I spent eight years in federal prison in California for drug trafficking and gun possession.
How to Survive in Prison: 8 Etiquette Rules
Are you or anyone you know facing prison time for some sort of criminal conviction? Or, do you have a close friend or family member who has recently been incarcerated and does not know what to expect in prison?
The following eight most important rules for surviving in prison should be a big help. Some of them were told to me by a career criminal at the onset of a nine-year prison sentence that I completed. Others I learned from experience during my incarceration. In other words, I am not only passing on theoretical information I received from someone else; I am also speaking from experience. These rules will help you or someone you know survive in prison. They might just save someone's life!
Rule 1: Respect Other Inmates
To respect others basically means not to say or do anything to them that you would not want them to say or do to you. This should go without saying, but you would be surprised at how many inmates do not follow this rule and end up getting in trouble, hurt, or killed in prison. One of the worst forms of disrespect I am aware of is stealing from another prisoner. Stealing is not tolerated in prison. Your own friends will beat you up for stealing.
You also do not want to call someone a “punk.” This is just inviting trouble. Inmates take that seriously. A punk is someone who won’t stand up for himself. Therefore, when you call someone a punk, you are basically insulting his manhood and challenging him to a fight.
Cutting in line is another violation. Prison has lines for everything: the chow hall, work, the clinic, etc. At times, prisoners must wait half an hour or more in several lines a day. When you cut in front of them, they see that as you thinking you are better than them, and they do not like that at all. Moreover, not only will the prisoner you cut in front of be angry at you, but everyone behind him will be upset with you as well.
In some prisons, it is basically part of the prisoners’ code to discipline those who cut in line. If you are a prisoner standing in line and someone cuts in front of you, you are expected to “check” that inmate (tell him he needs to get in the back of the line), and fight him if necessary. Otherwise, others will think you are a punk and beat you up.
Rule 2: Do Not Get Involved With a Gang
Forget what prison movies depict about the necessity of joining a prison gang for survival. In most prisons, you do not need to join a gang for protection. I was never part of a prison gang, and I never got beat up, stabbed, raped, or anything like that. As a matter of fact, I never even got into one fight during my entire incarceration; although, I got close a couple of times. There were some arguments. However, I was in a low-security prison for most of my sentence.
Nonetheless, the people that were getting beat up and stabbed were the gang members! The same ones that were supposed to have all of the protection! That is because gangs are always fighting each other for control. I remember when a fight broke out between the Norteños and the Sureños, and a bunch of them got beat up. This was in Lompoc federal prison in California. Across the street, at a higher security prison, Norteños and Sureños even sliced each other with tin from soda cans.
Not to mention, after joining a gang, it is very difficult to get out. Once, a shot caller (leader) for the Norteños tried stepping down in Lompoc Federal Prison, where I did most of my time. A couple of guys from his gang beat him up with padlocks inside socks. He did not even see it coming. He was sitting at a table in the courtyard when they came from behind him and attacked him with swift brutality. He received many severe blows to the head. He didn't stand a chance.
Afterward, the scene of the crime looked like someone had been murdered. There was a pool of blood on the ground with blood spatter in various directions. Last I heard, the shot caller was in the hospital with a coma because his brain was swollen.
Therefore, unless you absolutely, positively have to join a gang for survival because you are in some kind of hard-core, do-or-die prison, stay as far away from gangs as possible.
Rule 3: Do Not Do Drugs
The first time I saw someone die of a drug overdose was in prison. My neighbor overdosed on heroin and died right in front of me. Not to mention, prisons perform random drug tests on inmates. I was tested about twice a year. Sometimes, they would wake me up at 3:00 a.m. to test me.
If your drug test comes up dirty, then you are taken to solitary confinement for something like a month. In addition, you could lose a few weeks of good time, which means you will have to do a few more weeks in prison. I know a few people this happened to.
Solitary confinement is basically prison inside of prison. There, you are confined to your cell for 23 hours a day. You do not even get to come out to eat. They bring your food to you, and you eat it in your cell. The only reading material you get is a Bible. For the one hour of time you do get out of your cell, you can shower and make a phone call.
