A former PPPC client wrote the following commentary, including contributions from a few acquaintances from his time in prison. They’re offered here as guidelines for successfully navigating prison terms and have been edited for length and clarity.
Make Acquaintances, Not Friends
Relationships are as important as they are dangerous in prison. Don’t make friends, make acquaintances. Labeling a relationship as “friendship” leaves you beholden to other people, which is a position you never want to be in. In this same vein, avoid agreeing to any obligations you might later regret.
Don’t Take Race Into Consideration
When making acquaintances, don’t be afraid to cross racial lines. There are plenty of stereotypes in mainstream media around “prison groups,” and while some of them are true you shouldn’t let race affect the decisions you take or considerations you make towards others. Remain neutral to everyone, no matter their cultural background.
Use the Buddy System
When you’re first incarcerated or arrive at a new prison, find someone to walk the yard with. Don’t walk the yard alone unless you’re confident enough in yourself to deal with potentially difficult situations. You’ll likely be “tested” at some point, and having someone on your side is a vital way to ensure your safety.
It’s common for prisoners to claim “ownership” of certain benches in the yard or seats in the day room, even without a physical indicator. If someone demands you give up your spot because it’s “theirs,” do so without complaint. It’s safer to walk away, and not challenging ownership-claims makes you less of a target.
Build a Positive Reputation
Honesty Goes a Long Way
A prison term is typified by months or years of tedium and fear, accented by unanticipated moments of sheer terror. While anything could happen at any time, gaining the respect of your peers can go a long way to easing your experience.
Above all else, be honest and forthright in your dealings with fellow prisoners. If you’re true to what you say and do, you will gain their respect. Be trustworthy. Show compassion, acceptance, generosity and empathy toward your fellow prisoners. Actions speak louder than words, so focus on building your “rep” on how you conduct yourself, not by bragging and certainly not by lying.
Capitalize on Your Talents & Skills
Your talents and life skills can prove incredibly valuable in prison, and they can help improve your relationships with other prisoners if used correctly.
Find ways to help fellow prisoners and, as much as you can, do so without asking for compensation. This could include tutoring, helping them work through homework, reviewing legal matters if you have the expertise, talking with them about the parole process, and other areas as applicable. Use this time to practice your listening skills and keep any judgements at bay.
If you need extra cash, develop a legitimate “hustle” like doing laundry, cleaning shoes, tutoring, cooking, fixing things, sewing, crocheting gift items for prisoners to send home, making greeting cards, creating artwork or other hobby craft items.
With that said, not all generosity is a benefit. Don’t let other prisoners use your phone time. It could jeopardize your own telephone access and count as a rule infraction (misuse of state property).
Be Respectful of Religious Differences
Like anywhere else, your fellow prisoners will likely have a variety of religious or spiritual beliefs that differ from yours. Remain respectful of their different beliefs and rituals, even if you disagree or don’t understand them. Don’t let religion impact any action you take or consideration you make toward others.
If You Have Money, Don’t Flaunt It
When you’re first incarcerated or arrive/transfer at a new prison, don’t order large amounts of food from the commissary. Doing so is a dead giveaway that you have money, and it may make you or your family the target of extortion. Prisoners of lesser means keep an eye out for other prisoners carrying large bags with the intent of borrowing—or, in some cases, stealing—from them. Keep this as a practice each and every time you transfer to a different facility.
If you have money to spend, start off with conservative amounts (i.e. $30.00) for basic necessities. Gradually increasing your orders over a few months time may help them go unnoticed.
Don’t Deal With “Store Guys”
Don’t do business with prisoners who offer a “store” for food and hygiene items at a markup, otherwise known as “store guys.” Their items are often marked up significantly, frequently as high as 50% (i.e. if you borrow two soups, you need to pay back three). It’s very expensive and if you fail to pay back the store guy, it could quickly compromise your safety.
