BY CHRIS DANKOVICH, Contributing Writer
“Hey, did you see that kid in the wheelchair today?”
“No.” I say. “When did he get here?”
“I think he just rode in yesterday or today,” said Greg.
“He break his leg or something?”
“No, he’s, like, seriously in a wheelchair. There’s something actually wrong with him. He’s got some disease, I think. Like what Stephen Hawkins has, or something like that.”
“So he’s, like, paralyzed?”
“I think it was just his legs, but I didn’t exactly kick him in his shins or nothing.”
“I smile. “That’s sweet. Do you think he got shot or something?”
“No, he doesn’t look like ‘that kind of guy.” Greg raised his eyebrows, his eyes widening and his inflection changing slightly to highlight an unspoken stereotype. “Less gangster, more like ‘Bones.” Bones was a bully-magnet. On the young side, lanky, pasty-white, socially awkward, submissive. He was what in my father’s day they would have called a “pansy-boy.” Bones survived by telling on any stranger who so much as talked to him, and because there was a rumor (probably started by him) that he carried a shank.
The next day I’m standing in line in the chow hall. Winky (so named because he had two different colored eyes from a childhood cornea transplant) points over to a table —the same kind of faux-wood tables I had in middle-school.
“See, there’s that crippled kid.”
“That’s fucked up… to call him that.” I instinctively say. There’s a certain amount of crassness that’s unnecessary.
I look over at where he’s pointing though, and I see a kid, no facial hair, pimply-faced, sitting in a wheelchair. Something about his body-language (his composure? his contentment?) suggests to me that Winky is right and that his problem is more than just a broken leg, and is something he’s lived with for a while.
“We should go sit by him.” Winky says to me and Dale, standing behind me.
“Why?” I ask, knowing that Winky wants to harass him.
“I don’t know. What else you got to do?”
We got our trays and the three of us walked over and sat down across from the kid in the wheelchair.
“Hey. What’s going on there, buddy?” Winky asked. I detected a hint of a taunt.
“Nothin’,” he said, looking down.
“What do you think about these chicken wings here? They better than the county jail where you came from?”
“Yeah, they’re all right.”
We all ate a few.
“So,” said Winky. “What’s your name?”
“It’s Chris,” he said, still looking down at his tray.
“So whatcha in here for ‘Chris’?” Winky stared at him intensely, though some of that intensity may have been from lack of control over his eye muscles.
Chris’s eyes darted around, from his tray to me, to Winky, to Dale, back to Winky. He was nervous. “Uhhh, Breaking and Entering.”
“Did the house have a fuckin’ wheelchair access ramp?” I blurted out. I didn’t mean to be an asshole, but it sort of slipped out, and once it did we all started laughing uncontrollably.
His statement, combined with his demeanor, gave it away: he was in here for something he was ashamed to declare openly, which told me then that he had molested a child. It could have been something else involving a child, but those cases were fairly rare. Murderers, thieves, drug dealers, even rapists of adults generally speak openly about their cases in prison. His sense of shame and his lack of maneuverability told me all I needed to know about what he was here for. Child molesters generally will say, when confronted, that they’re in prison for murder if they received life, though the average sentence for someone who rapes a child is less than that of the average burgler. Hence, burglary is the cover-story the ones with shorter sentences generally use.
“Yeah, sure you are. How much time they give you?” asked Winky.
“I got twelve years,” said Chris.
I had heard everything I cared to hear. My mind was torn between not wanting to harass a young kid in a wheelchair, and the unconfirmed but almost definite fact that he’s a child molester, something that I hate, something that I take personally, something I have experience with. I just wanted to leave the table.
Later, Greg and I were sitting outside at a picnic table (one that has never witnessed a picnic), when a commotion breaks out between the row of phones and the gate that leads to the other side of the yard. Chris was standing (yes, standing) with the aid of crutches, his knees seeming to bend in the wrong directions, his legs as unsteady as a newborn fawn. Three black gangbangers surrounded him like hyenas, laughing at him. The bigger one said something to him, and Chris started backing up. One of the kids behind him pushed him forward, all three of them laughing. Chris raised a crutch and swung it, looking coordinated enough in the process to lead me to believe that he may have done this before. He swung the crutch at all of them. They backed away, still laughing.
