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Entrance to a juvenile detention center
Photo credit: iStock

I came to prison at 15.

Because I was so young, I didn’t know who I was when I arrived. I felt insecure about past mistakes, including the crime that sent me here. I hadn’t yet done anything meaningful in life, and I didn’t fit what a “real” prisoner should look like.

I did everything I could to mask my insecurities and hold myself together, but these feelings were their own form of prison.

The first years of my sentence were spent in a correctional institution for youth offenders. There are roughly 60,000 incarcerated youth under the age of 18 in the U.S., according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Knowing I would be going to an adult prison afterward, I bulked up. I worked out like crazy to make up for the fact that I couldn’t make a convincing mean face if my life depended on it. I learned the habits of hypermasculinity, like how to eat a banana by breaking it into pieces first so that no creep could sexualize it.

I was immature, so I tried to fit in with all groups. I’d talk about money with bank robbers, drugs with addicts, smuggling with cartel members. I’d leave a conversation with a white supremacist to talk politics with a member of the Nation of Islam.

Some of this behavior was because I was interested in other people. Some of it was because I didn’t want to feel left out. Some of it was because I was afraid of being alone in a dangerous environment. In prison, guys who didn’t fit in and didn’t have a lot of friends were often targeted.

I was small with childish features and glasses. I had at least 25 years to do, and I didn’t want that to be how my life was defined on the inside.

I read a lot, and learned a little about many things. I got a tutoring job in the prison GED program even though I was still young enough to be in high school. Teaching guys from all walks of life helped me relate to others.

For a while, my time in prison was easier.

Bloods stood up for me. Crips tried to recruit me. Skinheads liked me. Latin Kings had my back. Religious groups tried to convert me.

I never joined any of them. I got along with nearly everybody, but I still had no clue who I wanted to be. I spent my first years in prison learning to survive, without a future I could see.

Missing out on growing up

It’s hard to know who you are when you want to escape both your past and your present. It’s like being lost in the woods at dusk, with no map and a thousand miles to cover.

Meanwhile, everything outside prison was changing.

My high school class graduated three years after I was locked up. The few friends who had written to me moved on as they went off to college. Smartphones allowed everyone outside to always be connected.

Loved ones passed away. Guys I knew on the inside left prison. Then they came back. All the while, I stayed in one place.

I lived in the moment, got lost in days and years, lost in the stories, lives and dramas of the people around me.

The old memories were the sharpest. Those memories stuck with me because they were a part of my formation as an autonomous individual while my identity was churning in the mixer.

I still remember the names of my first five cellies’ girlfriends back in 2006. I remember the prison friends I made as a teenager better than almost anyone else I’ve come to know in prison in the 14 years since.

I was insecure back then. I had done nothing with my life before prison. I had never lived by myself, gotten a driver’s license, had a serious girlfriend or traveled to other countries.

I didn’t know how to cook or eat healthy. I didn’t know how to pay taxes. The few wild stories I had took place in prison, and came mostly from listening to those around me. I couldn’t relate to them, and they couldn’t relate to me.

Still, I was fortunate enough to make friends with people on the outside, mostly through my dad. When those friends chose to open up to me, they found out I was genuinely interested in them. I learned about what “normal” people deal with on a daily basis. These friends helped keep me human, instead of turning into a toxic prison caveman.

Becoming an adult in prison

Even behind bars, people can grow. Whether we become noxious weeds or beautiful plants is partially up to us. I didn’t want my past to be my entire life, so I chose the latter.

I took an introductory culinary arts class and became an amazing cook. Later, I became a tutor and chef in the program. I learned enough about the law to help a teenager get out of prison. I wrote, drew and read. I became educated as I imagine I would have been if I hadn’t gone to prison. I trained dogs and performed in prison concerts. I saw that I could create instead of destroy.

I still can’t make a mean face if my life depended on it, but I don’t care about that anymore. I still get stares from predators when I eat a banana the regular way, but my beard makes me less appetizing now, and they know not to mess with a 33-year-old.

I still get along with everyone, but I’m more discerning about who I choose to talk to. The biggest change in my life here has been getting rid of my ego and not caring about fitting in.

Once I did that, I found that more people took to me than ever before. Maybe that’s what becoming an adult is all about.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Christopher Dankovich is a writer incarcerated in Michigan.