Going to Jail for the First Time

Courts put people in jail sometimes without due process. Some people go to jail for the crime of being poor and not being able to pay fines. Many of those in jail are innocent or were given sentence too harsh for the crime they committed.

Imagine your mother, father, brother, sister falsely or even yourself unfairly charged and then run through a flawed court system and sent to prison. People in prison are sometimes abused by a a racist or inhumane prison official or by another prisoner. When a person is unfamiliar with the law and the court process, it's is easier to trick that person with lies and scare them into making a plea bargain, even if they are innocent to avoid an even harsher penalty. 

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”), requires that state and federal prison systems provide at least “the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities.” (Rhodes v. Chapman, 452 U.S. 337 (1981).

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Prisoners lose many of their civil rights, however, they retain basic rights such as freedom of speech, religion, and equal protection of law. Prisoners have the right to basic—minimum—living standards. However, prisons can limit those rights to some extent in the name of  safety, order, and security.

If you have to go to jail, don’t make yourself crazy remembering all the prison movies you’ve ever seen. Being put in the slammer is a lot like starting at a new high school: it’s not that tough, as long as you pay attention from the outset and think about what kind of impression you’re making. 

The following are guidelines for getting along in jail:

  • Watch and listen for quite a while, to get a sense of the other people you’ll be living with. Really take your time about this, because you’re likely to be dealing with different types of people than you’re used to, and it’s important to be accurate in your assessments. Some will be very decent human beings who can give you useful information and advice. On the other hand, the first ones who come up and want to make friends with you may be predators, losers, or snitches. Don’t be in a big hurry to join a group, because you’ll be taking on their baggage. Just take it easy and be pleasant with everyone, without striving to find buddies right away. Take the time to let friendships develop gradually, the way they do naturally at work, school, or the gym.
  • Respect others, but behave with self-respect, too. Acting scared invites bullying. And if you don’t stand up for yourself, potential allies won’t think it‘s worth the risk to stand by you.
  • Be very careful not to touch people by accident. If you do bump into anyone, immediately say “Excuse me.” If your apology isn’t accepted, don’t argue, but just walk away (and keep an eye on that person for future problems).
  • Don’t touch other people’s stuff (books, pencils, etc.) or sit on other people’s beds, without asking.
  • Rather than just joining a conversation, wait until someone asks your opinion. However bad your situation is, be careful not to sound like you’re whining.
  • In the eating area, don’t reach across other people’s trays. If you have to cough or sneeze, turn away and cover your mouth.
  • Before using the telephone or changing channels on the TV, make sure you check with other prisoners to see what system they’ve set up for taking turns—it’s easy to offend others by accident, if you don’t find out the “local rules.”
  • Don’t borrow money, don’t gamble, don’t do drugs, and don’t accept gifts from strangers. All these things can put you in debt, which could affect your safety.
  • Don’t snitch. Snitches are not just unpopular—they’re unsafe. Don’t even refer to other prisoners when talking with correctional officers, because people will think you’re snitching or at least being manipulated by the officers.  (The primary exception to this is that if you honestly believe you’re going to be raped, you may ask to be placed in protective custody.)

While forcible rape in jail or prison is infrequent, consensual sex is very common (although it’s illegal and results in disciplinary action if you’re caught).  Lots of prisoners have sex with each other because doing time is boring and having sex is nice.1  

Some prisoners agree to have sex because they’re scared or in debt, though this mostly applies to male prisoners. Women in jail rarely get into physical fights or coerce each other into having sex, whereas men in jail are more likely to do both. Of course, conditions vary quite a bit from one institution to another—some places are mellow and some aren’t. In any case, if you’re propositioned and you’re not interested in sex, just say no clearly, without freaking out (the same as you would in a bar). If your refusal isn’t taken seriously, fight back (and sometimes just looking like you’re ready to fight is enough). If you can’t defend yourself, ask to be put in protective custody. Remember, however, that prisoners in protective custody are considered to be snitches, which means that it will be difficult ever to re-enter the institution’s general population.

In just about every correctional institution that houses women, there are male officers who seduce female prisoners. Women in custody should stay away from over-friendly corrections officers—whatever they’re offering (affection, money, or candy) is rarely worth the complications (pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases, and additional criminal charges). 
If you have medical needs or disabilities, tell the staff.  You’ll probably have to make repeated requests, and you should keep copies of all written ones.

