White Collar Prison (Part Six)

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.

Appeals were everyone’ daily bread. Seemed like everyone had one going. And for the few who had none, rumors of prison reform kept them going. Rumors proliferated in prison. Getting out every inmate’s priority. Nothing else even close. Numbers are thrown around from the legal code: 2255, 2353 C or B, can’t remember, direct appeal, letters to the Warden, Compassionate Release, special consideration, and many others. But there were plenty of guys who gave up. You could tell those. They were bitter, like my friend Smitty, an investment banker, seventy-five years old, eight years down and two more to go. It was best not to talk to him about your own efforts. He’d take your head off. “The system’s corrupt,” he said. Many inmates had spent years on the computer that housed the legal library. There were always guys on that computer from morning until the final Count. None of it was successful. I was no better. It took a hundred-year pandemic to make a difference. Inmates calculate their release dates down to the hour. When there was a rumor about the prison reform bill (there’s always a rumor about prison reform), it was mostly bullshit that would have guys out in weeks. But this time, Congress was considering a prison reform bill called The First Step Act. It seemed real.

Guys spent hours recalculating their release, arguing with other inmates. “You have to deduct the good time first, ass hole…” The fuck you do, douche bag….” “Yes, you do…and then you deduct the period of home confinement and then….” “You’re fucking crazy. You’ll be out tomorrow with that shit…” “Heh, I spoke to Levine….” “Levine???…that asshole…” “Heh, he’s a fucking lawyer…” “Lawyer, my ass. If I listened to him, Id’ve been out two years ago…” “Heh, believe what you want. I know what fuckin time it is…” Yeah, time to get real….”

And by the time the bill was passed, there were so many caveats nobody knew what was in it, and after a while, all the talk just petered out, and the old gloom set in. Making it worse were the guys who touted their misgivings all along. “I told you it was bullshit. I never bought into that crap…No one gets out before their time…” And it was Christmas time, too. It seemed especially cruel.

The guards were a sorry lot. Many were rejected by police and fire departments or were veterans who couldn’t find any other employment. The pay was paltry, but the benefits, vacations, sick days, and pensions were probably generous. Some were cruel, some aloof, and some were decent. None were friends. Correction Officer was their official designation. Inmates called them COs or cops, or more often just obscenities: Asshole, Mother Fucker, Douche Bag. Inmates garnered solace from their mantra: “They never get to leave.” I never got it. The CO’s still had lives. All I know is that a few minutes after lights out, I was frozen in the darkness of my tiny bunk, sleeping with an inmate two feet above me while they went home to sleep.

The CO’s took a census every day they called the COUNT. It was done four times a day during the week and twice daily on weekends. There was no wiggle room on those. Every inmate stands beside their bunk while two CO’s walk through the dorm. HIP-HOP was the night CO who took the final Count before lights out on most days. HIP- HOP was the name ascribed to him by the inmates. One leg was shorter than the other, and he walked with a strange gait. It was hard to figure out his age. He was a roly-poly guy, always wearing tight-fitting T-shirts that only accentuated his huge stomach. He had a shaved head and a scary face, kind of like Shrek but without the sweetness. Everything on it was out of proportion.

He was compromised intellectually. He had difficulty during the nightly Count. He couldn’t do it without pointing at each inmate as he passed. The slightest disturbance distracted him and required him to start over. When that happened, which was not infrequent, he would explode in a loud tantrum. I was late for the final Count early on, and he put his face inches away from me. “You may be in a camp. But you’re still in prison. Next time you’ll go to the fuckin Shu, asshole.” He was a truly scary guy when he erupted. And up close, he was even uglier. He was an easy target for the inmates to make fun of: his walk, difficulty counting, and overall compromised appearance. The word was that he lived alone, was a former cop who was fired, and had basically no life. That’s why he always worked the night shift from 4:00 pm to Midnight or from Midnight to 8:00 am. He gave no clues as to his personal life. Inmates liked to profile staff as worse off than them. I had no clue myself. But he got to leave at the end of his shifts. That was enough of a life for me.

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.