Eight years ago, I went to prison for a crime I did not commit. While there, I spent a lot of my time writing my first novel: the prison escape thriller Retribution. When I got out five years later, I realized that there are a lot of things books, movies, and tv shows get wrong about what really goes on behind bars. Here are some of the biggest myths I’ve heard:
Myth 1: Convicts are Lazy
It doesn’t take long to get bored watching reruns on tiny tvs and counting minutes until the next meal. Unless an inmate is in protective custody or being disciplined, almost all of them can work some kind of a job within the system. The most coveted jobs are “outside of the gate.” This is when an inmate has a minimum security level and can work details away from the prison.
Yet, some of the best prison jobs are inside of the facility. Working in the kitchen or other administrative positions can help pass the time. You can even get work credits to help you get a job after your release.
One of the harshest punishments given an inmate is to lose their work-detail. No one wants to sit around their cell doing nothing.
Myth 2: Prison Food Sucks
It’s surprising how good prison food can be. Most inmates don’t complain about the quality of the food; they complain about the size of the meals. Becoming a cook in the kitchen is hard work, but it has a lot of perks. The biggest one is having access to almost unlimited food. In general, the food supplies are not a whole lot different than what we get from a grocery store. The real difference is in how it is prepared. Kitchen staff who do a poor job preparing the food become very unpopular very quickly.
The prison store is another source of food. By sneaking food from the chow hall, an inmate can become very creative. They can make some amazing dishes with their store-bought goods. These meals are common on the days when there is no lunch.
Yes, you heard right; some days, inmates don’t get lunch. On weekends (and often on Fridays), lunch is not served. If an inmate is working, they get a coveted pack-out. A pack-out is a prepared food package. It usually includes three sandwiches, a dessert, and something to drink. An inmate can only receive a pack-out if they are working. So, if you are not working, being able to make a meal at lunchtime becomes important. Making lunch in prison can, in fact, become an art.
Myth 3: It’s Easy to Get Money in Prison
There is no access to traditional money in prison. Cash can only be placed on an inmate’s books for use in the prison store. Prisoners, instead, trade goods.
At one time, an inmate would collect postage stamps. Stamps were rarely used for their intended purpose. They were once used for trade to obtain almost anything available within the system like food, extra clothing, or services. Over the last decade, prisoners replaced stamps with soups.
Ramen noodle soups cost about 50 cents at the prison store. Inmates who choose to cook in their dorms use soup as the basis for almost every meal. They are a commodity there; anything can be purchased using the little square packages. You can even buy drugs or contraband with them. Entrepreneurial inmates have their own stores, and are called “store men”. Store men develop reputations as the go-to people when a prisoner wants to buy something.
Inmates even trade for larger portions during their meals, and trading for workers’ pack-outs is common. Despite being illegal, the trading currency makes it so that prisoners never need to use “outside cash”.
Myth 4: Inmates Love to Fight
In general, it is in the best interest of an inmate to stay away from fights. So many movies and shows have a newbie inmate picking a fight with the biggest guy in the dorm. This doesn’t happen.
What does happen are fights between rival gangs. Child predators can become victims, too. But it’s rare that these fights occur simply for gangs being gangs or child predators being child predators. Instead, fights are usually caused by someone insulting somebody or causing a community problem in a cell-block or dorm. Fights rarely turn into riots or group battles. If two inmates get into a fight, they are allowed to duke it out until it is either resolved or broken up by an officer.
Many people are surprised to learn that there is very little supervision in a dorm. Officers are not present unless there is an inspection or an event causing them to enter. Even with no officer present, inmates go out of their way to resolve conflicts. It’s always best to not get officers involved. Thus, fights are rare and usually avoided.
Myth 5: Most Criminals Are Victims of Circumstance
80% of inmates relapse into criminal behavior after they are released. This has nothing to do with the availability of re-entry programs or government help. No matter what a society does or how much help is offered, a small percent of the world’s population will always take the easy way out.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s very rare that people are convicted for crimes they did not commit. I was one of those rare cases; I was convicted of something I did not do. But I got away with many things that were morally worse than the crime I was even convicted for.
As a result of my actions while in prison, I chose to better myself and take responsibility for my future. I spent my time working to assist others by helping them learn from their past mistakes; but for most prisoners, prison is simply a punishment.
Unfortunately, very few of the inmates want to rehabilitate or reform. Only about 20% of people who end up in prison manage to stay out after they leave. The American government, unfortunately, puts most of their prison funds towards the 80% of repeat offenders.
When someone goes to prison, they are being punished. This punishment will either cement their anti-societal ways or, in much fewer cases, make them see the light. The media usually portrays inmates as victims. This is far from the truth. The 80% who do end up back in prison are almost always taking the easy way out.
Sadly, it is easier to go back to what one knows than to change one’s ways. Movies and tv tend to show the rare exceptions. Most inmates are convicted of felonies that involve theft, drug dealing, or gang-related activities. These are all activities that are too easy to take up again once out.
There are always good people that can get into bad situations. But that is the rare exception. Following the law is a choice. Our laws are based on a society’s ethics and morals. When someone breaks the law, it is usually a decision to take the easy way out.