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Prison Survival Guide: Do and Don'ts

The author is a QUB Pol Sci Honours graduate and has written extensively on imperialism, national liberation struggles and class issues.


For anyone facing a criminal trial with a possible prison sentence, it can be one of the most stressful situations one can find themselves in. In various studies, the stress of impending imprisonment, especially for the first time, surpasses the emotional stress levels of, for instance, divorce or bereavement. If a prison sentence is imminent, or at least a likely outcome, then it makes sense to orientate oneself to the reality of imprisonment, with a view to assimilation.

Watching prison-related movies, such as The Shawshank Redemption, would be a very poor means of familiarizing oneself with prison life, as these movies are stylized and fictional. In reality, boredom is most prisoners' greatest enemy. There are video guides to surviving prison online, some are good, others less so and seem intent on terrifying any prospective prisoner to death.

This guide will take the form of a list of do's and don'ts, which should prepare someone for a stretch of imprisonment, make their time easier and in extreme cases, perhaps even keep them alive. Prison is very like a totalitarian society, the semblance of civil rights and 'checks and balances' do not exist there, as most people living in a liberal democracy would understand them today.

Following these simple guidelines, in "Do" and "Don't" format, will certainly help anyone survive a period of time in prison. This prison survival guide relates to any penal setting and the advice is universal. Always remember that prison is a parallel universe, it is best to temporarily forget all those moral values, that outside society has more or less managed to instill into most peoples' consciousness, as they will be of little use to someone incarcerated in a prison environment.


Dos and Don'ts

  • Don't be afraid, or at least, don't show that you are afraid. Thousands of people have been through the same experience as you and survived relatively unscathed and with dignity.
  • Do stick up for yourself at all times! Prisons can be a predator's world, so don't show weakness, even if you feel overwhelmed, as the bullying types will smell it a mile away. Study the dynamics of the prison you are in—your life may depend on it.
  • Don't get too cocky or brash straightaway. Prison guards and fellow prisoners have had a long time to study false courage, so don't overdo it. Try to maintain a quiet air of confidence.
  • Do use any contacts you know, from within the inmate population. If you know someone doing time, it is a bonus to have someone vouch for you.
  • Don't, under any circumstances, speak to, associate with, or even agree, to be housed anywhere near sex offenders! These people are vermin and form the lowest tier of prison society. It will do your reputation no harm to attack these cockroaches, but if you want to avoid trouble at all costs, then simply make sure you are never in their company.
  • Do tell the truth about what you have been sentenced for. The rest of the prison population will find out very quickly because the guards will tell them. There are some personal details that will not remain secret for long in prison and your antecedents cannot be hidden. Needless to say, don't tell people you are a big-time armed robber if you are in for petty fraud!
  • Don't keep dwelling on what you were doing this time last week; it is pointless and it is depressing. Don't commence a countdown calendar for your release, your time will invariably drag. Don't think about the time you have left to serve—take every day as it comes and if you assimilate yourself into 'inside' life, the quality of your time in prison will improve and pass much more quickly.
  • Do read as much as you can. It will make your time pass quickly, give you something to do in your cell and improve your knowledge. Similarly, do take any educational course available for the same reasons. If there is a prison library—use it.
  • Don't spend all your time worrying about partners and families; it is a luxury that you cannot afford and it will depress you dwelling on possible scenarios. If they are regularly in contact with you, then that is more than enough, it proves that they care and count yourself lucky as many prisoners, especially the recidivists, have nothing like that to come out to.
  • Do maintain active contact with your loved ones, as is possible, under the prison regime's strictures—you will need all the support you can get when you get released. Keep your letters as upbeat as possible to loved ones, they will be worrying enough about you without you adding to their worry.
  • Don't let other prisoners know your loved-ones' addresses or telephone numbers, it's commonsense and prisons are full of some seriously messed-up people. If you get letters, rip return addresses off envelopes or letters and cover the dial when/if you get the use of a communal phone. Commit addresses of those you correspond with to memory, the same with phone numbers. Do you really want your family getting nuisance phone calls from some psycho in prison or when they get out?
  • Don't get friendly with the prison guards. This is frowned upon by the prison population and the guards will only use you for their own ends. Never, ever, agree to become an informant for the prison staff. You will run a serious risk of being killed! Be as taciturn as possible with the guards, they will do you no favours in the long run. Every prison is different in the level of familiarity with the guards, but as a rule of thumb, other prisoners will resent a new prisoner who is on good terms with the guards.
  • Do take up any opportunities for physical exercise available, such as weight lifting, exercising in the yard, games, etc. A fit or strong prisoner is a prisoner who can look after himself and will be less attractive to predatory bullies. Study the protocol in the gym, don't be cutting in on any one's sets, use commonsense as always.
  • Don't allow yourself to develop a drug or gambling habit, that you can ill afford while in prison. This leads to a world of trouble and this is one sure way to get badly hurt. A prisoner, in debt, is a prisoner with big trouble coming to him and in some circumstances, your loved ones can become hapless victims.
  • Do forget every prison drama you have ever watched! They are quite frankly a long way from reality and the actors go home after filming. Prison is not romantic, glamorous, nor will it make you a tough guy—prison is 95% boredom. It is how you break down that boredom, that will make your life in prison bearable. If you keep your head grounded in reality you will survive, be smart enough not to return and be able to tell the odd story about it in years to come.
  • Don't buy into the super bad-ass image, if you do, you will be back in prison again in no time at all!
  • Don't join gangs or paramilitary groups that you are not already affiliated with, unless your life depends on it! Prison culture differs from country to country, state to state, prison to prison. It also differs in types of prison, as a rule of thumb, for example, if you find yourself in a long-term unit or prison, always remember that this environment has been 'home' for a great many of your fellow prisoners for a very long time. Any personalization of the environment will have been done by the prisoners, not the guards, interfere with these things at your peril.
  • Do maintain healthy contact with your lawyer while in prison, you may need them again, sooner than you think, the same goes with prison's civilian social workers, in Europe, these are known as Probation Officers. In some states in the USA, the term 'probation officer' has a slightly different meaning. The same applies to prison welfare workers, teachers, clergy, etc. Take all the help you can get or want from civilian prison staff.
  • Don't forget that your cellmate is not necessarily your friend. Cellmates are sharing with you because the prison has placed them there. Don't talk to your cellmate about offences you have not been prosecuted for, ever! Loose talk like this can land you back in prison again or severely distance your release date. Imprint this in your memory and never forget it, jailhouse informants are a fact, within the legal system. Would you normally place your liberty in the hands of a stranger you just happened to meet?
  • Do remember to treat any cellmates with respect. Use your common sense, don't be too trusting nor disrespect your cellmate either. You have to remember that prisoners have been killed, while they slept by cellmates with a grudge. Don't fear them or make an enemy of them, find your boundaries and stick to them, it is not rocket science.
  • Don't expect to like the prison food straightaway. It will look like pig swill to you, on your first few days, but your attitude will change remarkably quickly. Force yourself to eat, even if your stomach is in knots, it will keep your strength up, prevent your blood sugar from getting low, which will, in turn, affect your mood negatively. Prison food is universally bad and is an important topic within prison culture, many riots have occurred because of crappy food. In Ireland in the 1970s, political prisoners burned down Long Kesh prison due to a long-running dispute over food! In prison you will usually be able to tell what meal you will be getting years into the future, many prisons have set meals for set days, for instance, in many prisons, you will get a salad on Saturday. Many meals may have to be supplemented by slices of bread, to make them in anyway filling, eat as much as you can!
  • Do get your sleep routine adjusted as quickly as possible. Don't expect to sleep on your first night, this is perfectly natural. You will be in strange, often hostile surroundings and there is nothing quite so depressing as waking up in prison for your first time. Remember prison populations rise early, try not to sleep through the day, during lock-up, if you can help it. Keep your mind active throughout the day and rest at night.
  • Don't expect good medical care or dental care in prison. The level of medical and dental care varies greatly from country to country, state to state and prison to prison.
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Prison Dynamics

