7 Horrifying Things You Didn't (Want to) Know About Prison
Say what you want about America, but one thing is certain: We are awesome at putting people in prison. One out of every 32 of you is either in prison now or on parole.
For the rest of us, the only knowledge we have of the inside is what we've seen in the movies, and as you can imagine, their version isn't all that accurate. My name is Cedric Coleman, and I spent seven years as a prison guard in two different states. In that time, I learned ...
The Cruel/Sadistic Guards Don't Last
You know how every prison movie has that guard who's just an asshole and/or a sadist? There was Captain Hadley in The Shawshank Redemption, and Percy Wetmore in The Green Mile. The guards have absolute power, so why not torture the inmates at every opportunity?
In real life, that doesn't end well.
Unless "a jagged spoon" counts as "well."
We had one lieutenant come in and treat the inmates like dirt, calling them names and acting like the hardass guards from the movies. What he didn't account for is how much time you have to spend alone with these guys.
One day, he went to investigate a fight between two inmates, but it turned out to be a diversion. Two other inmates came up from behind and ambushed him. He was stabbed 61 times before he could signal the officer in the control room to open the door and let him in. He survived, but he's not exactly running marathons these days (side note: it's actually pretty hard to stab someone to death).
Definitely a three-man job.
The point is, there is nothing to be gained by antagonizing a pissed-off lifer who has no problem twisting knives in you and spitting or rubbing shit in your wounds. (You know those prison stabbing scenes in Breaking Bad? That was years of violence shoved into a montage, but it looked just about right.) Our job isn't to punish these guys -- the prison is their punishment. You might feel like a badass in the uniform, but that felon with the makeshift knife is a real badass. See, that's why he's in prison.
Obviously this doesn't mean that you have to become their friends. That happens, too -- some officers end up forging a "bond" with inmates, and more often than not, that "bond" ends with the guards smuggling drugs for them ... or straight-up fucking them. I walked out a lot of staff for getting involved with inmates. Hell, just ask Google how common this sort of thing is:
It's like dating on the Internet, but a little more respectable.
If I'm making it sound like the inmates are in charge, you have to understand that ...
The Guards Are at a Disadvantage
Many prison guards see themselves as part of a thin, ragged line between violent, lawless men and civilized society. The prisoners, on the other hand, think of the guards as Netflix. They're never more than one poke away from entertainment. We are the prison's stage show, and most of us don't even realize it.
"It's Facepunch:30. Let's change the channel."
These guys watch us 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They overhear our conversations, they notice when we're stressed out ... and they take advantage of that. One guard might spill his heart to another guard about his impending divorce without realizing that the prisoner working as a janitor in the next room is listening in. Then that dude sells the information to an inmate with a grudge, and boom, the whole prison knows Sgt. Peters couldn't satisfy his wife.
You could spend two or three weeks working a day shift and then get shoved over to a graveyard shift at a moment's notice. It affects you -- exhaustion slows down your reflexes, and guys with slow reflexes don't do so great against well-rested dudes rushing them with knives. Well, the inmates know when our schedules change, and they take advantage of that, too. Again, they're always watching. Looking for a weakness.
Even when Jeopardy's on.
So imagine you're one officer with a hundred murderers and rapists wandering around you. And you don't know what every guy is in there for. You might end up pissing someone off and realize later that he's a gang leader or a multiple murderer. I knew a guard who got on an inmate's bad side without ever knowing why. She was just pulled into a cell one day and had the shit beaten out of her.
It doesn't help that usually corrections officers are people who wanted to be police officers but, for whatever reason, weren't able to do that. Anger management issues, for instance, are very common. You might recognize "anger management" as a personal issue that maybe doesn't belong in someone whose entire job is to keep the peace. Add that to the low pay, constantly being shit-talked by inmates, and frequent stabbings, and you'll understand why the Bureau of Prisons is 3,200 guards short right now.
"... so you guys watch the other gang, they'll watch you, and we'll come by once a week to pick up the bodies."
