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.
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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.