Navigating Connection: How community impacts social interactions between incarcerated people (IP)

Selected by Stella Essenmacher, Hannah Terao, Anna O’Shea

*This curation of excerpts on “Community” was gathered, selected, and arranged by Stella Essenmacher, Hannah Terao, and Anna O’Shea, students in Literature 235: Curating Prison Witness, Professor Doran Larson, Fall 2022, Hamilton College, Clinton, NY. Edited for clarity by Raychel Gadson, political science doctoral student, Johns Hopkins University.”


For the purposes of this curation, we build upon the Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of community as “a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society” (“Community”). Incarcerated people (IP), by definition, have in common the characteristic of their incarceration—of a life behind bars and barbed wire. However, as demonstrated in the following excerpts, this commonality does not guarantee a sense of community in the perspective of IP. We take this definition further, then, and present a definition of community which requires a shared sense of interconnectedness and unity between individuals. We follow Wicklund and Gollwitzer’s analysis of “identity work,” in which they argue that identities “can come into being and remain stable only by virtue of the acknowledgement of others” (Wicklund and Gollwitzer 1982, as cited in Phelan and Hunt 1998, p. 279). In order to be a community, that group of individuals must identify themselves as a community.

These essays depict the strong bonds that form between IP, while displaying the wide range of sources of community. Previous research has shown that IP commonly form relationships between those with whom they live, work, attend programming, or have similar personal histories—which allows them to engage in positive interpersonal interaction and develop a sense of solidarity (Bronson 2008). As such, we have divided this curation into sections and subsections that reflect the broad range of activities, identities, and linguistic characteristics that facilitate the formation of community.

Furthermore, the creation of community relationships within prison functions not only as a method of inclusion, but also as one of exclusion. Some communities dictate not only who may claim membership within a group, but who cannot. Gangs and the racialized nature of many prisons provide one common example of this; with tensions running high over issues of gang affiliation and race, IP create starkly divided categories among themselves to maintain order (Schaefer et al. 2017). The “convict code” portrayed in many of the essays below also demonstrates the ways in which division can form between IP, with stigma surrounding certain offenses and actions. As Trammell and Chaneault’s (2009) study of IP in California points out, incarcerated individuals create a “hierarchy” among themselves based on the crime they committed; these IP utilize violence against certain individuals to distance themselves from IP with ‘bad’ crimes and to raise their own social status. As you read through this curation, we encourage you to remain mindful of these forms of social distance, and the other ways in which the bonds formed between IP can both unite and divide them from others.

Section 1: Prison Culture

As Doran Larson points out in his introduction to Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America, authors writing from prison “see themselves writing from, of, and for a single community under hostile supervision—an experience more homogeneous than that borne by inhabitants of Albuquerque or Memphis, Boston or L.A.” (Larson 2013, p. 4). As with any community, this “prison city” has its own culture and social expectations, such as the unofficial code of conduct created by other IP, or the sense of solidarity that unites these individuals in the face of discrimination or abuse. The essays in this section describe aspects of prison culture common to many institutions within the American carceral system.

Subsection 1a: The Convict Code

The following essays depict the so-called ‘convict code’ that dictates the behavior of IP within prison. This code, created by IP, warns against “snitching” (informing staff of another’s illicit behavior) and any other behavior that indicates cooperation with the prison’s administration, among other actions.

Assaulting Dave
Jacob Barrett

After his intake into prison, Barrett meets his new cellmate (“cellie”), a seasoned IP who teaches him what Barrett refers to as the ‘convict code.’ This code requires him to assault his co-defendant, illustrating how prison culture can both create relationships (the cellie teaching Barrett the ropes) and destroy them (Barrett’s attack on his former friend).

As I pass to my cell sitting at the back of the “white section” with his long blonde hair is my codefendant Dave. I haven’t seen him since the day I was sentenced. I never thought I’d see him again. But there he was chatting away with the guy next to him.

When I walk into my cell I’m face to face with the an older convict who is tattooed from head to toe and looks like he spends his days bench pressing small Volkswagen’s. He aggressively greets me with, “You got you’re paperwork. I don’t live with any rapo’s.” It is an introduction to the convict code I’ll hear over and over through the years. It tells you that “good dudes” don’t live in the same cell as rapists and sex offenders. It is a dictate that becomes internalized.

In the introduction to In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison, Norman Mailer wrote that Jack Henry Abbot, a prisoner, informed him that very few men in prison truly knew about violence in prison. You may see it and experience it on some level but to really have a firm perception of prison violence it takes at least a decade before the reality of it “permeated your psychology and your flesh.” It takes that long for the young mind to mature enough to understand its impact on the soul.

“That’s my codefendant right there”, I said looking out my cell window into the dayroom. He sat less than 15 feet away in the day room watching TV. I regret pointing it out as soon as I say it.

“Which one?” my cellie pushes up behind me and smashing his face on the window looking like a cat that has just seen a movement that could mean game. “Did he snitch on you?” he asked almost slyly.

“Yeah,” I regret saying it as soon as the words fall from my mouth, “he got a 10 year deal.” The decision to identify Dave as a “snitch” would change both our worlds. I would get a crash course in prison politics that would define my life for the next decade.

“You gatta get that fool” he says with a certainty. There was a confidence in his voice. “You can’t walk the yard with the motherfucker who ratted you out” he declared “or you’re just as bad as him.” The convict code holds a snitch in complete contempt but also looks down as poorly on anyone who walks a yard with someone who has snitched on them. You’re expected to do something. “If you don’t get his ass they’ll run you off the yard” he informs me. I don’t even know who “they” are but in my mind they are stabbing me on the weight pile, as I walk the track or as I sit in the chow hall. “Get a shiv and get that fool,” he tells me.

Imagine for a moment a 145 lbs 20 year old first time offender who can’t even grow hair on his face with any consistency; who is terrified of being raped or killed; locked in a cell without any escape with a larger, older convict who is tattooed and seasoned in the way to survive the prison life telling him how to act in order to survive. For a youth listening to that seasoned survivor it is like hearing the words of a preacher thumping the bible. I believed every word he tells me. If I didn’t get Dave I would be the one getting stabbed. Everything in me was screaming not to do it but a small part of me wanted to do it too. I wanted to fit in and I was willing to do whatever I had to do. I was terrified and fear causes you to make unclear decisions. Had I been in the cell with someone who was more rational and encouraged me to do well and didn’t push the convict line I would have had a very different experience. But I was in a cell with someone infected with state sponsored dysfunction.

“I don’t got a shiv,” I say, not even really sure what a shiv is. It seemed like an easy out. “I can just beat his ass,” I say while trying to run through my mind how that might turn out.

“No, you got to stick that fool,” he asserts, “don’t get scared now killer.” Telling me not to be scared is meant to be a challenge to my manhood. You’re not allowed to show fear or vulnerability as a man. In hindsight I know now he was priming me. Older cons will test fish to see how far they will go if pushed. Sometimes it is just to stir up drama in an environment where people are bored from the constant idleness of prison life. He was telling me how to survive in an environment that was hostile and unforgiving without overtly saying it. Be a man; don’t be scared.

“Just make one,” he tells me. I didn’t know how to make a shiv but he was ready to give me a quick instruction on how to break razor blades from a shaver and melting them into a comb for a makeshift straight razor. When we are done I have two razors melted into a small back comb with string from a blanket wrapped around the handle. It didn’t look like much but the damage they could do would soon become a reality. Everything in me was screaming to stop but I felt like I had no choice. If I backed out now the tables would be turned.

“Just wait until dayroom and get that fool as he’s sittin’ there,” he instructs me. I can feel every muscle in my body tense. My nerves are shaky. He tells me to just walk up behind him and cut his throat. “It aint shit,” he tells me. I didn’t think to ask how he knew that. I just assumed he had stabbed someone – probably several someone’s – at some point before.

It takes another two days before I finally get up the nerve to act. When the dayroom opens I walk out and head toward Dave. He’s sitting there talking to the same guy he was days before. As I walk towards him my body and mind feel as if they shutting down. My vision becomes a haze, I feel as if I’m in a slow motion waking dream walking. I don’t want to do this. I just want it to be over with. Dave has his hair in a ponytail. I grab it with one hand, pull back and down to expose his neck and run the razor across his throat. Mentally I begin to turn off a switch in my head trying to disconnect myself from what I’m about to do. The next thing I remember is Dave standing in front of me as I still grip his ponytail. He’s trying to get away but I’m controlling his movement by his ponytail. We’re face to face, his head cocked to the side as I tug his hair. He looks at me with terror in his eyes. I feel sick.

At that point it became pure survival for both of us. Dave knew he couldn’t retreat so he tried to move in to defend himself. He throws a punch that lands on my chest. Grabbing at me he rips my pocket off and we begin to struggle. He’s trying to get the shiv, reaching for it and grabbing it. I pull it back and cut his hands in the process as the razor blade cuts through his fingers and palm. He is throwing wild punches while trying to retreat hitting me in the shoulder and chest. He’s trying to retreat but the grip I have on his ponytail dictates how far he can go. It is a grip of fear. A grip so tight my fingers will hurt later from the tension. I’m slashing at Dave with the shiv. He puts his hands up to ward off the razor and I slash his hands. Blood is flowing in all directions. It covers the walls and cell doors on each side of the unit.

“Break it up!” a guard yells. I hear it like a distant voice but it feels like a relief. This is all about to end.

Cesspit of deviance
Victor K. Wilson

In this essay, Wilson conducts a sociological analysis of IP’s behavior that he has witnessed during his incarceration. He argues that prison is a microcosm of the outside world, a unique community with its own values, practices, and vernacular.

In relation to the prison environment, established convention screams out as oxymoronic. What usually holds as acceptable behavior within American society becomes unusual; and, what customarily seems aberrant becomes standard. Prison can be a real trip!

Nevertheless, as a microcosm, though it embodies all the social characteristics of its larger parent, the prison culture possesses one stark distinction: a seething concentration of deviance. All deplorable behaviors sprinkled throughout the greater society coalesce and funnel down into a festering cesspit called prison. No other subculture exudes as much conscious conduct as the “Department of Corrections.”


A good percentage of the prison population, interestingly, tolerates several obnoxious behaviors like someone yelling up at a homeboy on 3-row, slamming dominoes, and submitting someone else to second-hand smoke. For prisoners, social reality dictates that no one should interfere in another’s “business.”

One chief investigation undertaken by symbolic-interaction theory is how labels develop and get applied throughout a community. Labels people create play a crucial role in the formation of cognitive realities. Social “realities” define a person’s surroundings, set obligations towards others, and construct identities (Marcionis, 196). And prison possesses its fair share of labels – from pimps to punks, from thugs to skinheads, from chinos to eses, from players to pushovers, and on and on. Prison “tags” can be either praiseworthy or derogatory according to the prevailing atmosphere. A “killer’ or male inmate who masturbates in plain view of female officers, for example, often receives snickers of encouragement; whereas, a “punk” or flamboyant homosexual receives shouts of derision. To say the least, labels act as powerful influences for sustaining or morphing cultural actuality.

A perspective on prison
Michael B. Beverly

Beverly describes the ‘convict code’ that dictates the behavior of IP; in this excerpt, he focuses specifically on what IP should or should not speak about.

Numerous inmates will banter about the expression, ‘doing your own time.’ Ideally, this means an inmate would be socially responsible to his peers, address the programs ordered by the court or recommended by the DOC, and serve his time, without getting involved in any other inmates’ business. In reality, this doesn’t happen. And ironically, those that tend to throw this expression around the most are the same ones who put themselves in other inmates’ concerns. In spite of that, it behooves each inmate’s interest to adhere to it. Failure to do so will more often than not, turn physical. For example, if an inmate steals from another, you don’t ask who, what, when, or any of the other reporter‘s questions. Nor do you talk about it with names, even if you were witness to the event. If you observe an inmate pass another inmate a kite (note), you don’t inquire about it. If you notice an inmate sporting a new tattoo, you don’t ask who did the work. Essentially, in prison, we keep our eyes open and our mouths shut.

When an inmate violates the convicts’ code, it is considered the responsibility of the offended to retaliate. Failure to do so marks him as a ‘punk’ and invites further and more escalated abuse. Even if the offended is assured to fare the worst in a fight, it is thought better to fight and lose than not to fight at all. Again, here we expose an irony, those who are most likely to engage in fighting, are also more likely to gang up on an individual. Even though one-on-one is the expected convict code, gangs (crews, boys, brotherhoods, etc.) will often attack as one to show their bond and instill fear in individuals and smaller gangs. Any inmate who is at risk for being assaulted must be prepared to function this way, or PC (enter protective custody.)

Background: I came to prison with a 60 year bit
Charles E. Cooper II

Cooper outlines the five core rules of the code of conduct, from his experience. He highlights the effect of drugs and gangs on the level of violence in prison, and how one must conform with this system of violence if they want to survive prison.

I was told how young men like me are raped or killed within the first 2 yrs. of prison. The third day in prison 3 men came at me telling me that I had to pay, fight, or f**k. So I started swinging and that paid off. The next day a old school con with a 4 digit number (meaning he started in the 60’s or 70’s) and gave me the five rules for a convict doing time: 1. Mind your own business. 2. Don’t get into a debt you can’t cover. 3. Keep your word. 4. Don’t rat. 5. Don’t mess with the c/o’s [correction officers].


Causes of Violence:

The main cause of violence in the I.D.O.C. was over money or relationships. In 1997 Indiana took smoking out of prison and thus a “Black Market” plus drugs was also sought after. Many didn’t follow the second rule, don’t get into debt you can’t cover. Many men lost their lives over an oz. of tobacco. Gangs want blood or their money. As I said relationships can also be the center of violence. If another person looks at or makes passes at another person’s “thing” that is a sure way to get stabbed. Breaking the first rule: mind your own business.

Cell block society: Politics, economics and its social class system
Levert Brookshire III (Sékou)

Brookshire analyzes “Cell Block Society” (prison) using a sociological perspective, focusing on the complex social relationships that shape the ways in which IP interact with each other. He also emphasizes the differences between prison culture and the culture outside prison, which can complicate IP’s reentry.

Just like the ‘free world’ society, here in prison the social class structured system has a three level stage hierarchy, complete with its own upper class societal status, middle class and even lower class status too. In here, the lower class level is where all of the known sex offenders, informants, pedophiles, thieves and women abusers remain.


Here we are able to see our own educational or (indoctrination) governing systems complete with an executive branch. One that for the most part serves as both judicial and legislative branch as well. Together they operate much like the civilian criminal injustice system.

Every single day, inside these state and federally funded and constructed prison walls, “crime” and “punishment” occurs, and the discipline that gets meted out daily is sometimes done so, with extremely violent and brutal prejudice.


Our entire way of ‘thinking’ and ‘living’ has been shifted, reshaped and realigned into what resembles a ‘cult-like’ group thought’ mentality, which has programmed us here to think irrationally, impulsively and anti-socially in order to survive day to day inside this backwards thinking sub-culture society.

Where individuality is replaced with peer pressure, self-sabotaging, flawed ways of thinking. Thus setting the state in one society for a life of failure, miscalcuations and unnecessary losses and suffering, once returning or re-entering back into free world civil society again. I could go on and on about how life is inside these places, living as a ‘celldweller’, who is only motivated to reach their peak potential inside here through predatory, manipulative, narcissistic and sociopathic gain, using intimidation and extortion, even violence as the common means to acquire or gain everything one may desire.


Now I’m finally appreciative to be in a completely different mindset, one that is focused entirely on my plans when I am released from prison. But you, the reader, have to understand something. No matter how serious I may be about this new and improved version of myself, I’m still very aware of the fact I must maintain a superficial alliance to social hierarchies inside here, in an effort to keep my own protective shield in place. That old adage, ‘while in Rome do as the Romans do’. Otherwise I can be perceived as a threat to the established social hierarchy and undermine my own upcoming release.

I swerve, pursued.
Jose Lauriano DiLenola

In this essay, DiLenola describes the ways in which he navigated prison politics after accidentally offending a gang member. Although it does not explicitly reference the idea of a ‘convict code,’ this piece depicts strict expectations of IP behavior that revolve around pride—much like the aspects of the code described by other essays in this section.

Yelling on the gate of your cell is just like shouting in the school yard——two boys taunting each other while a jeering crowd circles. The tiers in Comstock are open from the first floor to the fourth. On the first floor (the flats), I can call up to the fourth and be heard clearly. so when a prisoner is talking on the gate, everyone can hear what’s said. In most cases this is not a good thing.

A couple days ago two guys from the floor above me were arguing. Back and forth they traded insults, punctuated by “Suck my dick,” and “You’s a bitch.”

No one jeered, silence spoke louder. For an hour and a half this went on, until both became hoarse. They moved on to blasting tape players and violent hip-hop lyrics. Later that day, one of the men ended up with a knife in his neck. That’s the gate. A stage, and once you put it out there, there’s no getting it back.

I’ve lived on this tier for six months and because of my location and age, I have formed a tight friendship with several of the men who live around me.


After calling home and having my collect call refused, I walked the yard with Toño. of all the guys that lock near me, Toño is the oldest. (…) After being around him a few weeks, observing him interact with others, I noticed how respected he was. Toño was the first person I began to trust. Much of our time walking the yard was spent enlightening me to the ways of prison. I asked questions and he gave me answers, honest answers. He explained the gangs, Co’s, gambling, drug use, how to sharpen metal into wicked knives. . . everything I wanted and needed to know.


Entering the messhall the noise and my paranoia picks up considerably. Glances from men seem to say good luck, hold your head, or, you’re going down. In this place news travels fast.


I could tell the CO’s about Chiprock, but I’d have to sign into Protective Custody (PC) and that would make me a rat. Something like that never leaves a man. No matter what prison you transfer to, or how many years pass by——you’ll always be remembered as a rat. Even though prisoners cannot write prison to prison, there is a way around it. No matter where I went, within a week of arrival a letter would be sent around the prison, telling of my cowardice. I have to face this situation, no matter the outcome.


I look around at the men assembled on the volleyball court. They watch, weighing, examining me. I finally realize what this is really about. I’m new and they don’t know what I’ll do. So they maintain a safe distance. I’m sure some want to help, but if I won’t fight my own battles, stand up for my respect, I’d be a liability to their reputations.


While I wait for Toño to return, I check the tension of the yard. It is visible. Too many men are playing the wall. cliques are gathered in their designated turfs; the Rochester crew has gathered to see what will happen to one of their own. The controlled noise suggests anticipation.


“Dis mother—fucker’s a cower. Chu know he go home in two weeks? He don‘ ‘wanna fight Chu.” He laughs, “Said it no fair cuz you too small. Hay, I told you come back in five minutes.”

“I heard you, but I felt like waiting.”

“Chu crazy, but that was good, it sho cajones, you got cajones. I think. it scare him a little,” he laughs again. “Okay. Bloods say you gotta fight one they people-”


“Beef’s off. You did it, faced em, an‘ he wan‘ no problemas. oh yea,” he laughs, amused, “He cut he’s thumb last night when he try cut you.”

