A number of months ago, I reached a milestone in my own life, one that isn’t in any way positive but one that’s definitely made me stop and think. I am 31 years old and I have spent half my life in prison as Prisoner #595904 in Michigan’s Department of Corrections, Inmate Dankovich.
In a life like this, you have a lot of time to think about… everything: who you were, who you are, who you want to be, in between trying to survive a dangerous and toxic environment.
I’ve been in prison since I was 15 years old, so that means most of my teenage years, all of my twenties, and the beginning of my thirties have been spent living behind bars. I have not known freedom, but I haven’t been frozen in a block of ice either.
I’ve spent a third of my life directly teaching others (often those with learning disabilities), I was the best tattoo artist around, I became a decent visual artist and musician. And I’ve been in fistfights to defend myself from being bullied/extorted/robbed. I’ve been stalked by a sexual predator who was planning to attack me. I’ve written poems about life and articles on mass-incarceration. I’ve been published in books and magazines [in addition to writing here]. I’ve listened on the phone as a loved one in a psychological/neurological storm told me he was going to kill himself as soon as we hung up, and had to find a way through tears to immediately get someone on the outside to help [the woman who founded this website, Loen Kelley, helped save his life that day].
I have been in love. A number of years ago, I had a serious, close romantic relationship, and everything that came with its breakup made the time I have left inside here understandably seem unbearable. And during the pandemic, I nearly died, unable to breathe while laying on the floor of my cell, possibly leaving me with permanent heart damage.
These are all pieces of who I am, today, as I write this.
I was locked up a few months after I turned 15. I had been a freshman in high school – uncertain and ignorant – who sometimes dreamed of being a photographer, directing movies, or joining the military. But I took the life of my biological mother to come to prison. Something I absolutely regret, something I’ve been constantly ashamed of for half of my life, for both the harm I caused her directly and the effect it had on other people. (I’m thankful that most of those people chose to forgive me.) I refused to defend myself in court and accepted the first plea offered me for this very reason. Her side of my family forgave me because of their grace and love. (I don’t know if I’ve ever fully forgiven myself for the person I was at that time, and I haven’t fully for how what I did affected the other people I loved.)
I’ve now spent half of my life in prison since then, becoming the adult I am today inside prison walls. I watch the world from a distance. I live my life sometimes over the phone and through mail, crossing that distance in the only way I can. Looking back to the years before I came to prison, I was nobody. Today, I am no one in particular. In the time between (this second half of my life), I’ve tried to be a better person and live as much a life as I can hobble together with a lot of work… a life that’s often brutally exhausting and lonely and terrifying but also filled with some occasional but amazing moments of meaning and love.
After almost exactly the same amount of time in prison as I had spent on the outside, I kneeled on the floor of my cell trying to scream for help as my lung infection from COVID-19 kept me from taking a breath. Tears streamed down my face from coughing as I collapsed and everything went black. I don’t know if I merely lost consciousness or temporarily died, but I think of it as a near-death experience:
Out of the dark, clear as day, I stood momentarily in front of my Grandpa’s old favorite apple tree, ripe with fruit, a tree on which he grafted every branch a different kind of apple because he thought it was cool. His home was my favorite place growing up. The image seemed real, and I wanted to reach out to touch it. Before I could, a quiet voice said the words, “You will know them by their fruits,” and I felt myself take a deep breath… and I was back on my cell-floor, crawling to my bunk as I started coughing again before it finally subsided. Was it something supernatural, or a struggling mind mixing emotional memories with words I’ve heard a preacher say?
Two parts of a life, half spent growing up on the outside, half spent inside prison. One half as a shy and often lonely kid who didn’t know how to handle life, capped off in a crown of dirt for taking the life of a human being he loved but whose image had been changed by abuse and a freak series of events (which I caused myself). A second half started and lived at absolute rock-bottom, striving for something more for himself (going as far as tattooing the words “Human Being” on his chest at 16), wanting to be something more –something better– to others… capped off by almost dying on the floor of his prison cell, collapsing and seeing something that wasn’t there.
That something is something I think about at this point, though: is it possible to change the fruits you leave behind? Can a metaphorical tree that made bad fruit produce seeds that grows a tree that makes better ones? I’m not in a position to answer. I can just choke or take a deep breath… try to be the man I am today, grab the fruits I am offered by life, and try to leave better ones myself now.
That’s a piece of who I am going into this next segment of my life.
I’m 31 now. I’m not some wizened old sage (though man, has a lot of my hair turned gray over the past year). I’ve been through a few lifetimes worth of turmoil, at least half of it completely brought on by myself. I’m not institutionalized (though I did feel like I was going to die of shock when, after half my life not being in any kind of vehicle, I was in a transport-van to the hospital and the car accelerated from 0 mph all the way to… 25 mph).
Half of the approximately one-billion moments I’ve been alive have been here in prison. I still have many years left on my sentence, over a hundred months. I’m going to do the best I can. I’m going to keep surviving (to the degree it’s up to me) for myself and those who love me. Today, what else can I do?
And maybe I can do something good, give something back, if I can encourage anyone else to do that same thing… if I can help or teach someone something… if I can leave behind something better than I have.