How To Survive in Prison & Jail
From a former inmate, criminal attorney and the creator of PrisonPath
Every culture has its rules. If you visit another country and violate what is considered appropriate behavior, you may at best, be ignored or, in the worst case scenario, subjected to scorn, ridicule, or violence. Being incarcerated is no different; prison is a strange country where the slightest infraction of the local culture can result in violence. The wise traveler always plans ahead, seeking to understand the culture of his destination before departing.
When you enter jail or prison, it is a new world not unlike a treacherous and dangerous jungle; knowledge of this strange world can help you to survive your stay. The following recommendations are not guaranteed to ensure safety, but if followed, they will certainly improve one’s odds of making it out of this cruel environment.
The following rules are based upon what I learned during 15 months of incarceration in the Maryland state correctional system. It is based upon my personal experiences and also what I was taught by inmates who had spent a considerable part of their lives in various state and federal prisons.
1. DO NOT SNITCH
When, you were in school, no one liked the kid who told on the other kids. In prison, the snitch is likewise looked upon with disgust and anger. Any short term gain from snitching shall be outweighed by the real threat of physical harm and/or death. I knew one inmate who gave information on a regular basis to the correctional guards. He never went outside to the yard or to the gym because of his well-founded concerns over retaliation from other inmates. He was even looked down upon by the correctional guards. One officer even asked for information from him in front of other inmates. I was told by another inmate of many years of experience that in all probability he will be shanked [knifed], before he was released.
2. DO NOT BORROW OR BUY
If, you borrow or buy anything from another inmate, you are now in debt to that inmate. This seems obvious enough, but in prison, debts carry additional weight. The inmate gave an extra shirt to you because there was no heat in the tier. It was all fine and well until you are told by the inmate and his friends that you now owed $15 worth of commissary food or in the worst case, that you were now his Bitch. Some inmates, for example, would buy extra commissary food and then sell the food at a higher price to other inmates. If you bought a package of cookies from the inmate, you had to pay back three packages of cookies to the inmate. A fellow inmate told me about a new inmate who bought a package of cookies on credit from a lifer. The lifer sold commissary items out of his cell.When the new inmate’s family did not send money to his commissary account on time, the lifer offered no extension. He killed the rookie inmate. I borrowed from inmate’s commissary stores, but I was extremely lucky that it ended well for me. I always paid back in full. At the end of any day in prison, it was best to avoid taking any chances by buying or borrowing from another inmate.
3. DO NOT TRUST THE CORRECTIONAL OFFICERS
They are not your friends. Most CO’s will either despise you or just do not give a damn about you. There are countless examples of this attitude by the CO’s towards inmates in my memoir. To many officers, an inmate is a lesser human being. If the officer had a bad day at home, then he made your life miserable for his own enjoyment. Even if the other officer on duty knew that his fellow officer was completely wrong regarding his or her treatment of you, the other officer may shake his head in wonder, but there would be no help for you. To be fair, there was a small minority of correctional officers who are reasonable and would help you if the circumstances were appropriate. After a period of time in any institution, you will discover the few roses among the many weeds.
4. DO NOT GAMBLE
If you win, you lose, and if you lose, you lose. Gambling is a serious infraction of every prison’s rules. If you are caught, you risk serious punishment, lose good time credits, and may have your security level increased. However, there are much greater problems when you gamble in prison. It can be money or food won, but you still have to personally collect it from the losing inmate. What do you do, if the losing inmate refuses to pay you? If you do not collect your winnings, the other inmates will see that you are easy meat. If you fight, you may be facing several of his friends and their shanks [homemade knives]. If you lose and you cannot pay the bet, you are again facing a shank or a severe beating from the inmate. I witnessed several fights over gambling while I was in prison. In one particular incident, both inmates were punished with time in the punishment unit. In the end, it is best not to gamble in prison.
5. DO NOT ACCEPT GIFTS
If you are new to a prison, do not take a gift from another inmate. If you find a candy bar on your bunk and eat the candy bar; you may be another inmate’s dessert. You can protest all you want, but the other inmate now considers you his personal bitch. In my memoir, there are examples of inmates helping me. In those circumstances, I was able to evaluate the situation and make the judgment call that the help offered carried no strings. If you are new to the prison, you do not risk yourself by accepting gifts.
