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Behind Bars: Surviving Prison

Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards (2002)


This book carries an important message for our times:

Never be taken alive.


America is a nation of laws that reach into every aspect of public and private life. By just going about the daily routine of trying to make a living, you run the risk of transgressing one or more strands of this invisible web of legal strictures and restraints. (3)

Many people do not realize that if they talk to the cops, every word they say "can and will be used against" them. When they arrest you, you need to realize that the police are not your friends. They don't necessarily hate you, either. You are part of a job to them. (14)

It's astounding how many individuals, after having been read their Miranda rights, will keep on talking, to their own detriment. Again—and we cannot stress this point too plainly—when you're arrested shut up. (14)

Defense attorneys are like stockbrokers: They collect their fees and commissions on the amount of business they do, no matter whether their customers win or lose. As officers of the court, their first allegiance is to the legal system, even at the expense of their clients. Most lawyers who practice in criminal court make a good living losing most of their cases, a fact that they rarely share with their clients. (16)

You never know who your friends are, or for that matter your loved ones, until you've "caught a charge." The process of discovering this may not be pleasant. If you're convicted of a serious crime and sentenced to prison, all your worldly assets and roles will be up for grabs. You may or may not need them. In any case, the longer you are locked up, the more likely your possessions will disappear and roles diminish. (20)

Federal prisoners usually do more time than state prisoners, too. The federal sentencing guidelines often punish nonviolent offenders more harshly than those convicted of violent offenses. Under federal law, a person may be sentenced to more prison time for growing or distributing marijuana or cocaine than for bank robbery or murder. FBOP cellblocks are filled with prisoners doing life sentences for drug convictions, with no possibility of parole. It is not uncommon to hear federal prison staff comment on the insanity of drug war sentences. (31)

In the federal correctional system there are no states, only six FBOP administrative districts: North East, Mid-Atlantic, South Eat, North Central, and West. This is a prison system that has officially repudiated rehabilitation, has the longest sentences in the world, and no parole (for persons convicted since 1987). (31)

Volunteer as little information as possible about yourself and your personal life. Every fact you give out about yourself is a potential handle that someone else might use to manipulate you. Those who confide little run less risk of being betrayed.
Do your own time. Keep to yourself as much as possible, but be sure not to look as if you're afraid of others. Project a cool, quiet aura of self-possessed confidence, and be prepared to back it up with action when needed. The other guy has got to know that if he messes with you, he's going to pay a price. Move quickly and decisively to defend your rights early on, and it'll make the rest of your stay a lot easier.
The beating you give to another con trying to make a move on you may well earn you a few weeks or even months in solitary in the hole, but when you come out it'll work to your advantage among the rest of the prison population. But watch out for the guy you hammered and his clique trying to take revenge. (71)

Most jails and prisons are losing the drug war in their own institutions. Many facilities are flooded with contraband (drugs, alcohol, or weapons). It is common to see inmates smoking pot, snorting cocaine, shooting heroin, or drinking either homemade or commercial liquor. (74)

To complicate matters, many prison systems also use what's called administrative detention to circumvent the legal requirements of providing a disciplinary hearing. The warden simply instructs the officers to remove you from general population and has you thrown into the hole or transferred to another prison. You might land in a supermax, high-security facility (e.g., USP Marion or ADX Florence). As long as the move is the result of an administrative decision, as compared to disciplinary punishment, the law allows the warden to house you wherever he decides. Remember, prison staff enjoy relative immunity for their actions. (79-80)

Legal mail from attorneys or the court will be opened in your presence by staff with the date and return name and address logged into some sort of record book. The institution is legally obligated to deliver all official correspondence; besides, they want to know who is making trouble filing lawsuits. If you correspond with the media, expect to get an immediate trip to the hole. (83)

The Number One fear of those going to prison: Being raped. The Number Two fear: Getting killed. Says something about people's priorities, eh? (85)

The violent understand and respect only violence. You need to make it clear to them that if they attack, you will retaliate. No matter how big or powerful your attackers are, or how many have ganged up against you, you want them to know that you will get even with them when they least expect it. Everybody has to sleep sometime. You may have to inflict serious damage on your foe, without warning, at a place and time of your own choosing. If a group is moving on you, try to arrange things so you can isolate one of your principal tormentors.
If you choose to defend yourself, try to avoid inflicting lethal injury. You don't want to end up facing a murder rap.
Absent a specific, imminent threat, male prisoners get ugly by growing beards, getting tattoos, working out on the weight pile, and assuming a fierce demeanor, all calculated to decrease the likelihood of attack. Just remember: It's all useless window dressing unless it's backed up by the will to inflict sudden, maximum violence on your tormentors. (86)

One of the biggest prisoner complaints about the system is that commissaries make a lot of money. The prices are inflated and they don't have to pay taxes. Essentially, the prison operates a legal monopoly.
One thing you might look forward to with commissary is buying a number of pints of ice cream. It won't be gourmet fare, but they may offer a choice of basic vanilla, chocolate, or Neapolitan and then (since you don't have access to a refrigerator) you immediately share the extra with your friends. Some of your buddies may not have commissary, so this may help lift their spirits, not to mention binding them to you in the web of obligations and alliances so necessary to survive and thrive in the joint. (96)

