James Michael Anderson was awarded honorable mention in Memoir in the 2020 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.

The illustration for this piece of writing was expressly created by an incarcerated artist curated by Justice Arts Coalition. This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.


A young man in pants marked with the word “prisoner” sits and smile. Images of an older man and a young man with pensive expressions linger behind him

Image by James Sepesi

“This one here’s sort of a softie, gentlemen.” The McLaren guard was looking at me when he yelled to the twenty prisoners seated on the transport bus. “Who needs a girlfriend?”

The men stared at me. None of them blinked. A few of them whistled. They were all ten to forty years my senior, and if looks were an indication of strength, infinitely more capable than I was of surviving in prison.

A few months after my 17th birthday, I had crumbled under the weight of peer pressure and placed seven tabs of LSD under my tongue. While hallucinating, I took an innocent person’s life. It was a violent act for which I was solely responsible. In a panic, I left the scene of the crime. A missing-person case was opened. When I was questioned, I lied and acted as if I didn’t know anything about the situation.

During the thirty-one days prior to my arrest, I skipped school and sat under a tree trying to figure out what to do. The more I thought about it, the more I panicked. Of course I should have gone to the police, turned myself in, and started the process of taking accountability like a man. But I was too much of a coward, and I was too scared of letting my mom down. Instead, I sat by that tree and wondered how long it would be until I was arrested.

When I was taken into custody a month later, they charged me with one count of murder. Three months after that, I appeared before a judge and received the longest prison term the law allows under Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines: Twenty-five years to life, the same sentence that adult repeat offenders receive. It was a number too big to wrap my mind around.

I began serving my time at McLaren, a youth offender facility, placed inside the Crisis Intervention Unit (CIU), which was basically solitary confinement. I was told that I wasn’t put in CIU as punishment but rather because the policy stated that youth bound for an adult penitentiary be held there until they were transferred.

For almost two weeks, I was alone in a cell for twenty-three and a half hours each day. My senses began to diminish, human touch was absent, and my food was pushed through a small slot in the door. I could have visited with my mom, but I wasn’t allowed to use a phone, and so I was unable to let her know that I had been placed there, less than a mile away from home. I was out of sight, and almost entirely invisible to other human beings—at times even to myself.

I spent hours curled up on my side, knees pulled tightly to my chest, sobbing. I didn’t know how to separate myself from feeling absolute guilt and shame for having done something so violent, something so permanent. I’m ashamed to admit that at times I also fell into bouts of self-pity, a seventeen-year-old, selfishly-naïve outlook that life had somehow treated me wrong. But mostly, there was shock and a crushing weight of remorse.

In my cell, I’d distract myself by running sink water until it nearly overflowed. As soon as the water threatened to spill over the edge of the sink, I’d let it drain and begin the process all over again.

Listening to the water was soothing for me, and repeating it over and over again gave me a sense of control in an environment over which I had none. When that became tiresome, I’d spend hours at my cell door, shifting my weight from foot to foot, hoping to see signs of life out on the tier. Mostly, there was nothing but the empty, echoing voices from other sections of CIU.

There were, however, a few times that other kids were escorted in and placed in a cell, sometimes for fighting, sometimes for smarting off to staff, sometimes for just having a bit too much energy and attitude. A couple hours later, a guard would come back and offer each kid a chance to rejoin his peers if he promised to write an apology paragraph and behave. I had to stay in CIU until I was transferred to an adult penitentiary.

Once, I called out to a kid a few cells down who was crying loudly. “Hey, are you alright?”

For a few minutes, all I heard was silence. Then his plastic sandaled footsteps began shuffling across the concrete floor of his cell.

“Are you that kid that’s going to prison forever?” he asked. “The one that everyone’s talking about?”

“Yeah,” I responded. “But I don’t really wanna talk about it, okay?”

In addition to the crime I’d committed, I was also struggling to make sense of other things. I had been sexually abused from age 9 to 13 by the son of my father’s best friend. He was a big kid, four years older, and the abuse was consistent and unrelenting. He was the same person who gave me the LSD the night of my crime. At school, I was bullied for my acne. At home I never knew how to articulate the emotions I was feeling inside.

“Everybody wants to know why you did what you did,” he yelled out to me.