If you are found smuggling drugs into prison, you could get an additional five years added to your prison sentence. For some prisoners, this extends their sentence two-fold! I remember when a guy tried smuggling a few balloons of methamphetamine through visiting. A visitor passed them on to him, and he swallowed them, planning to retrieve them later.
Unfortunately for him, he was spotted on camera by the guards who were monitoring visits. Upon finishing his visit, he was escorted to a dry cell. A dry cell is a room with no toilet. Instead, you handle your business on a wire-mesh screen over a drain. That way, officers can sift through your waste in search of drugs. You are also recorded by a camera the whole time.
Can you believe that this guy actually tried swallowing his balloons of drugs again—after he defecated on the wire-mesh screen? The prison guards told him that it did not matter because they had him on camera, and that was enough evidence to convict him. The culprit spent some time in the hole, got transferred to a higher security prison, and no doubt got some time added onto his sentence.
Also, I am sure his visitor got into some kind of trouble with the law as well. Bringing contraband into prison is a felony offense. And on top of all of that, drugs are generally much more expensive in prison than on the street.
Rule 4: Do Not Gamble
Gambling could get you hurt really badly in prison. I remember a guy who ran up an $1,800 gambling debt that he just flat-out refused to pay. He was a Sureño, so the people from his gang were responsible for violating (disciplining) him. Three of them gave him a beat down with padlocks inside socks. When I saw the medical team take him away, he had a gauze wrapped around his head; he was shirtless, and he had blood all over his head, chest, and stomach.
Oftentimes, people like that gambler get violated because they make bets with people from other gangs or races. If they do not pay up on their debts, that could lead to a race or gang riot. Violating the offender quells this.
Rule 5: Do Not Get Involved With Homosexuals
AIDS rates are much higher in prison than on the streets. Not to mention, homosexuals are generally looked down on in prison. I lived in a 70-man dorm, and there were quite a few "known" homosexuals who lived there as well. Many times, other inmates in my dorm would openly speak out against homosexuals in their very presence, practically challenging them to say something, which they never did. Another problem with homosexuality in prison is that your girlfriend might be someone else’s girlfriend too, which could lead to a fight. In other words, jealousy is a factor.
Also, gangs have a zero-tolerance policy for homosexuality. I remember when the Sureños found out that one of their own was involved with a homosexual, and they gave him an unrelenting beating. I was taking a shower at the time, and I heard the commotion on the other side of the shower wall. It was brutal. It sounded like two or three guys stomping one guy for several minutes. There were a lot of thuds from what sounded like boots to the head.
Rule 6: Do Not Talk to the Guards
What I mean by not talking to the guards is not telling them illegitimate things that other inmates are doing. Keep that stuff to yourself! Prison guards respect a snitch no more than prisoners do.
If you do something to anger them, they will let it be known that you are a snitch. If you are lucky, you will be able to secure a transfer to another prison before you get hurt. However, it would only be a matter of time before inmates in that prison found out that you are a snitch. In other words, you would have to watch your back until your release.
You cannot rely on prison guards to protect you in prison. You have to remember the environment you are in. It is not like the outside, where you could return to the safety of your home after reporting some crime to the police. In prison, you have to return to an environment full of criminals, most of which are there because someone turned them in. They have some resentments against that, and you may not wake up in the same condition you were in before you went to sleep, if you wake up.
Rule 7: Keep Yourself Busy With Positive Activities
Positive activities include things like exercising, working, and gaining an education. While in Lompoc Federal Prison, I exercised on a regular basis for about an hour a day, five days a week. I also got a job in the sign factory as a quality assurance inspector. I worked there for about three-and-a-half years for seven hours a day. The pay was pretty good, too, in terms of prison pay. I earned up to $200 a month.
In addition, I took some college classes to further my education. They were night classes that were offered in the education department a few times a week. College teachers from the local Allan Hancock Community College conducted them, and prisoners earned college credits upon their completion. This helped me avoid other activities and individuals that could have gotten me into trouble. As the old saying goes, "Idleness is the devil's playground."
