White Collar Prison (Part Two)

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 camp was only a short distance from the main prison, a regional medical prison that treated criminals of all ages and crimes. Many of them were elderly and critically ill, and many died there. Inmates of the camp who violated camp protocols were relocated to the main prison, a frightening prospect that fostered good behavior at the camp. Relocations to the main prison often resulted in time in the SHU (special housing unit, pronounced Shoe), essentially solitary confinement in dungeon-like conditions. Many inmates who were relocated there never returned to the camp, and their period of release was often delayed.

The camp facility comprised a low-lying industrial building resembling a giant storage shed and a crumbling recreation area adjacent. It was situated in the middle of a former golf course. The golf course was an amenity for the servicemen at the military base. Remnants of fairways and cutouts of greens were visible from the recreation area. Tall pine trees surrounded the camp’s perimeter, but through them, the main prison was visible, separated by a sunken area of shrubs, old fairways from the golf course and a narrow brook that was probably a water hazard for golfers.

It was a long building of concrete block, no windows and three tiers of barbed wire. The gnarled circles flashed their steel teeth day and night, more frightening in the night light, its true fierceness revealed. In daylight, the barbed wire disappears into the background. But in the early evening, when the lights came on, those circles flashed bright, their shiny, unmistakable message that you were a prisoner. We’re here to hurt you, and you’re not getting out. A vast parking lot beside the building was acres of black pavement. The steel glint from hundreds of parked cars flashed its own message, the depth of staff there and its overwhelming numbers to preserve our confinement.

The camp building was initially constructed to house seventy-two inmates, but by the time I arrived, it housed one hundred and twenty-eight, all cramped into tiny cubicles in an open-floor environment of approximately ten thousand square feet. Decay was pervasive there. Mold in the showers, broken urinals and sinks, frayed sheets, stained blankets, dented lockers, a foul smell in the bathrooms and a mossy film everywhere. The dorm for inmates was a maze of dark corridors and cubicles that was more barracks than dorm. From a bird’s eye view, it resembled an experiment for mice. Fluorescent lights hung from exposed steel beams and iron pipes, some bulbs always missing or flashing. The pods were eight by seven feet, six feet high and had no privacy.

Each cubicle housed two inmates with a bunk bed, two low-lying lockers, two plastic chairs and a narrow drawer that fit under the bunks. Every surface was hard: cinder block walls, plastic chairs, steel beds and concrete floors. Windows that surprisingly opened lined the perimeter. But more of a curse than a benefit and a source of conflict in the winter months. A series of fans hung on the interior walls in no particular configuration. They were turned on day and night in every season. In winter, they shaded the sound of illegal cell phones. In the summer, they were a source of conflict: “Fan-wars,” named by the inmates to describe the battles to determine the direction of the fans during the oppressive days of summer. There was no Air Conditioning. Some inmates couldn’t sleep without that noise, and others complained bitterly. I slept regardless. In prison, sleep was the only balm.

I arrived late fall, temperatures falling, days shorter and the dorm freezing. In those late-fall mornings, the darkest season, inmates silently stumbled through dark corridors. I never thought that Hell would be freezing, not fire but ice, the torture of preference for the BOP. I slept in overcoats and winter hats, shivering for hours, tossing and turning my way to warmth and eventual sleep. But just when I’d managed to somehow find sleep, there was the three am count and the guard’s flashlight in my bunk and then another hour to try and morph shaking into sleep and then the alarm would go off at five am, and it was morning and time to get up in the meat locker.

I’d ask the guard about the heat, and he’d tell me to “Fuck off because all you guys are a pain in the ass. Who’s hot, who’s cold.” And then I’d go to work in the kitchen washing dishes and scrubbing pans, but at least it was warm for five hours. I’d finish up and return to my bunk exhausted, but still cold, colder even, and ten minutes later I’d be shivering again. A different kind of Hell.

An area for games, not separate from the dorm area, was situated in the front of the dorm. There were four plastic tables and a tall, broken gray locker with boards for chess and checkers, playing cards and some other games I never saw anyone play. Inmates had to bring the chairs from their bunks to the tables. On evenings and stormy days, the area was crowded, loud and primed for conflict. It was a noisy place at night. There was a lot of shouting, arguing, and laughing, but mostly shouting. My bunk was next to that room during my first weeks in camp. A black inmate named Outlaw (his real name) played poker every night and fought with somebody every night. Seemed like he would jump up at the end of every hand, throw down his cards and “Mother fuck” everyone in the room. And he was loud and scary. He was gone early after I arrived. Guys told me he wasn’t a bad guy. Glad I never had to find out.

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.