Mass incarceration the criminalization of America
Victor Andrew Apodaca Sr.

Apodaca describes the ‘code of conduct’ imposed by prison gangs in the early twentieth century, emphasizing the consequences for violating this code. He then describes the changes that have overtaken prisons since the administration began targeting gang members.

When I came to prison [in 2002], the ‘Clicksters’ (i.e. prison gangs) ran the general population. There was a social order, and a code of conduct, and a moral code that each prisoner lived by. If you violated it by become an informant, child molester, and or a Rapist you were not allowed to move around freely your life was on the line, but for anyone else they worked, if a promise was made (i.e. give your word) you kept it and drugs were very costly not only in moneys but also with your life if you owed money and gave word and you did not keep it you would be found in the morning rolled in your white Sheet like a Burrito with crimson dots all over your body. But then drug use was down, but in 2006, in the state of New Mexico and U.S. prison system started to lockdown their prison gangs. This provided an opportunity for another Social order to replace the equilibrium of the prison gangs had more or less ensured, and it opened the floodgates as prison then became a rite of passage for Street and City or town gang members that replaced the gangs in lockdown and in turn Created Social disorder in all U.S. prisons. So now anyone can come to prison sell drugs even if your a ‘rat’ (i.e. informant) or child molester and these so-called gangsters became a full-blown addict.

And anyone that is only Semi-violent also get lockdown. So on the general population the drug dealer/addict is king-of-Hill now.

Level III
Garmon Coats

Coats reflects on IP’s usage of nicknames to project images of power and fearsomeness. He connects this need for a favorable reputation to the “Offender Code” that used to dominate the prison, and how this code has deteriorated over the years.

The old days were serious times when “Building Tenders” and “Turn Keys” [Footnote: As title suggests, BTs and TKs had authority over other inmates. Most kept the peace. There were bad apples.] ruled the bricks under the guards. Those were the days of slit-eyed convicts speaking from the corners of their mouths. Talking and any reckless eye-balling was painfully prohibited. It was a penitent era of doing time when fear and wisdom were the only rival gangs, without which, things could happen to a convict’s flesh.


Fear is to a prisoner what a bridle is to a horse. Where there is no fear there is no respect. In prison worthless men crowed togather compare themselves. Each seek traces of righteousness within themselves relative to others, creating a hierarchical range of good criminals and bad criminals. Whatever selfworth one perceived, on that they displayed their character. Those without any discernable self worth rated themselves according to images of “cool” they aspired to be like, usually tagging themselves with a relevant nick-name. One could be “Preacher” and another “Slasher,” both equally respected if they could generate an aura of fearsomeness. Many mama‘s-boy-wanna-be-bad-boys deliberately instigated circumstances where he could look the image he wanted to portray. This is the bully category. Sinse respect was fostered from

reputation, an unknown convict would get tried by someone still trying to establish his.


The first things pardoned and paroled in the new prison era were the convict codes of conduct. The new “Offender” code is snitch first, snitch frequently. Fine print Offender Code; stealing, boisterous noise, gang association, homosexual atrocities, and general disregard for principles of moral integrity. Minding one’s own business, doing one’s own time, prohibition from drawing “heat” to others by one’s nefarious actions are segments of the obsolete convict code.

A new wave of youthful offenders has restocked the system, displacing the old school convicts. Without the Building Tenders and Turn Keys who kept the peace on the cellblocks there is no longer any lawful form of physical redress between prisoners and guards. The cellbocks are now governed by bullies and gangs. Fearing inmates instead of authority, inmates have only to politic with those in positions over a group. Right and wrong have become relative to circumstances. Whoever prevails in numbers is right. Thus it is herd mentality instead of old school individualism. One does not have to stand on one’s own feet to “make it” in prison anymore.


This pretense of a baseless, plastic version of mob respect works well with ignorant youth who have no wholesome role models. To them worthiness is irrelevant. Indeed the more treacherous and ruthless the offender acts, the closer to actual respect he gets. It’s hip to be stupid!

This flip—flopping of prison protocols has rendered the new cinder block prisons, painted mental ward white or dead brain matter grey drives simi—normal inmates nuts. And when blood is smeared on these wall, nothing is getting done but a precursor to vindiction. Glory starved misfits commit any sort of outrage in order to be deemed fit for the herd; these easily manipulated are called “crash dummies.”

Subsection 1b: Identity-Based Division and Community

The essays in this section describe the social divisions created within prison, which, as these authors point out, often fall along racial/ethnic lines. This hierarchy dictates with whom IP may form communities and relationships without attracting the ire of others. However, the communities created by these divisions can create positive outcomes, as authors such as Bella Donna Langan attest in their essays.

A day in life
Donald Hairgrove

Hairgrove describes the effects that prison has had on his mental health. As part of this reflection, he describes how IP’s reactions to incarceration divide them into categories and influence their relationships.

A convict is concerned with merely surviving each day. He must find a way to survive the dehumanizing prison system that demands that he become a victim or become as brutal and unfeeling as the grim man around him. However the tender portion of a man is not dead, only dormant, and those half forgotten memories are examined with care each night in a place where no official or inmate can intrude…in his dreams…

Each man finds his own method of survival. For the strong willed it is easy. For the weak willed it is hard. For some it comes from the trafficing of drugs, home-made wine and other contraband. For some it comes from gambling with cards on sporting events. For some it comes from the ever available closeness of a homosexual relationship. For some it comes from running in packs of gangs. While in others it is religion and the church that offers an escape. Many find the ones of like mind and indulge in conversation directed towards the building of self-confidence by exaggerating the importance of ones crime and the laying of carefully detailed, elaborate plans to commit future crimes whenever the opportunity comes. No matter what the method, the bottom line is-Survival…

The struggling war of a day in life within the gates of prison oftentimes is harder than other days, yet it is never easy on a man’s Soul. Even on quiet days the moments are stressing. For things are missed, however they seem so small; like hot apple pie and chocolate chip ice cream, a real steak with fixings, the rumble of a Harley, the delightful laughter of a child or the warmth of a woman are some Soul crushing trivia that constantly bring pain on a mans Soul…

A prisoner’s purpose
Kenneth Hartman

Hartman explains the culture of violence that defines the relationships between IP. He expresses his struggles with trying to find a new life purpose, including the limits that violence places on his chances to self-rehabilitate. 

Before long, l was deep in the mix of drugs and power politics, and the well-regulated violence that characterized the joint. Prisoners divided themselves, with the willing assistance of the system, into ethnically-based armies that engaged in largely ritualized combat, occasionally actually battering one another directly, while living a fantasy existence of ascribed significance.


Unfortunately, finding venues to perform expiating acts, while serving life without the possibility of parole has proven to be an exceedingly difficult task. We counseled wayward youth, taught my illiterate peers how to read, and volunteered for every imaginable “good” work offered.


The first ridge l had to scale was the ever-present prison mindset, what is best described as “The Omnivorous Cult of the Lowest Common Denominator”. It is, in effect, a surrendering to the worst elements, a way of thinking that devalues progress and optimism, a code of conduct that resents growth and glorifies violence. Prisoners and guards, both sides of the prison experience less adversaries than mirror images of one another, casting their self-loathing onto the other, practice it. I had learned, years before, this cult, like most cults, is based on fear and ignorance; once exposed to the light of reason, all but the most fear-filled and obstinate are willing to abandon it. While adherence to the cult is wide, it is not deep. In the face of a good idea, a better way, the cult quickly withers.

America’s succubus: The nightmare of the criminal justice system in the United States

Francis describes the social hierarchy that IP create among themselves, including the factors of race, religion, and other aspects of identity that dictate an IP’s place within this hierarchy.

Prison provides it’s very own and unique brand of law, unwritten rules, and politics. Politics of a Machiavellian caliber that one must learn to navigate better than Niccolo himself if it is their desire to survive the prison experience relatively unscathed. The fluency with which you do so often determines at what rank and position you fill in the social hiearchy of the prison and in what light you are viewed by fellow prisoners. Determinant upon whether you are liked, feared, respected, protected, despised or frowned upon can decide your fate in the literal, sense. The quality of your life is directly affected by it and it could very well mean the difference between life and death.


Every subsequent aspect of incarceration is governed by the science of control, management,

and repression. As these are the institutional primary objectives, rehabilitation of prisoners

garners no sway. The concept of ‘Divide and Conquer” is utilized as a tactic. Seperation by race,

creed, organizational affiliation, religious designation; gangs; and geographical cliques are

encouraged by prison administration. It is an effective and useful strategy. Each prisoner has their individual assignation. The executive authorities employ every means available to maintain these assignments and detailed dossiers are compiled on every prisoner and are frequently updated.

Jamar Frank Gilmore

In this work, Gilmore describes how identity factors such as race can create groups and micro-communities within prison. This can be a uniting factor, but also can breed resentment and prejudice for other groups in this unstable setting. 

Prison is a place of groups, clicks, and clans. Big groups all the way down to micro groups sticking together because they either have the same interest or common goal. However in any group race is a big deal and inside a prison if a group feels that they are not properly represented racially, whether it is a job placement or a place to call their own in the yard, can lead to a catastrophic encounter.

Not long ago me and a fellow inmate were discussing the Bible and God’s chosen people the Israelite’s. Were they black or white? Was Jesus black or white? A few days later I here someone say Abraham Lincoln was a black man and our current president isn’t the first black president. About a week or so later I’m heading out my cell to the general library and this same individual is on his way in. He stops and gives a copied excerpt of a book titled Five Negro Presidents by J.A. Rogers. Now I’m familiar with this author just not this subject, when I return I settle down and read it. I can see that race has always been of great concern to the world, words like pure white and negro strain illuminated my vision.


Throughout my experience of this life growing up in a urban community skin color has always been said to be the reason for my state of not achieving or being dealt with unfairly. As I matured behind the walls of prison and expanded my reading palate my point of view changed even amongst extreme oppressive situations and inhumane conditions, that break human spirit and leave just a shell of human flesh. Now I understand the saying all men are created equal. No matter what, we are all equal in our range of emotions fear, anger, love, joy, pride, sadness, pain, happiness even hope. Our hopes may not be the same picture but it’s the same emotion determination. The success you want for your children, wife, family I want as well. Safety and security to make it to your bed at night safely whether it’s a cell, a queen size or a cardboard box. King Solomon made an observation of man’s range of expressing his emotion -citing Ecclesiastes 1:9 “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, there is nothing new under the sun.” Emotions are expressed in a repetitive manner, pride- possessions, family, education and race; love is shown through whatever passion one is devoted to; sports, music, cellphone. We want freedom but we set boundaries, we seek peace but will burn and kill to get it, we want justice only on our terms.

We are God’s greatest creation. He gave us authority over the earth. He has referred to us as neighbors. Is it so hard to believe our origins stem from a interracial marriage and if so then we are all distant relatives. So that also would mean all our customs, religion, dialect and history all originate from the same foundation, we’ve just forgotten our old ways in the old country: Citing Ecclesiastes 1:11 “There is no remembrance of former things nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after.”

The distractions we have now has set us back a million years intellectually if we realize we are from the same family tree and focus on improving ourselves, health, morals, intellect. This would reflect in our societies taking us to the highest pinnacle and who knows, the creator may tell mankind to subdue and take over another planet. In closing I challenge those with dissenting opinions to seek out the truth, and in parting I leave you with the wise saying of King Solomon. “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” Proverbs 25:2

A day of my life
David James Martin

Martin discusses the ways in which prisoners on Death Row interact with one another throughout the course of a normal day, illustrating the camaraderie he feels with other residents of Death Row. He emphasizes the importance of the human connection within this shared struggle against boredom and isolation.

As days go by, time seems to lose all significance, and the extended periods of confinement is a challenge to even the most stable of souls. Very often, the solitude and combined degradation takes its toll on the frail human psyche. Each day is a carbon-copy of the last, with no change expected in the future.


From day to day, one can lie back on his bunk and listen to one legal horror story after another, as fellow prisoners try desperately to get the next to see his point.


Day to day activities including talking, playing chess, watching TV, listening to the radio or MP3 player (if a prisoner can afford to buy any of the electronics), writing letters to friends and family, or to an overworked public defender or a post-conviction attorney who is equally overburdened.


The staggering task that is every mans burden on the Row is filling the hours until he can sleep again. The options are few. There is talk; endless, embodied, mostly insane talk. The Prisoner steps to the front of his cell and begins talking loudly, and his voice echoes along the wing. No one can see him, because all cells face the same way, with a thick wall between them. Talking this way is called “getting on the door”, and some men will be on the door for hours, yammering about cars, politics, sex, past memories, dreams and every other possible subject. They will bet on whether it will rain by sunset. Some men are insane and will rave about space aliens or about men coming at them through the air vents at night. Only 14 men live on each wing, so the conversations get stale, yet it continues day after day, month after month, year after year.


A condemned man learns to paint pictures with M&M’s. He learns to make picture frames from old newspapers. He plays chess with the man 3 or 4 cells away by shouting out his moves.


Twice a week, two wings go outside for rec. There is just enough space for part of a basketball court, a volleyball court, and a little space to stand out of the way. Of course, we might not have a basketball or volleyball. The balls often get popped on the razor wire on top of the fence. Rec is the only chance for prisoners to see and talk to each other, face to face. There is lots of hand-shaking. For some prisoners, this is their only chance to touch another human. Still some men never go outside, for one reason or another.


And being a Human, Death Row Prisoners also have a sense of humor, and spend many afternoons teasing, jesting and laughing at each other. Over time, you can come to know, like, and even have genuine friendships with a fellow Prisoner. Sure, in the back of his mind, he may never know whether his friend was once a murderer, but at the present time he is simply another Human Being that reciprocates his friendship.

My second year in women’s prisons
Bella Donna Langan

Bella Donna Langan finds community with other transgender people in a women’s prison based on their shared experience as trans IP. This shared identity factor allows these IP to foster a culture of understanding and comfort in an otherwise violent and dehumanizing environment. In this essay, Langan walks the reader through a day in her life and describes the solace she finds in other trans folks. 

As I come to the end of my second year in a women’s prison, I wonder if it will be my last. I am doing very well here and have made the change with out to much trouble. I am very well liked and respected by my peers and part of the Community of Women here.

But there is a very small and bitter minority that wants me and the rest of the transgender prisoners out of here. They have filed a law suit in the Federal Court,and obtained representation from some right wing anti-LGBT hate group. A lot of people myself included did not expect the suit to go very far. But it did and it is causing me and the Transgender Community problems. I think the Male to Female preoperative persons are most at risk. But the Hater’s have targeted all transgender persons in their complaint, M to F, F to M, pre, and post op. In fact they may even try to get the whole LGBT Community.


I have always been very aware of how my actions are viewed by others. And I have acted accordingly. I go out of my way to be polite and act like a Lady. I have also followed my own natural instincts and treat people like I want to be treated. It is really just common sense.

One of the things I have done is I have asked my fellow women to sign affidavit’s attesting to my good behavior, and demeanor. People have also come to me on their own and let me know that I have their support. This does include persons from all ethnic backgrounds, religions, and walks of life. I have participated in community activities, Including a very well liked performance of Shania Twain’s ” Man I feel like a woman” which I lip synched. People came up to me weeks later and told me how much they enjoyed my performance. I also wrote a Christmas play based on Dickens ” A Christmas Carol ” which won our unit 3rd place in a contest.

I keep my distance from known trouble makers, including one’s who claim to be transgender. I don’t use drugs or drink, nor do I have sex. It may sound like a dull life. But as we like to say at Carswell ” I am living the Dream”, some say it in a sarcastic manner but for me it is true. My life is so different now from what it used to be, as a woman in a male prison.


I try to have lunch with my friend at least a couple of days a week. Then I go back to work after lunch. There is some heavy lifting and stocking of materials and supplies. We also check on the safety equipment. I make a decent salary by prison standards and I earn it. I have also earned a high level of trust and respect from my supervisors. My job takes me all over the prison and I have gotten to know most of my fellow women prisoners quite well.

My social life varies according to the weather, and what programs are available. I attend programs in the religious services area, most movies and video viewing. Me and my best friend watch at least two movies a week. I also go outside weather and time permitting, I enjoy taking walks as much as I can. Sometimes I just sit outside by myself or with a friend.

This year I have had to spend a lot of my time doing legal work to try and deal with this anti-transgender case. It takes a lot out of me to have to deal with such hate and lies. But I owe it to myself and my friends to fight back in a legal and proper way.

At the end of the day usually recall at 8:30pm I go back to my housing unit. I get a shower, make a snack, check the computer, and get ready for bed after the 9:30pm count. I don’t watch much TV. I do do video visits which are sort of like skype you can see and be seen by the person you are visiting with they last about 25 minutes and cost $6.00. My family lives far away so it is a good alternative for me to use.

I live on one of the smaller units in the hospital, we have dialysis patients who have kidney failure, cancer patients who are on chemo, radiation, or have completed their tratment. We also have able bodied persons who live on the unit, either to work or to fill the top bunks the others can’t use. There are a couple of us transpersons on this unit too (M to F and F to M) and we all get along well with each other and everyone else.

I sleep well and soundly knowing I don’t have to worry about being raped or attacked because I am transgender. And the people I live with have no fear of me doing any thing bad to them. We all just try to live and let live, we also help each other alot. I have found women who have collapsed , and or have passed out due to their illness. And some who had other problems and needed to go to the emergency treatment area. I have also provided an ear to listen, and a shoulder to cry on. And I have received back the same, that’s how we roll here at this Women’s prison, we help each other for the most part.

Subsection 1c: IP Solidarity

As a more positive counterpoint to the two subsections above, the essays here depict times when IP helped out other IP. In these cases, the individuals acted out of concern for other IP—united not by race or a code of conduct, but the mere fact that they are all incarcerated together.

Bryan Dawkins

Dawkins describes how he provided emergency medical assistance to an IP who collapsed while playing basketball. His concern for this man (a stranger to him), as well as the compassion of all other IP in the room, demonstrate the emotional connections between IP in this facility.

At James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, DE, Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 an inmate collapsed in the gym while playing basketball. Initially his fellow inmates thought that he was joking. But quickly realized, the situation was deadly serious.

Unbeknownst to all parties, the sequence of miraculous acts of bravery and compassion that followed were unforeseen.

As the fifty-two year old man (inmate) lay dying or deceased on the gymnasium floor, concerns for him grew rapidly as the crowd swelled and gathered all around. An inmate, known to be a friend to the man, knelt by his side, repeatedly calling out his name, urgency reverberating in his voice. The friend yelled out in panic, “he’s not breathing, call a code!” C.O. Cole swiftly made his assessment of the situation, called a medical code, and secured the gym, occupied by approximately eighty inmates.

Simultaneously, another inmate, Bryan L. Dawkins, was stirred into action by his humanitarianism, and empathy. Dawkins rushed to lend aid to the fallen man, motionless and not breathing on the gym floor, surrounded by worried inmates unaware of what to do.