“So do I,” I said, too quietly for him to hear. “So do I.”

Later, when the guard came and offered him the chance to return to his unit, I heard him ask if I was really a killer.

When the guard opened his cell door, he walked out and stared at me as he passed mine. I remember wishing that he could just see me as a kid who screwed up, not someone broken and beyond repair. Maybe it was a stretch to expect others to see me as anything but a news headline.

During my twenty-three and a half hours of solitude, I thought a lot about Kevin, my seven year-old brother. Maybe he was in his room, door half closed, belting out the lyrics to his favorite LeAnn Rimes song. It made me smile when I remembered how he would always tell mom that LeAnn was bew-tee-full after each song ended. As rays of sunshine streamed through the bars of my CIU window, I imagined him outside, sidewalk chalk in hand, pretending to keep the score of a one-on-one basketball game as though I were still there.

I thought of Robby, my eight-month old nephew. I thought of his birth, which came just two weeks prior to my arrest. What would he think of me as he grew older? Would I be remembered as the uncle who skipped school to come hold him in the hospital the day he was born, or as a tragic piece of the family puzzle? Before I had a chance to come home this baby would be a man.


After ten days at McLaren, I was transferred to an adult prison. I awoke that morning numb with fear. My thoughts raced: Would my mom know which prison I was being sent to? Would Angel—the infamous prison predator whose name was etched into the back of my cell door in the Marion County Jail—would he be there to welcome me and claim me as his own? Would I be stabbed once I got there? Raped?

At about 10:30 a.m. I heard a set of keys clanging against my cell door. This was a common practice used by the guards to get our attention. I’ll never forget the man who held those keys, or the night I had overheard him tell another guard, “In my opinion, these kids are all pukes that deserve a thirteen-cent bullet, not a second chance.” When I looked up at him from my bunk, I knew my time had come.

“The big day’s here,” he said as my cell door was unlocked and opened. He escorted me to the receiving and discharge room (R&D). A few days before, I had watched as another kid got marched off to prison, and I heard the guard call it the big day then as well. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d cross paths with that kid within a matter of months when we faced a similar problem in prison.

Inside the R&D room, there were three large containers filled with handcuffs, ankle restraints, and belly chains. As the guard rummaged through them, he whistled the Queen tune, “Another One Bites the Dust.” I knew the song, but the way he whistled it gave it an eerie, ominous feeling.

After I undressed, he kicked a pair of old shower sandals towards me and handed me a white, button-up jumpsuit. It had the word prisoner stenciled down the leg in bright orange lettering. No underwear. No socks. After I finished buttoning up, he told me to kneel on a bench with my nose pressed against the wall. He cuffed my ankles first, then wrapped a length of chain around my waist like a belt. Afterward, he pulled me off the bench and handcuffed my wrists to the waist chain. I stood there crying. He continued to whistle.

When he opened the door and led me outside, I had to squint my eyes against the morning sun shining through a break in the clouds. The transport bus had just pulled in, and I inched toward it in my chains. Most prisoners referred to the bus as the Blue Bird, but more than a few times I overheard guards calling it the Loser Cruiser.


The McLaren guard was right when he announced to the two dozen or so prisoners seated on the transport bus that I was a softie. I weighed 140 pounds, stood 5’10 tall, and parted my short blond hair down the middle. I had a baby face, and it would still be a few years before I needed my first shave. Fighting back tears, I stood there in front of all those men thinking about the graphic images I’d been filled with regarding kids being sent to the adult prison system.

“They’re gonna fuck you, bro.” I remember one kid saying during my stay at the juvenile intake center. “Prison is fulla’ rapists that don’t take no for an answer…all they wanna do is put it in your ass. Nothing you can do about it either except bite your pillow and cry.”

The thought of being sexually assaulted would terrify anyone. For me, it was even worse considering I struggled continuously with the emotional impact of having already experienced such abuse.

“Find a seat!” the Department Of Corrections transport officer yelled from behind the cage that separated us. He had a shotgun at his side.

With the ankle chains restricting my range of movement, I kept my eyes down and slowly shuffled past the rows of shackled prisoners. I sat next to a man in his 50’s. He had a freshly shaved head, a long, well-manicured ZZ Top style beard, light blue eyes that seemed to look right through me, and a tattoo that said “Mama Tried” in faded blue-ish black ink across the left side of his neck. When I sat down, he grinned at me. Bands of yellow crust rimmed his last few teeth.

