Slant whispers and looming stares pass through the prison yard around 3:30 PM. It’s July, and hotter than usual on Michigan’s upper peninsula.
Gatherings of inmates begin to form: eight by the pull-up bars, four on the basketball court, nine behind the phones. The air is barely breathable with all the tension, which has built up ever since an act of disrespect—the breaking of a gang sign—earlier at chow.
Everyone here has their war story. We’re all long-conditioned by a street life, the hustling, the fistfights. Seasoned from past penitentiary wars, time in the hole, lifting law books in laundry bags for exercise, one thousand push-ups a day. Institutionalized.
But when I look at my friends and homeboys whom I’ve known for awhile, or grew up with, what I see is fear, confusion. Expressions I know too well from staring in my own mirror, trying to remember myself, trying to remember my home. I know there was something before this: my family, an old life. But to think that far back, to try to reconstruct my own innocence and even frailty, would hurt my soul—and a memory of home shouldn’t hurt.
Suddenly, my group of inmates storms one side of the yard.
I feel nothing further as I dash across the court and plunge a self-made shank into a combatant’s jaw, neck, and chest; then into another’s, feeling the rusty metal penetrate flesh with every swing and whack.
“Wassup now!” I yell, as a barrage of my wild punches meets another victim.
Officers with squawking walkie-talkies soon position themselves to regain control of the yard. A gas canister bounces onto the basketball court, spewing out white, thick smoke. It’s followed by another, until the yard is fogged with tear gas. “Get on the fucking ground!” I hear. Inmates scatter, coughing blood—but I never learned how to stop when I got started.
My eyes and face burn as I prowl through the smoke, looking for the rest of the fight. Someone else’s blood is crusted on my knuckles.
I’m not thinking. I’m not human. I’m what a prison made of me. “Get the fuck on the ground!” the officer yells, pointing his taser at my body. I don’t comply. I keep that slow, dragging saunter, striding over the defeated inmates. “Don’t move!” another officer says, before positioning himself to shoot.
Then, in one swift motion, my body stiffens before I smack the ground, the volts bouncing violently inside of me until everything is black.
Dizzy and distraught, I awake in a single-man cell with a yellow piece of paper resting on my chest. I’m naked, and my body, all of a sudden, is cold and aching.
There’s a blue jumpsuit on the green mat; the cell itself has not been cleaned since the last occupant.
I put the jumpsuit on slowly, then begin to read what’s on the paper: “This prisoner is unmanageable in G.P. (General Population). Loss of all privileges. No TV, books, sheets, no hygiene products. 24-hour watch.”
It is Saturday. I won’t see administration until Monday. I pace around the small quarters, calming and conjuring the self.
My war story began early, and peaked around the time my son was ready to come into this world. He was seven pounds, four ounces, and I knew then that I had to do what was necessary to take care of my family.
I sacrificed to provide for them—to make money—but got lost in it. My baby momma and I argued nonstop about my being in the streets. She said I was giving too much to something that was sucking the humanity straight out of my body, taking me away from the family.
I didn’t disagree. I knew that when I opened myself to a violent way of life, I would be vulnerable to that violence entering my heart.
Back in my cell, amid the unit’s mix of rap battles, trivia games, and disagreements about Cardi B’s gang affiliation, I hear the news that a few people died earlier in the melee. “That nigga bugged out on them boys,” one inmate says out of the corner of his door. “They shot ’em with that—uhh, uhh... Damn!”
“A taser, old fool,” another inmate says.
“Yeah, yeah. I know, muthafucka,” the inmate declares. “They hit ’em three times and he still wouldn’t stay down!” The inmates riff on the officers’ use of force. “You know they gonna charge them boys for murder… Yup. And over what some young dummy did.”
“What he do?” the other inmate asks.
“He broke a gang sign, with his hands.”
My stomach turns. I think about the charges the facility will try to trump on me. What the hell did I do? If it’s true, what the inmates are saying, then I can’t take back what I’ve done.
Later, I learn no one died in the fight that day. But even when I thought they did, I didn’t feel much remorse. Death is too common in prison to feel anything for someone who would take your life too if they had to.
It’s Sunday morning and the wing officer decides to bring me a third of my property: pictures, hygiene products, and bedsheets. I immediately clean my cell. I clean myself. I scurry my hand over old scars and flinch at new ones on my abdomen and chest; the burnt flesh feels rubbery, like it’s not a part of me anymore, not even real.
Whatever I’ve become has nothing to do with me. Nothing, I think to myself before saying the word into the metal mirror above the steel sink. Nothing. I don’t stare too long at myself, though, out of a fear of what my reflection will tell me.
Solitary confinement is meant for one thing: breaking. The paint peeling off the walls, the scuffed floors from years of pacing, the smell of piss and feces—it is all a message to the soul that it is trapped.
10 o’clock. Count time, I hear.
Automatic lights blink on. As soon as the officer hits the steps, the young brother in the cell next to mine begins to beat rhythmically on the steel door. This continues well into the evening.
The night lends solitary its brutality. I pace my cell, awake. Cry. Scream.
I haven’t seen my family or friends in 10 years, nor spoken to them in six. My son could end up here, lost in prison, the same violence driving him to the end.
My heart turns now. The system is hungry for my child’s soul. What can I do to stop it? Can I stop it? I have to reject all emotion—I can’t be human, won’t be, I say out loud over and over, my hands pressed against my face. But what about your son?
My neighbor beats on the wall again, but this time asks if I’m working on a rap. “Something like that,” I say.
His name is Marcus, he says. He wants to be a rapper and his sister thinks he’s as good as Gucci Mane.
I listen to him ramble about his family problems.
Marcus’s baby momma is in a serious relationship with one of his friends; his family is not supporting him mentally or financially, even as he keeps on getting jumped by gangs.
“Young dog, don’t let the world call your bluff,” is all I say.
The quietness lingers between us, though outside the unit is loud as usual.
Then, in a low voice, Marcus says that tomorrow morning he is going home.
I pause. Then I tell him to stay focused and that it’s a blessing to make it out of prison in one piece; I also remind myself of it.
First thing in the morning, Marcus will be free. I’m happy for him.
After 3 AM shift change, I hear the young homie packing up, a struggle with his luggage, too heavy maybe, but why so much? Is that the tightening of a bedsheet?
It sounds like his body is beating violently against the wall, a slight change of direction—his decision that it’s too late. I scream out, but all the while I try to block it out, try not to understand why he would choose this, why he would fear his family, the world.
The muffled struggle echoes in my mind. Is he hanging there now, suspended?
In another 30 minutes, the unit is full of officers and nurses, as it was after my fight. Officials want to know, again, what happened. But the inmates behind the steel doors can't explain it, the violence, so they pay no attention to the officials’ requests, nor to the young boy, Marcus, being hauled out like a stillborn out of a woman.
Demetrius Buckley, 32, is incarcerated at St. Louis Correctional Facility in St. Louis, Michigan, where he is serving 18 to 30 years for 2nd-degree murder and two years for a weapons charge.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) confirmed that the author was involved in a fight in July 2014 at Baraga Correctional Facility that broadly meets the description in this essay. However, the DOC had no report of stabbings during the altercation, and the spokesperson said there were no suicides around this time at the facility.