Greg stood up. “Man, that’s fucked. Why the fuck are they doing that to him?”
I stood up as well. “Because they’re a bunch of fucking cowards.”
“I feel like we should do something. That’s fucked up.”
“I know, but it’s over. They’re gone. What do you want to do?” I asked.
“You wanna go talk to him? I feel like we should at least give him a pat on the back.”
“I’m good. I don’t really feel like going to the Hole
The door-sized gate in front of our maximum-security unit is held shut by an electromagnet that is deactivated by an officer with a key inside the comfort of the unit. It generally takes a while for one of them to notice us standing there. All of us prisoners are generally pretty good about showing courtesy to others and holding the gate open for them. Greg held the door open as I walked through along with a few other inmates. As he was about to let go of the door, Chris came wheeling around the corner. Greg held the door open as Chris came speeding closer. As he rushed through the door he ran over Greg’s foot, causing Greg to yelp in pain.
“Ow! What the fuck?! Little fuckin’ asshole!”
Chris sped on without stopping or looking back, opening the door into the unit himself and rolling on through.
“Man! screw that little crippled kid! Fucking bastard didn’t even stop or say he was sorry!”
“Whoa! Calm down buddy, ” I said. “I’m sure REO Speedwagon didn’t mean anything by it.”
“I don’t care —he had to feel the bump as he ran over my foot and he must’ve heard me yell out. Aaaargh, Goddamnit!”
“You all right?” I asked as I put my arm around him and helped him limp inside.
“I hope he gets hit by a friggin’ train.”
I laughed. “I think that might be the one thing he’s safe from in here.”
The classroom where I worked as a tutor was silent when Chris stumbled in on his sticks. A few students whispered and snickered while I just watched as he pivoted around to the teacher’s desk.
Mr. E, the teacher I worked under, stood up and swung a metal chair (the same ones with the plastic seat and small backrest that we had in middle-school) in his massive arm and set it down for Chris sit in. They started talking and I went back to work teaching my students fractions. I was peripherally aware that they spent the class hour talking and chuckling, though I thought nothing of it. During our downtime to prep for the rest of our classes, I chatted with my boss. When he mentioned Chris, I asked what was up with him.
“Well, he seems pretty capable and decently smart — especially for someone with cerebral palsy.” He said. My mind floated to my distant cousin, the same age as me, with the same condition.
“Cerebral palsy?” I said, shocked. “What the hell’s he doing in here if he’s got cerebral palsy?”
“I’m not sure. I have a feeling it wasn’t home invasion though,” he said laughing. I laughed too at the familiar sense of humor. “But I really don’t know. I started him in math today and he seems like he might be all right with it. I think I’ll work with him for now.”
“I think that’s a good idea.”
The next day while I was sitting around as my students worked on the problems I gave them, Mr. E sent Chris over with a math question neither of them could solve. Though I was only 17 and I hadn’t even completed my freshman year of high school, I was better at math than any other inmate tutor or actual accredited teacher working there. One of the few things that made me feel good at the time was when my boss used to say, “When in doubt, go ask Dank.”
“Hey, you’re Dank, right? I’m Chris,” he said, apparently not remembering me.
“Hey, what’s up Chris?” I said politely. I considered the school to be the one positive place in the entire prison and a safe zone. No matter what I thought of someone outside of class, I treated them respectfully inside of it.
He explained the problem he was having, and I helped him until he got it, which took a few tries.
“Hey, thanks Dank. I really appreciate it,” he said with a smile, in his raspy voice.
Between classes I would usually stay in the classroom and clean up and prepare for the next group. As I sat back and waited for my students to arrive, I heard loud voices and the scuffling of an altercation in the hallway. Crossing into my field of vision through the doorway, I saw Eric, a very large young black guy, shove another young black man past the door. The other young man looked like he considered fighting for a moment, but when Eric postured up, he decided against it and went to his own class. Eric came into class and, as one of my students, sat down at the table in front of my desk.
