So this seems to be the number one question I am asked, and I suppose it’s probably the number one question most people want to know the answer to. Unfortunately, I cannot answer this question in a single post or two or three. Frankly, this entire blog exists to answer this question.
There are many ways to answer this question, and all of them are correct. My experience being incarcerated may be very different from that of another, as your experience is directly related to a number of factors, the most significant being the security level you are incarcerated at and the country you are in.
I began my time at a high security level, and today I’m going to tell you what that is like. Time there is akin to living in a war zone. You face similar dangers and can come to an end if you aren’t careful. Most states have a tier system to classifying offenders, and this system dictates the security level of incarceration you begin at. It is based on factors such as the type of crime committed and the length of one’s sentence amongst others. Most of you know these designations as ‘super max,’ ‘maximum security,’ ‘medium security,’ and ‘minimum security.’ Some states have different designations such as ‘level 5,’ ‘level 4,’ and so on down to ‘level1,’ and within these designations there are sub-levels such as ‘4A’ or ‘4B’or ‘1A’ or ‘1B’ etc., but they all represent the same thing: the security designation of the housed offender.
At the higher security levels (super max, maximum, level 5, 4, and 3), the inmate population has a harder mentality than at the lowest levels (medium, minimum, levels 2 and 1). Gangs, hate groups, and other Security Threat Groups (STG’s) play a controlling day-to-day role amongst the inmate population. They account for nearly every murder, assault, and extortion and they facilitate the flow of contraband into the institutions. These groups are in constant conflict with institutional administrators and staff, as well as with each other. If you are not part of an STG then you are always faced with the possibility of confrontation with such groups. If you are a member of one of these groups then you place yourself in a position that has the very real potential to destroy your future. You will find yourself at the whim of the group, and yours will always be in constant conflict with the others as each vies for ongoing control within the institution.
Add to this a hostile administrative atmosphere and you have a never ending brew of stress and tension amongst the inmate population. It is commonplace for fights to break out, some upwards of 20 to 30 individuals at a time. Most inmates at these levels are armed in some way. They either have homemade shivs (i.e., knives) or weapons from the streets. It’s easy to find yourself in a dangerous confrontation if you are not careful.
As an inmate it’s almost always stressful at the high security levels. You must be vigilant, observant, and aware of your surroundings. You must question everything you see and hear, for oftentimes cons are engaged in deceptions for nefarious purposes. If you are young, sexual predators are certainly after you. If you’re new, you’ll be tried by a host of characters from STG groups to robbers and thugs, to cons who prey on your fears and insecurities. There is a rite of passage that everyone new to incarceration goes through. At some point you will be faced with physical violence, and if you flee from it, you will have sealed your fate for the duration of your incarceration. Your time from that point forward will be a living hell. I’ve witnessed the outcome of this and I’ve watched men over the years implode mentally, physically, and spiritually.
For those of you who may be heading to prison I have some advice: NEVER join one of these groups, NEVER put your nose into someone else’s business, NEVER steal, and ALWAYS pay your debts. Understand that this is your wake up call and that you have a decision to make. You can either continue on down the path that has brought you here, which at some point will be your undoing, or you can change. It’s black and white. Zero-sum.
Some of you reading this may have a family member who is incarcerated. This is stressful for everyone and I truly understand this. The best thing you can do is support your loved one. It’s my experience that when family is willing to start anew, the individual usually is willing to do the same. Visit regularly, talk by phone regularly, be proactive in the individuals life. For those of you who want to do these things but are angry or upset over the actions of your loved one, that’s okay too. Give it time- time for yourself, and time for your loved one to consider his or her actions. When you are ready (and you will know when this moment arrives), slowly reconnect.
Before I close, for now understand that most guys never tell their loved ones what incarceration is truly like. It’s difficult, it’s complex, it’s a whole different universe. Hollywood has done a poor job of depicting incarceration; every place isn’t Shawshank Redemption, thankfully. Yet, every place has its aspects of Shawshank. I am happy to write about anything you want to know about regarding incarceration. You need simply ask. I will help you understand so that everyone can move forward.
3 thoughts on “What It’s Like to Be Incarcerated”
Very informative and very well said Chris. I’ll be following your writings closely. All the best to you
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