Thursday, May 7, 2015


By Chris Dankovich

"What's going on with you and Chico?" asked Big Steve in a concerned tone as he walked into our shared cell.

"What do you mean?" I asked, surprised by this question.

"I mean, he's out there at the table saying that you stole his stuff and that he's gonna stab you."

"Haha, you're an idiot."

"No, I'm being serious. I'm not joking. I think you might want to go find out what's going on."


"Hey young man," beckoned Chico, wearing his coat and sitting on the base level, as I came back inside from lunch.

"What's up, Chico?" I asked as Pablo walked inside and sat at the table next to him.

"Young man, do you know if it's going to be chow time soon?"

I looked at him with confusion for a moment. "Chico, we just got back from lunch," I said as gently as possible.

"Oh, so I missed it."

"Chico," said Pablo with concern. "You just came back from lunch, too. Don't you remember?"

"No, I haven't been yet today."

"We both sat at the table with you," said Pablo, as I nodded in agreement. "You were there with us. You had pizza. You just got back about eight or ten minutes ago. Don't you remember now?"

Chico muttered with uncertainty, a look of frustration in his eyes. "Oh. I guess maybe."

"You still hungry, Chico?" Asked Pablo.

"You want a [Ramen] noodle or something?" I asked.

"No thank you. I'm fine."

Chico's memory was getting worse. Now a few months after he had been in the unit, somebody had to always leave the dining room with Chico whenever he left. With eight units at the prison (with two more on the young side), all organized identically, Chico would walk into the wrong one, sit down at a table on the base level, and wait there until Pablo had our unit officer call around to find him or until "Count Time" came, when our officer noticed that a man was missing and another unit's officer noticed he had an extra one in his unit. Chico even managed to wander through the school building and somehow through a locked gate (at least it was generally locked) to reach one of the units on the “Youth Side," though the eighty year old with a flowing white mustache and hair got noticed pretty quickly in a unit full of children under eighteen. Generally, since Pablo would take him outside for walks and to the medical unit, he would also follow Chico out of the chow hall, but occasionally I would help to give Pablo a reprieve, as would some of our other friends, except for Tony.

Tony sat in Chico's chair once, the one with the pillow and blanket at Pablo's table. He sat on the edge of the seat, just for a moment, to talk to Pablo. Chico came out of the bathroom to find Tony in his seat, and was furious.

"YOU'RE IN MY SEAT!" shouted Chico, waving his finger at Tony as he approached the table.

"Whoa, sorry, Chico. My bad," said Tony apologetically as he stood up.

Chico was still angry. "I can't believe you sat in MY SEAT!"

"I'm sorry, Chico. I didn't mean anything by it."

"He's sorry, Chico. He was just trying to speak to me real quick," said Pablo.

Chico, still with a scowl on his face, muttered something about, "You'll be sorry" and, "we'll see."

"Whoa, look here old man," snapped Tony aggressively. “Now I apologized to you, but you are NOT going to threaten me. I don't care who you are or how old you are, ya dig?"

Chico grunted (almost a growl) angrily and stared at him.

"Alright, I've looked out for you, but if that's how you want to be, screw your little chair, and screw you, too. Don't speak to me again."

Tony felt bad about how he had snapped on Chico. A few days later, when Chico walked to the shower, Tony noticed that Chico barely had a sliver of soap in his soap dish.

"Hey Chico, do you want a soap? I've got an extra couple. You shouldn't have to use that little sliver. It'd be gone before you could even wash your face."

Chico's eyes lit up. He walked over to our table.

"Hold on one sec," said Tony as he stood up. "I'll be right back. Let me just get them from my room."

Chico looked over at me. "Hey, young man."

"What's up, Chico? How you doing?"

"Oh, just getting old," he said as he stood there, staring in the direction Tony left until he returned.

Tony returned with three soaps. He gave them to Chico, and Chico held them as if he had just been given gold coins.

"Three?" smiled Chico.

"Yeah, that way you have some spares."

"Thank you, young man."

(Chico called just about everyone "young man." I don't think he ever learned any of our names, other than Pablo's.)

Chico had his coat over his chair. Taking two of the soaps from Chico's hands, Tony walked over to the coat, and Chico watched as he put two of the soaps in its pocket. Then he walked back and opened the other one for Chico, placing it in his soap dish.

