DO OTHER guys dream of romance?
I used to wonder about that sometimes. See, I started dreaming about love and stuff when I was eight, way before I even knew I was gay. Around that time, I obsessed over the story of Cinderella. Seriously. I loved reading it. I loved watching the various movie versions of it, from the 1965 Rogers and Hammerstein’s TV musical adaptation to the latest Disney live-action remake. And I longed for that kind of fairy-tale love in my own life. My daydreams about being romanced and swept away into a musical happily-ever-after all featured a prince, not a princess, which should have tipped me off by third grade as to just what kind of boy I was.
Not that I was effeminate or anything growing up, and there’s nothing wrong with a guy being effeminate in my opinion. It just wasn’t me. I wasn’t into dolls, fancy gowns, Easy-Bake Ovens, unicorns, tiaras, and such. I liked rough-and-tumble play—tackle football, soccer, wrestling—and my favorite toys were helmets, plastic grenades, and realistic-looking machine guns. I wanted to be a soldier when I grew up. Yet I was acutely aware that the group of boys I called my friends wouldn’t respond positively upon learning I wanted a handsome prince to put his arms around my waist and dance me away into the moonlight. So I kept my dreams secret, and in my mind, that kept them a possible future reality.
But the possible doesn’t necessarily become the actual. Maybe dreaming of romance is something only white girls in rich suburbs are meant to do, not a black guy growing up in the stark, decaying streets of Detroit.
I’m not living in Detroit now. Almost a year ago, at fifteen, I got arrested, tried as an adult, convicted, and sent upstate to a prison tucked away deep in the thick Michigan woodland, the Escanaba House of Corrections. It’s more commonly known as the Escanaba House of Hell.
I don’t dream of romance anymore.
DR. BURNS curled her lip at me, an open show of contempt. “Gavin Goode, you have secondary syphilis.”
“Okay.” I guess that explained the weird, splotchy rash on my palms and the soles of my feet, the condition that brought me to the infirmary on this occasion. “Now what?”
A small, slender middle-aged African American woman with a curly Afro and the whitest teeth I’d ever seen, Dr. Burns looked as if she should have been teaching a kindergarten class or leading a Girl Scout troop. But she never smiled, at least not at me. Most inmates only saw her once a year, for routine physicals. My visits with her were much more frequent, something neither of us desired.
“I’m ordering antibiotics for you. You’ll get a shot today, and then one more shot down the line. That should fix you up. I need the name of the person or persons you had sex with so I can make sure they’re tested and, if necessary, treated.”
“Well shit, Doc,” I replied, getting more pissed by the second. “It’s gotta be one of the usual suspects. I gave you a list the last time I was in here, which had pretty much the same names as the list I gave you the time before that. Pick somebody. Hell, just call in every sucker on the list.”
She sneered again as she grabbed up her clipboard and jotted something down on the notepad there. I was sitting on the exam table in nothing but my white boxers. My nearly hairless brown legs looked skinny even to me. The room felt cold as hell and smelled of Pine Sol and rubbing alcohol.
When Dr. Burns finished writing, she stepped past the guard—at least one guard was always present in the examination room when an inmate was there—and handed the clipboard to the nurse waiting in the hall. Then Dr. Burns walked in a wide arc as she moved toward the desk at the back of the room, keeping herself distant as if the air around me was contaminated or something. Her laptop was open on the desk. She sat down and started typing, no doubt updating my prison records.
“You’re determined to break the rules, Gavin,” she said as she typed. “This is the third time in seven months you’ve come in here with an STD.”
“It’s good to know somebody’s keeping score, Doc,” I said.
“Don’t get flip with me,” she snapped. “I hate that smartass attitude of yours. You’re in enough trouble as it is, young man.” She was hitting the keys hard now, pop pop pop like kernels of corn in sizzling oil, a sure sign of her irritation. “Regulations state there is to be no sexual contact between inmates.”
I nodded solemnly. “Maybe you should tell that to Ross Hendricks and Deshaun Timmons and Malcolm Whiteside and the guys they run with. They’re the ones who keep sexually contacting me when I don’t want to be sexually contacted.”
Dr. Burns didn’t turn to me. She kept her eyes glued to her computer screen as she continued typing. “Don’t give me that again. The warden’s office investigated your allegations of rape and found no evidence that any such assaults occurred.”
