(Published on Huffington Post)
Prison is a dangerous place to live, life-threateningly so.
For those who have been sentenced to serve any amount of time behind bars, or if you are merely curious as to what it takes to live there without dying, the following are the Top-10 time-tested strategies for surviving in prison.
1) Know Your Surroundings... every moment of every day.
To live in prison is to live amongst people who have made the worst mistakes people can make. It doesn't mean that everyone around you is bad. It just means that most around you are poor decision makers. The problem this poses is that at any given moment someone could make another terrible mistake, one which, if you're not focused on your surroundings, could easily involve you. And since many of your prisoner-neighbors are there for violent crimes, including rape and murder, someone's mistake could prove to be an especially pricey one.
You'll have to develop a bit of a sixth sense to recognize when something is amiss. If you are constantly aware of your surroundings, though, you will notice when something isn't quite as it should be -- sudden movements, louder voices, people staring -- and areas that you should avoid -- blind spots from cameras and mirrors and areas that are "controlled" by certain groups.
2) Do Not Disrespect Others
Perhaps the most harmful action that you should never take in prison is to tell on someone (snitch). This act alone is considered to be the ultimate disrespect, and one that can literally get you killed. But there are several other things that are disrespectful in prison that should be avoided as a matter of course, such as:
· Never call someone a "punk" or a "b*tch." This is a direct affront to their manhood and will spark an instant violent reaction.
· Never assume that you have a right to any item, even if it might otherwise be considered as community property. Many will lay claim to seats, certain areas of the yard, or even items the prison gives freely. Observe. If those seem to be claimed, avoid them, or at least ask before making any move to use them.
· Never cut in any line. Cutting in line at the chow hall, canteen, or any other place, even if invited by someone you know, can start a riot.
· Never enter another person's cell. A cell is the ultimate personal space. Even if invited, entering someone's cell could be disastrous.
3) Do NOT Join Gangs.
It's a common misconception that in order to stay safe you must join a gang. The reality, however, is that the majority of everyone who is subject to violence is a member of a gang. Violence is expected in gangs, and in fact is often used as initiation into one, and breeds situations that you cannot avoid if you are a member. The pressure to join a gang is nothing compared to the expectations that are piled on you once you do join. The wisest move is to remain unaffiliated.
Note: If not a member of a gang, it is also wise to stay away from known gang-members as much as possible. Simply being seen as one who favors one gang over another will affiliate you with that gang. If violence occurs between them, you may be targeted.
4) Keep Healthy... and Clean.
Maintaining your health in any environment is a positive thing, but this is especially so in prison. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most challenging places in which to stay healthy. While prison food is supposed to be nutritionally balanced, it usually is not. It tends to be high in calories and low in taste. That means you will likely have to supplement it with healthier choices off canteen, making deals for more fruits and vegetables and taking vitamin supplements. Some additional stay-healthy ideas:
· Get lots of exercise. Not only is it obviously healthy, but it will alleviate the stress and make you less-likely to be targeted (as the weak are targeted first.)
· Drink plenty of water (some doctors recommend 1/2 ounce per pound of your weight.)
· Don't do drugs! It's common to want to find any form of escape in prison. Drugs may have provided that on the other side of the wall, but in prison, they will get you killed. Getting caught using them will instantly land you in solitary confinement, which is a dismal life. But far worse, getting them is not easy, which translates into favors owed to the likes of gang members. Worse still, the odds of getting a bad batch of drugs that may kill you are very high.
5) Don't Whine.
One of the fastest ways to get under the skin of prison guards and fellow prisoners alike is to be a complainer. Whiners put themselves on the radar of everyone who does bad things to anyone that annoys. Prisoners are all feeling the same pains. To vocalize it more than anyone else gives the impression that you are weaker than everyone else. Weakness is bad. But not much will make your life more difficult that having the guards despise you.
6) Be Patient. Be Flexible.
Prison may be the most bureaucratic and inefficient place on earth. If you're waiting for a decision or for something to happen that is within the control of the prison, double the expected response time. Nothing moves quickly. Further, just because something is one way one day, that doesn't mean it will be that way tomorrow. If you cannot go with the guards’ whims that make little or no sense and unusual flow of the prison system, you will drive yourself insane.
7) Stay Sane.
Prison life will be difficult, no matter how you slice it. There is very little support for those who cannot fight the stress of it. The prison's way of dealing with troubled minds is to contain them, to lock them away in solitary confinement, keeping them secluded from the rest. While that may sound like a positive means of getting by, you will be surrounded by truly broken minds. It will be loud, obnoxious, uncontrollable torture, and in a place that you cannot step away from for more than an hour a day. (Most solitary confined prisoners are locked in their cells for 23-hours per day.) Trying to find an outlet for your stress will generally fare better, such as exercise, sports, communication with someone who cares (from outside of prison walls, or possibly a counselor), or just by developing a routine that works for you.
8) Learn Something.
One of the positive things about time in prison is time. Life outside is hectic, often prohibiting you from accomplishing truly productive things that will help you build on your future. Now is a perfect opportunity to learn something. If you have not graduated high school, get your GED. It's free and available in all prisons. If you already have your diploma, learn a vocation or even go to college. Prison education options are available to every prisoner. Many classes are offered by the prison itself. But even where none are offered, colleges all over the U.S. have print-based courses specifically designed for prisoner education. Prison is a much easier place to live when you can think of it as school. The future benefits you'll gain from earning vocational certificates or even college degrees right from your cell could be huge.
9) Communicate with Loved Ones.
Burning bridges seems to be instinctual among many prisoners as they enter the prison gates. Whether out of embarrassment for finding themselves in prison or because they somehow think this is the right thing to do, many prisoners find themselves instantly alone. This is the worst decision a prisoner can make. Maintaining your role as a husband, father, mother, wife, son or daughter or even a friend maintains the most vital link to the outside world. It's not easy to deal with outside-world problems from inside. But at the same time, concerning yourself with real-world problems tends to shrink the day-to-day stresses that you will experience inside.
Your loved ones can literally be your life line, but you can also be theirs. While it will be a difficult time for all involved, staying connected can have a strengthening tie that lasts long after you leave prison. But severing those ties now, or even loosening them, will all but guarantee that those relationships and friendships will forever be strained, if not lost altogether.
10) Have a Plan.
What are you going to do tomorrow, next week, next year... the next time you see the view from the other side of the wall? Making a solid plan that spans from the next moment in your cell deep into your next moments of freedom can give you the motivation you need to take the next step, and the next one. Before you know it, your surroundings melt into the background, the troubles around you become trivial, and your existence inside has a very shiny silver lining as you work towards positive future endeavors.
Surviving in prison is hard work for all involved, but if you start on the right foot, every step will get easier. If done right, time in prison can go a long way towards a better life both inside and outside of prison life, for yourself and for those who love you.
Prison Lives provides positive links between those who must spend time inside and their loved ones who are affected outside. We do so through a variety of relevant, updated and reliable publications that prepare from the moment of incarceration to the day of release. If you or someone you care about is incarcerated or soon to be, the following current publications may prove to be invaluable.
For Loved Ones:
Surviving County Jail: A Guide for Friends and Family
Prison Lives Almanac: Prisoner Resource Guide (annual)
Prison Lives Almanac: Prisoner Education Guide (annual)
Prison Lives Almanac: Prisoner Entertainment Guides (4x a year)
Prison Lives (www.prisonlives.com) is a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.