There are a lot of TV shows about prison. But are they actually accurate depictions of what it’s like?
It turns out that for a lot of things, they’re not! Ex-convicts were asked how prison is different from movies and TV, and here’s what they said.
Check out the source at the end to read more.
What I found really amusing was that the biggest, baddest dude on my cell block ran a D&D game twice a week.
I know someone that was in women’s prison. There was no salon, haircuts were performed using nail clippers. She also said that there was so much drama that it was like being in high school again, but worse.
Without doubt, you’ll be constipated first 3-5 days. And nobody cares if you drop the soap. There is a lot of theft and people usually get away with it because you can’t stay awake 24/7. Beating up the biggest guy there is just childish, I got in 1 fight and it was broken up before anything happened. Nobody claims to be innocent. For me, prison was just like boarding school without the classes.
A friend of mine went to prison and he told me about his experience.
One thing he mentioned was the noise. After he got out, he didn’t really listen to music, and always wanted to just chill. We played a lot of chess, and sat quietly for the first few weeks. He said that there was so much yelling and nonsense in jail and you don’t really get to escape that.
When he got out, he told me repeatedly that he would do anything to not go back, and that if he ever went back, he would likely kill himself. Unfortunately he has FASD, and started doing drugs again, got caught DUI, with drugs intended to sell. He’s back there now, and I have no idea how to get in touch with him. It’s been a few years now and frankly I’m scared to know.
I spent 3 years in the federal prison system in the United States as a 20-years old (white) college-educated female with no prior history with law enforcement.
The thing that affected me most deeply was what I learned about people. While many of the inmates were people society had basically dismissed as human garbage, I would say 90% were good people who were placed in poor circumstances and made poor choices. I believe in personal responsibility, however I gained a great deal of compassion for the women I ended up knowing who had been thrown away for years, their kids growing up without them, because they got involved with drugs or a bad boyfriend. Most of them had experienced a lot of trauma in their lives and just didn’t have the resources to cope in a more pro-social way.
The worst people in many cases where the guards. Most were just people trying to do their jobs, but for many an environment of complete power with limited (if any) oversight, brought out some seriously sadistic behaviour. The actions I saw and experienced from correctional staff will stay with me forever.
Imagine a situation where you can be strip-searched because the officer feels like it. They make you spread your bum cheeks and squat for them. I saw them get bored and harass a mentally challenged woman until she reacted so that they could strip her, pepper spray her, and beat her… because they were bored. I could go on for a while.
But in general prison is a microcosm of the world, and I saw the best and worst of human nature in my time there. It’s nothing like people think.
Media gets a lot of procedural aspects of it right, but the atmosphere is decidedly less tense than Hollywood would have you believe. On Christmas morning one year I recall casually walking in the prison yard drinking a mocha and smoking a black & mild cigar, for example, conducting myself largely as I would at any holiday resort with medium security. I saw a dude stabbed to death over a lengthy phone call, but I also saw a bona fide prison wedding that was surreal beyond anything I’ve seen on film.
Mostly though, it’s boring as heck and a complete waste of time, money, and human potential. That part of it tends not to jump off the screen, so it’s often omitted in artistic works.
Two unusual things that are more common in real life than on screen:
Prison “burritos”. A lot of guys like to make weird junk food loaves from various junk food sorta mashed all together and call it a burrito. Apparently this is a nationwide thing. Prison haggis would be a more accurate term for it.
Spades. I have never played or seen anyone playing spades outside of jail. If I did I’d probably assume they’ve been to jail, because the card game is big in jails.
Prison was far less scary than everyone tells you. The worst part is the petty crap you have to put up with. It’s juvenile arguments and things that would never matter on the outside that are a big deal inside. The best example I have is I almost got into a fist fight over a dryer. The woman kept opening it to see if my clothes were dry. They weren’t and it was taking longer because she kept opening it. It’s that kind of crap that gets old.
The weirdest thing to me was that almost all of the women had prison moms. It was an older woman that would look out for their “daughter”. My bunk mate was 50 and had a “mom” that was 65. I was 19 and didn’t have one, which was mind blowing for some of the other women. I didn’t need anyone while I was there. I was on my own and that’s how it stayed. I had a few “friends” but for the most part I kept to myself.
I spent 6 months in a UK prison. I learned French and computer programming, got a job in the prison canteen, and smoked marijuana every single day… none of it mine, there was so much available.
Your outside chess game is stunningly weak compared to an inmate’s chess game.
Guys smarting off to the guards sometimes got taken to the “Barber Shop” (hint it wasn’t were people got hair cuts) and would return a half hour later bruised and bloodied. On at least one occasion he saw someone who hadn’t done anything other than be too tall and confident looking grab the attention of a guard who ordered him on the ground and shouted for him to “stop resisting”. The dude spread eagle and said ‘I’m not resisting’ but it was to late, he was tazed and dragged out and returned a while later with the crap beat out if him.
Guys taken to the Barber Shop who got a good swing at one of the officers would get a court date for an assault charge and get 6 months added to their sentence.
I was in a minimum restricted prison and it was not bad at all. It was two levels above the lowest security, nothing I imagine like the maximum. I mean we had our own rooms with doors we had keys too, private showers and toilets, could order t.vs etc. there were fights occasionally but they weren’t bad. Imagine a dorm with a lot of older, mostly undesirable, mostly uneducated men with big egos and a curfew.
