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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Epiphany

By Mwandishi Mitchell

He waited...for what seemed like hours in the blistering August sun, on a Greyhound bus modified for state prisoners. Before him stood a towering forty-foot wall encompassing what could be considered a small township or borough, complemented with eight gun towers. The object of his adoration—SCI Graterford, in Graterford, Pennsylvania. After nineteen years he’d finally made it to the big house, or as it was commonly called—"The Ford."

There were various circumstances that led nineteen year old Harold Adams to the state penitentiary. His tough upbringing in the projects of North Philadelphia, his mother (the welfare recipient crack-addicted prostitute), his father (whom he never knew), his education (or lack thereof), and his wanting of "the finer things in life." Those with less compassionate thinking would mutter to themselves that young Harold should've pulled himself up by his bootstraps; pretty hard to do when you don't have any boots—or straps for that matter.

It came to a head one night at Broad & Cecil B. Moore Avenue. The movie was letting out at 10:30p.m. and Harold knew he could get a victim. Preferably a Temple University student too drunk, or high, to realize just how dangerous their school was because it was in the vicinity of a crime ridden neighborhood. The police were trying to keep control of things by installing surveillance cameras all over the place; but there were always blind-spots.

Harold, followed the inebriated Caucasian past 15th Street, and as he made a right off the avenue— Harold pounced! With the barrel of the Sigsuaer 9mm sticking into the student's gut, Harold announced his demands.

"Dead prezidents ain't worth you bein' dead ova', hand dat shit here!"

The fear could be read all in the student’s eyes as he stuck his short arms into his deep pockets producing his wallet. Also, fearing for his life he cried, "Please don't kill me, man!"

Harold chuckled to himself—tha power of tha gun iz amazing! "I'm not goin' ta let loose on you, home boy. Jus' start walkin' your ass down tha block and don't even think about runnin'. If you do, I got a slug wit' chur name on it!"

Just as Harold finished that statement, Philadelphia's finest turned the block with flashing red & blue lights. A stunned Harold froze, while his victim saw this as a chance to take flight—Harold calmly shot him in his derriere and the student fell on his face. While the men in blue had their Glock 19 handguns trained on Harold, they ordered him to place the gun on the ground and put his hands in the air, or wind up like Michael Brown with a fusillade of shots to the body...Harold complied.

Nine months down the line Harold stood stiff as a board in front of a judge who looked like Herman Munster, of The Munsters television show without the Frankenstein make-up. A public pretender who basically did nothing in Harold's defense, stood next to Harold at sentencing. With the compounded factors of the victim being white, a university student, him being shot in the ass—and Harold being Black—the judge gave Harold twenty to forty years in a state penitentiary, just as easily as if he was ordering Chinese takeout. Thus, another statistic was added to Michelle Alexande’s true but horrific best-seller, The New Jim Crow. Harold sighed once the gavel banged—the epitome of his own hubris.

After an hour of sitting in the hot sun the bus slowly moved inside of the gate. All in all, there were forty of them on the bus who had just come from the county lock-up on State Road. Harold and his fellow cohorts were led off the bus in chains into the reception area.

A thick bodied Black female in a tan uniform introduced herself to Harold as Intake Officer Smith. With a thin stack of papers in front of her (which was Harold's file), she asked him the prerequisite questions.

"Mr. Adams, in the event of your death where would you like your body sent? Who is your next-of-kin? Are you married? Do you have any children? Have you ever had sex with another man? Do you, or have you had a venereal disease? Do you have AIDS?" etc., etc., etc.

After answering the bevy of questions from the reception officer, Harold reverted to tomfoolery and tried to flirt with Ms. Smith—his advances were quickly rebuffed and Harold was ushered off to the next phase of the intake process, the medical department.

Once upstairs in the medical department Harold looked in awe at the men in brown uniforms walking to and fro. He still had yet to contemplate the sheer size of the facility he was in. Being locked-up was nothing new to him, though. Since a juvenile he had went from foster home, to the Youth Study Center, to Glenn Mills, and his last stop—Slaten Farms. Although Slaten Farms was a jail for juveniles equipped with cells, this place reminded him of the Farms, on steroids!

They all had been up since at least 4:00am the previous morning. Now, at close to 7:30pm, Harold and his fellow faithful fallen made their procession down the main hallway of The Ford. It was then that he was able to take into effect the magnanimous size of the eighty-six year old penitentiary. He looked to his left and saw the main yard equipped with a football field, track, weight pile, baseball field and the huge wall that enclosed him which doubled as handball courts.

As the procession walked further, they walked past blocks which housed the general population—blocks A, B, C, and D. Harold was amazed that as he looked down the tiers they seemed as if they would never end. There seemed to be hundreds of individuals out on the block for evening activities. He had never in his life seen anything of that scale before. It made Slaten Farms look like Sesame Street.

It was then that they came to E-Block, where there was a whole block dedicated to Harold and his followers—and the other recently committed offenders. The others were also in yellow jumpsuits; as new commits did not wear the brown uniforms of the general population. In fact, new commits were basically treated as second class citizens in the institution. There was nowhere in the institution where they could go without being escorted. They didn't have the freedom of going to the auditorium for ice cream, or having access to the main yard. For new commits, there were no privileges that the general population was afforded.

"Adams, you're in cell A2-064, right up there," said a heavy-set C.O., as he pointed to the top tier.

Harold slung his pillowcase containing his belongings over his shoulder and climbed the steps to the top tier. He then went to sixty-four cell which was empty at the time; but someone else occupied the cell with him because Harold could see their personal effects laying around.

He then took off his yellow jumpsuit as he stood in the cell with just socks, boxers and a wife-beater on. His chiseled arms and chest, as well as a six-pack abdominal section, came from years of working out in various juvenile detention centers. In the animal kingdom of the penitentiary Darwin's Theory prevailed, natural selection proved true as only the strong survived, and the ones with the weakest genes were stomped out! Just as he finished taking a bird bath his cell-mate walked in. 

José Garcia was a short chubby Puerto Rican from the Bad Lands of North Philly, who stood at about 5'5". He was doing a measly one to two years for possession with the intent to deliver five dime bags of cocaine. As he was just a corner worker, he wanted no trouble from those who had to do hard time. Seeing the size of Harold intimidated José and he wanted to make friends with him—quickly!

"Hey, Papi! Como estas? Me llamo, José. You jus' get here?" he asked, while stretching out his right hand to Harold.

Harold just stared at José’s hand wondering why he had asked a question that he already knew the answer to. He sized José up immediately and knew that there was no way José could beat him in a fight. “Move all your shit to tha top bunk, I'm sleepin' on tha bottom bunk, now," Harold ordered.

There was a slight look of defiance in José’s eyes at first, but once he saw the fire in Harold's eyes he thought better against it. He knew, too, that there was no way he had a chance of beating Harold. "Sure bro, whuteva' you say. I don't want ta get into anything wit' chu," José said, as he began taking his mattress off the bottom bunk and putting it up top.

When Harold got himself situated he stepped out of his cell to see exactly what was happening with the evening block activities. He loved playing poker and gambling on sports games. Picking four winning teams against the spread would be easy for him with his sports knowledge, he thought. He found a game of three-card-stud on the bottom tier, and got $25.00 in chips after showing the guy who ran the poker game his money slip that stated he came into the jail with $200.00. This turned out to be a disaster for Harold, as a half-hour later, the $25.00 was gone. He then got a marker for another $25.00, and that was gone in fifteen minutes. He now owed the poker table $50.00 in commissary; and he hadn't been on the block two hours!

