Why you should care
Because when you’re behind bars, “trick or treat” takes on a whole new meaning.
Seth Ferranti is a writer, comic book creator and filmmaker.
For Halloween, people dress up as prison inmates, mobsters or ax murderers, but in prison, these aren’t characters — they’re your neighbors. And while Halloween comes once a year in the real world, in prison it’s every day. Because drugs, gangs and violence rule the day, and if you let your guard down or show weakness, it can result in your demise.
When I entered prison as a 22-year-old kid facing a 25-year sentence for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, I put on a mask. It wasn’t Batman or Chewbacca — my mask had dark brown curly hair, blue eyes, fair skin and a slightly crooked nose. It was a mask that made me look just like me — only tougher. And I made sure to put it on every day for survival.
Prison felt like Halloween, only a Halloween where you hope you don’t get any treats. Because treats are tricks, and they could both be detrimental to your health. If someone leaves a Snickers bar on your bed, it means they want to make you their “punk” — a man who becomes another man’s woman. And usually it’s not consensual.
I definitely didn’t want any treats and I was always on the lookout for tricks, which inevitably led to violence. Like the time one of my homeboys hid another prisoner’s radio. He thought it was funny, but in the pen, that’s a big no-no. When the dude couldn’t find his radio, he thought someone stole it, and when he found out my homeboy had picked it up, he smashed him with a “lock in a sock,” busting open my homeboy’s head right to the skull. That was a scary Halloween.
I wore the mask for so long, it grew difficult to differentiate between the image I projected to everyone inside the belly of the beast and the person I really was.
That’s why I wore my mask every day. I wanted other prisoners to think I was willing to “take it to the wall” — ready to ratchet up the violence in a nanosecond. At 6′1″ and 180 pounds, I had some size, but size doesn’t matter when someone’s trying to stick a handmade metal shank they fashioned out of a screwdriver into your gut.
Every morning when I woke to the sound of doors cracking open in my cell, I put on my mask. And every evening when I went to sleep, I took it off. I wore the mask for so long, it grew difficult to differentiate between the image I projected to everyone inside the belly of the beast and the person I really was. There were times I thought I was losing myself behind my mask — losing the person I was before I got locked up. Wearing a mask every day for 21 years, and getting sucked into the degradations of prison, will change a man.
And then I came home. It’s been a slow process of peeling off the mask that became a part of my face. I find that sometimes I react to situations as I did in prison, with an all-out brutal urgency that doesn’t vibe with the real world. If I feel threatened or uncomfortable, my hackles rise and I put on my convict mask. Scowling and letting people know I am not to be fucked with by any means. It was a hard adjustment period, but I knew I eventually had to let it go.
I told myself to let go of the mask, take a breath and be myself again. It was liberating. I threw off my disguise and was just Seth again. Not a hardened prisoner who would shank you at the slightest provocation, but a regular person who could embrace his humanity and enjoy life instead of doing life.
Last October 31 was my first Halloween as a free man, my first real Halloween since I was a kid. And I put on a mask. This time, though, it wasn’t my tough-guy mask — or what I referred to as “the thousand-yard stare.” Instead, I put on a mask for pure fun. I could be whoever, whatever I wanted to be.
I live in Saint Louis now, and my wife and I went downtown to the Johnny Brock Dungeon Halloween Party at the Ball Park Village. She was Little Red Riding Hood. I dressed as Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Decked out in all white with black combat boots, a bowler hat, black gloves, white suspenders, a cane that doubled as a weapon and a sinister Pinocchio nose, I looked truly terrifying.
Only people weren’t scared. “Great costume!” they yelled. We danced, we took photos, we marveled at the other great costumes — Gene Simmons, Waldo, Frankenstein. In prison, I had to keep up the facade of being an inmate who would take your head off the same as look at you. But as I walked around the Ball Park Village in my mask, I enjoyed being an anonymous person out celebrating Halloween, like everyone else.
In this mask, I could have fun. And even in my mask, I was still myself. I could take it off anytime I wanted and wouldn’t have to put it on again in the morning. Halloween’s coming up, and I’m already contemplating what I’ll dress up as this year.