Douglas Collier is currently serving a life sentence inside San Quentin State Prison. For years, he shared a 9×4 cell with his friend Tony, a fellow inmate. Then, Tony got sick. His arteries were clogged, and he couldn’t stop coughing. Several months later, he died — one of the hundreds of inmates who die in California state prisons each year. In our episode this week, Douglass tells us what it was like to witness, and come to terms with, his friend’s death. Our story was produced by Greg Eskridge, an inmate and journalist with the San Quentin Prison Report.
So one day right before institutional count, 4 o’clock count, he was really quiet that day. He didn’t really say a whole lot, which wasn’t unusual. It’s not like we chattered all the time or anything. And he was laying down and it was count time. The cop came by and wanted me standing and wanted him to stand to and I gave Tony a little shake because the cop says, “Hey, have him stand,” and he didn’t respond. So, immediately I shook him again and the guy knew what was up. He knew something was wrong and so did I, but I wasn’t going to say anything, you know. In those situations it’s kind of, you know you just kind of let things unfold. But I knew that something was definitely wrong.
So the cop hit his button and the lieutenant came around and was yelling up there, “Get a gurney up there,” or you know those plastic buckets that they carry people in. And, uh, it wasn’t probably 30 seconds, the bar pulled open and the cop told me to step out. They cuffed me up and, uh, immediately walked me straight over to C section and locked me in a cage for uh, for hours. And I kind of knew that he had passed, you know.
I met Tony Ogle in 1991. We used to work in a hobby shop together. He was a really fun guy to be around and he had a couple of kids, I think two boys and he kept kind of close contact with his mom. And I asked Tony, I said, “Hey, you want to move in together?” A lot of times if someone is your good friend you really don’t want to live with them, you don’t cause it just ruins the relationship. It’s like we’re best of friends outside the cell, when you move in with someone it takes on a different dynamic if the two guys are not really compatible.
He was really a, like a really private person. But we were so close I felt like he opened up to me more than he would with anyone else. And, uh, he come from a real old school way of thinking in prison, you know he was here in the late 70’s, early 80’s where it was a much more violent and, uh, brutal place to do time. Here, Folsom…and he ran with a pretty tough crowd. So, he had definitely been down the river a time or two so to speak. So he was like an old grizzled old guy. I think the closest thing that I could identify him to would be, they had a couple guys on Lonesome Dove — really, really good buddies, but they weren’t real lovey dovey or real caring and they didn’t talk about a lot of emotions or stuff like that or family, but there was a lot of love there. You know what I mean? It was just kind of an unspoken thing where, you know in that movie one of them drugged the other guy’s dead body when he finally passed away, you know, across a couple states to bury him exactly where he wanted to be buried. Anyway that was, he was that kind of a person and our relationship was that way. As men in prison, we’re not big on, you know, showing any weakness at all or having any sympathy for anyone at all. Of course those things are not true, but we never let any of that stuff on, that’s just kind of how we get through.
So we lived over on East Block for awhile. After awhile I noticed he was having a hard time walking, this was like years later. And he’s one of these guys where he wouldn’t call ‘man down’ if he was dying of a heart attack. I mean he was just wasn’t a doctorin’ kind of guy, you know never let on when you’re sick. Never let anyone see you cry. He was really having some trouble and he wasn’t a complainer so I knew that he was, that there was something wrong. But I didn’t really think it was anything that bad. And he went to the doctor and, and they immediately scheduled him for a, uh, angioplasty I think they call it. When they blow your veins up and open ‘em up so you can get some better circulation. So they did that and he came back, within like two days he’s up back to his old ways, you know, going to the hobby shop and laughing and joking. We’re smoking, just normal stuff.
It wasn’t long after that he got really sick. And he had been coughing for like a year or so. And I used to always get on him, “Quit with that hacking, man! You gotta hack all the time, man!” But he was having a hard time breathing. I could tell that something was not right. And of course he kept smoking, you know all that. Again we don’t listen to anything, as men we learn everything the hard way and he’d rather just die in his bed. And he said that, you know, enough times. “When I go, man, don’t be callin’ nobody. Just let me get up outta here. I won’t have to stand in count no more.”
Back then they weren’t letting anybody out. Lifers weren’t going home anyway. He knew that chances of him going home were pretty slim.
A couple days before he actually passed, it was getting close to Halloween, he started to become really distant and disconnected. He didn’t hardly speak and this was way unusual. I knew something was wrong, but he was the kind of guy I couldn’t force to go do anything. He couldn’t really talk, he was like incoherent and there wasn’t a whole bunch I could do about that.