José peeped out the cell door and watched as Harold was knee deep in the poker game. He put a sheet up over the door for privacy and pulled out his latest Show Girl magazine. He quickly turned to the spread featuring Iggy Azalea in a two-piece bikini, one in which her ass-cheeks swallowed the G-string. José jumped onto the top bunk with the magazine in one hand and his dick in the other, as he fanaticized about the curvaceous rap star.

Look at dis blanca! Wit' her firm leel teets and grande ass. Oh! I jus' want to stick it in 'er one time! Oh, shit gurl...bend dat ass ova'. Oh yeah, oh yeah!

José's hand jerked the outer skin of his dick up and down as pulsating jolts of electricity and heat moved into his abdominals and groin. His eyes were locked on a picture of Iggy bent over with her ass out and her face turned around smiling for the camera. Within two minutes tops he was a sticky mess!

Harold went back into the cell frustrated and disgusted where he found a now cleaned up José laying on his top bunk reading the Show magazine. At the sight of Harold, José automatically cursed him in his head.

It iz him, tha bullying block nigga! He haz done dis ta me. Taken my bed from me and give me top bunk. Him a confuse man, a very, very, confuse man! Him not know, payback will be a beetch!

Disappointed at how the evening had went, Harold plopped down on the bottom bunk laying back and putting his hands behind his head. Wanting to defuse any tension there may have been between the two from earlier, José's quickly offered Harold some magazines.

"I have Show and Hip-Hop Weekly magazines, wheetch one you like, eh?"

Harold frowned up his face wondering why this guy, whom he had just chumped, was speaking to him. "Not right now, my man. I'm in deep contemplation 'bout tha money I jus' lost at tha poker table," Harold answered, slightly perturbed.

"You not like me, no?" questioned, José's observing the obvious.

"lt ain't nuffin' personal. I really don't fuck wit' too many Guatez."

José's frowned this time, wondering why Black people always used the derogatory term of "Guates", when referring to Puerto Ricans. They weren’t from Guatemala, they were from Puerto Rico and damned U.S. citizens for that matter! But, being a reasonably intelligent individual, José's surmised that his and Harold’s relationship between one another would not be amicable. For the rest of the night until lights out the two exchanged no further words.

Within the next month and a half, Harold went through the process of completing the diagnostic procedures required by the state of Pennsylvania for new commits. There were education tests: (Harold was working with a 7th grade education), psychiatric tests (Harold was diagnosed as a manic depressive and was ordered to take 150 mg of Synequan), and have meetings with unit managers and counselors.

As fate would have it—or maybe it was just the luck of the draw Harold had been classified to Graterford. Many of the guys who came with him were being shipped to SCI Camp Hill, and from there they would be shipped to institutions all across the state. Harold wouldn't have to go through that. On a Tuesday, at 8:00am, they called both he and José and told them they were moving to D-Block.

Once he and José walked through the main doors, after walking through the metal detectors, all eyes were on them in their yellow jumpsuits. There's a certain way inmates who've served time look at fresh fish—and the two of them were receiving plenty of those looks.

Jonathan, the block clerk came to them first. His lanky arm pointed to a room on the top tier. "Follow me up here so I can get cha'll sum' browns."

When the two of them got inside of the room Jonathan gave them three brown shirts and pants which would hold them over until they were able to get to clothing exchange on the weekend. Then he gave them their housing assignments which he read from the paper that he held in his hand. Harold was sent to B2-032 cell, while José was sent to A1-023 cell.

Harold walked down the top tier in his new state brown uniform. He passed a main bubble that separated the A-side from the B-side. Both sides held two-hundred cells for a total of four-hundred on the block. He could feel the different eyes beaming on him as he walked to his new cell. After reaching thirty-two cell, Harold put his laminated I.D. picture on the door window next to the one that was already there. The other I.D. was one of a bald-headed Black man with a huge gray beard. From Harold's estimation—the man had to be in his sixties! The name under the picture said Curtis Bently.

Inside the cell Curtis seemed to have everything there was for an inmate to have: a flat-screen television, radio, typewriter, three pairs of new sneakers, Timberland boots and a big bag filled with Commissary. There was a plethora of assorted books on his bookshelf, as well. However, Curtis wasn’t in the cell at the time and the only bunk available to Harold was the top bunk—he put his belongings on top of it. He didn't know if this could be a situation where he could bully the old man out of his bunk like he did to José.

"Main yard, main yard!" a call came over the speakers as soon as Harold threw his things on the top bunk.

Harold followed the traffic to the front of the block where the others were exiting through the double doors. Men in brown sweat suits, some carrying handballs, tennis balls and chess boards; along with men in work-out apparel. As he was walking down the hallway, someone tapped him on his shoulder, which startled him in his present environment.

"Whut’z up, Adams?!" said an energetic youth who seemed to be the same age as him.

Harold spun his head and stared Stanley Jennings directly in the eye. The two had been in the Youth Study Center together. Harold for possession with intent to deliver and Stanley for grand theft auto. During their stint the two had become friends and were inseparable. Stanley was a light-skinned Black who stood at 5'10" and weighed about 180lbs. He would be considered to be in excellent shape and handsome, with wavy Indian hair.

"Stizzy Mack! Whut it iz, cannon?" Harold stuck out his right hand to give his not long seen friend some dap. "Where tha hell you been, man?"

"Aw, man, I'm booked homie. Dey gave me twenty-five to fifty yearz on an attempted homi. I swear I tried to take dude’z head clean off hiz shoulders, but I hit 'im in tha shoulder—and the lame got away and ratted me out. Whut 'bout chu?"

"Ditto. Twenty ta forty for robbery and aggravated assault. If I woulda' hit ‘im above the waist, dey probably woulda' gave me an attempt, too. Whut block dey got chu on?"

"I'm on D-Block," Stanley answered, as the two walked down the steps of the main yard.

"Yeah? I jus' moved on tha block dis mornin’."

"Who dey got chu in tha cell wit'?" 

"Sum' old head by tha name of Curtis Bently. Whut'z hiz whole thang?" Harold asked, as he and Stanley walked around the track.

"Well, he'z supposed to be"—Stanley flicked his fingers like quotation marks framing a phrase—"one of the leaders of the Muslim community in here. Dey mainly stays to themselves. Dey ain't 'bout dat life."

The term, "That Life," connotated everything negative that the youth seemed was cool these days. Robbing, killing, abusing and deceiving others. This was the code that many of them lived by. Gangsterism and purely unadulterated sexism.

"He got everything in dat bitch! I might have ta take thingz ova' in dere," said Harold, as he rubbed his palms together.

Stanley blinked his eyes like he couldn't believe what he had just heard. "Wait a minute, wuz old head in tha cell when you got dere?"

"Naw," Harold replied.

Now, it made sense to Stanley. "It'z not goin' ta go down like dat, cannon. Dis dude got crazy respect in tha jail, and physically...well I’ll jus' let you see for yourself."

The old friends talked for the betterment of two hours until yard was called in. They talked about everything from which girls they had sex with, what cars they drove, what drugs they sold, and who was the hottest rapper—unfortunately, neither of them discussed how they would fight their appeals in court!

