Monday, April 07, 2008


Last week a friend of mine asked me to use my experience to help out someone he knew. It seems this guy is going to prison (someplace he's never been). So my friend asked me to write up a little primer of what to do, not do, expect etc. It was an interesting challenge and I think I'll print a revised (less personally directed) version from which anyone facing prison time might benefit. Remember this is just my opinion from my experience. Obviously every situation is somewhat unique. Others may disagree with my opinions. Other may have different suggestions. I would love those folks to send in their comments and suggestions. One big difference from my time and this time is the prevalence of gangs. They were there, but not so organized back in my day.

Also, these suggestions are for someone who wants to do their time and get out with as little hassle as possible. This is not for someone who wants to be the big cheese. This is not for someone who wants to do heavy political work while in prison.

My experience only applies to male prisons. I have not the slightest clue what it's like in a women's prison.

By the way, the above picture is a current google earth aerial view of a place I spent some time doing "research" for this guide.

The stuff below is in no order, just put it down as I thought of it. It's several pages long so it's all I'll post for today at the Oread Daily.


Commissary fund – Keep it low. Even if you have the financial resources, don’t put too much money in it. Doesn’t look good to all the convicts who don’t have much and will want yours. Don’t buy too much stuff at once. Stick to the basics. Snacks, coffee, juice, soda whatever. Just don’t overdo it. You don’t want too much stuff hanging around your area. And do not become known as someone who is giving away his stuff either. It may seem nice, but it isn’t a good thing to get into. Later, when you have friends if they share, you can share.

Cigarettes – Keep some packs on hand whether you smoke or not. They are one of the main currencies in the joint.

Stand Up For Yourself – This is a big one and a tough one. No matter what, don’t weakly give in to anything, even if you might get the shit beat out of you do not just fold. This applies to most everything. If someone steals your stuff, find a way to confront them (within reason). Once you give in, you become fair game for everyone. There is no shortage of people who are so scared that they will submit to just about anything. If you are not one of those people, you’re less likely to have a problem. Also, don’t whine. Don’t piss and moan about your situation. Prison culture is male culture, bad male culture.

Be Cool – Unless you are planning on being in prison forever, the best policy is to just stay out of the way, stay to yourself (at least, until you have some idea of what’s what and who is who). Don’t intervene in disputes. Mind your own business. Don’t tell people your business. Do your time and get out. Don’t make waves.

Race – The reality is if you are white, you are white. It doesn’t matter if on the outside you are big on “diversity.” It doesn’t exist on the inside. This doesn’t mean you have to act like a racist or be nasty to other races then your own, just realize when you go to eat a meal and if the place is divided by races (which it probably will be), eat on your race’s side. It's a drag, but it's reality.

Respect – Respect other cons and their space. Don’t dis anyone unless you are looking for trouble. Respect yourself. You too have rights. If you don’t respect yourself, no one else will either. Keep your clothes clean, your area neat, yourself looking good. It’ll help. Don’t just let yourself go. If you can get something to wear besides prison garb and others do it, I’d suggest you do it.

Gangs – When I was in prison they weren’t a big deal. I would do my best to stay as far away from them as possible, but in truth, I don’t know how it works these days. Gangs are divided by races and ideologies.

Don’t complain to the man – If something happens your recourse is NOT to go ask a guard for help. Do not rat anyone out ever. Do not give the impression that you are doing that. It is best not to initiate communications with guards or other staff. If you look around and other respected cons seem to interact with a prison staff person, then it’s probably okay for you to do so as well. However, again that does not mean if someone steals your stuff, for example, that you should go complain to staff, any staff, about it. You will have to deal with it yourself as best you can.

Visits – If you are lucky and you get a bunch, that is good. However, remember most cons don’t, so don’t play it up. It’s okay to have them, you’ll need them; just don’t “brag” on about them. Also, after visits are tough times because everything sort of starts over again for you. It’ll pass. Wear something clean to a visit. If you have something special to wear, now is the time. If they let you get food from the outside world (we could order from Sonic when I was in prison), I’d do it. You’d be surprised how great lousy fast food can be.