Dawkins, now kneeling on the floor next to the man’s left, checked for a pulse on the neck. There was none. He then checked for a pulse on the wrist. There was none. Without any further delay, inmate Dawkins began admininstering C. P.R. on his fellow inmate. First mouth-to-mouth and then chest compressions, attempting to resuscitate the deceased man. Inmate Bryan L. Dawkins instructed C/O Cole how to perform chest compressions, while he gave mouth-to-mouth and in concert, they provided C.P.R. reviving the heart attack victim four times, while awaiting the professional medical team to arrive.

The fifty-two year old heart attack victim survived, thanks in large part to an unsung hero, a mere inmate, a man named Bryan L. Dawkins.

Relief or riot
Edward R. Clark

After new, non-retroactive sentencing guidelines were introduced in Minnesota, IP in Clark’s prison threatened to riot. In the following excerpt, Clark urges IP to work together, using political lobbying rather than violence to solve the issue. The IP unite as one voice and manage to pass a bill to make the guidelines retroactive (potentially reducing their sentences).

I came up with a plan: At the scheduled time to appear on the inhouse TV channel, while announcing the bill did not pass –

There is one day left in the legislative session, so it could still pass. And that is where each and every one of us comes in. For the rest of today and evening, contact your families and ask that they contact their legislator to support the bill. Phone calls will be limited to five minutes so everyone will have a chance to make the call.

What a sight! Long lines were reported at every inmate phone in every cellblock. When a man got off the phone, he went to the back of the line to make more calls. I was later informed that there were so many incoming calls at the State Capitol that the switchboard was overloaded.

Expecting the bill would not pass, and the threats made against the prison, it was placed on lockdown status at the 10:00 pm switchin that lasted through the next evening. Prison officials, assuming the legislation would fail, delivered a memorandum to every cell, complementing the prison population for seeking relief in a legal manner and suggesting that at some point in the future they “might” obtain relief.

The closing hours of the legislative session was televised with the bill the last on the calendar to be voted on. A legislator grudgingly complained he received phone calls from prison inmates throughout the previous night. Another legislator, supporting the legislation, responded the calls could not have come from the prison because the inmates are locked in their cells at ten o’clock.

The bill passed with bipartisan support. In celebration the entire prison population went into an uproar, yelling and banging on their cell bars that went on throughout the night – sleep was impossible.

The next morning the lockdown ended. Lines at the phones were again long with men discussing the good news with their families. Others stood around in small groups discussing plans for when they would be released.

That evening an elderly man came to my cell, asking what all the excitement was about. He didn’t have a television and kept to himself. He had been a derelict, retarded, and in prison on a theft charge. I explained what had taken place. He thanked me and left. A little later he returned. With teary eyes he pleaded, “You mean I might get out of prison?” I assured him he most likely would be released. He returned to his cell, closed the door and shut off the light.

Some men who befriended the old man noticed he was upset, and asked me what was bothering him and if they should talk with him. “No, just let him be for now,” I responded. I closed my door, shut off the light, and just sat, oblivious to the noise, thanking the Lord it was over.

The convict bowling league
Josh Kruger

To stave off boredom one day, Kruger and his friend Mike created a bowling ball from wadded-up newspapers and socks, and pins from deodorant bottles. Their makeshift bowling equipment created a sense of unity among the IP on their unit, giving them a chance to relax, enjoy each other’s company, and have fun with the game.

[E]nthusiasm, youthful zeal, and laughter are universal cure-alls for any illness in the world. It was game on.

One of the guys who we called “the cell block boss” was Ace. He was a muscle-bound African prisoner who had been to prison 3 or 4 times. He was funny and always had a quip for every moment. But he could turn nasty at the drop of a dime if he felt his status was challenged. He came over to see what we were doing and asked if he could try? Sure, we said and handed him the ball. His first roll was a gutter ball and we started laughing. “Come on youngster, let me get another try, I know how to bowl, man,” Ace said with a smile. So I handed him the ball. This time he took a slow wind up and rolled the ball down the lane for a strike. He hooted and hollered, and told us he could bowl a strike a dozen times in a row. We were not about to argue with him.

Because Ace was the most vocal guy on our block a lot of guys came over to see what he was singing and dancing about. One of Ace’s cronies said that his strike was beginner’s luck. “Let’s see you try” Ace challenged him, and tossed him the ball. He stepped up to the line, and rolled the ball. It went straight down the lane, but at the last second, veered off, and only hit three pins. Everyone laughed and Ace told him he sucked. “Hey man, don’t I get a chance to try and pick that up? It’s called a spare, right?” he asked. Yes I told him and handed him the ball back. Before he rolled, Ace challenged him. “I bet you 2 oatmeal pies you can’t pick that up.” Two oatmeal pies cost 60 cents and were the money of choice that everyone use to barter with. “You on bro” he said. Then with a flourish Pete Weber would have been proud of he laid the ball down and picked up his spare. “Aw shit” Ace said. Then he reluctantly handed over his two oatmeal pies.

By that time the whole cellblock was watching. An older crackhead named Casper said “Why don’t we have a tournament?” Someone followed that up with, “Yeah, we could all put up 60 cents and have a prize for 1st place and lesser one for 2nd place.” “Yeah man, let’s do it.” Then Mike said, “Who’s in?” We ended up having 14 guys in the tournament. Everyone put up either oatmeal pies or nutty bars. They were stacked up on the end of the table like they stack up the money at the final table of the World Series of Poker.

We drew names out of a t-shirt to see who would bowl against each other. Casper was designated the official scorekeeper. And I drew up a bracket on paper for what we were by then calling “The Convict Bowling League” or CBL. First place would win the grand prize of 20 pies. Second place would win 8 of them. We decided that the league would start after dinner that night.

All during the shift-change lockdown and during the dinner meal guys were talking shit and making side bets on their matches. Finally, it was time to bowl. Every guy who wasn’t bowling was either sitting on the picnic table, or standing behind it watching every roll. Every roll was another chance to bet and there would be a flurry of merchandise exchanging hands. I got knocked out by Ace in the third round. It was a miraculous strike. The ball literally jumped over the front three pins and landed in the middle, knocking them all over. I joined the other guys on the picnic table.

It came down to Ace and Mike. Of course I was rooting for Mike, since he was my boy and co creator of the CBL. We flipped a checker piece to see who would bowl first. Mike won and deferred to Ace by saying “Let the boss block go first.” Everyone laughed as Ace stepped to the line. With the usual gusto of a man who doesn’t do anything quietly, Ace said, “I’m playing for bread and meat, if I don’t win I don’t eat.” “Don’t get beat by the kid” one of Ace’s cronies told him and the match was on. The catcalls were loud and boisterous for both sides. After alternating spares and strikes for most of the match, it came down to the final frame for the both of them.

Ace stepped to the line and said his now familiar mantra, “I play for bread and meat, if I don’t win I don’t eat.” Then he let his first ball go. It rolled in what seemed like slow motion. As I watched it roll, I noticed every jump of the ball, and every crack in the floor as it rolled by. Amazingly, the cellblock was dead silent as everyone watched the same thing I was. The ball hit the front pin and knocked over 8 pins. “AAgghh, dammit,” Ace moaned. Then he looked at Casper and asked, “I got to pick that up right?” Casper told him that if he didn’t all Mike would have to do is bowl a 9 and he would win. Ace stepped back up to the line for his last roll. With a concentrated look on his face, he bent low, and let the ball go. Then something went wrong. The ball came off his finger askew. It rolled straight to the left, bounced over the gutter line, and rolled into a vacant cell. “Shit” was all Ace said Laughter exploded from the table. Someone yelled “Choke artist.” Then it was Mike’s turn.

Ace grabbed the ball out of the cell and tossed it to Mike. “It’s up to you kid, are you going to be the man or the mouse?” Ace asked Mike tauntingly. “We’ll see” Mike replied. Then just as Mike was about to bowl, Ace stepped into the middle of the lane. In an attempt to freeze Mike he pretended to be a broadcaster with a microphone. “Today we are gathered here at the first ever Convict Bowling League Tournament, where young Mike has the opportunity to win the grand prize of 20 fat and juicy oatmeal pies with his next roll. But gentlemen, this kid would mess up a wet dream.” Laughter ensued until someone said, “Man, let the kid roll.”

Ace got on his hands and knees next to the lane, and watched as Mike stepped up to the line. As soon as he rolled the ball I knew it was a strike. If the ball doesn’t jump or hop on the floor as it rolls, it means its rolling flat. Normally that means it will hit the pins perfect as long as it’s a straight ball. It did and was. Ace collapsed on the floor as the pins fell down. Someone yelled “Strike” and pandemonium erupted. I never thought everyone in the cell block could be having so much, but we were. Mike ended up on top of someone’s shoulders with a laundry bag filled with 20 oatmeal pies. While Ace was laying on the ground eating his nutty bars. “Who’s the man now Ace?” everyone was asking? He couldn’t do anything but shake his head.

Later that night, after everyone was locked up for the night, it was decided that the CBL would be permanent. Every Saturday night from then on we would hold our tourney. Throughout the following weeks, the bowling kept being brought up by all of us. There were constant jokes and wisecracks. I remember Casper made up a whole song about it. The chorus went something like this:

Keep your crappy food and silly games,

Just give me a strike, a spare, and another frame.

There are no visits today, and that’s a shame,

But it’s okay, I’ll just bowl another frame.

In retrospect, I’m glad that Mike and I invented the Convict Bowling League. We brought comraderie, and unity, to what could have been a volatile situation. One day I hope to bowl on a real lane again. But for now, just give a strike, a spare, and another frame.

Section 2: Gang Life and Community

In this section, incarcerated writers describe the presence of gangs in correctional facilities, and the ways in which they affect social dynamics, safety, and one’s sense of belonging. In this case, feelings of community can arise even from predominantly negative social groups such as gangs. Involvement in a gang can increase one’s sense of security and unity amongst an “in-group,” but can also lead to dangerous repercussions. The writers in this section depict the complexities of gang life within carceral institutions, adding nuance to the concept of community and the forms it can take.

The failed mission
James M. Valdez

Valdez describes interactions between various members of his gang, the USO’s. In the following excerpts, he describes the social interactions between gang members and how they negotiate hierarchy. Certain members act as leaders (and therefore other members forgive them their vices), while a newcomer, Big Uce, creates conflict by not obeying certain unspoken rules.

As far as the prison that I am at, it is considered a medium-security yard. There are 2 “White” dominant gangs that can be on this yard. There are the “Blacks” – but they have many men of different gangs or not that run as one unit. We have “Paizas” that are mostly Mexican – but may have a few different types of South American men that run with them. We have the “South Siders” that is another dominant Mexican gang that is on this yard and they have a good amount of soldiers and have the strongest structure on how their gang is run on the yard. We have the “Natives” – Native American Indian men. The “Cubans” run as their own group. We have the “USO’S” – Asian/Pacific Islanders with a Samoan name where it originated in Hawaii. And we have the “A.P.I.”‘s – Asian/Pacific Islanders who do not want to be affiliated with the U.S.O.’s and usually have short time.


For each race, the men have to filter out the rapists, child molesters, or snitches for their race. But for the Blacks, they do let a lot of these men slide thru the cracks. As for filtering them out, Each unit has a designated shot caller for their race and usually that man will designate a man under him to check the new incoming prisoner’s P.S.I. (Pre-sentence Investigation) report or their criminal history “paperwork”. This is an inmate’s “passport” in order to walk the yard in the General Population as far as the majority of the races. Rarely has the other races really gone to war-like a prison riot for this issue because men want to go back home to the streets to their family and loved ones. The risk would be so high in a riot. Because people get hurt. Black eyes, broken limbs, get stabbed, or even die.


And as far as my little story goes, I will mention a story involving a group called the USOs that had happened on this yard, but the names are not real names. So here I go. Jake is in his early 40’s and he is in charge of Units 11A, 11B, 12A, and 12B. He’s been on the yard for 2 years, but has been locked up for 15 years almost. He is super chill and has gained his respect amongst his brothers on his time in the County Jail and at High Desert State Prison. […) So really – his only duty is being a shot caller, but he doesn’t have to beat nobody up or stab them or have other people do the work for him. If anything, he’s the only one to worry about because he gambles on basketball, football, boxing, and plays poker mostly every tier time and day. But he handles his debts if he owes someone right away. His main mission is to go home to his family one day.

“S.B.” was in charge of the whole yard as far as the U.S.O.’s went. There were only about 40 or 50 of them, so that’s not much to watch over. “S.B” had got suspended from his Automotive job and had to move from Unit 2 back to Unit 12. He just let Jake run the units and workouts while he was there. Jake was in Unit 12A with 3 other Uces. An older man in his 60’s by the name of “Mr. Lee”, Double S”, and “Fat Man”. And “S.B.” was with “Turk”, “Skull” and” Big Uce” in 12B. (…) Jake was very hardworking and tried to balance him being the shot caller for the Dorm Units. A lot of people knew Jake as a good poker player wherever units he played and he ran a poker table wherever he’d go. He stopped though because he had an incident where somebody who owed him could not pay the winners on his table and he had to pay out of his own pocket and he was just disgusted. No worries, though. He played poker less and less and he concentrated on writing a Science Fiction book and drawing illustrations for his writing work. He gave any USO’s coming thru to his units to have only 3 mandatory days to come out and work out with him as a group for Unit 12 on Monday’s, Thursday’s, and Saturday’s. That wasn’t that much to ask for the guys in Unit 12A and Unit 12B. Only Mr. Lee was exempt because he pretty much was a senior citizen. Jake never really got on them even if they missed because he knew if they were about “the business” of being a true USO, they’d be out there working out with him even on the other non-mandatory days throughout the week when he went outside to the yard to work out. If guys didn’t want to listen to their parents, why would you want to listen to another man telling you, “You better work out or else!?” James just said, “It’s to say you’re united with us and it’s for self improvement. I know where I’m at even though I’m in my 40’s. I’ll be there when shit go down and I’ll try my hardest to not put you in harms way.”

“S.B.” and Jake were from Hawaii so they always talked and joked around and since “S.B.” was almost 10 years older than Jake, “S.B.” always asked, “You good? Need anything? I got you if you need anything like food, coffee, or stamps. You need one knife? I got you – you need one. Let me know!” Jake always said, “Nah – I good. One knife? Nah, Brah, I no need one. We not doing nothing stupid on my side. The old man just watch T.V. and “Doubles” and “Fat Man” just play Dungeons and Dragons. We good over there on my side.”


Big Uce called himself that as his yard name. He wasn’t even Samoan. He wasn’t even from any Pacific Island. He was White and he said he had Indonesian in him. Jake had heard stories of him getting into it with one of the USO’s step dad at a medical camp where he was at and that Big Uce left dope debts there, High Desert State Prison when he was there and Unit 3 on this yard before he came to Unit 12B. But USOs didn’t pay off other Uce’s gambling or dope debts. Jake also heard that because this guy was calling himself Big Uce, he called a lot of “his” brothers he knew on the other yards out. Big Uce told them, “If you guys have a problem with calling myself Big Uce, we can get it (like fight) in the room.” They were gonna beat his ass, but he got moved to the medical camp. That is what Jake heard, but anybody could say that and it wasn’t true. Jake was just hoping that this guy wouldn’t cause any problems and just go home.

A future
Mario Cervantes

This excerpt describes Cervantes’ involvement in a highly violent prison gang. Gang activity gave him a sense of security, but also required him to engage in dangerous and illegal activities that shaped the course of his life.

I was a prison gang member as well, in the states most dangerous prison gang I became one of it’s most feared members. I worked myself into a leadership role and executed crimes of violence that promoted it’s agenda.

Upon learning how to write I secretly started writing about my life. Exploring all the reasons to my past acts of violence and how I felt about them. The conclusions all seemed to be the same, the gang! The building of a reputation, securing it and advancing it along with the gangs. It was never cuz I wanted to, it’s cause I had to or be ostracized and targeted for murder.

I realized I was the product of my environment. I attacked book after book as I attacked rivals and enemies. With an energetic nature. In doing so my once neglected mind begun a process of enlightenment. I had this desire to help those juveniles in solitary confinement not end up in the cells I’ve occupied after those they are now in. I needed the probation officers sending these kids to these places know how hard it is coming out of them. With these ideas coming into order and the process I was going through I was finding hope in life after prison. Then the obligations of being in one of the most violent gangs and this states most dangerous called for blood in, blood out. The brutal murder of a fellow member took place. He was stabbed 42 times with foot long pinky thick shanks. He was my friend…. He rose his hand for me when the vote to recruit me took place only 9 years earlier. When they say, “Your friends are the ones sent to kill you in prison gangs,” it’s the truth.

It wasn’t solitary confinement that produced this violence or does it produce it in general, but it encourages extreme brutal violence. The reason is, the inmate knows if he acts out violently he will be sent back to solitary confinement due to his history and affiliations. Within prison gangs violence is methodical and most often death is the goal. Therefore, “make it worth it,” is the law. Meaning, make sure it’s as violent as possible with intention to kill.


Every conviction I have as an adult is due to institutional violent crime. I was a, “great” gang member! Without my identity attached to the gang world is a future possible for me? Without the mandated representation that demands my interior be as strong as my exterior looks, life has become hard. The shore line waves are crashing with more frequence exhausting the air I have left. As a gang member of status I was forced to push through due to reflecting badly on the organization if I gave up, or failed a mission assignment. The thought of taking medication for depression as a gang member was instantly snuffed out. I no longer, by choice have these forces pushing me forward daily. As of now I have that life preservation mechanism that is in all of us that holds my body to the obligations of breathing. I’ve overridden it twice in my life. The life I desire is extremely hard to obtain from my position in life, but being a gang member was extremely hard too! A future is reflective upon ones past, so it’s said. My past needs to be delved deeply for reasoning and understand I found myself in a planet of its own laws and I acted in accordance with time and place decisions. These were “righteous” to this planets (prison) environment, encouraged and supported by its pillars, founders and key holders. I was misguided and foolish that I had found purpose in life within prison and not in society. My life in society was full of pain that nearly took my life. As a gang member, it never crossed my mind to end my life. Can I have life with a positive future while my pasts shadow attempts constantly to snuff out my light. Whether by someone elses hand or my own?

Learning to grow inside a prison cell
Jamel Brown 

In the following passage, Brown argues that involvement in gang life in prison is necessary for survival; sometimes the gangs seem like the only avenue for community besides religious organizations. The constructed social hierarchy within gangs, he writes, ensnares many vulnerable prisoners into this lifestyle. 

To live without being prey upon you must join a gang (Bloods, crips, Latino Kings etc) or a religious organization like muslims, F.O.I. or catholic Brotherhood. The yard is divided into territories and control by these rival factions. The price of initiation is usually to knife a rival gang member or a Jailhouse snitch.

There is no education programs for our youth. We are force instead to spend every waking moment fighting for survival. Over fifty percent of the inmate population is illiterate and another 30% suffers from some form of mental illness. Tension is as thick as mist in the morning air.


