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Prison Survival Skills

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Nobody behind bars wants to be there. Prison is a very unpleasant place. Ex-cons complain about the noise: prisoners yelling at each other; prisoners yelling at no one; metal doors banging closed; bells and buzzers; and, what one former inmate described as “the deafening noise of hatred.”

There’s the boredom; long, long hours to fill with nothing to do. The smell, sometimes described as a mixture of dirty socks and Lysol, is frequently mentioned. It’s an environment that’s completely alien to regular folk.

Full disclosure: The only prisons the writer has been in are the ones converted into museums; there is silence on the proposition that he should have spent time in an active jail.

Violence Is a Constant Problem

Prisons are violent places, which is hardly surprising because that’s where violent criminals are held. Many of those behind bars see assault as a cure to most of life’s frustrations.

In Canada, the likelihood of an prison inmate dying from a non-natural cause is eight times higher than in the population as a whole. Suicides, murders, and accidents happen more frequently in prisons than outside. Beatings are commonplace.

According to The Journal of Correctional Health, “Approximately 21 percent of male inmates are physically assaulted during a six-month period” in American prisons.

In just one incident in April 2018 in South Carolina, seven inmates were killed with homemade knives, known as shanks. The mass fight in the maximum-security Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopsville took seven hours to bring under control and sent 17 additional inmates to hospital. The Guardian notes the incident marks “an alarming increase in bloody incidents within the correctional system over the past five years.”

Seized prisoner's weapons.

Seized prisoner's weapons.

In British prisons an assault happens every 20 minutes, while between 2017 and 2018 the rate of suicides rose by 12 percent. The Independent reports that “Incidents of self-harm in jails across England and Wales increased to 49,565 in the year to June 2018, with the number of self-harming individuals up by 10 percent, despite a reduction in the overall prison population.”


Prisoner Sexual Assault

Newcomers are rightly terrified of being raped in prison, although this is far less likely to happen than getting punched in the face.

Mothers Jones says the figures show that “between three percent and nine percent of male inmates say they have been sexually assaulted behind bars, which suggests more than 180,000 current prisoners may have been victimized.” The magazine adds that a significant portion of those assaults are committed by staff.

Others say the incidence of prison rape is way higher. Researchers at the University of South Dakota surveyed seven Midwestern prisons and found that “21 percent of the inmates had experienced at least one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since incarcerated . . . ” The researchers add the caveat that the occurrence of prison rape is “one of the most illusive statistics in the criminal justice field.”

In prison lingo “Punks” are people who become the “girlfriend” of another inmate as a form of protection; those in the know say this is never a good strategy. Punks are despised and become the slaves of their “owners” who might sell them to another inmate or gamble them away in a card game.

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“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

— Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Former prisoners offer advice in online forums on how to avoid being a victim of sexual assault. The most important rule is to never show weakness or vulnerability. Crying will almost certainly make someone a target.

Working out is also highly recommended; physically fit inmates are better able to defend themselves and deter assaults before they happen.

In the U.S., the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, was supposed to have brought an end to the trauma and humiliation of prison sexual assaults. However, Jamie Fellner of The Daily Beast says “It’s still horrifyingly common.”

Coaching for Incarceration

For first-time inmates, the prison environment can be a terrible shock, so some white-collar crooks with money are turning to prison coaches to prepare them for their new lives.

A few days before he began serving his 150-year sentence for fraud Bernard Madoff sought the services of a prison coach. Herb Hoelter, describes himself as a “Criminal justice consultant.” He told The Associated Press how he helped Madoff get ready for life inside the Butner Prison Complex in North Carolina.

Hoelter, who has never been incarcerated, said he told Madoff he would not be a target for other inmates and should be safe from violence. He said Madoff was not afraid about spending the rest of his life behind bars.

Writing in The New York Post Douglas Montero had a different view. He quotes “a source who has a relative locked up with the 71-year-old Madoff” as saying, “Some of the guys were talking about smacking him around a little, just to get the notoriety of it.”

