When to Tell Someone You Went to Prison

I grew up with criminals. I went to school with drug dealers, car jackers, and thieves. My roommates were arsonists, criminal racketeers, check forgers, and arms dealers. After I got my GED and started working odd jobs, at any given time, my coworkers would be bank robbers, con artists, meth manufacturers, or domestic terrorists. In my free time, I’d play soccer with Sureños, floor hockey with neo-Nazis, or handball with a hitman. The batting line up for my softball team was responsible for most of the organized crime in Southwest Detroit; the league we played on covered the rest of the metro area. I had a regular poker game with a rotation of men collectively convicted of each level of assault, both definitions of manslaughter, and all three degrees of home invasion. My best workout partners were a wife beater and a heroin addict. I knew my share of kidnappers, rapists, and pedophiles–I saw them every day at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As for child pornographers, I met them on Sundays for Bible study. Some of my best friends–men with whom I would trust my life–were murderers.

This was all because for ten years and four days of my life, I grew up in prison. From the age of fifteen to twenty-five, my world was limited to that of the Michigan Department of Corrections. When friends reminisce about their wild college days, their awkward teenage years, that summer they found themselves while backpacking across Europe, I think back to midnight shakedowns in maximum security, tear gas and goon squads in solitary confinement, that time I nearly got myself shanked for pissing off the wrong lifer. My old stomping grounds were institutional courtyards and dayrooms, enclosed by coils of concertina wire, surrounded by armed patrols, and monitored by sharpshooters in gun towers. My old haunts were cell blocks; my adolescence spent on lockdown. Mine was a coming of age with convicts.

Whenever I tell people about this period of my life, I make a point to not only say that I went to prison but that I grew up in prison. I use those words specifically. Mostly, because I want to be concise. Partly, because I want to put them at ease. Merely telling someone you went to prison, and you leave a lot of gaps for them to fill in with suspicion: Can I trust this guy? Is he one of those career fuckups I gotta watch out for now? Wait–did I tell him where I live? Telling someone you grew up in prison, on the other hand, and you leave room for optimism: If this guy did something wrong, it was probably a long time ago, when he was really young and stupid, and I know just by looking at him that he’s at least not one of those anymore. But privately, I choose this phrasing because I hope it’ll provide people with a reason why later when, inevitably, my humor runs a cruel streak, when I am unexpectedly insensitive, vulgar, abrasive, or cold. Like the boy raised by wolves, I feel that if I can just make them understand the circumstances of my formative years, then, maybe, they’ll forgive me if I bite.

There’s an art to telling people you went to prison. It’s all about timing. Too soon and you come off as some oversharing basket case–and your date becomes suddenly fascinated by the ice in their drink. Too late and you risk seeming deceitful; a quick post-meetup Internet search of your name, and whatever charm you had put on immediately comes into question, anything endearing becomes troubling–at least, that’s what I worry about on those long bus rides home. For me, every time that I am introduced to someone new, it feels like the clock is running: the small talk can only go on so long, and my answers to seemingly innocuous questions be so cryptic before it starts to feel like I’m lying. So, Marco, where did you live before here? Where did you do your undergrad? Oh, you’re a writer–what do you write about? Wait, how have you never been to/heard of/seen/tasted/experienced x, y, or even z? It’s not that I’m opposed to having the discussion–on the contrary, from my experience, telling someone you were incarcerated is, perhaps, the ultimate icebreaker, the quickest way to put an end to idle chit chat, and offer someone a chance to, if they are willing, get real. The problem is that it’s hard to gauge when someone is genuinely ready to hear the whole story–a story of violence, sex, and a youth spent behind bars–and when someone is just making conversation while waiting in line for the bathroom.

My first day home, my dad took me out to buy a cell phone. The salesman saw me coming a mile away. I was his white whale: the clueless rube with nothing but time to burn and money to spend. He would upsell me on everything–the OtterBox case, the car mount, the bluetooth speaker, the extended charging cord, even the flimsy plastic screen protectors that I later learned were redundant–but I didn’t mind. It was when he pulled out his smart tablet and asked for my phone number, so he could offer me a bonus for transferring from my current carrier, that things got awkward.

