My first visitor in prison was my dad. Looking back at the picture I have from that day, I realize that I must have smelled just awful. It was my second day in at Thumb Correctional Facility’s Youthful Side, Michigan’s prison for adults ages 13-18, having just arrived from the state’s prison intake and processing facility. I hadn’t had the opportunity to take a shower in about a week.
I was too new to know that when the officer called me over the intercom and electronically opened my door, he was calling me for a visit. Nor did I know you could jump in the shower right before a visit (even if it would have made me late).
I hadn’t seen my dad in about three weeks, though he had visited me about twice a week since I was locked up at 15 (when I had been held in juvenile detention for a year while going through the adult criminal justice system).
In the picture we took, my prison uniform is one giant wrinkle, and my hair looks corded because it is so filthy. I had just tried my first cigarette the night before, wearing those same clothes. Yet my dad still smiles next to me. I’m trying to remember how genuine that smile of mine was — happy to see him, yes; happy, no.
A few months later, I heard that my aunt and uncle were going to come to visit, and that my older cousins were coming too. I went to my friend Esco and offered to pay him to borrow his visiting shirt, but he let me use it for free. It was very, very wrinkled though. I was now in the honor unit, and there was an iron in the common area.
With Esco’s shirt over my shoulder, I went up to the iron and plugged it in. I could feel the heat from its bottom, and I started examining it. I pressed a button and steam came out from holes in the bottom. I pressed another button and a spray of water came out from the tip and hit me in the face. I unplugged the thing and walked away.
I dragged Country away from watching TV, brought him downstairs to the commons, and had him teach me how to iron. More of a shower than a teller, he ironed half while I made mental notes and asked questions. Then I ironed the other half while he supervised.
Other than the one time I wore a rented tuxedo to a wedding when I was 10 years old, this was the first time I had ever worn an ironed shirt in my life. That night was the first time I had seen the stars in a year and a half.
They have vending machines in the visiting room, which looks a lot like the waiting room at a DMV (where I got my driver’s learner’s permit right before I got locked up). I usually wouldn’t eat dinner before a visit. When I was asked what I wanted from the machines, I always wanted candy and a soda.
They had a rotating refrigerated sandwich machine with burgers, subs, and sandwiches. They had coffee, tea, juice, and milk, all kept ice-cold. They had yogurt, fruits and vegetables, restocked five times a week. But all I ever wanted was candy and a soda. The women in my life thought it was cute, and said it was fun to feed me. My dad obliged, but would always rhetorically ask how I didn’t get a stomachache.
I sometimes think about the time when I was 16 or 17 and I didn’t eat my dinner because I didn’t like it. (What do you get when you cross a picky child and prison food…?) I got hungry late that night, after we were locked down for the night and Country and I (now roommates) were stuck in the room. Neither of us had any ramen noodles (the prison staple). I, however, had a bag of cherry Kool-Aid powder from commissary in my locker. The bag would make a gallon if you used it all at once. We ate the entire bag with our sporks in one sitting, and I got a terrible stomachache after that.
I’m pretty sure that the large amounts of caffeine I drank, the fact that I smoked heavily from ages 16-19 and my lack of any nutritional knowledge until I took a nutrition college class my dad paid for at 19, seriously stunted my growth. (“There’s a difference between proteins and carbohydrates? No way!”)
Mr. Adams, a staff member in the juvie I was held in, was the first person to compliment a drawing I did. An inmate, DB, encouraged me to try painting and started to teach me how. Kevin taught me how to make jewelry boxes out of the arts-and-crafts (hobbycraft) materials we’re allowed to buy to give as gifts to the people we love. KR taught me how to work on leather in the craft room to make belts and purses for gifts and to sell. Chris taught me how to sew.
Doug began teaching me Hebrew. Prison outreach volunteers from the University of Michigan taught me how to express myself in writing.
Tony taught me how to style my hair. Wayne taught me how to shave. Eric taught me how to eat well. Steve taught me how to play softball. Coop and Mills taught me how to lift weights.
I got healthy and strong between 19 and 21, but I never did get much taller or larger than I was at 15. I’ve never looked all that intimidating. Maybe that’s why that NFL linebacker-sized predator thought he could intimidate me into letting him rape me. At 21, I was the fittest, healthiest, most mature I had ever been, but to him I probably just looked like a cute little innocent easy-to-target boy.
The rumors about him arrived in the unit at the same time he was transferred in from another prison: that he was a rapist, that he was gay, that he was a sexual predator. Starting the second day he was there, my friends kept saying that they saw him staring at me. They said it with a slight laugh, and I thought they were joking. When I saw him looking in my direction out the corner of my eye, I turned towards him and he looked away. I gave my meanest look to him, which, despite years of practice, was still not very scary.
On the third day, I was outside in the weight pit, where I had become the strongest in my weight class in the yearly competition (though that weight class was under 148 pounds). Again, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him look in my direction. Then I saw him do his warm-up set of bench-press with 365 pounds, before adding weights in increments of ninety pounds. When I left to go to the other side of the yard to do some pull-ups and abs, I looked up from my set to see that he had followed me, and was staring at me with his arms folded, from about fifty yards away. “Shit,” I thought to myself.
When I came back inside, he was already there, at a table sitting before you get to my door, and he watched me come down the stairs, turning his head to watch me go into my room, though he still sat there, almost as if he were guarding the area.
My adrenaline and anger and fear caused me to shake, and I started fashioning homemade weapons. “E” came to my door, and presented me with a large shank. “I noticed what was going on, and thought you might need it.”
The only times in my life that I have ever been violent, or almost have been violent, have been when I’ve been truly afraid for my life. I held the shank, laid out across my hands. “Goddamnit!” I said as I set it down and pounded my desk with my fist. “Goddamnit.” I repeated with a sigh.
