Many of the worst aspects of prison are not things people who haven’t experienced it can possibly imagine. Here are stories of some of the more shocking realities of serving time in a prison.
I have never been to prison, but I’ve done a fair amount of prison activism. What surprises me is how much the system will do to prevent an inmate or offender from doing things that would actually help them keep up their ties with loved ones in order to foster a support system upon release. The phone systems are robbery. In order to make a call I believe the average cost to either the inmate or the person accepting the call is approximately $1.15 a minute.
According to prison written goals they say that helping people maintain family connections is vital, however they make the process of visiting so burdensome that it becomes a really difficult thing even for those who want to visit every opportunity. They give no support in helping a prisoner look for work, and often if he’s involved in networking, or trying to maintain connection with the job they were at before they were convicted, not only do they get in the way of it, but will often punish an inmate for doing so under the terms of no business allowed to be conducted while in prison. Even if the inmate can clearly prove that they are not doing anything for work while in prison , but simply trying to maintain relationships or network with people who can help them.
That parole can be a furtherance of the vindictive nature of the prison. I know a man who was doing literally everything that was asked for him, and because he was succeeding outside of prison, the PO got pissed off that he wasn’t giving her a reason to violate him and send him back, so she became extra watchful and required much more of him basically trying to make it impossible for him to do everything she asked so she could violate him.
There is literally no one in the local state or federal government who is interested in these types of abuses, nor trying to do anything about them. Additional persecution of prisoners past having served their time, and in the effort of them trying to comply with the terms if their parole is just a way of life, and apparently you have to hope you get a PO who’s more interested in violating someone else rather than you. I know parolees who are forced to have sex with their POs, pay their POs, assist their POs in the commission of crimes just to prevent being violated.
2. A land of many gifts
One aspect is the amazing amount of talent in prison. There are many people here not just talented, but very intelligent. I know for example, one individual who has been incarcerated since the late 60s, an African American man. He started his time in Illinois, and then was extradited to California. He should be on the outside because he would easily fit in on ‘Washington This Week’ or ‘Nightly Business Report’ on PBS. He could outshine those renowned political and international policy experts with ease, and he’s very well read! There are multi instrumentalists (including myself) who can even break down complex jazz arrangements.
You have amazing painters and artists, poets extraordinaire, and proficient writers. San Quentin is unique because of the many programs here, inmates can cultivate these talents. There are electronics experts, computer experts, and masters of law, even doctors. Prison contains all kinds of people; it’s not all stereotyped tattooed convicts and gangbangers. As a matter of fact, many of these talented people are those ‘convicts’ and ‘gangbangers.’ Never judge a book by its cover. Especially in prison.
3. Outta sight, outta mind
One aspect of incarceration that couldn’t be guessed is the degree to which our physical absence disrupts our interpersonal relationships. Prior to entering the prison system, I had a robust social network. I knew a lot of people and I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends, going to parties and getting involved in activities that most young people experience. At the time, I believed my relationships were stable and that somehow we’d always be connected. I thought I had a lot of real friends and people I could count on no matter what, but today I know differently. Remember the phrase, ‘Outta sight, outta mind?’ It alludes to the idea that once visual/physical contact is broken, the relationship itself is broken. This is precisely what many of us in prison experience during our incarceration.
Of course, this outta sight, outta mind dynamic is not unique to prison but there’s something about experiencing it while incarcerated that makes its impact so much more dramatic. In my case, it felt that as my relationships deteriorated, so did my capacity to have meaning in the outside world. I felt as though my friendships helped me maintain a sense of relevancy in life, and as a result I found myself trying desperately to hold onto friends and things we had in common. However, as my sentence progressed so did the distance between the friends I once cherished and me. Slowly but surely my physical absence whittled away at my relationships until my once vibrant social network was reduced to me, myself, and I.
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For years, I put on a front like I wasn’t affected by what was happening, but inside I agonized over the loss of my friends. I ended up feeling disconnected, like I no longer mattered to anyone in the outside world. Today, after 18 years in prison, I have no contact with any of the people I called friends when I began my incarceration; they’ve all moved on with their lives and so have I. The only relationships I have strong enough to endure the ‘outta sight, outta mind’ dynamic are the relationships with my family. For this I am truly grateful because I don’t know where I’d be without the unconditional love and support of my family.
I think the toughest part of all is that I have a life sentence and I don’t know if/when I’ll ever have the opportunity to develop a friendship, romance, or any other meaningful relationship outside of prison again. Pretty much everyone I know or could come close to knowing is in prison. Couple this with all the uncertainty of prison life and the mistrust associated with prison culture, I’ve found it virtually impossible to really get to know anyone in here well enough to call them a ‘friend.’ For me, true friendship in prison has been a fleeting illusion to be pursued but yet to be attained. Perhaps one day that will change but as it stands, I guess you could say I’m a loner just doing my best, where I am, with what I have despite being ‘outta sight, and outta mind.
