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Life Inside

Being a Prisoner is Like Being a Ghost

Waiting to die, we haunt our loved ones.

I still remember that moment six years ago when I became a ward of the state—a federal inmate. Shackled hand and foot, I arrived by bus at the penitentiary and was ordered to send my clothing and other personal effects home in a cardboard box. I had to fill out a form telling my jailers whether I wished to be resuscitated and what to do with my body and whom to notify in the event of my death. It was one of the first shocks of being in prison, the first loss of self.

My wife told me she felt weird receiving and opening the box and seeing my street clothing as if I was already dead, as if I'd been killed in action in some foreign war, blown up by an IED so that nothing remained, not even ashes. Years before, she’d given me a good luck charm to wear on a tiny gold chain around my neck. I'd had to give that up as well. What would protect me from bad things now? From the evil eye? I was allowed to keep my wedding ring as consolation so that if I died I'd still belong somewhere else, even if only in spirit.

In spirit. Not in the flesh. To put it in vulgar terms: From that point on my ass belonged to the BOP.

Going to prison is a lot like dying, only you live on as a ghost, a ghost that regularly haunts your family and friends by phone, letters, cards or email. You lose your corporal reality. You are no longer a member of family or society. You are in what I think of as the Fourth World, a lower rung than the poverty-ridden Third World, a ghetto of the soul.

In the beginning I desperately wanted my loved ones to visit me. My pre-prison self still clung to life, there was still a slight pulse in the dying heart. I heard about weddings and birthdays and funerals. About financial difficulties, about health issues. After a few months I changed my mind. My wife and I agreed mutually that it would be too painful to share a life that had been snatched from us, cut short. We'd planned to travel to Europe, to spend time with the grandchildren, to visit family in another state. Holidays, vacations, time together in our final years. All of that had been wiped out, and we refused to see it replaced with a series of institutionalized visitations.

I was down three years before I experienced the first death of a fellow inmate. He was an old man I barely knew (“old” here being relative, since, technically, I'm an old man, too). He was five months from the door. He suffered with emphysema. The prison I inhabited in those days was a miserable place. Most units, in fact all but one, had no AC. Every summer there were fainting spells, dehydrations, heart attacks.

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We had old-fashioned steam heat in the winters and lots of old, uncaulked windows through which the icy wind whipped and sliced at us. Like many prisons, despite all and sundry claims to the contrary, it was a filthy place. This afflicted inmate had been complaining to medical for months to be moved to a more comfortable unit, one closer to medical and the chow hall. He had trouble breathing, walking, sleeping. He died just before Christmas of 2016. His family came to collect the remains.

Two years later, another inmate died. Same prison. This guy, Ray, I knew well. We shared dinners every day. We worked in the prison library together. He was young, in his late thirties. But he had bad genetics, a bad ticker. Lacking the loving concern of some nagging family member, he'd simply skipped taking his meds. One night after dinner he went to his cell and keeled over, banged his head on his locker and died. There was a lot of blood.

Ray had suffered a massive coronary. He still had five years to go on his sentence.

Ray, like me, like the old man two years earlier, was an SO—for sex offender.

We face life-long social obliteration and possibly death behind bars. We live and die inside, not among friends and family but among strangers. Unforgiven.

In the end we receive not the caress of a loved one, as we would as free men, but the kick of a guard's boot checking us to see if there's a need to call an ambulance.

After Ray died, we held a service in his honor in the prison chapel. I played the piano and another inmate sang Amazing Grace—was lost and now am found, was blind and now can see—and another song I can't remember. Prison makes us amnesic. It was all very formal and stiff. The chapel that seated 150 was nearly full. Ray was a popular inmate with many friends. I found interesting the variety of personalities that gathered for his service. I can only wonder how this man might have fared in the free world—if only he'd been given a chance.

Since Ray's death I've seen three more, and I imagine I will see many more before my time is done. There are lots of old and sick SOs. I may end up being one of them. Around five thousand people die in the System every year. Will I be one of them? It's possible. I have several years still left to “serve.” The mostly law-abiding citizen I used to be before my sentence was passed died an abstract social death, though his body, property of the BOP, lingers. Will my social and moral death finally be complemented with my physical one?

I have indicated that I would like to be cremated but if there was to be, by some error, a burial, this would be the epitaph American society, or should I say the System we've created, would surely want to have engraved on my tombstone: “He was a sex offender. He got what he had coming.”

Fernando Rivas, 67, is a Cuban-born Juilliard School graduate and the recipient of two Emmys and one Grammy for television work. In 2016, his poem, '300 Min.' received an Honorable Mention from PEN America. In 2019, he was the winner of the Insider Prize Short Story award from American Short Fiction. He is currently incarcerated at FCI-Seagoville in Texas, where he is serving a 15-year sentence for creating and sending child pornography.

Clarification: This story was updated with a more specific description of the writer's criminal conviction.