Ep 5: A Friend

Illustration of a Bible and Holy Quran with the names of two cellmates in a prison cell
Keara McGraw for WBEZ
Illustration of a Bible and Holy Quran with the names of two cellmates in a prison cell
Keara McGraw for WBEZ

Ep 5: A Friend

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It is strange how life works, how I could come to be incarcerated but in the process also find true friendship, something I’d never had before coming to prison.

When it was announced over the loud speaker, “Carlos, pack your property, you are moving,” little did I know my life would change.

Moves within the institution are sometimes routine, other times created by both parties, meaning two men request to be placed in the same cell. But this particular move I later found out was done by the administration because both of us were given jobs. The administration often puts workers in a cell with each other because both individuals have something to lose (in this case, our jobs), and so are unlikely to cause any trouble. My new cellmate had been given a job in the chaplaincy department, and I had been given a job in the dietary department.

At this point, I had been incarcerated for 21 years, so I had had quite a few cellmates. I’ve had some reasonably good ones along with my share of difficult ones. But none did I get very close to. Purposefully so. It’s important not to allow anyone to get close to you, especially a cellmate. I have witnessed others who have allowed it to happen. More often than not, there are hidden motives behind the friendship. I’ve seen times when personal information was stolen and family on the outside were being contacted by strange people.  You have to be careful.

Demetrius offered me the pick of bunkbeds, bottom or top. At that moment I knew we were a lot alike - neither of us were caught up on who sleeps where. I took the bottom.

In the first few days, I learned a lot about Demetrius. He was a self-taught musician who was obsessed with music. His constant humming took some getting used to, but I found it amusing. He directed the prison choir, so I learned that his humming was his way of putting sound with the lyrics he was writing.

He would often point out the sounds around us such as the jingling of the officers’ keys.  It was a kind of music, he’d say. I learned early on that he was surely “touched,” but he made me smile.

He had built a cardboard keyboard that he played often. He would sit on his bunk, the cardboard keyboard across his lap, his hands moving across the keys like it was the real deal. I would often mess with him about me not being able to hear what he was playing. It was his thing, so I supported it.

Over time we got to know each other. Trust is a rare find here, but we had it.

Demetrius would laugh at things that would make others mad. Sometimes it bothered me - but as time went on and we got closer, I realized that some of Demetrius’s over-the-top laughter came from his discomfort in the moment. I thought of it as a nervous tic. Once in the visiting room, he noticed an elderly woman’s wig which sat on her head backwards. Later, in telling the story he couldn’t stop laughing. I remember a guy here slipped on a sheet of ice and Demetrius burst out in laughter. All I could think of at that moment was “damn, this may be a problem”. But he was just uncomfortable with the situation and meant no harm.

He would tease me about my meticulousness. In all my years of incarceration, no one had pointed this out to me, how I needed to place things in the cell in the same spot. I found later that Demetrius would purposely move stuff around - cups, bowls, gym shoes - just to watch me  quietly put the item back in its right place. He would laugh and call my compulsive nature “a thing”. “That’s your thing,” he would say, laughing in his usual manner, loudly and out of control.  I could only smile.  Demetrius was high-spirited and a jokester. He would tease me, calling me a “crank”. A “crank” is any individual that refuses to listen to reason.

During our time together, we experienced happy days and some days of sorrow. I had a cousin and a couple of aunts pass. His grandmother passed, too. Those were hard days for us both, but we leaned on each other. I believe just the comfort of having the other to talk to, of having someone to listen got us through those times.

We were of different faiths. He is Christian, I am Muslim. We talked about religion some, but we both understood that friendships have been torn apart here over religion, so we came to respect each other’s faith. And we learned from one another. We shared everything from cosmetic items to food, even clothes. I once needed a new pair of pants - what we call “visiting pants”. I had grown out of mine. He lent me his, and later said I could have them.

We made a point of eating together at least once a week in our cell. He made an incredible bean, rice, and cheese burrito with this delicious red sauce. He knew I didn’t eat meat, so he was always mindful of this when he prepared meals.

I was the one who found out he was leaving for another prison. I had to break the news to him. He seemed shocked. He asked, “How do you know? Are you sure?” All I could say was, “The source is good.”

We both knew transfer day was on Wednesdays, so every day from that point on we ate more meals together, laughed even more (which I didn’t think was possible), and just appreciated the moments.

It was a Monday morning when the officer came to the cell and told Demetrius to pack his property.

The next morning around 3:30 A.M., an officer came to get him. I jumped out of bed. We exchanged addresses for our families since we wouldn’t be able to write each other directly. We gave each other an embrace, and I gave him some shorts to put under his jumpsuit. And he was gone…

I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I stayed up the rest of the night and cleaned the cell. I didn’t cry, but I felt the void.  Life is funny like that, people come into our lives for reasons that feel arbitrary. I believe Demetrius is a lifetime brother.  But I may never see him again. I have a life sentence and if nothing changes, this is my reality. I need to stop reminiscing. I’ll soon have a new cellmate…

Written Inside is a podcast about life inside a maximum-security prison cell. Adapted from essays written at Stateville Correctional Center near Chicago, these intimate stories speak to the everyday experience of being incarcerated. Michael Carlos’s story was voiced by Chicago actor Ronald L Conner. Demetrius Cunningham was played by Sean Parris. Created by journalist Alex Kotlowitz and produced by WBEZ Chicago’s Colin McNulty.

This project is made possible in part by generous support from The Field Foundation of Illinois