Harold made his way onto the block and walked Stanley to his cell, then proceeded to go upstairs to his cell. This time, Curtis was in the cell doing major work on his typewriter. Compared to his picture on the door, it did not show the size of the mammoth in true proportion. He was at least 6'2" and 250lbs of pure muscle. If a comparison had to be made of primates, Harold would be a chimpanzee and Curtis would be a silver-back gorilla! Harold stepped in and introduced himself.

"Whut'z to it old head? My name iz Harold, but people call me Hizz, or jus Adams."

Curtis stopped typing and lowered his glasses to the brim of his nose to get a better look at the young man who seemed to have no respect for his elders. "Pleased to meet you, young man. Do me a favor, though, will you? Don't call me old head, you can call me by my Muslim attribute, Abu Bakr," he said, as he rose from the desk to shake Harold's hand. "I came in from work and saw your things on the top bunk. They didn’t tell me I was getting a new cell-mate. Make yourself at home."

Upon looking at the size of Abu Bakr, Harold knew that this wasn't going to be a situation like José where he could intimidate his bunkmate. If he got into a confrontation with this man, the odds were against him coming out as the winner.

"You been in dis jail a long time, Abu Bakr?"

"Only about two years, I got a promotional transfer for good behavior from SCI Rockview. All together though, I've been in jail for over thirty years."

Harold's eyes widened. This man had been in jail for almost double his life span. "You must've caught a body, huh?"

Abu Bakr became somber. "There are things that I've done in my past that I'm far from proud of. But, I've repented to my Lord who says to me in his Noble Book that I will be forgiven for my previous sins — so long as I pray and observe the conditions of a proper Muslim."

Awe, man! I'm in tha cell wit' one o’ deez Muslims! He betta' not try and convert me to dat garbage. Whut doesn’t he get? When you're Black and poor in Amerikkka, you're already livin' in hell! "Well, no offense, but I don't believe in no God. If dere wuz a God, den children wouldn't be comin' dead out o' tha womb, or children wouldn't be molested by sick dudez messed up in tha head. Man made up religion so dat he thinks he'll have dis wonderful place ta go to when it'z all said and done. Let me let you in on a lil' secret—when your eyes close for tha last time, dat'z all she wrote."

Hearing these words made Abu Bakr upset. In his thirty-four years in the penitentiary, he had never been in the same cell as an atheist. He couldn't see himself living with a person who didn't respect God. What? Did they think that they created themselves? That they caused their own selves to come into existence?

"Well, Hizz, is it?" Abu Bakr questioned as he sat back down and presumed typing. "I'm sorry you see life that way. No man is an island, and if you look at the universe and this wonderful earth we live on...there's no way it came into existence by itself. In the meantime, though, while I’m at work feel free to watch my television, listen to my radio and even eat some of my commissary if you get hungry. I work as a clerk on the other side of the jail. But more importantly, take a look at some of the literature I have that speaks about Islam," Abu Bakr said, as he waved his hand at his bookshelf filled with books. 

Imagine dat!?  “Good lookin’ out, Abu Bakr. I’ll respect your property, you don't have ta worry 'bout dat," Harold answered.

Harold got his belongings together and began watching Abu Bakr's television with the headphones in, while Abu Bakr continued to type. They called lunch, but Abu Bakr did not go to main-line. He typed through count and all the way until it was time for him to pray the Duhr salat. Then he stopped everything, made absolution, and prayed. Harold watched Abu Bakr go through the motions of the prayer and wondered why this huge man was subjecting himself to what he saw as a ritual. When Abu Bakr made tasleem, ending the prayer, Harold had questions.

"Hey, Abu Bakr?" 

“Yes."

Whut iz it you been typin' ova' dere all mornin'?"

Not that it was any of Harold's business, but Abu Bakr felt it wouldn't harm to oblige the young man and answer his question. "I’m a writer in my spare time. I write essays, poems and short stories. I have a beautiful friend out in California who posts my writings on a blog that caters to aspiring imprisoned authors. She’s such a treasure; it's a blessing from God that she's in my life."

"You got a lot goin' on, huh?"

"Just enough to keep me positive and out of trouble," he answered with a smile.

Later that night as Harold slept; he awoke in the middle of the night to find Abu Bakr making the witr prayer on his prayer rug. This prayer was different from the one he had observed earlier in the afternoon. He could hear the slow beautiful rhythmic tones of Abu Bakr reciting verses of the Noble Qur'an, and this intrigued him. By Abu Bakr being a writer, it was obvious to Harold that he was a master of the English language. But, the way he recited these words in the Arabic language, with feeling—it was difficult enough to be the master of one tongue, but to master two with such command? And what would make a man wake out of his sleep in the middle of the night to pray?

"Abu Bakr, why do you go through all doze motions when you pray? Why ain't Muslims like tha otha' religions where dey can jus' talk to dey God?"

He smiled, and turned to face Harold. "Mere lip profession of faith is not enough. Faith will be tried and tested in the real turmoil of life, and tests will be applied in all kinds of circumstances, to see whether or not we can strive constantly to put God above ourselves. There will be a lot of pain, sorrow, and self-sacrifice—not because these things are good, but because they will purify us, like a blacksmith heating the iron ore to its hottest temperature to burn out the impurities. This is why I awake sometimes in the middle of the night to repent to my Lord."

This was a complex enigma for Harold. It was confusing, but yet it made so much sense. This faith thing was a very powerful instrument. The men of faith looked forward to God, their quest is God, and the object of their hope is someday meeting with God. If this life we lived was just a trial, this probationary period wouldn't last long. Harold wondered that if there really was a God, would he be forgiven for all of the wrong that he had done in his life. He contemplated on the subject thoroughly as Abu Bakr turned off the night-lamp and got into bed.

The next morning while Abu Bakr was at work, Harold didn't go out to the yard to socialize with Stanley. He didn't even turn on the television to watch early morning music videos. Instead, he reached for the bookshelf and grabbed one of Abu Bakr's Islamic books.

One of the first things that enticed him was the strange writing of the Arabic language which looked like a bunch of squibly lines and dashes, and he wondered how people could read such things. Harold came across names like, 'Aisha, Umar bin Al-Khattab, Khadija, Ibn Abbas, Abu Huraira, Abu Musa and wondered who these people were and what was their significance to the religion of Islam. But, most of all, and most importantly, he learned of the man who would come to be known as the comforter and the last prophet of God, Muhammad Abdullah. How Muhammad had come at a time when the pagan Arabs of Arabia were drenched in occultism, idol worship, sexual deviation, debauchery, incest and the practice of burying female infants alive at birth. The massing of power and wealth in the hands of a few, the orgies of gambling and drunkenness, the frauds of the temples and priests, the feuds and arrogance of tribes and races—all these things Muhammad Abdullah came to expel.

Further on he read about the pillars of Islam: Shahada, praying, fasting, giving to the poor and making the pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca, if financially possible. How Islam made the rich no better in status to the poor that they were all on the same playing field when it came to God, and would be judged according to their deeds. That one couldn't go around slandering, cursing, abusing, robbing and stealing from others if they expected to be successful in life. And, that a man or woman had to show through their actions—their submission to the one true God.