Learn the ropes – Watch what others do and learn the culture. Pick out people you “like” and try to follow their behavior to some extent. It’ll take a little time but it’s worth it.

Friends – Friends in prison are good, but take your time making them. You need to know who is who and what you are getting into with whatever clique you might become a part of. More than likely friends will pick you and not the other way around. It’s good though to have friends to hang with, to talk to, to joke around with, to eat with. Prison can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. Keep in mind you are responsible for your friends. Others will judge you by your friends. Remember that most people in prison are not middle class whites and their culture is not that of middle class suburban America. If you are, this is actually an opportunity to make friends who are not like you and to learn something. Keep that in mind. You can keep these friends forever or not.

Debt – Don’t owe anyone anything. Don’t borrow. Don’t get in debt to someone else. It may seem friendly at first, but it can lead to trouble. When you first enter any institution, you will be approached with 2-4-1 offers. Meaning that the person will front you 1 item (pack of cigs, commissary food, whatever) but you will have to repay them two. This is a classic trap for inexperienced inmates. If you are there long enough and you develop friends, then you’ll know how to relate to them as far as borrowing goes.

Television Room – In my day they had TV rooms (I presume they still do). Don’t change the channel unless you are the ONLY one in the room. Watch what’s there. Don’t tell others to “hush up.”

Movies – Even if you don’t feel like it go to them or whatever other entertainment is offered (unless you hear there is going to be trouble).

Exercise – Do it. I did it mostly in my cell or ran. I didn’t go to the weight room because I was staying out of crowds, so to speak, and the guys in the weight room were huge and I wasn’t. How and where you exercise is up to you, just do it.

Drugs/Contraband – Of course, it’s up to you, but my advice is stay away. Drugs are everywhere and you can get them if you want them, but it’ll only cause you problems.

Gambling - Never, EVER become involved in gambling.

Older Convicts – In general these are the guys who know what’s what and aren’t trying to impress. The younger guys are still trying to prove themselves.

Routines – For me developing routines helped. I would guess that is an individual thing. The flip side was that for me, I’ve never totally gotten rid of those routines. However, routines helped me get through the day.

Shower – Exactly what they say, “Watch your back.” If you shower with the group it is one place you are really exposed all the way around so to speak. If you happen to have a job or something that allows you shower alone, do it. Otherwise, get in, do your business, get out. It isn't as dangerous in the shower as some make it out to be. Just don't invite trouble. However, stay groomed. It’s a good way to respect yourself and demonstrate to yourself that you are still you.

Strip Searches – Get use to it. Just do it. No big deal. I’d rather be the guy getting searched then the guy doing the searches.

Job – It may seem lying around all day would be a good idea, but it gets old and time goes slow. Most any job is better than that. Anyway, they may ask you to select from several jobs. I did that and they gave me the one I didn’t choose. It didn't really make any difference. I had several different jobs. I actually enjoyed my job in the power house.

Rules – I’m presuming you just want to do your time and get out. In that case try to follow the rules. It isn’t possible to follow all of them, but do what you can. Don’t freak out if you get in trouble for something. It happens. Always remember you are unfortunately under the control of the prison authorities. They’ll do what they want.

Radio/TV – In my day you could buy a radio in the commissary. It was the best thing I did. I actually enjoyed listening to ball games and the like. Now days in some places you can have tvs etc. It’s up to you. I suppose I’d see what others have. You don’t want a bunch more than other convicts just because you have more financial resources.

Racism/Sexism – Get used to it. People don’t talk like you may be used to. The N word will be used widely. People will discuss what they’d like to do to women etc. You don’t have to play that game, but you also don’t have to correct anyone or try to make them “politically correct.” Again, you don’t have to become a racist to make it. Just try to ignore it and move on. Just be aware that racism and sexism and homophobia are much more overt inside then outside.

