This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
"You stupid motherfucker," I said through clenched teeth as I attacked one of my closest friends.
"Were! You!" Kick. Kick.
“Haven't you learned yet?!" Kick. Kick. Kick ... Kick.
My friend was doing his best to ward off my blows, to stop me from connecting with his freshly shaved head and baby face. My boots left pink welts on his pale skin. It wasn't until I paused to catch my breath that I realized my friend was crying, "Please stop. I won't do it again, I swear!"
Here’s what had set me off: Earlier, my friend, a fellow skinhead, had gone into another guy’s cell to steal his remote control, and he was doing it in order to receive a box of cigarettes from a black guy. So in my thinking, he was doubly-wrong: He was going to steal from a white man, and he was working for the enemy.
Now here he was balled up in the fetal position, pinned between the sink and toilet on the floor of our prison cell, pleading with me to stop beating him. The terror in his blue eyes was so intense that I had to look away.
That's when I caught my reflection in the scratched plate of stainless steel that was our mirror. What I saw stunned me.
I had become the person who had terrorized me in my childhood. The man who taught me lessons that I "better not ever forget" — who had assured me that this was going to "hurt him more than it was going to hurt me," that it was "for my own good." Until now, I hadn't even realized that I remembered all those “lessons” my stepfather taught me.
I was the oldest of three kids. Towheaded and blue-eyed, I looked just like my father. That I was someone else’s son drew the ire of my step-dad every time he remembered I wasn't his own. In an effort to emphasize the "punishment" in corporal punishment, he custom-made a size-fifteen boot with a thick handle built into it, drilled holes in the sole to make it more aerodynamic, and brought it home to introduce to my backside. That paddle met my flesh so often, and so brutally, that even my stoic grandmother would gasp in shock at the sight of the welts and cuts on my lower back and upper thighs. Then she would pour peroxide into the wounds and rub them with salve so that I could sit normally and not raise too many questions at school.
I felt so confused about what it meant to be loved and cared for. The person disciplining me so harshly was also the one who provided me shelter and food, threw me birthday parties and got me great gifts, taught me how to read and swim and fish and smile. On Sundays, the man I called "Dad" and I would spend whole afternoons watching Cleveland Browns football, back when they actually used to win. But then he would turn around and "beat some sense into me" whenever he caught me drinking out of his two-liter bottle of coke.
And here I was, all these years later, doing the same thing to my closest friend, a fellow member of the prison skinhead gang—my brother, whom I professed to love more than my own flesh and blood after sharing a prison cell with him for two years. A young man for whom I had put my life in danger numerous times, yet was now mercilessly assaulting.
That moment staring at my reflection in that stainless steel mirror scared me so badly that I felt I had no choice but to make one of the biggest decisions of my life in prison: I left the skinheads.
I had joined the gang early on. When I entered prison at 22 years old, I was maybe 140 pounds with blond hair, blue eyes, and a complete inability to grow facial hair. To say that I was a target, or at the very least someone who looked like one, would be to state the obvious. And the maximum-security facility where I started out was especially dangerous.
Not long after my fourth or fifth violent assault, I was approached by someone who extolled the benefits of running with my own kind, and how it would be for my own good if I weren’t such a race traitor.
Now, to be honest, I had no idea why my love for hip-hop or my lust for Stacey Dash made me a traitor to white people, but my need for safety and peace of mind overruled all else. And so I fell in: I joined the white supremacist gang.
I spent the next few years earning my safety by selling drugs, running gambling tickets, collecting debts, preying on the weak (it didn't matter if they were white, black, or brown), and going to war over some minor perceived disrespect or five-dollar debt.
For almost a decade, I moved up the ranks of what was slowly becoming my surrogate family, my main if not only source of love and support for the 30-plus years I was sentenced to spend behind these walls. Every day, I hung out with men just as scared as me but equally willing to prove that we weren't scared at all, by exerting ruthless aggression on command.
So when I left the gang, I left a family, with all its dysfunction. I left an identity that I had nurtured and developed, and I became one of the most dangerous things you can be in this prison society: alone.
I walked away, eventually moving to another prison, without any idea of who I would be if I wasn't one of them. But sometimes fear of the unknown is nowhere near as terrifying as realizing who you've become.
Daniel Royston, 41, is incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution in Marion, Ohio, and is serving 31 years for charges stemming from a rape he committed when he was 21.