Here in Brazil we are currently experiencing a big crisis in the prison system. There are riots happening in prisons across the country every day. Rival groups inside the prisons have declared war against each other and there’s been hundreds of deaths already, mostly by decapitation. Lots of prisoners have escaped as well. It’s been hell. The prison system in Brazil is really screwed up. All prisons are hugely overcrowded. The cells are in the worst condition possible. People are just thrown there like garbage.
Drugs are regularly smuggled in during visits or just thrown over the fence of minimum security “camps” since these are the most lax points of security. Contrary to the movies (at least from my experience), very little contraband (anything that’s restricted from inmate possession) is shoved up the inmates butt to get past the guards. MOST stuff (probably 80-90%) gets by through either poor security measures or a combination of being compromised/sympathetic/indifferent. Its true that “everyone has a price” (for the most part).
There are many “long timers” who have had babies by officers. In fact, a lot of women have babies in prison. They’re taken to the hospital for the birth, spend a few minutes with the baby, and sent back to prison. We had no salon, per se, but it was required our hair be cut above our collars at all times. We were not allowed scissors (for obvious reasons, this was a maximum security facility). Most haircuts were done with contraband scissors (which would get you a disciplinary if caught), or risk a disciplinary for not having a hair cut.
The culture shock was unbelievable to me. I was in for nonviolent drug charges (possession and distribution). The first dorm I was placed in out of receiving (the place you spend your first few weeks being medically and mentally evaluated) was horrifying. The people to my left, right, and my bunkmate were all in for varying degrees of murder, one for killing her newborn.
There is no air conditioning, so during the summer the metal buildings will be over 115 indoors. Until the federal mandate, inmates were required to be in full uniform, with no access to ice or cold water, limited access to fans to at least stir the heat, and we were only allowed to be outside the dorms during specific times. Ultimately, it was a horrible experience. 0/10 would not recommend.
The biggest myth? Prisons aren’t chaotic and the prisoners don’t run the show. When prisoners say that they can cause a lock-down to plan attacks, what do you think we think is going on? Why do you then have your cell tossed? Because we can see you! We’re not stupid. Causing an alarm is the easiest way to have people, especially from rival gangs, turn on you and give us information. They don’t want to be locked-down. They want out.
Everyone loses themselves in something be it exercise, reading, whatever to attempt to stay sane. I was able to live well coming from a good background. In the feds you can spend $360/month at commissary for food and toiletries. I alway spent that and then some on other inmates accounts (I helped out guys who had little).
I was in a county jail in southeastern Indiana, where people would have to spend anywhere from 7-30 days in the drunk tank with no commissary or anything, just sitting in a room with way too many people in it 24 hours a day for days on end, there were so many people in there that many times people did have to sleep beneath the toilet. The first time I was there, i spent 12 days in the drunk tank and when they finally took me to general population I was moved into a 2 man cell that already had 2 people in it, and had to sleep on the floor under a desk for a couple days until a spot opened up.
One thing tv failed to capture is how gross jail is. The smell of the place and some of the people there is something I’ve never experienced anywhere else. A high school locker room’s dirty laundry basket smells better after a football game than a jail. I grew up without a lot of money and ate some gross stuff, but the food in jail is inedible garbage. They give you a warm baloney sandwich and a bag of tang-type liquid, that’s a typical meal. Just seeing it on TV isn’t giving you the full picture of being immersed in the filth.
4 years in med security in NY.
It was a lot more boring. Very little excitement. Very little violence. Lots of masturbating. Lots of reading. Noisy, and full of morons, both the people running it and the people living it. No sex that I saw. Lots of theft and posturing.
I spent 1.5 years in a federal prison for women (medium security) in Florida.
There were a lot of crappy things, I’m not gonna lie. But we also had popcorn and cotton candy on holidays, chicken wings and soda for the super bowl, and in the summer we had a Battle of the (Housing) Units contest that went three months, where we competed on teams doing sports, trivia, and other games, as well as a Biggest Loser-style contest.
There were some truly dark moments but honestly I had a grand time, doing yoga and suntanning with terrorists and murderers (of which I knew several).
We didn’t get cells just a big room with bunk beds and over crowded, I spent my 1st 3 weeks sleeping under somebody’s bed. People are kind and genuinely interested in listening to you because they have not in else better to do and are depressed. Yeah, everybody is depressed.
I’m a prison officer in a UK prison. Thing that surprised me was that the prisoners get a penguin (the chocolate, not animal) every day.
My brother is a very creative and artistically talented guy who ended up going to prison for 4 years. The entire time he was there he tried different things to scratch that creative itch and keep stimulated. He spent a lot of time writing, he made pretty prolific letters and sent them out to all of his relatives. He would also draw quite a bit, but what struck me as the most curious was that he would fill notebooks and notebooks full of website design and ideas.
He also did a bit of music writing and guitar playing. The problem with that where he was serving time was that there was only one room available to the whole facility and you had to sign up to use it. Naturally in an overcrowded prison it was tough to get a turn.
For my brother, while he wasted years of his life in prison, I like to think that his experience helped him not to waste any of his remaining time.
Comments may have been edited for the sake of clarity.