Rule 8: Get God in Your Life
After getting locked up, I began reading the Bible and became a Christian. There are actually many Christians in prison. That really helped me because the very same rules for surviving in prison I have been explaining in this article are included in the Bible. The Bible will help you keep your priorities straight, stay out of trouble, and make wise decisions in prison (and after your release).
Moreover, there are many Christians to talk to in prison who can encourage you to make good decisions. I had some good Christian friends in prison, and we talked often. In Lompoc Federal Prison, the chapel was open regularly, allowing inmates like myself to watch religious DVDs, check out books from the chapel library, or attend a variety of religious services throughout the week. This kept me away from the drama of the institution.
Prison is not a safe place. However, following the above eight most important rules for surviving in prison will greatly increase your chances of coping with it. They could make the difference between life and death!
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Michelle raven on March 05, 2020:
Hello X Con, i am heading to jail April 6th on a second DUI charge. My laywer is still negotiating but said 100% i will be doing minimum 4 months to 2 years. I have never been to jail before and very concerned for my safety and mental health. I have severe PTSD from horrible abuse in all forms growing up and iny adult life. I dont need sympathy i just want some advice on how to survive and not come out worse then going in. I am canadian and it will be a provincial jail. Any further advice would be appreciated. Thank for ypir article and 8 rules, it was informative.
David Cipriani on March 04, 2020:
I loved prison because of all the homosexual sex it was the only thing that got me through!
Laura on February 09, 2020:
Thanks for giving an honest assessment of what it is like to be
in prison and what an inmate needs to do to survive. I pray for all inmates who are trying to survive and do their time without getting involved with all of the violence.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 20, 2019:
Unique article. Interesting. Thanks.
John on December 17, 2019:
Wow-very informative. Thank you, I will pass this along to my son-in a jail for a few months and already been tagged as a ‘bank’. Had to cut him off on food and they told him we are on food stamps and welfare to get them off him sucks
Jason on May 30, 2019:
Great article. Thanks for taking the time to help potential inmates out. As a Caucasian can you be friends and form relationships with other ethnicities? Planning on doing my time, reflecting and improving myself while there. Hopefully I can do that regardless of my skin color or anybody else’s?
Ed on July 02, 2018:
I think these idiots in prison who want respect are crazy, where was the respect on the outside when you killed, rapped, robbed, and treated people like dirt.
Stick your respect where the sun doesn’t shine.
donte on June 16, 2018:
this is true
Al on June 07, 2018:
And this is according to whom?
cindy gannaway on March 25, 2018:
What happens if you get in a fight my son has never been to prison he has been there 10 days and he has gotten into a fight what is the prison going to do to him. He was reading his bible. One of the other inmates was talking crap and when my son got smart back they got in a fight. He is in there for rehab.
Sheryl on March 13, 2018:
I want to thank you. I appreciate your honesty, and willingness to share your life story. It takes courage and great effort to step up and inform people of those realities which you experienced. My son was lost, ruined, homeless and caught up in addictions. That lifestyle has landed him in prison for 4 years. It's been almost a year and I've finally gained a visit. He quit writing back three months ago. I am terrified for him.
SweatinInIndy on December 20, 2017:
What advice do you have for someone facing prison time for the first time, on domestic violence charges, who is also chronically ill, frail, and has lost over 100 pounds? Or since this is my first time having ANY charges against me in my life, do you think they'll reduce my charges, and just put me on probation, house arrest? I used to weight 210 pounds, and now I'm down to 120 pounds. Is there any hierarchy for charges such as we hear about chomos? Do my DV charges fall into any prison discipline by inmates? Do chronically ill inmates get taken advantage of?
marcia on October 28, 2017:
my dad might be going to jail and i don't know what to do?he might not servive it and get into fights ,I'm scared
Jonathan on October 16, 2017:
I have a brother in prison and I can tell you I don't know what prison you went to it may not been as bad but there are prisons that are so bad word it's different some prisons are better than others according to my brother and some you really do have to consider staying with a group which I guess you can call it a gang maybe you didn't have to do that
Bill martin on September 16, 2017:
Might be going to jail soon horrified after reading this.
