Everyday Objects And Concerns
Inside Versus Outside Of Prison
I spent 16 years in prison for a murder and rape which I was proven innocent of. There are many things in prison that are not understood by the average individual, and which often go unexplained. I believe there is an educational value in understanding prison life, and that there is a general curiosity about the topic. My horrific experience and the fact that despite my incarceration I have managed to gain an education,
puts me in a position where I can explain aspects of prison life in a way that most people would not have a frame of reference to understand.
Of late, I have been writing about a variety of prison-related topics, I suppose by way of motivation to remove some of the mystique for my
readers. I would like to take another step in that process of attempting to shed light on prison life. Let me begin by asking you to set aside just about everything you know about living in the outside world, the way life works, mores, and ways of interpreting and understanding individuals and events around you. For none of that will assist you in understanding prison life.
Prison is best understood as a parallel world unto itself. Many things in there take on significance quite different than that in the outside world. My aim is to try to explain some of those things, by way of enabling one to understand the way prisoners interpret otherwise everyday events. I would caution readers that some rules which I will be discussing apply only to New York.
Clothing takes on a different significance in a variety of ways. All prisoners are issued a uniform, which consists of green pants, shirts, black
boots, and Converse flat top sneakers. Each person has their name and prison identification number on a label which is on the pants and the
shirt. The number has the impact of making the prisoner feel that he is nothing more than a number. Most rip the label off or else color it in with a black marker or pen, others cannot see it. is is done in order to prevent informants from passing on information to the prison authorities, whether true or false.
In prison, when someone dislikes you, one tactic can be to pass false information on to the authorities so as to cause an investigation. Since the investigations and “court” process in prison frequently resembles a Kangaroo court, anything can happen. Prisoners are allowed to wear personal shirts, sweatshirts, sweat hoods, and sweaters, sneakers, boots, sweatpants, and coats if they have them.
Sometimes they buy them themselves. At other times families and friends send them. These items are wanted by most prisoners because it is one of the few external ways of actualizing individuality and expression of their tastes. Thus, simply owning some personal clothing takes on significance.
When I started out my sentence, I did not have personal clothing, so I had to wear the uniform. Later on my mother sent me some items. I can tell you from experience that one psychological effect of having to wear the entire uniform is that it strips one of their identity. In addition, the absence of personal items was an indicator of whether one was poor or not, and if they had friends and family on the outside.
Amongst those who did, almost nobody would wear the state shirt. One peculiarity that I can’t ever imagine happening in the outside world
that goes on in prison is that due to scarcity involves the fact that when prisoners might receive an item that did not exactly fit them, they would not return it. Keeping it instead, as if grasping to lifeblood, whereas in the outside world someone would simply exchange it for an item that fit. Additionally, inmates disliked having to return items also because in the prison economy, which involves working for 22, 25 and 32 cents an hour, a return shipping cost of between $4-7 was hefty. Hence there was a cost benefit analysis involved as well.
Mail represents contact with the outside world, which is a precious thing to a prisoner. Mail therefore takes on a disproportionate importance that would never be duplicated in the outside world. When a guard would pass by one’s cell at the time he was passing out the mailing without giving an inmate any mail, that was known as a “drive by”, an event that would cause significant heartache.
Thus, even receiving junk mail had some value. Now that I am out, whether or not I receive mail is irrelevant with respect to how my day
unfolds or how I may feel. Occasionally the guards might accidentally give somebody mail that belonged to another inmate, particularly
when the guard was not used to a particular post. It has happened on numerous occasions that some prisoners have written to the friends
and/or family of another prisoner. I’ve always believed that such correspondence was motivated by desperation and loneliness. However, amongst the prisoners, this behavior would be considered a grimy thing to do, and often has lead to violence.
In the outside world, I can’t imagine any situation in which somebody communicating in any form with a family member would be cause for violence. Rather, communication in any form is pretty much considered a given in everyday life.
I always looked for ways to avoid violence, and also to avoid the negative perception that other prisoners would have of me if someone wrote a family member and I didn’t respond violently. Therefore, I would rip off the return address and flush it down the toilet before
throwing out envelopes.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to fathom people who are free ever fighting over the use of a public pay phone, much less one that you could only make collect calls on. Yet, at Rikers Island, famous for stabbings, cuttings, and other violence taking place because of the the phone, often in an attempt of an individual or a gang to maintain control over use of a phone.In terms of using the phone, sometimes the act of simply hearing somebody’s voice who was on the outside has great value.
In keeping with the themes of mail and the phone, receiving visits was an important way of maintaining contact with the outside world, as well as helping to fight off isolation and depression. Seeing familiar people on the outside world doesn’t have the same effect.
In addition, when I was told ahead of time to expect a visit on a certain day, the day of the visit I would go stir crazy in my cell, and would obsess and stress over whether the visitor would actually show up. The later in the day it became, the more the anxiety would build because that would mean that it was becoming more and more likely that the visitor would not be coming.
This was exacerbated by the fact that would-be visitor could not simply call up and tell the prisoner that something came up and they could not make it.
Television and Radio
As I have mentioned in previous articles, I used to watch certain programs every day when the Elmira Prison allowed inmates to have televisions in their cells, so I would pretend that I was visiting with friends when familiar shows came on. In addition, it was another
means of remaining connected to the outside.