The revelation of the words he read seemed to cry out to him like a mother who had just found her lost child, or like and eagle who soars high in the clouds above the mountains. Before he knew it, he had been reading for three hours before Abu Bakr came back into the cell. Harold looked up from the book solemnly as Abu Bakr entered.

"I see you’ve been doing some reading?"

"Yeah, a lil' sumthin'."

"Did you learn anything? Anything to make you change your perspective about God and religion?"

"Well, for one thing, I see dere'z a lot o' work involved," he answered as he closed the book and put it back on the shelf.

"Nothing worth having comes easy."

"Iz dat whut drew you in, made ju strive?"

Abu Bakr blew out a little wind while his mind went back in time, back when he was wilder and rambunctious than the young man sitting before him. "Years ago, when this white beard was black and I had hair on this bald head, the judge told me that it was his intention for me to spend the rest of my life behind bars. And do you know what the most troubling thing behind those words that he spoke was? The fact that I didn't commit the crime I was wrongfully convicted of, nor did I have any knowledge of who did. I cursed God, denied his existence, for I thought he had abandoned me. And then one day when I had given up all hope, I prayed for inspiration and opened the Noble Qur’an, and it just so happened to open up on Surah 29, Al-‘Ankabut or The Spider. The opening verse says, Alif-Lam-Mim. Ahaseeban-nasu a yutraku  a yaqulu amana wa hoom yuftaloon? Which translated means, 'Do men think that they will be left alone saying, “we believe” and that they will not be tested?' Then it all made perfect sense to me—that this life we live is one great test that we must endure. The reward is not this life, though. The reward comes when what we believe is reality passes away, and we come to the true reality. So, that is when I gave my life back to God, and from then on I’ve never looked back."

Harold took in what he was just told by Abu Bakr and thought that it was a truly confusing anomaly— that a man who had been given life in jail for a crime he didn’t commit would totally submit himself to the God that had allowed such a thing to happen.

"It'z a damn shame, Abu Bakr. You didn’t do nuffin'...yet deez people want chu ta die in here! Me, on tha otha' hand, I did exactly whut dey said I did. Am I supposed to be forgiven for all of tha wrong I've done ova' tha yearz?" he asked, with a perplexed look on his face.

Another one of Abu Bakr's regularly seen smiles came across his face. "Once you've made the pledge to turn your life over to God, and believe in His last messenger on earth, all of your past sins are forgiven and you start anew with a clean slate. All you have to say is, ‘There is no God, but God, and Muhammad is his last messenger.”

"Can it be dat simple?"

"It can be—and it is. But I'm not expecting you to just jump at the drop of a dime. Take some time to think about all you've read this morning and what I've told you from my own experience. I'm sure that once you've analyzed everything you'll come to see the truth of the words I've spoken to you."

It didn’t take a nuclear physicist for Harold to figure out he needed a change in his life. He knew that if he kept on going at the rate he had been going, he'd be dead in a few years—stabbed to death at the bottom of a prison tier over a lousy poker game.

Later that afternoon yard was called, and Harold hooked up once again with Stanley, so that they could walk the track and talk about the same mundane, meaningless things.

"I got a quick way fo' us ta get sum' paper, Hizz," Stanley said, as they walked.

Listen ta dis shit! If I wanted ta hear an asshole talk—I would’ve farted! "Yeah, how’z dat cannon?"

"Sum' Guata who jus' came on tha block iz sellin' weed. All we gotta do iz rob ‘im fo' everything he got. I think hiz name iz José sum'thin'."

"José!? You gotta be kiddin' me? Not tha same Rican who came ova' wit' me from E-Block?"

"I think so, cannon," Stanley replied.

"Man, dude iz a turkey! He’z an eazy victim!"

"Let'z make it happen, den."

"Say no more," replied Harold, as they schemed at how they were going to set José up.

The dastardly put together plot to rob José went down later that evening during block-out. The plan was for Stanley to go into José’s cell to buy some of the bags of weed he had for sale. Then, as the transaction was going down, Harold would come in from the blind side and rob José. It went exactly as according to plan. Stanley went into the cell to purchase the weed and in came Harold!

Harold put the homemade jailhouse shiv to José's throat and took all of the weed that José had in his pockets. The act took all of fifteen seconds. Once Harold had all of the weed he punched José square on the chin, knocking him out cold.

Days had passed, Harold and Stanley believed that they had gotten away scot-free and that there would be no repercussions from their actions. Unbeknownst to them both was that the Latin Kings who supplied José with the weed the two stole made it incumbent to José to get Harold and Stanley—or else he would be dealt with!

In the meantime, Harold began to clean up his act and take the fatherly advice that Abu Bakr had been giving him. He stopped hanging around Stanley who was, in actuality, a leech and a parasite.

Some way or another though, Karma has a way of rearing its ugly head. Harold stood in line at the ice machine and while his back was turned...José snuck up behind him and slammed the wack into Harold’s throat, hitting him directly in the jugular!!!

"Whut?! Chu thought I wuz es-scared of you?" José asked, as Harold writhed on the floor with blood spouting from his neck.

The correctional officers had José in handcuffs within seconds. Stanley appeared from nowhere and went to assist Harold who was trying to say something while gurgling blood.

"Whut'z dat? Whut did ju say, Hizz?"

“Dere iz no God...but God, and Mu-ham-med iz hiz last messenger," said Harold lastly, as a faint whisper. His eyes closed for the last time, as the Angel of Death came to collect what he was commanded to do from God.

Abu Bakr was informed of the terrible circumstances behind Harold's demise. He was also informed of the dying declaration Harold had made before he died. Although he was saddened, he smiled upon hearing the latter...as he’d gotten through to at least one before it was all said and done.

Beautified for men is the love of things they covet; women, children, much of gold and silver (wealth), branded beautiful horses, cattle and well-tilled land. This is the pleasure of the present world’s life; but God has the excellent return (paradise with flowing rivers, etc.) with Him. 
—Noble Qur'an, Surah 3 Al-Imran 3:14

Mwandishi Mitchell GB 6474
SCI Houtzdale
P.O..Box 1000
Houtzdale, PA 16698-1000





Thursday, October 22, 2015

Riding with Blackbeard

By Thomas Schilk

Someone once asked me what it was like to go to prison. Well, it’s a lot like you might imagine it would be, I thought. There’s violence, humiliation, deprivation, regret, guilt, shame and the darkness of depression and hopelessness. Even so, I knew that prison isn’t always like you might imagine it to be too. I’ve found friendship, generosity, accomplishment and when I squeeze my eyes hard enough a faint flicker of hope, too. So, not really sure how to answer his question, I told him this story instead:

Before I came to the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, I spent three years waiting to be tried, then sentenced, at the notorious Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia. It was there that I learned how to cook wine, how to make a shank and where I had my first prison fight. The ‘Burg was one dark and dangerous place. When a prison official told me that I was going to be “shipped up-state” the next day, I was anxious to leave but also glad to be leaving in one piece. At 4 a.m. the next morning, the clank of the lock turning in the cell-door woke me up and a guard hollered in, “Schilk, get your shit together, you’re going up-state.”