Be A Stand Up Guy – I know I’ve harped on this, but it’s important. Don’t promise anything you can’t keep. Don’t lie if possible. Again, respect yourself. Be trustworthy. If you have friends, mean it. Don’t fake it.

One Day At A Time – It’ll seem like your MR is never going to come. It will. When it’s over it will seem like it all didn’t last that long (although it’ll be with you for the rest of your life). Try not to focus on the distant future, but always remember it will come.

Phone – Varies from place to place on what phone time you get and how you use it. Anyway, use it. It is something to look forward to (like visits) and it is something that keeps you in touch with the outside and helps keep you sane. You have lots of supporters it sounds like. You are lucky. Never mess with someone else’s phone time or visiting time. It is important to them just as it is to you.

Diet – If you have some special diet (say you are a vegetarian), try your best to follow it. Most prison food is starchy. I confess I actually liked prison food (call me sick). I liked the mashed potatoes and the bread and the oatmeal etc. However, I can tell you stories about finding metal fibers in my cookies etc. You can usually eat as much as you like so be careful not to get fat. Again, exercise. If your prison happens to have a farm, you may actually get fresh vegetables or milk…who knows.

Homies – It’s odd but if there is someone there from your home town, you’ll be glad. It’s good to have something in common with someone. If you happen to know someone from before now is the time to renew that friendship. Share newspapers etc. On the other hand, just because someone is from your home town doesn’t mean they are cool to know. You’ll know.

Read – If you like to read, now is the time. You’ll have lots of time to read. You can get most books as long as the prison doesn’t censor it and they don’t censor all that much really. The prison library is a good place to hang from time to time. It will have a collection of all the books you never wanted to read. But again you can get stuff from outside. You can also get newspaper subscriptions. Do it. Get a couple. They’ll be late, but so what. Get a local paper and some other paper you like. After you’ve read pass it on to someone who’d like to read it. Or leave it in some common area. It’ll be appreciated. The small things are.

Convicts – It is okay to refer to you and others as convicts. That’s what you are and it isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Take possession of the word (unless this has changed…pay attention, you’ll know). Also, remember that outside of a few total crazies most of your fellow convicts are just people who got caught. Just like you they have lives. Beware though of those bad guys. Try to stay out of their way. Never tell another prisoner what to do or give anyone orders. Don’t tell someone in the library or the TV room to quiet down. Don’t stare at people.

Guards – Guards are not your friends. For the most part if you don’t bother them though they won’t bother you. Don’t give them a reason to single you out or they can make life hell. Also, remember that they would like most to get through the day with no problems. Also remember that they are just as crooked (if not more so) then the convicts. They are in it for themselves. Who becomes a prison guard? Still, there are some guards or other staff who are actually human. Not too many, but some. If you happen to have one in your area, all the better. But prison staff is not there to help you. They aren’t interested in you. Also, there are guards who are just assholes. Watch out for them. Some of them seem to get pleasure out of messing with people.

High School - Keep in mind that like high school there are cliques and just like high school some guards, like some teachers, have favorites and guys they don’t like. Just like high school there are staff (guards, counselors whatever) who want to act like one of the guys. They aren’t. They go home at night.

Guilty As Charged – Everyone and I mean everyone will assume you are guilty. If you are, you are. If you aren’t, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean you have to admit anything (and there generally is no reason to do so), but it is a given.

Crimes – If you don’t have to discuss why you are there don’t. If you do, don’t lie about it. Some crimes give you status. Mine did. Most people probably won’t even understand what you are in for. Some crimes are real no nos. No one likes child molesters, for example. The same crimes you find most heinous, your fellow cons likely will as well. Keep in mind that most crimes are committed for a reason. Don’t judge.

Education – If there happens to be something you always wanted to study and the opportunity presents itself, now is a good time. Most of your fellow cons may not have near the educational opportunities you’ve had. As time goes on and you get to know people, they may come to you for help with writing letters or whatever. Be nice. Help em out. But do not patronize. Just because you may be more educated, doesn't make you better than anyone else.

