John Dimenna is a member of our White Collar Support Group that meets on Zoom on Monday evenings.
You can survive prison, you can recover from prison, but prison never leaves you. I lived among one hundred other inmates. More wilderness than community. There is nothing more solitary than living among the exiled. I entered prison as a ghost and returned an apparition.
I’ve moved on from the sentiment described herein. But my goal was to capture the reality confronting felons upon their release and the failure of the prison system to prepare inmates for reentry.
The moment of release is a kind of fool’s gold. A conviction to make amends, start over, re-build a life . But returning home from prison, the relief fades sooner than you’d think. The old failures still reside there, and prison makes the trip home with you.. The experience of incarceration: its agony, sense of exile, isolation and the misery of day-to-day confinement lingers long after the arrival home. Even in the relatively low-security environment of a federal prison camp, confinement becomes an internal form of torture, no matter its locale or facility.
The presiding judge told me that I already sentenced myself to a prison without bars. Still, a prison nonetheless, a prison of the soul, that I was not connected to humanity, disconnected to what makes life meaningful and worthwhile. He said I had a challenging life ahead, and I must figure out how to release myself from this prison of my own making. Returning home, I embraced a life of contemplation, renewal and self-reflection. I concluded that my crime was a failure of character, something intrinsic, revealed only under great duress and crisis.
But no one’s the same as you remembered them. Friends are uncomfortable, distant, measuring and opportunities foreclosed. Ambivalence follows warm greetings. And then there are the questions asked and the more painful ones, not asked, but implied in half measures and stares and pauses, more revealing, hurtful than a thousand insults. You try to put on a good face, show courage, believe it yourself for a while. But it doesn’t last, resonate. You’re damaged goods because prison doesn’t prepare you. All the stuff on the bulletin boards, the courses, seminars: resume building, reentry strategies, interview preparedness, family orientation, all bull-shit. Every inmate leaves with only a T-shirt, a new pair of jeans, a pair of sneakers, a felony conviction and maybe $200 from his prison-store account. The excruciating self-loathing, a permanent consequence.
I had hoped that release from incarceration would provide a spiritual balm and the seeds for growth. How I wish there was one. But very little of that, like planting seeds on concrete, and failure the only real prism from which to measure. Then I tried to focus on the turning points; but it’s always a moving target and too many of those to count or measure. There just isn’t a path to go back or go forward. I huddle in a cocoon and harbor the simplest entreaties and memories of my past that promise an epiphany, but it never reveals itself, and I remain exiled in relentless remorse and turning points that passed.
In the end, there’s really no going back. Sometimes I don’t think I’ve changed at all. No matter how many times I run my life’s reel, the ending is always the same, and so is the beginning. No escape yet from the “prison of my own making, the prison without bars, the prison of the soul.” Only the dark corridors of incarceration I thought I’d left behind.
HELL FREEZES OVER
The prison camp was a maze of dark corridors and in the winter mornings, the darkest season, we stumbled through them in silence and more than any other time, the long days loomed. I arrived late fall, temperatures falling, days shorter and the dorm freezing but I never thought that Hell would be freezing, not fire but ice the torture of preference for the Bureau of Prisons. We slept in overcoats and winter hats and shivering for hours tossing and turning our way to warmth and just when I managed to somehow find sleep there was the three AM count and the guards flashlight in my face and then another hour to try and morph my 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 and I’d ask the guard about the heat and he told me to “fuck off because all you guys are a pain in the ass─whose hot whose cold─” and then I’d go to work in the kitchen washing dishes and scrubbing pans but at least it’s warm for five hours and I’d finish up and go back to my bunk exhausted but still cold, colder even and ten minutes later I’d be shivering again. A different kind of hell.
After anguished farewells, the door closed behind me. I was given a uniform, like an invisible swaddling cloak, a sense of prey and predator lurking like creatures in the canyons
of the seabed and it’s mysterious leagues. There were no mornings, only dreaded waking,
a grim seizure of place and confinement, sleep no measure of solace, the prospect of
turmoil and dreams that always find their breath. Over time yearning and longing found their way to cruel memory and false hope and the sad delirium of counting days.
I was born in a sanitarium in New York City but my mother said that was not what you think but I don’t know what I thought except sanitariums are not nice places and my mother said that it wasn’t true that I was born in New York City or in a sanitarium and that I was born in Mount Vernon where I grew up and that was always what my mother did which was always reassuring me because nothing was ever really what it seemed, at least when it came to me and when my sister told me by mistake one day that I had seizures when I was a little boy, my mother put a hand over her mouth and told me that it wasn’t true and what does this have to do with me now sitting here in prison at age seventy-seven and I don’t have the answer except that I’m trying to take stock of everything and this is where I started or where I’m ending or maybe it’s just another new beginning because I love new beginnings and I’ve compiled them my whole life but I have a blind spot for the end of things and my father told me that’s why I keep walking into mud or maybe I haven’t a clue as if there are any clues, despite we spend our lives looking for clues and reasons when there are probably no reasons as we just do our best to manage the turmoil of our lives because there are no ordinary lives, certainly not mine but I’m just starting to take stock because that’s what you do in prison and maybe I’ll find some clues.
She arrived, even in this tangled prison, her beguiling innocence still intact. With her parents in tow, she kipped out of the car, everything fair and starlight, the magic of everyday life that only seven-year old’s possess. Still not aware of her own beauty, nor the world hers, we shared like always, not a hint of place. “Do you know I love you,” I said. “You always say that Papa,” and smiled. Three missing teeth, that rare beauty of absence in a childs smile and stories of the tooth fairy. But on goodbye, she paused and finally grasped the scene, all these men in garbs of green. In the softest of words, as if only we could hear, “Is it hard?” she asked. I wanted to say yes but didn’t. Enough perfection and innocence to burn a shameful hole right through you. But a final wave from that perfect face of petals and smiles even I couldn’t spoil.
I told my brother that I want to be buried because he would understand that and not that I know what he will do because he doesn’t like to talk about those things and also because his wife was cremated and wanted her ashes spread over somewhere which I can’t remember now but he never did it anyway and not like my wife who wants her ashes spread over the little river near our first house on a beautiful pristine hill before we knew anything about what we were facing as it was the beginning of our lives really but of course we weren’t aware of it as you never are when you’re young marrieds and the last thing you’re thinking about is how you want to be buried but I don’t want to be ashes and spread anywhere because I want to be put in a box and know the weight of me will be felt by some unknowns who struggle lowering me down and it doesn’t matter that they don’t know me but only that they know that there’s somebody in there that was alive once and I take comfort knowing that but just don’t make me ashes and spread me anywhere because no matter where you spread them it’s really nowhere and I was here once and at least I’ll know that there’s a place that says I was here no matter what I was or wasn’t.
A former real estate developer, John Dimenna was sentenced to eighty-five months in prison for two counts of wire fraud in 2016, at the age of 76. Fortunately, he received a reprieve after eighteen months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and was re=sentenced to serve three years of home incarceration until May 2023. He currently reside in Vero Beach, Florida, with hisy wife of fifty years and writes full time. John Can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.