Curtis Dawkins

Mitchell in Winter

Curtis Dawkins is in prison serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. In this article, he writes about one of his bunkmates, Mitchell, and how things in prison are rarely as simple as they appear.


Every prison in the world is exactly alike, and completely different.

Section 4 of B Unit at the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan: a long, open room with beige, tile walls and a hanging ceiling where two months ago a couple of guys had hidden a wine-making operation, until one of them got drunk and projectile-vomited frothy, fermented orange juice across the floor, putting a public, smelly end to their secret cartel.

There are 28 single-man bunks in the room. I have a desk (a huge yet simple luxury) on which my typewriter sets. I have a locker and a chair and a strip of open space between the desk and bunk the width of a cinder block.

There are none of the vertical steel bars in B-4 that the image of prison might conjure, and if I wanted to, I could go outside and walk around a muddy track near the fences and razor wire overlooking a vast empty field. I probably won’t, though, on account of the cold and snow and my impending job cleaning the c.o.’s office, which pays 84¢ per day.

Mitchell (not his real name) in bunk 49, the one across from mine, just came in, a blue rubber band wrapped around his head, snugly cinching the bright orange winter hat to his dome. Dusting the cuffs of his blue, state-issue pants are the white outlines of evaporated salt, as if he’d recently strolled along the Atlantic.

“You need a cup of coffee?” he asks.

Usually he’s the one asking for things: a Swiss roll, Ramen noodles, new AA batteries, a letter to his sister typed—Gretchen, who was not answering his phone calls, writing him, or sending money. He can’t stand to think anyone is mad at him.


Every prison in the world is exactly alike, and completely different.


At evening med-line two nights ago, in the midst of possibly the last heavy snow of this winter, Mitchell, shirtless, wearing only gray socks for shoes, came up behind the line of about twenty of us. The c.o. calmly told him to go back and put a shirt on.

“I’ve got a shirt on, sir,” Mitchell said, shivering, hopping from foot to foot like a kid who has to piss.

The med-line chatter stopped. The flakes falling were big and heavy and in the new silence you could hear them, whooshing softly, as they landed on the ones before.

The c.o. said, “Mitchell, I’m giving you a direct order to go put your shirt on. And some shoes.”

Mitchell insisted that he had a shirt on, his sparsely-haired head and mustache beginning to accumulate a layer of flakes.

Things in prison are rarely as simple as they appear. What looked to be an unfortunately-dressed, mentally-ill man might in fact be a fully sane man trying to pick a false fight with a c.o. to get off the yard for reasons known only to him. He might walk up to him and jam a sharpened pencil into his neck. Or, he might spread out on the new snow and begin fashioning angels.

The officer repeated his direct order several more times, and Mitchell kept saying, “I have a shirt on, sir.” He moved slowly towards the c.o., his hands tucked under his arms. “Are you mad at me?” He was shivering violently by then, but concerned only with whether the officer was mad at him.

Through calm talk and more warnings, Mitchell was eventually persuaded to return to B Unit. A couple of us helped him find his shoes and a shirt, though he still swore he had one on. He said he was hearing voices, but I didn’t ask what they were saying. He asked me for a couple of the oatmeal pies I had traded him earlier for a bag of microwave popcorn. He ate both and then got his medication (he refused to put on a coat), came back and was soon asleep, the cellophane wrappers of the oatmeal pies shining in the light of his glowing TV.

He says he doesn’t remember anything about the incident.

Only a heartless bastard would dislike Mitchell, who is, on the whole, like a mildly-retarded St. Bernard—one that barks too often at nothing, and drives you slightly nuts with his begging. I’d take him any day over some other idiots nearby always talking about nonsense, who have been in and out of prison their entire lives, as if it was nothing more than a bad relationship they keep returning to.


Curtis Dawkins

Curtis Dawkins earned an M.F.A. from Western Michigan University and is currently an inmate at the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia, Michigan for murder. He was battling with drug addiction at the time. After a jury trial, he was convicted of felony murder which carries a mandatory sentence of "life without the possibility of parole." He is not scheduled to be released. Ever. But writing gives him hope.

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