4. Three points about prison
Never been to prison, but I have a lot of family and friends who have done or are doing time. I also know several prison guards and one warden. The common stories I hear that are different than what most people think are:
1) The Value of Junk Food: Prison food is pretty crappy. It’s bad everyday. It’s basically tasteless slop made to keep inmates alive. Because of that, prisoners love to get their hands on the food from the commissary (it’s basically a mini-mart in the prison). With an extreme markup, the commissary sells food to inmates that most of us take for granted; Cup O Noodles, candy bars, cereal, Cheetos, Hostess pastries, trail mix, Oreo cookies, plain saltine crackers with peanut butter, etc. You can’t imagine the high demand for treats in prison. They go nuts for simple junk food. Movies and television often depict drugs and cigarettes as the currency of prisons, and there is truth to that. But not everyone smokes and very few do drugs. Everyone likes the occasional sweets. You can make friends with a carton of Newports, but you’d be surprised at how many people will want to be your friend if you have a bag of chocolate chip cookies or Kool-Aid.
2) The Commissary Is A Bunch of Crooks: Every month my family gets a letter from my cousin asking to wire him money so he can get food and basic toiletries from the commissary. If I went to the local supermarket and bought these items for myself, it would cost me at most $30. Purchasing these items in prison costs well over $100. Everything costs several times more than normal price. Some prisoners are able to work, but they get paid nickels and dimes, so they rarely earn enough money to buy items from the commissary. Most prisoners rely on friends and family on the outside to send them money for basic supplies, and it adds up quickly. It’s pretty close to robbery.
3) Celebrity Treatment: There’s a slight misconception that a celebrity who goes to prison will get stuck in general population and get their butt kicked by violent inmates. That’s not quite true. The last thing any warden wants is for a famous actor to get shanked by someone who didn’t like their last movie. Truth is, most high profile people are isolated and looked after. But most celebrities matriculate just fine because they quickly make friends. My former roommate worked at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles. They have housed several celebs, including rapper The Game when he was incarcerated for felony weapons possession. My roommie told me about how EVERYONE tried to meet him, ask him for an autograph and be his buddy. There were also a lot of people – inmates and prison guards – who passed him their mix tapes in hopes he would discover their rapping talents. It was like the final scene of the movie Hustle & Flow, but it was like that all the time.
5. Unexpected good and unexpected bad.
People looking out for you, checking on you. Everyone from your county caring about you. The danger of not paying back debts. The quality of the psychiatrists is great, but they aren’t able to prescribe a lot of helpful medications. The fact that every religion is recognized. How certain correctional officers are controlled by inmates that have lived there longer than they have worked there. How people become ‘gay for the stay’ (they aren’t gay at home but get to prison then shave their heads and put their hands down their pants like they have a penis). That it’s really hard to get to see a doctor unless you’re having chest pains. How money goes to global tel link and other companies that charge to put funds on to an inmate’s books. If they’re going to charge people to put money on someone’s books, why is that money going to a private company and not the state?
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Staying up all night tattooing, singing, washing clothes, reading, talking, drawing with your roommate. Good times, good stories, and a lot of laughter. The fear of getting put into a room with a lifer who has done 20 years already. Being disappointed when you heard that we’d have mashed potatoes for dinner and you don’t. Seeing people coming down from very hard drugs. The way they smell, act, and talk. How some were demented. Having to wear shackles, feeling steel dig into your wrists and ankles for ten hours.
How a commercial with a good song makes you happy. Hearing Jerry Springer everyday and wondering if the people watching it can see how fake it is. Showering in a moldy shower and wondering why they don’t care. Putting shampoo bottles together to make a sink stopper. Washing clothes in the sink. Talking to other inmates through doors. The hole at night, and singing Hotel California at the top of your lungs. Listening to the other girls singing, and how some of them sing amazingly. Seeing talent go to waste. People taking advantage of your kindness and then making it look like you’re in the wrong.
6. Topsy Turvy
One thing that amazed me is the upside down values of both inmates and staff. For example, a nearby inmate was in his cell when another inmate entered and attacked him. When guards noticed that he had been in a fight they took him to the hole for fighting, gave him a write-up that resulted in loss of earned time and privileges. That is the equivalent of me being thrown in jail because someone broke into my house and attacked me and I punched him.
Another example of upside down values is how stealing is viewed by convicts. Stealing from the facility is fine with everyone. Stealing from another inmate is viewed as one of the lowest things someone can do, but with one notable exception: if you beat the person up and take their stuff, that is just fine because you fought for it. Personally, I’d rather they come in and steal when I’m not there rather than beat me down for it, but the convict mentality seems absolutely backwards in that regard.
