deyonI watched my friend’s face with skepticism. 

No one in their right mind hoped for something so sinister. Yet his steady eyes only stared back at me, repeating what he had just said: “Seriously, part of me hopes I catch COVID. This could be my ticket out of here.”

Had he been anyone else it would have upset me, but I gave him the benefit of a few seconds’ tolerance. That allowed other wheels in my mind to turn, and possibly make some sense of what he had just said.

Suspicion told me this was worry talking, but maybe this was deeper than any subjective fear. Unlike anything else I heard in recent months, it seemed honest. His comment made me so uncomfortable that I didn’t want to talk to him until I figured out why.

I wondered if anyone else was losing their mind to COVID-19.  I started to observe the others quietly — asking questions outright would put people on their guard. Anything before prejudging a close friend.

Most of the guys on my housing wing were busy stalking women on reality-TV shows, arguing over which of them had the best butt, breasts, or sex. The world was falling apart before their very eyes and all they could think about was their libidos. I was neither surprised nor moved by this, but rather, I recognized their avoidance as one of humanity’s oldest defense mechanisms.

Most men here are constantly joking and playing to pass the time or simply to keep from crying. I saw these same tactics over and over again: avoidance, feigned indifference, smiling to keep from crying. A few fights erupted in passing days, but they were no indicator of COVID-craziness. Fights always erupt around here. Fear motivated people to fight even in normal prison circumstances,  whether they were afraid of the disgrace and rejection that followed perceived cowardice, of more disrespect from tolerating it the first time, or of simply being attacked first if they did nothing. They didn’t need a COVID-19 threat for that. 

I spoke to a prisoner whose father and stepmother contracted the virus. His father recovered but his stepmother didn’t make it. I offered condolences but I didn’t hear sadness. His tone seemed rather proud — of what: his father surviving? Of his stepmother dying (maybe he didn’t like her)? I didn’t know, but I sensed overcompensation.

When I heard that an associate of mine was struggling with news of his mother’s COVID-19 diagnosis, I didn’t know whether to confront that associate with sympathy or pretend as if I didn’t know. Everyone processed grief and worry differently and kept strict boundaries. I didn’t want to seem intrusive, especially about something so grim, so I waited. If he volunteered the information, it meant he intended for me to have it. If he didn’t, he would have been uncomfortable with me knowing. I sent him honeybuns under the guise of looking out for him like always, but really sent them to cheer him up. When I approached his cell to see if he got them, though, he was busy yelling playful insults at a guy across the hallway. 

As for me, was I afraid to catch COVID-19? Yes, because I wanted to live and make it home from prison like everyone else. But did it make me say crazy things, or want to end my life? No. I was doing a lot of time too, but I wasn’t any more hopeless or afraid than anyone else. No one wanted to talk about what really lies behind the masks, except my insane friend who dared to wish COVID-19 on himself. 

Had he really gone insane? I knew him well enough to at least infer. I searched our personal history to see if his comment was the product of incoherence, bitterness, anger, even depression, and concluded that it wasn’t. Nor was it as offhand as I would have liked to think: it seemed truly honest. He twitched as if it was a slip of the tongue, but only because I heard the thought when no one else was supposed to, not because he had not given the idea any forethought before voicing it. His firm tone, though, was one of a person who has endured years of suffering.

He’d been stuck on this compound for twelve calendars when the average stay was two. All the staff hated him, quite a few prisoners too, and his enemies knew to best attack him with noise. I thought he was exaggerating when he told me about it. Your cell, like your body, was your own subjective experience, and if no one was targeting you with noise, you tended to think it wasn’t happening to anyone else. However, I started paying attention after he told me that. Sure enough, more times than I could count or even cared to, I heard them slamming his food slot at chow time, banging his one-thousand-pound steel door with a four-pound, steel, electrical, count prod during every count round, at all times of the day and night, to exacerbate his anxiety disorder—a condition created in a vicious cycle by years of nonstop exposure to the noise. 