As this cold reality sets in you are suck deeper into the bowels of gang life. The stress is unbearable, the loneliness is constant violence becomes a part of everyday life. The hearts becomes cold and bitter. Human compassion is at a all time low. Each day spent in prison transform each individual into something it takes years to deprogram yourself from. Usually people find God, though I never knew he was lost.

Gangs in prison gives one a false sense of security and makes one feel as if they are being loved. A brotherhood of a bunch of kids who are lost and need a positive role model to emulate but is push into a cell instead we are made to feel as we are nothing, we have no voice and must earn our respect in the eyes of other prisoners who don’t mean you no good because they don’t mean theirselves no good.

How is it that the youth are looking to prisoners serving life sentences as mentors This only lead one deeper into a life of crime and the mass public wonders why recidivist is so high.


Court is a place where the gangs pass messages from one cell block to another. Its a place for the prison’s latest gossip and robbers who is looking to prey on other prisoner for their clothes and sneakers. If you tell the correction officers You are label a snitch and the prison motto is snitches get stitches

What is wrong with this picture is? the prison system is failing our Youth, it is entrapping us turning us in many cases into something we do not desire to be.


Blind leading the blind
Aaron Anthony Ernst

Ernst describes seeing the other IP’s positive reactions to a man flaunting an image of his victim’s bloodied body. He uses it to demonstrate the sickening way in which celebrating violence, especially in the context of gangs, trains young men to believe that this type of brutality is the best way to gain respect. 

The worst distractions come from those waiting in the long line to use the phone. They show know regard for people who are on the phone. They yell at one another, make crude jokes, and argue over the most trivial things like, which rapper has the most money in the bank. (In prison, guys know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing and will stop at nothing to convince everyone else of it.)


He bragged about being a gang member and celebrated criminal behavior, the convict code, and the street mentality. Every other word out of his mouth was an explicative of some sort or a derogatory comment towards someone else. He was always talking about beating this or robbing that or some new and improved way to sell dope. (…) He made another pass by the phone line and this time he threw his hands up like Mohammad Ali when he knocked down Frasier and went skipping down the line like a gangster cheerleader leading the wave. This time he drew an even more spirited reaction. Some laughed and snickered; others jumped up and down making crazy ”No-he-didn’t” faces. A couple guys looked disgusted, but only a couple. A few near the end of the line were furious. They hurled insults and threats at him and threw up what I assume were gang signs, with their fingers. The spectacle made me more curious to see what he had going on that was causing such a commotion.

The next time he came around I turned in time to see what was on the paper. Clipped to the

front of his shirt was a full page color photo of a young man shot in the face, lying dead in the street. This wasn’t a theatrical Hollywood recreation either; it was gory, like someone had paused the DVR during an episode of The First 48. The man had been shot in his face and chest and was propped up at a slight angle in the gutter behind a parked car. There was blood pooling around his head next to the curb and his leg was folded underneath him in a hurd|er’s stretch. His eyes were open and he appeared to be staring at something just outside the shot. He looked like a high school kid and couldn’t have been more than 19 years old. It turns out this was a photo the prosecution had used as evidence during this guy’s murder trial. The young man in the picture was his victim.

No doubt this was an entirely different image from the pious young man who had stood before the judge a few weeks earlier asking for mercy. The newspaper article mentioned his emotional plea for leniency at his sentencing calling it tearful and full of remorse and regret. Now here he was bragging about his charge, strutting around with this photograph pinned to his chest like a badge of honor acting as if he was proud of what he had done.

The scene by the phone line was surreal. Some offenders actually cheered him on. There were

even old men encouraging his behavior. Younger guys, totally hooked on the street—life, looked at him with awe. You could see that they almost instantly idolized him.

Druglords vs Christians

Nolaw97’s work argues that gang leaders and drug lords can create community from kindness, even more so than religious organizations. He recalls acts of kindness from two powerful gang members who used their influence to help their fellow IP, extending the sense of unity and community beyond their gang.

Listen, I’m not trying to disgrace Christians, but if their job is to save the lost, are we doing a half—decent job when it comes to prisons? Many guys in prison here have given up on God because extended hands don’t come from Christians, rather un-believers.

Case in point: about 2 years ago, my dorm had a Columbian Druglord. He was one of over 120 inmates in our dorm. He spoke almost no English, but was a decent guy. Never mind why he was there, ok? He never caused any trouble, and was a nice guy.

Every Christmas, this man would spend his money to buy ingredients from the prison canteen to prepare burritos for everyone in the dorm. He also bought cases of soda, and a day or so before Christmas, he’d have guys prepare 2 burritos for every guy in our dorm, over 240 burritos. He added a can of soda for every person, and had leftovers to spare.

This Columbian Druglord has been gone at least 2 years now, but his acts of kindness remain. It’s human nature to remember who is kind to you, and often that act remains for longer than you can imagine.

Meanwhile, I’ve written to over 100 churches and ministries, asking for support in my writing. Not one response in over 5 years for help. Oh sure, they all say the same thing, “we’re praying for you”. But not one church has given me support… and before you respond by thinking I’m being materialistic, stop.

Please don’t tell me that a multi—BILLION dollar organization, that being Christianity, can’t help the prisoners. And don’t lose me here in trying to defend your faith. I’m not attacking the faith; it’s the laborers I’m addressing.

Look, I gave you an example of a Columbian Druglord who spent money to bless inmates during Christmas, while churches and ministries won’t spend a dime to help an inmate buy hygiene, stamps, snacks or anything to lift morale. It’s like Christians are quick to throw scriptures and prayers or even reading material, but getting them to part with money is like trying to absorb the Pacific Ocean with a rock.

Folks, I knew a guy here, a wealthy guy, who sold drugs in and out of prison. Yet he was one of the most generous guys I’ve known. He took care of numerous guys by putting money in their inmate account. Acts like that I remember, because it showed compassion.

Anybody can talk, but who can add faith to works? I dare say that when it comes to generocity, an unbeliever, a Druglord, or one who is not a Christian, is better than one who IS a Christian? All signs seem to point that way, and this has to change if souls in prison are to change.

People in prison need to see that churches care, rather than ritulistic acts of so-called kindness. I mean, if you’re really worried that an inmate’s trying to con you, then ask GOD. He won’t lie to you, right?


If a Druglord can do that, why can’t Christians?

Cell block survival – occult decoded
Levert Brookshire III (Sékou)

This essay details how gangs can create community among IP, using Brookshire’s own experience as a former gang member as an example. He highlights the complicated dynamics between drug dealers, gang members, and prison officials in this community.

Together we raised ourselves, to a level of comfort and privilege only claimed by the ‘elite’ bosses, that dominate and control these cell block societies, economic-structures, political-structures and social-structures. We indulged in all of the luxury’s afforded to the highest aristocracy, found here, inside prison. Combining our abilities, resources and organizational efforts, we reached a level of success, other’s naturally had never seen before, here in Arizona. This soon began to arouse jealousy and ‘stir-up’ envy from the local Arizona native gang’s, who had to sit by, a watch this play-out. Other’s come from another state and exploit opportunities they’ve overlooked themselves. Those who are native to AZ. gang’s, prisoner government’s and the ‘elite’ social structures here soon grew agitated and increasingly confused at how well, we executed and kept tight secrecy over the sources we had ‘tapped into,’ they soon obsessed about many ‘unclaimed’ treasure troves we had found in their state. But, more than anything else, it became an insult to them when they were compelled to come to us, as an option to get whatever contraband they needed ‘smuggled in’, brought in by us through our ‘secure’, guaranteed smuggling routes. The fact that ‘they had to pay’ a (fee) to us, who weren’t even from here, to get their contraband, started to upset their highest ranking members, who quickly started to see us as threats to their authority. This is when things started to change for us, who were from California; the unraveling slowly began. A campaign to ‘dismantle’ and ‘deconstruct’ everything that we had built, was launched. Not being a native from here, meant we would be ‘disproportionately’ outnumbered of course, 100 to 1 ratio, easily. So we were grossly underestimated, dismissed and viewed as (non-threats), but we quickly managed to change that. The number one, most dominant gang here in Arizona happen’s to be, the ‘Mexican Mafia’, who has a well-earned statewide membership with a statewide reacting, ‘death’ squad to carry out it’s mandates. They’re longtime presence out here in AZ. prisons have been able to keep all other ‘cell block’ gang structure’s in check, without a challenge. All attempt’s to challenge their authority in the past, were met with swift and brutal responses. Sending implicit messages to any of those who may be contemplating a challenge. Over the passing generations these sadistic tool’s of intimidation have worked very well for them, to keep holding onto the control and power over Arizona’s cell blocks. As they continue collecting taxes, and making revenue’s from all other gang’s and income generating enterprises operating here in AZ. prisons statewide, as they dictate control over all economic systems here inside AZ. prisoner’s contraband economy. Except of course our’s, that we ‘built-up,’ we ‘developed’ using our own resources and problem-solving strategies, independent of Arizona’s input. Here in lies the ‘root’ of the problem. We as Californian’s refuse to be ‘bullied’ or ‘forced’ to pay the Mexican Mafia any ‘tax’ or ‘fee’ to operate here in Arizona’s cell blocks, so we decided to organize and stage a revolt.


Proceeding into my 21 year term, autonomous partnership’s eventually began forming and taking shape over the years, as other California natives, who were also doing time out here began gravitating towards each other, developing common ground and bond’s amongst ourselves, based upon familiarity and symbiotic social structures established from back home in our native state. Familiarity and common ground soon, emerging as our own refugee community, sticking together, having each other’s back, and supporting one another like any ‘nomad’ tribe would do, for survival. Being ‘outsider’s’ we were surely determined to make our experiences from back home, work for us here in Arizona. Comprised of all different California based rivals, conflicting and feuding gang’s, back home. We all decided early on to leave those rivalries, feuds and conflicts at home, putting aside our differences to be more practical and effective in our endeavors together, while we are here in AZ, as a unified social structure. Finding universal language and common, agreeable strategy came easier because of this. Which helped to protect each other from other intrusions, incursions and encroachment from these native predators, trying to poach off our resources. We combined all of our own resources, ideas, and connections. Created a network from Arizona to California that proved itself strong, powerful and thriving for a small group of cell block captives. As small as, we were, we came to be a threat to these long time established cell block authorities that have staked their claim to all resource’s produced here inside Arizona prison’s state wide in all institutions, for generations. With us, being from California, relying upon our own training and our own experiences, lesson’s and background from back home, we governed ourselves, controlled our activities and coordinated all or our own business affairs without input, suggestions, or interference from outsider’s, and this stance is what culminated into a concerted effort by ‘Mexican Mafia’ and prison authorities colluding together, in a campaign to ‘push-us’ out of the competition, completely. The wider we started to expand our reach, connecting more % of contraband, breaking into new areas, creating entirely new markets for new revenue streams, revenues ‘Mexican Mafia’ couldn’t tax, the more agitated, rattled and enraged they grew. Before long, leaders representing the native Arizonan’s Black population of prisoner’s, came to us proposing a mutually beneficial business arrangement for both AZ Black gang’s and Cali’s too. One which allowed them to outsource all of their ‘contraband’ smuggling to us, using our smuggling network and routes, in exchange for a ‘fee,’ for our insurance, protection and delivery. Creating a “win-win” arrangement between our two structures. In addition to the economic opportunity’s that it created, by cutting them in, on the action. Taking into account the fact that we belong to the same ‘ethnic’ group inside this ‘racially’ divided, ‘racially’ governed cell block society, we decided that it would be a politically smart and politically advantageous opportunity also. ‘Control’ without ownership. Collecting a ‘fee’ for a service. having the confidence in our smuggling network and security of our routes. Knowing that we had the protection and insurance of uniformed state employees on our payroll, added more comfort to our confidence level’s. For close to two years our enterprise thrived along. Elevating the standard of living for all of the Black prisoner’s cell block population, who went on to enjoy a visible and measurable amount of creature comfort’s. Luxuries and material excesses, for prisoner’s, in ways not seen before.


Those seeking a way to reduce their punishment or shorten the length of time they have to spend here, in solitary confinement, they betrayed our trust and pledge of loyalty, in order to assist S.S.W. to close the case against me, and strengthen the state’s merits to keep me here, longer.


However, what we did find remarkably disturbing and backward’s thinking, was the petty jealousy and inadequate reacting that we encountered from the ones who are supposedly sworn to the same ‘criminal’ codes and anti-law enforcement, no snitching rule that all prisoner’s are held to and strictly enforced to, abide by. But, these AZ. Mexican Mafia’s quickly compromised on this rule, when they weren’t the target. They resorted to joining forces with authorities in efforts to dismantle our threat against their power and influence over the Arizona cellblocks statewide. Not just once, but twice, I’ve been at the receiving end of their collaborations with prison authorities as they seek out desperately trying to look for ways to avenge the deadly ambush against their ‘racial’ group, in response to their ‘ultimatum.’ As they have failed in every attack to assault me with spear’s, hot boiling oil and even attempt’s to ‘kick me’ while passing one another in handcuffs, I’ve had success on two different occasions slipping out of my handcuff’s and attacking two different Mexican mafias at two separate places, inside the prison.


While on the yard and inside the cell blocks they keep up the appearances of ‘despising’ law enforcement, resentful of prison authorities and detest gang investigator’s. While they secretively feed them all of the intel they could want. This trash was an eye opener for me. It’s really had an impact on me, realizing just how asleep I’ve really been, for all these years now. Looking back at the whole experience, the picture becomes more clear to me the way these truth’s are kept hidden away, disguised, masked, by a ‘distorted’ version of the truth and reality. All of this so called ‘criminal’ or ‘gangsta’s’ code has been something of an act. Most of the criminals and gangsta’s are playing a role, one role is the one they show to the public, their fellow gangsta’s and criminal’s, while they distort their true selves and hide who they really are, behind close doors, when nobody’s watching them. This is the truth, none of them want you to know about, in this lifestyle. It is this kind of distortion of truth and reality which has kept me so asleep and ‘blinded’ to the actual reality of what’s really happening in secretive dark meeting places, when I’m not aware. Deception at the most highest level’s, can leave us feeling the deepest cut’s of betrayal ever dreamed or imagined possible. I now understand what that feels like.


Even if in our heart’s we don’t agree, we follow along out of peer pressure as we try to avoid creating unnecessary conflict for ourselves. In here, it’s like joining a ‘cult’ or ‘religion’, because personal individuality makes little to no difference. It’s whatever the crowd is calling for. You figure out a strategy to win over the crowd, you then have a chance to inject your personal agenda into the platform. Inside these fences, ‘violence’ and ‘brutality’ is the most effective way to get everyone’s attention, to listen to you or take you serious.


I’m surrounded by all of the prisoners that would be murdered if they had touched down, where I just lived for 13 1/2 years. Sex offenders, transgenders, known snitches, rat’s and C.I’s, that have been exposed and also convicted police officer’s. All of those who, wouldn’t last a minute if put into general population. Here I am, living among them. A new reality that’s gonna take some time to sink in and come to term’s with. I’m still struggling with the thoughts of, how will this impact my name and my reputation? How will my comrades look at me, being over here now.

Section 3: Finding Community in Programming and Jobs

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates, “about two-thirds (68%) of people in state prison have participated in some type of programming, including education (43%)” (Wang 2022). These programs provide some of the most salient examples of community within carceral settings, such as the IP who provide resources for others in the Prison Writers Support Organization, those who find comfort in religion and transform into peer mentors, and those who create meaningful art through an incarcerated theater program. Access to education, art/theater, religion, conflict resolution, jobs, and support groups can help IP find common ground with one another and feel part of a community. The following essays give descriptive examples of a diverse array of programming, jobs, and educational opportunities that have impacted the writers.

Subsection 3a: Education and Arts 

The following essays discuss programs that provide IP with a creative outlet, allowing them to express themselves or otherwise occupy their time in a productive and enjoyable way. Notably, each of the authors in this section also comments on the ways they have grown connected to other IP in the program, often presenting themselves as a resource for others. By regularly attending programming with others, or by facilitating the start of their own program, these IP have created their own close-knit communities.

From the ground up
Matthew Lucas Ayotte

Ayotte opens this essay by reflecting upon the dehumanizing nature of prison—however, the majority of this piece focuses on the ways in which personal interactions between IP and with outside educators, facilitated a positive personal change for the author.

In every way your identity has been reframed from the moment you were arrested. So who are you now?

Perhaps you know sign language, maybe you were an educator. Maybe you were a carpenter and a business owner. These are transferable skills, important understandings that can be tapped as to facilitate a process of growth in an environment where otherwise idleness and boredom too often devolve into negative behaviors. If upon screening an individual’s assessment addressed the assets and willingness of the individual to focus on these aspects of the person’s unique gifts and talents — perhaps a more proactive experience could be developed as a way of fostering an initiative toward preparing incarcerated individuals for reintegrating back into society with learned skills and a more positive sense of self-worth.

I personally feel so strongly about this approach because it is my experience to have witnessed the benefit of peer driven programs and am convinced of the profound difference such person to person service work can have on an individual.

It has been my good fortune to have the opportunity to participate in the Second Chance Pell Grant Program, which is a program to provide individuals with funding to take college courses while incarcerated. (…) One of the main factors for my having gotten involved with the program was on account of encouragement from other men who were a part of the program suggesting that I submit an application. Due to their support and the support of educational staff, I applied and was chosen to be admitted into the program.

It has been just shy of two years since I began my degree path and I have one course requirement remaining before I am to earn my Associates Degree in Liberal Arts. I presently have a 3.79 GPA and am orienting my future around the possibility of working in the Human Service Field. This would have never occurred to me if it would not have been for the encouragement of my fellows. In supporting me I was able to apply myself to a course of study where I was able to excel. In doing so I developed a more positive sense of self-worth, one which afforded me the courage and wherewithal to share my good fortunes with others. I began tutoring other students and helping out the education staff. I found purpose and meaning in my days, meeting my peers and professors with humility and gratitude for the opportunity at hand. The most rewarding realization came when my professors interacted with me as my equals. It was at this point that I was able to recognize the transformation I had undergone.

As I pursued my college degree I got involved in a Yoga Teacher Training Course offered at the facility where I was incarcerated. This in many ways was a life—long interest of mine and was thrilled to take part in the experience. Yet I am able to look back and answer myself honestly as to whether I would have had the confidence to sign up if it wouldn’t have been for the upliftment of spirit I experienced in the College Program, probably not. Nor would I have volunteered to teach classes and facilitate meditation and Tai Chi classes. In these moments I was given the unique gift of working with the hearts and minds of my fellows, in a place where it is common to hold oneself close, not allowing yourself to become vulnerable, but instead I was present for many breakthroughs and instances of revelation. Never in my life would I have experienced such an eye opening picture of humanity self-refIecting.