7. What’re you doing with all that space?
All your possessions can fit under half your bed even if you have been in prison 15 years. Today when I see a big house I can’t understand why people need it, what they put in it, how they can keep it clean and how they can find their stuff. I was in a federal prison for non-Americans so we didn’t have much stuff to do. I had a job (because, and I say it seriously, slavery has been abolished in the USA except for people convicted of a crime) but it was only one hour a week.
Since there wasn’t much work and we got only paid 12 cents/hour anyway some people have their own business. It’s not allowed in prison but people do it anyway. You have the guy you pay to do your laundry, another who sells junk food he makes himself, the shoe repairman, electronic technician, etc. People are very resourceful, it’s amazing all they can do with almost nothing (you can make really strong thread with a garbage bag). Also, a new rule in the federal system prevent from installing gym equipment that train the upper part of your body (they still have it in old prisons). Where I was they removed the shower curtain poles so inmates couldn’t do pull-ups.
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People make weights with garbage bags filled with water (but don’t get caught!). But prison is not the worst. Diesel Therapy is, and it’s so bad that people will plead guilty to stop it (You are in a small van where you can’t sit straight for 10 hours, you can’t go to the bathroom, other guys are claustrophobic and yell each time it gets dark or the van stops, some inmates are sick or pee in their pants, you don’t know where you’re going…). When you see new people coming in prison, you know immediately if they self-surrendered (they were free on parole and the judge just tells them when and where to go in prison) because they are still full of hope and alive. Some had never wore handcuff in their life. Diesel therapy will break your soul. And contrary to popular belief most inmates claim they are guilty.
11. Be aware
There are lots of things about prison that drive me crazy. Here is one of them: I hate the fact that prisoners must always be aware of what they say, how they say it, who they say what to, and who is around observing the conversation unfold or develop. I swear at times I feel like I’ve been neutered and emasculated vocally.
Before I was incarcerated, I was a 17 year old ladies’ man, or so I’ve been told. One thing about me-I’ve never been bashful around women. Talking and sharing thoughts with women came naturally for me. Not so much anymore. It’s NOT because the desire or the words aren’t there; it’s because I don’t want to ruin my chance of getting out of here. There have been times during my incarceration when I wanted to lose myself in conversations with women but wouldn’t allow myself to due to fear of reprisal. Conversing with females inside of prison (volunteers and employees) can be a very risky ordeal for a number of reasons. One: it’s common for a guard to jump to conclusions about what they see…or think they see. Either way, the prisoner loses.
Secondly, there’s the jealousy issue amongst prisoners (A.K.A. HATERS). For instance, a prisoner may have a crush (yes, grown men still get crushes) on a particular female, and when this prisoner sees that female talking to another prisoner, the guy that likes the girl gets pissed off at the other guy. The whole thing is crazy. It’s like a bad episode of 90210 stuck in the Twilight Zone. Everyday conversation, when it involves a female, becomes an obstacle course to navigate through. When I take a step back and think about it, men outside of prison may feel the exact same way! Here’s a piece of advice for all the fellas out there: NEVER take for granted your ability to communicate with a woman. Whether you realize it or not, your, our voices need to be heard. Be good to one another out there.
12. Just as American as them
The one thing that I tell people that usually surprises them is that I was far more worried about my personal safety from the guards than other convicts. The guards literally have a license to kill. Really who are they going to believe, a guard or a person already convicted of doing something bad?
I’m still bitter over that. I took a life so I did my time ( 10 years) no complaint about that. As they say, if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime. But to have those uneducated cowards under the color of the law put their hands on you all the while wearing the little tough guy uniform and the United States flag on their arm ( and what was up with that? This wasn’t the Olympics it was a state prison. I was just as American as them) was a hard pill to swallow and a shame on this country. A country where we spend more on incarceration than education.
13. Idle hands, idle minds.
There are many aspects about imprisonment that those who have never been incarcerated would even realize. The prison system in the United States, whether it is at the county level, or the state level, or amazingly enough at the federal level is not about rehabilitation: It is about punishment, plain and simple. This lack of rehabilitation and emphasis on punishment could be the reason for more than half of state prisoners ending up returning to prison within five years of their release, according to the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
Because the inmates have idle hands and idle minds, they have to think of creative ways to entertain themselves. It is hard to be creative with limited resources such as a prison, so they rely on the tried and true: conversation. The older inmates are tutoring the younger inmates on how to be a better criminal, that is, how to be more successful when committing crimes. But it isn’t just how to commit crimes that they talk about, but: -Where to get a gun if they come out with a felony. -People who can help them on the outside. -Where to buy fake documents. -And how to spot an undercover cop.