“I don’t have one,” I said.

“Oh, yeah?” he said. “Lost your cell?”

“No, I . . . never owned one. This is my first.”

The salesman paused and looked at me.

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Where the heck ya been?”

The truth seemed like a lot to unload on a complete stranger, so I tried to think of something else–a half truth.

“Off the grid?” I said.

He considered this for a moment, then slowly lowered his tablet.

“I hear that,” he said, lowering his voice. “Sometimes I’d like to unplug from it all for a while, too, you know what I mean? It’s just . . . technology overload.  Anyway, c’mon, let’s see if we can’t get you on that family plan.”

I was quicker to respond this time. Hardly an hour earlier, I was fully reclined at my childhood dentist’s office dodging a similar line of questioning.

“Marco!” Doctor Mike said, as he slipped on a pair of latex gloves. “It’s been so long! I haven’t seen you in . . . gosh.”

He stopped to do the tally.

“Ten years,” I said.

“Ten years!” he said. “Has it really been that long?”

“Pretty sure.”

“Where the heck ya been?”

“Outta town.”

“Yeah? Doing what? Working? School?”

“Working,” I said, keeping it vague. “School.”

“Oh yeah? Whereabouts?”

I thought back to the last facility I was in.

“Carson City.”

“Carson City!” he said. “What the heck is in Carson City?”

Carson City was a prison town, one of those small rural villages out in the middle of nowhere with an economy entirely dependent on the perpetuation of a local correctional facility. Carson City was also home to a certain Mennonite population, who would pass by our razor wire fences on their horse-drawn buggies and tip their black felt hats at us.

“Amish people,” I told him.

“Amish!” he said. “Isn’t that something!”

I smiled. I was getting better at this–truth by omission. It wasn’t that I wanted to conceal my past, but that I had no way of gracefully transitioning to it. The whole truth, that I had been an inmate at Carson City Correctional Facility for the last four years, seemed like far too much to spring on a guy with whom the most intimate conversation I’d ever had in over two decades of knowing was if I flossed regularly.

Sometimes, you don’t get to decide how to tell people. You put a check in the wrong box on some paperwork, and people decide they know everything there is to know about you. I learned this the hard way, in my first post-prison trip to the doctor’s office.

A few days after getting out, I made an appointment with a family physician. I wanted to get caught up on any vaccination schedules that I might’ve missed in the time that I’d been away. I didn’t have a driver’s license to give the lady at the front desk–I wasn’t old enough to take the road test when I was arrested–so when she asked for identification, I just handed her my bright orange Michigan Parolee card.

At first she was confused. Then when she realized what she was holding, became startled. Cautiously, she took my ID, excused herself, and stepped into the hallway behind her desk, where she waved down the first nurse she could find. The two of them conferred for a moment–the nurse eyeing me warily–before deciding that they needed to consult with another nurse. Then another nurse. And another. Soon, a band of nurses and receptionists had circled together to decide what to do with me. They spoke in hushed tones, pausing only to sneak suspicious glances back at me–still waiting at the front desk–before returning back to the huddle.

When, at last, the woman returned, she informed me in a firm and resolute tone that they would allow me–just this once–to use this alternative form of I.D., but that if I came back, I would need a more traditional form of I.D. She handed me a clipboard with some forms to sign, and after another twenty minutes or so, finally called me back to the examination room.

The doctor, a short, stout Indian woman with a thick, regal accent and a pair of reading glasses down her nose, came in and sat down in a chair beside me. I was expecting a brief consultation about my health–my age, diet, smoking habits, etc.–but what I got was nothing short of an interrogation.

“I understand that you have arrived from prison?”

“I mean, not directly,” I said.

“But you are on parole.”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you tell me about that? Why were you in prison?”

I had been asked this question for years, so I said it as matter-of-factly as I was accustomed to saying it to any other inmate for the last decade, like someone had asked me what I did for a living.

“Attempted murder.”

