This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I spent part of my childhood in foster care, as my mother struggled with drug addiction. Without support or guidance, I turned to the streets for belonging; I looked up to a lot of the older guys and wanted to fit in.
When I was 16, a group of us took part in an armed carjacking, and I was tried and sentenced as an adult and sentenced to 12 years in prison. But because the District has no prisons of its own, they could send me to any federal penitentiary in the United States.
I was transferred to a Bureau of Prisons-contracted juvenile facility in Montana. Outside, through my small, cloudy window, there was nothing but mountains, and 18-wheelers driving by. All you could smell was manure—very strong. Cows used to step right up to the fence.
I was the only black person, period. There were no black inmates, no black COs.
For my birthday, my mother mailed me some sneakers. I had just put them on when this guy came up, picked his nose, and wiped it on my shoe. Before I could react, he ran and told an officer that I’d threatened him.
There was no questioning; I was immediately sent to the hole. I had no say in my defense, no chance to explain what truly went down. I was transferred from the facility the very next day — it felt like they’d been planning to get rid of me.
Then I was sent to Seattle, Wash., for six months. Then to Oklahoma.
Then, soon after I turned 18, I was transferred to an adult federal prison in Springfield, Missouri.
On the plane to Springfield, everyone was herded together like cattle, both males and females. They looked confused when they saw a baby-faced kid walk down the aisle in shackles and an orange jumpsuit.
“You sure you on the right plane?” one of the marshals said, trying to crack a joke as he asked for the last four digits of my Social Security number. But soon he saw that I had just come of age.
I’d been sent to Springfield to work in a medical prison. The place looked like a hospital, with green and white tiled floors and white walls. Even though it was kept clean, it smelled awful, like urine and feces.
There was a psych-ward block, which housed mentally-ill inmates, as well as those who couldn’t handle the prison environment and had broken down. There was also a block for inmates who needed surgery; a block for inmates with chronic and terminal conditions; and a block for inmates in the work cadre unit, meaning those who were sent to this place to work and help run the building, like me.
On the work unit, we had all sorts of different jobs (housekeeper, medical-records clerk, dialysis attendant, and more), and I applied to be a nurse attendant, because that paid the most. I wasn’t licensed for it or certified in any way. I was trained by another inmate and got paid 71 cents an hour.
For other teens, McDonald’s is their first job. This was mine.
After working there for awhile, I started to realize I was doing the majority of the nurses’ work, even though I was only supposed to assist them. Every time someone asked for help, they’d call for a nurse attendant. They had us do everything except pass out medicine.
I gave men showers, changed their diapers, and wiped their asses. I made a connection with the sick inmates, and they appreciated me, offering to buy me commissary or pay me every month to keep helping them out. (I didn’t accept.)
Still a kid, I witnessed many inmates die during my stay, from four to 10 every month. Pictures hung on the wall of the ones who had recently lost their lives — not sweet remembrances or anything like that, just photos from when they had first come to Missouri, with the date they arrived and the date they passed.
The pictures often looked awful, showing men with sunken, hollow eyes.
One of the first inmates I treated was called Ziggy, and he was from the same neighborhood as me in D.C., facing life in prison. He loved to sing, and had been part of a Go-Go band before his arrest. At 35 years old, he was dark-skinned, with his hair cropped close to his head like mine, and he weighed 230 pounds. He said he’d gained weight because, in his wheelchair, he didn’t get much exercise.
Ziggy was paralyzed from the waist down and struggled to move both his arms. He told me he’d gotten into a conflict with a prison guard and was beaten by several of them. At first he couldn’t move his hands at all, but with physical therapy, he could use them some. Until he regained his ability to walk, though, I helped give him showers, changed his diapers, and fed him many of his meals.
Ziggy was loud. As much as he loved to sing, he joked even more. Since his arms weren’t strong, he’d creep up on me real slow in his wheelchair, and when he was right behind me, he’d scream, “Ha, caught ya!”
He also used humor to hide his embarrassment. Sometimes when I was carrying him to the shower or changing him, he’d say, “I know you like what you’re looking at, but you know I don’t go like that!”
One day, I walked into his room in a playful mood, but it became clear that he wasn’t up for joking. He was sitting in his wheelchair with his head down and his back turned to the door. As I peeped around to look at him, he tried to use his hand to cover the tears rolling down his face.
“Homie, why you crying?” I asked him, thinking someone had died.
Ziggy looked up at me, frustrated. “Man I can’t take this shit no more,” he blurted out.
He told me that a nurse had just told him that he should kill himself, and that he needed to stop being a bitch.
“Oh, shit,” I told him. I didn’t really know what else to say.
In my time at the medical center, I saw mentally-ill inmates kept in a room all day, some strapped down on a sheetrock bed, nude with the AC on blast1.
Eventually I left that job, because I needed a certification I could use on the outside, and became a cook.
Every once in awhile, I’d see Ziggy rolling around in the hallway. When I told him that I was leaving the facility and being transferred to New Jersey — my first time back on the East Coast in 8 years — he didn’t really say much. He just told me to be safe out there, but I could see on his face that he was sad and didn’t want me to leave.
At least, after everything that had happened, Ziggy was still capable of getting sad. The place hadn’t taken that away from him yet. Everyone else around me acted as if it was all a normal thing — the dying we saw all too often, the abrupt transfers that take people away from friends and their community with little warning or care.
Later, in a book club, I would read War Child by Emmanuel Jal, about child soldiers in Sudan. I couldn’t believe how much that story felt like mine. War makes you do things you don’t want to do, and prison makes you become things that you’re not.
I saw grown men commit suicide because they couldn’t handle it. If prison does that to an adult, what does it do to a child?
The author, 27, who asked that his name not be used, returned home from prison in 2016 after serving 10 years of his 12-year sentence. He works as a behavioral aide to an autistic young adult, a clerk at a grocery store, and a writer and community outreach facilitator for the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop in Washington, D.C.