The experienced inmates are taking their experience and passing it along to the younger ones in hopes that they do not get caught if they have to commit more crimes for survival when they are released.
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Bureau of Justice Statistics studies have found high rates of recidivism among released prisoners. One study tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005. The researchers found that: Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested. Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested. Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.
Property offenders were the most likely to be rearrested, with 82.1 percent of released property offenders arrested for a new crime compared with 76.9 percent of drug offenders, 73.6 percent of public order offenders and 71.3 percent of violent offenders. According to these statistics, the experienced inmates are doing a bad job of teaching the younger inmates the fine art of crime. I worked at the main prison in Georgia where the prisoners where placed into the system (GDCP).
This is the place where the new inmates would start their sentence at, I saw a lot of older inmates taking in the younger ones. The correctional officers had a name for the GDCP because this bond was so prevalent: Crime University.
14. The draft
When you go on the draft (are moved to another prison). Even when the facility you’re moving to may only be a couple hours away, you will spend 5 – 12 hours a day handcuffed, shackled, and chained to another convict. This could go on for anywhere from a day to multiple weeks, bouncing from jail to jail until you reach your new facility. During this time you will not be permitted to contact family, have property, or shower regularly. Transit is one of the worst parts of New York states department of corrections. It’s like going to the box without getting in trouble first.
16. Three types of guards
A relative told me a few interesting things from his prison experience: There are three types of guards: the mean, sadistic ones; the dedicated, hardworking ones; and the ones who want the paycheck and retirement with a minimum of trouble. Of course, the vast majority fall in the third category. Many of the latter enlisted in the military straight out of high school. Things seemed to go well so they reenlisted. Then they realized there would not be a second reenlistment and subsequently no retirement.
That’s when the Bureau of Prisons came knocking with an offer they couldn’t refuse. So like the prisoners they really don’t want to be there; they just arrived by a different route. There’s also the idea that the one thing you never ask a prisoner about is what they are in for. But that was before the advent of the Internet. Now they all know each others’ business. My relative met a new prisoner and they really hit it off. Then in the middle of an animated conversation he was pulled aside and told the new guy was in for kidnapping a girl and imprisoning her in a basement for a long time. That was the end of that. He could not have withstood the peer pressure of continuing the friendship.
My relative told me all this after he was released. He had discovered a successful way to smuggle contraband within the prison. I asked him what it was but he refused to tell me because I would inevitably yack, eventually the guards would find out and the loophole would be closed. I guess that is what today passes for ‘honor among thieves.’
17. Like inventors
My wife worked in the L.A. County Jails for four years. I asked her this question and she said ‘The first thing I saw that surprised me was how the inmates were like inventors. The way they could make mascara from coffee grounds and water paints from skittles and delicious tamales from Doritos and Spam. It was incredible. They might have not had whatever they wanted but they figured out how to get it in the most ingenious ways. The other thing that surprised me was the amount of volunteers and donations that were available for the inmates. I worked in a specific module that everyday was filled with activities from therapy to basic GED classes to dance, yoga, and computer classes. They even had free time with the Xbox and Wii. An inmate could pass his/her time in activities and getting their GED. I had inmates who could update their Facebook daily.
18. Mental Strength
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine the mental strength needed in prison, if you ever plan on making it out. Before I went to prison, I would have never ever imagined that life on the ‘other side of the fence’ was so complicated. So diverse. So perplexing. There is a conundrum that exists. A Good/Evil ‘pendulum’ you would rarely see in the outside world. Something that you are not supposed to experience as a human being, at least in my opinion. It is one that you simply can’t explain to an individual who hasn’t been in that predicament.
No amount of ‘consulting’ can have you ‘game ready’ for the life altering circumstances that you can possibly face. All one can do is teach you the do’s and don’ts. When I was sent to Lorton, one of the worst facilities in America, within the first 24 hours, because of the side of town people assumed I was from, and because I was considered ‘White Collar’ and ‘Brainy,’ I had made it to someone’s hit-list, was thrust into ‘prison economics,’ and become a ‘hot’ commodity. All from a game of basketball, a missed dunk, and a game of chess. Go figure.
There is a mentality that must be adopted before one enters into the realm of Corporate America, there is totally another one that must be adopted when you enter the world of the incarcerated. The worlds are like oil and water. They simply don’t mix. There is a mentality for survival that must be generated. But nothing, and I do mean nothing, can prepare a human for his freedom to be taken. At that point, it is neither about guilt or innocence. Justice or travesty. Education, or Non educated. Ivy League or State College. It is about determination. Mental determination. And those who can achieve it, win. You must cultivate and grow in ways that challenge the human body and mind. Whether you are facing 30 days, or 30 years.