White Collar Prison (Part Three)

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.

The recreation area was decaying like the camp’s interior. There was a cinder track, an overgrown grass field in the middle and a baseball field that was a fallow wreck of dirt. A volleyball area, handball court, bocci and horseshoes completed the area. All in comparable disrepair. A workout trailer adjacent housed two treadmills and an aerobic machine, vintage 1955. Barbells are not allowed in federal prisons to protect the staff. Not from the equipment but the potential to develop inmates who could overpower the COs (correction officers.) The track was reduced to a crumbling path of ash and mud but remained every inmate’s daily prayer. In any weather, solo, in pairs, in groups even, running, walking (most popular), guys in the dog program walking their dogs (there was a dog training program), picking up their poop along the way, and every once in a while, one inmate was walking with a guitar, playing and composing while he walked.

There was some basketball play. But less than I thought it would be. The court was not bad. No one very good. Sometimes, twenty or more back and forth before a basket. It looked like form over substance. Baseball the same. Except the Spanish guys liked to challenge a team of ‘others.’ Neither side very good. Balls through the wickets, ground ball home runs, outfielders dashing in and out, plenty of arguments and shouting. Bocci had a following, horseshoes too. Same guys at handball. No one very good there either. Hardwood picnic tables were interspersed, dented, and damaged that guys used to exercise on pushups, sit-ups, and the like. Some creative moves I couldn’t figure out. In the early days, I walked the track with a friend. But after his release, I walked alone, talking to myself, with only my radio playing classical music. There was a native American area. A teepee and all. Always some fires burning there. Inmates regarded it as bull shit. Inmates were there mainly to sneak a smoke. A rag-tag fence of fragile planks surrounded the teepee. A sign in front: “Only Native Americans allowed.” No one there ever looked like an Indian.

There were many lines at the camp. The meal lines, the shower lines, the pill lines, and the most important lines, the ones not to cross. But the lines blurred often, especially in the mess hall, designed for seventy-two inmates but servicing one hundred and twenty-eight. Seats were currency, and inmates bequeathed them upon release. It took me two weeks to finally find a seat. In the summer, we could sit on picnic tables outside in the visitor’s area. No seating there. It was okay to poach. The tables and seats in the mess hall were institutional and minimalist. They looked like something designed for an elementary school dining hall. Oval-shaped tables with stools attached. You sat shoulder to shoulder, knees squeezed against the bottom of the table. You had to be careful not to nudge the guy next to you.

There were lines at every meal. It was best not to cut in. Some tried, but rarely, usually a new inmate. It was never a good outcome. You took your tray and then waited again for cutlery (plastic) and water. Then, a straight line to your seat. You had to eat quickly, stuff it down, carry your tray, dump the refuse in the garbage, put the tray on the counter, put the plastic cutlery in the pan with the water, put your cup in the holder, put an apple or banana in your pants if the CO was back in his office and exit.

Prison camps are working camps. Everyone’s assigned a job. No great options: orderly, maintenance, the kitchen, landscaping, the commissary, the power house and the military base. Otherwise, there’s dog training and education. Dog training is popular because the trainers live in a larger bunk with only their pet as a bunkmate. But it has its downside: walking at five in the morning, just before lights out at 10:00 pm, and in any weather. There’s only one slot for education, and it’s like teaching high school in a second language, maybe a third language. I chose the kitchen; I sort of chose it. The Camp Counselor, Mr. Larkin, said they were short kitchen workers at orientation. He was mid-forties, had a huge gut and a continual Cheshire cat grin. His low-keyed persona effused a disinterest in all things other than leaving on time and inmate’s restitution payments (court-ordered fines), of which he was inflexible.

Hoping for a favorable first impression, I volunteered. Myself, Dr Death— an Asian GP from Connecticut, in for prescription drug violations—and Harry the alchie—a roofer in for tax evasion—were the other new guys. Three jobs were open: two table washers (the preferred ones) and one dishwasher. The Corrections Officer (CO) in charge of the kitchen, a black former Marine, a no-nonsense guy with something reassuring about him, said we should decide among ourselves. Dr. Death said he had a bad back, and Harry said he had seniority, so I was the dishwasher. I learned to do the washing, the loading, and even operating the long stainless steel washing machine, a frightening apparatus that had to be reassembled every morning and rumored to have taken limbs from prior inmates. By the time I was released, I was the Number one dishwasher. Guys used to kid me. “DiMenna, you can always get a job now when you’re out.” Such a distinction. Actually, I was proud of it. I even got to like it. Something about the tactile there. Can’t explain it. Sometimes, I think it saved 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.