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Life Inside

The Awful Thing I Saw in Prison That Stunned Me Into Silence

"It was the kind of moment that you witness but your brain just rejects; you can’t believe what you just saw."

One evening last July, I was on a phone call with my girlfriend Taemi that would no doubt end like all the others: with me hating myself and wondering why I called in the first place. That seemed to be our routine. Still, I’d line up for the telephone each night and spend half of my 45-minute rec time receiving a sustained dose of verbal bashing from someone who was supposed to love me — about all I’d done wrong, all the shame I should feel, and so on.

This article was published in collaboration with Vice.

This seemed to be the norm for quite a few of my fellow offenders. Gluttons for punishment and prisoners of our past wrongdoing, we couldn’t bring ourselves to stop calling home. Most of us were hooked on abusive relationships, and had been for years.

Nothing was out of the ordinary about this night. There was no full moon and it wasn’t Friday the 13th, and as usual it was hot. In Minnesota’s St. Cloud Correctional Facility there is no air conditioning, so, even in our open-facing cells, we’d strip down to our state-issued tightie-whities, trying to think cool thoughts. (Thankfully I had a cell on the bottom floor.)

Taemi and I had just started talking when another inmate walked by with a piece of paper clipped to his chest. I only caught a quick glance out of the corner of my eye, so I had no idea what it was and paid it no mind.

After all, it takes an incredible amount of concentration to maintain a phone conversation in B-House, where I lived. Often the man on the phone next to you would be begging whoever was on the other end of the line to put a little cash on his books for ramen noodles and coffee. There was also, usually, an inmate crying, promising he’d change, pleading for one more chance between sobs. Meanwhile at least one abusive bastard was berating some poor insecure woman, calling her every name in the book.

The worst distractions came from those waiting in line. They showed no regard for the people already on the phone; they yelled at each other, made crude jokes, and argued over the most trivial things, like which celebrities are richer. (In prison, guys know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing and will stop at nothing to convince everyone else of it.)

I did notice some inmates pointing at the dude with the piece of paper on his chest, and getting a little animated. But Taemi was already in rare form, telling me what a horrible person I was for the hundredth time, so my attention was on her flattering commentary.

A few minutes later, the guy passed by again. This time, his back was to me and he was facing the men standing in line — so I still couldn’t see what he’d put on his chest.

Taemi and I talked a bit more while I tried to piece together what the hell was going on.

B-House was effectively an education unit, where a large portion of the offenders mandated to the prison’s GED program were housed. This included guys with learning disabilities as well as young men, still boys really, with behavioral problems, or who never graduated high school. It created quite an interesting social dynamic. Sometimes the atmosphere was closer to a youth asylum than a prison, explosive with braggadocio.

The man with the piece of paper was a prime example. He was always bragging about being a gang member and celebrating his criminal behavior, the “convict code” and the street mentality. Every other word out of his mouth was about beating this or robbing that or some new and improved way to sell dope.

I would never wish it on anyone, but there are just some people you can tell will be back in prison over and over again, and that’s the impression this young man gave.

He made another pass by the phone line and this time, he threw up his hands like Muhammad Ali after knocking down Frazier, and went skipping along like a gangster-cheerleader leading the Wave.

This drew an even more spirited reaction. Some laughed and snickered; others jumped up and down making "Oh-no-he-didn’t" faces. A couple guys looked disgusted, but only a couple. A few near the end of the line were furious, throwing up what I assume were gang signs with their fingers.

The spectacle obviously got me even more curious to see what this dude had going on that was causing such a commotion.

The next time he came around, I turned in time to see what was on the paper. Clipped onto the front of his shirt was a full-page color photo of a young man shot in the face, lying dead in the street.

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This wasn’t a theatrical Hollywood re-creation — it was truly gory. The photographed man had been shot in his face and chest and was propped up at a slight angle in the gutter behind a parked car. There was blood pooling around his head, and his leg was folded underneath him in a hurdler’s stretch. His eyes were open; he appeared to be staring at something just outside the frame.

He looked like a high-school kid and couldn’t have been more than 19 years old.

It turned out this was a photo the prosecution had used as evidence during the inmate’s murder trial. The young man in the picture was his victim. Now here he was, bragging about his charge, strutting around with this photograph clipped to his chest like a badge of honor.

The scene by the phone line was surreal. Some offenders actually cheered him on. There were even older men encouraging his behavior. Younger guys, totally hooked on the street life, gazed at him with awe. You could see they almost instantly idolized him.

It was sickening to see — to realize that in equal measure to the shame I was always hearing from the guys around me, there was also a violent pride.

I have seen a fair amount of disturbing things while incarcerated — assaults, sexual abuse, extortion and drug use. But something about this just hit me. It was the kind of moment that you witness but your brain just rejects; you can’t believe you just saw what you just saw.

That’s how it was, I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the hopelessness of it. Maybe it was that pride, and my recognition of it.

My heart went out not only to the victim, but also to this lost young man so wrapped up in darkness that he may never break free. I felt the pain of the mother whose son lost his life the night police took that photograph, but also of the one who lost her child to this awful glorification, and to the system, for the next 28 years.

I was speechless, just standing there with the phone slowly falling from my ear, when Taemi's voice recaptured my attention. I cut her off mid-sentence and blurted out a description of what I was seeing.

It stunned her to silence, and we both sat there for a moment, lost in our thoughts, saying nothing.

I think the reality of where I was finally set in for both of us. I apologized for interrupting her and asked what she’d been saying.

“Nothing,” she replied, in a soft voice. “I love you, babe.”

Aaron Ernst, 42, is incarcerated at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault, Minn., where he is serving six to 10 years for a drug offense.