Break-out narratives: the murderer who hopes writing fiction will set him free

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High on vodka and crack, Curtis Dawkins shot a stranger dead. Sentenced to life in prison, he went back to his first love writing. He tells Chris McGreal about his controversial new book

The one story Curtis Dawkins is not permitted to write is his own. Of how he dressed up as a leprechaun, get out of his mind on fissure and vodka and went out with a gun on to the streets of Kalamazoo, Michigan. By the time a police Swat squad captured him, Dawkins had killed one man and taken another hostage.

Even before the trial, his lawyer told Dawkins he would be locked away until the day he died under Michigans unforgiving sentencing statutes. When the 49 -year-old former salesman was swallowed into the states sprawling prison complex 12 years ago, he might have abandoned himself to the obliteration of his future. Instead Dawkins discovered an escape in resuscitating the dream he abandoned years before in frustration.

I didnt think from the beginning: Im going to get back to writing. he says. First I was just paying attention. I looked at the people around me and I imagined their stories.

Dawkins is waiting in the prison visiting room. He is short and slight with thinning hair, and wearing a dark blue uniform with a wide stripe of orange cloth across the shoulder. A lone guard at a desk takes my driving licence its my pass back out of the prison again later and tells us to sit in armchairs in front of the vending machines.

Family day: with Kim Knutsen and their children, posing in 2006 in front of a tourist backdrop in jail.

The medium-security Lakeland Correctional Facility, two hours drive from Detroit, is formidable from the outside with rows of glistening steel wire. The search to enter is extensive, including removing shoes and socks for checks to the bottom of feet.

But inside there are few bars on the windows and the visiting area has the feel of a living room. All the seating is armchairs with knee-high tables. Prisoners and visitors can touch. Children sit on laps. Regulars know to come armed with a render of coins for the hamburgers, crisps and soft drinks.

Dawkinss speciality in his writing is as much the mundanity of prison life as the unexpected. The outcome is a book of short narratives, The Graybar Hotel the title was derived from an ironic name for jail which is far away from the usual clichd narratives of violence and sex inside Americas dreaded prison complex.

In one narrative, A Human Number, a captive calls random telephone number around the US in search of someone, anyone, to talk to on the outside. The first challenge is to get that someone to accept the cost of the call. Some do so out of curiosity. Some out of embarrassment. Does that is something that happen, I ask Dawkins?

Yup. That happens often only to make a connection with someone who isnt a prisoner. Ive find so many people I live with have nobody out there. No one sends them money. No one writes them letters.

Home front: Kim Knutsen, children and a new puppy in happier hours.

Dawkins doesnt need to random dial. He talks every day by phone with his partner, Kim Knutsen, but he, too, finds consolation in the ordinariness of life outside the wire. He likes to hear the kids battle, the dogs barking. He wants to hear about normal life, she tells me.

Dawkinss tales in The Graybar Hotel explore the struggle with craving in prison, the injustice of criminal justice systems and the parlous nation of mental health care. They are an engrossing introduction to a stark cosmo that can only come as a shock to those who have to navigate it for the first time for real. Dawkinss subtle eye and nuanced characters are a guide to who gets by in prison, and who doesnt. To when to talk and when to shut up.

In one narrative a human insists a guard calls him by his name and not his inmate number. We learn that some of those numbers, stencilled on the back of prison uniforms, once belonged to inmates classified by the Department of Corrections as having been released by demise. If the system has its route, that is how Dawkinss own number 573543 will be freed up.

Of all the challenges of prison life, one leaping out from The Graybar Hotel the quality of cell mates. No question, its the most difficult component. Youre on a bunk with this guy you dont know. It could be anybody. I had a guy who was so mentally ill, or faking it so good, that he was under his bunk the majority of cases with his thumb up his butt. And theres nothing you can do. You have to live with it, says Dawkins.

So how does he write in those circumstances? You never have any privacy. You have to do it every day irrespective of whatever else is going on.

Inmates cant own computers so Dawkins writes on a throwback electric typewriter with enough memory to store 70 pages of text. The authorities banned those models after a captive utilized the memory to format a forged court order for his own release. Dawkins was allowed to hang on to his, but if it stops working, hell be downgraded back to a regular typewriter.