I worked in prisons owned by CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America. You'd think private prisons would have more money, nicer gear, and other benefits, but CCA was all about cutting corners. They didn't even issue each man a personal radio, which should be a requirement in any office where being shanked is a daily concern. Instead, the radios stayed at our stations, safely out of reach of anyone who might need them. Oh, and they paid us less than the state prison guards, too.
The Inmates Are Incredibly Organized
Inmates train for riots. At yard time, you'll see a ton of them doing martial arts together. Sometimes they'll start a fight with three or four guys just to see what our response is, that way they're able to work up a counter for it. They figure out what our moves are, and then they practice their methods for beating us while we watch. You'd think we might be able to turn that right around and train to counter their new methods, but, again, there's no money for training.
We can't even afford shirts for all the prisoners.
We do have some tools to fight back, but they have to be used on us before we're allowed to use them. So the guards have to get pepper balled, which is not as hilarious as it sounds: A pepper ball is a shotgun round loaded with pepper spray, and it just sucks. So hard. (Note: The pepper spray we use in prisons will eat the bottom right out of a Styrofoam cup -- imagine it in your eyes.)
But even that isn't much of a deterrent -- remember, there's simply no way to punish the worst of these guys. If you have a 25-to-life sentence, what am I going to do to make that worse? An inmate killing an inmate will usually get 30 to 50 days of segregation. Those inmates who beat up that female guard? They had five years added to their life sentences. It's completely meaningless -- if you're a lifer, prison might as well be a license to kill.
"You guys behave, or we'll lock you up in double prison."
That's one of the reasons we let them have things like Xboxes and PlayStations. If you give them video games, they'll be less likely to start fights. So once a week we'd hook up a bunch of TVs in a classroom so all of the murderers and rapists could play Halo. There's nothing more interesting than seeing guys who have killed multiple people deathmatching each other. Teabagging seems a lot less innocent when you know it might end with one of the aforementioned riots.
Speaking of which ...
Anything Can Spark a Riot
We had a riot in one of our facilities over a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The inmates had an issue with the amount of jelly and decided to hold a sit-in, then the sit-in got violent. That's the thing: Even if most of the hundred people in the room are being reasonable, as long as a couple of them are acting crazy, they get to control the mood.
"It's settled. Today's going to be about poo-flinging."
But that one was fairly minor. This next one wasn't.
We had some out-of-state inmates who didn't like that we didn't allow blue jeans or conjugal visits. They got together in the yard during exercise time and decided they wouldn't leave. We locked them in the yard, so they dragged all the free weights up to the bars and brought them down on the barrel locks, popping them right open. Once free, the first target -- instead of "the guards" or "the front gate" -- was the soda machines, which we had for some reason. The inmates knocked them over, burst them open, and savored the sweet taste of free prison Pepsi.
So now we had a bunch of caffeinated, riotous inmates. They forced their way into the control room, broke out all the windows, trashed the equipment, and only then realized they had no way to open the doors again. So they had to go back to the free weights so they could hammer the door frames into dust and break back out of the control room.
You don't need a tool kit if you have one of these.
During the riot, one dude who'd switched over from the Crips to the Bloods realized that his new friends didn't really care for him. They chased him down and stabbed him five or six times, but he made it back to his cell and locked the wooden door. Then they burned the wooden door down and stabbed him 15 or 20 more times until he crawled out of the room. He made his way out of his cell and all the way down the hall to the guards, being stabbed all the while. He survived (again -- a human can survive a lot of stabbing) and wound up suing the prison for a bunch of money.
That riot lasted 12 hours and did around $10 million in damage to the prison.
Good luck paying for that on a prisoner's non-salary.
Prisoner Ingenuity Knows No Bounds
One of the great tragedies of the prison system is that so many young people only realize their talents after getting locked up. You take a bunch of guys with zero college or (legal) work experience, lock them in a big building, and suddenly they're master engineers. I found that if you give these guys a PlayStation controller, they'll quickly make you a quality electronic tattoo gun.
This looks cool, but they could get the same functionality out of a pen, some string, and a needle.