“By ‘investigated’ do you mean when the officer sat me down with the other guys in a cozy little room, and the officer asked the other guys, ‘Did you rape this kid?’ and they all said, ‘Hell no!’ and the case was closed? Is that what you call an investigation?” I was teetering on the edge of the table now, glaring at her, my hands clenched into trembling fists.
“You claim multiple assaults but can’t produce even one witness to any of them. I examined you myself after most of the incidents you reported. I never found a single injury consistent with sexual assault.”
“I had black eyes! Busted lips! A cracked rib! Bruises on my fucking neck from being choked! A torn-up, bloody butthole! Swelling all over my scalp from having my head banged against the floor! What do the bastards have to do for you to get it, woman? Burn a brand on my ass that says ‘Property of the boys in cell block E’?”
“All the injuries I saw were consistent with fighting, which, according to your records, is partly what landed you at Escanaba in the first place. You’ve had plenty of fights since you got here, many of which you started, including the one on your intake day when you tried to steal another boy’s shoes—”
“Those shoes were mine! I was trying to get ’em back after the dude decided they’d look better on his feet and took ’em from me. Jesus, how many times do I have to explain that?”
“It’s always your word against someone else’s, isn’t it, Gavin? You’re trouble. Always have been, always will be.”
I jumped off the exam table and stood facing Dr. Burns. I had no intention of attacking her. Swear to God. My knees were scraped, black and red hashtags from where two of my three cellies attacked me in the showers yesterday and dragged me across the floor. I was only going to point out the new injuries to her, but the guard obviously didn’t see it that way. Before I could make another move, the man—big, muscular, about five inches taller than me—twisted my right arm up behind my back and slammed me facedown on the exam table. Despite the padded surface, the blow hurt enough to make me squeal.
“I’m notifying the warden that you violated the no-sexual-contact regulation again, and that you also refused to give me the name of your sexual partner. I’m ordering you into isolation for the next seven days. That will allow time to make sure your infection has cleared before you return to gen pop.” Dr. Burns didn’t even turn around to see what all the commotion at the exam table was about. “Of course, your time in isolation on medical orders doesn’t count toward any time you must serve for violation of regulations. You’ll be taken to isolation directly from here. Guard, hold him down until the nurse comes in to administer his medication. After that, please escort him to solitary.”
The guard was doing a pretty good job. He kept my arm bent behind my back, his forearm across my shoulders to press my body to the table, leaning on me with all his considerable weight. I could barely get air into my lungs, let alone break free.
Dr. Burns closed her laptop and stood up. “By the way, I ran an HIV test on you and it came back negative.” With the laptop in hand, she headed for the door, again giving me a wide berth. “Since you insist on remaining sexually active while in custody, I’m going to have you take an HIV test every six weeks going forward. You’ve been lucky so far, Gavin, but sooner or later, everyone’s luck runs out. Think about that the next time you decide to let your filthy urges get the better of you.”
“Fuck you very much, Doc,” I mumbled nastily. The guard gave me a swat across the head, apparently responding on the doctor’s behalf.
The nurse, a tall, skinny white man whose name I kept forgetting, came in just as Dr. Burns was taking her leave. He didn’t like me any more than the doc did. “All right, Gavin, get ready for a big stick,” he said gleefully. He yanked down my boxers, swabbed a portion of my skin with alcohol, and then jammed a needle into my right butt cheek so hard it seemed to go all the way down to my tailbone.
“Shit!” I gasped, convinced that damn needle was something used for inoculating horses. A deep, burning surge aggressively announced itself as the antibiotics flooded my muscle.
“All done,” the nurse sang in a cheery tone that dripped disdain. He yanked his hand back, and the needle hurt almost as much coming out as it did going in. “Guard, get him out of here.”
The guard let me go. I straightened and then reached down to pull up my boxers, wincing and moving carefully because pain was spreading quickly from my right hip down toward my foot. But I didn’t have to worry about getting any further dressed. The guard snatched up my orange prison jumpsuit and my shoes, grabbed me by the arm, and marched me near-naked out of the infirmary.
ORIGINALLY, THE Escanaba House of Hell was a boarding school for the sons of the rich and famous, built in 1902. In 1972, the state of Michigan bought the place and converted it into a prison for teenaged boy felons. Despite the heavy iron bars, massive security doors, guard towers, and the surrounding fifteen-foot concrete wall topped by mega rolls of razor wire, the place still retained much of the character of a snooty private institute.
