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Seven Prison Survival Secrets

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Surviving a term of incarceration is no cakewalk. For all first-time prisoners, the transition from free-world living to prison culture is abrupt, extreme, and caustic. It’s like nothing else, and there are very real consequences to violating the unspoken codes of decorum and the concept of “respect,” a term which takes on a whole new meaning in the prison context.

Image courtesy citylab.com

Image courtesy citylab.com

This article presents seven secrets to surviving a term of incarceration. By internalizing and abiding by these principles, anyone new to prison culture will save themselves a lot of strife and possibly violent encounters. In short, they can transform potential hard time to easy time.

Secret One: Don’t Snitch

The number one rule in prison is to not snitch. There is no worse crime in prison culture than to inform on a fellow prisoner. When serving time in prison, inmates often see others engaging in unsavory, unethical, or even illegal conduct. This is simply the way it is in prison. When such conduct is observed, the inmate should simply look away, continue on with whatever they were doing, and keep the knowledge of what transpired to themselves. When someone is found to have informed on fellow prisoners, they are usually either assaulted or “checked in” (forced to go into protective custody). By refusing to provide the prison administration with information, this very dangerous trap can be avoided in its entirety.

While there may be instances when it appears that keeping one’s mouth shut can result in disfavor from the powers that be, those consequences pale next to what can happen to a prisoner who is identified as a snitch by his fellows.

Secret Two: Mind One’s Own Business

As in life outside of prison, most problems begin with sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong. In prison that’s multiplied by a factor of five. In prison, people are very concerned about their own business, and they attempt to be aware of who else is paying attention to it. After all, informants are about, and prisoners as a whole seem to be very conscious of being snitched on.

Because of the informant-obsessed culture of American corrections, merely knowing secret information puts a prisoner at risk of being suspected of being an informant if the information eventually gets shared with the prison’s administration. One such example is when prison hooch is being brewed. Wine brewers in prison tend to be caught very regularly. Once this occurs, everyone who knows about the prison wine is immediately suspected of being the informant. By not putting themselves in a position to even know about the wine, prisoners can avoid this circumstance. Simple habits like not looking in cells when walking down a tier can be lifesavers. Curiosity killed the cat. The convict too.

Secret Three: Don’t Go Into Debt

Going into debt in prison is a quick way to find trouble. Prisoners who owe significant debts, and who can’t cover them, can be robbed, beaten, and otherwise abused. The easiest way to sidestep this problem is simply to not go into debt. Basic financial management strategies like budgeting and living within one’s means can help make this a non-issue. Prisoners who do go into debt need to work out a payment plan with the debt holder and stick to it. Be neither lender nor borrower, and avoid serious problems with potentially permanent consequences.

Secret Four: Do Be Courteous and Conscientious

Most violent confrontations in prison are a result of a prisoner not paying attention, and by not being mindful, offending a fellow prisoner. As a whole, American prisoners are very concerned about respect. They demand it from their fellow convicts, even if they don’t deserve it. Regardless of the merits of who deserves to be respected, by providing it, many potential problems can be avoided. Simply saying “thank you” or “excuse me,” not walking on a freshly mopped floor, and not cutting in the chow line can save a prisoner from many potentially significant confrontations. It takes little energy to be courteous, and a lot to get out of trouble.

Secret Five: Don’t Disclose Too Much Personal Information

Prison is, well, prison. And those in prison are not incarcerated for singing too loudly in the church choir. With the understanding that fellow prisoners have been known to violate social mores, expectations, and standards of conduct, it’s always best to protect oneself from potential scams and attacks. A great way to do so is to hold one’s cards close. An inmate who has personal resources probably shouldn’t disclose this to others. If an inmate went to a good law school or had a high-paying job prior to incarceration (or owned a boat or a plane, for that matter), this probably shouldn’t be disclosed. It could put them or their families at risk of being a target.

Likewise, whenever an inmate discloses a piece of private, sensitive information, there is the risk of that information being shared or used in an extortionate fashion. For example, an inmate who was law enforcement at some point prior to incarceration should not disclose this. The same is true of those who have cooperated with the government. Once this type of information has been disclosed, the inmate is put at risk of it being used as leverage against them, or, even worse, of being violently attacked. While it can take some finesse to do this smoothly, every effort should be made to avoid too much personal disclosure. A simple rule: personal disclosure leads to exposure.

Secret Six: Be Aware of One’s Surroundings

While there are guards in prisons, they are not in control of the prison. Sure, they can write incident reports and lock prisoners in the hole, but they mostly can only do so in a reactionary manner, not a proactive one. With this in mind, by being aware of their surroundings, inmates can proactively protect themselves from potentially dangerous situations and also ensure to not affront fellow prisoners, which could lead to confrontations. This goes back to being respectful of others, even if they aren’t deserving of such respect.

A good example of being aware of one’s surroundings concerns gang activities in the prison context. An inmate who is in the prison’s Education Department or Recreation Department and, while walking into the bathroom, sees others engaging in a drug transaction, should just turn around and not get involved. Likewise, if a fight breaks out in a TV room it would be best to simply leave rather than try to stop it, which would almost certainly result in being drawn into the violence and making enemies of at least one of the parties involved in the initial confrontation. On a more general level, being aware of tension in an area should be cause to leave it.

Secret Seven: Find a Project to Occupy the Mind

While not a hands-on type of prison survival secret, this one is perhaps the most important. When in prison, inmates have two options: allow the time to control them or control the time. Many prisoners are stuck in a rut, where they simply exit their cells when the doors are unlocked, watch TV until the meals are called, return to TV until the next meal, and eventually lock back into their cell at night. This is a pathetic existence, one vastly harmful to the current and future self.

The other type of prisoner finds something to throw himself or herself into: a project to occupy the mind. Some read every book they can get their hands on (nonfiction books can certainly help to teach them something new and useful for their life post-prison). Some write books or even become political activists. Some grow a passion for teaching, and help fellow prisoners earn their GEDs. And others spend many hours on the recreation yard working out, improving their bodies. The point is, even in prison, productivity is possible. Progress is possible, and through this progress, the time will go much faster. As long as the inmates don’t give up on themselves, they can actually leave prison better than when they came in, and this can help them survive upon their release from custody. A healthy mind is essential.

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About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Education Behind Bars (Sunbury Press, 2012), the Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2014), and the forthcoming College for Convicts (McFarland and Company, 2015) and United Blood Nation: The Story of the East Coast Bloods (Headpress, 2015). He can be found online at Prisoneducation.com, Prisonlawblog.com, and christopherzoukis.com.