Guards get more upset over cons making alcohol than smoking pot. If you are caught with yeast or sugar, components for hooch, you get locked down in segregation. The reason is apparent if you have ever seen an entire cellblock drunk on homemade brew. Drunken convicts are a dangerous group. (97)

Prisons sell tobacco products in commissary. Like in the military, the prices for smokes in federal joints are lower than on the street because there is no markup for federal taxes. (102)

Prisoners do more than make license plates and mail bags. Prison industries are a vital part of our national economy, producing thousands of different products and providing services marketed all over the country. These include office furniture, clothing, shoes, paintbrushes, and electronic parts. Convicts may work as telemarketers and serve as customer service representatives for banking and credit card services, airlines and hotels, and state lotteries. Next time you receive one of those annoying phone calls from some stranger trying to sell you home repairs or improvements, home equity loans, or vacation packages, it may be a convict on the other end of the line. (104)

Older prisoners may be more dangerous, but they're more logical in their use of violence. That's why they've survived long enough to become older prisoners. (115)

Teenagers are more inclined than grown men to have fist fights. In prison, altercations don't stay restricted to fists and feet for too long, though. Lead pipes and homemade weapons tend to come in during return bouts. Older men rarely have these sorts of altercations because when they do fight, they often kill each other. Some of it has to do with the fact that as you age, you accumulate more body weight. When you hit someone, (if you're lucky), you'll probably lay them out. More important is the value of experience. When older cons rumble, they're more likely to play for keeps. (115)

Long prison sentences, some with no parole and little opportunity for earning "good time" (reduction in sentence), breed revolt. Somewhere, at this very moment, a "disturbance" is going on in a correctional facility. Few of these come to the attention of the public. Most Departments of Corrections (DOCs) enforce a blackout of news coverage on such incidents because they fear publicity will create contagion—the spreading of rebellion to additional institutions. Typically, the only time the media reports on a prison riot is when convicts take hostages or set an institution on fire, both of which prison rioters are prone to do. Most cellblock uprisings and minor disturbances go unnoticed by reporters outside the walls. (120)

For some real fun, try suing the warden and prison guards personally. That'll put you in solid with them. (122)

If you plan to attempt suicide, make a neat finish of yourself and don't bungle the job. Otherwise, you'll be locked up in the hole or psychiatric unit. The guards want you to live, if only because if you die, there'll be a big investigation, they'll have a lot of questions to answer, and they'll have a lot of paperwork to complete. (126)

You do time differently depending on the length, sentence, and security level. Some individuals do 20 to 30 years in prison and they don't become killers because that's their nature. They maintain their dignity for decades, like monks. That's how you beat the man. (127)

A lot of women's prisons train the cons in telemarketing. In Wisconsin, the entire state lottery system is run out of a state prison for women. Also, many credit card, airline, and mail-order catalogue companies operate the phone sales out of these institutions. In order to prevent the convicts from using your credit card to buy stuff for themselves, relatives, or friends, guards frisk the prisoners before they leave their work site. Of course, that presupposes that convicts won't someow write down or memorize the information for later use, a perhaps over-optimistic assumption. Most of the programs where female cons process credit card numbers are in minimum security prisons, where administrators believe that the prisoners are less likely to engage in these types of scams. (148)

Although your friends and associates may have escaped the dragnet back when you first took a fall, since then they probably have come under the watchful eyes of the authorities. The bottom line is you need to go straight, because you now have a criminal record. The cops have your photo, fingerprints, address, previous criminal history, and maybe even your DNA. You're a "made man," made in the worst way. You're now one of the Usual Suspects, easily tracked or placed under surveillance, subject to having your parole violated if you're even suspected of being remotely related to crime.
You need to adjust to a more modest, even boring, lifestyle, where you get up in the morning, go to work, stay out of the bars, go to bed early, and live within your means. Apart from that, have fun! (170)

Every year, millions of people are arrested and hundreds of thousands of people sentenced to long prison terms. Most convicts serving time are incarcerated for drug offenses. Many of these persons, with the exception of their use, abuse, or trafficking in illegal substances were, before being imprisoned, law-abiding citizens with no previous criminal record. The crusade against illegal drugs is the engine driving the dramatic increase in federal expenditures on police, courts, and prisons. Drug czars and the respective law enforcement agencies have fought this war in earnest since the beginning of the Reagan administration, through the succeeding two decades of Republican and Democratic presidential administrations.
The war on drugs has led to the passage of new laws that expand the federal government's ability to conduct search and seizure of homes, cars, boats, businesses, and financial instruments, including funds designated for legal defense. Furthermore, the severe sentencing of convicted drug offenders provides the government with additional means to compel cooperation of defendants and witnesses against their own friends and family. The drug war continues to define citizens as "enemies of the state," persons to be indicted, convicted, and sentenced to spend years in government confinement. (174-5)

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