Prison dynamics do differ greatly from country to country, for instance, if you are in the USA you will be expected to hang with your own race, first and foremost. Forget about any anti-racist principles for a start, there is de facto racial segregation and it is a fact of prison life in the USA, especially, which you won't be able to change. In many prisons in Ireland, prisoners will operate a type of de facto segregation along sectarian lines, even if they are not overtly political prisoners. If you are gay, it is probably better that you keep quiet about it until you are well orientated to your surroundings, announcing your sexual preference can lead to undue attention for all sorts of reasons, not least, it will attract predators.

Even if you are anthropologically strange to crime and punishment, if you follow this guide, it will make your first week in prison bearable. Learn to assimilate, your time will pass quicker and this advice may even save your life. This is by no means an exhaustive guide, but it will cover most, if not all of the basics that you will need during your first time in prison. Remember not to bring undue attention to yourself, always keep to the forefront of your mind, that you want to fit in, not stand out.

As stated above, learn to read the prison dynamics, always trust your instincts and cop-on quickly to any 'pecking-order', that operates within the prison you are in. Always bear in mind, that no matter how tough you think you are, you will almost certainly meet someone who is a lot tougher than you, in a prison setting. Prison will never be an easy time, in fact, the only people who think like that are the hopelessly institutionalized recidivists, who can not survive on the outside. Don't let anyone take liberties with you, or your property—put up a fight if need be! It is worth going to the punishment cells for a few hours or days, the alternative is to risk being picked on for the rest of your time in prison. It is not rocket science.

In conclusion, prison can be an experience that you can survive, relatively unscathed. Prison has never actually reformed anyone, but if you keep to the basic principles set out here, in this simple guide, you will survive with your dignity and hopefully everything else still intact.

An Irish Ex-Prisoner's Song

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Liam A Ryan

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