May 21, 2000 - Hartford Courant

empty cell     David Tracy was a volatile, vulnerable misfit, with neither the wits nor the muscle to contend with the hard streets of Bridgeport -- or the hard time of prison.   But his first cry for help would be as inept and futile as all the ones to follow. 

     In 1998, the skinny 18-year-old, busted on a drug charge and awaiting sentencing in a Bridgeport jail, asked to be placed in protective custody. His reason -- that he was having problems with his cellmate -- wasn't specific enough for the lieutenant.  "When he can tell me what his problems are, then I can assist him with his situation," the lieutenant wrote in a report. 

     When Tracy refused to return to his cell, he was slapped with a disciplinary ticket.   That pattern -- seeking help but flouting the rules and getting disciplined -- would repeat itself over and over throughout Tracy's brief, turbulent stint in the state prison system. His pleas would only grow more self-destructive as they grew more desperate. 

     The left-hander who had a disabled left arm would fake seizures. He would threaten guards, flood toilets, refuse simple directions, anything for attention.   Because he lacked the savvy, or the smarts, or the simple maturity to decipher the dynamics of prison rules, his punishments became harsher and his prison placements stricter until he landed at one of the toughest in the country: Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap, Va. 

     It was there, locked alone in a segregation cell, that the 20- year-old Tracy, a small-time criminal sent to a big-time prison, made his final plea for help. 

     No one but Tracy knows whether he meant to kill himself that morning in early April when he tied a bedsheet around his neck and jumped from his prison bunk as a guard walked by. His suicide galvanized opposition to Connecticut's policy of sending inmates out of state to save money and relieve prison overcrowding. Tracy was a tragic victim of the harsh conditions in Virginia, critics said.  But did he really mean to die? Or was this the ultimate attention grab, one final, desperate cry for help that, like all the others, went horribly -- in this case fatally -- awry?  Either way, David Tracy died at the end of a noose of his own making. 

Deeper And Deeper 

     The disciplinary ticket Tracy received in the Bridgeport jail was the first of 28 he would amass in his trip through the Connecticut penal system, from Manson Youth Institution to Garner Correctional Institution to Northern Correctional Institution, the state's toughest prison. From there he would be transferred, with nearly 500 other prisoners, to Virginia. 

     At each stop, from Bridgeport to Big Stone Gap, Tracy collided with prison protocol.  Sometimes the disciplinary charges were serious -- a hidden shank, written threats. Often, the behavior was childish - - a torn blanket, a flooded cell. Although they didn't add time to his sentence, Tracy's attempts to buck the prison system backfired, driving him into deeper and deeper trouble even as he sought to escape it. 

     Tracy was a white guy accused of being in a black gang, a young man with mental difficulties who desperately needed guidance, but who wouldn't or couldn't follow the rules.  He collided with a rule-driven prison system, which offers numerous rehabilitation programs for young offenders who behave, but which ultimately has few answers for persistent troublemakers other than harsher and harsher restrictions. 

     "[Tracy] just kept deciding he didn't have to obey any rules. It didn't matter what you did to him, and eventually he got sent to the most restrictive setting we have," said state Rep. Robert Farr, a West Hartford Republican. "In his case, the more interesting story is: What do you do with incorrigible inmates?" 

     Critics say Wallens Ridge is not the answer. 

     Rather than indicating he was incorrigible, Tracy's behavior might have signaled that his mental health was deteriorating and prison was making matters worse, said Kathleen Fox, a board member of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Connecticut. "The combination of fear, isolation, even the noise level alone in prison, if you have a mental illness, can cause you to deteriorate," she said. 

     Another reason for Tracy's request for protective custody may have been unwanted sexual advances, or assault.  "You can imagine one possibility for a problem he didn't want to talk about," said state Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, an East Haven Democrat. "He was a young kid who was a potential target for a lot of people."   On the other hand, inmates sometimes lie about problems with cellmates, angling to move into a friend's cell. Therefore, officers aren't likely to grant protective custody if an inmate won't provide details. 

     But snitching is a risky business, especially behind bars. "So instead," said Jon T. Pepe, a union leader and correction officer who dealt with Tracy in prison, "a lot of guys go the other route -- they act up and get tickets."   Such inmates gain the safety of a single cell, at the cost of a clean disciplinary record.   "That was a scared, young, skinny white kid," Pepe said of Tracy. "He'd need protection from other inmates -- extortion, rape, assaults, other gangs, anything." 