JacksonLiferDiggsIII on September 15, 2017:
Rule 9: Don't Drop the Soap
Ofc Rick on August 02, 2017:
As a CO, this is 100 percent accurate.
Jim on May 16, 2017:
Thanks for this honest and informative article! Super helpful.
Travis Short on March 30, 2017:
Dont forget about , whistling , only free birds whistle , do it in the pen , and you ll soon find out its forbidden by all the other inmates .
Randy on January 31, 2017:
So a person could also get in trouble for not believing in Christianity or a god. I am struck by the prison only having a Christian chapel? Are you also intolerant of other religions besides your own? Often I find though I accept others beliefs my lack of belief of their religion or a god is not tolerated.
Randy on January 31, 2017:
Too bad Christianity is pushed and the bible is the only book in solitary. I am a buddhist and society is always trying to push christianity on people
Jannette on January 09, 2017:
Thanks im only 12 and i did drugs in school now im going to jail
Eric on November 05, 2016:
X-con how will i stay out of trouble if i am in jail for 3 months
Danno on October 06, 2016:
1. Mind your own business
2. Don't snitch
3. Don't touch another inmate's stuff
4. Pay back your debts
5. Don't mess with someone else's bitch
deanroy on September 01, 2016:
Thanks for this man. Good and Awesome writing. I love this. By the way. You are really a role model.
Timsouthga@yahoo.com on May 01, 2016:
Close friend on October 10, 2015:
Alright I think i believe I approached it the wrong way. How I meant to say is that I knew Henry Jones from birth till I was about 15 years old, a whole different side of him that's not portrayed in his huge scam. I'm currently 21 years old and have a much more open mind about things now and I just wanted to find out how the old guy is doing in there. Good or bad I would still like to know. he really doesn't have any family and I'm all he's got, and u seem to be the only person who ever made contact with him. I read all ur articles and im hoping very much that he can find the way as u did. Would greatly appreciate it X-Con! Thanks
Close friend on October 09, 2015:
Is there any way I can get in contact with you about Henry Jones? Guy was like a father to me growing up and haven't talked to him in over 6 years. Would greatly appreciate it.
massivegonads on September 28, 2015:
Best thing you can do, is find out who the top dog is. On your first day if possible. You find out who the top man is and you walk right up to him and smash him, as hard as you can, on the nose!
Whatever happens after that....no one gonna mess withyou!
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on March 19, 2014:
cmclaugh - I don't know whether the same rules apply for women. Thanks for the idea about "Positive Activities in Prison".
cmclaugh on March 18, 2014:
I volunteer at a jail and this is awesome information for folks I work with who will be going to prison. The anxiety level is so high for the first-timers; hearing this from someone who has lived it will be most helpful to them. I wonder if you know whether the rules/experience is similar for women? Thanks for taking the time.
Also, an idea for another article- "Positive Activities in Prison" this is another big question that comes up.
pechuga on December 18, 2013:
I served 188 months in prison and that is true
Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on October 23, 2013:
I've never been in prison, but as a pastor I often work with people who have been. This looks like good info to have. Thanks.
T.R.H. from Haleyville, Alabama on October 20, 2013:
Spent just shy of 18 1/2 years in the A.D.O.C. in Alabama. Unfortunately, due to my being young and extremely stupid in 1991, I fell into the trap so very many young-victs fall into their first few years in a level 4-5 prison: Not realizing all the disciplinary actions taken against me for fighting, racketeering (running a "2-for-3" store and Ncaa/NFL slick picks), disobeying direct orders, failed urine screens and countless contraband charges were ensuring I would remain in prison throughout most of my adult life.
Parole hearings, re-classification and work-release (are ya kidding?) didn't mean anything to me for a decade. Then, as my elder family members began dying off, the baby my girlfriend was pregnant with when I copped my case in 1990 graduated high school and the young bucks began referring to me as "pops" when I was only 34 (the #169131 plastered across all my belongings seemed eons old compared to their #2700's) regret, shame and remorse (Lord at the remorse!) set in and I wanted desperately to erase my first 7 years in prison so bad.