On Doing Time: Excerpts of a letter from Ndume Olatushani 2

There isn’t a “one size fits all” solution; however, there are some simple things everyone can do to avoid most of the worst problems that go on in jails and prisons. Having said this, even the tried and true techniques may be severely tested, because there’s always going to be some damn fool who’s determined to make your life difficult.
I have to disagree with the statement, “No amount of good advice can help someone who’s hopelessly weak or geeky.” The fact of the matter is that even the weak and geeky can make it, as I have witnessed.  One of the refuges for these guys is the church crowd. Of course, this isn’t a guarantee, but it will make them less of a target if they walk around singing the praises of the Lord.  There seems to be an unspoken code that convicts recognize: leave the Bible-toters alone. But it has to be real—the other prisoners will know if they’re just faking it. 
The first and most important piece of advice I’d give anyone entering jail or prison is: be yourself.  Do not have an attitude, as there are many of us that will adjust attitudes. Being in a controlled environment allows people to observe you up close and personal. If you’re putting up a front, they’ll be able to sense your phoniness. They’ll have no respect for you, and this can be an invitation for someone to try you.
If you are sent to prison, you’ll likely have spent time in jail first. You should be keenly aware that how you conduct yourself in jail is going to follow you through the system. Because if you’re in jail for any extended amount of time, you’re going to see many of the same individuals later in prison. So if a guy is punked [sexually exploited] in the county jail, it will most likely continue throughout his prison bit (unless he attacks the first person that messes with him—the surest way to redeem oneself).
Believe it or not, playing is probably more responsible for people running afoul of each other than anything else. This is true for both verbal and physical play. So much trouble can be avoided by simply not playing with people. And when I say verbal play, I’m talking, for example, about “playing the dozen” [exchanging insults].  Physical play is often used as a pretext for more aggressive behavior. I’ve seen a prisoner turn a seemingly innocent game of wrestling into an opportunity to “turn out” [sexually exploit] the other guy, because through that wrestling game he was able to test this guy’s resolve. But there are many more people hurt by verbal play than by any other forms of play.  There is a large percentage of guys locked up who suffer from low self-esteem. So when people talk about them, even in fun, their feelings are easily hurt.  If they cannot match their tormenters verbally, they usually resort to physical confrontation.  My advice is: do not sit around laughing at jokes people make at the expense of others’ feelings.  Because I assure you, some one is going to eventually ask you “What are you laughing at?” And it’s going to be on.
I’ve seen many guys come into jail or prison talking about whom they know or who their family is. And when you don’t know the people you’re talking to, this is not a wise thing to do. I witnessed a man killed like this, not to mention numerous people seriously hurt. One guy was bragging about how he’d shot a particular person.  (He hadn’t really shot him, but was just a buddy of the guy who’d done the shooting, and he only knew the victim by name.) It turned out that the victim was sitting only a few feet away from the guy who was telling the story. It ended with this guy getting severely beaten, all because he was pretending to be someone that he was not. 
Avoid people that always want to sit around and talk about others. Most guys know who these people are, and you don’t want to get a rap by association. And secondly, if such a person talks to you about others, at some point he’ll talk to others about you. 
Another big mistake that guys make in the joint is showing photographs of their family and friends to people they don’t know. Trying to impress guys in this way can get you into trouble. I’ve seen people get hurt because they didn’t realize they had enemies by virtue of association. And but for their showing photos, their difficulties might have been avoided.
Never talk about other crimes you’ve done on the streets. If other people start trying to tell you about unlawful things they’ve done, just say that they’re telling you more than you need to know.  This is also true for the illegal things that go on inside the joint. If it’s not your business, tell the individual you don’t need to know about that.  If you’re around other prisoners who start discussing activities that might get them in trouble, tell them you’re going to cut out.  This way, if it should come to light, you won’t be accused of telling, because they’ll already know you weren’t in on it.  And if you see other guys talking, don’t walk up without knowing that it’s all right to do so. If you’re around others and they begin to whisper, make sure that you get out of earshot.
And last, but surely not least, develop a reputation for being your own man.  Avoid taking sides if you can.  And know the difference between “socializing” and “associating.” It’s all right to socialize with almost everyone, but you should limit the people with whom you associate, because their problems become your problems.  And even though some of the most loyal people I know are right here in prison with me, I’m always mindful that people rarely will do for you what you will for them, whether one is locked up or in Freedomville.

1.  Some people who have same-gender sex partners in jail, but not when they're free, consider themselves straight. If you find yourself discussing the matter, be tactful.

2.  Ndume Olatushani (formerly Erskine Johnson) was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1985. Mr. Olatushani, who grew up in St. Louis in the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects, was freed on an Alford Plea, which allows a defendant to plead guilty yet assert his innocence, while conceding that sufficient evidence exists for a conviction. See the article, "If not for love and art, Ndume Olatushani would have died on death row".

©2007 Katya Komisaruk

Republished by permission from the Just Cause Law Collective

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