In addition to this, I found myself being attended to by the Hospice workers and although I knew each one of the men doing service, I saw another side of them, a deeper, more empathetic side of their personhood. On account of this experience I was moved to volunteer for Personal Support Specialist Certification, as to work with the ill and elderly, especially at end of life. Through this training I received an education ranging from the art of being present to establishing boundaries and care techniques for persons with disabilities. Such service work was never even a thought before I began the journey of pursuing anew my college degree. Because I took one step forward onto a path of education my self- esteem and personal self-image grew into a sense of responsibility and a certain amount of accountability to my fellow man and the whole of humanity for being a part of society and a citizen of the world.


I share these experiences because it was my privilege to observe how effective a personal interaction can be, especially within environs such as those characterized on television, places of violence and disregard for individual welI—being, a place void of love, an unsafe place where one can’t help but feel as though they are a stranger. What must it be like to enter into a cold, dark, steel barred world where everyone is at their lowest point in their lives? It is a place of desperation and helplessness. An unfortunate way of protecting oneself from such vulnerability is to embody the stereotypical dramatizations we too often see in the media of the hard edged, musclebound, dangerous looking convict. But how does such a transition effect the individual? Can they just turn off the ”bad dude” persona? What sort of person will be released back into society when all is said and done? There are facilities here in America where those who enter do not exit except for a body bag. This is a truth many Americans are not conscious of, but can actively protect and safeguard against by focusing on a more humane approach to corrections.

GROW facilitator
Tarik A. Clark

Clark reflects on the changes that one program, GROW, brought to his facility. The classes allowed IP to open up to one another, creating an emotional bond that soon manifested into a strong sense of community among the IP on this yard.

Wow!!!! What a difference a class makes. I have been to and also facilitated numerous groups since my incarceration, but I have not seen one impact a prison society as much as I witnessed GROW do. And without seeming prideful, I am very proud to be a part of that process that brought a non-violent change to myself and other inmates at CMC~West Echo Facility. At first, I truly believed that my message to the inmates on the yard was falling on deaf ears, because prison is prison and those must do what they have to do consequences never mattered. Boy!!!! Was I wrong. After other GROW classes were being held I soon begin to realize that we as facilitators of peace and security had alot more ammunition on our side. We talked, we shared, we compared without judging, we taught, we learned, we smiled, we laughed, we cried, we listened and we loved. We impacted…. Being amongst my peers of my former lifestyle and advocating for them to accept other inmates that they no longer deemed acceptable really pushed my and other facilitators backs against the wall. We got criticized, ridiculed and outsed by some. But all that did for me was affirm my decision of walking away from that negative lifestyle in the first place. And we knew we wasn’t gonna reach everybody, we just moved forward with the intention to change enough mindsets that would tip the scales of peace and security in our favor. And did we ever!!!! When I started speaking peaceful transition it were those that was strongly against it and speaking doing harm to any and everybody for it, I knew as a facilitator I was playing with fire, I just prayed God supplied enough water to put the fire out. And He did. That water came in the unity, peace, love, and freedom that GROW created, produced and instilled into the society of CMC—West Echo Facility.

When the new inmates arrived at Echo-Yard it was like they always belonged here. They were kinda skiddish at first, but after a few handshakes and introductions they began to relax and walk around. And today, I am proud to say that Echo Facility made an excellent transition into a NDBF without any incidents of any kind.

Better living through editing
Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts describes higher education classes as “intellectual communities,” highlighting the ways in which these classes fostered positive relationships between students. He recalls his experiences both participating in and tutoring for this program and emphasizes the strong connection that formed between him and other participants as they learned from one another. 

I noticed more than a few classmates taking notes, the bulk of whom are in the prep class. There was Beans, Dave, Demo, Country, J.O., Just, Leap, Luxe, Premo, Pusha, Swole, Tyson, Umar, and Zach. This was the second lecture they attended, which in and of itself is a big deal, since this is the first year that prep students are allowed to attend. The prep class was started in the fall of 2016 as a means of improving the skills of students who scored in a high percentile on the entrance exam, but not high enough to be granted entry. Professors Robin Hinchcliff and Mary Katzenstein work with the students to knock the cobwebs off skills some haven’t used in a long time, or never learned–grammar, essay structure, advancing a critical argument, and close reading. The prep students were assigned CRISPR-related articles to read prior to the lecture, and the diligent note taking I observed was a direct result of Robin telling them that they would be writing an essay on Dr. Kotlikoff’s lecture.

And I would be working with them on that writing. I’ve been given the tremendous opportunity to be a tutor in the prep class from its inception, a role that marries my passion for writing with my desire to help my peers. I was a traditional student at Syracuse University before coming to prison in 1999. After completing a bachelor’s degree through a distance-learning program while in Attica, I was accepted into an MFA program, and made it all the way to being provided a university email account, before the school’s attorneys rescinded my acceptance. After that, I continued to write, but didn’t think I’d be able to further my academic career, certainly not in a robust and collegial learning environment. That’s why my time in CPEP has been such a blessing. However much the students learn from me, I learn more from them.

Class meets Monday nights, but I have them in tutorial on Thursdays, where we work on homework (identifying sentence fragments, tightening essay structures) and discuss the readings (“unpacking” the deeper meanings). Often, I find myself performing work ancillary to the lesson, yet essential to their academic success: note taking strategies, study skills, creating a process for their writing. But perhaps where I’ve been able to add the most value are the instances of coaching, motivating, or mentoring. When, for instance, Leap was frustrated with an assignment and remarked, “I’m doing life; thesis statements can’t help me,” I talked to the men around the table about the myriad academic opportunities I’d thrown away in my formative years, how education allows one to make better choices of what to focus on, while improving the quality of one’s life. Plus, I noted, I’m doing 25-to-life, just like Leap, and learning is how I make the most of my time rather than getting high in the yard. As David Foster Wallace observed in his uplifting commencement speech at Kenyon College (you can Google it, for my peers I make copies), the value of education is teaching one how to think, as cliche as that phrase has become: “the liberal arts cliche turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.”

Zach, Leap, and Umar nodded along as my argument crescendoed, then redoubled their efforts on the text. Leap’s comment was oddly similar to that of critics of college-in-prison programs, who feel that any such program is a waste of resources, and even, for that matter, to certain proponents who feel that funding should go only to inmates five years away from being released. That would eliminate me and Leap from the program, along with dozens of others.

Clint Smith, a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate, who teaches in a Massachusetts prison, writes in the Atlantic of the benefits of his teaching certain prisoners who will never be released (“The Lifelong Learning of Lifelong Inmates,” June 2017). True, he notes, college in prison has been shown to reduce recidivism and increase post-incarceration employment, but that doesn’t address those who are never going home, and it certainly glosses over the transformative impact that education has on the prison environment as a whole. He explains that college-in-prison programs provide “spaces [which] serve as intellectual communities that restore human dignity,” and argues that “people in prison deserve education because the collective project of learning is and should be understood as a human right.”


In the year since, I have experienced how CPEP provides entree to world-class professors and peer-reviewed material, as opposed to the conspiracy theories trafficked in by the louder elements in the cellblock. I have heard how students elevate the nature of the dialog of those non-students around them, who, in turn are incentivized to stay out of trouble and practice writing so they can pass the yearly entrance exam. In providing positive outlets that the criminal justice system has abandoned, CPEP creates students who are altering the course of their lives, something they can pass on to their children. Now, that is the best kind of human engineering, and there is nothing controversial about those edits.

Essay #05
Tommy Lee Dean

Dean outlines his goals for the Prison Writers’ Support Organization (PWSO Inc.), an organization he started with the help of an incarcerated friend that aims to provide resources to other incarcerated writers.

If you’ve read my other essays, you know that Prison Writers Support Organization Inc is new in my life. (…) Surely awesome – now I can do all those things, for other prisoners, that I’ve always wanted to do since the first thought I ever had of creating something like this. So, the reality is, instead of wanting, I am now actually working on securing prison based writers’ rights and helping to open better supported opportunities for them to succeed in their craft(s). I now do this through working with C-DOC staff and administration as the resident representative for PWSO Inc. Our belief is that although cognitive thinking is great and it’s a wonderful thing prisoners are offered courses to gain the skills to do so, having solid financial footing, once they’re on the other side of the gate, is a sound deterrent to stressors that could lead to relapse. This footing frees their minds to better concentrate on those newly learned cognitive skills.

I credit the following accomplishments to PWSO Inc:

We have accomplished opening up a new connection to the outside world, for prison writers and possibly even artists, through the use of C-DOC scanners, PDF files, and flash-drives purchased by the prisoners themselves. Technology fitting better with the modern day world than the technology literally from last century that we were being forced to use before (i.e. paper products). We have enabled an electric typewriter loaner program, too. Though pretty last century in and of itself, it will provide prison writers the opportunity to work on their craft all day – much like I do – and later scan the results into a PDF file. This is a positive accomplishment because, as it now stands, the majority of prisoners only get a couple of hours a week at the programs building to access its computers and monitors; hardly is this enough time to build any kind of successful writing career. Now, we’ve got to get more typewriters in this program because C-DOC staff have only been able to come up with one. I’ve spoken with Captain Clare, who is the staff member responsible for allowing any of these loaner programs, and let him know that PWSO Inc is working on securing more stock from Brother typewriter. PWSO Inc also plans on trying to secure equipment from other manufacturers as well. And the add-on to the August, 2019, proposal for normalization I have been wanting to know administration’s conclusion on?… Major Reyes and I had a nice thirty to forty minute meeting that left me more puzzled than before. She was nice, just not very helpful. PWSO Inc’s general counsel and free world representative will be contacting administration from our office on the streets to see if we can achieve clarity that way. I look forward to those results and to working further with C-DOC administration and staff to accomplish our goals.

End of harm theater
Larry Stromberg

Stromberg describes the joy he felt while staging his original play with other IP within his facility. He felt a strong sense of connection not only with the organizers of the event, but the audience who attended the show and participated in a peace circle before the performance.

The “Lets Circle Up!” Steer committee members at SCI Phoenix in Pennsylvania agreed for me to stage my original short play entitled “Fight Another Day!” at the “2019 End of Harm Conferance” at the institution. I felt truly honored and grateful that the whole Steer committee members (those incarcerated) and the (outside volunteer Steer committee members) trusted and bestowed this wonderful opportunity upon me to represent “Let’s Circle Up!” in a grand light to start off the theme for this year’s conferance. After a few changes in my play that other Steer committee members suggested before the performance, that I changed to make the play better. I rehearsed and rehearsed and I was ready to go! Like a child on Christmas Day! My excitement was enormous and I was very nervous., but, nobody knew. The butterflies were flying within me. Then: that day came quickly. The guests all arrived in the morning at the East Chapel at SCI Phoenix. Everybody had smiles on their faces. All the outside guests, volunteers, Steer committee members and all the Restorative Justice members. All with smiles of excitement on their faces for this powerful event. That Peace Circle was a beautiful sight to see. A sight of unity with purpose. A circle of massive love with caring people that believed in the Restorative Justice cause. I was ready to act! It was time to stage “Fight Another Day!” My play is about a desperate incarcerated man who lost his child (a daughter) to a crime and now is on the verge of committing suicide. While performing, I was in a different world (The Zone) where nothing matters, but the moment. An individual searching for redemption while engulfed with sorrow, regret, remorse, and agony.

I moved around the circle as tears flowed from my eyes. Then: I fell to my knees and said my last words from the play, “Help me. Help me to fight another day! Just one more day. Only you can help me. Only you. You alone.” The play ended as I exited the massive glorious circle back to my seat and the applause roared. My heart filled with extreme gratitude for my “Let’s Circle Up!” family for the opportunity they blessed me with. My wonderful brothers and sisters. The theme for the rest of the day went into motion and the “2019 End of Harm Conferance” was a magnificent success. A day I will never forget as long as I live. That massive glorious Peace Circle is embedded in my mind and heart forever and nobody can ever take that away from me. Not even the horrors of regret and my remorse that breaks my heart in two.

A look in on the prison performing arts theater and poetry classes
Beverly Jaynes

Jaynes explains the process of putting together a live arts performance with other IP, describing how each actor supports the others and the widespread support for these performances throughout the prison.

I wish you could be present in the theater class, sensing the excitement in the air, as the students warm up with snappy word-action-rhythm games to shed their prison mode and then do improvisational acting exercises. Together, they take part in the selection to the play they’ll perform, reading through scripts in class, discussing the merits of each. After the play is chosen, they read through it together several times, interpreting meanings and discussing what emotions and attitudes should be portrayed, gaining discernment and direction from Wilcox, who also directs the blocking of the play- the positions and stances actors take on stage, their many entrances and exits from either stage right or left, and movements and interactions with other actors. Students request the parts they’d like to play and are cast by the director, not necessarily in the roles they’d requested, but which they accept and learn, memorizing their lines which can include lengthy passages for major roles. Actors receive through direction in the delivery of dialogue and what emotions and attitudes of the characters they’re portraying should be conveyed.


Inevitably, through unforeseen turns of events, an actor is unable to perform a role, so the other actors may take on that part in addition to their own or a willing offender is enlisted to step into the part, quickly learning lines at the last minute. It always seems like there won’t be enough time to pull it all together by performance time, so actors get together to rehearse in between classes at Recreation and friends and roommates help actors learn their lines on the dorms. But somehow the play always comes together successfully in the end.

I wish you could be present on performing nights and for the matinee performances, as the stage, backdrops, and bleachers and chairs for the audience are set into place and programs are folded and passed out by students to the incoming audiences. Performances for the prison population’s various housing units are held in the gym over three days are performances for prison staff and our invited guests (family, friends, PPA supporters, officials) are held in the visiting room on an afternoon and evening of one day. After the director greets the audience and gives them the play’s background, the actors take their cues, acting with aplomb and moving with precision as they’d be trained. At the play’s conclusion, they take bows together. Then actors who are also poets, go off to change into their poetry reading costumes (khaki pants with colorful silk blouses or blue chambray shirts) while actors take questions and comments from the audience, which often is in awe of all the memorization and portrayals of complex roles involved. Then poets singly take the stage and microphone, alternating with each other to read 2 or 3 poems, time permitting. They take comments from the audience, which often relates to and is moved by poems about addiction, suicide, sexual abuse, and other personal experiences. After performances in the visiting room, students have social time allotted to mingle with the guests over snacks and soft drinks.


I wish you could be privvy to that empowerment of the poets, watching them enthusiastically study the great poets in class and then are inspired to write their own poetry, using the poetic devices they’s learned of rhythmic meter, form, metaphors, and imagery, and rhythmic schemes (although they’re encouraged not to rhyme, not to be limited that way, unless called for in a form such as a sonnet). These poetic devices add impact to the ideas and feelings the poet is expressing, more intensely and they learn to condense and economize words to express those ideas. Students read the published poems and bio background of the poets in class and then are asked to explain what they got out of it, what their favorite phrases were and why. Students discuss the themes and their opinions and personal experiences relating to them. Homework assignments are given to write a poem, perhaps using the same theme, form, or metric rhythm as the studied poem, or they’re shown a sensory stimulus, art object, picture or image to inspire them. At the commencement of next week’s class, they eagerly share their poems, receiving commentary from their director and classmates. They revel in the freedom to express their innermost feelings. Some day they’ve come to know that their values are feelings are, from the poem they wrote, now knowing more about themselves and the world around them. Some say they’ve reached some kind of higher intellectual plane in class and have escaped prison in their minds. Poetry has enlightened them.

I wish you could see into the hearts of these actors and poets, to see their gained self-confidence from meeting challenges and reaching goals, to see their joy in understanding their ability to take direction with self-discipline, to see their bonding and how far they’ve come together in personal growth.

Finding family: Volunteer programs bring about lasting rehabilitation in prison
Adam Roberts

Roberts explains the goals and methodology of the Phoenix Players Theatre Group (PPTG), a program founded by professors at Cornell University that works with IP to produce theatrical performances. This group gave him the opportunity to meet other IP and watch them grow to love PPTG just as much as he does.

PPTG was founded in 2009 by Michael Rhynes and Clifton Williams. They enlisted the help of Stephen Cole, a Cornell theater professor, who passed away in September, 2015. We now have a deep bench of volunteers from Cornell University, Ithaca College, and the surrounding community: Bruce Levitt, first among equals, and his wife Judy; Mariana Amorim, Nick Fesette, Norm Johnson, Mary Rolland, Chris Seeds, and Alison Van Dyke. They give direction, coach, coddle, choreograph, and help our annunciation. In addition to my class of newjacks, there were veterans: David Bendezu, the wildchild Demetrius Molina, Nathan Powell, Leroy Taylor. They are mentors, informal leaders, critical eyes, and providers of mirth and joy. Michael was transferred to Attica in August, 2015, where he is trying to establish a local branch of PPTG. We practiced Rasa boxes, bioenergetics, improv, and Theater of the Oppressed. All designed to unearth buried emotions and help heal the wounds of our pasts, in a comfortable and secure environment, where emphasis was on real emotions even when the piece was imaginary. PPTG was a most transformative experience in my life. I learned that adult play is essential to creativity, trust, and resilience. It’s an adaptive wild card. Laughing and having fun with ourselves led to healthy risk-taking. Life provides precious few opportunities for such constructive play. JR slowly came alive from the positive attention, transforming his awkward hesitance into random smiles of belonging. I noticed it in me, too, as my defense mechanisms — aloofness, intellectualizing — melted away. Like JR, whose only extracurricular was PPTG, I wasn’t always a joiner of programs. During the decade I spent in Attica, aside from the occasional Jewish holiday, the only volunteer program I partook of was the Attica Writers’ Workshop. I was still getting high back then, and nighttime “call—outs” (permission slips to get us out of our cells) would’ve taken me away from that party. Now, two nights a week are spent at call-outs: Narcotics Anonymous on Mondays (I quit heroin in 1999, cigarettes in 2009, and, finally giving up bud, I’ve been sober since 201 l), and Theater on Fridays. Both require emotional honesty, maturity, discretion.


A boyish vulnerability about JR made us want to help. Several of us tried unsuccessfully to get him moved out of A—Block, the loudest, craziest block in Auburn. After a year without a disciplinary infraction, he was able to move to an honor company in another block (into Michael’s old cell, actually, after he was transferred); his neighbors included PPTG members David and Ray, who mentored him.

I continued treating him like a kid brother. We were able to arrange an additional call-out once a week during the day, sans volunteers, to further prepare for our production, “This Incarcerated Life: The Foundation of a Pipe Dream” (check. us out at My peers and I worked through material and discussed personal issues, occasionally bumping heads like raucous brothers, but being charitable and good-natured to each other, engaging in hilarious ribbing that made me laugh till my cheeks hurt. Perhaps it was then that I realized just how tight we were.


After a year of Friday night gatherings — writing, introspecting, performing, receiving love, and being listened to with nonjudgment — the transformative nature of PPTG was evident in all of us. I began to see myself through the volunteers’ eyes, someone worthy of love and forgiveness. Why else would they continuously make the hours—long drive and give up their Friday nights each week?