I looked at him as he breathed heavily. “Hey, what’s going on bro?” I asked, as Eric was one of the calmest, most laid back, least violent people I knew.
“Man,” he huffed, as other students came to sit around him. “That motherfucker threw little Chris out of his wheelchair for absolutely no reason.”
I could see in his face how much this bothered him. I didn’t like the sound of it either.
“Yeah, so? Why do you give a fuck?” asked JR, who sat next to him.
“Because man, he didn’t do nothing wrong. He wasn’t bothering anybody. That bitch just came up and pushed him out his chair.”
“Fuck him though. He’s a fuckin’ cho-mo.”
This made Eric upset, and for the second and only other time I saw him get aggressive.
“I don’t care what he is, and neither did that motherfucker when he threw him out that chair. He didn’t push him out his chair because he’s a child molester… he threw him out his chair because he’s someone who can’t fight back. I hate that shit. You don’t see that motherfucker pushing around any other grown men. No, he wants to fuck with the weak guy in the wheelchair who can’t fight back. You wanna shove someone, shove me.”
Anyone who has ever seen Eric would know that wouldn’t be a good idea.
Chris was abandoned by his parents as an infant. He was raised in Catholic orphanages in the metro-Detroit area. There was no foster or surrogate mother or father to hold him, tuck him in at night, comfort him when he fell or was being bullied. He had never kissed a girl. He was desperate for attention from anyone who would give it to him. I learned that much from talking to him.
Chris molested a two-year old girl when he was fourteen. His judge sentenced him to a minimum of twelve years in prison, the main aggravating factor being that the girl was in his care at the time. I learned these facts from an acquaintance who bullied Chris into showing him his legal paperwork. His sentence is longer than the average given to sex offenders wno rape multiple kids, but the fact that he victimized any kid made me unable to care about any of the “finer” details.
Yet I couldn’t bring myself to be mean to him, to hate him, or even to dislike him. After I helped him in class, he started saying “Hi” and “How are you doing?” to me every time he saw me. I was one of the only people he felt comfortable enough to talk to at all. He liked to play catch with a tennis ball with whomever would throw to him, a painful though somehow also uplifting thing to watch. I played with him a couple times when no one else was around.
He’d come to me for help when he got into some non-accredited college training courses offered by the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at University of Michigan, though his cerebral palsy prevented him from graduating. He somehow managed to get hired as a tutor, just like me. Weaknesses aplenty, his main strength was that he had the humility to admit when he didn’t know the answer to a question, and he would do whatever he could to find the answer… something most tutors in the school were too prideful to do, opting instead to give their students the wrong answer and then defending it.
When I’d see Chris fall, I’d help him back up if I got there before he’d righted himself. Over the course of a lifetime, he apparently learned how to get back up pretty quickly. Sometimes I would get heckled for it, to which I’d ask, “What the fuck is your problem?” Usually the answer would be something like, “He’s a child molester. If anything, you should kick him while he’s down.”
Part of me agreed. I would defend my actions though, partly to prove something to them, partly to prove something to myself. “God punished him for fourteen years before he did anything wrong, and he’s doing twelve years in this shit-hole, getting fucked with every single day. I’m not going to add to that. His twelve years is a lot worse sentence for him than twelve years would be for you.”
“Did you hear that Chris got caught having sex with Tom?”
“Hey, you gotta hear this… Cripple Chris had Robles in the room….”
“Hey Dank, guess who got caught behind that cripple kid?”
“I don’t care.”
“I don’t care.”
Really? Still… “I don’t care.”