Read Chris Dankovich’s award-winning story, Growing Up in Prison
Tony came to my door, for no particular reason. He had been locked up since he was a juvenile, and was now almost 40. He smiled when I opened the door, a smile that went away when he saw the knife and my desk topped with makeshift street-fighting weapons. “What the hell are you doing?!,” he asked with the sort of concern that borders on anger. I explained the situation. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no,” Tony said with a sigh. “Just hold on a second. Don’t, DON’T, do anything stupid ’til I get back. Just hold on.” I looked out the cell door’s window as Tony disappeared. Then I looked back at the giant homosexual predator sitting with his back turned to me at the table.
Tony returned in a few minutes. “Alright, go up to that bastard right there and check him. Don’t get overly aggressive, don’t threaten, don’t stab him. Don’t even take that with you.” He pointed to the shank, which I gripped in fear so tightly that veins were popping out on my fingers. “Ok, fine, take it with you if you feel you need to. Just keep it in your pocket, and don’t pull it out or show it off, or USE it.”
I went over to the table. As I walked the twenty or so feet, I saw about 12 people I had come to know over the past couple years — friends, people I had laughed with, done business with, given things to — surround us, staring at him now. I got his attention with a “Hey man…”
He looked at me with a “Huh?” and stood up. I looked around again at all the people I knew, then spoke, “Hey man, how come every fuckin’ time I look up from my mothafuckin’ set, I see you fuckin’ staring at me?!” (interjecting swear words as I really didn’t know what to say, and they seemed to help the words come out better and faster). He looked startled that I had come to him, looked around to see all these people, then started making excuses and backtracking from things he had never verbally said. I interrupted him: “Hey — I ain’t trying to fuckin’ kick it with you, we don’t have nothing to fuckin’ talk about, and quit fuckin’ starin’ at me mothafucker.”
He took a look at me, then at everyone else who were starting to move closer, then he sat down while I walked away. Tony came back to my door once I got back in my room. “I’m proud of you, kid. You did good. Next time, say something to one of us though before you start going all Rambo-like.” I told him that it hadn’t even occurred to me, because I thought a man was supposed to handle things himself.
“Look,” he said. “If you were causing problems and doing stupid stuff, I would agree with you and tell you that you had better go handle the problems you created for yourself. Sometimes you do have to handle things on your own. Sometimes you won’t have friends around and you’ll have to fight. But this, this is too much, especially when it doesn’t need to happen.” I just looked at him. “A man does handle his own business, but a man also doesn’t just sit by and let someone get raped, and a man doesn’t let his friend do stupid shit,” he said before smiling. “You saying I’m not a man?”
At 23, before I was hired to work in it, I was a student in one of the prison system’s few culinary-arts/hospitality vocational trades courses. I loved learning how to cook. I used tools and appliances that I had never used before (like an oven…), and got to eat so many things I had never tasted before (having mainly grown up on microwave pizzas, chimichangas and burgers – before coming to prison and eating hundreds of pounds of ramen noodles). The classroom was divided into two groups, with each group cooking/baking on alternate days.
One day, my friend and group partner, Ace, threw me an apron, as it was our group’s day to cook. I let it hit me as I stretched and yawned, it being 6:55 AM. “Ahhhhhwww. I don’t know if I can make it all the way back there,” I said with a smile, pointing to the kitchen area twenty feet away. “It’s way too early for a kid like me. I’ll be back there in a couple hours after I get some more sleep,” I said sarcastically, as I knew that he knew that our days of cooking were my favorite thing in my entire world.
“Motherfucker,” he said with sarcastic faux-aggression. “You’re a grown-ass man. You better get your ass back there.”
That was the first time anyone had ever called me a man before.
At 24, a friend recommended me to a woman whose 16-year old son was just charged as an adult with murder. I felt her tears and heartbreak close as the same emotions I had caused others a decade ago. It made me feel that at least the past 9 1/2 years hadn’t been for nothing as I explained to her what she could expect in court, from the judge, from the prosecution, from her son… what his future might be like, what his future could be like (but always that he had a future). I did whatever I could to comfort her, to give and show her that sense of hope that would get her and her son through this. She told me that not many people have helped her, casting her off like a leper, and not that many people would help her. She called me a good man.
That was the first time anyone had ever called me that before.
I’d be a bitter boy without the women in my life: the friend from school who wrote me for three and a half years until graduation, whom I still dream about ten years later; [another] female friend I made after, who came to visit me often for awhile (we kissed more individual times than I had ever kissed or been kissed by a girl in my life); my aunt; [another] woman who was like an aunt to me; my grandmas, slowing down but gaining in love; my sister, [as well as] the woman who has practically adopted me. I’ve grown stronger because of them. I’ve grown up a little anytime I’ve been able to hold any of them in my arms.
I still feel too young to drink or smoke or even drive. I’ve never done those things before, at least not legally. I have to remind myself occasionally that I would have graduated from high school by now (and college, and probably graduate school). My favorite television show is South Park. I still tend to think I’m falling in love with any girl who so much as talks to me or looks in my direction.
But I’ve learned how not to be afraid anymore. I’ve learned how to help others with the knowledge I have. I’ve learned how to give back to those who’ve helped me. I’ve learned how to be healthy – physically, emotionally, mentally. I’ve learned the kind of person I want, and is within my power, to be.
How does a 15 or 16-year old boy become a man in prison? I don’t know how to answer that. But I know that he can either become one, or forever be, though toughened and hardened, a bitter boy. I know which one I am because of what others have told me I am. I know which one I am by what I want to be.
Chris Dankovich is serving 25-37 years in Michigan for murdering his mother when he was 15 years old.
Chris Dankovich #595904
Thumb Corr Facility
3225 John Conley Dr
Lapeer, MI 48446