Avoid All Forms of Gambling
While gambling is against MDOC rules, it’s commonplace in prison. From card games in the day room to sports betting throughout the unit, it’s best not to get involved. Failing to pay a gambling debt is one of the most dangerous things you can do in prison.
Be Wary of “Paying for Protection”
If confronted by a prisoner to pay for protection, try not to readily engage with that person. Seek the advice of another inmate you trust. Protection is often pushed on prisoners by gang members, and while they may actually follow through with the protection they offer, once under their control, they can press you for additional money and loyalty.
Be very wary of such situations, but if you do get involved, make it clear from the start what you will and what you won’t do. Treat it as a business transaction.
Be a Smart Worker
If you are given a job in prison, take it seriously. Do your job, no matter how menial, and do it well. Volunteer for extra work, if possible. If you have a job supervised by an officer that you don’t get along with, find a different job. Supervisors write reports that go in your file, and you don’t need bad reports.
If you’re thinking about working in the prison’s kitchen (food service), consider the choice carefully. There are plenty of opportunities for theft and other misbehaviors that may occur in the kitchen that are beyond your control, and you could put yourself at risk of becoming a scapegoat for something you didn’t do.
Body Language & Habits
Hold Yourself Well
How you hold yourself in prison has a surprising effect on whether or not other prisoners decide to mess with you. Walk with your head confidently held high, eyes forward. Stand erect and proud. If confronted by another prisoner, assume the Superman pose (hands on hips, feel apart), reflecting strength and showing that you won’t be intimidated.
Keep Your Eyes to Yourself
Don’t look into the cells or cubes of other prisoners. When you’re walking through a block or unit, look straight ahead until you get to your own cell or cube. While there’s very little privacy in prison, anything perceived as “snooping” into others’ “houses” isn’t appreciated, and in some cases you may not like what you see.
Take Care of Yourself
This tip is more for your own self-worth and well-being than for the people around you. Develop a daily routine and stick with it: show daily, groom carefully, and maintain your appearance as you’d maintain it on the outside. It helps you build and maintain your self esteem. Make a habit of inspecting your area of control daily, including under your mattress, for anything amiss.
Practice “Packing Up”
Prisoners are frequently “ridden out” to other facilities, or moved to other cells, cubes, blocks or residential units without much notice. The process of “packing up” is a challenge and often must be done under the pressure of time. Practice “packing up” occasionally so you’re familiar with the process should you be required to do so.
Avoid Any Overtly Sexual Behaviors
Sexuality can easily be weaponized in prison, especially if you’re in prison on sexual-related charges. If you’re a sexuality other than straight, don’t flaunt it. For men in particular, individuals of any sexuality could decide to try forcing men of any persuasion to “service” them. Even masturbation can be looked down upon, especially for those with sexual charges.
Avoiding Unnecessary Trouble
Stay in Well-Trafficked Areas
Avoid places that could be dangerous like the back bathroom in some units, the porter closet, and other places that are less heavily used or visited. Especially in situations where you’re walking alone, it’s safer to remain in busy areas with plenty of eyes. If you need to visit a less-traveled area, bring an acquaintance that you trust.
Don’t Hesitate to Leave an Area
If you sense that something bad is about to happen (on the yard, in the day room, or even in your cube), quietly leave the area. Don’t look back. Avoid being a witness to fights or other altercations. You don’t want to be put in the position of having to bear witness to the behavior of fellow prisoners. Consider that, if you do happen to witness a fight, you may be asked to report what you observed. Leave well enough alone.
Use “Lock Up” Sparingly
If you feel that you are dealing with a severe threat to your life or well-being, you always have the option to “lock up” (put yourself in the Hole for protection). While there may be instances where this is necessary, don’t let it become a habit. If you get a reputation for “locking up,” others will find reasons to exploit you.
The Next Stage of Your Life is Waiting
There are real and present dangers inside of prison walls, but it’s entirely possible to navigate them successfully and leave your prison term firmly behind you. Whether you’re currently in prison or entering the system soon, we hope these pieces of advice will prove helpful to you get through this next portion of your life.