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A man with a comb tries to unlock a heart trapped in a cage
Illustration by erhui1979 on iStock

I was a proud, out gay man when I came to Minnesota’s Pottawattamie County Jail in January 2015. But I had to quickly hide my sexuality after I arrived.

County jails are full of anger. I was surrounded by people who were deep in the toxic trauma that brought them there. Guys were coming off street drugs. Many were still shocked from their arrest. Some were still angry with the spouse they were abusing. Many of them were violent. I have seen more fights in county jails than in all of the eight years I have been in prison.

It took me 50 years to come out. When I was a child there was no option for being gay. I didn't even know a name existed for who I was until I went to high school in the 1970s.

Once I came out, I decided that no matter the consequences, I was going to live out and proud. And yet a cloak of shame and guilt returned to me after I arrived in jail. I decided to downplay my sexuality because I did not want to get beat up and then tossed into solitary confinement. Whatever pride I had wasn't worth it.

Then, one afternoon in late spring, a man came to our jail who sparked my interest. He entered our pod with a batch of new inmates, likely fresh off their arrests and processing. This man, who appeared to be in his mid-20s, seemed nervous — unfamiliar with jail and unsure of himself.

He was assigned to the room next to mine just before afternoon lockdown and count, when the officers confine us to our cells and tally the jail population. This new man, carrying his toiletries, had a look of fear on his face.

Maybe it was his lost, puppy dog eyes? Or maybe it was my desire to try to fix another broken person? When we went for our evening meal, I motioned for the new man to take an open spot at my table. So far I had not heard him speak. All his moves were hesitant.

We all ate in relative quiet as the evening news played on a TV nearby. After our trays were put up, he disappeared into his room. I grabbed a tattered copy of Stephen King's “Cell,” an apocalyptic horror novel, from the book cart. Half the back cover was missing and the paper had yellowed, but all the pages were there. I knocked quietly on his door and offered him the book.

“Kevin,” I said quietly, introducing myself.

“Colton,” he replied in a whisper.

I sensed that asking questions outright would probably make him faint, so I told him if he needed anything, or had a question, he could find me in my room next door or out in our dayroom — a common area — playing Scrabble. I had no idea what his charges were, or if he was looking at prison time.

I heard murmurs that he was a weirdo, which probably meant people thought he was gay. I kind of thought he was gay too, but I never knew if it was just my overwhelming hope or a correct intuition. I’ve struggled with this even in the aisles of Walmart, but it’s much worse in county jail.

On Colton’s second day, he caught me looking at him. His face revealed an extraordinary vulnerability. Usually, as a means of defense, men in prison never show any weaknesses. But his expressive eyes betrayed him. His eyes and the corners of his mouth acknowledged me in the most subtle way, so no one else could see. I was beginning to think there might be a chance of connecting with him — if not in jail, then certainly when we got out.

That afternoon they handed out soap and small bottles of shampoo. I grabbed my towel and walked toward the shower. He saw me and darted into his room, coming out with his towel. I got into one shower, and Colton took another one near me. I put my orange shirt on the hook and my soap and shampoo bottle on the floor, then slid off my pants. I reached to hang them on the hook and looked up. Colton was there with his pants in his hand, too.

I stepped away from the protection of the curtain, taking my time like I was struggling to hang my pants up. Colton never took his eyes off me. I finally hung up my pants, and was slipping into the shower when he turned slightly to hang up his pants. He had a really nice butt.

In county jail, there are no long and luxurious hot showers. The water came out in a fat, lukewarm stream. When I finished showering, Colton's curtain was still closed. I toweled off my upper body and put on my clothes.

Colton's curtain then opened to him with just his pants on, holding his sopping shirt. He was very slender, almost painfully so. His skin was pasty white. His big mop of hair, just washed and dried with a towel, was a mess. I am pretty sure there was a hint of a smile on his lips when he caught me looking at him.

He put his shirt on, stepped out of the shower and went to his room. I got to my room and rummaged around, finding a comb. They stopped issuing combs — without giving a reason — about six months back, but I still had mine. I gave it to Colton, and he gave me a faint “thanks.”

My mind swam all day with exciting possibilities.

Was he really gay? Was he just being nice to me, offering me a bit of a look? That’s what a street hustler would do; his sexuality wouldn't matter, only what the customer wanted. But I didn't get that vibe from Colton.

I wanted to slip him a note, something to tell him I was interested if he was interested. But it was a dangerous thing to do in county jail. Somebody could find the note and figure out I sent it. The next time I went into the bathroom I could be beaten or forced to do things. Both possibilities could get you sent to solitary confinement.

The jailers then called for afternoon lockdown and count. I heard a door open and shut. About a half-hour later, I saw a man in the parking lot, leaving the jail. He was wearing canvas shoes, jeans, a blue T-shirt and had freshly washed hair. It was Colton.

He looked back toward the jail. I waved frantically to him, and he waved back. Then he turned and left the parking lot.

I was sent to prison about a year later. I never connected with Colton. I never learned his full name. I asked his cellmates if he had left any address or paperwork behind. They said no.

Transience is a central condition of life in jails and prisons. People come and go. Sometimes so soon that you don’t get to know them as much as you’d like. Exciting possibilities evaporate in a matter of days. I’ll probably never see Colton again, but I still think of what might have been.

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.

Kevin Morrissey is a writer incarcerated in Minnesota.