I rolled out of the bunk, into my dirty shower-shoes and then over to the john. After that, I ran some tap water into my cup, stirred in a large spoon of Keefe coffee and sat back down on the bunk. Wrapped in the foil from a cigarette pack, I had three Percocets with half the life already sucked out of them. I had brought them the day before for a few packs of smokes. I downed them with the coffee and reached for my Marlboros. I lit one up, took a drag and held the smoke deep in my lungs. A few minutes later I walked down the cell-block to the dark showers. The shower-room was pretty large, I guess about fifteen by twenty feet or so, and it was lit by just a single incandescent bulb that sat behind a protective grate. The place smelled like a dirty aquarium. All of the other prisoners were locked in their cells and when I walked into the empty showers, the jaded roaches didn’t even have the decency to run for cover. What the fuck? When I got back to the cell I dried off, dressed and packed my few belongings into a small cardboard box. Not much really: legal papers, some photos, a few letters, socks and underwear and some cosmetics. Then, from out of the foam mattress, I pulled out a little over a quarter ounce of sinsemilla that was tightly wrapped in a blue balloon. Right before I left the cell for the final time I stashed the weed the only place it could go—don’t ask—and grabbed my box and headed to the front of the block. Alter about fifteen minutes, two guards, with a couple prisoners in tow, unlocked the head gate and I joined the other guys for a short march to the chow-hall.

By the time I ate some tired cornflakes and had another cup of coffee the percs had kicked in. Now, three percs ain't much but they did take a little of the edge off. From the chow hall we were taken to the receiving room to be processed out. Our property was rooted through then packed up, papers were filled out then enveloped and we were strip searched, jump-suited and placed in a holding cell that already held three other prisoners, Ahh, the sweet smell of institutions: sweat, piss and disinfectant. I sat numb on the wooden bench for I don’t know how long until the jingle of handcuffs told me it was time to go. The clock on the wall said it was 8:30 a.m. Two Philadelphia sheriffs appeared, told us to pair off and handcuffed us by twos. My right hand was cuffed, across my body, to the left hand of the guy on my left also across his body. He was this short, heavily muscled, light-skinned dude who didn’t seem like the happy-go-lucky type. When he shot me a hard look, I thought, Yeah, I’m not so happy to see you either dude. What was crazy was his beard. Actually, I’m not even sure that it was a beard. It was so black and sharply defined; I thought he must put that bad boy on with a ruler and a couple Sharpies. I didn’t bother to spark up any conversation. There were six of us in all and we were placed in a Philadelphia Sheriff’s van, one set per bench-seat, with Blackbeard and me last in, seated directly behind the two sheriffs. Although they were separated from us by a heavy grate and a smeared piece of Plexiglas we could see them and they could see us well enough too. It’s worth noting that I was the only white thing on the van. Well, the two sheriffs were white too but that only made it worse. When the van’s engine turned, my stomach turned with it and we were off.

After some time in local traffic, we got on the Schuylkill expressway which was crawling with cars. Other than some thin music playing on the van’s radio no one said anything and we rode in silence. Alter what seemed like a long time, we finally got on route 202 and headed upstate. Although it was late February, it was sunny and it felt hot inside the van. On top of that, I really had to take a piss. As we drove along I stared out the window at all the regular people, in their regular cars, driving to their regular jobs and living their regular lives. From where I was sitting, that didn’t seem like too bad of a deal. Just then I saw a woman in the passenger seat of the car next to us looking directly at me. I turned away. I have to say that while I was glad to get out of the ‘Burg in one piece, I was still worried because I knew it wasn’t going to be much better where I was headed. I had heard all the stories: men being raped, men getting stabbed, men throwing gasoline on each other and men getting killed. I didn’t want any of that to happen to me.

Sometime later, we turned off the highway and, alter a few twists and turns, down a narrow road where I could see the penitentiary in the distance. Finally we drove through a clearing towards a thirty foot concrete wail and pulled up behind a local police car which was stopped behind a semi pulling a flatbed trailer. On the trailer was a section of what looked like a large construction crane. The whole rig was stopped halfway through the security gate into the prison and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Just my fucking luck. For about five or ten minutes we just sat there until the sheriff riding shotgun got out and started walking the short distance to a guard’s shack next to the security gate. It was past ten a.m. by now and my bladder was getting ready to burst. Mine wasn’t the only one, because at that moment someone behind me shouted, “Yo, sheriff, I got to take a piss.” When he didn’t reply, some of the other guys hollered up that they had to go too. I didn’t say anything. We saw the one sheriff come back and everyone quieted down as he got back into the van. Although it was hard to hear through the Plexiglas, it sounded like he said that the rig was stuck but that things might get moving soon. At that, the driver removed the van’s keys from the ignition, opened his door and made for the guard’s shack.

“Hey, tell them we got to use the bathroom here,” someone shouted. He kept walking. Now all at once, the guys behind me started shouting, right through my head, at the sheriff seated in front of me. I was sweating my ass off and had an overwhelming desire to get the fuck out of the van. I quickly pulled my right hand up to wipe the sweat from my face which yanked Beardo’s hand in turn.
,
“Hey, watch what you’re doing bro” he said, as he yanked his hand back. “Sorry about that,” I said, “My fault.”

Now the van was in open revolt and some of the guys were threatening to start pissing right on the van.


“What the fuck you want me to do, we’re stuck,” said Shotgun as his partner got back into the van. The next thing I heard was the unmistakable sound of someone pissing right behind me. The strong scent of urine quickly moved throughout the van.

The driver shouted, “Whoever the fuck did that is going to scrub this van or get his motherfucking ass kicked!”

“It was me, I told you I had to piss and I ain’t scrubbing nothing,” said the skinny pisser in the seat behind me.

Before either sheriff could respond, almost everybody started shouting that if they couldn’t use the bathroom soon, they were going to start pissing in the van too. At the same time, Blackbeard, who had remained as quiet as I was, looked over at me and together we both started shouting, “We gotta piss! We gotta piss! We gotta piss….”

“I’ll be right back,” said Shotgun and headed out towards the guard’s shack. After what seemed like a day or two, Shotgun returned, opened the van’s side-door and handed in a medium-sized paper coffee cup.

“Fellows, for now, that’s the best we can do,” he said.

I thought you’ve got to be fucking kidding. He wasn’t. So, starting from the back of the van, the cup was filled, carefully passed to the door to be dumped, then passed on to be filled and dumped again and again. When the cup finally made it up to me, it was damp and I hoped it wouldn’t collapse in my hand. What a fucking nightmare trying to undo my jump-suit, pull out my dick and piss into a soggy cup. All the while still cuffed to one very unhappy dude beside me. He looked in the opposite direction but his hand was inches from my dick as I pissed. More than anything I hoped I wouldn’t splash him but I absolutely had to go. Alter filling it up, I dumped the cup myself then turned and held it for him to grab. Blackbeard looked over at me and hesitated for what seemed like a really long time. Finally, he gave me a little shrug and when I nodded back to him, he reached his hand toward me and took the cup.

“So, that’s what it’s like to go to prison,” I said, to answer the initial question. And, in a lot of ways, it’s been like that ever since.

About an hour after our “coffee break” the big rig moved through the gate, then the police car and finally us. None of us scrubbed the van, none of us got our asses kicked and none of us mentioned what had just happened. By the way, over the years I got to know Blackboard, he goes by Dawud, and he’s actually a pretty good guy (although, it turned out that he really does color his beard with Sharpies).