The “cells” for instance, were actually converted dorm rooms with thick metal bars instead of front walls; the other walls were made up of huge concrete blocks painted a dull, washed-out blue that was probably intended to have some kind of numbing effect. Each cell was large enough to accommodate four inmates in commodious ease. If a sudden swell in teenage convictions made it necessary, the cells could hold up to eight, but the warden preferred to keep it four to a room. More than four guys living in a room meant more gang fights, more assaults, and more “sexual contact,” things that, by state law, prison officials were supposed to prevent. It was a law that went mostly unenforced, at least at Escanaba.
The place was built in a U-shape, with—believe it or not—a courtyard in the back that contained a huge swimming pool left over from its days as a school. Beyond the pool were tennis and basketball courts. The pool was fenced off, under constant guard, and only for use by the staff. So was the tennis court. I figured that was to keep convicts from drowning each other or turning a racket into a weapon. But inmates were allowed to play basketball as long as they stayed out of trouble. Each wing of the building had four floors, with each floor in a wing designated by alphabet as a separate cell block. There was a massive dining hall on the first floor, its walls still adorned with ornate woodwork from some long bygone era, and a big domed chamber that served as a chapel for staff members and inmates who felt the need to pray. Next to the chapel was the rec room, where inmates on good behavior were allowed to watch TV and play board games. Video games were prohibited.
On the surface, Escanaba would seem a pretty nice place, if you could overlook the bars, the barbed wire, and the correctional officers. But even the toughest inmates suffered at the hands of the COs, for whom a streak of sadism seemed to be a job requirement. Some liked to kick the shit out of inmates, which they could get away with by claiming they were attacked first. The word of an inmate got little consideration. Other COs would shake down the prisoners, overlooking infractions, granting extra privileges, or providing protection from fellow cons in exchange for contraband. Some guards got off on forcing other, more provocative “favors” from the prisoners.
The tougher cons that got abused by the COs turned around and abused weaker inmates. Newly arrived boys were the most vulnerable, especially if they were small or appeared weak, alone, or scared. Guys learned quickly to join up with others, which would get them a modicum of protection. Gangs and everything related thereto were strictly prohibited in Escanaba, but gangs operated freely there nonetheless.
Being targeted by a gang was the worst kind of hell.
When the people of the state of Michigan brought me up on charges, I did something against the Cold Bloods that was considered unforgivable. Before I even made it to Escanaba, the Cold Bloods traded enough favors with the guards to make sure I’d be assigned to a cell with three of their members—Deshaun, Malcolm, and Ross, my own personal devils. Most gangs would murder a guy who did what I did, but that wasn’t the Cold Bloods’ style.
The Cold Bloods did things to make you kill yourself.
HERE’S HOW my first day at Escanaba went.
It was cool and rainy that afternoon when the unmarked white van stopped at the main guard gate in front of the House of Hell. There were six other boys with me in the rear compartment, all of us handcuffed and shackled to each other and to the seats by chains around our ankles. I was fifteen, five foot eleven, muscular from regular workouts, and scared to death. My expression was cutthroat. The other guys, two black, one Hispanic, and three white, had spent the entire ride from downstate sitting as far from me as possible. I decided that kill-your-ass look would make a good shield while I was behind bars—if I could keep it up for the next twenty-five years. I’d only be housed at Escanaba until I turned eighteen, after which I’d be sent to the adult prison in Muskegon where I’d have to contend with hardcore convicted men.
The driver and the two guards in the front of the van all climbed out. Moments later, a key rattled in the lock, the rear doors of the van swung open, and a guard reached in and unshackled our ankles.
“Get the hell out and line up!” he snapped.
We climbed out of the van one after the other. As we stood in line getting soaked by the rain, the same snappy guard moved along and uncuffed us. Two Escanaba COs draped in heavy raincoats marched us through the gate and around to a side entrance, then down to the area in the basement where new inmates were processed.
More COs waited there, all of whom appeared to be in foul moods. One of those guards stood us up against a wall and gave us an angry rundown of what he called the “Escanaba rules of conduct,” which included gruesome descriptions of the punishments for violating those rules. I could feel the white guy next to me shaking, even though we weren’t touching. It was as if the air itself were vibrating around him.