Religion – Personally, I’d say don’t flaunt it. However, lots of people go to church groups and the like. If that is your thing fine. If it isn’t fine. Don’t hassle someone over their beliefs. Same with politics. No big reason to get into it.

Making Prison Better – If you are selfless and want to organize the place that is your business, but your chances of improving things are pretty damn slim and your chance of getting yourself in big trouble are pretty damn great. Anyway, unless you become someone whom everyone respects, you can’t accomplish much. I think today though it’s mostly gangs, but I don’t know.

Cops – Don’t talk to them. Don’t be seen talking to them. If you are you’d better have a good explanation. Being a rat is the worst possible thing to be in prison. It’s always possible the cops may come to talk to you about something. Your options are limited, but don’t talk to them if you can help it. If you must, keep it brief and hope you have friends who can explain your situation to others. Never snitch. Never ever snitch. Never ever ever snitch.

Goody Two Shoes – Don’t be one. Doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk or a bad guy, just don’t act like a choir boy.

Punk – Do not become someone’s punk. There is nothing worse. Fight if you have to. Don’t become someone’s gopher because you’ll only have to do more and more for the person. If something awful happens maybe you can get into protective custody or transfer. Bad things are always possible. Probably not as pronounced as the outside world believes, but it is prison after all. The strong survive, the weak don’t. Be as strong as you can. Don’t become involved with punks.

Fear - Even though you will feel it at some point, try not to show fear. Convicts smell fear. Your first day will probably be the scariest as you will have no idea what’s what. People will yell at you. Ignore them. Someone will probably try to take advantage of you. Just be cool. You are the new kid on the block and you are different (you’ve never been inside before). You’ll be a curiosity. Some may want to put you down to show you are no better than anyone else.

Listen – Listen to people when they talk to you. Their stories are important to them. Don’t blow them off. Also, the prison grapevine will be your best and worse source of information. Convicts run the place and they know what is happening. On the other hands, in a closed society rumors will run rampant. You’ll learn. Pay attention. If you hear something bad is going to happen, take it seriously, stay out of the way.

Humor – Humor is good. Just make sure people get it. Funny things and stories actually occur in prison, believe it or not.

Trouble – If there is trouble, a riot, a big fight, whatever, go back to your crib if possible. Best to just stay out of the way. This, of course, does not apply to a situation like Attica (which if you are political you will understand).

Volunteer – Like in the army (which by the way is one way to think of your time) don’t volunteer (unless it is something you really want to do for some reason). No one likes a suck up though. Keep that in mind.

Busy – Stay as busy as you can doing something.

Noise – Prisons are noisy. It is the first thing you will notice. All that steel etc. People yell, people scream, people snore, etc. etc. You’ll get used to it.

Be Aware – Stay aware. Stay alert. Take note of what is going on around you. I don’t mean you have to be on a constant state of tension. Just be aware of where you are.

Short Timer – As your release approaches, time will slow down. Not much you can do about. Don’t talk about getting out all the time though (or at all if you can help it). Others may have a long way to go and don’t want to hear about how happy you are to be getting out. Some jerk may even get off getting you in trouble, so again, don’t talk about your upcoming release. When the day comes, say good bye to your friends, give away your stuff. Take whatever the prison is giving you even if (as in my case) it is an ugly green leisure suit. You’ve earned it.

Hooray – You will get out and return to life. You’ll have a million stories to tell. You’ll be stronger for the experience (although you may have adopted some neurotic behavior to cope with prison life that isn’t so great in the free world – I did). You’ll actually learn a lot that you would never have learned otherwise. Not saying I’d sign up for the experience, but you might as well get something out of it. Never act like you never had it. Don’t bury the experiences. If there were awful ones then get some help. Otherwise move on with your life and don’t go back.

Parole – Don’t violate your parole. Most parole officers will be glad to have a guy like you on their caseload. Most parole officers are lazy and would just as soon they don’t have to do anything. Most parole officers get off on their power. Oh well. Some parole officers can actually be nice. Like guards they are the exception, but if you get one, lucky you.

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