Thomas Schilk AS0255
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426




Thursday, October 15, 2015

Working Out

By Armando Macias

I know a lot, I know a lot about life. I know it has intricate cause and effects. I know with each negative action comes a consequence. The cold, cold cell reminds me of this. Its evil presence challenges me.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5—one; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5—two; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5—three. Burpees are the ideal exercise when no weights are around. You go down, do a push-up, and stand up. Count each movement. You just did one 6 count burpee. Burpees help relieve stress, especially after moments like yesterday, when they did a cell search and tossed all sorts of my “stuff.” Well, stuff to them but prized possessions to me. That’s life in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU), aka the hole, solitary confinement.

I know a lot because I’ve realized life is too intense to fully figure out. Mistakes are mistakes in hindsight not at the moment; not then. Call it bad judgment, a different set of values or just me being misunderstood, the results still a consequence. I know I don’t have it figured out. I know every consequence has many lessons accompanying it. I know I have a lot to learn. Yet I know enough to teach my nephews a thing or two. I plan to do that.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5—twenty-six; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5—twenty-seven. My sister’s letter describing the kids’ activities revealed how fast the kids grow. They’re teenagers now and reaching that point where life’s opening up to reveal all its chaotic wonders. Do they know that certain lessons are contextual and not situational; meaning some truths fit various situations? Those, they need to learn.

Should I write? Dare I write? If so on what level? Should it be a letter full of stories proving that punitive measures can lead to transformational progress? Nah, not true. Not true by a long shot. Even though I’ve secretly imagined it may one day be so but reality proves otherwise. I cannot in good conscience promote a lie. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5—one-hundred; 8 count burpees now (2 push ups) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—one. I look over at the kids pictures leaning up against the wall. So innocent looking, such babies. I was in juvenile hall at that age with violence being no stranger to me. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—ten; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—eleven.

Maybe a simple friendly letter sharing bits of advice would be best. Hmmmm. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—sixteen. So many “should Is” are leaving me far from listless and with many competing thoughts. What tone and rhythm will best serve sincere communication with a teen?

The problem with memories being brought to present is along come all the vast possibilities that could’ve been. What an endless labyrinth of torture that is. Especially since I’m stuck in the hole.

This checks my beginning a letter. Who really wants to be one of those adults who spits out clichés like “I’ve lived life and have more experience so trust me you’ll regret it” or “you’re young and don’t know any thing” blah blah blah. It’s all probably true but it still sounds like overrated preaching. It’s as if an adult enjoys preaching more than actually getting through to the teen. It eerily falsifies sincere advice. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—thirty-one; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—thirty-two.

Fundamentally this is an extreme case of the problem of identity. Which identity will I present? One of a fun-loving uncle? The convict uncle who wishes to school them in hopes they choose another path not his own? Hmmmm. Love of family is hard to embody on paper. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—fifty-nine; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—sixty.

The problem goes beyond a letter, yet remains within me. Identifying myself and the purpose of my letter is subjectively baffling. Being an uncle can’t be generalized which I find unfortunate right about now. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—seventy-six.

So easy to be clumsy when dealing with concepts of such depth. The Gang Unit will confiscate anything seemingly gang-related or incriminating, making it possible for good advice to be bad. Most dangerous of all is all the lessons I share must be written with no context to them. Being in solitary confinement drastically diminishes the potential of creating a loving connection with family, thus making this a letter from an estranged uncle. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—ninety-eight; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—ninety-nine; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—one-hundred. Time for other exercises that require my undivided attention.

I cut a small circular piece of paper, place it on the sink drain, fill it up with water, get naked, soap up, and then with a milk carton throw water on myself. I wash my boxers, floor, and cell walls. Dry it all day by wiping it down, and get ready to write. A good bird bath after exercise is refreshing.

The callously cold cell air vent sounds like a demon whispering curses and the sharp cold air being proof of its existence. The penal system is the devil’s realm and prisons are demons in its service, or so it seems to those of us here in the SHU. I’m in the belly of the beast.

The ugly cold metal bunk, concrete floor, walls, and that steel door reminds me of the demon’s mouth and me being trapped inside. One day it plans to defecate us onto the death chamber to be murdered then spit the remains out to the world. Until then, they’ll psychologically torture me with an indefinite stay in this torture chamber.

A bit too dramatic when identifying myself to a kid huh? Best to ignore both time and the demons of the California Penal System which feast on my life. The truth is my spirit is my own and I refuse to be broken. This place is not who I am, neither is the government’s description of me. My identity cannot be trivialized nor should my letter. Still dare I hope my words manifest urgency in their world? At least, a small positive effect?

Obviously my habitual method of writing is off the table. Kids are neither a concept or an ideal, nor a metaphor but flesh and blood with a unique developing fresh mentality. In light of our own experiences we know teens have growing pains. It’s easy to forget this when all I see is a picture and I’m an adult with minimal human contact. But the common denominator is our culture, our family. The fruit of advice is rooted in society and our cultural experience, which is a sort of collective intelligence. Writing this is a heavy responsibility. I’m trapping a past with words on paper. Hell nah. I cannot write as I normally do. There’s also the danger of explaining certain causes and effects but simultaneously unwittingly justifying unjustifiable actions.

Digging up memories brings up corpses from dark corners along with all sorts of unpleasantries, all of which become nourishment for lessons to be harvested for this letter. Lessons will be gleaned from introspection. We should all do it. What galvanizes my letter writing is acknowledging my and society’s prejudices, faults, successes, pains and aversions. Death’s presence inevitably rises for attention. The reminder of death always double checks the validity of the meaning behind my actions and words.

While the Demon Vent whispers its cold icy curses the metal bunk bites my behind but these pictures of the innocent Little Angels brings reality into focus.

I dive in, write, cross out, write, write, write, edit, write until my hand and head hurt. The demon has no hold on me. I’ll write and release all my thoughts. For a while this demon shall be banished.

After having used all my paper I double check the letter making sure I was neither a friend nor an old man scolding ’em, but an uncle. Only then do my numb legs become apparent. The Demon Vent blows and blows its vile taunts. As I look for stamps I search envelope by envelope slowly realizing a cruel version of my good uncle fantasy enters reality...I have no stamps. They must have tossed them during the cell search. This hell realm once again makes its presence known. Ja ja. The demon has won this battle. The war continues.


Armando Macias AI4624
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin CA 94974

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Crutch

By Chris Dankovich


"Hey, did you see that kid in the wheelchair today?"

"No," I say. "When did he get here?”

"I think he just rode in yesterday or today," said Greg.

"He break his leg or something?"

"No, he's, like, seriously in a wheelchair. There's something actually wrong with him. He's got some disease, I think. Like what Stephen Hawking’s has, or something like that."

"So he's, like, paralyzed?"

"I think it was just his legs, but I didn't exactly kick him in his shins or nothing."

"I smile. “That’s sweet," I chuckle sarcastically. "Do you think he got shot or something?"

"No, he doesn't look like 'that kind of guy.'" Greg raised his eyebrows, his eyes widening and inflection changing slightly to highlight an unspoken stereotype. "Less gangster, more like 'Bones.'"

Bones was a bully-magnet on the young side. Skinny, lanky, pasty-white, socially awkward, submissive. He was what in my father's day they would have called a "pansy-boy." Bones survived by telling on any stranger who so much as talked to him, and because there was a rumor (probably started by him) that he carried a shank.

The next day I'm standing in line in the chow hall (the official name of dining rooms throughout Michigan prisons). Winky (so named because he had two different colored eyes from a childhood cornea transplant) points over to a table—the same kind of faux wood tables I had in middle-school—on the right.

