By Maurice Chammah | The Marshall Project | 24 February 2015
This story was produced in collaboration with The Atlantic.
Three years ago, the young man who would later be known as John Doe 1 shuffled into the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan. The town of 11,000 residents, which sits in the remote center of the state, houses five prisons, and over the years, it has earned the nickname “I Own Ya.” John, who was 17, had already gotten over the initial fear of going to an adult prison—he had spent several months at a county jail near Detroit and an intake facility in Jackson—but he also knew he would be spending longer at this lonely outpost, a minimum of three years for a couple of home invasions. It was still wintery in April, and his state-issued jacket was poor protection against the drafts coming through the broken windows, shattered by men who had passed through before. “It was pretty ragged,” he recalled recently, “a tear down.”
The rituals of intake were familiar. Standing in a line with several dozen other men, John stripped off his navy blue scrubs, squatted, and coughed to prove he wasn’t hiding anything. Once inside, he could try grimacing to look tough, as he had in his early mugshots, though he couldn’t hide his skinny frame or his high-pitched voice.
Over the next few days, while bringing trays of food around the blocks for his new kitchen job, John would learn that he had been placed in one of the nicer units (another he saw “looked like a basement, with the lights busted out”). But he also noticed that he was one of the youngest prisoners on the block. The other prisoners noticed too. He was what they called a “fish.”
His first cellmate was an older man, black like John, who was serving a life sentence, and he didn’t say much. Something about him seemed a little off, and that night, John says he awoke and saw this man sitting at a desk, wide awake, and staring right at him. John requested and received a new cell assignment. His second cellmate was also a lifer, and friendly enough, but after a few days the man asked to be paired with another lifer, so John was moved again.
It was around this time that the letters started sliding under his cell door. John would get a lot of letters from other prisoners over the next few months, and while they were not always explicit, some certainly were. “You are one sexy nigger,” one read. “You need a white man to show you how to act…When the opportunity comes I want to sneak in your house and hit that.” Another letter said he had a “fan club.”