Life Inside is an ongoing collaboration between the Marshall Project and VICE that offers first-person perspectives from those who live and work in the criminal justice system. Chris Dankovich is a 26-year-old inmate at Thumb Correctional Facility in Lapeer, Michigan, where he is serving a 25-to-37-year sentence for a second-degree murder he committed when he was 15. He stabbed his mother 111 times.
It was as if I had been bleached from the room.
My six-by-ten cell was white, the walls were white, the floor was white, and the lights were white but never dimmed. The only object in the room, apart from the mattress on the floor, was a stainless-steel toilet—which reflected the white light.
In the courtroom just hours earlier, on May 1, 2006, I’d received a sentence of 25 to 37 years in prison. The judge reminded me I could change my no-contest plea by claiming insanity.
I refused and was removed from the court.
Now I was in the “Pole,” which someone had explained to me was the “Psychological Hole.” It was a place for protecting me, physically, from myself. As I sat there—sometimes reflecting, sometimes just staring at the wall, sometimes napping—I began to wonder whether it got its name because it was where they put people who were crazy, or whether it’s because this was the place they put people to make them crazy. Was there even a distinction?
Apart from when staff delivered meals, I never knew what time it was.
There, to the right, was a message written on a window: “100% Jamaican.” It was scrawled in toothpaste and feces.
But even if the court had listened to the psychologists, I refused to. Try to imagine being 15 years old and being told that you, your brain, and your conception of reality (and everything you knew) was wrong. There I was, so crazy I wouldn’t plead crazy.
When you are alone, truly alone, with no distractions, the only thing you can hear are the whispers of demons. Not real voices, but thoughts that infect your mind, your sense of self, your sense of what is real. What you hear is determined by whether you listen. There is only so much a mind can put up with, particularly when faced with unlimited nothingness.
Is it really possible to drive someone crazy? In such a short time, no, at least not permanently. I could feel it welling up, though. A hypersensitivity at first—I noticed the most subtle, alternating flickering of the white light (on a scale of one to ten, it was the difference between a 9.9 and 10). Patterns, faces, and images appeared in the texture of the walls next to small stains I hadn’t noticed before, the origins of which I didn’t want to consider.
As I lay there, blanket over my head, pinpricks of light shining through the threads, I imagined scenarios in my mind.
There was the girl I used to talk to back in school, who I imagined was coming to check in on me and see how I was doing. I imagined meeting my judge again, and this time I could say whatever I wanted to him—some combination of “fuck you” and “please help me.”
I imagined myself in the hospital, where I went around my 11th birthday, after my mother (to whose murder I had just pleaded no contest) sucker-punched me and threw me head-first into our living room’s glass-and-wood coffee table.
And I saw myself as I was a year earlier, when I had been incarcerated in the highest-security building of the juvenile detention facility. It was the best, and the freest, year of my life, having spent the previous 15-and-a-half years in a house with someone who kept my bedroom window nailed shut and barred me from going outside.
Soon I merely imagined a companion who anesthetized my loneliness: a beautiful girl with a face and a name I could whisper as if she were actually there. A person to talk to, to hold, to hold me.
In my solitude, alone and away from my mother and everyone else who could possibly listen or would possibly care, I muttered thoughts to this girl. And I would imagine her responses, sometimes subtly mouthing the words I pretended she’d say.