"See, there's that crippled kid."

"That's fucked up to call him that" I instinctually say. There’s a certain amount of crassness that's unnecessary.

I look over at where he's pointing though, and I see a kid, no facial hair, pimply-faced, sitting in a wheelchair. Something about his body-language (his composure? his contentment?) suggests to me that Winky is right and that his problem is more than just a broken leg, and is something he's lived with for a while.

"We should go sit by him," Winky says to me and Dale, standing behind me.

"Why?" I ask, knowing that Winky wants to harass him.

"I don't know. What else you got to do?"

We get our trays and the three of us walked over and sat down diagonally across from the kid in the wheelchair.

"Hey. What's going on there, buddy?" Winky asked. I detected a hint of a taunt.

"Nothin'," He said, looking down.

"What do you think about these chicken wings here? They better than the county [jail] where you came from?"

"Yeah, they're alright."

We all ate a few.

"So," said Winky, "what's your name?"

"It's Chris," he said, still looking down at his tray.

"So whatcha in here for Chris?" Winky stared at him intensely, though some of that intensity may have been from his lack of control over some of his eye muscles.

Chris's eyes darted around, from his tray to me, to Winky, to Dale, back to Winky. He was nervous. "Uhhh, Breaking and Entering."

"Did the house have a fuckin' wheelchair access ramp?" I blurted out. I didn't mean to be an asshole, but it sort of slipped out, and once it did we all started laughing uncontrollably.

His statement, combined with his demeanor, gave away that he was in here for something he was ashamed to declare openly, which told me then that he had molested a child. It could have been something else involving a child, but those cases were fairly rare. Murderers, thieves, drug dealers, even rapists of adults generally speak openly about their cases in prison. His sense of shame and his lack of maneuverability told me all I needed to know about what he was here for. Child molesters generally will say, when confronted, that they're in prison for murder if they received life, though the average sentence for someone who rapes a child is less than that of the average burglar. Hence, burglary is the cover-story the ones with shorter sentences generally use.

"Yeah, sure you are. How much time they give you?" asked Winky.

"I got 12 years,” said Chris.

I had heard everything I cared to hear. My mind was torn between not wanting to harass a young kid in a wheelchair, and the unconfirmed but almost definite fact that he's a child molester, something that I hate, something that I take personally, something I have experience with. I just wanted to leave the table.

Greg and I are sitting outside at a picnic table (one that has never witnessed a picnic), talking when a commotion breaks out to our side, between the row of phones and CUE gate that leads to the other side of the yard. Chris is standing (yes, standing) with the aid of crutches, his knees seeming to bend in the wrong directions, his legs unsteady like a newborn fawn. Three black gangbangers surround him like hyenas, laughing at him. The bigger one says something to him, and Chris starts backing up. One of the kids behind him pushes him back forward, all three of them laughing. Chris raises a crutch and swings it, looking coordinated enough in the process to lead me to believe that he may have done this before. He swings the crutch at all of them. They back away, though still laughing.

Greg stands up.

"Man, that's fucked up. Why the fuck are they doing that to him?"

I stand up as well. “Because they're a bunch of fucking cowards."

"I feel like we should do something. That's fucked up."

"I know, but it’s over. They’re gone. What do you want to do?” I ask.

“You wanna go talk to him? I feel like we should at least give him a pat on the back.”

“I’m good. I don’t really feel like going to the hole over a fucking cho-mo,” I say, using prison slang for child molester. A friend of mine confirmed it a few days earlier, having him looked up on the internet.

The door-sized gate in front of our maximum-security unit is held shut by an electromagnet that is deactivated by an officer with a key inside the comfort of the unit. It generally takes a while for one of them to notice us standing there. All of us prisoners are generally pretty good about showing courtesy to others and holding the gate open for them. Greg held the door open as I walked through along with a few other inmates. As he was about to let go of the door, Chris came wheeling around the corner in the wheelchair he was back in. Greg held the door open as Chris came speeding closer. As he rushed through the door he ran over Greg's foot, causing Greg to yelp in pain and jump on one foot.

"Ow! What the fuck?! Little fuckin' asshole!"

Chris sped on without stopping or looking back, opening the door into the unit himself and rolling on through.

"Man, screw that little crippled kid! Fucking bastard didn't even stop or say he was sorry!”

"Whoa, calm down buddy," I said. "I'm sure REO Speedwagon didn't mean anything by it."

"I don't care—he had to feel the bump as he ran over my foot, and must have heard me yell out. Aaaargh, Goddamnit!"

"You alright?" I asked as I put my arm around him and helped him limp inside.

"I hope he get hit by a friggin' train."

I laughed, "I think that might be the one thing he's safe from in here."

The classroom where I worked as a tutor was silent when Chris stumbled in on his sticks. A few students whispered and snickered, while I just watched as he pivoted around to the teacher's desk. Mr. E, the teacher I worked under, stood up and swung a metal chair (the same ones with the plastic seat and small backrest that we had in middle-school) in his massive arm and set it down for Chris sit in. They started talking, and I went back to work teaching my students fractions. I was peripherally aware that they spent the class hour talking and chuckling, though I thought nothing of it. During our downtime to prep for the rest of our classes, I chatted with my boss. He mentioned Chris [by his actual last name].

I asked what was up with him.

"Well, he seems pretty capable and decently smart, especially for someone with cerebral palsy," He said. My mind floated to my distant cousin, the same age as me, with the same condition.

"Cerebral palsy?" I said, shocked. "What the hell's he doing in here if he's got cerebral palsy?"

"I'm not sure. I have a feeling it wasn't home invasion though," he said, laughing. I laughed too at the familiar sense of humor. "But, I really don't know. I started him in math today, and he seems like he might do alright with it. I think I'll work with him for now."

"I think that's a good idea."

The next day, while I was sitting around as my students worked on the problems I gave them, Mr. E sent Chris over with a math question neither of them could solve. Though I was only l7 and I hadn't even completed my freshman year of high school, I was better at math than any other inmate tutor or actual accredited teacher working there. One of the few things that made me feel good at the time was when my boss used to say, "When in doubt, go ask Dank."

"Hey, you're Dank, right? I'm Chris." He said, apparently not remembering me.

"Hey, what's up Chris?" I said politely. I considered the school to be the one positive place in the entire prison and a safe-zone. No matter what I thought of someone outside of class, I treated them respectfully inside of it.

He explained the problem he was having, and I helped him until he got it, which took a few tries.

"Hey, thanks Dank. I really appreciate it," he said with a smile, in his raspy voice.

Between classes I would usually stay in the classroom and clean up and prepare for the next class. As I sat back and waited for my students to arrive, I heard loud voices and the scuffling of an altercation in the hallway. Crossing into my field of vision through the doorway, I saw Eric, a very large young black guy, shove another young black man past the door. The other young man looked like he considered fighting for a moment, but when Eric postured up, he decided against it and went to his own class. Eric came into class, and, as one of my students, sat down at the table in front of my desk.

I looked at him as he breathed heavily. "Hey, what s going on bro?" I asked, as Eric was one of the calmest, most laid back, least violent people I knew.

"Man," he huffed, as other students came to sit around him—"That motherfucker threw little Chris out of his wheelchair for absolutely no reason."

