Daily Life in Prison

I recently got some most welcome feedback from a comrade over at Causerie Publishing. If you haven’t heard of Causerie, they are a group of one of my favorite kinds of people (anarchists) who send news packets, zines, and other literature to prisoners. With information being the life blood of the rebellion, Causerie is one of its many hearts.

Their feedback was to spend some time providing context for the life experience from which I speak. Essentially, answer the question: What is daily life in prison like?

Up to this point I had assumed, since it’s really boring at best and down right terrifying at it’s worst, that nobody really wanted to hear about it.

Thank you much You-Know-Who-You-Are for your feedback. I’m taking it.

To wit: daily life in prison.

The first thing to understand is that prison is what is called a ‘total institution’ by sociologists. That is, a place where every aspect of a person’s life is regulated. When to wake up and when to go to bed. What to eat, wear, and to a certain extent even how to think is defined by the rules and regulations of the institution. For comparison, other total institutions are places like military boot camps, boarding schools, and drug rehab centers.

In prison, everything and anything that can be controlled is controlled. Any leeway for self expression or self determination is either considered a privilege that can and will be taken away, or a right which has been won through litigation and will slowly be eroded by the institution until there is a need for further litigation to defend it once more.

There are many ways to think about this control.

As a regulation of time…

0630 wakeup, 0700 pill line, 0730 work/school line, 745 recreation… and on and on through the rest of the day.

As a regulation of space.

The living units is one building, hospital another. Dayroom, chow hall, admin offices, and other services in a third all connected by 3rd floor sky ways. The chapel and activities buildings are their own completely separate structures while the education department is in two double wide trailers.

Or as a regulation of bodies.

Tuck in your shirt and religious medallion! No hugging or holding hands! No yelling! No singing, whistling, or boisterous laughter!

Many of these regulations come from the prison administrators and are enforced by correctional “officers” (c/o’s).

No standing in the dayroom! Movement happens only at the scheduled times unless dictated by the lieutenant!

Others are dictated by cultural inheritance and are enforced by other inmates.

All tables and bleachers on the big yard are claimed by different racial groups. You must be a member of that group to sit there. If two people are at a four person, table sit across from one another not next to each other. Stick to your own race. Don’t talk to sex offenders. Be quiet from 10 PM to 10 AM the next morning.

Navigating this complex tapestry of formal rules and informal norms is by far one of the most complex tasks I have ever found myself confronted with. And I’ve done it every day for over a decade.

To complicate things further many of these rules are in direct opposition to one another. Thus in many situations I haven’t been choosing between doing the right thing or doing the right thing. Rather between whose rule I am going to violate and how much trouble I am willing to be in.

Thankfully, in a way, a large portion of the informal norms go against my personal sense of right and wrong making it easy (from a moral standpoint) for me to ignore most of them. Like “don’t talk to sex offenders” or “stick to you’re own race.” I know they exist and am okay with the occasional public telling off I receive for breaking them.

Annoyingly, some of the rules I have the strongest objection to are also the ones with consequences higher than what I’m willing to pay. Like the segregation of the tables on the big yard. The consequence of breaking that social norm is possibly getting publicly assaulted which in turn would result in me getting major infraction 505, fighting with anyone for any reason including getting beat up and not fighting back. That major infraction carries the distinct possibility of me getting sent back to Walla Walla west complex closed custody.

So instead of ignoring it outright, I publicly speak out against it. An act that carries the potential for being attacked in private. I don’t care about getting beat up. However, the total disruption of my life plan and goal of putting in for clemency some day is a higher price than I’m willing to pay at the moment.

I’ve put a lot of thought into why people in prison would impose oppressive rules on each other when we already have so many imposed on us from the PIC and I am yet to come to a satisfactory answer. This is what I have come up with thus far, but I’m far from happy with this as an answer.

Safety of the herd. There is a classic experiment where researchers would dump a bucket of green paint on one gazelle. They would then observe the herd overall and that gazelle in particular. Eventually, when a large predator came a-hunting, lion, cheetah, or what have you, would almost always go after the green gazelle. Didn’t matter if it was farther or closer than other gazelles, if it was in the middle of the herd, if it was old or young, healthy or sick. Painting a gazelle green was essentially a death sentence for that gazelle.

How does this apply to prisoners? The prison environment is filled with predators, both among imprisoned people and staff. Describing a single person from a single group (called a “car” for no explicable reason) is nearly impossible due to so many people in that group all looking very similar. The reason they look so much like each other is due to both the “prison uniform” of white t-shirt and olive slacks as well as each group having their own set of social norms for appearances, workouts, tattoos, speech, and even posture and mannerism.

While it is relatively easy to differentiate between subgroups (also confusingly called ‘cars’), giving a unique description of any one member of a given subgroup is more difficult.

Think of it like telling the difference between two bears of different species like a grizzly versus a brown bear as opposed to telling the difference between two brown bears.

In prison that is analogous to comparing two white supremacists. Just swap Christian Identity and Asatru members for grizzly bear and brown bear. The same applies to the other groups to a lesser degree, it’s simply most visible among the white supremacists which is why I’ve used them as my example.

This purposeful herd conformity makes it difficult to pick out any one individual as long as they are surrounded by those of their own group. This results in social norms which separate each group from the others both in the social sphere and in the usage of physical space.

In short, they regulate the lives of their fellow imprisoned people in an attempt to unpaint themselves and the gazelles around them creating the safety of the herd.

Like I said, it’s not a theory I’m entirely happy with, but it explains a lot so I’m going with it until I come across something better.

I’ve put it on my to do list to actually settle down and talk about the daily routine and other more grounded experiences of prison life. However, I think it’s important to get a sense of the atmosphere in which that routine occurs before looking at common routine and daily minutiae.


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