He couldn’t do much about the provocation, either. Writing a grievance would likely result in him getting set up by the police and sent to the hole. Fighting would yield identical results, and every trip there sets the clock back two years on earning a transfer. His last fight on the hamster wheel in 2018 cost him fifteen months of ticket-free waiting, when he was on the ride-out list only waiting for bed-space to open up. Now, he was on the list again. COVID-19’s emergence in March had forced administration to cancel all transfers statewide, but still the only way out of this was straight through it with no mistakes. 

The noise impacted his health: he explained that every time it happened it was like receiving an electrical shock to the heart. When he removed his shirt to show me the damage, I noticed his whole stomach convulsing as heartbeats, not just his chest where his heart pounded. It reminded me of a scene from the movie E.T., but worse. He said his heart pounded like that every second of every day and that the pain—of having what felt like hundreds of extra pounds on your chest during every palpitation, of being so hated for no reason except the entertainment of people, of being ceaselessly targeted and feeling cursed as nothing changed—was excruciating enough to make any sane person consider death an alternative. He told me these things long before COVID-19 came, but did he really mean them? Why didn’t I take them more seriously then?

I considered the fact that I had had to pry information about the harassment and his heart out of him. He only told me about his heart after I noticed him gradually losing control of his eyes a few years back and suggested that he go get them checked. He had no reason to lie, not even about how he felt, nor was he the type to throw pity parties. I’ve insisted that he get his eyes checked quite a few more times since. Maybe the optometrist could tell him that his lenses had gone rigid and provide remedial surgery, I told him, but he countered that the heart-pounding was probably restricting blood-flow to his eyes. They only widened to the point where they were bugging out of his head when he felt shell-shocked, he said. To him, the cure was simple: cure the heart and it’ll fix the eyes.

That wouldn’t happen here, though. He stopped sending complaints to healthcare long ago because they always insisted that his heart was fine and charged him a copay without conducting any tests. If he wanted the condition to go away, he thought, he had to make it home, or at least out of this facility. The only way out was straight through.

I could imagine he felt that way–hopeless–about his whole prison term. He was wrongfully convicted, which I learned when I was typing his court papers up for him a while back. The facts in his case suggested that he’s been serving a basketball score of a sentence, decades of which he’s lost already, for a crime that he didn’t commit. That case was his last appeal and he lost. After reading the court papers, I stopped wondering why he doesn’t bother smiling. 

I tried to remember the last time I had seen him smile and landed on a moment about three years ago when he showed me a bottle of fermented cell-wine. That occasional buzz brought some of his guard down, and he revealed one of his earliest memories of staring down the double-barrel of his father’s shotgun at five years old. He shed no tears or emotion while recounting his confusion: his three-year-old sister standing beside him, both of them serving as human shields for their terrified mother who pulled them in front of her bruised and beaten body. The hate that he saw in his father’s eyes as the man aimed the gun, he said, was impossible to comprehend, but he recognized it every day in the people he encountered here. I surmised that his mother probably taught him to suffer in silence before she died. 

From this realization I gleaned the most clarity and, perhaps, common ground. If he and I came to any kind of agreement over his comment, it would be because of this:  we both see that the world is full of assholes who care nothing about the suffering they cause others. From the greedy corporate executives, who are willing to trade the extinction of life on the planet for power and privilege, to the peons who made life petty-hell for him every day in here, crass indifference, cruelty, and exploitation was the way of the world. And now, in his mind, COVID-19 was threatening the messed-up order of it all and promising to spare him the rest of this shit-show. Whether COVID-19 was divine retribution for humanity’s squandering of paradise was a question better left to the religious extremists and scripture-thumpers. However, the mere possibility that it could be made me reexamine my own morals and motives in the wake of our facility’s COVID-19 outbreak.

I knew I  wanted to live and make it home from prison, but why? I saw a  news story flash across my unattended TV screen: “150 People Shot Over the Holiday Weekend in a Single City, 68 Dead.” Was this the world that I was in a rush to get back to? The one I left wasn’t so happy. In fact, out there was where I lived some of my gloomiest days, or had I forgotten? Why was I really dying to go back? Was it just so I could do whatever I wanted again? And what was that exactly — to enjoy restored access to society’s many indulgences? More money, food, clothes, cars, women, and music? I hadn’t had a compelling interest in any of those things in years. Even before, when I had more than enough of them in society, I wasn’t happy. Very few happy people come to prison.

