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Voice Male - Summer 2005

Tenderness: A Prison Story

By Dwight Harrison and Susannah Sheffer

Editors' Note: Dwight Harrison, the narrator of this account, served nearly 17 years in Massachusetts prisons after being convicted of armed robbery and attempted murder at age 21. He spent several of those years in MCI-Cedar Junction (Walpole), the state's maximum security prison, and was also transferred for a year to Lewisburg, a federal prison in Pennsylvania. In a Dark Time: A Prisoner's Struggle for Healing and Change, from which this excerpt is taken, is a memoir of Harrison's struggle to come to terms with both the harm he suffered and the harm he caused. This passage reflects on the relationships between men in prison, focusing on Harrison's friendship with a man named Jacko; it also refers to other friendships and student-teacher relationships he formed while incarcerated.

What does it mean when men get together? Always a hustle and a lie, always a mask for their own selfish desire. That was the knowledge I carried with me in the van on the way to Walpole, and I hung on to it. But what about Sean, what about Seamus, what about Chris or Bobby? These were men who mattered to me now and the mattering was good. Good enough to pry my tightly held cynicism loose.

And then there was Jacko. Jacko, the tough queen who accepted himself so fully you couldn't help accepting him. Jacko, who showed me that things could be a little more complicated than I was used to letting them be.

The rumor had swept through 10 Block: "Jacko and his kid are coming down." His kid? A man in his 40s with a "kid" for sex? I was ready to hate him. And then they put him on my tier and he surprised me--a real, no-bullshit guy, someone I'd have liked if I didn't know any better. I asked him what he'd done to end up in 10 Block and he said he'd stabbed a guy who called his kid a name. And the other guy was a lot bigger than he was.

I tried to put the pieces together. Jacko looked out for this guy Derek. He stood up for him, stood up for himself. I always thought guys like Jacko would do anything to get what they wanted and then run the minute loyalty and honor were on the line. But Jacko didn't run. So--cautiously--I didn't either. I hung around enough to see what this guy was all about.

It turned out Jacko wasn't only tougher than I expected. He had an even bigger surprise. I saw it when we were back at Walpole together after I returned from Lewisburg. By this time I liked to hang out in his cell while he cooked linguine in his hot pot. We talked about things in an easy way--cards, because Jacko loved to play, or our mothers, because Jacko's had died when he was young. I told him my mother was there when I was growing up but she wasn't really there. It was out of my mouth before I realized what it meant: I was letting Jacko matter to me too. Sitting around waiting for the linguine to cook, I was telling him things.

Derek was there too. While Jacko listened to me he was rubbing Derek's feet, caressing him with a gentle hand, and even as I kept talking a part of me was going holy shit, look at that. Wasn't he embarrassed? Didn't he know what shame was? But the thing is, what he was doing wasn't even shameful. It was kind. It was actually tender. That was what they had, and they let me see it. Two men who were giving something to each other instead of taking, and Jacko so comfortable in his own skin, so ready to let others figure out how to deal with who he was.

So I began to figure it out. I put it together with every other new thought blossoming inside my head and I asked myself, what's the harm here?

None that I could see, but I had to be sure. I got Derek alone and asked him if he really liked what he had going with Jacko.

"Yeah," he said, looking at me straight on. "Me and Jacko are cool. He's not making me do anything I don't want to do."

Right. That was the point. I saw it as clearly as I'd ever seen anything. So when Jacko asked me the next day if I'd be their lookout, I took one look at his mischievous grin and said sure. He and Derek hung a sheet over the cell door and I stood at the end of the tier looking out for cops. They had their privacy and even though I got a little jealous sometimes, thinking about how they had each other to turn to while I had only pictures in magazines, I couldn't help smiling at how far I'd come. Jacko liked men, I liked women. That was just how it was. And I was standing here protecting someone I would once have despised. Protecting him because I could. Because I didn't need to destroy him anymore.

Tenderness may be prison's greatest secret--more hidden even than the brutality. And sometimes even more frightening. The quiet openness of Jacko's hand on Derek's foot, or my confession to Sean, or Danny's to me. What an unexpected reprieve it was, each time. It meant the sentence of isolation and shame that the man who raped me had handed down all those years ago didn't have to be a life sentence. Under that burning sun there might actually be some shade--some place that has not been scarred; some part of me that can still be touched without harm.

Born in North Carolina, Dwight Harrison now lives in Massachusetts. Since being released from prison, he has spoken about his experiences to groups of lawmakers, university students, and other audiences. Susannah Sheffer's books include A Life Worth Living and A Sense of Self, and her essays and poems have appeared in numerous magazines and journals. She writes frequently about prison issues and victims' issues. This article is excerpted from In a Dark Time: A Prisoner's Struggle for Healing and Change, by Dwight Harrison and Susannah Sheffer (Stone Lion Press, 2005). For information: Used by permission.

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