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In prison, finding love includes riots and lockdowns.
Photo by Robert V. Ruggiero on Unsplash

November 2020 arrived quicker than I had anticipated. We were days away from the presidential election and that, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, created uncertainty about the months ahead. 

The careful choices of Americans were very apparent inside and outside prison walls. But I was focused on a more personal choice — the choice to be with Gemini. 

Gemini, thus nicknamed for his Zodiac sign, was a daily fixture on the recreational yard where he hung out with his friends, mostly the White Boys. We met for the first time in October. I was making a cake with friends when I saw him approach my building and offered him a piece. 

“I made this just for you,” I said. 

He smiled, surprised and delighted. I asked him if he was interested in a more intimate relationship, and if he was single. He said “yes” to both. We played it slow, only talking at first. We grew closer and agreed to make our relationship official on Nov. 30.

Even though we were both “family,” or gay, he ran with the White Boys and I ran with “los paisanos,” my fellow Mexicans. In prison, you must choose which side you’re on or risk the choice being made for you. 

We chose to be with each other, despite the risk. 

A separation

Gemini and I lived in separate buildings at our prison. When we met, tensions were rising among inmates over intensifying COVID-19 restrictions. Gemini and I also felt dating pressures. But soon a release valve opened, and not in a good way. 

Gemini was asked to move to the south yard. The rules of south yard are complicated for interracial dating. As a teacher’s aide, my mornings and afternoons were occupied, leaving only free nights. But Gemini had mandatory recreation time with the White Boys at night. Because of this arrangement, it would be difficult to maintain our relationship.

We made plans for my December birthday, the winter holidays and a much-anticipated fundraiser, perfectly planned for when inmates received government stimulus money.

Then in late November, Gemini and I had our biggest disagreement yet. Two best friends advised me to break up with Gemini as soon as possible, but I wasn’t so sure. I planned to speak with him the following night, a Tuesday, but he was busy.

In class on Wednesday, all I could think about was Gemini. On my way to lunch, after I dropped off my tablet, I was stopped by a rookie corrections officer. He asked if I was going to early chow, the meal session for workers, teacher’s aides and clerks. I said yes, but since I had just started my job and didn’t yet have a pass, I was denied. The officer slammed the door in my face. Fortunately, my “sister” Bri, a clerk, set the record straight for me. 

I was released 10 minutes later, but the argument with the officer escalated outside. He made insulting remarks and tried to intimidate me. Tension with guards had been rising all day. I felt something bigger coming.

At 3:15 p.m., afternoon class abruptly ended due to an ominous gathering on the yard. Officers redirected the teachers, students and library workers back into the classroom, then into the library. A massive number of officers mobilized on the recreation field. Over a dozen officers equipped with guns and pepper spray were on standby outside the library. One officer entered the library screaming for us to get down on the floor. 

As shots were fired on the north and south yards, I was in shock as I watched the melee. A simple discussion over masks and unreasonable demands had created alarm and panic.

Inmates fled or retreated to their respective housing units to watch the events unfold through their windows. Meanwhile, those of us in the library were cuffed in zip-ties and moved to the middle of the north rec field to lie, crisscross and facedown, on the dirt for over two hours. 

Drones hovered over us and watched us lying helpless on the ground. Dogs barked viciously; guards laughed and taunted us. My fellow co-workers and students shivered and squirmed as our shoulders ached. We grew cold as the temperature dropped below 60 degrees. Those unable to remain still, or weakened by the cold, were hauled off to detention or medical. As the night progressed, I was moved closer to my building, but forced to remain facedown in the dirt. 

Finally, I was placed back in my building. I took a quick shower to warm my cold body and waited for our dinner to arrive. Since it was 10:30 p.m., I decided it would be best to make some ramen and go to bed. Dinner arrived at 2 a.m. Just as I finished eating my stale Rice Krispie Treat, the officers made an encore appearance. They strip-searched us and placed us side-by-side outside in the cold before sending us back in for the night. 

It had been eight days since I last saw Gemini, Thanksgiving festivities were canceled, and a cloud of uncertainty cast a shadow over the yard. I took some ibuprofen and finally went to sleep.

Love lessons

The events of that day led to a two-month lockdown. Gemini and I were mostly separated. We sometimes saw each other when he picked up medicine or on our way to and from the chow hall. But it was never as full as previous interactions. Our relationship took a long pause.

In October 2021, a year after we met, Gemini enrolled in a class I taught. We were once again able to spend extended time together. I was ecstatic to wake up every morning for work and see his smiling, goofy face. And I felt a sense of pride helping him complete his education.

But around Thanksgiving 2021, Gemini received a new criminal charge that sent him through Arizona’s county court system. This happened without warning and devastated me. 

Two more months went by, and the new year passed. Gemini eventually returned, but with bittersweet news. He wasn’t going to serve more time for his new charge; he was going home in one month. On Feb. 8, 2022, our on-and-off relationship was officially over. My best friend and companion went home.

Despite everything that came between us, we loved each other in prison. With any relationship, it’s likely that someone will leave before the other. Gemini left before me, but he left me with love lessons. I now know it’s possible to find a special person in prison, for whom you can have healthy, intimate feelings.

I miss Gemini. I miss his hugs. I miss his wit and sarcasm. I miss his smile (with his missing tooth). I miss how we used to finish each other’s sentences. I would love to see him when I am released and maybe start a better, stronger bond. He has a special place in my heart. Hopefully I’ll feel a love like this again — with someone else, or with him, in prison or on the outside.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Chastyn “Nova” Hicks is a writer and artist incarcerated in Arizona.