“Don’t worry boss,” ZZ Top yelled loudly to the McLaren guard, who was still standing in the bus’s entrance. “I’ll take care of him. Finally have a kid of my own, ya’ know? Teach him how to shave my back!”

The entire Blue Bird erupted in laughter. I was sure that everyone on the bus could hear my heart pounding.

“Hey, hey, hey. Just joking kid, try to calm down,” ZZ Top leaned in and whispered as the bus began to roll. “Seriously, don’t start crying. You don’t want these motherfuckers to think you’re weak now do ya?”

I was trying to take deep breaths, but the chains around my waist made it difficult. ZZ Top told me that he yelled out to the McLaren guard to lessen the tension, which was basically a favor to me. I was leery of favors. I learned early in my jail time that favors came with the understanding that you were indebted. Not good in real life. Really not good in prison.

As the Blue Bird began to roll, he spent a few more minutes talking under his breath, schooling me on the ins and outs of convict life. He said that when we got to the prison, I needed to understand that nearly everyone talks tougher than they really are. He called this “wolf tickets,” which are (mostly) hollow threats of violence. He told me it was something I needed to get good at quick, even though it’s mostly a facade. He also told me that the other prisoners were just staring at me out of curiosity, wondering why someone so young was headed to prison. He told me to hold my head high, and that to get respect on the inside required always looking people in the eyes no matter the situation.

I listened carefully. Maybe I’d be okay if I handled myself correctly, I thought to myself. That thought didn’t last long. During the ride, some of the prisoners joked that I looked about 14 years old.

When I sat up straight, puffed out my chest and said, “Nope, I’m actually seventeen,” they laughed even louder.

ZZ Top gave me one last piece of advice, this time much louder so that everyone else on the bus could hear. He told me that in prison conflicts get resolved in one of three ways: fight, fuck, or run.

In an even louder voice, he said that the smartest thing I could do was find the biggest piece of steel around and make an example out of the first person who looked at me sideways.

“Make it quick,” he said. “No hesitation…just hit em’ and keep on walking as if nothing happened. Just step right on over em’ and go about your business. Don’t even look back. That’s how it’s done in The Joint.”

He was talking tough again, and I didn’t know if he was giving me good advice or just selling the same wolf tickets he had just told me about. Here was a man who was being helpful, a man who seemed to be going out of his way to ease my mind. Yet, on the other hand, he was encouraging me to start my time off by committing a violent act—a polarizing thought considering I’d already done the unthinkable.

The Blue Bird arrived at Oregon State Correctional Institution around noon, pulling off the main road and heading down the prison’s long driveway. It was cold outside. The breath from all of the prisoners had left the windows in the bus almost completely fogged over.

“Let’s go men. Off the bus!” the transport officer yelled.

We climbed out of the transport bus and formed a single-file line at the reception gate. We were still shackled. It was a slow process.

“Nuts to butts gentlemen!” the transport officer yelled, indicating that we needed to stand close to the person in front of us. “You know the drill. Most of you will come to prefer that type of thing after a while in there,” he said, nodding over his shoulder towards the prison.

Was this a wolf ticket? I couldn’t tell, but I overheard several of the men mutter obscenities under their breath, none loud enough for the officer to hear. Fearing the consequences that any form of organized mutiny might bring, we inched closer together. Tiny step by tiny step, we made our way toward the prison. The ankle chains dug deeper and deeper into my already raw flesh.


Inside OSCI’s R&D room, I knelt on a bench with my face to the wall once again. This time, one prison guard held my shoulder firmly, while another removed my restraints. Once they were off, I was told to undress. When I turned around I noticed that both prison guards had batons hanging from their sides. I waited as long as I could before unbuttoning my white transport jumpsuit. Naked, I stood with all the other men waiting for further instruction. After a few minutes, a third prison guard emerged from behind a desk.

“Listen Up!” he barked. “If any of you men have something hidden in your assholes, now’s the time to fess up. Nothing’s smuggled into my facility! Is that understood? Good. Now, one at a time, step forward. No talking!”