I could see in his face how much this bothered him. I didn't like the sound of it either.

"Yeah, so? Why do you give a fuck?" asked JR, who sat next to him.

"Because man, he didn’t do nothing wrong. He wasn't bothering anybody. That bitch just came up and pushed him out his chair."

"Fuck him though. He's a fuckin' cho-mo."

This made Eric upset, and for the second and only other time I saw him get aggressive.

"I don't care what he is, and neither did that motherfucker when he threw him out that chair. He didn't push him out his chair because he's a child molester...he threw him out his chair because he's someone who can't fight back. I hate that shit. You don't see that motherfucker pushing around any other grown men. No, he wants to fuck with the weak guy in the wheelchair who can't fight back. You wanna shove someone, shove me."

Anyone who has ever seen Eric would know that wouldn’t be a good idea.

Chris was abandoned by his parents as an infant. He was raised in Catholic orphanages in the metro-Detroit area. There was no foster or surrogate mother or father to hold him, tuck him in at night, comfort him when he fell or was being bullied. He never kissed a girl before. He was desperate for attention from anyone who would give it to him. I learned that much from talking to him.

Chris molested a two-year old girl when he was fourteen. His judge sentenced him to a minimum of twelve years in prison (sent to maximum-security to begin with), the main aggravating factor being that the girl was in his care at the time. I learned these facts from an acquaintance who bullied Chris into showing him his legal paperwork. His sentence is longer than the average given to sex offenders who rape multiple kids, but the fact that he victimized a kid made it so that I couldn't care less about any of the "finer" details.

Yet I couldn't bring myself to be mean to him, to hate him, or even to dislike him. After I helped him in class, he started saying "Hi" and "How are you doing?" to me every time he saw me, one of the only people he felt comfortable enough to talk to at all. He liked to play catch with a tennis ball with whoever would throw to him, a painful though somehow also uplifting thing to watch. I played with him a couple times when no one else was around. He'd come to me for help when he got into some non-accredited college training courses offered by the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at University of Michigan, though his cerebral palsy prevented him from graduating those classes. He somehow managed to get hired as a tutor, just like me. Weaknesses plenty, his main strength was that he had the humility to admit when he didn't know the answer to a question, and would do whatever he could to find the answer...something most tutors in the school were too prideful to do, opting instead to give their students the wrong answer and then defending it.

When I'd see Chris fall, I'd help him back up if I got there before he'd right himself (over the course of a lifetime he apparently learned how to get back up pretty quickly). Sometimes I would get heckled for it, to which I'd ask, "What the fuck is your problem?"

Usually the answer would be something like, "He's a child molester. If anything, you should kick him while he's down."

Part of me agreed. I would defend my actions though, partly to prove something to them, partly to prove something to myself. "God punished him for fourteen years before he did anything wrong, and he's doing twelve years in this shit-hole, getting fucked with every single day. I'm not going to add to that. His twelve years is a lot worse sentence for him than twelve years would be for you."

"Did you hear that Chris got caught having sex with Tom?"
"Hey, you gotta hear this...Cripple Chris had Robles in the room...."

"Hey Dank, guess who got caught behind that cripple kid?"

"I don't care."

"I don't care."

[Really? Still...] "I don't care."

The social dynamics of prison are a lot like high school. When most prisoners aren't bragging about how many women they've slept or what kind of gun they had/who they shot with it, the subject turns to gossip about what's going on with everyone else. To bolster the analogy, you've got the bullies (usually sexual predators or gang members), the burnouts/stoners, the nerds (often child sexual abusers or the sexually abused themselves), jocks (most prisons have basketball courts, and many have a softball field), etc.

Adult prisons are like high schools, youth prisons even more so. But while homosexuality was often accepted or laughed about with the adults, it was the penultimate taboo to the youth, something reserved for those who were already pariahs. Teen prisoners going to Chris' cell door to tease him would come back with stories of what he was doing with whom in the room. I didn’t know, I didn’t want to know, I didn’t care, and whatever part of my brain happened to intake those rumors both didn’t believe anything said by someone who hadn’t graduated 7th grade, and wasn’t surprised if it was the case.

On the adult side of the prison, every single homosexual predator was all over Chris when he moved from the young side. And Chris never seemed to glow more than when he was receiving their attentions. For the first time in his life, he was popular, and people were fighting over being around him. As a young man who had to deal with unwanted attention, I would have stood up for him, but he didn't seem to not want it. I heard the criticisms of him by serial killers and rapists but I couldn't have cared less myself, what he did as long as it was his choice to do it.

Love, as it often does, can turn sour, and one day Chris' [boyfriend?], a former neo-Nazi turned gay-Buddhist, beat the crap out of Chris. When I saw him, he had a black eye, bruises all over his face and arms, a split lip, and his "walk" with crutches, normally like young Forrest Gump's before the "run, Forrest, run" scene, became so strained that he had to go back in his wheelchair for a while.

Too many bad things happen in prison too often, and with prison memories making up over half the memories of my life, I wasn't about to let another bad thing I had no control over concern me. But then an acquaintance named John came up to me in the chow hall and felt like gossiping. "Hey Dank, did you hear that Cripple Chris got the shit kicked out of him by his loverboy?" he said before laughing.

There was something so crass, so uncultured, so un-human about laughing about the beating of a kid with cerebral palsy that, though I wouldn't say that I exactly considered Chris to be a friend, I got mad. "What the fuck is wrong with you that you're gonna laugh at a guy who's crippled and who has cerebral palsy getting beat up? Don't be a fuckin' scumbag."

He looked shocked. "Dude, what the fuck is your problem? He's a child molester. What the fuck do you care?"

I could feel a tightening in my stomach as disgust was becoming anger. "I see you hanging out with two fuckin' child rapists every single day, so don't give me that bullshit. You don't give a fuck about what he did. I've been close to killing a cho-mo, but I ain't ever heard of you doing anything but hanging out with them. You're just fuckin' giddy to hear about someone who can't defend themselves getting beat up. That's just hilarious to you, isn't it? What the fuck does that say about you as a person?"

John got angry in defense. "No, no...I do hate cho-mo's. I only talk to those guys because I do business with them. But besides, bad shit happens in prison. That's just the way it works. You just gotta laugh about it. He's in prison, something bad happened to him, that's just the way it is."

I hated his rationalization, but it parried away my anger. The situation de-escalated, I now just thought aloud, "This just isn't the place for him."

"What? You want him living next to your sister when she was young?"

"No, I hate what he did. And he shouldn't just be able to go back out into society. But he was abandoned as a kid, was fourteen when he did it, and has fuckin' cerebral palsy."

"So? He knew what he was doing."

"Yeah, so? He absolutely needs to be away from people he can harm. But you throw a fourteen year old mentally-disabled cripple in with serial killers and treat him like an adult? You don't see how that's fucked up?"

"What, you think he should have been charged as a juvenile and let go when he was eighteen or twenty?"

"That seems like a really stupid system when those are your only two options. He's dangerous, in a way, but he ain't evil. I've seen evil. But to punish him the same way those truly evil, demented people are? What does that say about justice?"

"I don't know, but it's the only system we got."

"And you don't think that's a problem?"

"Shit, that's all we've got. Just gotta deal with it."

I realized that he wasn't capable of understanding my point, so I chose not to argue any further. But, stuck in line, I couldn't walk away.




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