White Collar Prison (Part Five)

By: John DiMenna

White-Collar Prison. An Essay By John DiMenna. Originally Published at Minutes Before Six. Reprinted With Permission.

A Different Kind of Hell.

You can survive prison, and you can recover from prison, but prison never leaves you. On certain days, it feels like afterlife; other days, like a typical workday, and most days a bad dream enduring the slow torture of meaningless, menial tasks. I lived among one hundred other inmates, more wilderness than community. There is nothing more solitary than living among the exiled.

I had friends and things I looked forward to. But the dread never leaves you. No matter how much weight I lost, I was always carrying more. On the track, I’d stumble around, my legs like jelly. And in a community, living with so many people, you’re even more alone. I didn’t care who liked me or who didn’t. There were plenty of both, none who made a difference except Steve, who mentored me on my arrival. He had just turned sixty when I arrived. He was the quintessential ‘Quiet Man,’ and it was easy to underestimate him. But over time, no one did. But he was gone early on, and I returned to being the ghost. My writing, the one thing. If there was to be something to find my humanity, I prayed it would be that.

I wrote letters. Never sent most of them. To the Judge (never sent it), to my enemies (to one or two: never heard from them), to those who I betrayed (I think I did; probably didn’t), to my children (never sent any of those), to my wife (only cards, too much of a coward for more). I received many at first. I didn’t want any. At least I thought I didn’t until they stopped, and they did.

The time before lights out was the dreaded hour. The longest hours of every day. Ironic that the war stories got me through. Its own separate trauma. You’d think in prison, something else would carry you. Maybe it was just me. Every night at seven, movies were in the ‘education room.’ It was once the library but converted to the education room. It was called adult education, which assured a small crowd. Only a few were as desperate as me. I couldn’t get enough of it. Ken Burns and his wars: The Civil War, World War II and finally, Vietnam, the war of my time and place. But all the same— pillage and dying. In Vietnam, it was charging and taking hills, only to withdraw because there was nothing there. So they’d retreat, leaving only remnants of dead trees and Vietnamese bodies (they’d take their own dead) or invading villages and only old couples and children the enemy, but kill them just the same and endless back and forth, capturing and retreating with no tangible outcomes, only continual battles that provided neither victory nor consequence. Only the next day of more fighting and dying.

And then we watched the Civil War, the worst kind of dying: lying wounded in open fields, limbs turning gangrene, or worse, some unskilled soldier sawing off your leg with no anaesthesia or bludgeoned and bleeding slowly to death. And the battles: lines of men charging at each other in open fields, shooting at each other point- blank until more of the other side would fall, retreat, and then do it again in an hour or the next day. After a while, it’s hard to believe they remembered what they were fighting for.

World War II, at least, brought some context. But still brutal, more dying and trauma. I’d leave those meetings in a daze. The interviews, the words of all those dying men, wouldn’t leave me. But I’d go back every night. Looked forward to it. They’re still there. It was the only prescription for me. I’m in prison, looking for answers. And all I found was war and the deaths. A cleansing somehow. I haven’t figured out what that says about me. But it’s probably not good.

Visiting days were a big deal in prison. Saturdays and Sundays from eight to three. Some guys had them every weekend. Some guys never. I was somewhat in between. My wife and family weren’t nearby. Their visits were rare. My grandchildren visited me once. Still up in the air on that one. My brother and nephew lived an hour away and visited me regularly. It was nice when I had visitors. Almost better when I didn’t.

John DiMenna is a member of the Ministry’s White Collar Support Group™ that meets every Monday evening on Zoom.

We highly recommend Brent Cassity’s podcast, Nightmare Success, in which he interviews justice-impacted people from all walks of life. He is a White Collar Support Group member with a mission to be of service to our community. Please check it out on Spotify at or on your favorite podcast platform.