Subsection 3b: Rehabilitative Programming 

Many of the following excerpts present themes of trauma, focusing initially on sources of pain such as an abusive childhood, addiction, or the abuse of prison staff. The programs described in this section allow IP to address these moments of trauma with a supportive group of their peers, forming a community based on this willingness to reveal vulnerability and care for one another.

Addendum to #32392 Commutation Application: Sylvia Boykin
Sylvia Boykin

This essay describes Boykin’s appreciation for the religious community she has found, as well as the connections she makes with other IP through her role as a Certified Peer Specialist, in which she helps other women cope with life in prison and their traumatic pasts.

Before I began my life sentence I was a member of the Church of Christ. I have continued to do so while in prison. I am so grateful for the support that I have been receiving from my religious community and in return, I encourage the women here, to get to know their God. My faith encourages me to help others. (…)

My life began as a hurt child. I was raped not only by my grandfather and a close family friend, but by my brother when I was 10 years old. My family was destroyed by alcohol and drugs. The only way I knew how to cope was by doing drugs and becoming promiscuous at a young age. I didn’t alert the authorities. I was ashamed. At that time, incest was covered up and never spoken about. No one knew I needed help. I didn’t know who to contact. I attempted suicide at the age of 11. I married four times and all of my marriages ended up in divorce.

The groups and programs that I have participated in and the training that I have received and continue to get as a Certified Peer Specialist, enables me to help women to cope with confinement, overcome trauma, addictions, criminal behaviors and prepare those for reentry.

This work also prepares me for reentry as well. I needed all of the groups and programs that were provided for me. Without them, I would not have been able to improve myself and help others. What I learned about myself the most was from the Certified Peer Specialist program. My counselors, Ms. Dixon and Ms. Scarbarough were there for me when I experienced a crisis or a difficult situation. Being a parent in prison means having to pray and to hold on to faith order to be a good listener, provide encouragement and celebrate successes. The staff at Muncy and Cambridge Springs truly were motivated to help me to reach my full potential. I am particularly grateful to the organization Kids and Kin for helping me with my daughters. The religious offerings at Muncy and Cambridge Springs helped me by encouraging me. The Reverends Johnson and Smith especially. I am very proud of my faith as it has been helping me to -survive all these years in prison. I never thought of myself as criminal while in prison. I identified with being a mother without her children. When I first entered Muncy, I was able to bond with my daughters with the Wonderful program, Project—Impact. This was great. As my daughters grew up, our time together changed. The visits were both very enjoyable, but heartbreaking as well. We cried a lot. I learned how to cope with this sadness by praying. All the while, I couldn’t not think about the life that I was responsible for taking. I had to change. I had to change for my daughters and I thank God that to this day, they forgive me and love me.

My experience as a hospice worker
Cedric B. Theus

Theus describes the emotionally harrowing experience providing hospice care to other IP. Despite the toll that this work exacts from him, it also brings meaning to his life. Although he focuses on his overall experience rather than a specific relationship with one individual, Theus demonstrates the influence that human connection can have on IP.

My first patient made me feel human again. I needed that after having spent over a decade in prison. I was no longer just inmate #[number]; I was not a convicted murderer. I was just a man who was honored to be of assistance to another man as he experienced the last days of his journey here on earth. The patient was scared, and for reasons less important that his, so was I.

Hospice/ADL training helped me through most of the experience. My humanity got me through the rest. The patient thanked me for every little thing that I did for him. Initially I brushed it off as him being courteous. I told him that he didn’t need to thank me. I was grateful for the opportunity to be there for him. It was gratifying to be able to do something for someone else in such a pure way.

Later, I realized that he was thanking me because he completely understood the significance of having a hospice volunteer by his side. He understood what the alternative was. Eventually so did I. The thought of someone dying alone in a prison cell provided me with the mettle I would need to get through the tough times and embrace my duty as a hospice volunteer wholeheartedly.

Hospice care was not easy. From the first man that I cared for, to the tenth, each patient brought his own unique challenges and rewards. Occasionally we would get a patient who did not want to accept the fact that he was dying, or that he needed help to do things that he had done for himself for most of his life. It was distressing to tell an adult that he could not take a shower by himself, or use the bathroom without assistance. I felt like a bully at times.

“You’re just doing this because you’re stronger than me,” one man protested as I washed him despite his objections. In the end, even the most challenging patients would submit to the care and express some level of gratitude. Moreover, when the words thank you could not be articulated, I could see it in their eyes or demeanor. One particular individual simply grabbed my hand and nodded. That gesture was worth more than any words he could have possibly uttered.

Some of the deaths were hard to watch. They are permanently imprinted into my memory. As I watched my first difficult death, I immediately thought of the death penalty and those who are emphatically opposed to the barbarity of it. However, there were no intravenous concoctions to ease the suffering that this man went through at the end of his life. There were no protests outside the prison this day. No, this was not an execution. In some ways it seemed worse.

Our hospice team managed his physical discomfit as best as we could. The nurses were great in instructing us on the tricks of the trade. But I was left to deal with the emotional suffering, the regrets, the missed opportunities in life that was unique to each individual, on my own. I shared in that suffering, albeit to a much lesser degree; and the prisoner-to-prisoner bond that connected me to each man seemed to bring a level of compassion to the situation that a non- prisoner could not replicate. Having to bear witness to a man struggling through his last moments of life, in prison, made my own Life sentence a stark reality.

After a patient passed away, most of the volunteers who cared for him would gather in his room to prepare the body for the funeral home. This too was an honor. I had never felt more alive, more grateful than at those moments. I felt that each man deserved the best I had to offer. I would always find myself thinking of things I could have done better during my care. I understood that I was not a perfect person and therefore could never be a perfect volunteer; I had to find a way to get past my mistakes. There would never be a second chance to make things right.

I have since lost track of how many patients I cared for in the hospice program. The experience, the life lessons, and the gift of seeing sincere appreciation in the eyes of a dying man, will always remain with me. Please understand that these words cannot express how being a hospice volunteer has changed my life. My experience can only be quantified by how I now appreciate my own life and the lives of others. You can see it in how I value my loved ones, and through my burning desire to help those in need.

Hello, my name is Laura
Laura Purviance

This essay describes Purviance’s experience with getting involved in rehabilitation organizations in prison. It provides an honest and illuminating illustration of relationships that she has fostered with other IP. 

I do pay attention to how prisoners are portrayed in the media, the general ideas are so naieve its both laughable and annoying. No, I don’t belong to a “prison family”, I’m not physically or romantically involved with anyone in here and I have no desire to be. I’m clean and sober. I still have only the two tattoos I came in with (which aren’t visable unless I choose them to be), and I have no fears of walking around here on my own. I don’t have debts to my peers and I don’t care for contraband. I just want to live right & be rehabilitated so I’ll be found suitable for parole someday. I know this will take time and effort, challenge accepted.

I take recovery groups for my mental health issues, my past history of substance abuse, and to address my trauma associated to being a survivor of domestic violence and sexual abuse – my victim was my abuser. (…)

I do what I can to keep my mind active; I read books daily, I’ll watch world news and lots of PBS, I do drawings and write often. I maintain my sense of humor, I try to positivly engage my peers, and help those who aren’t as articulate and literate as I am to navigate this beurocratic maze from hell that is CDCR.

A transformation: prisoners to peace ambassadors
Maurice Harris

In this essay, Harris describes the potential for community amongst incarcerated people through the formation of what he calls a “band of brothers & sisters.” He explains that IP form groups in prison with those they trust and connect to. These connections mean that IP have the potential to affect positive change amongst their social circles, such as through regenerative programming. 

As an insider, I can say, this influence runs much deeper than a prisoner’s immediate family. Whether one is a geek, joker or malcontent, one will normally bond with a ‘band of brothers (or sisters).’ Therefore, members of this extended family are just as susceptible to follow down this detrimental path. This ‘plague’, also, affects youth worldwide via the streets & prisons’ offspring: hip hop. Due to this global communion, consciousness-raising in prisons is imperative to building a ‘culture of peace.’


A RAND study found that offenders who participated in regenerative programs, including those that are ‘community oriented,’ had recidivism rates 10-20% below non-participants.21 Boston Reentry Initiative (BRI), implemented such a program that focus on the ‘highest-risk offenders.’ It must be pointed out that this program includes, religious institutions, mentorships, & community collaboration – in other words, people invested ‘in,’ & know, the communities. With this said, the following should not come as a surprise:

The [BRI] results have been impressive. Harvard researchers found that participants had a rearrest 30% lower than that of a matched comparison group.22

In Conclusion

With the proper determination, we can create a conglomerate of Peace Ambassadors that will enlighten their respective ‘bands of brothers & sisters,’ & construct a new atlantis founded upon humanism & wisdom, as opposed to egocentrism.

a person’s [esp., a prisoner’s] inner-directed change can transform the larger web of life, which, connects us all. This dynamic process of inner-transformation is fundamental to rejuvenating society from the ground up.

–Daisaku Ikeda, “A Declaration of Human Rights at Lincoln Park,” World Tribune-Special Commerative Issue, 10/2/10, p.6.

[Editors’ Note: Within this excerpt, Harris cites the following in footnotes 21 and 22: Petersilia, Joan. “Beyond the Prison Bubble.” National Institute of Justice Journal, no. 268, Oct. 2011, pp. 26-31.]

An excerpt from Inside This Place, Not Of It
Charlie Morningstar

Morningstar, a trans man assigned to live in a women’s prison, explains how he started a program for other trans- and LGBTQ-identifying IP within his prison.

When the Two Spirits Wellness Group first started, there were about six people. There are about fifteen people on our docket list now. At the meetings, first of all, we identify. We’ll go around the circle and say, “My name is… and I’m transgender, or I’m lesbian, or I’m bi.” Like that. And we’ll say what name we like to go by and what pronoun we’d like to go by to each other. We talk about first recognizing. We do that to reaffirm identity to everyone else, and to encourage other people within our group to say who they are.

Two Spirits is one of the only places in prison where we discuss sex and the risks of having sex. We do have peer helper educators who talk about health concerns, including AIDS/HIV and Hepatitis C. But to openly discuss sex the topic, we don’t have that.

Sex is against the law in the prison system. But the fact is that it’s still going to go on. There’s no way to get protection, so if you do it, since hep C is rampant, there is a risk that you’ll get it. I think most of the Two Spirits group express an appreciation just to talk openly about these issues, how they feel, how they’re treated, with people who understand their perspective.

Most of the people who have started taking hormones in this prison are doing so after I let them know about it in the Two Spirits group. There are some people who did not really know who they were, they hadn’t explored that they were transgender males. They had just considered themselves gay, or masculine lesbians, and because of the stigma they couldn’t admit to themselves that they were really males.

In Two Spirits meetings, I relate my own experiences to others in the group, and it helps them identify. I started it mostly for people to be able to get a stake in their spiritual identity. We believe that you are what your spirit dictates. In my case, my spirit dictates that I am masculine. We try to help you become strong in your spirit and identity, and to help you be able to function without feeling humiliation, feeling that you are a bad person. As long as you feel inadequate, you will not become all you can be. So you need to be in a better spiritual state.

Some of the members are Native American, but I open it to everybody. In Native American tradition, there’s no separation between your heritage, your religion, your anything. All of it really entails your spiritual self. The whole thing is that all living things created have a spiritual self. My whole thing is to let people have a space to be themselves.

Brother, can we talk?: Restorative justice in the criminal justice system
Matthew Feeney

Feeney describes the concept of Restorative Justice Circles, and how they can build a bridge for communication between IP and the individuals affected by their crime. This program has the ability to reunite IP with the outside community, fostering a sense of understanding between them.

Restorative Justice is an age-old philosophy which is more recently being applied to the Criminal Judicial System. Based on traditions of the Original Peoples, Restorative Justice is the belief that harm was done, so healing must happen in order to restore things closer to where they were. Restorative Justice also takes into account that there is always more than one person affected by a single crime. Friends, families, and people in the community are all affected and need to be involved in the healing process. One of the amazing components of Restorative Justice involves a “Healing Circle.”


Most problems start with communication issues. People don’t feel heard or understood. People feel bullied. Someone assumes someone else feels the same as they do. Someone feels insulted or disrespected by an action. People feel triggered by key words or tones of voice. We often stuff our true feelings and don’t communicate how we really feel because we’re afraid of hurting or offending the other person. But communication starts small. Being able to say “I’d prefer you not to turn the light on while I’m trying to sleep” seems simple, and it is. But sometimes simple things are the most difficult to do. We blame ourselves, think we’ll get over it, or it’s no big deal… So we stuff it and let things build up. And emotions under pressure are like a pressure cooker – eventually they’ll need to be let out.


But communication, REAL communication, takes time, energy and effort. Anyone who has participated in a Restorative Justice Circle knows that it is not a slap on the wrist nor is it easier than jail. Oftentimes Circle participants will drop out of the program, opting for their suspended jail time rather than to continue into the scary realm of authentic communication. In Circles, everyone is given an equal voice. People of the community are involved and are able to state how they were affected. Victims are given their voice back and allowed to speak openly of their hurts and fears. Even the perpetrators are given a voice; not to minimize and reduce their accountability, but to attempt to explain some of the factors that may have contributed to their committing their crime. Please don’t confuse this with the 1-sided “victim impact statement” that is sometimes read at sentencing. This is two-way communication, with all participants being able to respond authentically and in the moment to what they hear. These circles may occur weekly for up to a year. That requires commitment to a real solution. This involves real challenges and vulnerability. The Circle facilitator is trained to help run things smoothly, and the end result is a true healing of all parties involved. Forgiveness may or may not be involved – it most certainly happens, but is not a requirement or even a goal of Restorative Justice Circles.


A supervised Restorative Justice Circle by a trained facilitator could have been used at the beginning to help divert the case from Criminal Court. But even for cases that go all the way through a Criminal Court, a Restorative Justice Circle can still be utilized afterwards, to help open communication, develop empathy and restore the community to where it was before the crime. Whether used in conjunction with or in lieu of traditional incarceration, Restorative Justice Practices are the way of the future.

Bloom grown from a crack in the wall
Beverly Jaynes

Jaynes remarks upon the various ways in which she works to rehabilitate herself and how these opportunities—including religious programming and writing workshops—allowed her to form relationships with other IP in those classes.

The transformation of transformed individuals – the diseased, debilitated, disadvantaged, addicted, depressed, degraded, disgraced, disillusioned, discriminated against, incriminated, or the victimized into healthy, stable, redeemed, and revitalized individuals, should be proclaimed and acclaimed. no matter how low a level they have been to, they should reach as high as they dare go. The success of the prodigal is a still a valid one. How blessed they were to have overcome obstacles in their way and within themselves. In receiving support, treatments, compassion, guidance, and opportunities, they transformed, triumphing over adversity and their own demons. Injustice and its victims were exposed to the healing light of the human conscience and abusers found theirs, through personal growth and godly grace. Changes in ideas, values, attitudes, and behavior were made. Problems were solved. Reconciliations and resolutions took place.


Then came people with help and opportunities, which they eagerly reached for and grasped. I’ve seen women “be transformed by the renewing of your minds”, as in Romans 12:2, by taking advantage of opportunities prison offers: medical and mental health services; GED and vocational education; substance abuse programs; spiritual guidance by the chaplain and volunteer church groups; parenting classes and the variety of self-improvement courses; and the disciplines of work and set boundaries of behavior. Prison has saves lives from the abuses of the streets.

Prison can also be detrimental and dangerous, if abuses within it go unchecked. Diligence in advocating for one’s rights and healthcare, are often necessary for survival in prison. In protecting myself, I’ve had to rely on my higher instincts, thus becoming resourceful and self-reliant (good coming out of bad).

But I came into prison with some advantages. I had support from family and friends. I was college educated with a yearning to learn more. Maturity, manners, and my intellect, kept me out of trouble as I spent free time reading, writing, and playing scrabble. My respect for other cultures, races, and humanity in general, enabled relations with others of diverse backgrounds. My innate tenacity served me well in fighting for our rights. By cooking a variety of foods, I bonded with others as we cooked and ate together (supplementing bad chow hall meals). My Christian faith sustained me spiritually, keeping me connected to my home church and the enlightening seminars and church services of the Soaring Spirit Prison Ministry.

I used my teaching background in my prison tutoring jobs and my affinity for cleanliness in my dorm tending jobs. At home, I had volunteered in my three children’s school and scouting programs and I served as secretary of the Webster Groves Historical Society. In prison, I was secretary of our NAACP chapter, one of many service organizations serving the prison and outside communities, through restorative efforts by offenders.

The best opportunities for me in prison were the outlets of creative expression. The Prison Performing Arts theater and poetry classes stimulated me intellectually and emotionally. Acting in Shakespearean plays, studying the great poets, and writing my own poetry, gave me self-confidence and a sense of identity. The PEN prison writing program encouraged my writing of essays and in other genres. The writing course taught by the novelist, Catherine Palmer, also inspired me to write. The Anne Frank Diary prison program encouraged me in journal keeping. Other enriching courses were: Making peace with your past, rational, emotive therapy, taking a chance on change, keep your bobber up, master gardner, and nutrition.


Taking stock from a more positive perspective, I utilize goodness wherever I can find it, even in my enemies.

As Aristotle aptly stated, “I count braver he who controls his desires than him who conquers his enemies, for the hardest victory is victory over self.” If we all achieved that, we might not have as many enemies, in each other. What good does it do to defeat our foes, when we’re still defeating ourselves? Harming others ends up harming ourselves in the grand scheme of things. We all struggle between the good and bad within ourselves. We should ensure the victory by that good, giving it priority to finding fault in others. We can no longer be our own worst enemies in our transformed selves.

As a young woman, I made a wall-hanging picturing a flowering plant under the saying, “Bloom where you are planted”. I never imagined that many years later, I would be planted under such harsh and hostile conditions, that I’d barely survive them, nor that in many more years, I’d bloom in prison. But here I am, a strong survivor, and unlikely humanist, and a hopeful opportunist, yes, I know who I am. By the way, who are you and are you being transformed too?

Dean A. Faiello

Faiello describes the sense of community between men in Cephas, a support group offered within his prison. Because of this camaraderie, the men in the group felt comfortable opening up to others and appearing vulnerable. Later, after Faiello is forced to leave Cephas, he continues to create community by helping other IP who turn to him for writing advice.

Of the two-thousand inmates in jail, only fifteen at a time could attend a Cephas meeting. Like nearly every prison program, there was a long waiting list. For the jail’s addiction program, the list contained over one-thousand names. Most would never participate.

As the Officer barked, “Cephas,” the bull pen gate cracked open. I walked down a well-lit corridor with painted sheet rock walls. Each meeting room had wire-glass observation windows instead of the typical barred openings. As I entered the meeting room, I shook hands with the volunteers, and bumped fists with the inmates. Some of the guys called out, “Hey, yo, John, wassup?” Each week, we shared frustrations, talked about the mistakes we made, and struggled with change. As the weeks passed, I watched guys open up and share their pain, deal with their issues. Some progressed more quickly than others. It took work. But the rewards were tremendous.

