Curtis Dawkins is in prison serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. In this article, he explores why it is that he’s managed to evade violence in prison.
Eleven years into a life sentence, I’ve—knock on wood—been very fortunate violence-wise. I was assaulted once about six months into my eleven-month stay while awaiting trial in the Kalamazoo County Jail. The assault was voluntary, as a little troll of a man and I had been going around and around for a few hours about how he had been too stupid (my opinion) to correctly fake-hang himself.
The reason a troll might fake-hang himself in the county is pretty simple: there was the seductive and pervasive myth that if an inmate attempted suicide, he or she would be sent, for a time, to the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital on Oakland Drive, which, incidentally, was visible at one time from my grad-assistant office high in Sprau Tower on the campus of Western Michigan University.
The rumor was that you could smoke there. And more importantly, you could walk around, perhaps outdoors. Briefly, I would describe life in a county jail as torturous and inhuman; so, even a psychiatric hospital begins to seem like a Shangri-La in the inmate’s mind.
He saw an enticing reprieve, strung up a bed sheet, and pretended to hang himself. Except he did it wrong. For a believable suicide attempt, the suicide should have the tension of the loop against his windpipe, and the troll man had it backwards. He stood on the horizontal slats of the bars and faced outwards, towards the hall, where he would be spotted when the deputy made her next round. That neck-hanging works on the gallows because the heavy knot snaps (ideally, though not always) the spine of the condemned. The worst the troll was going to get was a bed sheet abrasion.
I like to think he quickly saw that he was outmatched boxing-wise. He instantly changed tactics and wrestled me headfirst into the stall side of the bunk. We were broken up by one of our three cellmates, and I somehow ended up with a full-fledged shiner of a black eye, which I explained to the staff by saying I fell in the shower. They don’t believe such stories, of course, but there’s no way to prove otherwise, unless someone talks.
The black eye worried my young kids when they visited soon after. I promised then and there never to fight again.
I stay to myself. I don’t get into debt. And I’ve been growing my hair long for the past couple of years. That sounds like a benign detail, but recently, during a visit with my kids and literary genius partner, Kim, I told her that guys I know often say I look mass-murderish when I get out of the shower, my hair hanging wet and shaggy. Somehow, I said, this seems to create a buffer around me. “The Dahmer effect,” she said.
I believe this to be a cumulative effect: some wholly unsavory characters, white guys all—Gacy, Manson, Bundy, Dahmer … and sadly, I could go on for a long time—have paved the way for some strange currency. Only in the alternate universe of prison can one redeem that currency for safety.