Learning To Fight 

     Tracy grew up the second youngest of 13 children in the notorious Father Panik Village, a sprawling housing project in Bridgeport.   With his blond hair and blue eyes, Tracy stood out in his neighborhood and was sometimes a target for bullies.   "This was the only white family out of hundreds of black and Hispanic families," said Rosalie Zayas, a former Father Panik resident whose husband is imprisoned at Wallens Ridge. "They got picked on, but everybody started to love them."   Still, the streets were not kind to a kid who topped out at 5 feet 10 and 150 pounds. "You had to fight your way out -- literally," Zayas said. 

     But Tracy wasn't good at fighting. In 1997, he was robbed at gunpoint, hit with three bullets. The robbers chased him into an abandoned building and shot his dog. He spent four days in the hospital, and when he got out, the left-handed Tracy ended up with limited use of his left arm, bullet fragments still embedded in his flesh. 

     Tracy also had his first encounter with the adult criminal justice system in 1997, soon after he turned 17. Bridgeport police Officer William Bailey was arresting a man for hassling a Korean delicatessen owner when Tracy stepped in and started cursing the officer. Tracy was charged with disorderly conduct and threatening.   In a little more than a year, five more arrests followed in Bridgeport and neighboring Stratford on various charges -- assault, risk of injury to a minor, possession of marijuana, sale of cocaine, second-degree larceny and failure to appear in court. 

     To some teens living in the rough-and-tumble world of Father Panik Village, drugs provided a way to pay for new sneakers or clothes. But Tracy showed little skill at that trade, getting caught with 42 plastic bags of cocaine.  Thomas Tracy Sr., David's father, said his son could sometimes be led in the wrong direction: "You could tell him to do something, give him a few bucks."   But his son was no big-time drug dealer, no gang member. "David was not a tough guy -- I give you that on my mother's soul," his father said. 

The Wrong Way To Do Time 

     Sentenced to 2 1/2 years on the drug charge, Tracy was sent to the Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire, a prison rich with programs that offered his best shot at rehabilitation. But here, too, Tracy's behavior got him in trouble. 

     Within the battleship gray and sky-blue walls of the high- security facility, prison officials take a carrot-and-stick approach to discipline. If inmates follow the rules, they get $1.25 a day toward a GED or prison privileges. But if they act up, they are held accountable.   "Simply put, we expect the inmates to behave," Manson Warden Sandra A. Sawicki said. 

     According to prison records, Tracy didn't. It took only three weeks for him to earn the first of eight discipline tickets there, when he refused a lieutenant's order to return to his cell for the 4 p.m. head count. When he complained that his cellmate had been threatening harm if he did not perform sexual acts, Tracy got in trouble for making a claim that the lieutenant determined to be false.    Three days later, Tracy was accused of being in a gang -- a violation that would figure in the correction department's decision to put him on a bus to Wallens Ridge. 

     A guard discovered the phrase "Down With The Nation For Life" written on a window.  The Nation is a predominantly black gang, but its roots are in Bridgeport and it has been accepting members of other races recently. While gangs mean drugs and money on the street, they offer protection in prison.    Tracy at first admitted he wrote the phrase. Then he changed his mind, saying it was already there and "he isn't down with the gang." 

     Because of the potential for violence, correction officials take suspected gang activity seriously.   "The COs have all the power. If they say you are a gang member, you're a gang member," said 19-year-old Mark Roguz of New Britain, a former inmate who was at Manson with Tracy.  "There's nothing you can do about it." 

     After that, Tracy's behavior worsened. He spent more time in restrictive housing and a series of violations cost him most of his privileges. He was accused of striking two inmates with soap rolled up in a sock. He said it was self-defense. 

     In October 1998, Tracy was designated a high-risk gang member and transferred to Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, which at the time was home to the correction department's nationally recognized anti-gang program. Tracy wasted little time continuing his pattern of misbehavior.   When officers searched his cell, they found a sharpened toothbrush hidden in his toilet paper roll, along with a note in which he threatened to cut a disciplinary hearing officer with a shank.   Tracy piled up 11 disciplinary reports at Garner in November 1998 alone.  One correction officer at Garner said Tracy was known to bite the inside of his mouth in an attempt to mimic a seizure, hoping to get moved to a medical unit. 

