A PRISON GHOST STORY
“It really happened, Taylor,” Kellogg said. He sat behind his desk in the Facility Three Yard program office of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. He wore the bravo class uniform of a correctional sergeant, khaki shirt with three stripes on each arm, depicting his rank, and a black uniform ball cap to cover his brown, thinning hair. I sat across from him, leaning back in a chair, one booted foot on the desk. “I don’t expect you to believe me, but I was there. I saw him with my own eyes.”
It was first watch, the graveyard shift. The inmates were locked up for the night, and the prison was staffed by a skeleton crew. What better time was there to tell ghost stories?
Prisons are replete with tales of supernatural apparitions, purported to be the spirits of murdered inmates, or officers who spend their lives after death eternally haunting the halls of their former places of employment. During my academy training as a correctional officer cadet, I worked a short time at Old Folsom, the second oldest prison in the state. The stories there revolved around the spirits of inmates hanged for murder. A warehouse stands now where the gallows used to be. Officers on first watch were required to conduct security checks of the facility. New officers often reported they heard men weeping and wailing in the old warehouse. Experienced officers either stopped reporting the sounds or stopped entering the warehouse altogether. Another tale at Old Folsom prison had to do with a certain housing unit. Officers routinely counted inmates and grew accustomed to the idea that, in that housing unit, they were never alone during count. They felt the presence of an unseen officer walking the tiers with them, and even heard the jingling of his keys.
“I don’t know, Kellogg,” I said. “I’m not calling you a liar, but this place can do funny things to a man’s senses. And you did say you were sleeping.”
“Yeah, I was sleeping, “Kellogg said, “but I was awake when I saw him. He was there, as real as you are, standing on the second tier, looking down at the dayroom floor.”
“What did he look like?”
“He looked like an inmate. He was a white guy, covered in tattoos. Even on his face. He was wearing his blues. I thought he had gotten out of his cell somehow. I’m just glad I didn’t think to notify central control. They would’ve thought I was crazy.”
As the story went, it happened when Kellogg was still an officer, working overtime in the control booth of housing unit seventeen on Facility Four. The control booth was a large room in the second story of the housing unit, with thick, unbreakable windows. The control booth officer provided gun coverage for the yard from his back window, and coverage for the officers inside the housing unit through slots in his front windows. He also controlled the opening and closing of the housing unit and cell doors from a panel on his desk. During the day, it was a busy job, but at night, when the inmates were locked in their cells, it was one of the easiest jobs in the prison. And an officer, especially an officer on overtime, could find himself struggling to stay awake. Kellogg had succumbed to the struggle that night, and was fast asleep.
“Something woke me up,” Kellogg said, “I felt like someone was up in the control booth with me. I didn’t see anyone, but I felt it. I got up and looked around, but no one was there. I looked out at the dayroom, and there he was, clear as day, leaning against the second tier railing, just staring down at the dayroom floor. I shouted at him, but he ignored me. I called down to the officers, but they were sleeping in their office. They wouldn’t wake up. The inmate started walking toward cell 217, and I started shouting at him again. He never even looked at me. He got to the cell door, but didn’t stop walking. Taylor, man, I’m telling you, he walked right through the cell door like it wasn’t even there. I don’t know what to think of it, but I know it happened.”
“And you don’t think it was a dream?” I said.
“No dream,” Kellogg said. “When my shift was over in the morning, I left the control booth and went to cell 217. There were two inmates locked up in there. I talked to them.”
“What did they say?”
“That’s the thing,” Kellogg said. “At first they didn’t want to talk to me. They thought I would think they were crazy. When they did talk, they told me they woke up and saw an inmate, the same inmate, standing in their cell, staring out their back window. And, just like that, he was gone. He was there one second, and gone the next.”
I took Sergeant Kellogg’s story with the proverbial grain of salt. I did not dismiss it outright. Who am I, after all, to judge another man’s ghost story? But to say I believed it would not be entirely true. I had witnessed many unexplainable events in my life, and tried to keep my mind open to possibilities, but I also nurtured a healthy cynicism.
Another strange event happened in the prison infirmary. I wasn’t a witness to it, but I talked to the doctor and nurses involved, who swore to me that it happened. Inmates with severe medical issues were kept in cells that were basically hospital rooms, equipped with medical beds and televisions. A man convicted of serial rape was dying. He was a belligerent old inmate, rude and caustic, especially to the female staff members. He was in the last few minutes of life, and was still conscious. He looked up at the television from where he was lying in bed, and cried out in fear. Scrolling on the bottom of the screen were the words, YOU ARE GOING TO HELL. The Doctor was in the room with two nurses. They changed the channel, but the words remained on the bottom of the screen. YOU ARE GOING TO HELL. The inmate took his final breath, staring up at the television screen. Perhaps the story was true. Perhaps not. I kept an open mind.