I had a picture of him in the 80’s and he was a big, strong weight lifting guy and then when he passed away he was kind of a little skinny old man. Just completely different, you know, all white hair, real sharp features — you know, cheekbones sticking out. The pictures that I have from when he was younger, he had just really long hair. Didn’t even look like the same guy. At all.
I felt, um, the loss for sure. But, uh, I was just kind of numb about it. And I’ve always known that if your bunkie died in prison, at least in California, um whether there was any obvious trauma or anything like that at all, you were going to the hole until the autopsy came back and cleared you of any wrongdoing. So it’s basically, you’re treated like you’re guilty until proven not guilty. And I kind of knew that I was in for a stay when they walked me over there. You know you hear the door clanking and you walk in there, uh, you know, you know. It’s not just, you’re not just going over there for uh, any kind of interrogation or anything. You’re going over there because they gotta do what they gotta do.
I finally got a cell. Of course it was filthy and kind of disgusting. You’re lucky if you got a set of sheets, you know, and a blanket. No pillow, just all really, just really cold. Really cold and punishing. I mean that’s the best way I can put it. You go from a mainline situation to the hole situation, it’s a pretty drastic change. No soap, no nothing to clean with. So you’re kind of like, you’re kind of creeped out. You don’t want to touch a whole bunch of stuff, but I mean you’re stuck in that box and you’re going to be there awhile. It just didn’t sit well at all. But again, in prison a lot of things don’t sit well. Sometimes your dinner doesn’t sit well, but you just, you know that these things are out of your control and you just have to just kind of get through it the best you can.
You know after ten, twelve days goon squad did their little investigation and, uh, the autopsy came back and they took me down to classification in C section and told me they were going to cut me loose. Cause there was no evidence that any wrongdoing went on at all. And when I went back, you know of course, they wanted all this property and all that stuff. So I had go through like his personal property — his beanie cap, and his ID card, and you know, like his comb that he used all the time. It was just really kind of sobering, it was really uh…yea, when you’re handling somebody’s who’s no longer with us stuff, it still kind of has their smell. You know what I mean? It’s just weird, you know? The TV’s were still on, the fans were still on — they’d been running for like ten days in there. It was different. And I stayed in that cell. I lived in that cell. You know I got rid of all the bedding, his pillows, and just all that stuff because I didn’t, I didn’t want it around me. It just felt like it was a little too close. I painted cell afterwards and you know cleaned it all up. It still, I would still like uh…it’s strange because you, when somebody disappears like that after you’ve been with them for a long time, you’re so used to them being in there that even though you’re not looking at them you can still feel that they are there. And I still feel a little bit of that. You know, and then reality set in and I knew that he had gone.
I always thought, “Well should I have went against his wishes when I saw that he was getting sick?” If I should have gone against what he wanted and get him some help, if he would still be alive. And uh looking back on it, I think it was over. That’s not something that I dwell on. The only thing that I really look back on and remember was his smile and uh the way that he said, “At least I won’t be standing for count no more.”
It gets to be Halloween and I think about him. I’ve lost many friends, lifers. Cancer, a couple guys with cancer: Ricky Earle, Andrew Levitt. These were all guys that I did a lot of time with and they got sick and died and left. Tony was the only one that I actually saw in my cell. But you know the loss of a good friend, he was a good guy. Everybody’s got their faults, but I mean he was…there was a reason why I lived with him so long and it was because he was really a decent human being.
When you lose someone like that, you think that it’s just no big deal. Everything’s going to be OK, you know, it’s like some of the weirdest times cause we used to sit and eat dinner at the same table in the chow hall and in a program we’d sit in the same place. And one day I was just sitting in there and I just started shedding tears and I hoped nobody had seen me. But it was, I was just, it was starting to set in that he was gone and that there was a part of my life that was no longer going to be the same.
Tony Ogle was his name. C-11133.
Last Count was reported by Greg Eskridge and edited by Jess Engebretson with sound design and production by Jonathan Hirsch. We want to thank the journalists with the San Quentin Prison Report and David Jassy and Jaspar Lee for providing additional production support for the story. Special thanks to Lt. Sam Robinson and Larry Schneider with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Our Post Production Editors are Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle and Rachael Cain. Danny Bringer was our engineer.
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I’m Nancy Mullane. Thanks for listening.