At one meeting, a guy was pissed at his co-workers. While he had been at the law library working on an appeal, they rearranged their work area, and got rid of his desk. He felt betrayed. Sitting in the meeting, agitated and angry, he told us, “I just wanna break their fuckin’ faces, ev’ry fuckin’ one a them.” We listened, gave some feedback, talked about the consequences. By the end of the meeting, he was laughing and joking. He was still mad at his co-workers, but had no intentions of punching or hurting them.

I recall a meeting where a guy told us that he finally divorced his wife after six years of legal wrangling. Rather than sell their house, and split the proceeds as a family court judge had ordered, she burnt it to the ground. He planned on getting revenge. There was no easy solution to his intense anger, but he took our advice and joined AA. I later edited a story he wrote about the incident, and published it in the AA journal. I like to think it brought him some closure on his loss.

The Cephas meeting room was light and airy with windows on three sides. About twenty plastic chairs were arranged in a large circle. As I looked at the volunteers seated in the circle, I thought of their dedication. Inmate faces in the group often changed, but the same volunteers were there every week. Some had been attending meetings for twenty years. They showed far more commitment than we did. Despite our difficulties in getting from our cells to the meeting, it was only a fifteen minute trip for us. Many of the volunteers drove hours to and from Antioch. Once there, they waited, just like we did, to be cleared by the CO’s to enter the meeting. Sometimes they received a hostile reception–rudeness, even name calling. I had heard stories of some Officers calling them ‘tree-huggers’ or ‘mud lovers.’ We were the mud. Sometimes the volunteers were left waiting, vindictively, in the reception building long after their program was supposed to start. But the volunteers always walked into the meetings with smiles and optimism. I envied their patience.

Slowly, the meeting room filled up as inmates from each block arrived. One of the volunteers, Iris, in a denim skirt and white blouse, signaled to get everyone’s attention.

“Ok, I think everyone’s here. I see some new faces. Welcome. Would somebody like to explain what Cephas is, and what the rules are, to the new guys? Billy, you’ve been coming to the meetings for a while. Why don’t you explain to the new guys the history of Cephas?”

Billy, just like the word Cephas, was a rock or foundation for the meetings. Incarcerated for over forty years, he had been attending Antioch’s Cephas meeting for eighteen of those years.


As word got in my block that I was an aspiring prison writer, a few guys came to me for help with their own writing. They had tried attending the prison’s creative writing class, but couldn’t due to its limited size. I edited their works and encouraged them to persevere, sharing what I had learned from the volunteer who taught the class, a professor at a private college. I found it rewarding when guys took my writing advice and incorporated it into their work. I struggled with my own writing. We sometimes took our work to the yard, forming a picnic table of inmates with pens and writing pads. I fancied us at the Algonquin Round Table, trading quips and barbs, filling the air with smoke and profanity. On the days when my energy waned, they motivated me to keep going, slogging it out, one word at a time.

Section 4: Relationships

The cultivation of individual relationships between two people provides the building blocks for larger communities. Because prisons are total institutions, the majority of people that incarcerated folks interact with are made up of the social networks that occur inside these facilities (Schaefer et al. 2017). This limited social circle makes it vitally important for IP to foster close connections among the people with whom they interact on a daily basis. The writers in this section share how they navigate various types of relationships while incarcerated, illustrating both the challenges and community that they can produce.

How some men find love…
Corey John Richardson

Richardson, who identifies as a gay man, describes how he found love with another IP. By tracing the development of this relationship, he also provides insight into the gay community within prison, including its nomenclature and the stereotypes that these men fall into.

After I unpacked the little bit of property I had, I walked around the prison. I tried to look natural, but surely my eyes were as big as half dollars. I know that my nerves were shredded. It did not take long to see a few “sissies,” a few “punks,” and a few “boys” (common prison nomenclature], all walking with their respective “friends.” Gay men in quite a larger number than I had expected in prison. How could this be? Had drinking, drugs, or just plain stupidity brought them to prison like it had me? It would seem so.

Gay men in prison are an unusual bunch. Some are under cover and some are proud tough queens. Some are just rather average. Many gay men in prison distinctly assume female affectations. They aren’t transgendered, though prison has plenty of transgendered also. To some gay men, female attributes are bait and many straight convicts are more open to sex with another man when they perceive a female illusion orchestrated with shaven legs and plucked eyebrows. I was lonely, but that just wasn’t me.

In a few weeks it was overwhelmingly clear to me that prison (at least in this state) was a 24/7 meat market. This is what had terrified me? And while several hundred men were trying to figure out if I was merely a “fish” easily tricked or perchance gay, I had already decided to plant myself in the path of the biggest, most beautiful young buck this world has ever known. Eventually, he sat down beside me and said hello.

As a gay man I had often felt, underneath the surface, rejected and alone, but now I felt utterly destroyed. I hoped to find some companionship. I hoped he would be the one. It was more than I could have ever dreamed possible. It was instant. He loved my knowledge, my worldview, and our multitude of differences. He dragged me to the weight pile, took me to the chow hall, and even hopelessly tried to teach me basketball. We shared meals in the dorm, watched movies on the weekend, and, well… we didn’t just screw. This man made love to me like no one else had ever has. It was wonderful each and every time. This was a man so straight that I was terrified to even kiss him that first time. This straight man completely, unreservedly, met every need that I had sexually and otherwise, and found several that I had not known even existed. No man that I have ever known was stronger, nor more tender and sensitive.

Then he was gone. It was about a year that we had shared and then he made parole. As much as I thought I had appreciated him, it was only a fraction of what he deserved. He held me in his arms as I cried real honest-to-goodness tears. This man loved me as I was, never asked for more from me than my time and love. I still do the same workouts. Still cook the same meals. Still run the same track. I still smile when I think about his beautiful face laughing in the summer sun as we walked together across the prison yard.

Prison is still a 24/7 meat market, but I never found love again. As I edge closer toward release, being pursued lost its luster. When my love left I began to discover more of myself. I still see men — gay with straight — finding comfort in each other’s arms. Don’t think though that corrections administration is accepting of homosexuals, or that prison is safe. Neither is true. A fight is prison may cost you 15 days in segregation, but get caught in the arms of another man and you will spend 90 days in “the hole” and you will get 6 months added to your sentence due to loss of good time. Purchasing condoms on the black market is nearly impossible and the medical departments are loathe to offer expensive HIV testing. Think of this: “Barely Legal” porn mags showing clearly underage girls are permissible, but a gay political or literary magazine is considered contraband, and therefore not permitted into the institution. Allegedly it “promotes homosexuality.” Serving ten, twenty, thirty years or longer promotes homosexual acts — not a magazine. Straight men in prison do not see their partner in a particularly male way.

These couples still fight like couples in the free world. Some are even abusive. Some cheat. Many scam lonely gay men through pen pal services. Gays need to fight sometimes like everyone else. Everyone, gay or straight, miss their families, miss their freedom. It is still prison.

The new death penalty
Robert Morales

Morales’ close friendship with another IP sentenced to life motivated him to write this essay. He uses this friend as one example of the injustice of life sentences, demonstrating the ways in which community and friendship can create social change.

Tony was the eldest member of our close-knit community and we could not help but feel fiercely protective towards him. My friendship with Tony would require a constant vigil of his activities for several reasons. One was his inclination to freely give to all who ask, making him a target for free—loading bums and predators. He was also exhibiting the early onset of dementia and this would prove challenging on more than one occasion.

He had a tendency to forget where his cell was located. One time I located him in another cell in an adjacent cellblock, and he appeared quite perplexed at the new decor. These antics, while amusing, proved an endless source of worry for me and I would continually chide him to be more attentive.

Men who cultivate friendships in these often lethal, steel jungles of pain and hardship form iron bonds of solidarity with one another. Brotherhood forged in the fiery crucible of shared adversity is later tempered in lifelong friendship, mutual respect, love and intense loyalty.

There exist dark places in this world where our life connection is tenuous, where the fragility of our next breath is acknowledged in selfless acts of compassion and empathy for those who cross our path. This particular Iron-House was such a place. It was only after the tumult of this five year odyssey did I understand the senseless slaughter of those brave Spartans at Thermopylae. They took a stand and died bravely, not for patriotic ideals, but for the men who stood beside them. I know this now.

The dismal news is that my old friend, Anthony Alexander Alvarez, now eighty three years of age, still continues to languish in a dungeon cell. He was sentenced in 2002 to sixty one years to life. He was sentenced to a slow lingering death for the crime of residential burglary.

How is this possible?


As a society, when we sentence an old man to death for a property offense (i.e., life sentence), we are in effect demanding a human sacrifice to right a wrong. This in itself is morally unconscionable, unethical and inhumane.

The cost of this lifelong incarceration is astronomical. One report states that California will accumulate an alarming 19.2 billion in debt over the duration of these three strike terms (California State Auditor, Report.2009—107.2, Summary. May 2010).

As a society we can no longer afford to heed the irrational cant of those truly insane, demon prophets of mass incarceration. We can no longer allow the humanity of poor men, women and children of color to be exchanged as commodities in a profit-driven correctional market (see Racial Divide, an examination of the impact of California’s Three Strike law on African—Americans and Latinos.Oct 2004).

My dear friend Tony is a doddering old man now. To this day he possesses a charming wit and gentle disposition. When we walk together my steps are soft and measured, my heart touched by his halting shuffle. His infectious humor and laughing eyes twinkle when he quips a Henry Youngman one liner. The jokes are corny and he often repeats the same punch line. But as he becomes more and more absent-minded, I laugh as if it were the funniest thing I have ever heard…love for an old friend will do this.

A modernized dungeon
Jesse Moody, Jr.

This essay explores the challenges inherent in creating interpersonal bonds with one’s cellmates, in an environment where people constantly crave alone time and staff routinely deny them recreation. 

Finally, you arrive in front of a cell with three bunks inside. One of the beds is empty and before your mind can carry you further, the officer speaks through a transmitter telling the person on the other end to open the cell door.

“There you go, your new home,” the officer states, urging you to step into the cell.

Without a word, you shuffle inside and immediately come to the conclusion that the cell is too small for three people. The other two prisoners turn their attention to you with a somber expression painting their faces as you place your mattress on the top bunk and hear the door close behind you. You greet them with a hello but they simply stare at you a moment before they retreat to their own world.


During the next couple of days your mood sinks into a drowning pool of depression and anxiety because of the conditions of your confinement. Even though you and the other prisoners are allowed out of the cell for extended periods of time in what is called a dayroom, there are a small number of activities available to capture your attention. Outside of playing cards and dominoes the overseers have not provided any other activities for the detainees to participate in.

Section 5: Language Use and Circulation

We began this curation with a selection of essays that demonstrate the distinct culture that forms within prisons; we now end it by studying the unique ways that this culture uses linguistic resources. Sharing a vernacular unique to prison, learning the languages of other IP, or participating in the prison rumor mill can all inform the collective identity of the prison community. However, much like the other formations of community presented in this curation, language can be a double-edged sword; nicknames, language tutoring, and the shared prison vernacular can strengthen community, but rumors and gossip-based language circulation also have the potential to fracture relationships and isolate certain IP.

A lesson in language
Robert Piwowar

Piwowar explains the importance of language in prison culture, defining some crucial vocabulary words that IP use on a daily basis. In addition to this shared (English) vocabulary, IP learn other languages such as Spanish from native speakers among their fellow IP.

For the truly motivated and fortunate enough to receive a call-out to the library, the equivalent of winning the daily lotto numbers, one can check-out a beginner’s Spanish or French textbook.

Speaking with my friend Max, who grew up in Colombia, has accelerated my understanding. Max is in his mid-fifties and enjoys a calm, friendly disposition. Gray hair and round frame glasses give him a scholarly look. He’s been “down” (in prison) over twenty-two years. Young Latino prisoners address him as “Viejo.”

I often engage him in Spanish while we sit in the dayroom, waiting to go to program or to the yard.

“Buenos dias, Max. Como está?”

“Muy bien, Bobby. Está bien?

“Asi, asi, otro dia en la vecindad.”

(So, so, another day in the neighborhood)

We have acclimated ourselves to the neighborhood of prison. Prison has a language all its own. Correction officers are referred to as “c.o.’s”, “hacks” or “police” when they’re not present. A prisoner despises the term “inmate”, preferring “convict” or “prisoner.” A prison sentence is a “bid.” Anything modeled into a weapon is a “shank” or “gun.” A “bug” or “bug-out” is a crazy or insane person. A bug-out with a shank is a dangerous combination.


Max is speaking to Shabib, a fortyish, balding man from Turkey. I’ve learned some Turkish and Arabic from him, but nothing of any consequence. I’ve found out that unless I practice a language frequently, I tend to forget it. Shabib speaks in a clipped, distorted English, often blurring pronunciations. He often asks me to help him.

“I have a new stragedy to work out,” he says to me and Max.

“What’s your new tragedy?” I ask.

Max laughs heartily.

Shabib says, “What, I say something wrong?” exchanging glances with us.

“The correct word,” I say, “is strat-e-gy. So, what your new work out plan?”

“Yes, yes, my plan. Thank you very much Bobby. Now I do light weight, many, many reps. No heavy, only light, much reps.”


Prisons mirror society’s deceits. Prisoners alter their history, pad their exploits, embellish stories, outright lie. We have our own language for this too. We call it freestyling, fronting, being stunters, truth-twister with lip blisters.

Everyone on our gallery is looking out the windows, trying to figure out what gallery on A-block the fight is on. Jorge, a rotound fellow, emerges from his cell. His bleary eyes tell us he just awoke. Bumping into Max in a groggy state he asks, “Qué pasó?”

“Tonteriá!” Max snaps. “Acuestete!”

Laughter erupts.

“Yeah man. Take yo ass back to bed,” his neighbor says.

A running commentary evolves around the bells breaking our routine.

“People be wilyin, son.”

“Problee [sic] the po-lease beatin on someone for nuthin.”

“This shit is crazy.”

“Another day in the neighborhood,” I say.

Everything will be on hold until the “all clear” is given. This could be in as few as twenty minutes for a minor skirmish or as long as all morning in a rare major fight.

“Man, my stragedy is messed up,” Shabib says.

Prison language transitions over time. Some terms endure while others fade away. Recently I heard an antiquated yet accurate word to describe some. An old-timer told a friend, “That guy Sonny is really ‘châteauing’ up in honor block.” Then he added, “Yeah, he’s ‘streching out,’ let me tell ya.” Both terms mean someone who is relaxing during their bid, more concerned with personal comforts, food, and leisure than anything else.

The flip side of châteauing in honor block is “the box,” officially known as special housing unit (SHU).


Sitting, talking with family during a visit is the closet to freedom a prisoner experiences. It’s an escape, briefly, from confinement.

During our visit Martin brings up a phone call he was expecting from me last weekend that I didn’t deliver on.

“Oh, we got burned on Saturday and stalled on Sunday,” I say.

Kristen looks puzzled, “You got burned?”

“Yeah, that means the c.o. didn’t let us out at night to use the phone.”

“He stalled us on Sunday, didn’t let us out at the proper time.”

I realize that I’ve learned a language from a foreign land, developed over years by the denizens of incarcerNation.

As I hold Jenna on my knee, she smiles, places her tiny hand on my bearded chin and says,

“Hi Unka Bobby.”

A lesson in language.

Heart check
Lincoln Keith

This essay analyzes the IP community’s reaction when the author first entered prison. Keith pays special attention to language by informing the reader of particular terms that define this process, such as “backdooring,” and the nicknames like “Jawbreaker” which mark IP’s standing on the social hierarchy. 

It felt surreal, like a nightmare come to life, as inmates and guards I passed along the way looked me up and down and asked me if I was going to “stay down”. (I had been told that “staying down” meant that you would stand up for yourself and fight to keep from being punked out by the other inmates.) That walk took about ten minutes that felt like ten years, yet as I approached the cellblock I had been assigned to and met the evaluating and predatory stares of a dayroom full of the convicts I would be living with for the foreseeable future, I found myself wishing that the walk had never ended. I knew what lay ahead…

In those days, it was a given that any non-gang-related new boot would undergo a “heart check” upon arrival at a new unit, especially the white inmates who are by far the minority in this environment. Like a severe hazing ritual with dire consequences for any who fail to pass, a heart check could mean being jumped by several inmates at once or fighting a procession of inmates one after another in a practice called ”backdooring”. In either case, after being beaten to the ground, the new boot would be given the opportunity to get back up and either give up or keep fighting. Giving up meant complete ostracization by the other inmates, being left to the wolves and being forced to pay for protection or worse, and resulted in one becoming a prison pariah. Staying down and continuing to fight meant that you would be accepted by and shown respect from the other inmates. In such an environment, this could often mean the difference in life or death or, at best, the difference in life and life in hell.

Knowing that such a heart check lay in store for me, I dreaded walking on to that block. When I did, it was like walking into a wolves den. I could feel the eyes boring into me, hear the whispers, and feel the tension like electricity in the air as I crossed that dayroom to place my mattress and property in my cell. When I stepped back into the dayroom, a tall redheaded guy covered in tattoos approached and motioned for me to join him in the corner. He introduced himself as “Red”, asked me where I had come from, and after establishing that I was in fact a new boot and not affiliated with a gang, he explained to me that I was going to have to “fade a heart check”. I would have to fight six inmates, three blacks followed by three hispanics back—to—back. My heart was racing and my mouth was dry as I scanned the faces in the dayroom, wondering who was going to start it. I didn’t have to wait long.

Shortly, a stocky black guy, also covered in tattoos, approached and asked Red if I was one of his “homeboys”. When Red told him that I was not, the black guy who I would later learn went by the moniker ”Jawbreaker” shifted his attention to me. “What’s up? You gonna stay down?” The “Yes” had barely left my lips before he had punched me in the face, knocking me on my ass. By the time my eyes had cleared a bit and I had regained my feet, he was in one of the day-room blindspots, waiting on me. I pulled my bloody t-shirt off and went to fight him. I don’t remember much, but after he had dropped me for the 3rd time, asking me each time if I was going to give up, he said he was done. ”I’m not gonna kill this dude. He’s not quitting-”

I was pretty bloodied by then so Red handed me my t-shirt, telling me to catch my breath and clean my face in the shower stall. I ran water over my face, wincing ae-the sting of it on the splits and scrapes, and had enough time to drink a few gulps of water before my next challenger called me out. And so it went until I had fought my 6th and final fight of the day, whereupon I was declared to have “stayed down”.

Later that afternoon, as I walked past one of the guards who had asked me earlier in the day whether I was going to stay down or not, he asked me what had happened as I resembled the elephant man by then. I shrugged and replied that I had fallen in the shower. With a knowing grin, he asked me if I’d gotten back up. I replied “Of course.” to which he nodded and said, “Good.”