When it was my turn, I stepped forward.

“Run your fingers briskly through your hair. Let me see inside your ears. Open your mouth. Lift up your tongue. Show me your hands. Flip them over. Lift up your arms and show me your armpits. Higher! Okay, lift up your dick and balls. Turn around. Lift your foot up. Wiggle your toes.

Now the other. Wiggle them. Bend over. Spread your cheeks and give two good coughs. Good.”

Later, I heard from other prisoners that ‘spreading our cheeks’ was more a means of humiliation than it was a successful contraband-finding technique.

One of the things that ZZ Top had told me during the forty-five minute bus ride was that because I was new to prison I’d be labeled as a “fish.” He didn’t mention how long I’d be stuck with such a title. All I could think of was a goldfish stuck in a pool of sharks.

Once the twenty men in the room with me had been searched, we were handed bundles of prison-issued clothing and bedding. We also received a “fish bag,” which was handed out to all new arrivals and consisted of a few basic hygiene items. The clothing portion of my bundle included a pair of medium-sized underwear, size 30-30 blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and orange sandals. I untied it and dressed as quickly as I could.

My t-shirt was a little too small for me. I was relieved to think that there were others locked up who were skinnier than I was. My pants fit fine in the waist, but the bottoms hovered about two inches above my ankles. My feet, which are a size 10.5, were flopping around in size 13 sandals. I looked like a carnival clown. The grins on the faces of the prison guards told me this too was a tool of humiliation.

“First timer, huh?” the prison guard asked loudly from across the room. “The boys are gonna love you!” It was the one who had loudly warned us about smuggling contraband in our rectums, and he was obviously talking to me.

ZZ Top shot me a glance that meant one thing: you better meet this challenge head on.

“Yeah?” I said. “Well, sounds like I’ll be kicking a lot of ass in there then!”

Everyone in the room started to laugh. The only thing I wanted to do at that moment was scream for my mother. Scream for anyone who would listen and agree that maybe this wasn’t the right place for a kid. Even one who had taken a life. I knew that screaming wouldn’t solve my problems, but it sure felt like it would lessen the anxiety that was building inside of me. After a few minutes, a steel door leading to the rest of the prison opened. Once all of us fish stepped through, it slammed shut behind us.

The main hub of OSCI is a hallway 100 yards long and 15 feet wide which serves as a walking highway to every location in the prison: the dining room, visiting room, chapel, education department, industries building, indoor gym, and recreation yard. The hallway also connects to two of the prison’s largest cellblocks, each holding about 400 men. At the end of the hallway, I saw the entrance to the one I was assigned. Cellblock 4.

When I walked into the block, the smell of sweat and days-old urine assaulted me. In time, I would grow accustomed to it.

“Get your asses in here,” yelled the squat, curly-haired female prison guard. “Don’t just stand there blocking my entrance!”

We stepped forward and handed her the housing assignment sheets we were given in R&D. She gave each of us an Inmate Handbook, and then dismissed us one by one by pointing towards the tier our cell would be found on; lower, middle, or upper. When I handed her my assignment sheet, she looked me up and down and said, “Oh dear, how old are you?”


She shook her head, pointed down the middle tier and told me to “get.”


As I made my way down the middle tier, I saw many of the prisoners eyeing me from their doorways. A few made comments.

“Hey young’n, you a pitcher or a catcher, homie?”

“Doesn’t matter…he looks like a catcher to me!”

“Don’t listen to that shit! You’ll be fine kid.”

“Hey blondie-yeah you motherfucker! You ever been nailed in your shit box?”

“Shut up man! Why you spittin’ wolf tickets at that fool?”

“Whatever. Don’t drop the soap gorgeous!”

I looked straight ahead and kept walking.


Cell 264 was a white cinderblock 6×8 foot box. Inside were two bunks, a steel toilet-sink combo, a shelf bolted to the wall, and a small desk. My chest tightened as I took that first step inside.

My cellmate was lying on his bunk wearing only a pair of red shorts. He was covered in tattoos from neck to ankles. He was in his forties. He looked me up and down.

“You’re not no snitch or no sex offender are you?”