You know, I found myself trying so hard to rescue 18-23 year old kids who I knew was making the wrong moves. Tried so hard to positively influence them before falling into the hands of Crip, Blood, IGD, SB/AB and the sexual predators. Tried to protect them from my misery.
Willing to bet that out of 500 young kids i tried to help - 490 wound up paying for all those "FREE" cigs, weed, OCs and coffee they were getting those first few months with either their life, soul or on their knees.
Anyway, great post and of all people on Hubpages - Man I Get Ya. Just wish I would have listened to all those #1100-#1200 "pops" that tried to guide me. Yeah, I knew all the rules and how to run circles around them. Problem was, not TRULY UNDERSTANDING the CONSEQUENCES (later) would be what eventually ruined my life.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on April 15, 2013:
DommaLeigh - Cool. And it differs a little from prison to prison, too.
DommaLeigh on April 15, 2013:
My friend who is serving 20 years for something he didn't do, (I know everyone says that but this time it's true and the proof was not allowed because of the way his lawyer obtained it) he agrees with what you said except for the Homosexuals part. (I read him your hub over the phone) He says it's okay to be friends as long as you are not "close friends" and as long as everyone knows that you are not that way. He plays card with a "couple" and has no problems with any of the inmates.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on March 16, 2013:
MarieAlana1 - Oh, cookies. That's nice. Thanks for commenting!
Marie Alana from Ohio on March 16, 2013:
Great hub! I'm glad you got God in your life. I'm really close to some people who carry out the Ministry of bringing the Bible to prison Ministry. They sometimes even bring cookies.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on February 25, 2013:
flacionohio - Yes. I wish I would have found God before I went to prison. That's life, though. At lease He's a part of my life now. That's what's most important.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on February 25, 2013:
healthylife - Thank you for your comment!
flacoinohio from Ohio on February 25, 2013:
Well written and tastefully honest. I like that your advice is targeting those who are going to prison, not those who need a little scaring to get them to change their ways before they do something that will eventually get sent to prison. Is it not ironic that finding god seems to only happen after one has made their share of life changing mistakes? Good hub, shared and voted up.
healthylife2 on February 25, 2013:
Very well written and so kind of you to help others that might find themselves going to prison. The best advice comes from personal experience. A dentist friend ended up in prison for overprescribing medication and had to figure out how to survive there through a little trial and error. This hub wull help others. Glad that you have learned from your experience and improved your life.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on February 09, 2013:
KawikaChann - Thank you for commenting. God bless!
Kawika Chann from Northwest, Hawaii, Anykine place on February 09, 2013:
Thanks for sharing i n a subject that not too many people talk about - this is must-read info for everyone because anyone can end up in a cell at any time. Be blessed, and in all you do, have peace. Kawi.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on February 03, 2013:
minababe - Yes, ma'am.
minababe on February 03, 2013:
Wow, this is outstanding! Not only was it informative, it blew apart one of the biggest things I've kept hearing over and over again about prison-- that unless someone joined a gang, they would be shredded to pieces or something. It's good to know that this isn't necessarily true, that inmates can avoid that kind of nastiness.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on February 03, 2013:
visionandfocus & L.L. Woodard - Thank you for your comments and sharing my hub!
L.L. Woodard from Oklahoma City on February 03, 2013:
With the ever-increasing numbers of people being imprisoned in the United States, it's difficult to imagine that a great number of families and friends aren't impacted by knowing someone who is in prison. These words of wisdom and experience from someone who has been there and come out the other side as a whole, functioning member of society has great value.
Great hub; voted up and Shared.
visionandfocus from North York, Canada on February 03, 2013:
Wow, this is one of the most fascinating, useful and informative hubs I've ever come across, and talk about insider knowledge! Well-written and well-presented as well. Your transformation is a credit to you, the people who helped you, and your faith. Perhaps one day you will put your story and expertise all together in a biography. That would be so awesome and would certainly benefit a lot of people.
Thanks for sharing. Voted up and everything else, and shared as well.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on January 23, 2013:
Alexander Mark - I'm glad you found my hub informative and interesting. I'm glad you enjoyed it. And thank you for commentint!