“I see,” she said, crossing her arms and sitting up straight, as if challenged by my boldness. “And do you have a lot of anger issues?”

“Not really,” I said. In truth, I didn’t. It was an isolated incident. It was also ages ago. I was a child then; I had moved on with my life.

I thought that this was something she would’ve understood intuitively.

I was mistaken.

Instead, she thought that I was either being wildly facetious and that I had just flippantly confessed to a total stranger that I had once tried to take the life of another human being, or that, in the ten years that I had been locked up, I had never actually stopped, even once, to reflect on my crimes.

She tilted her nose down, and looked up at me from behind the thick frames.

“You do understand that trying to kill someone is not correct, yes? Hm? That this is not a way to deal with anger?”

She said it with that tone a mother or a teacher would use after she pulled one of her toddlers aside. And do we run in these halls? Hm? Is that correct?

I suppose I didn’t have to answer her, that I could’ve told her, frankly, none of this was any of her damn business, that I was here for some booster shots and nothing else, and she could either give them to me–and start being a little more polite to a paying customer, while she was at it–or I could take my money elsewhere. But after a decade of learning not to catch an attitude with anyone without an inmate number– especially the staff in Medical–or you’d be written up for insolence or threatening behavior and thrown in the hole, I was hardwired to sit there and take it.

“No,” I said, staring down at my sneakers, dangling off the edge of the examination table. “I know what I did was wrong.”

***

To put it simply, or rather, to describe the incident in a few lines or less–that is, as I was required to do in countless rejected job, housing, university, and visa applications–one day, in high school, my girlfriend told me that she had been sexually assaulted at a party by a mutual friend. In a fit of rage, I went over to the alleged rapist’s house with a baseball bat, struck him several times in the head, was promptly arrested, and put on trial as an adult for Assault with Intent to Commit Murder. I pleaded guilty to the charge and was sentenced to ten to fifteen years in Michigan State prison. I was fifteen years old.

But that is the sanitized version, the version whittled down to basic, dispassionate cause and effect. It’s boilerplate, legalese–which is to say, it’s bullshit. Putting it like this doesn’t tell you anything. It doesn’t explore the inchoate fury of a lovesick teenager, doesn’t detail the anguish, despair, nor the daily terror of doing hard time. It certainly doesn’t capture one ounce of the experience of being locked away as a boy and being released into the world years later as some warped version of a man. But what am I supposed to say? Is there an ideal way, a perfect middle ground between coldly stating a few disturbing facts about one’s past and vomiting out a veritable Greek tragedy to someone at the dinner table–a Goldilocks zone for ex-cons? I don’t think I’ll ever know.

Regardless of how specific I get about my offense and subsequent imprisonment, when I do tell people, I will immediately follow up with a list of things that I achieved during and after said imprisonment, a sort of verbal resume, which I hope will redeem me in their eyes: while I was incarcerated, I took correspondence courses and was able to obtain both my Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees; also while incarcerated, I developed a love for literature and creative writing, and even had a short story I wrote selected for publication; upon my release, I became an active (and for the most part, welcomed) member in my local arts community, and after completing parole, I later went on to an elite writers’ program in graduate school, where I was even entrusted with a teaching assistantship in English–after a lengthy approval process by the university’s lawyers and two semesters of pseudo-probation, where I wasn’t permitted to have “student contact,” of course. The subtext behind all of this is me all but shouting at people to wait, please, don’t get up! I’m not some violent sociopath, some terminal delinquent! I’m educated, cultured, I’m . . . why, I’m just like you!Indeed,” I imagine finally convincing them, “he really did grow up in prison.”

Sometimes, people will sympathize. Occasionally, a few will even offer up an anecdote from their own errant history–say, that time they got arrested for driving without a license, or that night they spent in the drunk tank for having a little too much Tequila at their sister’s wedding, or that brief if regrettable phase when they used to steal jewelry from Claire’s. Every once in a while, somebody will confide in me about that one uncle or cousin who they know is doing fed time somewhere in Ohio, or gripe about that bad boy ex-boyfriend for whom it seemed they were always posting bail. Usually, though, most people will just change the subject–maybe, for the best.

