Curtis Dawkins is in prison serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. In this article, he shares what was nearly the worst thing he ever witnessed in prison.
The worst thing I ever saw in prison never happened.
But before that, let me say this: Besides the small percentage of those wrongfully convicted, there are two types of people behind bars: 1) Those raised in a world where crime was part of life. So prison, when it comes, is not that big of a shock. Also, they don’t have the money to hire a defense team like the white-collar financial criminal, who is no less immoral (and maybe more so) than anyone I live amongst. Or, 2) Through a series of events generally aligned by our own flaws and actions, someone ends up dead. Suddenly, it seems, you’re prison-bound.
I am in Group 2. Growing up in southern Illinois, no one I knew had ever been to prison, except a couple of young men my father employed over the years at our family grocery store. The men in Group 1 feel oddly right at home here (the most important factor, I believe, in recidivism); whereas every time I move as much as to a new cell, it takes me a very long time to feel the least bit comfortable. I’m no better than the men in Group 2, just different.
The worst thing I saw that never happened took place when I had yet to settle in, a couple of weeks after I moved from E Unit at the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan, to a better place: B Unit. It is a better unit because there are fewer idiots. B Unit houses mostly quieter, more mature men. But it also still felt very new, and the first time I’ve been housed in a large, open room with single-man bunks. There are seven such bunks in four rows. Each two rows are separated by an aisle the width of a Prius, or two side-by-side wheelchairs.
The man who moved across from me was about my age (48), in a wheelchair. He wasn’t paralyzed. He could walk easily, it seemed, with a cane which he kept standing at the end of his bed, but for longer treks, he had a wheelchair and a designated “pusher”—someone with a “detail” to push wheelchairs. I figured that my neighbor must have had nerve damage, or a disease. Many of us in prison have lived very hard lives, scarring us in both visible and unseen ways.
He was a friendly man who I’ll call Ace for his love of card games. He was the type of person who could have had a lucrative career in sales. I sold Saturns for almost two years soon after receiving an M.F.A. in the early 2000s, and Ace was no less charismatic than the memorable used car salesman I knew there. He certainly drank less NyQuil, had fewer ex-wives.
He was a friendly man who I’ll call Ace for his love of card games. He was the type of person who could have had a lucrative career in sales.
In fact, Ace was so friendly he befriended an inmate in our unit known not-endearingly as Shitbag, on account of his colostomy bag. When he aired it out—not always in a well-ventilated place—the area reeked for a long time afterward. And he also lacked basic hygienic instincts. He was greasy and dirty and he stunk. I know that I have to be careful when describing someone like Shitbag, because I told my partner, Kim, about him, and she said, “Oh, that’s really sad,” as if I had just told her about a puppy I rescued from an abusive home. I can now see how someone like Shitbag can be a sympathetic character, though none of us saw him as such.
Ace became fast friends with Shitbag. They played cards, Ace let him push his wheelchair sans proper detail, and, most importantly, he listened to the man’s rambling stories. Shitbag had this unfillable black hole of need that you could feel the minute you came in contact with him. You felt his need even before you smell the remnants of his other disease.
So, Ace was what I would call a social genius, a person I have never been, will never be, and am always in awe of when I see them in action. He had been here maybe a week. It was night. The lights were still on, but I remember that I kept expecting them to go off at any moment. Ace was sitting in his wheelchair, playing solitaire on his desk, his back to the aisle, his wooden cane at the foot of his bed. A middle-aged African-American man, with the spastic manner and toothless mouth of crack addicts the world over, stopped behind Ace, picked up the cane and suddenly took a full-on baseball swing at the head of the social genius, stopping maybe six inches from what I can only assume would have been a loud and horrible head injury.
The jittery crackhead laughed and laughed as he went on his way. It was simply a joke, the unfortunate jocular side-effect of being friendly with everyone you meet. I was lying on my bunk, reading, and had no chance to register the act of violence as play—not that I would have anyway as it was a serious swing. I believed I was witnessing a murder.
If all of your fellow inmates are as old and laid-back as your grandparents and the snoring begins soon after the lights go out, still, you have to always know that you are in prison. None of us are here for singing too loud in the church choir.
I lay there with my book, my suddenly-elevated heartbeat visible under my T-shirt. I drank some water. My hands shook, and I had broken out in a cold sweat. I thought, I fucking hate prison.