"Okay Chico, I put those two in your coat pocket, and here's one for you to use now."

"Okay, thank you," he said as he went to the shower.

The next day, gratitude turned to fury as Chico told anyone who would listen that his bunkie was stealing from him. His soaps were stolen, as was his other "stuff" (which he never really identified other than to say it was gone). His bunkie was a Guatemalan called Melon (because the way he said "Guatemalan" sounded like "watermelon") who was a deeply religious Catholic, the prison school's only Spanish-speaking tutor for English as a Second Language (ESL) GED students, and who did not seem like a thief. He offered food to Chico all the time. Why would he steal a couple soaps?

Pablo was randomly moved a couple days later to another unit administratively to make room, we later found out, for someone getting out of Protective Custody. Chico didn't seem to know what to do. He would walk around, sit in his chair, then, with a look of confusion and longing, go back to his room. Big Steve, Tony, and I took over Pablo's job of making sure Chico came back to the correct unit. As we'd walk, the accusations against Melon increased. Chico came to prison at a time when inmates wore their own, personal clothes all the time. Family or friends could bring up a box of clothes every visit. Chico accused Melon of stealing all his clothes, though prisoners in Michigan hadn't been allowed to have them (except for an outfit for visits) for a couple decades, along with his soaps and other things.

About a week after he left the unit, Pablo asked us to get some of the excess property of his that he had left with Chico. Chico led us to his room and opened the door (Michigan medium-security prisoners have keys to their own cell doors) so we could help him carry the stuff out. Standing at the door was Tony, Big Steve, and I. when Chico opened his locker, he stared inside for a second, slapped the few clothes hangers he had, and yelled out, "Someone stole all my shit!"

Despite our considerable efforts, we all couldn't hold back from laughing.

"Chico, nobody stole anything from you." Said Tony. "Remember, me and Pablo helped you move in this room? I remember what you had, and you didn't have any clothes to hang up."

Chico wasn't buying it. "No, no. He stole my stuff. I remember...I remember...."

"Okay, okay, Chico. Why don't we just focus on getting Pablo his stuff, alright?" said Big Steve.

"Fine, but I'm gonna get him. He's not gonna keep stealing from me."

"Chico, nobody stole from you, but don't worry about it. We'll 'take care of it.' we got you for anything you need, just let one of us know," said Tony.

"C'mon, “ I said, trying to distract him from his revenge fantasies. "Let's get this stuff out. Pablo's waiting on us. You don't want to keep him waiting, right?"

We took the boxes of popsicle sticks and cardboard outside to Pablo while the yard was open. I made sure to warn Melon to be careful whenever he was around his bunkie. While Chico was old and crickety, he had still killed two people, and had survived some of the worst prisons over almost sixty years.

Later that night, Melon knocked on my door. He had received a letter written in English, and, though he could speak English well enough, he sometimes had difficulty with understanding metaphors or figures of speech. I opened the door, and he handed me the piece of paper to read while he leaned against the threshold. I explained the phrases as well as I could, he seemed satisfied, and I jumped back on my top bunk when he left. A short while later was when Big Steve came in, asking what was going on between me and Chico. At first I thought he was joking, but Steve couldn't keep a straight face for long when he was. I was totally confused, so I decided to investigate.

Chico was sitting at his normal chair, though he had taken the blanket and extra pillow that Pablo had given him back to his room. There was nothing marking that it was his seat anymore, other than that he was usually sitting in it, and everyone made sure to leave it be. It also happened to be right in front of my cell door.

"Chico, man, what's going on?" I asked, still not sure this wasn't some practical joke.

"You know what's going on!" he said angrily.

"What do you mean, Chico?"

He pointed his finger at me, and then at my cell. "You know. You got my stuff!"

I was legitimately confused. "What are you talking about? Why did my bunkie come in saying that you're saying you're gonna stab me? Do you think I did something to you?"

"I saw."

"You saw? You saw what?"

"I saw him give you the stuff!"

"Who gave me what stuff?"

"You know! I saw him, my bunkie, give you my stuff. He stole it from me and he gave it to you to hold!"

"Whoa, whoa, buddy. Your bunkie came to me earlier and asked me what something meant because he doesn't speak English very well. Is that what you're talking about?"

“No! I know what I saw! He gave you the stuff."

I was getting a little mad. "What stuff did he give me, Chico?"