The social dynamics of prison are a lot like high school. When most prisoners aren’t bragging about how many women they’ve slept with or what kind of gun they had or who they shot with it, the subject turns to gossip about what’s going on with everyone else. You’ve got the bullies (usually sexual predators or gang members), the burnouts/stoners, the nerds (often child sexual abusers or the sexually abused themselves), the jocks (most prisons have basketball courts/ and many have a softball field) etc…
Adult prisons are like high schools; youth prisons even more so. While homosexuality was often accepted or laughed about with the adults, it was the ultimate taboo to the youth — something reserved for those who were already pariahs. Teen prisoners going to Chris’s cell door to tease him would come back with stories of what he was doing with whom in the room. I didn’t know, I didn’t want to know. I didn’t care.
On the adult side of the prison every single homosexual predator was all over Chris when he moved from the young side. And Chris never seemed to glow more than when he was receiving their attentions. For the first time in his life, he was popular and people were fighting over being around him. As a young man who had to deal with unwanted attention, I would have stood up for him, but he didn’t seem to not want the attention. I heard the criticisms of him by serial killers and rapists, but I couldn’t have cared less myself what he did as long as it was his choice to do it.
Love, as it often does, can turn sour and one day Chris’s boyfriend — a former neo-Nazi turned gay-Buddhist — beat the crap out of Chris. When I saw him, he had a black eye, bruises all over his face and arms, a split lip, and his “walk” with crutches — normally like young Forrest Gump’s before the “Run, Forrest Run” scene — became so strained that he had to go back in his wheelchair for a while.
Too many bad things happen in prison too often, and with prison memories making up over half the memories of my life, I wasn’t about to let another bad thing I had no control over concern me. But then an acquaintance named John came up to me in the chow hall and felt like gossiping. “Hey Dank, did you hear that Cripple Chris got the shit kicked out of him by his loverboy?” He laughed as he said it.
There was something so crass, so uncultured, so inhuman about laughing about the beating of a kid with cerebral palsy that, though I wouldn’t say that I exactly considered Chris to be a friend, I got mad. “What the fuck is wrong with you that you’re gonna laugh at a guy who’s crippled and who has cerebral palsy getting beat up? Don’t be a fuckin’ scumbag.”
He looked shocked. “Dude, what the fuck is your problem? He’s a child molester. What the fuck do you care?”
I could feel a tightening in my stomach as disgust was becoming anger. “I see you hanging out with two fuckin’ child rapists every single day, so don’t give me that bullshit. You don’t give a fuck about what he did. I’ve been close to killing a cho-mo, but I ain’t ever heard of you doing anything but hanging out with them. You’re just fuckin’ giddy to hear about someone who can’t defend themselves getting beat up. That’s just hilarious to you, isn’t it? What the fuck does that say about you as a person?”
John got angry in defense. “No, no… I do hate cho-mo’s. I only talk to those guys because I do business with them. But besides, bad shit happens in prison. That’s just the way it works. You just gotta laugh about it. He’s in prison, something bad happened to him, that’s just the way it is.”
I hated his rationalization, but it drove away my anger. The situation de-escalated, I now simply thought aloud. “This just isn’t the place for him.”
“What? You want him living next to your sister when she was young?”
“No, I hate what he did. And he shouldn’t just be able to go back out into society. But he was abandoned as a kid, was fourteen when he did it, and has fuckin’ cerebral palsy.”
“So? He knew what he was doing.”
“Yeah, so? He absolutely needs to be away from people he can harm. But you throw a 14-year old mentally-disabled cripple in with serial killers and treat him like an adult? You don’t see how that’s fucked up?”
“What, you think he should have been charged as a juvenile and let go when he was eighteen or twenty?”
“It seems like a really stupid system when those are your only two options. He’s dangerous, in a way, but he ain’t evil. I’ve seen evil. But to punish him the same way those truly evil, demented people are? What does that say about justice?”
“I don’t know, but it’s the only system we got.”
“And you don’t think that’s a problem?”
“Shit, that’s all we’ve got. Just gotta deal with it.”
Chris Dankovich is serving 25-37 years in Michigan for murdering his mother when he was 15 years old.
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Chris Dankovich #595904
Thumb Corr Facility
3225 John Conley Dr
Lapeer, MI 48446