updated 03/14/2007 AT 5:00 PM ET
•originally published 03/15/2007 AT 8:00 AM ET
As the first Survivor winner, in 2000, Richard Hatch achieved near-iconic status as the man everybody loved to hate. But that’s nothing compared to how Hatch now hates his own life, he tells PEOPLE in an exclusive jailhouse interview that appears in the latest issue.
“Obviously, this is better than the county lockup. There’s no fence here,” Hatch, 45, says of the minimum-security prison in Morgantown, W.Va. – where he’s 14 months into his 51-month sentence after his 2006 conviction on three counts of evading taxes on his $1 million Survivor winnings, as well as on other income from a rental property and $321,000 for hosting a Boston-based radio show.
“But people think I’ve come to a country club. It’s not. This is prison. Just because it’s got a beautiful view of the countryside doesn’t make it a resort,” he says. “And it’s horrendous because I’m an innocent man in jail.”
Explaining why he contends he’s innocent, Hatch – whose lawyers on March 8 filed an appeal to overturn his conviction – says: “During Survivor, I caught them cheating – that’s where this story really begins.”
Hatch claims that he saw a member of the program’s behind-the-scenes crew giving food to other contestants during the course of the show, on which sustenance is notoriously scarce.
“I demanded that something be done,” he says, recalling that he had a heated meeting with the show’s executive producers, who ultimately agreed to pay his taxes if he’d keep quiet about the cheating.
In response to Hatch’s accusations, CBS spokeswoman Colleen Sullivan simply says, “The allegations have no merit, and certainly no one connected with the show agreed to pay the taxes on Richard’s prize money.”
As for what he plans to do while fighting his conviction, he says he’s “working on a book that I should have no trouble getting published.”
And when he’s free, he just wants to live a normal life. “You don t understand how much you miss your home life until it’s taken away from you.”
For more on Hatch, including the six months of hell he lived through at the Plymouth, Mass., County Correctional Facility, and how he’s now come to view his villainous TV image, pick up this week’s PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.