, ‘Hey, you know you got to get your shower shoes.’ He paid me no mind.”

Then: “Hey, Gerald, if you’re going to bathe, you need soap, don’t you?”

“Yeah,” said McNeill, “I got to get soap.”

McNeill took a few steps back from the door toward the metal desk. Howard hopped from his bunk and raced from the cell.

It was McNeill’s last day at the jail, his sentence being time already served. He had had his fifth, and last, jailhouse seizure a few days before. Now, the evening of Aug. 12, McNeill was all but a free man, and Howard would soon be free of him.

After hanging with detail, Howard returned to the cell to see McNeill, just hours before his release, lying on the bottom bunk, with his hands behind his head and his legs crossed at the ankles. He looked as he always did: unshaven, unkempt, sweating in the heat of a horizonless jail summer. McNeill didn’t have anything to take with him. Apart from a pair of new-looking Timberlands, he was destitute, even by jail standards. But reaching under his mattress, Howard found that an entire pack of cigarettes was missing. McNeill had awarded himself a parting gift. Howard couldn’t let it go.

“The cell door was closed the whole time I was gone,” he shouted at McNeill. “I know you have it.” Just below the hem of McNeill’s jumpsuit, Howard could see the evidence: the bulge of a box in McNeill’s sock. The green of a Newport label, Howard’s brand, was visible beneath the thin white fabric. You couldn’t get Newports from the canteen, only from a hookup. McNeill didn’t have a hookup.

Howard grabbed at the box. “These are my cigarettes, aren’t they?” McNeill jumped from his bed and stood up in the cell to face his accuser. He towered over Howard by nearly a foot. McNeill began to yell at Howard, spitting in his face.

“Are you going to apologize?” asked Howard.

“Fuck no.”

“Are you going to apologize?” Howard repeated.

“Fuck no.”

Howard broke with form and started yelling at McNeill. “You’re foul, man,” he said. “You ain’t going to be here. I’m going to be here two weeks.”

McNeill grew real quiet for a moment. Then he started screaming again. The commotion excited an inmate across the tier, who hollered for a fight.

The shouting match brought a CO to the tier. The door popped, and the CO barged into the cell. Positioning himself between the inmates, the CO seized Howard’s arm to keep him from hitting McNeill.

McNeill, meanwhile, grabbed a ballpoint pen off the desk. Reaching around the CO, McNeill then plunged the pen into the right corner of Howard’s right eye. With another quick stroke, McNeill gouged Howard’s forehead. The CO slammed Howard to the floor, dragged him to the railing outside the cell, and ordered him to walk to the end of the tier.

Howard waited at the sallyport with his face in his hands. I’m bleeding from somewhere, he thought, but I don’t know where.

A CO escorted him to the infirmary. After a short inspection and some aspirin, Howard was sent to the administrative segregation block on the first floor where, for punishment and the safety of others, inmates are placed in cells by themselves.

McNeill was released later the next day. No charges would be filed.

Howard had finally gotten his transfer.

Howard could touch his face, but he couldn’t see it. The mirror in the cell was a piece of stainless steel over the sink-toilet. Even when your vision wasn’t impaired by the jab of a pen, all you could see in the metal surface of a jail mirror was your blurry outline. Howard tried squinting with his left eye into the narrow metal slip of the mirror’s frame, but the reflection wasn’t much clearer.

His right eye was swollen shut and felt as big as a grapefruit. His forehead was bleeding. Howard shouted for a doctor. Go to sleep, the guard there told him. He couldn’t sleep, Howard replied. He needed a doctor.

At about 2 or 3 in the morning, about five or six hours after the stabbing, Howard was taken back to the infirmary. A nurse there referred him to D.C. General Hospital.

The following afternoon, after a sleepless night, Howard was put in handcuffs and shackles and bused across the parking lot to the nearby public hospital. There he waited for hours. He flirted with nurses. A doctor dilated his eye, probed around, and told him he needed more specialized care than D.C. General could provide. A few hours later, he was bused from there to George Washington University Hospital.

Howard was admitted to the George Washington emergency room at around 8 p.m., about 24 hours after the stabbing, and attended to almost immediately. A nurse was kind enough to cover his shackles with a blanket.

He had a blowout fracture of the right orbital, the doctor said, and there was muscle or nerve entrapment. His lower eyelid had been pierced. He was prescribed antibiotics, told not to blow his nose, and returned to the jail. In lockdown, he was allowed out of the cell for only an hour every other day and had nothing to do but to contemplate the movements of his eye. He could feel every pivot. To keep sanitary, Howard took birdbaths in the sink.

Howard was released nine days later, three days short of his 22nd birthday, when a judge sentenced him to time served and probation. In the following weeks, Howard would experience frequent nosebleeds, and air would seem to be seeping out from somewhere in his eye. But he fully regained his sight.

Howard later sued the District of Columbia over the incident. In an initial response to his complaint, a government attorney accidentally filed the wrong boilerplate language. In court records, the District blames Howard for contributing to the eye injury by failing to “follow appropriate pedestrian and traffic laws”—jaywalking in jail. After an investigation of the stabbing, the city’s Office of the Corporation Counsel last month settled the case for $15,000. In the settlement, the District conceded no wrongdoing. And in an interview, jail officials rejected any suggestion that treatment of inmates was connected to an increasingly crowded jail population.

“Working in corrections, in the industry, is a very demanding environment,” says Madden, the Department of Corrections spokesperson. “We’re fortunate to have a highly trained professional workforce who work under arduous conditions….That’s as far as I can go.”

Jail watchdogs, though, cite a link between the building’s population and inmate treatment. “The more people you have in the jail, the harder it is to get to the ones who need attention,” says Deborah Golden, acting executive director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project. “It’s just more to do.”

Howard’s stabbing was not included among the “serious incident” reports for 2002 recently requested by D.C. Councilmember Kathleen Patterson. Neither was a stabbing that occurred six days later, an incident later acknowledged by jail officials.

“We have missed a few,” says Odie Washington, director of the Department of Corrections. “The significant number of incidents get reported.” He says the rate of reported violent incidents has been trending downward, even as the jail population has ballooned.

A year after his stabbing, Howard has a scar on his forehead, and he still receives letters from a collection agency billing him for $1,244.75 in medical expenses owed to George Washington University Hospital. He is currently working in a nursing home.

Gerald McNeill is nowhere to be found. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.