This is a story about the experiences I have had as a prison barber. I was incarcerated at the C.E. Egeler Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan 1995-1998.

Cherry Hill is a cemetery for the prison system in Michigan. It is where prisoners are buried when they die in prison and they have no one to claim their bodies. A flattop was one man’s dream to die with dignity. I am a prisoner.

When you are put in prison you are left on your own to maintain your sense of self worth. It is something that you must choose to do. The option is to blend into the blue haze of card games and cigarette smoke that can become prison life. I chose to write for the prison paper. I thought it would allow me the opportunity to write about positive things.

One of the first self-created assignments was to write about the new barbering class that was just starting up. The instructor, a very dignified and private lady, Ms. Davis, allowed me to become a student so that I could write a story about the entire process.

The first day there were twenty-eight inmates who came to class. The class was led by an older inmate who had many years of experience in prison barbering. There were not enough books for all the men so we had to share. The course involved a lot of book assignments, but we were not allowed to take the books back to our cells. By week twelve there were only a few men left in the class. At the end I was the only one to complete the course. I got a barbering certificate but not the success story I had wanted.

I, actually, did not want to become a barber, but I felt a sense of responsibility for my education. I volunteered to cut hair at the prison hospital chronic care unit. D. Waters Hospital is where prisoners go to die. They die from acute problems—heart attacks and injuries caused by prison violence. They also die from the lingering slow processes caused by AIDS, tuberculosis, cancer or from the results of violence in their crime of commission.

Old Henry was dying slowly, seventeen years so far. As a young man he was the driver of a getaway car at a gas station robbery. Henry did not know his friends had guns. The owner of the gas station shot one of his friends, killing him. Henry was hit with a stray bullet. He was paralyzed from the neck down. Henry has a big dent in the side of his head. I know because when I cut Henry’s hair we work together to keep the hair longer in the area of the dent to make it look less obvious.

There are no mirrors in the room. Henry never gets out of bed, but how he looks matters to him. Henry does look better without the big dent. The last time I cut Henry’s hair I had to put on protective clothing for an especially virulent infection he had contracted. Henry will die in that bed. Henry will die with a smaller-appearing dent and a slightly better self-image.

Hair day at the Hospital was an event and an ordeal. The entourage of barbers assembled at the prison academic school building. We put clippers and combs into paper bags, then walked across the prison yard, through the scattered picnic tables full of men playing cards, to a large separate building, D.W. Hospital.

We were in prison blues, but when we got processed into the hospital area we were required to strip and put on overalls. These were one-size-fits-all uniforms. There are exceptions to every rule. One size did not fit me. Two of my legs could have fit into one of the legs on the uniform. The legs required so much rolling up I looked like I had large blue donuts around my ankles.

After processing we waited in the hall for the escort that took us up to chronic care. As soon as the elevator door opened, we smell “it.” To me “it” was a memory of high school biology class, jars with frogs in progressive stages of disassembly floating in formaldehyde. To the other barbers, who had missed high school biology, it was the smell of death and pain. The smell of emergency rooms where bullets were removed from them or their friends. I was happier with the memory of biology class.

Lining the corridor of the chronic care unit was a convoy of wheelchairs. Each had a unique but equally interesting occupant. Diane Arbus, the famous photographer of carnivals, would have felt quite at home with this collection of curious photo opportunities. There were the old, with their wobbling heads of white hair, facial stubble caked with dried drool, and whose shaky hands were no longer capable of shaving. They sat in their wheelchairs, with their torn gowns exposing their aging frailty.

There were other general groups, amputees waging war against diabetes and losing one limb at a time. There was some morbid kidding that they were escaping piece by piece. It seems that humor is difficult to amputate.

There was a self-proclaimed Indian Chief, a young 700 lb. Black man whose girth was his disability. He could not physically fit through any standard doors into a cell. Hospital doors are much larger. He sat on two chairs and waited his turn.

