- When to Tell Someone You Went to Prison
I grew up with criminals. I went to school with drug dealers, carjackers, and thieves. My roommates were arsonists, criminal racketeers, check forgers, and arms dealers. After I got my GED and started working odd jobs, at any given time, my coworkers would be bank robbers, con artists, meth manufacturers, or domestic terrorists. In my free time, I’d play soccer with Sureños, floor hockey with neo-Nazis, or handball with a hitman. The batting lineup for my softball team was responsible for most of the organized crime in Southwest Detroit; the league we played on covered the rest of the metro area. I had a regular poker game with a rotation of men collectively convicted of each level of assault, both definitions of manslaughter, and all three degrees of home invasion. My best workout partners were a wife beater and a heroin addict. I knew my share of kidnappers, rapists, and pedophiles—I saw them every day at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As for child pornographers, I met them on Sundays for Bible stud y. Some of my best friends—men with whom I would trust my life—were murderers.
This was all because for ten years and four days of my life, I grew up in prison. From the age of 15 to 25, my world was limited to that of the Michigan Department of Corrections. When friends reminisce about their wild college days, their awkward teenage years, that summer they found themselves while backpacking across Europe, I think back to midnight shakedowns in maximum security, tear gas and goon squads in solitary confinement, that time I nearly got myself shanked for pissing off the wrong lifer. My old stomping grounds were institutional courtyards and dayrooms, enclosed by coils of concertina wire, surrounded by armed patrols, and monitored by sharpshooters in gun [End Page 1] towers. My old haunts were cell blocks; my adolescence spent on lockdown. Mine was a coming of age with convicts.
Whenever I tell people about this period of my life, I make a point to not only say that I went to prison but that I grew up in prison. I use those words specifically. Mostly, because I want to be concise. Partly, because I want to put them at ease. Merely telling someone you went to prison, you leave a lot of gaps for them to fill in with suspicion: Can I trust this guy? Is he one of those career fuckups I gotta watch out for now? Wait—did I tell him where I live? Telling someone you grew up in prison, on the other hand, and you leave room for optimism: If this guy did something wrong, it was probably a long time ago, when he was really young and stupid, and I know just by looking at him that he’s at least not one of those anymore. But privately, I choose this phrasing because I hope it’ll provide people with a reason why, later, when inevitably my humor runs a cruel streak, when I am unexpectedly insensitive, vulgar, abrasive, or cold. Like the boy raised by wolves, I feel that if I can just make them understand the circumstances of my formative years, then, maybe, they’ll forgive me if I bite.
There’s an art to telling people you went to prison. It’s all about timing. Too soon and you come off as some oversharing basket case—and your date becomes suddenly fascinated by the ice in their drink. Too late and you risk seeming deceitful; a quick post-meetup Internet search of your name, and whatever charm you had put on immediately comes into question, anything endearing becomes troubling—at least, that’s what I worry about on those long bus rides home. For me, every time that I am introduced to someone new, it feels like the clock is running: the small talk can only go on so long, and my answers to seemingly innocuous questions can only be so cryptic before it starts to feel like I’m lying. So, Marco, where did you live before here? Where did you...