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Life Inside

The Lure of the Prison Fight

Craving the madness.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

I stepped out of my cell with the words of advice I’d just written to a fellow prisoner still fresh in my mind. We’d been having a weeklong discussion about our “self-development.” I told him that he’d grow only if he could get beyond the streets of Detroit and learn to work through conflicts by understanding both sides.

I walked out the back door of my maximum-security cellblock and into the exercise yard, an octagon no bigger than a corner-store parking lot. About a dozen men were ready to start their day. The two guards who formed the checkpoint I had just walked past were busy performing random searches.

Soon, more prisoners poured out, and the yard got much louder. I exchanged greetings, hugs, and handshakes with several men, then looked back at the door for Tron, my main workout partner.

Eventually, Tron walked past the guards. He was 27 years old with light-brown skin, and dreadlocks. He grew up “streetbanging” in Detroit’s West 7 Mile; now he wanted “change.” I was nine years older, and I’d taken him under my wing.

Today, we were going to talk about the school he dreamed of building for troubled youth, but when I saw him, he looked uneasy.

“What up, bro?” I said.

“What up, though?” he greeted back in Detroit fashion. “They probably ’bout to —”

Before he could finish the sentence, the center of the yard erupted. I heard it before I saw it — the sound of knuckles snapping against bare flesh.

I saw Charlie’s bald head. His arms were launching fist-flurries at a much bigger man who was swinging away, too, but a little slower. Charlie Austin1, as I’ll call him, was 200 pounds of muscle, a former amateur boxer from Flint, Mich., who now worked out like a professional bodybuilder. But the man he was fighting was massive —and fat: about 6’ 3”, 350 pounds.

The fight drew everyone’s attention. My hands automatically balled into ready fists.

I looked around to see if anyone else would join the brawl. Four-dozen prisoners, and no one had moved except the two checkpoint guards, who had their pepper spray and tasers aimed.

“All right, come on, guys. Knock it off.” Their first warning was passive, a plea of exasperation — just another day at the workplace.

Then three more guards rushed through the door, providing backup. More confident now, the passive guard ordered again, “O.K., that’s enough. Get on the ground, Austin."

But he kept swinging, and the bigger guy, Brightmoor, went down.

Brightmoor was named after his west-side Detroit neighborhood. He was a 23-year-old kid, doing no more than five years for a petty drug offense. Set to max out his sentence next year, he was going home no more rehabilitated than when he came in — the shank in his right hand said so.

The shank didn’t do much good against Charlie, but Brightmoor held onto it as he struggled to get back up.

One taser popped, but Charlie swung on without flinching. A second guard fired his taser, and Charlie finally went down with Brightmoor. Eight more guards rushed outside, but the fight was over. It had lasted about 20 seconds.

Tron waited until the guards led the two men away, spat in the dirt, then explained what had caused the fight.

“Sellin’ slum behind the door,” he said, using the slang for exchanging insults and threats. Charlie and Brightmoor were locked right across the hall from each other and argued all the time.

Tron shook his head, sighing. “Charlie just got a 12-month flop, too. And now this, over some words.”

I sat and wondered what “words” or insults could possibly be worth a parole opportunity. In Michigan's penal system, a 12-month “flop” meant you had one foot out the door; if you stayed out of trouble for another year, your parole was pretty much certain. Before this fight, Charlie had been looking at freedom after serving 23 consecutive years.

Brightmoor wasn’t even alive when Charlie, now 48, got arrested for a robbery-murder in the ‘90s, but somehow they had enough in common — call it Detroit — to stand up at their cell doors all day bickering about sports, crime, women, and entertainment. Until they fell out.

No matter how much I liked Charlie, I couldn’t help resenting him for not knowing better. My disappointment was personal. I had 16 more years left before the parole board would even think of my case, so I would have gladly traded places with him.

But — Detroit. The recklessness, the despair, the black-on-black destruction of bodies that we all should have been so tired of. Self-hatred in the inner city.

So I stood there in the hot yard, staring at all of my potential enemies, four dozen now — until I suddenly thought, I wish one of you would run up on me. I ain’t had a good fight in nearly 10 years. What if I’m rusty? What if the younger and quicker of them are thinking I am?

I lamented not just for Charlie and Brightmoor’s misfortune but for my own.

I wanted to be done with the madness.

But I still craved it.

Deyon Neal, 35, is incarcerated at Marquette Branch Prison in Marquette, Mich., where he is serving a 30 to 60-year sentence for assault with the intent to commit murder, with an additional two years for a firearms charge.