Alexander Silvius from Portland, Oregon on January 23, 2013:
I really hate movies or shows about prisons, absolutely boring. But this was fascinating and very informative. It is unlikely I will ever go to prison, but I have a tiny fear that my faith or some sort of mistaken identity incident will land me there. It is good to know what NOT to do.
What also piqued my interest was the fact that you should not join a gang, and I do remember now how movies sometimes portray that as a positive move. It's interesting that such compromise is not just unnecessary, but also destructive. Hollywood sure has us fooled!
I am also encouraged a great deal by your assertion that there are many Christians in prison. It makes me grateful my tax dollars support these awful institutions because someone like you might have a second chance whereas in the world they may continue to dismiss the concept of God and salvation.
What an awesome hub! Thank you.
William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on December 29, 2012:
Voted up, useful, and interesting. Thanks for sharing x-con.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on December 17, 2012:
searchinsany - I'm glad you enjoyed it, my friend; and thank you for your comment!
Alexander Gibb from UK on December 16, 2012:
Thank you for sharing, I am sure many will benefit from reading about your experience.
This Hub is well written and it held my attention from start to finish.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on December 09, 2012:
Credence2 - Thank you for your comment. I really appreciate it!
Credence2 from Florida (Space Coast) on December 08, 2012:
Hello, X-con, it is so courageous of you to share this kind of information with the hubpages audience. I certainly learned to dispel many myths I had about prison life based on your account.
Having Christian cell mates may be the only way that I would be able to get through the experience of prison life.
A most remarkable read, thanks for sharing!
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on November 30, 2012:
Thanks! God bless!
Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on November 29, 2012:
excellent writing about a very useful topic... I have a friend who is a chaplain in a jail and was particularly interested in what you had to say about having many Christian friends. I'm going to pass this link along to my chaplain friend.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on July 26, 2012:
Ada - Where is he getting deported to?
Ada on July 25, 2012:
I feel for you, hope it goes well where you are, I'm going the same with my son for the moment he will be released in two weeks and we have to wait when immigration pick him up, just terrible feeling, to bad that laws are so strict here, about the guns laws are not that strict, they don't give other chance, my son is grown up here and don't know anything else out this country. I hope who did those laws god help them to rip their kids apart them maybe with guns or who knows to feel the pain, because all are immigrants here and they forget that
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on May 14, 2012:
April Reynolds - Good point.
April Reynolds from Arizona on May 14, 2012:
This sounds like good rules to follow in life outside of prison as well, where the consequences might not be so rough.
Linda Bilyeu from Orlando, FL on May 09, 2012:
Very impressive! You sound like you were a near perfect prisoner and you learned early on how to make it out alive. I've only read one hub so far...I'm hoping that you might be a mentor at a prison to help guide other inmates through their sentence.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on April 15, 2012:
Thanks for the comment, and the encouragement!
Kelly Umphenour from St. Louis, MO on April 15, 2012:
Very interesting hub - hubs! I have read several...I am so glad you are writing about this stuff. There may be people who need to know this if they are facing a jail sentence. Knowing these - could literally save someone else's life.
Great job - and way to turn it around! Very good writiing - I knew you were smart!
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on March 18, 2012:
Caleb DRC - Thank you, brother!
Caleb DRC on March 18, 2012:
Not only are your hubs a fascinating read, but I believe they will be an enormous benefit for others who my be involved in, or considering, a life of crime by convincing them to do otherwise. I pray your hubs not only do this, but more importantly, convince others to adhere to the commands of Christ.
Volted up, useful, interesting, and beautiful(for what this hub will do for others)
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on March 11, 2012:
littlethespians from Farmville, Virginia on March 11, 2012:
Well thought out.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on January 25, 2012:
Just ASk Susan - Thanks!
Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on January 25, 2012:
Interesting hub that hopefully will be helpful for anyone have to serve time. Enjoyed reading this and Welcome to HubPages.
X-Con (author) from The Free World! on January 25, 2012:
gmwilliams - You're welcome.
Grace Marguerite Williams from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York on January 24, 2012:
Thank you for this informative hub.