By: Chris Dankovich, Contributing Writer
First days are sitting in an inflatable life-raft in the ocean while the winds whip around you in a hurricane. Giant waves crash violently around you, and the winds and currents own you. Paddle if it calms the current in your soul, or ride the swell with open arms, because either way there has never been a more appropriate definition of the word, “Fate.”
Pleas to God and affirmations were written next to gang graffiti underneath my solitary room’s sink. “God Loves You,” “Everything will be alright,” “Seven Mile Bloods 4 life.” That’s not what got me through, though. Not hope, nor perseverance. Whispers carried on the wind of those who cared enough about me to write letters, but more than hanging on it was that I didn’t let go (except at one point I tried to but failed… my body weight kept me on the raft). After two weeks in “Quarantine” at the hellhole prison intake center in Jackson, MI (birthplace of the Republican Party, now completely reliant on a prison complex that was once the largest in the world), I came to the prison where I would grow up.
One O’clock: Steve and I transferred via prison transport van from Jackson together. It turned out, on a twist of fate, that this total stranger and I already knew each other. Arriving at our destination, we were put in the same cell. He was a year older than me, both of us too young to buy cigarettes. Unpacking my entire life’s belongings from my state-issued duffle bag, I pulled out some pictures that my friends and family had mailed me while in Quarantine, my only connection to the outside world during that tumultuous time. Stopping on the beautiful photograph of a house and red barn taken from across a multi-acre pond at sunset (my grandparent’s house), Steve stopped me, saying that he knew that place.
Immediately I became suspicious. The house was in Evart, an incredibly small town of less than a few thousand, and the property was miles outside of the main town, where only one house stood across from it (another once did, but it had burned down when I was six or seven years old). Nobody knows where that photo was taken from, not even people who live in Evart. As the words came out of his mouth, I was sure that this new acquaintance of mine was playing some sort of game, trying to manipulate the situation.
I looked at him, but without catching my sarcasm he exclaimed, “Yeah, that’s Evart, isn’t it?”
I was shocked. I hadn’t mentioned anything about where the photo was taken, simply that it was my grandparents’ house. My eyes instantly widening to cyclop’s proportions, I asked him how the hell he knew that. He responded that he once lived across a road and pond from a house that had looked just like that, the view from his front breakfast window the beautiful pond, red barn, and classy small house near the water. But his house had burned down when he was seven or eight years old, when his brother put a sock in an EZ Bake Oven. I remember meeting the family when I was very young, before the house burned down, and he vaguely remembered meeting my grandparents.
I was lucky to meet Steve; he was more street-wise than I was. And in the six more days we were cellmates, I learned from him some of the skills I would use to survive the next decade in prison.
Six O’clock: Shark Attack. Standing in the middle of the room while we talked about Evart, noise echoes down the hall, yelling that it was somebody’s day to die, followed by a cry to stop and the sound of metal hitting one of the seemingly bulletproof metal doors. Later, the sound of officers rushing by, one yelling, “Is he dead?”, another slamming our window flaps (which block our view like a shutter). Ours was slammed so hard it swung back open. Steve and my heads stacked like bricks in the door’s slender vertical window. A stretcher wheeled by, covered in blood, dripping with blood while a nurse frantically did something to whomever it was. We had been in prison for only a few hours. We look at each other with a look that said, “Holy shit, where the hell are we?”
Seven O’clock: I walked to the TV dayroom like I was diving into a dark sea. There were two groups of young men, divided by race: whites at one table, blacks at another by the wall. I’m not racist in any way or form, but one group waved me over while the other group frowned and glared. I walked past a big, muscle-bound, heavily tattooed white guy (who still must have been under 21 to be housed there). I grabbed a seat near the table. A few moments later, the entire attention of the group was directed at me when this giant kid walked over to me.
“Hey, aren’t you that kid who wanted to get rid of all the cho-mos [child molesters]?” He said loudly, referring to one part of my criminal history.
I looked up at him and nervously nodded my head. My criminal past that had put me in prison was related to me acting rashly out of fear and terror, though I pretended to be courageous. Here, out of my element, I was floating in a Hurricane, and I truly felt absolutely no control.
He stuck out his hand, and I shook it because I was going with whatever current took me. He had a bone-crushing grip, but something reassuring. He looked me over and asked how old I was.
“Holy fuck,” he said.
Then he looked around and told everyone, at the white table and the black table, and later out on yard, to look out for me and help me out. Acquaintances of his that took his word as vouching for me became my friends. I had cigarettes, ramen noodles, and people to show me the way through the forest. For the first time in my life, I had a community of my own.
This was my first day in prison. I thought that I would drown. But by fortune and fate I met those who would teach me to swim out of a rare commodity in prison: kindness. Though I’ve been treading water for nearly twelve years now as I write this, I can’t forget the first day.
Chris Dankovich #595904
Thumb Corr Facility
3225 John Conley Dr
Lapeer, MI 48446