I was neither. Prisoners were allowed to keep their legal work with them when transferred, and he relaxed after I showed him my pre-sentence investigation paperwork as proof. He scanned it, and nodding his approval, explained that he was doing time for a racially motivated assault. After deeming me worthy to be in his presence, he pointing to the top bunk.

“That’s you.”

I took inventory of the things I’d been given in R&D. The fish bag had a plastic comb and toothbrush, a small coffee cup, and a bag of baking soda to be used as both toothpaste and deodorant.

The bedding bundle had one towel, two dusty blankets, and two stained sheets with a matching pillowcase. I placed the fish bag items on a small shelf, washed my hands and filled my cup with some water. I wasn’t thirsty, but I didn’t know what else to do. I looked in the mirror. It was a thin piece of metal that had been buffed until it provided a semblance of reflection. Two sayings were etched into its surface:

“Gawd hates me,” and

“Objects in the mirror are as messed up as they appear.”

There were dozens of “nudie” magazines stacked on the desk. Playboys, Cherrys, Club Internationals, some with titles too graphic to list. I didn’t know what to say considering I’d only been able to get a peek of magazines like this stashed behind the counters at ‘Mom and Pop’ markets. Well, mostly anyways.

I made my bed. My cellmate looked at it and laughed.

“Come on kid. That’s the worst bed making job I’ve ever seen,” he said. “You didn’t even layer the sheets and blankets right.”

He told me that he’d been schooled to do things a certain way when he arrived, and he felt it his duty to pass on those same lessons to fish like me. He taught me that, in prison, beds are made with the blanket as the first layer on a mattress. The next two layers are the sheets, followed by the second blanket on the top. Layering it this way, he explained, ensured that it was quieter when shifting around on the plastic sleeve that covered the mattress.

I remade the bed, then stood at the barred window and looked down the long driveway toward the distant freeway. I got lost for a moment watching the vehicles come into view and then disappear.

“Forget about the cars kid,” my cellmate told me. “It doesn’t matter where they’re going. Forget about whatever life you thought you had out there. Those things are gone now. From this day forward things are different, and you might as well get used to it. You’re a lifer.”

When I backed away from the window, he tossed me a MAD magazine.

“Make yourself comfortable, youngster,” he told me. “But understand two things…I’m not big on conversation, and you’re not old enough for any of these tittie mags yet. Don’t let me catch you flippin’ through any of those pages, understand? I don’t need no Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor charge.”

Since there wasn’t a ladder leading up to the top bunk, he showed me how to stand on the small desk and use it as a launching pad to jump up there. It was an awkward maneuver that took some getting used to. After flipping through a few pages of the MAD magazine, I put it aside and stared at the ceiling. I thought about how I could never undo the terrible thing I’d done. My own guilt convicted me in a way that the judge never could.

I don’t know how long I stared at the ceiling, but after a while I was interrupted when a fire bell screamed to life and rang for a very long 30 seconds. With time, I came to understand that certain prison guards enjoyed letting the bell ring longer than necessary for their own entertainment. The longer it rang, the more agitated prisoners became. As soon as a string of obscenities erupted from a handful of cells, the ringing would usually stop. The bell’s purpose, my cellmate explained, was to announce meals and other line movements throughout the day. The bells rang ten times a day beginning at 5:30am and ending at 9:45pm.

When the bell stopped, all of the cell doors in Cellblock 4 clanged open in unison. Dinnertime.

As I walked out of the cell and down the tier with dozens of other prisoners, I remembered that my mom used to drive past the prison on the way to go shopping. When I was with her, I would look out the window and ask her the same question each time: “Mom…what is that place again?”

“A home where all of the really bad people live,” she’d say.

“Like who?” I’d ask.

“The worst of the worst. People like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees,” she’d say, referencing two movie villains she knew I was familiar with. “They’re right in there behind the fences.

Scary huh?”

Now I was in that prison. I wondered what my mother thought to herself as she drove by. On the long walk down to the chow hall, I noticed that nearly everyone had a bottle of hot sauce in their back pocket. The reason became apparent after a few meals; the food was so bland and unpalatable that drowning it in hot sauce was the only way to make it edible.

The meal that night was chili mac, a mixture of noodles and soy meat. When I read the menu pinned to our cells’ corkboard a bit earlier, it didn’t sound too bad. But up close, it looked horrible. I overheard one prisoner say to another, “It tastes like cancer, but at least it’s warm!”