And what about ink? Sure, the stuff inside a pen works OK for a little while, but it fades real quick. Fortunately, some long-ago chemistry savant/coke dealer discovered an ingredient that could make his sweet ink last longer: human urine. Sure, it isn't exactly sterile, but you know what they say: You can't make an omelet without rampant staph infections.
You've probably heard about prisoners being pretty good at turning stuff like spoons and pencils into deadly knives, but that stuff is easy work. A skilled prisoner can make a knife out of literally any solid substance you care to give him. We had one inmate spend days wetting sheet after sheet of newspaper and compressing them together under a small stack of books. Eventually, the paper dried into a rigid cardboard brick. The inmate sharpened this on the floor of his cell, and in about a month he had himself a fine little face-stabbing knife.
There you go, kids -- start creating.
But prison ingenuity is at its best when it comes to the business of getting shitfaced. Each cell contains a bunk bed with a small gray box for that bed's inmate to store his stuff in. And in most cases, "stuff" is a synonym for "personal brewery." These guys will mash old fruit up with toothpaste and ketchup, stick it in a bag, and let it ferment quietly under their belongings. When they open it up, suddenly the building is full of a stench like oranges and puke. Some inmates will cut it with Metamucil so it goes down easier, which does not help matters as far as our noses are concerned.
That's not even getting into what happens when these guys drink the stuff. Once, a huge dreadlocked dude chugged an entire gallon of prison wine (or "pruno"). He got aggressive, and the whole mess ended with two empty canisters of prison mace, three injured guards, and one passed-out prisoner who woke up very confused the next day.
Black-and-white vision is a common side effect of prison mace.
Most of the Sex Is Consensual
The running joke/warning about prison is about how much you're going to get raped in there (and the HBO show Oz did feature about six rapes per episode). It seems like fear of nonstop rape is what scares people most about prison, not any of that trivial stuff like losing your freedom for years or having a criminal record.
We'll just leave this here.
Well, I worked in prisons for seven years, and I only saw one rape. If you're wondering how all of these males can go without sex for so long, well, who says they do? There are plenty of guys who are willing sex partners. You'd walk by cells and see one guy's head bobbing up and down and just knock on the gates and say, "Hey, you crazy kids, that's enough!"
That's not to say that sexual assault never happens or to trivialize the problem for the people it happens to. But the truth is that between 0.7 and 6.3 percent of inmates report being sexually victimized, and while even one is too many, that's still far short of the nonstop rape frenzy that pop culture portrays. In reality, a lot of prisoners just embrace being one of the, uh, more desirable men in lockup. They grow their hair long, get some sexy tattoos, and start flirting with whoever makes the best pruno and/or knives.
Beneath that scruffy proto-beard lies the face of desire.
There's No Method to the Madness
You probably assume that prison is ordered a little like Dante's hell and inmates wind up on different "levels" based on the severity of their crime. Nope! If you make it into a federal prison for a nonviolent drug charge, you might wind up cell mates with Johnny the Cop Stabber, who, despite his colorful nickname, is a serial rapist.
And head of the Bible study group. He's a complex man.
As a private prison, we were only supposed to get inmates up to a "medium" level of severity. We had a points system, and once they got above a certain number, we had to send them to the state. My job for a while was to do that paperwork, and guess what: The state would fiddle with the numbers all the time in order to dump the inmates on us. I'd go into their records and add up their infractions and realize that these guys were much more dangerous than the state had said. Whenever we wound up with someone who was WAY too violent for our prison, the state would wait forever to take him back.
That means that prison, like America, is a great melting pot. But instead of being a place for people of all nations, faiths, and creeds to live together, it's a place where kids who made one dumb mistake hang out with career criminals. There's a reason our recidivism rate is so very high: Prison is crime college. I had a 19-year-old kid in there who went on a joyride in his grandma's car. She called the police, hoping they'd just put him in jail overnight to scare him. But the DA decided to make an example out of him and charged the kid with car theft. Now he's in prison, learning how to steal cars for real.
At least he'll stay in shape.
Robert Evans is Cracked's head of Dick Joke Journalism and manages the Workshop Moderator team. You can contact him here.
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