Time is the pallbearer of the old. The younger men were mostly battlegrounds for disease. Internal cancer soldiers were bombed by radiation in the colons, brains, lungs and prostates of the involuntary inmate hosts. As the war waged within, they waited their turn. That got Billie his most recent trip to Waters Hospital. I don’t know if there is a Guinness record for speed haircuts, but if there is the guards can attest that Billie and I are contenders.

I wandered back past the convoy of wheelchairs. The nurse told me my next victim, her choice of words, was Jimmie. Jimmie had less drool, less wobble, more hair, and more pain. Jimmie was losing his war with cancer. He was in his early fifties. His hair was beginning to gray. He had watery eyes, thin arms, and a strong smile. Jimmie looked disheveled. The radiation bombs that were aimed at his cancer army had been having little effect. The war was close to over, only his smile did not know.

Jimmie was wheeled over to me, in the corner of the dayroom that served as a temporary barber ship once a month. The room was strewn with old Reader’s Digests, large print edition, various magazines and discarded old library books. Everything appeared well read. The window had a view of a marshy field.

The area surrounding the prison was typical Michigan farmland. A row of remaining trees defined what was once an agricultural field, long since abandoned. It was bordered by a tangled, useless, old barbed-wire fence. This stood in stark contrast to the shining perimeter fence of the prison. The gleaming talons of the razor wire stretched on forever like a slinky gone mad. On either side of the razor ribbon was a twelve-foot high fence, topped with dream-defeating, flesh-eating, uniformly twisted wire.

Jimmie was patient while I covered him from the neck down with a sheet. As I began to slowly trim his mangy matted hair, Jimmie stated, “I guess they are going to win.”

“Win what?” I asked.

He began to talk about his last appeal. Everyone in prison has an issue or an appeal. Without one you have lost all hope. Jimmie’s hope was gone.

“Life means life in Michigan, only I cheated them. I’m going to die young,” he laughed.

One is somewhat at a loss when confronted with an aspect of reality that we ordinarily choose to ignore. We generally look away from a dead dog along the side of the road. We are privately angered that we had to see death at all. We all like anonymous death. Jimmie had about two weeks left and was anything but anonymous. He seemed reconciled to his personal clock. I asked if his family had been to see him. It was then that I learned about Cherry Hill.

Somewhere near the State Prison of Southern Michigan, the largest walled prison in the world, is a mound of earth. Blanket-buried for decades on this mound are the truly forgotten. Not only has society turned its back on these people, but their families have forgotten them. Some were old men who outlived their families and friends, some whose heinous acts have separated them completely from society, and some so poor families had no alternatives. Jimmie told me these people would soon be friends and neighbors.

I was cutting his hair slowly. I was not used to touching the living dead. Jimmie smiled. He could tell that his story troubled me. He asked if I could do him a favor. He wanted a flattop haircut. When he was young and before he had real problems he had a lot of friends. They all had flattops, and it made them feel “cool.” He would like to be “cool” again.

I had never given a flattop. Truth is, I was not all that good a barber, but I said I would try. There was much trial and error and eventually a fairly decent flattop. I took the handheld mirror, and showed him the results of my efforts.

“Man, those guys on Cherry Hill are going to be real envious,” he said. He did look good. It was mostly his smile. All the nurses made comments about how handsome he was. There was a certain comradeship that had developed among those of similar fate in the chronic care unit. A big, young, good-hearted male nurse pushed Jimmie up and down the hall to stop and talk for a few seconds with the bedridden long-termers he had gotten to know.

Comments of, “Go, Jimmie, they can’t beat you,” and “Lucky there aren’t women on Cherry Hill, they sure would be in trouble,” echoed as Flattop Jimmie was wheeled down to his room, put in bed and locked in. His dying memories, I believe, were of the times of his youth when he had friends with flattops, and hope.

Alongside a bramble-overgrown path on Cherry Hill lies Flattop Jimmie with his friends forever.