Curtis Dawkins is in prison serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He will be writing about his experiences inside. This article lists ten years worth of bunkmates.
A man who said he was related to the Hatfields—of those famous feuders—who had a computer-like ability to recall the lyrics to ’80s metal songs—and not just the hits, but relatively obscure ones too, like Krokus, Accept, and lesser-known Kiss, who taught me how to make my first bunk (like everything else in jail, there’s a trick to it) by tying the ends of the bottom sheet together, who said he’d seen me and my case right up there on that TV. “And now, here you are,” he said.
Another man who had a plan to get his painkilling opioid patches in the County because he had a prescription for nerve pain, and we were going to smoke it somehow and get high as hell, who told me about a dark and beautiful tatted-up heroin dealer who shows up in my dreams every once in a while.
A barber named Brady, on his fifth or sixth DUI. A dwarfish man I got into a fight with because I ridiculed his half-assed attempt at a fake suicide, and won, but since I had the black eye, everyone thought I’d lost. But I didn’t.
There were more in the County—it was a four-man cell, though there were usually five or six inmates—in the eleven months awaiting trial, you might think they all blur into one, but they don’t. They are still all very separate men.
The first bunky in actual prison, in Level 4, in Muskegon, Michigan, killed his infant son by shaking him violently, and I’d been working on a short story that he wanted me to read aloud, which I did, and he liked, but wanted a clearer ending. That’s how I knew that the ending was good.
The next bunky was called Whitey, though he received tribal payouts for being one-sixteenth Ojibwe, who never left the cell because he refused to go to school, was therefore always on sanctions.
A kidnapper who put a shotgun in a woman’s mouth tied up in his trunk, from the Pacific Northwest, who was short, yet muscle-bound, who was always working on some sort of rhyming dictionary for rappers. His shoes were so small I told him once it was a wonder he could stand on such tiny feet. A large black man they called DD beat up a c.o. behind us once as we played a card game called casino. That was before Tasers, and the only time I’ve seen a c.o. punched, though we all punch them at times in our minds.
My first bunky in Level 2 killed a man in a bar fight—as had Whitey—and had waist-length hair. That was back when we could smoke in prison, and I ran into him again in a different prison last year. He was contemplating a haircut, and we reminisced about the bygone joys of smoking.
I locked with a devout Muslim—a quiet, middle-aged African American—when Barack Obama was elected. I was excited and hopeful at the history I was witnessing, and from that same cell a long time later with a different bunky who worked all day in the laundry factory (the best bunkies are the ones who are gone the most). I saw a man undergo CPR for thirty minutes in the middle of the hall. Then an EMT vomited in a corner (the smell? hungover? stress?). His heart started back up for a moment, then stopped for good.
My softball-playing bunky, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole at seventeen for robbing and shooting his former P.E. teacher, who received regular letters from the ACLU (or was it Amnesty International?), updating him on the progress they were making on the “Juvenile Lifers” bill, which has since been enacted, though no juveniles sentenced to life have been released.
They all began ten years ago, Halloween, after I was put in a cell alone, in a suicide prevention gown known as a Bam-Bam (for the Flintstones character who wore similar garb) suit. I had never been to jail before, and though I could see a clock through the grimy Plexiglas where deputies booked people and took care of paperwork, after fitful periods of sleeping and waking on a slightly raised bed of nothing but concrete, I couldn’t tell if it was night or day and just stared at a vague reflection of someone I didn’t recognize.