And so it was that in March 2010, The Telegraph reported that “Madoff, 71, suffered a broken nose, fractured ribs, and cuts to his head and face after he was reportedly attacked last December by a prisoner who believed Madoff owed him money.”

Preparation Is the Key to Survival

Steven Oberfest trains his clients to be ready for the rough stuff.

Oberfest has some experience to draw on as he spent time in a federal prison in Pennsylvania.

Oberfest told Rich Schapiro of The New York Daily News that his white-collar clients “have never been in a fight in their lives—they don’t know what violence is, and now they’re entering a world where anything can happen.”

Oberfest charges his clients for advice on how to survive inside prison. There are rules on prison etiquette that the unwary had better learn fast: “If you’re confused about something, you can’t go to a correction officer and ask him what’s happening because the other inmates will think you’re a snitch.” Snitches are among the most loathed of all inmates and come in for the worst abuse.

But, according to Oberfest the most important skill to learn is self-defence. As a mixed martial arts expert he teaches his clients “how to instantly drop an attacker.”

If someone is able to humiliate the new inmate on his first day, “that just opens the door for everybody not to respect you. The most important thing is mutual respect.”

Others say that if a fight seems inevitable be the first to swing a punch. If you lose and get bloodied do not yell for help from the guards, this will mark you as a snitch.

Another rule is do not discuss your crime, especially if it’s sexual and double especially if it involved children. Such a revelation will guarantee being beaten up or killed. Do not ask other inmates about their crimes.

Self-Improvement Is Important

Sitting in your cell bemoaning your fate is a sure way to make your sentence pass slowly.

Those who have survived a long stretch behind bars say a good strategy is to use the time positively by learning a new language or even working on getting a university degree.

Michael Santos served a 25-year sentence for trafficking cocaine. He writes that “The key to avoiding monotony was to work toward clearly identified goals. As long as I knew the goals that I wanted to achieve, I could always move forward, knowing precisely what I would have to do the next day.”

Santos earned a university degree while inside. He also said it was important to work on his mental and physical fitness.

But, improving personal education requires discipline and intelligence, a couple of qualities often missing in many inmates.

For the average person, going to prison will be a very difficult experience, but it’s best to be aware of what lies ahead rather than get a horrible surprise when it happens.

Bonus Factoids

  • Do not, under any circumstances, end up in prison in Venezuela. The Director of the Venezuelan Prison Observatory, Humberto Prado, is quoted by the BBC as saying that 80 percent of the country’s prisons are run by armed inmate gangs and that security forces have little or no say in what happens inside their institutions.
  • The incarceration rate in the United States is 670 per 100,000 people. In China, it’s 118 per 100,000, and in Denmark it’s 59 per 100,000.
  • Charles Fossard went to prison in Australia in 1903 for the murder of an elderly man. He died in 1974 at the age of 92, while still behind bars. He set a world record of 70 years and 303 days for serving the longest prison sentence.


  • “Contextualization of Physical and Sexual Assault in Male Prisons: Incidents and Their Aftermath.” Nancy Wolff and Jing Shi, Journal of Correctional Health Care, January 2, 2009.
  • “Seven Inmates Brutally Killed with Knives in South Carolina Prison Unrest.” Ed Pilkington, The Guardian, April 17, 2018.
  • “Self-Harm and Violent Attacks in Prisons Hit Record High as Incidents Rise by 20% in a Year, Figures Show.” May Bulman, The Independent, October 25, 2018.
  • “America’s 10 Worst Prison.” James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, Mother Jones, May 6, 2013.
  • “What We Know About Violence in America’s Prisons.” Dave Gilson, Mother Jones, July/August 2016.
  • “Stop Prison Rape Now.” Jamie Fellner, The Daily Beast, September 4, 2013.
  • “Prison Coach: Bernard Madoff Was not Afraid of Jail Sentence.” Associated Press, July 15, 2009.
  • “Bernard Madoff Beaten up in Prison.” Tom Leonard, The Telegraph, March 18, 2010.
  • “How I got Through 25 Years in Federal Prison.” Michael Santos, Business Insider, September 7, 2013.

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 Rupert Taylor

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