About 1200 words; 5 minutes to read.
This is the fifth in an ongoing series of posts sent to us by a former prisoner who wishes to remain anonymous. Previous posts in this series are here (#1), here (#2) here (#3) here (#4) and here (#5).
Prison is its own world with its own social norms. If you don’t learn these quickly, you can end up in a lot of trouble, both with prisoners and guards.
Every prison range has a social structure, in which some people are informal leaders, a few are loners and others followers. Prison experience is shaped in large part by the particular people who happen to be on your range. Fortunately, during the time I was in the assessment unit, my range was mostly dominated by 3 or 4 guys who were quite decent; who treated others well, were open-minded and tolerant, and wanted everyone to get along and help each other. It could easily be different; I heard stories about ranges dominated by people who wanted personal power and were prepared to do just about anything to get it and use it, leading to an atmosphere of fear and distrust. I also heard that the situation on ‘my’ range changed a lot after some of those guys left.
There is also a definite jail culture. Like any culture, this involves behaviour, dress, language and other aspects of life. Much of it is borrowed from a certain kind of street culture, such as wearing one’s pants very low around the waist, or being tattooed. On my range, about a third of the guys had significant tattooing, especially those who had been in the criminal justice system before. Many people got tattooed while in prison, and one of the guys who arrived later in my stay in assessment was a tattooist. Although tattooing is prohibited in prisons, it nonetheless happens frequently – similar to drug use or sex, also prohibited and also common. (Keep in mind that guards are rarely on the range, and while they can watch video cameras, prisoners know where those cameras are and where they can be safe from observation.)
There is also a prison language. Being out of jail is ‘on road’ (not ‘on the street’). There is much use of words such as ‘bro’, sometimes also said as ‘brah’; ‘screws’ (for guards), ‘’solid’ (which can mean either not telling on other prisoners, no matter what they have done, or could mean having criminal charges other than sex charges). One word used often was ‘up’, used as a suffix to other words. For example, ‘wagon up’ meant food was ready, ‘work up’ meant time to go to work, or ‘story up’ referred to a story that wasn’t credible – or perhaps was really interesting. Not everyone used this kind of language; I never got comfortable with is, but it was common on the range. And of course so was swearing; ‘fuck’ was probably the most common word one heard.
Prisoners have problems
In understanding the dynamics of groups in jail, it’s important to remember that many prisoners are people with histories of violence, addictions of various kinds, or with serious mental health issues. They tend to have low levels of education and come from backgrounds in which prejudice is widespread (not that there can’t be plenty of prejudice among better-off people as well). Then these people, who already have limitations or problems, are placed in a high stress situation where they are treated badly and removed from their normal supports. Nobody should be surprised that the result is a lot of undesirable behaviour involving exercising power over others wherever possible.
There were a few people on the range with me who clearly had some of these issues. One very young man hardly spoke to anyone and spent almost all his time pacing up and down the hall. He rarely showered or washed his clothes to the point where some other prisoners eventually essentially forced him, though not in a cruel or unkind way, to do so. Apparently he had stabbed someone while off his medications and was having difficulty getting the right kind of medication while in jail, as the prison system only uses certain brands to keep costs down (more about this in another post). Another young man was also there for a stabbing, spent almost all his time in his cell watching TV, and told another prisoner at one point that he wanted to become a woman. There was a guy who was so agitated, presumably from drug issues, that he literally could not stop moving around, or tapping his feet or fingers, and was angry all the time. There was a guy who was narcoleptic and would fall asleep in the middle of a conversation or while eating. Another guy, who seemed entirely sane in my few conversations with him, chose to stay in his cell all the time except when meals were being served. One of the nicest guys on the range, in his 50s, told me that he intended to go back onto his drug habits as soon as he was released. This was his 4th stay, and he expected to be back again. That was his life.
Then there were people like my first cellie. He was 22 and told me he had more than 50 criminal convictions starting around age 12. He had grown up in a home full of violence and drug use. His current charge, he told me, was for a home invasion during which he hit someone with a baseball bat. He was clearly a dangerous young man, with huge issues. Fortunately we got along well and in fact he was very kind and generous to me as a newcomer, which probably kept me out of a lot of trouble with others because the more dangerous and violent prisoners respected him as one of them.
Getting to know people in a prison beyond a superficial level is quite difficult. Prisons are low-trust environments; there is a reasonable fear that information will be used against you. So prisoners are quite guarded about what they tell others. Even after spending 11 weeks in the assessment unit at very close quarters, I did not know what offenses had brought most people there. Many were quite guarded about other aspects of their lives as well, such as their family status – whether they had a partner, children, and so on. With so many central topics generally off-limits, conversation tended to be very general, about things like sports or television. A huge amount of talk was about the many challenges and frustrations of being imprisoned.
Of course as you spend so much time with people you do get a sense of their personalities, and natural affiliations develop among people who feel more kinship with each other. Many new arrivals put a fair amount of effort into trying to get to know some people and to build some relationships. But this always has to be done with considerable caution. As the saying goes, ‘You don’t go to jail to make friends’. Over time, as some people leave and new ones to arrive, there is a natural tendency to hang out with the people you already know and ignore the new ones; it just seems like too much trouble to start again with people when you’re only going to be there a few more weeks.
Next post – Preparing to be moved out of the assessment unit.