Inmate 573543 largely sidesteps the most notorious aspects of prison life in his writing. There is very little hope here and there is violence as a symptom of lack of hope. But none of it is random. It all has something to do with fund or respect, he says. I do have friends, but its dangerous to genuinely go out of your route to be friends with everybody. If I can help it, I just stay away from people.

Dawkins is more concerned with shaping how the outside world views the two million people incarcerated in Americas labyrinth of Graybar Hotels, saying: I wanted to show that the three men here are human beings, are decent people. You dont know how broken the system is until youre in it. Its easy to keep putting justice reform on the back burner if prisoners are all seen as tattooed, muscle-bound rapists. Thats not what I see.

Play hour: Dawkins with his children Lily Rose, left, and Elijah at at home in Michigan in 2003.

Looking around the visiting room, many of the prisoners would be indistinguishable from their guests if it were not for the uniforms. A young couple he is black, she is white sit side by side, saying almost nothing to each other, but her arm is resting on his and both look at peace. An older female is trying to construct dialogue with a younger human, perhaps her son. A middle-aged man is playing delightedly with a young child.

Occasionally a prisoner and visitor have their scene taken for $2.50 by an inmate assigned to the task. The option of backgrounds include a vistum of Disneyland and a painting of a gazebo. Dawkinss own family has not visited in two years. Partly its the costs of the more than 2,000 -mile journey from Oregon where Knutsen now lives with their three children. But she still recollects the trauma of the last visit when his teenage daughter refused to go into the prison.

I have PTSD from all this, but I still stimulated myself run because I really wanted to see him. But frankly just talking on the phone every day is a lot more intimate, Knutsen says.

Dawkins opinions writing as therapy, describing it as like a lifeboat drifting daily from the cloud. But it only goes in so far. Every night its painful. My children are the most amazing part of my life. To be cut off is excruciating, he said. My little girl shes 16 now she is still coming to terms. She feels betrayed because I suddenly went out of her life and she has a lot of anger towards me. The sons take things more in their step, although the eldest had real issues with substance abuse and anger.

his partner is also a published author. One of Knutsens novels is based on Dawkinss life before prison. He read it while serving 40 days in solitary confinement after another inmate stole his typewriter and they got into a fight.

Hes improved 100% as a writer in prison, she says. He never wanted to rewrite. He was always in a hurry. But in prison all you have is time. Thats when he genuinely grew as a writer.

Knutsen asks to meet me in a Starbucks near her home on Portlands east side. She is in her 50 s although she seems younger and is warm if cautious and contained. Her life is still very bound up with Dawkins, who she calls Curt. She edits his writing and he features heavily in her own. But her days are filled with teach as a prof of English at Concordia University and coping with what she describes as the nightmare of seeing her three children , now aged 16 to 22, suffering and scarred by the trauma of a parent in prison.

Its clearly left its mark on her, too. She insures injustice in Dawkinss sentence, but addresses whether her partner will ever be released by talking about his hope of freedom and not her own belief that it will ever happen.

The couple met while analyzing at Western Michigan University. She was doing a PhD. He was working on a Master of Fine Arts degree and says: Id say I am perhaps the only MFA holder in all the American prison institutions. Its rare for trained people to be imprisoned.

Knutsen didnt know it at the time but Dawkins had long struggled with alcohol. It contributed to him dropping out of his first college and going to work for his father at a meat packing mill. When the plant burned down in 1994, he decided to give university another try and examined administration of justice. But since high school he had been haunted by the power of words after learning TS Eliots The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock . It blew me away. I felt such a connection with the character being an outsider, he says.

So he swapped justice for English, wrote a short story that won an Illinois Arts Council award and landed a place on Western Michigan Universitys MFA program. But by the time he completed it, he was burned out and disillusioned.

I didnt have any more publishing success. Writing is largely rejection, he tells me.

So Dawkins became a car salesman, had children with Knutsen and bought a house in Kalamazoo. He swapped to a better paid job as the rep for a meat casings company, but that required him to be on the road and the loneliness resulted back to alcohol and then drugs. He began with muscle relaxants and Xanax.