Rather than giving it a hot sauce-less try, I ate a piece of bread. Then I returned to Unit 4 with the rest of the inmates. To the top bunk in cell 264. To my cellmate and the nudie magazines he wouldn’t let me read. To the mirror and its etched message of despair. To the window with a view of a world that for me was no longer real.

He said he wasn’t interested in much conversation, but my cellmate liked to talk about rules, convict rules, which boiled down to a few basics: mind your own business, don’t steal from another convict, don’t snitch, keep to your own race, and always stand up for yourself.

“So, what do you think kid?” my cellmate asked when he jumped up to take a piss, his hand motioning toward the cells’ meager amenities.

“It’s…even smaller than I expected,” I said.

“Well, get used to it. It’s home now. But don’t get too comfortable in this cell because you have to move in a few days when my homeboy gets out of segregation. It’s nothing personal, you seem like a cool kid. But I only live with Skins.”

“Skins…?” I asked.

“White supremacists.”




The bell again. 5:30a.m. Day two. People were yelling, the sound of sink faucets sprang to life, and dozens of toilets were flushing simultaneously. It was an orchestra of reverberating chaos that would wake even the deepest of sleepers. All of the cell doors slammed open in unison again.

The menu pinned to the corkboard said oatmeal.

Later that week, when my cellmate’s friend got released from segregation, I was moved into a different cell at the far end of a noisy tier. When I went to the recreation yard, other prisoners warned me that the person I moved in with was a violent sexual predator. They encouraged me to move cells as quickly as I could.

Without giving her details, I asked the curly-haired prison guard to move me once again. She dismissed my request with a wave of her hand.

“You only get one convenience move every 90 days, kid,” she told me. “Now get.”

I was on my own. One would think that the department of corrections would take people’s charges, or at least their predatory behaviors, into account whenever they’re assigning cells, but they didn’t. At least not back then.

My new cellmate, The Predator, was about 5’7, and 175 pounds. He had medium-length black hair that he slicked straight back, hairy arms, and bushy eyebrows. What I remember mostly is that he had a hard look about him. That and he had the body of someone who had clearly lifted weights for years.

Inside the cell, he showered me with attention, boasted about the contraband he dabbled in, and encouraged me to help him with risky hustles. Taking into consideration that the other prisoners had warned me about him, I kept my distance. He wanted me to help him smuggle drugs through the prison’s visiting room, a serious rule violation for which, if caught, would ensure that I’d never be allowed to visit with my family again. When I stood my ground and refused, he became demanding.

He told me that I didn’t have a choice, and that I was going to help him whether I liked it or not. He pushed me face-first against the wall of our cell. With his forearm pressed against the back of my neck, he yanked my t-shirt out of my jeans, and placed his hand down the backside of my pants.

“Things can go bad for you real quick in here,” he whispered angrily in my ear. “You wanna rethink things?”

In terror, I used my hands to push myself off the wall as hard as I could. I was hoping to knock him off balance. I did, but just barely. It was just long enough to turn around and put my hands up.

“Just leave me alone,” I pleaded. I heard a fire bell ring as he started to punch me.

After a brief scuffle, which I was losing badly, the cell doors opened again and I managed to escape for yard line.

Once I got to the recreation yard, heart pounding and breathing hard, I went over to a set of bleachers and asked several prisoners for advice. Just like I’d been warned, they explained I was with the big boys now and that my options were limited to those three choices: fight, fuck, or run.

I chose to fight.

When I came in from the recreation yard, I attacked my cellmate on the tier of Cellblock 4. We fought until several guards ran up and yanked us apart. We were both placed in handcuffs and taken to segregation. I was ordered to spend twenty-eight days in solitary confinement.

There were two separate segregation buildings back then: one that double bunked prisoners, and one that placed a single person in each cell. I was thankful when I learned I’d be in a cell by myself.

“Good job standing up for yourself,” the guard had said as he processed me into segregation.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said as a nurse examined my bloody nose.

“Sure kid,” he said. “I’ve heard from some of the other prisoners that this guy’s been on you, so good job either way.”