The radio, as well, was a way of staying connected as well as informed. Both were ways of keeping up with the news, especially in an environment where newspapers were sometimes hard to get. I would frequently find myself scanning newspapers, particularly USA Today which had the roundup of the nation in it, searching for information on wrongful convictions.
Perhaps I could learn of how someone was cleared, or glean a name to write to in seeking assistance to prove my innocence. Thus in a way I came to see obtaining newspapers as a part of my trying to regain my freedom.
Cigarettes And Stamps
Cigarettes and stamps are used as currency in prison, and so if one could afford the luxury, it was good to always have on standby just in
case. whereas out here cigarettes are simply for smoking. I noticed that many of the smokers, by way of supporting their unhealthy habit, would form networks and associations with other smokers. The phrase “save me some” was frequently heard. What that meant was that a smoker was requesting someone with a lit cigarette to save them a portion of the cigarette they were smoking not by breaking it off but by smoking it to a point and then handing them the rest. Some inmates’ nicotine habit was so strong and their finances so bad that they would smoke behind anybody. I have yet to see anybody share a cigarette in this fashion since I walked out of prison.
I certainly have not seen the ulterior motive of bumming cigarettes as being a hidden motivation for socializing with somebody. Stamps also represent money and were a way of contacting the outside world. When I would figure out my paltry budget every two weeks for going to the commissary (which is the prison store), I would sometimes opt to go without some food items in order to be able to purchase stamps,
which I thought of as money I was spending towards my freedom.
The Failure To Pay and Collect Debt
Contrary to many television shows and movies, every other prisoner is not some form of predator waiting to pounce on the weak. But there
are some like that in there. Therefore, when, through whatever circumstance, it happened that one prisoner owed another one, it was important that the one who was owed the money be paid. To be owed and not paid, if that circumstance were to be learned by others
in prison, would mean that the one owed would be obligated to engage in violence or else be perceived as weak, which could open the door for others to try to similarly victimize them or to think that they could steal things from them and get away with it.
Thus violence occurring in response to paltry sums of money owed was known to happen. As I mentioned earlier, one prisoner I knew beat another into a coma over a pack of cigarettes.
Condiments, such as mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup packets, as well as sugar bags, took on a bizarre significance inside prison. During mealtimes prisoners were responsible for serving out the set portions of every course, including those condiments. Prisoners would often
seek to get extra portions of those, in connection with a planned future cell-prepared meal. Failure to obtain enough of the packets for free would mean that the person would have to purchase these items at the commissary, which may or may not have placed them out of economic reach. Additionally, as some saw it, the prices of the condiments were such that they could avoid having to purchase it, they could instead buy additional food items. Thus many people were always looking to acquire these condiments for free at the serving line.
Giving somebody an extra packet or two of any of the above was considered to be doing the person a favor, and also in some context be considered to be a reaffirmation of the continuation of a previous friendly relationship. Additionally, amongst strangers, arguments, and sometimes fights could break out as a result of not giving someone extra packets.
On the other side of that equation, a prisoner slipping others extra packets was considered to be a risk-taking activity because if the wrong guard or civilian caught one doing that, he could get into trouble, including being fired. There were, however, some people who would never ask me, or anybody else, for extra because they were shy or didn’t want to unnecessarily open up lines of communication out of concern
for what that could lead to. Without being asked to, I would give them extra as a small way of trying to make things easier for them.
I had somebody that I knew for over a decade that I would sometimes collaborate with to cook meals. We would both divide up who would buy what items. He would cook the main part, I would do the items that merely required boiling, such as rice. Such meals would often be
the highlight of the month. Yet, what we prepared doesn’t measure up taste-wise to the average meal on the outside.
Certain food items, particularly amongst those with no outside support, were viewed as survival items, meaning as a backup to when the
prison food was particularly inedible. Those items were the Ramen Noodles, which sold for ten cents, and peanut butter and jelly, the latter being referred to in prison slang as a “survival kit”. Those food items out here do not stick out from others, other than perhaps amongst some as being non desirable. There were more than a few occasions when one or two Ramen Noodles served as my dinner.
Benches And Chairs
In prison, out in the yard, various groups would claim a bench as theirs. This often meant that it was a place for members of that group to gather, sit down, and have a safe place to put their coats and property which they might have brought out. There were, of course, benches that could be used for recreation, but everybody would know which benches were claimed, and by who. Groups would be willing to fight
to maintain their dominion. I always regarded the idea of claiming or fighting over a prison-owned bench as ridiculous, because when the prisoners eventually were transferred elsewhere or released, the bench remained behind. When I was transferred to Shawangunk Prison, which is in Wallkill New York, the prison was laid out differently.
There were day rooms for television viewing. There were only a certain number of seats available, and not enough to accommodate everybody. Thus inmates would claim various seats for themselves. Everybody was expected to respect these unofficially claimed seats and spaces. Failure to do so was a showing of disrespect, which could invariably prompt a fight, unless the prisoner wanted to allow the other to “walk all over him”.
Not all of the prisoners read, although many did. For myself and other regulars at the prison library, reading books was a means of coping
with our cells and making them a little bit more tolerable. The library being closed therefore took on an importance not comparable to the same circumstance in the outside world. In addition, reading books out here, while beneficial, is in no way linked to survival.