6. DO NOT STARE AT ANOTHER INMATE
Most inmates consider staring to be disrespectful. Inevitably, if you stare someone down in jail, there will be a confrontation. I was at lunch one time at Hagerstown, when I zoned out and did not realize that I was staring at another inmate at another table. An inmate at my table pointed out to me what was happening and warned me to stop staring at the other inmate. I looked and saw that a very large guy was mad at me. I immediately stopped and fortunately the inmate was satisfied. I avoided an unnecessary confrontation.
7. DO NOT BACK DOWN FROM ANOTHER INMATE
I am not advocating that you resort to violence. As I indicated in the previous rule, I stopped looking at the other inmate. There was no loss of face on my part and I easily avoided a fight that I could not win. There may be circumstances where you will have to fight– so that you are not considered a bitch by the tier. Your own personal judgment in each situation is crucial. As a rule of thumb, it is always best to use your wits and not violence to resolve a problem. You have to be aware that once you are involved in a violent confrontation in prison, there are no rules.
8. DO NOT TRUST OTHER INMATES
Most inmates have an agenda. The agenda is not in your best interest. It is true that some inmates may legitimately try to help you, but almost all are trying to con you. You have to use your common sense. For example, once while walking back from commissary with my food purchases; one of the shopping bags broke scattering my food all over the ground. Two inmates appeared out of nowhere offering to help me. Because of health issues, I accepted. Once we arrived at my cell, I gave each some food in appreciation for their help. I later realized that I was missing some of the food. Beware of any help.
9. DO NOT LEND
Do not lend anything to another inmate, unless you feel a minimum level of trust between the two of you. Even then, you have to accept that you may not get back your property. You will have to choose between forgetting about the property and demanding it back. If the inmate refuses to give back your property, you must decide whether to fight for your property or appear weak to the other inmates.
10. ALWAYS BE ON GUARD
In prison, you always have to be on your toes. You simply cannot relax. For example, in any jail or prison, it was highly recommended that you did not sleep or rest face down in your bunk. During my first week in jail, in Clarksburg, a guard observed a young inmate lying face down on his bunk. The officer laughed and told the inmate “Buddy, you in prison—don’t ever forget that –never sleep with your ass up.” If you do so, you are risking a sexual attack by the predators that are everywhere in your new world.
11. BEWARE OF FALSE PRIDE
If you are educated, let it go; you are still an inmate, just like the guy who never made it past junior high school. Acting superior will only lead to trouble for you. If asked, help an inmate write his letter or help him with his homework. The assistance should always be offered in a respectful manner. Remember, you all wear the same prison uniform.
12. DO NOT DISCUSS YOUR VISITS OR RELEASE DATE
Do not discuss your visits with others. There are inmates who have not received a visit in years. Purely out of envy and spite about your visits, an inmate will cause trouble for you or hurt you. If asked about your visit, just say, “It was OK,” and end the conversation.
During my second week of incarceration, I had the good fortune of meeting an inmate from Russia who had extensive experience in Russian and American prisons. He told me to never discuss your release date with other inmates. There will be inmates who are not only envious of your being released, but will take action to stop your release. A bitter inmate could plant illegal contraband in your cell and snitch to the correctional officers. A subsequent search of your cell by the correctional officers will find the planted drugs and bring your release date to a screeching stop. Keep your date of release to yourself.
13. DO NOT TOUCH ANOTHER INMATE
Touching like staring, is considered disrespectful and may result in retaliation. In my book, Prison Path, there is an anecdote regarding this particular issue during my time at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown. One inmate tried to warn another inmate about a CO nearby by merely touching his arm. The inmate slugged the Good Samaritan which caused a fight between the two inmates. Both were sent to the punishment unit.
14. DO NOT TOUCH A CORRECTIONAL OFFICER
This would seem obvious, but you will see new inmates take this action which may result in a warning, or a beating, or a punishment cell. If the CO thinks the touching was an aggressive action, you will, in all likelihood, find yourself in a cell with several CO’s teaching you a painful lesson- then the punishment cell.