Did I just want to return to my community and reunite with old friends and family? What community? Everyone had fled my old neighborhood for the suburbs years ago and my sisters were the only family who kept in touch with me.

Was it to pursue pipe dreams of becoming a bestselling author, critically-acclaimed filmmaker, billionaire real estate developer, and liable philanthropist — at the expense of millions of the world’s suffering poor whom my donations would never reach? Was it to go back to do my part in changing the world: to found a new egalitarian socio-political order based on love that would one day usher in the new world?  Even if my goal was just to prove to myself and everyone else that I could do it, it would be for my own ego: another defense mechanism for the same sense of inadequacy I struggle with in here. 

I then saw another news story flash across the screen: thousands of people were partying without masks or protective coverings  in the country’s epicenter of the virus. Another clip showed a town-hall meeting of unmasked people booing at the mention of a governor’s order to wear masks in public. People didn’t even want to save themselves, I realized. 

This was a world where no one trusts anyone else. The majority of the people you meet in this life somehow stab you in the back, some in the front. Here, your own government preys upon you, the people sworn to serve and protect you. Parents prey on their children, lovers on spouses. The average person that I came across either complained a lot or spoke negatively about whatever person, place, thing, or condition ill-suited them. Even rich and famous people on TV, whom you would think would be the happiest, often appear the most miserable. 

In spite of this, no one except my friend ever stopped clinging to life. My friend was the one person I knew who never had a bad thing to say about anyone or anything, although he probably had more reason than most to complain. However, he had now been pushed to the point where he was ready to let go.

The next time I saw him, I asked him if he wished anyone else dead of the virus and his reply confirmed my observations.

“Nah, why wish it on them? I rather myself be removed from this stuff. They can have it.”

About a week later he found me on the yard and pulled me aside, told me his ex-girlfriend, a woman whom he still loved dearly, had contracted the virus.

“Aww, man, sorry to hear that,” I said, while thinking of all the pictures he had shown me of her. “She gon’ pull through?”

“No one knows yet,” he said. After a brief pause, he eyed me again. “Hey, sorry about what I said before, man. You know, about all the COVID stuff. Life’s too short to take for granted.”

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On the surface, his comment seemed ungrateful and insensitive to all the people who died and lost loved ones to COVID-19. This much he had learned. That didn’t mean that he suddenly wanted to live, only that something happened that made him feel he had to. Something offered him another perspective, perhaps the world of COVID-19 suffering through the eyes of the only woman he ever loved, a perspective that he could feel along with and even weigh against each wretched palpitation. He didn’t come get me to inform me of her diagnosis; he came to apologize. Surprised, I couldn’t understand why the news hadn’t caused him to want death more. The only reason I could think of that made sense was that he wanted to fight for her.

What else could I expect from an outwardly peaceful dude who had to fight for everything? While fighting every moment of every passing day to retain his sanity, he fought equally hard to hide what he was going through. While fighting the state courts with every ounce of his intellect to reclaim his freedom, he was fighting every impulse in his body to keep from harming others and further trapping himself here, just to fight for more years? Never mind that the only kind of fighting those others respected was the fighting we did with our hands, the exact fighting my friend fought not to do. He fought especially hard in recent months to avoid going to the hole, which is where all the COVID-19 outbreaks were occurring at our facility. 

At the time he made the comment, he was tired of fighting–tired of fighting fools, life, COVID-19, even himself. He wanted to be somewhere where he didn’t have to fight anymore, and I did too.

Life is about survival. Whether it was fighting hunger, thirst, predation, or, in our evolved circumstances, psychological trauma, distress, disillusionment, and despair, we adapted to expect to fight. Not a single being from any species is exempt from this rule, but part of me could relate to what he said, and maybe that was the lesson for me: right or wrong, justified or not, he was part of me, and he only wanted to live in a world where everyone felt like they were a part of one another. I couldn’t give him that ideal world but I wouldn’t deny him the part of me that was due in this one.

I finally understood.

Deyon is serving 30-60 years for assault with intent to commit murder.

Deyon Neal #360091

Baraga Maximum Correctional Facitility

13924 Wadaga Road

Baraga, MI 49908-9204