I appreciated his encouragement, but I knew that asking him for help, or for advice, would ultimately be pointless. I also understood that ‘consorting with the enemy’ wasn’t in my best interests.

Besides, none of them wanted to do paperwork over some kid who couldn’t hold his own against a predator. So instead, I just reverted to what I’d done when being abused as a kid. I kept my mouth shut and bottled up my feelings.

When I got released from solitary a month later, I saw The Predator almost immediately on mainline. I could tell by the way he looked at me that our issue wasn’t resolved. When I went to the recreation yard that afternoon I resigned myself to the task of acting braver than I really was. I walked up to him and said, “We’re fighting again. Let’s go.”

It wasn’t a wolf ticket. I knew I had to keep standing up for myself until he’d leave me alone. A small crowd followed us to the handball courts, several prisoners whispering encouragements along the way.

“Get him kid,” one said.

“Fuck that freak up,” offered another.

Word spreads quickly when a fight is imminent, and when we stopped at one of the handball courts the four prisoners inside quickly paused their game in order to see some action. We went inside and squared off. As soon as the nearest prison guard was a safe distance away, we went at it. After our first scuffle, he knew I didn’t know how to fight, but somehow I got lucky and threw an eyes closed, wild haymaker when he feigned a kick…it knocked out his front tooth.

Shocked, we both stood there for a second. Then that moment passed and he beat the shit out of me until the commotion from onlookers got the attention of one of the prison guards. He ran over, saw us fighting and ordered us to stop. The Predator kept punching me, and I continued to block his punches with my face. A handful of prison guards rushed inside of the handball court to break us up.

Even though I lost the fight, seeing his tooth laying on the ground made me feel like a champion. We were both placed in handcuffs, and taken to segregation. I was ordered to spend ninety days in solitary.

“Good job kid,” The same prison guard working in segregation said again. This time I said nothing. I just stood there and cried while blood dripped from my nose and pooled on the floor between my shoes.

When I fought him for the third time, I teamed up with the kid who’d been sent from McLaren a few days before me. He was sporting a black eye, and another prisoner told me that The Predator had sexually assaulted him while they were celled up together in segregation. When we were introduced, we talked about McLaren, but not much else. We didn’t need to. Instead, we followed him into the dining room during the next meal and jumped him as soon as he set his tray down. When the prison guards rushed in to break us up, I remember hearing ZZ Top, the prisoner that I was on the transport bus with, yell a comment to The Predator.

“Maybe that’ll teach your chicken-hawkin’ ass to leave them youngsters alone!”

More handcuffs, another walk, and an order to spend 180 days in solitary.

Those three fights were the first ones I’d ever been in, and they earned me a total of 298 days in solitary confinement. It didn’t matter to me that I had lost all three. Bruises heal. Scabs turn into new skin. What mattered at that point was I had stood up for myself. That and the fact that segregation offered a safe separation from a man who intended to do me harm. Being away from him was a relief, but it didn’t make things easier. Disciplinary units have predators too.

Each of the three times that I was brought into the solitary confinement unit, the prisoners housed there stood at their cell fronts and questioned me about the fights I’d gotten into with The Predator. After interrogating me, a handful of them would deliberate loudly for a few minutes before telling me that I was found “guilty” of being weak-hearted—one of the worst verdicts to be found guilty of inside of prison. They acknowledged that I stood up for myself, but they believed that I should have stabbed The Predator, and that I was a coward for not doing so. As punishment for being found guilty by my peers in this impromptu, make-shift court, I was encouraged to kill myself. They even offered descriptive ways by which I should take my own life, and when I didn’t follow through, I was considered even more of a coward than they first thought. Listening to these men taunt me to take my own life was tough. Thinking of suicide was an everyday occurrence for me.

Most of the prisoners in segregation knew The Predator, and while none of them seemed to like him, their boredom had ignited an appetite for entertainment. I just happened to be the person that provided it.

To distract myself, I’d resort to the soothing sound of running my sink water. I’d stand there, index finger on the water button, quietly singing that familiar song…

(Doom, doom, doom. Da-doom-doom, doom, da-doom)

“Another one gone, and another one gone.” I’d press the button until the water almost overflowed. Then, just like I did in the CIU cell at McLaren, I’d let it drain right before it spilled over the edge. When it emptied, and I think to signify the passage of another day without giving up, I’d hit the water button to start the process all over again…

-Another one bites the dust.”