Then I started utilizing heroin. Even though its entirely deadly, there is the romantic notion that this is the medication. And it is. It is intense and immediately addictive, he says.

Knutsen asked Dawkins to move out and he found a flat. Then came the events of October 2004 that he is not permitted to write about under laws barring criminals from profiting from their crimes.

There are parts of that night I remember. Portions I honestly do not remember, he tells me. The police and prosecutors will say its a convenient loss of memory, but I believe the mix of drugs and trauma wipe things out.

Dawkins said that night he wanted to get oblivionly high. I bought some crack. It was the first and last hour. I smoked it, he says. He topped up the cracking with a bottle of vodka. Then he went out with his gun, garmented in an evil leprechaun mask because Halloween was around the corner.

Dawkins tells me he was just looking for fun and randomly firing his firearm in the air. It was totally demented behaviour.

But within a few blocks of his flat, Dawkins got into a confrontation with 48 -year-old Thomas Bowman. I ended up inside his home. Here it gets foggy. I shot him once from 10 or 15 ft. He was dead instantaneously. I shot him right through the heart, he says.

Someone called the police after the earlier shootings and an officer was a block away when Dawkins killed Bowman and heard the gunfire. He called in a Swat team.

Dawkins ran to the flats above Bowmans. A succession of witness described him pointing the firearm at them, firing in the air and, in one case, shooting through a door after a man slammed it in his face. Then he took a captive until he was talked down by a police negotiator who described him as distraught and demanding to talk to Knutsen.

Knutsen and Dawkins both make a point of saying the primary victims in this tragedy are Bowman and his family. But they also say prosecutors were after the maximum sentence for Dawkins without any consideration of his issues with craving. If he had gone to trial as a man hooked on drugs and alcohol who was not fully in control of his actions, he would still have landed a long sentence, but could have expected the opportunity for parole. Instead attorneys alleged Dawkins was attempting to rob Bowman which upped the charge to a felony slaying carrying a mandatory life sentence with no prospect of release.

Dawkins told me he admitted to asking for money, but was contended that his actions were driving in drugs not an intention to rob. I should be in prison, but it shouldnt be for the rest of my life. Its more inhumane than capital punishment. If youre gonna shoot me, have the balls to stand me in front of a firing squad and shoot me. They basically are sentencing me to die passively.

As things stand, his only hope of release is if the country governor reduces his sentence, an unlikely prospect in the present political climate. But Dawkins does not accept that he is denounced to be lock the door until he is released by demise. No. Never have accepted that. I believe in God and I believe he has let me know I will get out. I believe my writing will be instrumental in get me out.

Until that day, Dawkins is working on another book. It imagines a period when Michigan decides that the cheapest way to keep its 40,000 or more captives is in a form of suspended animation in a hole in the ground. But they are still aware enough to comprehend their situation.

Inmate 573543: Curtis Dawkins. Photograph: Michigan Department of Corrections

The boy who dreamed too much: edited extract from The Graybar Hotel

It rained the working day six of us rode to quarantine from the county jail. I recollect because I knew I would want to write about the trip someday and I was sure the rainfall would sound like a prop something to portend the darkness of prison. But it isnt it just rained. If there was anything that could serve as a prop, it was the windows. The windows of the van were completely clouded over, effectively erasing us: we were there, but we werent.

I was cuffed by my right hand to Ray, my cellmate for the past five months. We utilized the hour-long ride to Jackson, Michigan, to dream aloud about the perks of quarantine. What it would be like to go outside, to smoke and drink coffee, besides that it was the time between district and prison where we would be evaluated extensively( medically and mentally) to determine which of Michigans 40 -plus prisons we would be sent to. We would have a single cell and a little more freedom than wed previously had, and we all looked forward to Jackson as if it were a tropical island resort.

We couldnt watch out the vans windows, so we got our first opinion of prison when we stepped out into the rain and even then all we could see was a half mile of concrete wall with one white metal guard tower at each end. The enormity of the wall was enough to shut us all up.

We were a chatty group before, but now each of us remained quiet, appearing down the length of what seemed to be the rest of our lives.

The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins is published by Canongate at 14.99. To order a copy for 12.74, go to

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