It wasn’t until I had an experience of my own that I decided Sergeant Kellogg may have really seen a ghost. It happened to me. It happened when the clerk came to work.
There were many jobs in prison for inmates. Inmates were cooks, they worked in the laundry, as porters in the housing units and a variety of other positions. Being an inmate clerk required intelligence. To be the lieutenant’s clerk required even greater intelligence. The lieutenant’s clerk had to be knowledgeable of yard procedures, and had to be able to read and write well. When a yard discovered an inmate with these capabilities they held on to them. Most lieutenant’s clerks had long sentences, and many held the same job for ten years or more. The Facility One lieutenant’s clerk, Inmate Jensen, had been the clerk for at least fifteen years. He was an older man with gray hair, a pale complexion and bifocals. He was quiet and unobtrusive, never out of line with the officers, but was always professional and courteous. He became part of the furniture, so to speak, his presence so common in the program office that he often went unnoticed. He had been convicted at the age of thirty for murdering his wife’s lover after catching them together in his bed. He was in his sixties, and had spent more time in prison than he had lived outside prison. His life inside the wall was routine. He got up every morning, put on a clean, pressed inmate uniform, waited for the control booth officer to open his cell, then headed to the program office. Five days a week, every week for more than fifteen years. He never talked about paroling. Like many lifers, I am sure he hoped to one day be free. But Inmate Jenkins would spend the rest of his life in prison.
The rest of his life. And one more day.
It was early on a Monday morning. I entered the Facility One Program office. I was scheduled to work as one of the yard officers, and grabbed my equipment, baton, pepper spray, radio, keys, from the equipment locker. I barely noticed when Inmate Jenkins entered. He looked around, and seemed a bit confused. I was too busy donning my equipment to pay much attention. He headed back to his work station, an alcove just down the hallway with an electric typewriter on a large wooden desk. I finished cinching up my duty belt and keying the microphone on my radio to make sure the battery was charged. Inmate Jenkins left his work area, the same look of vague confusion on his pale face. He walked to the front door of the program, which was propped open for the officers to come and go, and stepped out onto the yard. I checked the schedule of duties, which was posted to the wall, to see what extra duties I had to perform.
I heard shouting from one of the first watch officers at the back of the program.
“No freaking way!” he yelled.
I stepped out into the hallway to see what was going on. The officer, a middle-aged Hispanic man, was staring from where he stood at the end of the hallway, out through the open door. His eyes were wide with surprise, and not a little fear. I followed his gaze to the empty yard.
“What’s happening?” I said.
“Jenkins, man. I just saw Jenkins!”
“Doing what?” I said. I looked out at the yard, but did not see inmate Jenkins.
“You don’t get it! He’s not supposed to be doing anything.”
I scanned the yard again. No inmate Jenkins. Where could he have gone?
“I don’t see him at all,” I said.
“Taylor,” the officer said, exasperated, “Jenkins is dead. He died at the infirmary last night!”
I looked at the officer, sure he was messing with me. I grinned.
“Okay,” I said, “Jenkins is dead. Go on. I just saw him a minute ago.”
The officer stepped out onto the yard, looking around. He shook his head.
“I don’t get it, man,” he said. “They told me he was dead.”
“Well,” I said, “they told you wrong. Maybe it was another Jenkins.”
He thought about it, looking at the empty yard. He nodded to himself.
“Yeah. I guess so. That has to be it…”
“Here,” I said, “come with me.”
I entered the program office and he followed. Sitting down at the computer, I put in my password and logged onto SOMS, the information system for officers. I searched for Inmate Jenkins on Facility One. His information flashed on my screen, his housing unit and photo identification. I checked his status. It showed he had discharged from prison the day before. I looked up at the officer, who stared over my shoulder at the computer screen. His mouth was open. His eyes were wide. There, directly under Inmate Jenkin’s photo were the following words: Status- Discharged. Cause- Death. Location- Office of the Coroner, San Diego County. Inmate Jenkins was not only dead, he was discharged to the San Diego County Coroner’s Office.
His body was in the morgue.
Occasionally, I read articles in the newspaper or watch news stories about people convicted of heinous crimes. Some are sentenced to life, some to life plus fifty years. I worked with inmates who were sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. We all assumed they would leave the prison when their first life sentence was over. After all, a man has only one life to give. But now I wonder whether that is entirely true. How many inmates served their sentences of life, only to find they had a lot more time to do?