(Doom, doom, doom. Da-doom-doom, doom, da-doom)

“There are plenty of ways that you can hurt a man

And bring him to the ground

You can beat him, you can cheat him

You can treat him bad and leave him when he’s down

But I’m ready, yes, I’m ready for you

I’m standing on my own two feet

Out of the doorway the bullets rip

Repeating to the sound of the beat

(Doom, doom, doom. Da-doom-doom, doom, da-doom)


-Another one bites the dust.”

Like the lyrics in this song, I was trying to be strong. I was trying to be a man. I was trying to

learn what it means to stand on my own two feet because there wasn’t another choice for me. I was searching for a sense of courage that I didn’t feel. A sense of purpose that would give life meaning in this new world of steel, concrete, and chaos. Much as I wanted to, this was not an environment where I could go to the police for help. In prison you either survive or you don’t. I was trying desperately to understand how, in a few short months, I went from being a student in high school, to a threatened, beaten-down prisoner in a solitary confinement cell. I knew that suicide wasn’t the answer, but being in segregation was a test of my inner strength. A test of my perseverance, and of course my faith as well. It was a test to see if I would recover after plummeting to rock bottom.

As I write this, I’m about to begin my twenty-fourth year of incarceration. I’m 40 years old. I’ve spent more than half my life in various prisons throughout Oregon. In a lot of ways, prison has become my home. That’s something I never thought I’d say, especially when thinking back to that first day standing at the cell window looking out at all those passing cars. I don’t know if I’ll ever be free again. The guilt I have for what I did is still as fresh today as it was back then, so I don’t pretend tothink that freedom is something I deserve. Having said that, I feel like I’ve spent my time wisely after my rough start to doing time. I’ve accumulated nearly eighteen years of clear conduct, I’ve earned three college degrees, and I’ve mentored hundreds of at-risk kids through our youth speaking panels, among other things.

The Predator? He, like me, was sent to a different prison after our third fight. I suppose it was decided that we both needed a fresh start somewhere else, and I sure didn’t mind. For more than twenty years I feared that he’d pop up, and that when he did I’d have to fight him again. I looked for him each time the Blue Bird dropped off a fresh group of arrivals.

Then two years ago, on New Year’s Eve, I saw his name on the daily movement sheet listing new arrivals. When I went to dinner that night I caught a glimpse of him heading into another cell block. He had gotten old, and he was much smaller than the muscled-up man I remembered. But it was him. That much was clear.

I followed him out to the recreation yard the next day. I didn’t have a plan, but I knew I needed to say something. A chapter between us needed to be closed. When he stopped for a second, pausing to take in his new surroundings, I walked up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Do you remember me?” I asked.

He turned and looked at me closely. He remembered.

“Oh come on, James,” he said as he took a cautious step back. “I was just trying to toughen you up back then. I suppose you wanna kick my ass now that you’re grown, don’t you?”

I saw the pleading look in his eyes. I was no longer afraid.

“Nope,” I responded. “What I really want you to know is that I forgive you.”

He looked confused. I turned and walked away without looking back. There was no need to.

I’d have to fight him again. I looked for him each time the Blue Bird dropped off a fresh group of arrivals.

Then two years ago, on New Year’s Eve, I saw his name on the daily movement sheet listing new arrivals. When I went to dinner that night I caught a glimpse of him heading into another cell block. He had gotten old, and he was much smaller than the muscled-up man I remembered. But it was him. That much was clear.

I followed him out to the recreation yard the next day. I didn’t have a plan, but I knew I needed to say something. A chapter between us needed to be closed. When he stopped for a second, pausing to take in his new surroundings, I walked up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Do you remember me?” I asked.

He turned and looked at me closely. He remembered.

“Oh come on, James,” he said as he took a cautious step back. “I was just trying to toughen you up back then. I suppose you wanna kick my ass now that you’re grown, don’t you?”

I saw the pleading look in his eyes. I was no longer afraid.

“Nope,” I responded. “What I really want you to know is that I forgive you.”

He looked confused. I turned and walked away without looking back. There was no need to.

Further Reading