     "The kid didn't know how to do time," the officer said. 

     The following month, Tracy was transferred to Connecticut's highest-security prison, Northern Correctional Institution in Somers.   "He was kind of a knucklehead at times," said one correction officer at Northern. "He was a little odd, a little off. He was quiet most of the time, until one day when he didn't get what he expected."  When that happened, he would become disruptive. Once, he repeatedly pressed an intercom button meant for medical emergencies, saying, "I want to see the brass." 

     But he was more than a nuisance. He also threatened a correction officer. Saying "this is for you," he handed the officer a food tray covered with "gang-style graffiti" and the words "I'll put a hit out" and "I'll cut you."   State officials decided to transfer him again. 

A Last Chance In Virginia 

     By this time, Connecticut was not only running out of ideas for dealing with Tracy, it was running out of room in its prisons.   To ease crowding, Republican Gov. John G. Rowland's administration signed an $11 million-a-year contract to house 484 Connecticut inmates at Wallens Ridge. In October 1999, Tracy was among the first Connecticut inmates to take the 16-hour bus ride to Big Stone Gap, in the heart of Appalachia.       There, on a rocky ridge that rises above an old coal-mining town, Dogwood Drive climbs for 2 miles to a 2,900-foot summit. At the end of the road, on a flattened expanse of stone ringed by razor wire, sits the super-maximum-security prison. 

     Connecticut inmates say Wallens Ridge takes its toll by keeping them far from family, living in fear of stun guns and rubber pellets. Once locked inside, each prisoner's survival depends on one thing -- his own strength, both physical and emotional.   "You give me a glass of water and a pup tent, and I'll survive," said Dennis Higgins, a 37-year-old convicted robber from Milford interviewed at Wallens Ridge. "But there's dudes in here who are deteriorating every day." 

     Like Victor Negron Jr., a 25-year-old convicted murderer from Norwich, who entered the prison's small cinderblock interview room red-eyed and jumpy.    "I can't sleep at night. I'm nervous all the time," Negron said. He held up his shackled left hand, pointing out raw circular marks between a tattoo of his mother's initials. "I burned myself with cigarettes," he said. "I get stressed out."   A crackling sound echoed outside the thick metal door, where two guards stood. "That's the stun gun," Negron said. "They like to play." 

     This is where the state sent Tracy to serve the remaining year of his sentence. 

     From the minute Tracy arrived, he was kept in a segregation cell. In fact, between Connecticut and Virginia prisons, Tracy spent 15 consecutive months in administrative segregation, locked alone in a cell 23 hours a day. He remained there, officials said, because he kept getting
disciplinary reports. 

     "You can come from the streets of Bridgeport, but this is different," Higgins said. "Seg is seg. It's just you, the toilet and your thoughts."   Tracy may not have been capable of handling the pressure.    According to his family and state officials, he had a mental health classification of 3 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most severe mental health problems. The Department of Correction says it won't send levels 4 and 5 to Virginia, and it rules on level 3 inmates on a case-by-case basis. 

     Inmates with mental health problems can find super-maxes "a living horror," said Jamie Fellner, associate counsel for Human Rights Watch based in New York City. "The social isolation and restricted activities can aggravate their illness and immeasurably increase their pain and suffering."   Chase Riveland, former director of the Washington and Colorado prison systems and an expert on super-max prisons, advises against keeping mentally ill inmates in super-maxes and, at minimum, he said, mental health professionals must regularly monitor such inmates.   Staff at the Virginia prison checked on Tracy at least twice. Each time, they found no signs of trouble. 

     At 11:23 p.m. on April 5, a guard saw Tracy drop from his cell bunk with a bedsheet tied around his neck.   But the guard didn't rush in to save Tracy. Prison protocol requires that officers call for assistance before entering a prisoner's cell, in case the action is a ruse designed to lure the guard into the cell.    It took three or four minutes for guards to enter the cell. In that time, Tracy was literally left hanging, with the noose cutting off blood to his brain.    "The game is over," read a suicide note officials say was scribbled on Tracy's hand. 

     For Tracy, the game ended too soon. He was scheduled to be released on Nov. 24, 2000.