15. DO NOT FLIRT WITH FEMALE CORRECTIONAL OFFICERS
This rule applies to any female employee of the prison. The correctional officers in Hagerstown did not look kindly upon such conduct. It is tempting to engage in such conduct and there are always some female who may respond to you. However, if you pick the wrong woman, you will face severe retaliation by the correctional officers. The punishment can consist of a beating and/or time in the punishment unit. I saw some unusual situations in prison that involved inmates and female correctional officers. During the past 18 months, a number of female correctional officers and inmates in Baltimore were indicted for smuggling contraband and having sex with inmates, who were gang members, for money, jewelry, and cars. In the end, it is best to be only polite with female officers.
16. DO NOT USE DRUGS OR ALCOHOL
You will be very surprised to find that all types of drugs including homemade alcohol are accessible to you behind bars. You may have been a drug user before prison or now you want to take drugs because the time in prison moves very slowly. I would highly recommend that you refrain from doing so, because you will be tested periodically for drugs or alcohol use. I was awakened several times in the middle of the night for a urinalysis. I knew many inmates who tested positive for drugs. A positive test would result in your removal from a drug program, more prison time, and even a transfer to a higher level security prison. Wherever you are, you will be tested. Even pre—release units will test inmates for drugs and alcohol. A positive test shall result in the loss of your pre-release status and transfer to a higher security level prison.
17. BE CAREFUL OF YOUR JOKES
What may be funny on the outside can be considered a very serious insult in prison. Once in prison, there were several of us joking in the rec room. I remarked in passing that an older inmate in the discussion reminded me of my crazy ex-girlfriend. Although we had been very friendly, he informed me that such jokes were highly insulting. He was not going to beat the shit out of me because he was giving me the benefit that I knew no better because I was a new inmate. As far as he was concerned, my remark was the same as calling him a “ bitch “ and that was the worst insult in prison. With another inmate, I would have been fighting for my life. To survive in prison, you need to consider every word and action that you take every day. Moments of levity are as volatile as any other moment in prison.
18. BEST NOT TO DISCUSS RELIGION OR POLITICS
If you think about it, how many discussions in the outside world regarding religion or politics lead to arguments. In prison, heated discussions about sensitive issues such as candidates in the latest election or, perhaps more importantly, what faiths are not actually Christian, can easily lead to arguments and then violence. I have observed inmates instructing other inmates on the finer points of why Catholics are not really Christians. Although Jewish, I spent 45 minutes one day defending the proposition that Catholics were in fact not only Christians, but Catholics were the first Christians. I did not follow my own rules on that occasion, but fortunately, the inmate only ignored me for two weeks. I knew one inmate, who had spent many years in prison. He lost his pre-release status because of a very serious argument with the prison chaplain concerning a difference in the interpretation of a verse in the scriptures. In prison, making your point in a discussion is sometimes just not in your best interest.
19. DO NOT BECOME A WITNESS
In lock up, especially if a fight breaks out, it is always best not to have seen or heard anything. By becoming a witness, you have violated rule one—NO SNITCHING. You will not receive a medal for your civic participation from the prison warden. You will have exposed yourself to potential violence from an inmate who will not appreciate your eyewitness testimony. It is best to accept that you are in a jungle where your survival depends only on you and your actions. In other words, for the most part, nobody in the prison gives a shit about you. As you will read in Rule 21, if you become involved, you risk what little you have in prison, including your chances of parole.
20. DO NOT DEPEND ON OTHER INMATES
It is a mistake to count on another inmate to help you. If another inmate helps you in any situation without any personal agenda on their part, then you will have just witnessed an incredibly unusual act in prison. While in pre-release, I was having some difficulty with a young inmate who was excessively using the tier telephone. One day, while we were discussing the phone, he misunderstood what I said and became hostile to me. While this occurred, an inmate who I was friendly with stood by impassively watching the incident. My buddy’s eyes glazed over. For all practical purposes, he was not even there. I knew if the young inmate had attacked me, there would have been no help from him. Fortunately, a guard walked in and that was the end of the matter. I was angry with my buddy, but I realized later that he was right to ignore the incident. My friend had served fifteen years and had achieved pre-release status. Had he become involved in the incident and it escalated into a fight; he would have lost his pre-release status and would have to serve the remainder of his sentence. At all institutions, all parties in the fight and/or the incident were transferred to the punishment unit where their fate was decided at a hearing several weeks after the event. My pre-release, had no punishment units, so violators were transferred to another prison’s punishment unit to wait for their hearing.