The more courageous of the people I talk to–those who remain unwavering in their curiosity–will actually start to pick my brain about prison. They’ll ask me a series of increasingly intimate questions, probing to see how open I really am about a topic they readily admit they know so little about. Of course, their inquiries will always be accompanied by the polite disclaimer that, if at any time I don’t feel comfortable, if things are getting too personal, we can stop  and go back to talking about sports, the weather, or you know . . . whatever. I’ve yet to refuse them.

They’ll ask about the food, what was it like?

Terrible, I’ll say. Somewhere between animal feed and hospital fare, and that was before they cut down on the portion sizes, before the private food companies took over and proudly boasted to taxpayers that they could feed us for around a dollar a day.

They’ll ask about the prison libraries, surmising that, surely, those must’ve been pretty well stocked.

You’d think so, I’ll tell them, but you’d be wrong. Most of the ones I’d seen were glorified book closets, and mail-ordering publications had become such an elaborate process–with the difficulty of finding institutionally approved vendors, not to mention the ever-growing (and ever-arbitrary) list of banned books for prisoners–that, often times, it felt like the MDOC wanted to outlaw reading.

They’ll wonder about movies, music, and pop culture–how did I stay up to date on those things?

I’ll inform them that I, like many inmates, was able to afford a black and white TV, with basic cable paid for by profits from the visiting room vending machines. And my mom saw to it that I always had several popular magazine subscriptions.

And what about money–did inmates have jobs?

Of course, I’ll say. I had worked nearly every institutional job there was, save kitchen staff and quartermaster. I was a yard crew member, a unit porter, a rec worker, a law library and general library clerk, a GED tutor. After I received my college degree, I was able to make a whopping $1.77 per day, which would get me, maybe, a few packets of ramen noodles or a single bar of soap off the commissary.

Was it scary, they’ll want to know, like it’s depicted in the movies?

The short answer: yes, it was scary–terrifying, in fact. With the constant threat of mayhem, gang warfare, sexual predation, and the unrelenting dread that anything could go wrong at anytime and that there was a very plausible chance that I may never get out, it’s not an overstatement to say that I lived each and every day in fear. The long answer: depends on which movie.

These questions never really require much introspection on my part. I’m merely reciting realities about life on the inside–no more of an emotional challenge than recalling what shirt I wore yesterday. It’s the more open-ended questions that make me pause to truly reflect, like when people ask me about my homecoming and what it’s been like to readjust to a world that I had been away from for so long.

When it comes to the new technology, getting acclimated wasn’t much of a struggle at all. Smart phones, smart cars, social media, GPS, Wi-Fi, augmented reality–it was all designed to be intuitive, easy for any novice to pick up. (Anyone with a kid can tell you it didn’t take long for their little one to figure out mommy’s iPad.) In ten years, the world really hadn’t changed much at all:  everything was just more extravagant, more luxurious–and in perpetual need of a battery charge.

What has been difficult for me is harder to explain. I can only describe it as this kind of feeling, an abiding sense that I’m somehow always behind and that I’ll never really catch up. It happens more often when I’m with friends rather than strangers. In the lull of a conversation or in the midst of even laughter, I’ll withdraw into myself for  moment. I’ll begin to suspect that I’m missing something, like I arrived ten years late to the party and now there’s some inside joke everybody’s laughing at that I don’t get, or maybe, some secret handshake that I lack the muscle memory to ever truly get down. I can’t shake the idea that there’s some life lesson everybody learned in their youth that I wasn’t around for, a volume I am supposed to speak at, a position I am supposed to sit or stand in–a protocol for how a human being is supposed to act at this stage of their life.

I realize that this is silly, and that most people–normal, everyday people, people who’ve never set foot inside a prison cell–can feel just as uncomfortable, out of place, and unsure of themselves as I do. Everyone at the party yearns for the same connection, possesses that same urge to belong. It’s when I can remember this that I finally get the courage to just open my mouth and tell someone the whole ugly story–my story.

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