“Take off everything!” another guard shouted at us. He went around smacking the head of any boy who apparently wasn’t undressing fast enough for him. We were forced to shower with foul-smelling soap to delouse and decontaminate ourselves. That was followed by a body cavity search, after which we were issued an orange Escanaba jumpsuit and white boxers. I never saw the clothes I arrived in again. That was painful because the jeans and shirt I was wearing were two of the last three things I got from my dad. But I lucked out when it came to my sneakers. The other guys were given prison-issue shoes, but there were none in my size at the time of intake. My sneakers had Velcro fasteners, which meant I wouldn’t have laces that could be used for strangling, so I was allowed to keep them until they got shoes in my size.
Next we were sent to the infirmary for physicals and psych evaluations. After all that time suffered together, I was beginning to grow a little fond of my six travel mates, although they still seemed wary of me. But after processing, we were separated and sent off to the various cell blocks to which we’d been assigned. The CO who escorted me to E block never said a word to me. It was well before lights out and the cell doors were open. The cells I passed were empty, the inmates off to the rec room or the courtyard—I’d spotted a large group playing basketball in the rain—or wherever. Then we reached the cell that was to be my new home and it, much to my surprise, was occupied.
“Here’s your new friend, guys,” the guard said, and he shoved me into the cell.
There were no introductions. My cellies, whom I would later come to know as Deshaun, Ross, and Malcolm, were waiting as if I’d made an appointment with them. They were African American and, as if by design, all three outclassed me in size and weight. Deshaun’s skin was close to the color of sand, and he had the kind of build that would do a rhinoceros proud. He looked fat, but his body was solid and powerful. Ross’s skin was a medium brown, like mine, and he was the tallest of the three, somewhere around six four. He kept his head shaved, which, together with his narrow, sharp eyes, gave him the look of a hooded cobra. Malcolm was a shade or two darker than me, with wide shoulders and muscular arms that seemed cartoonish over his long, skinny legs. The way they looked at me sent a spasm of fear down into my stomach.
“So, Gavin, huh?” Deshaun sauntered right up and got in my face.
I didn’t move or say a word. Malcolm casually walked behind me, putting himself between me and the open cell entrance.
Deshaun was so close I could smell his sour breath. My entire body went rigid with nervous tension. Deshaun sniffed, a sound of dismissal, as if I wasn’t worthy of breathing the same air as him. Slowly, he let his gaze travel down to my feet.
“Well, aren’t you special? You got to keep your Air Jordans. Nice,” he said. “Let me see how they look on my feet.”
Even a half-blind guy couldn’t mistake my no-name-brand sneakers from Kmart for Air Jordans. This was a ruse to start a fight with me, and it pissed me off enough that I momentarily forgot my fear.
“Man, fuck you,” I spat.
For such a big dude, Deshaun moved pretty fast. He slammed his fist into my gut before I even saw the blow coming. It felt as if my heart stopped, a thick, cold feeling like a block of ice invading my chest. I doubled over and stumbled back into Malcolm, who gave me a shove that sent me sprawling forward on the floor. I lay there in an agonized pause, waiting for breath to return to my lungs. In that pause, Deshaun yanked the sneakers off my feet. Somewhere out of sight, I heard Malcolm and Ross laughing.
I knew I was going to get my ass kicked for it, but I was determined to get back my shoes. Dad bought me a new shirt, jeans, and sneakers to wear in court. My public defender wanted me to look as much like a kid as possible, so he suggested that I avoid wearing a suit. I’d already had the jeans and shirt taken from me. I wasn’t going to lose the shoes too, at least not to this asshole.
Still out of breath, I struggled to my feet and threw myself on Deshaun. He grinned as if he’d just won the lottery. Malcolm and Ross jumped in instantly and started pounding away at me. Somebody’s fist hit me between the eyes, making my vision blur. Then something hard slammed into the back of my head, and as I flopped facedown on the floor, my brain seemed to spin around like the drum in a washing machine.
I could feel Deshaun, Malcolm, and Ross move away from me. I rolled slowly onto my back and sat up, clutching the aching portion of my noggin with both hands. The guard who’d shoved me into the cell stood over me, holding a black baton in his hand and glaring at me as if I’d robbed his mama.
