Jim Goldberg/Magnum Photos
In the penitentiary, every day is like Halloween. After all, my neighbors are serial killers and drug lords who make their movie counterparts seem like pussies, and the choice between a trick or a treat is a matter of life or death.Think Chucky on steroids.I don't have the choice to wear a costume once a year and terrorize the neighborhood in a sugar-fueled candy craze. In here, a khaki uniform is the only available attire, and the mask that I wear is the thousand-yard stare. I've developed the aura that I'm a hardened convict who will run a piece of steel into another man over any perceived slight.
It's a mask that I've worn for over 13 years and will hopefully be able to shed after I'm returned to society.At least my mask is an invisible one I've created to deal with my environment. Most men in the penitentiaries have their masks literally painted on in the form of prison tats. I've seen everything from a giant swastika on a forehead to "#1 Bitch Killer" as a mustache replacement. All of them were meant to achieve one thing: intimidate whoever comes near them."I've got horns tatted on my head cause I'm the white devil," says Will, a 40-year-old con from Tennessee doing 15 years for guns. "With these, dudes know I'm the devil 365 days a year."I don't need a special day to make myself look like a mass murderer—it's enough just to hear that door unlock in the morning, and the roar of the building that accompanies it, to let me know it's time once again to become something I'm not. As soon as I jump out of bed, I put my mask on, and I'm not the only one."I've got 'Battletested' on my neck so motherfuckers know what's up!" says Bam, a 30-year-old from Indiana doing eight years for bank robbery. "I went against a hundred motherfuckers in a race riot. All I had was two knives. After it was over, I was covered in blood… most of it was other dudes. Freddy ain't got shit on me."It's not all blood and guts and hard facades. In fact, Halloween is actually celebrated behind bars, at least according to the some of the women I've corresponded with in the state system.
"We'd paint our faces and play games like charades on Halloween," says Crystal, a 29-year-old Latina who served an 18-month sentence in New Mexico for a DUI. "We'd all pitch in and cook a big meal for everyone in the unit. After we ate, we'd pass out candy to each other and watch scary movies on TV.""We'd switch it up for Halloween. The studs would dress like fems and the fems would dress like studs," says Jessyka, a 32-year-old woman from Pennsylvania who did ten years in the feds for bank robbery. "We'd make plastic canvas baskets with ghosts on them and fill it with candy for friends or lovers."None of this would ever go down in the federal penitentiary. The most you could hope for on Halloween is your road dog hooking you up with his honey bun from the chow hall—even when you know he smuggled it under his nuts to get it past the kitchen cops.Who needs the fake fear of Halloween in here? There are so many dudes doing life in here—some for brazen murders on the streets and more for brutal penitentiary killings. The total disregard for human life is bred into those of us that have grown up with lunatics as our surrogate families. We stuff our feelings down in our stomachs and turn ourselves into monsters.But no matter how hard we try to keep our heart strings in check, the holidays will always bring up reminders of the things we've lost."On Halloween, me and my three sons would go to the haunted corn field and all laugh at each other for getting scared," remembers Remy, a 35-year-old Michigan native who's fresh in on a 20-year bid for guns and kidnapping. "When we'd get home we'd all paint each others faces like zombies and head out to one of the rich neighborhoods for trick or treat. After we'd get back, I'd make them dump everything in one pile and split it up evenly."
As we're talking, Remy looks off in the distance and his eyes glaze over from the memories dancing through his head. "Arguing was a daily thing with my three boys, but I taught them to always share and take care of each other. Man… We didn't have much, but we had each other," he confides.It's days and times like these that prison really gets to us. We can deal with the prison politics and everything that comes with it. We can deal with the cops harassing us and destroying the meager possessions we have to our name. But the separation from our family and friends is what really breaks us down. The chance to actually be ourselves, to take the masks off that we've created and be totally free never seems to arise. Any holiday is a reminder of a better life we had years go, one that's never coming back.Of course, some convicts refuse to let the holidays get them down."Down in Guatemala, it's called El dia de los muertos," says Sharky, a 43-year-old member of the Sureños gang. "My dad runs a strip club and every year we had a big concurso with all the dancers. They'd dress up as bad ass brujas or enfermeras and the winner took home 500 Quetzales [about 20 bucks]. Damn fool, I can't wait to get out and party down in Coatepeque."Sharky only has one year left underneath the gun towers before he's a free man. Just like me, he has over a decade of horrors ingrained in his mind. But soon we'll wake up from this horrid dream and be able to spend the holidays with our loved ones.Once we're free, there's one thing that I know we won't be dressing up as for Halloween, and that's as a prisoner.John "Judge" Broman has also written for Gorilla Convict. Follow him on Facebook.