"I know what I saw. He gave it to you to hold on to."

"Hey! Haven't I given you my food before when you were hungry? Haven't I offered it to you many times? Do you need something right now? What is it that you think you're missing? Do you need a soap, a noodle, what?"

"No, no, no. Don't try to change on me. I know what I saw. We'll see! I got you! You not gonna steal from me! I got you! We'll see tomorrow!"

"Whatever, Chico. I ain't gonna argue with you. I didn't steal anything from you, I didn't take anything from your bunkie. I've looked out for you many times, but if you can't remember that, I'm sorry. Bye," I said as I walked away.

Two things I've learned in prison are to never underestimate anybody (I once watched a midget beat a bodybuilder unconscious with a padlock in a sock), and, if in a confrontation that is left unresolved with passions heated, to not give the other person an opportunity to get a weapon or a group of friends. I've seen numerous people end up bloody, in the hospital, or missing body parts because they let someone with a declared animosity toward them gather weapons and the element of surprise. Everything I knew, especially Chico's criminal history, told me that this was not good. Yet I couldn't bring myself to hit an old man, until he actually attacked me. I just wasn't going to. The problem was that I knew that if this old guy attacked me, it was going to be with a knife. I was in a situation, but I decided to just leave and keep my eyes open for the next few days.

Anytime I left the room, I made sure that if Chico was around, I kept him in eyesight. He was slow enough that I could easily just walk away and frail enough that I could push him over with one hand, but I didn't want to, though if he got close enough with a shank then I could still get injured even if I did 'win' the fight. And again, I didn't want any of this in the first place.

A few days later, while I used the urinal, Chico walked in the bathroom. I looked over at him, and he kept moving closer. I stopped what I was "doing," and turned toward him as he stopped at the sink.

"What's up, Chico?" I said with some suspicion, getting ready in case I had to disarm him.

He looked over at me, first with what I thought was a scowl, then with what looked like total surprise. "Hey, young man. I stubbed my freakin' toe."

I looked at him as he looked at himself in the mirror, then back at me.

"I haven't seen you in a long time, young man. How are you doing?"

I relaxed a little and laughed. "Pretty good. How about you?"

"Oh, I'm okay. Hey, young you know if it's going to be chow time soon?"

Nemesis, Part II: Oblivion

A few weeks after the eighty year old threatened to stab me but then forgot about it, the weather grew cold outside again, and Chico wore his coat when he came up on the base level to sit next to Tony and me while we waited for the officers to call our unit for dinner. Tony sat behind him, and I looked over when Tony said, "Chico, what's that?" and he reached forward to pull something out of Chico's coat pocket. He pulled out two soaps, the same kind he had given Chico about a month earlier. None of us had believed that Melon had stole anything, but this confirmed it, and so we apologized to Melon for Chico, since Chico wouldn't do it. He still said that he knew Melon had stole some of his "stuff."

One day Pablo sent in for us to bring Chico outside. We had him follow us over to the row of telephones, one of which Pablo had to his ear. He beckoned Chico over and handed him the phone. Chico looked at him, hesitant at first, as it had been decades since he had talked to anyone on the phone. His eyes brightened as he began to talk, though they were full of tears before the fifteen minute phone call was up. Pablo had recruited a family member who lived in the city where Chico grew up to track down Chico's sister. It was her on the phone, and they hadn’t spoken to each other in over forty years.

With Pablo out of the unit, and with Tony, Big Steve, and I all having jobs, there were many days where there was no one available to make sure Chico got back to the correct unit safely. After winding up in multiple units, the kid's side once again, and making his way to the yard when it was closed and had no one on it, he was transferred to an elderly care unit in one of the many prisons in Jackson, Michigan. Pablo somehow received word that Chico had passed away a few years later. We had an officer look up his name and prison number for us on the state’s Offender Tracking Information System (OTIS). His death was confirmed with a simple line that seemed appropriate, given the way his memory had faded to the point of oblivion.

"This inmate does not exist."


Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer, MI 48446

1 comment:

Laura said...

This actually made me cry. Your way of writing is incredible, you deal with sensitive topics and subjects in such a way that it makes them real without demeaning them. I have spent time working with the elderly, some of which had dementia, and I know how difficult it is. That Chico had you guys to look out for him is amazing, and you guys did a wonderful thing.