The Traumatic Reality of Prison


Let me tell you a bit about living in prison — well at least, a Washington prison. Not the day to day stuff, but what it feels like emotionally as particular events play out around me, or worse, that I can find myself caught up in.

The single scariest thing to come to grips with is, in prison there is no safe word. If I’m not okay with what is going on I can’t just say “No don’t do that to me” and expect anyone to heed it for no other reason than because I Said no. Especially not c/o’s.

Regardless of outcome, getting into dominance games or pissing contests is all bad. If I win, I have to worry about retaliation, if I lose I have to worry about getting taken advantage of in the future. And that’s assuming it doesn’t lead to a fight. In that case, win, lose, or draw, it hurts in the morning and it’s only a matter of time before someone snitches, that is of course assuming we didn’t get carted off to the hole right then and there.

This wouldn’t be quite so big a deal if I wasn’t the sort who jumps at every little thing anyway and if I wasn’t surrounded by a bunch of boys constantly vying for dominance. It’s been a long time since I got trapped in a dominance game because of something I said or did. However, far more often than I care to admit, people around me fall into this trap and because I was present at the time I have all the same risks, but without having chosen that course of action for myself. So I end up constantly looking over my shoulder. Is everything okay? Are they coming for me? Are they going to corner me when I’m alone just to see how I react? Or attack me? 

These concerns will plague my thoughts, making it nearly impossible to focus on anything. 

These same thoughts and fears trouble me anytime I walk in on someone doing something against the rules. I make a point of saying something like, “none of my business” then turning around and walking out. Because I don’t care enough about someone else’s drug habit to get beaten up over it. I’ll risk my neck if I walk in on a rape, but I’m not about to break up a couple of dumbass kids tattooing some ugly malformed doodles on each other’s faces. I like good tattoo art, but trust me, 90% of the ink in prison is nothing like good tattoo art. I may go get a couple of my fellow imprisoned peoples if where and what people are doing has a chance of getting a whole program shut down, especially an educational program, but otherwise doing one’s own time isn’t just a social norm, it’s a survival tactic.

I’m sure some of you are wondering about riots and what’s that like. Seems exciting right? Wrong. First off, the word “riot” is a misnomer in this case. A riot is an uncontrolled disturbance in a public place involving multiple people. By definition, one cannot have a riot in a prison because it is not a public place. It’s a secured facility ran with the mandate of the state legislature through private contracts. Ergo, no such thing as a prison riot.

I was in Walla Walla for quite a long time, ended up witnessing, but thankfully not getting caught in the middle of, three multi-man fights (see, accuracy). There were far more than that during the eight years I was there, I just got really good at seeing what was coming before it happened and making myself properly scarce. Hey, discretion is the better part of valor, thus I have bravely hid myself in the janitor’s closet on more than one occasion.

All joking aside…

Imagine a fight. Now picture a fight where three or four people have teamed up against one guy much bigger than them. Now picture about a dozen fights like that all happening at the same time, and you are locked in the same room this is all happening in. 

Wait for it… it gets better. When the c/o’s storm the room in full combat gear if you are not lying face down on the ground you will be considered an active combatant and attacked by the cops. So there’s this massive amount of really dangerous stuff going on and I’m expected to put myself in a hyper submissive and venerable position? Trust my safety to the very same people that oppress, hurt, and humiliate me on a daily basis? Seriously?!?!?

I don’t know about you but, when I say something scares me, I’d say I have a fairly good frame of reference for what constitutes a scary situation. On the other hand, I am one of those folks who jumps at her own shadow.


Just did that out on the big yard.



Thankfully, now that I am in medium custody I don’t have to worry about that as often; multi-man fights are rare and pissing matches happen a lot less often since everyone involved has something to lose. In closed custody a simple fight (meaning one-on-one, no weapons, no c/o’s attacked) usually result in a month in the hole. In medium custody a simple fight results in a month in the hole and getting sent to closed custody. It changes the equation a bit, but it doesn’t change the fact that my PTSD from 8 years in Walla Walla makes dealing with such threats to my safety more difficult when they happen. Not only am I having to navigate a complex negotiation or dangerous emergency, but I am also having to keep a lid on all the fear and panic bubbling up from the back of my own mind.

So the next time you meet someone fresh out of prison, especially someone that was doing time in a higher security facility, give them a little love and a lot of patience. Odds are they’ve got some trauma to work through. I know I do.


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