“Gavin Goode, I’m putting you on report for fighting Deshaun and trying to take his shoes. That means you get to scrub toilets for the next five days. Now get your ass up.”
The guard grabbed me by the arm, hauled me to my feet, and pushed me onto one of the beds. He exchanged looks with Deshaun, and after he walked out of the cell, he slid the barred door in place and locked it.
“Have fun, guys.” He winked at me and disappeared down the corridor.
Deshaun threw my shoes one after the other, hitting me in the chest and stomach. His gaze was cold and hard. “Welcome to cell block E, Triple X.”
My fear came back and quickly blazed into terror. Triple X was the name given to me when I was drafted into the Cold Bloods.
Panicked, I tried to scramble off the bed. Ross shoved me down again. As I struggled against them, the three devils unzipped my jumpsuit and tugged it down to my ankles, along with my boxers.
“Guard! Help!” I screamed so hard it hurt my throat, although I knew my shouts were useless. Ross and Deshaun flipped me over. I yelled again for help as Malcolm reached under one of the other beds and pulled out three batons exactly like the ones the guards carried. In terror, I tried to fight them off, shouting and cursing, but it did me no good. One guy straddled my back and another straddled my legs to immobilize me.
I can tell you without a doubt there is no horror or agony like having three guys take turns shoving billy clubs up your ass.
THAT ESTABLISHED the pattern of my life at Escanaba. The next day, my cellies water-boarded me by dunking my head in the toilet. The night after that, they beat me unconscious. On my fourth night, after I fell asleep, they made ropes out of sheets, tied me to my bed, pissed all over me, and left me there until morning. The fifth day, they rounded up four guys from other cells in our block and, for the price of one smuggled joint each, gave them the privilege of raping me. The cycle of violence repeated itself night after night.
I didn’t just take that shit. I fought back, even though it meant I got hurt a lot worse than if I’d given in. I fought my cellies and all the different guys from the cell block they sent in to take pieces of me. At times I was so tired or so hurt from the previous fight that I was barely able to strike back, but I did what I could. My personal devils would often just wait until I inevitably fell asleep and jump me then. Because I was constantly on report for fighting, my phone and visitation privileges were suspended, and thus I couldn’t tell anyone on the outside what was happening to me. I filed complaints with the warden, demanded a transfer to protective custody, and tried to get letters to my dad, the prison board, and the mayor of Detroit. Nothing stopped the torture.
There were several small rooms in the basement’s south wing that were used for solitary confinement. Each room was isolated; when you were in one of them, you were completely cut off from human contact, except when guards brought your meals. In the past, I’d deliberately committed infractions—making shivs out of plastic knives stolen from the cafeteria and then carrying them openly in front of COs—to get sent there, and I was actually grateful to now be under Dr. Burns’s medical isolation order.
The infirmary guard hauled me down the long, dim basement corridor. With nothing but my boxers on, a chill was sinking deep into my body. I was suddenly so exhausted I could barely keep my feet moving. We stopped upon reaching the isolation room where I would be spending at least the next week. The guard unlocked the cell’s narrow, heavy door, pushed me inside, tossed my jumpsuit and sneakers on the floor, and locked me in.
The guard’s footsteps receded quickly, and silence settled around the room like a thick, muting fog. The basement was even colder than the infirmary, with the added bonus of being damp and smelling like rotting mushrooms. I pulled on my jumpsuit and sneakers, lay down on the narrow bare cot, and curled myself into a ball.
I was eight months into a twenty-five-year sentence with no possibility of parole. My nerves were shot, my spirit was close to broken, and I’d dropped almost thirty pounds that I couldn’t afford to lose. No matter how badly they hurt and humiliated me, I never cried, begged, or showed an ounce of despair in front of Deshaun, Malcolm, and Ross or any of the other guys who helped heap on the torment. I refused to give them that satisfaction.
But now, lying in the cold dark of a room that wasn’t much bigger than a closet, I crossed my arms over my head. The emotions I’d been bottling up for so long exploded suddenly, choking me.
“Daddy!” I cried, desperate for the arms of the man who’d comforted and protected me all my life. That man was two hundred miles away, and he couldn’t get to me in this cell even if he somehow heard my shout. I let the loud, gasping sobs boil out of my chest.
Thank God for solitary. No one could hear your anguish down there.