As I said, these heart checks were a given in those days. Believe it or not, I was one of the lucky ones. Many people were hospitalized and some were even killed when there was noone like Red around to intervene and keep things from going too far. Often, the intent was to “break” a new boot more than anything else and those situations always had the potential to end tragically.

Twenty years later, such heart checks are all but non-existent. They are no longer as openly accepted by prison officials, so the few that do occur are not anywhere as severe as they were in the past as people have to try to get away with and hide any fighting that occurs now. I envy the new boots who enter the system in this less violent era. Most don’t know what they are missing and I am glad for them.

An excerpt from my novel “Neutral”
Bednago Harper 

This excerpt from Harper’s novel “Neutral” presents a striking narrative of the potential he sees in the men around him, and how hard it is for them to exercise it. With his use of the word “brothers,” Harper’s language choice makes apparent his care for his fellow IP and his desire for them to have better lives.

Not that it really matters, but I find myself very, very, Very disturbed by many of the things that I have witnessed during this time. I hope and I pray that this will be the last time that I will ever be incarcerated. I’ve grown to suspect that my incarceration was preordained by my Higher Power as a sacrificial expenditure for me to gain the COSTLY knowledge of which to measure the PRICELESS value of my freedom by. When I look around this room, and I draw upon all that I have come to know, and all that I believe in, I envision the limited yet limitless potential of men who must endure the inescapable frustrations of prison life while they still at least try to maintain a reasonable level of sanity. That commands a great exercising of one’s will. I’ve witnessed untapped and immense reserves of unmistakable talent in music, art, poetry, and athletics, just to name a few, and sadly, many of these talents will remain untapped in the stagnating reserves of prisons simply because there are no positive outlets they can be channeled into. It’s a waste of human potential, a terrible waste, AND IT DISTURBS ME GREATLY! I hope and pray that you brothers, red, yellow, black, white or brown, will use this time wisely, and constructively, and direct what you will learn from it to just one person when you are released from here – just one – and instill in them the knowledge that this – prison – is not the way. It won’t be easy to resist the temptations that could quite possibly lead you back here once you are released. Resisting temptation never has been and never will be easy. On that, all I have to say is that resisting temptation is much easier to do than time.

My black sister and her blue uniform
Lamont Baker

In this essay, Baker draws upon ideas of racial identity to create a sense of community between himself and a Black corrections officer despite their conflicting positions within the prison power hierarchy. In creating this sense of community through the repetition of the word “sister,” he hopes to convince this officer to treat him more humanely.

My Black Sister,

I have so many issues that I need to address with you, and I’m not sure how I should begin. I guess I should start by reminding you that I am your Black brother. I’m down on my luck, I’m in prison, I’m broke financially and broken emotionally; I’m lonely, I’m angry, and I’m desperate— but I’m still your Black brother.


Going beyond my feelings about your career choice, I also want you to know that I love and support you. You’re my Black sister and I honor, value, and adore you like only a genuine and mature Black brother can. I want to see you happy. I want you to be safe. I want you to be well taken care of, all across the board—emotionally, physically, and intellectually. I want you to know that you’re beautiful, and that the only way that you could be more beautiful is if you were to comfortably bask in the glorious Black Love that I’m eager to bestow upon you.

With this in mind, I must inform you of “a few things. I need to gently criticize some of your actions because these actions have really bothered me over the years. Don’t think that I’m attacking you though. Look at it as me protecting and empowering you. Look at it as your Black brother’s way of refining you and sharing with you the tools that we’ll need to truly guard against and transcend the obstacles that we will encounter as we navigate this life.

You must know that our paths are, and always will be, intertwined, and as a correctional officer you’re perfectly poised to contribute to my personal evolution. Because of our interconnectedness, such a contribution would be akin to helping yourself. In other words, the more “evolved” I am, the more I can love, serve, and uplift you; so making contributions to my evolution is in OUR best interest as unified Black souls. This letter is meant to highlight this fact, and to show you how the absence of such contributions is causing a lot of damage.


I think you treat me badly because the “inmate stereotype” (our “despicable” stigma) is stronger than your own personal experiences. I think that in your mind, inmates are despicable, period, end of story. So even though you knew me before I became an inmate, now that I am in fact infected with “inmate—ism” (i.e. now that I’m incarcerated), I’m despicable regardless of what your memory says about me. If a non-inmate treated you EXACTLY the way that I treat you, you would be very kind and pleasant to this non—inmate, but because I’m an active inmate, I deserve the crappy treatment.

Boxed in….
Lee Whitt

Whitt explores two labels that can damage an IP’s reputation: “rat” and “mentally unstable.” Each of these labels shape an IP’s social image and their relationships with others, excluding them from the community of other IP.

Through all that I endured, I couldn’t seek out anyone for aid in any way. Staff or fellow prisoner. If you were seen going to staff for anything other than what they were supposed to supply you with you would be judged as being a “rat.” Back in the day, and even today in some places, people who were tagged with that label didn’t last long before some kind of harm befell them. Besides, I grew up on the street and learned the “rules of the game” long before my incarceration.

You didn’t take your problems to another prisoner because it would be seen as weakness. Once you showed weakness, you became a target. Your time would become very difficult; if you allowed yourself to be that person. Any way that another prisoner could take advantage was something that you always had to be on guard of. I had the fortune, or misfortune (depending on your perspective) of having a family member who’d been incarcerated that I ran into and he shared one of the biggest rules that is abided by true convicts…”Don’t ask nobody their business, and don’t tell nobody yours!”

So I spent my hours in my cell trying to figure out how to adapt. Some have deemed me “mentally unstable.” This from both staff and “inmate” alike. What has garnered me that title? Because I found that I was able to figure things out through talking…to myself. Yes, it sounds crazy, but it is not as crazy as it sounds. Everyone has done it at one time or another. Anyone who tells you that they haven’t is just afraid to admit it out of concern as being labeled. If we didn’t talk to ourselves, how else would the world have come up with the answers to many of the problems that exist? Too bad they can’t come up with one for the incarceration problem!

If the walls could talk
Denisha Brethorst

Brethorst explores the experience of finding community in prison through the lens of language, highlighting the sense of camaraderie that forms between IP due to their shared struggle. However, she also notes the negative impact that the rumor mill has on this community.

Words impact our lives. Some words impacting my life are change, strength, perception, fear, anger, and love. Because of these words I am surviving. It is very difficult and lonely at times. I find positive in all of my challenges and try to overcome them.


Perception shapes and affects all of us. Unfortunately, we allow this to happen. We believe the gossip without any validation. It is no different in prison. There are groups, cliches, pecking orders, and of course there are leaders. The emotions are bottled up. I was told not to cry while I was in prison. I cried more there than I ever had in my life. It was okay. The other women would let you have those moments. I would be vulnerable and exposed. It would come back to bite me at times, but vulnerability hurts just as much on the outside of prison walls. I observed a lot of things about people. Some women were tough. Some were manipulating. Some enjoyed being manipulated. The sex, sex roles, humiliation, was mortifying. Boy/girls, girlfriends, Boo’s, wives, guys, husbands, sugar daddy’s, and correctional officers flirting-it was just unreal behavior and crazy relationships.


I would compare my experience as one of complete loneliness. I did not conform to the groups or cliches or get into the bad groups. I would stand alone on a lot of things. I participated in every activity I could. I did the time and did not let the time do me. I observed people and tried not to get involved in the drama. It was entertaining to watch at times. I learned a lot about human behavior. I had been to a police training academy and it was a very similar experience. I was often conflicted and entertained to watch both the inmates and the correctional officers. The only real difference was the uniforms. There were cliches in both. There were lines drawn and crossed by both groups. There was too much drama for me  involved in both groups. There were friendships/ relationships formed in both groups as well. Among each group a bond was formed, and on a rare occasions the uniform lines were crossed. The only thing saving either group from discipline was discretion or knowing the right person in a position of authority to save you from ruin. But that did not always block the rumors or gossip about people and again, a majority of the time the rumors and gossip were just that–rumors and gossip.

The sad thing was they were often believed with no validation to them. This is there the greatest casualties in careers or prison terms occurred. The character assassination attacks often ended friendships, careers, or put women into segregation. It often would impact whether women were accepted into groups, classes, or even able to attend events held for their rehabilitation or benefit while incarcerated. To me this was the most devastating thing to watch. One rumor could prevent a woman from caring or trying to benefit herself to become someone better. Once flagged as a problem, and being in such a small facility, the inmate is branded with the label. Any rumor could label an inmate as something they are not their whole sentence. Unfortunately, the label whether true or not would stick and travel with them even when they would move to a new housing unit. The correctional officers, support staff, and other inmates would all know the label and spread it around. Some of the labels that come to my mind are a fair correctional officer, a strict correctional officer, a flirt, a good inmate giving people no problems, a flirty inmate, a boy/girl, a goody two shoe, a nark, a commissary whore (someone who will do anything and be with anyone to get extra commissary), and the list is endless. All of these rumors and labels could get correctional officers as well as inmates into a lot of trouble. I do not have the same perception of people or life for that matter as I did prior to incarceration. I do not try to put my judgment on others and I don’t pay too much attention to what other people perceive of me. I let others carry their own baggage and problems, especially their perception of me. It is not my baggage, and I do not have to conform to what they think. I am changed.


I did take from my experience to learn to pay attention to what I say to other people. This came from having had so many horrible things said to me. Some of these comments were as follows: “you don’t want your children to see you here?” No, but I do want to see my children. Another one, “you’re getting use to taking handouts.” No, I am pained and humbled every time I receive charity. The worst thing said to me was, “you lost the right to be a parent when you committed your crime.” No, I still gave birth to two children and we still unconditionally love one another. “The state sets you free to put the burden of supporting you onto someone else when you are let out.” No, it is called being supportive in a time of need.


It is no different than being outside the prison walls. Inside the walls a little community is formed and developed. I feel that some women lie and act out in order to find their own survival technique. They are simply trying to find themselves, or in some cases lose themselves from what they were outside the walls. This trial and error process is simply a way to deal with prison life. Many women were able to become completely different people because they wanted to adapt to the prison environment. Sometimes, the change was for the better and taught them to be strong independent women. Unfortunately, there were women that chose to become less than their potential. Some women would go to segregation over and over, because it was expected and easier for them to do this. Some women would dress up in makeup. Maybe so they could mask the person they saw in their reflection. Some women became aggressive or flirtatious. Some became boy/girls and had never been interested in a same sex relationship ever in their life. Some became everyone’s friend in order to get something from them. The women surprising me the most were the one’s tapping into their creative side. These women were poets, rappers, artists, writers, students, theatrical participants, athletes, and goal achievers. These were women discovering their great gifts. Often they were never exposed or allowed to expose these gifts while going through their daily lives “in the world”.

The best survival and integrity is with ‘old timers’. These are the women having been incarcerated for many years and have many years to complete. Some of these women are there longer than a correctional officer’ s career. They are the source of information about prison and survival in such an environment. They often have a great and hopeful outlook on life. Unfortunately, these are also the women getting short changed in being allowed to participate in many classes and groups held for the women in order to rehabilitate and educate. Because they are going to be there and do not have an upcoming release date; they are not allowed to go to groups, classes, or seminars. This is horrible. Most of their time is spent doing nothing and waiting. Even if they took the classes over a few times, I fell it would be better than wasting a person’s time and potential away.

Can the MDOC be fixed?
Mr. L Mack-Lemdon

This essay criticizes the Michigan Dept. of Corrections for its failure to quell gossip within the institution. This rumor mill can foster distrust between IP while also creating connections between IP at the expense of others. 

Here is an area that needs lots of help. Prisoners take various classes either because they are recommended or to please the parole board.

The main problem with programming is the MDOC is similar to the Jerry Springer Show. Everyone wants to know everybody else’s business. This is so bad that inmates will call home and have another inmate looked up and then spreads the reason(s) why that particular inmate is in prison.

For reasons such as this, prisoners do not divulge information about themselves. It’s too dangerous, therefore, you may be in a very serious class, however, the feedback is not real because the story is not real. Everyone is “acting as though if” because everyone is fully aware that confidentiality does not exist. The gossiping that goes on between inmates, and sometimes staff, is atrocious.


As of today July 31st 2017
April Dawn Pineda

In this essay, Pineda describes her frustration with another IP, caused by their refusal to cooperate with staff members. She argues that this culture, which harshly punishes “snitching,” has created a divide among IP and prevented the formation of a community.

My behavior has been what it can only be back in these remote, forgotten parts of the jail, muted and subdued, yet I am denied from our classification to down class, although I have completed the only two programs they allow back here several times over, meaning I complete the same “cycle” of material to receive a certificate (6 wk course for the yoga/meditation and a 12 week course for the substance abuse journaling program) then, upon the end of that program, we just begin at the same neverending cycle again, over and over, just like the commercials, TV shows, CO’s and their attitudes picking favorites and bringing their petty jealousies and feelings to work, along with every other female housed here, some who feel as I do and some unfortunately who go against the grain and forget what uniform their wearing (meaning jail issue) and from lack of morals and respect turn against other females who share their own burden of being locked up, strained, drained and frustrated right alongside with them but only make matters worse with talking about the next female behind her back taking her burdens to a whole other level by destroying what chance of unity and building each other up we might have, for example, today as I sit here, because of the female locked up right beside me we can no longer clean our own unit and are subjected to a level (1) random cleaning by inmates who aren’t housed here and could care less about how clean they get our showers or our hot pot being filled. This wouldn’t even be an issue if we had plenty of time to program but as I mentioned before a maximum of an hour is what we get, if we get it and then we have our phone calls, showering, cleaning of our cells and exercise in the yard if were extremely motivated, so remember, this desision to have the level (1) inmates randomly clean comes from one girls mouth of unfair treatment. Her mouth is also another reason they won’t program a girl she’s afraid of with her group. Another reason they won’t down class me to a unit where theres all kinds of programs available and opportunities to improve and rehabilitate myself, which I am frustrated at being denied the opportunity for this simply because a girl has moved her mouth with insinutions that are untrue and are dictating the desisions on a whole other level. These in many cases are the reasons for violence. In Chinchilla facility, CIW and other contact allowed facilities “snitching” is not tolerated and will be dealt with swiftly and violently. My solution is why the need to do this anyway when simple conversation between two incarcerated individuals or group concession would have been met with respect on the lowest level, simply because the communities (because that’s what we are back here) needs are voiced point blank period. Instead this individual creates an unsafe, hostile environment for herself, when in reality it could’ve been avoided in the first place by simply voicing her needs respectfully.


The essays in this curation showcase a broad range of themes which highlight the various ways in which IP find community (and/or exclude others from these communities) within prison. The first section, Prison Culture, presents a broad sampling of the ways IP create shared social expectations for behavior, identity-based relationships, and a sense of solidarity that acknowledges their shared struggle of incarceration. The ‘convict code’ depicted in the first subsection fosters a strictly regulated and violent environment, but also plays a unifying role due to its prioritization of honesty and reliability. The second subsection continues to complicate the idea of community; as Kenneth Hartman points out in “A Prisoner’s Purpose,” IP often form racially segregated groups that both create conflict between IP of different ethnicities and provide community and security to those within these groups. However, this shared culture among IP can also prompt IP to look out for one another simply because of their shared identity as IP, as shown in “Relief or Riot.” These essays construct prison culture as both a positive and negative force; those who fall safely into predetermined categories gain the protection of others within this category, but those who reject this culture can become a target..

Like the convict code, prison gangs provide simultaneous security and danger, depending on one’s positionality. For example, Jamel Brown’s “Learning to Grow Inside a Prison Cell” illustrates the protection one gains when they hold high standing within a gang, while Mario Cervantes’s essay links gang life to a high degree of violence that can result in severe injury and death. Gangs unite IP under a shared identity, hierarchy, and, often, race—but they also require IP to engage in highly dangerous activity that can estrange IP from one another, whether that estrangement is caused by a gang rivalry, a perceived betrayal, or the death of a close friend due to gang violence.

The third section of the curation explores the ways in which communities formed by various programming, jobs, and educational opportunities can help IP find support outside of gang life or the strict expectations of prison culture. Matthew Lucas Ayotte exemplifies this theme in his essay, in which he argues that education improved his sense of self-worth and encouraged him to pass his knowledge on to others. Similarly, programs such as the Cephas support group Dean Faiello describes provide a space for IP to pursue self-rehabilitation in a supportive environment that allows them to express vulnerability in a way that neither prison culture nor gangs allow.

Section Four focuses on relationships between two individuals. These interpersonal connections can provide insight into a larger community, as “How Some Men Find Love…” does, by broadening the story of Corey John Richardson’s romantic relationship into a commentary on the community of gay men within prison. The love that grows between two IP can also have broader impacts, such as Robert Morales’s plea to provide relief to aging IP, written on behalf of his close friend Tony. Like microcosms of a larger community, these individual relationships provide insight into prison communities on a micro scale.

The final section, Language Use and Circulation, returns to the larger scale of analysis presented in our first section. These essays give readers a first-hand look into the unique vernacular of prison life, while paying special attention to the ways in which language fosters connection between IP. Robert Piwowar’s work, “A Lesson in Language,” showcases the role that language plays in shaping his interactions with other IP; they share the same slang terms to refer to common aspects of prison life, but also extend the hand of friendship by helping each other learn entirely different languages such as Spanish. Other essays, such as “My Black Sister and her Blue Uniform” by T. Lamont Baker, have less of a linguistic focus but still demonstrate the importance of language in developing interpersonal connection.

The essays in this curation highlight the complicated ways that IP engage with each other, which have both positive and negative effects. Every community that forms between IP also excludes others, providing valuable social connection for those within the community while often painting a target on the backs of those outside it. This complex social web of inclusion and division shapes IP’s self-perception, behavior, and relationships with others.


Bronson, Eric F. “‘He Ain’t My Brother… He’s My Friend’: Friendship in Medium Security Prison.” Critical Issues in Justice and Politics, vol. 1, no. 1, 2008, pp. 63-84.

“Community.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 29 Nov. 2022.

Larson, Doran. Introduction. Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America by Larson, Michigan State UP, 2013, pp. 1-10.

Morningstar, Charlie. “Charlie Morningstar.” Inside This Place, Not of It. Levi, Robin and Ayelet Waldman, eds. Voice of Witness, 2008, pp. 187-202.

Phelan, Michael P., and Scott A. Hunt. “Prison Gang Members’ Tattoo’s as Identity Work: The Visual Communication of Moral Careers,” Symbolic Interaction, vol. 21, no. 3, 1998, pp.277-298,

Schaefer, David R., et al. “Friends in Locked Places: An Investigation of Prison Inmate Network Structure.” Social Networks, vol. 51, 2017, pp. 88-103,

Trammell, Rebecca and Scott Chernault. “‘We have to take these guys out’: Motivations for Assaulting Incarcerated Child Molesters.” Symbolic Interaction, vol. 32, no. 4, Fall 2009, pp. 334-350,

Wang, Leah. The state prison experience: Too much drudgery, not enough opportunity. Prison Policy Initiative. September 2, 2022. Accessed 11 Dec. 2022.