All prisons have gangs. At MCTC, there were gangs such as the Bloods, Cripps, BGF [Black Guerilla Family], and DMI [Dead Man Incorporated]. It was always best to stay clear of and avoid the gangs. It does not matter whether the gang is black, white, or whatever; gangs are hazardous to your health. It was interesting to note that black gangs such as the Cripps had white members. Of course, there was always the inmate agenda. On my tier, there was a young white kid who joined one of the black gangs. He had money and bought a lot of drugs for his new friends. He wanted protection and the gang wanted his drugs. As expected, he eventually failed a random drug test and was removed from the tier for further punishment. In my memoir, you will read how one unlucky inmate was dragged while sleeping from his bunk into the bathroom and was beaten up. It was a lesson to the other inmates to prove that this gang still ruled the tier. The inmate did not violate any basic rules, he was just unlucky. He was at his bunk at the wrong time and place. In some prisons the gangs are controlled to a certain extent by the system, but in other prisons, the gangs controlled the institution. The less interest the gangs have in you, the better for you.
22. Sex in Prison
There are inmates having voluntary sex and there are inmates having involuntary sex in prison. It is an accepted fact of prison life. I saw a young inmate who arrived at the prison with very long hair. He was proud of his flowing locks. He had a friend style it for him every few days. They were just friends. The inmate with long hair had a fragile face. He was transferred to a permanent housing unit. Several weeks later, I saw him with two large inmates and he had make up on his face. A few days after that, I saw his friend, who used to style his hair, ignore him. This was prison life. If another inmate makes overtures to you, this is where you must make the decision to fight or request protective custody. There is never an easy way out of this terrible situation.
The relationship with your cellmate can be very tricky in prison. If you have the choice of selecting the race of your cellmate, pick one of your own race. By doing so, this does not mean that you are a racist. It means that you are avoiding having someone in your cell who hates you for being white, black, or whatever he is not! It is important to respect the privacy of your cellmate. You will be living with a stranger in a room that is the size of a bathroom. If your cellmate is at the window, you give him space by staying on your bunk or going to your cell door. Do not bother your cellmate, when he is using the toilet. During my time at MCTC in Hagerstown, whoever had to use the toilet would string a blanket separating the toilet from the area by the window. This simple step provided us with the semblance of privacy and civilization. With time, you will be able to determine if your cellmate is one to be trusted.
It is crucial to respect the space, the past, the house (cell), and the food of other inmates. Do not crowd another inmate’s space while talking to him. It is best not to crowd another inmate during any discussion. It is considered disrespectful to question another inmate about his past or his crime. Do not look into other inmates’ cells and never even joke about touching another inmate’s food. If you are disrespectful to another inmate, you will face retribution.
25. HYGIENE & HEALTH
It is very important to keep your cell and body as clean as possible for obvious reasons. You are in very close quarters and you do not have easy access to showers, etc. If you are not clean or your cell is filthy, then you are breeding germs and you will become sick. Whenever possible, clean your cell. Once a week, we were allowed access to mops, brushes, and cleaning materials for fifteen minutes. During that time, the inmates who knew how to survive cleaned every inch of their cell. During the other days, the smart inmates kept their cells as clean as possible. If you did not have access to the showers, you would towel wash in the cell. You cannot depend on the medical care provided at prisons. At many prisons, the medical care is contracted to private companies whose primary goal is profit at the expense of inmates’ health.
The above rules do not guarantee that you will easily survive prison. Sometimes you can just have bad luck by being present at the wrong time and at the wrong place. If you follow these basic rules of survival, you will, without a doubt, dramatically increase your chances of emerging unharmed from the prison path that leads eventually from prison to the outside world.