Prison is unlike anything else in life. It’s not something you can master through reading, nor can you conquer it by talking to others. The best that you can do is learn as much as you can about the unwrittens of This World, because the unwrittens (the rules convicts live by) govern all that happens here.
To complicate matters, there’s a hierarchy amongst convicts, a so called ‘pecking order’. This hierarchy dictates how your peers perceive you, and as a result dictates how your time will go from day to day. The lower you are in the pecking order, the worse off you are. The higher up, the opposite can be said to be true. The pecking order is another way of expressing where convicts stand amongst their peers.
What then determines where you stand? This question requires a multi-prong answer. To begin, if you are new in This World, then you automatically begin at the bottom. To complicate things further, your crime and your sentence also impact your standing–new or not. If you are a Tree-Jumper (a rapist) or a cho-mo (child-molester), then you will find yourself BELOW the bottom of the pecking order. You will reside in a quasi-Hades like zone, and like Hades, you will be tormented as if you were in hell. But just as your credit score doesn’t stay static, neither does your standing amongst one’s peers. I know a number of guys with crimes like these that are tolerated, if not grudgingly respected. How is this possible? How is it possible that a guy who raped his own 4 year old son could be ‘grudgingly respected’? Or for that guy who terrified and raped women for weeks on a major college campus as they crossed the Commons at night? The answer: they’ve mastered the unwritten rules of doing time.
There are literally hundreds of unwritten rules, and I cannot cover all of them in a single post. But I will introduce you to some of the more common and well known ones that even the New Fish (someone new to prison) knows. I’ll also cover a few that you can’t possibly know unless you’ve been incarcerated for some time.
You can compare the unwritten rules of prison life to what organized crime calls Omerta. What you see, hear, and do stays within the community of inmates and within this community, how cons interact with one another has it’s own subset of unwritten rules. A simple example is the unwritten rule that you should always respect the property of others. If it’s not yours don’t touch it. If it’s not yours, don’t eye hustle it (i.e., covet, secretly observe or take inventory of), and if it’s not yours you have no claim to it–period. Violate this unwritten rule and you may face retribution ranging from the verbal “What the fuck are you doing?” to outright physical confrontation. Further, get caught eye hustling and your act of indiscretion will find its way onto the Grapevine (Grapevine? See First Time Grapevine) and forever remain in the psyche of this network. Then, should something come up stolen from the individual whose property you eye hustled, the grapevine will automatically single you out as suspect one. Even if you had nothing to do with it, you would now have serious problems. This would then affect your standing amongst your peers, and thus where you stand in the pecking order.
Most of you have heard the time old prison adage of ‘do not snitch’. This is an unwritten rule that has found its way into the mainstream public thanks to the success of popular Hollywood movies like Shawshank Redemption and Escape From Alcatraz, amongst others. Once upon a time this unwritten rule was only known by those of us incarcerated souls. This unwritten rule may have made the mainstream due to the weight convicts place upon it and the high profile acts of retribution that have resulted for its violation over the years. The most violent and serious confrontations and acts of retribution I’ve witnessed throughout my incarceration arose from violation of this unwritten rule. This goes back to my Omerta comment. While inmates and convicts (I use these interchangeably because they are simply different sides of the same coin. It’s like saying, ‘green apples and red ones’. They’re different in ways, but still apples) aren’t literally engaged in organized crime, they have drawn certain aspects from such groups. This is one of them. Violate this rule and your standing within the pecking order will fall precipitously. Honor this rule, and over time it will be recognized, logged within the psyche of the Grapevine, and noted amongst your peers. In turn, your standing within the pecking order will rise.
There are other factors that determine how you are perceived amongst your peers. These are factors that you should never involve yourself with if you care one bit about changing yourself and going home. They can only complicate your time and your future. An example, if you are deeply involved with the moving of contraband (i.e., drugs etc.) into the institution, your standing amongst some of your peers will rise. If you are deeply involved with crooked guards and are able to effect means to an end as a result of this relationship, your standing amongst many cons will rise. These are two simple examples, but both have the potential to compromise your future (in the form of outside charges), and to compromise your time (punishment that raises your security level).
Here in This World you must decide what is important to you. Is it more important that you stay in the mix hustling (hustling? See Prison Hustles Make the World Go Round), or do you choose to capitalize on all this extra free time to improve yourself and your future?
It’s possible to use your time constructively and to work on improving yourself and your skills and still rise in the eyes of one’s peers. Despite the nature of day to day life here, other cons recognize and even respect those guys who engage in positive activities.
Some of you out there may wonder why it matters if you move up the pecking order or stay stationary? If you are neither at the top nor the bottom, what’s the big deal, right? It matters in the sense that acceptance here amongst peers is important because this is not a normal life environment. Many unexpected and bad things can and do happen. If you are somewhat trusted and something questionable jumps off, you may become a suspect amongst convicts. Then there is the black swan type event like an insurrection. How comfortable would you feel then if you held middle ground pecking order? Not so comfortable.
However, if you’ve carefully cultivated your reputation and are respected by other convicts then you will never be doubted. Your personal security is assured and you have the ability to always make ends meet, and to effect the means to the ends you need in order to survive. Is it fair that this is how things are here? Nope, but nothing is fair in This World. This is the simple truth to life behind bars.
Your journey up the order is a very slow process. It’s slow because acceptance comes about through collective recognition that you are an individual that can be trusted and relied upon. That you are an honest broker in your day to day interactions, and that you adhere to your word at all times. Ascension often takes years. However, master the unwrittens of incarceration and you will discover that your time is manageable and that you will be able to pursue the things that are meaningful to you.
Before I close today’s post, I want to cover one of the most important unwritten rules. This rule alone can make or break you amongst convicts. I find it to be one of the most important of the unwrittens, and one of the simplest to follow. It doesn’t compromise your effort at rehabilitation, nor does it require you to choose between good or bad. What is it? It is: Keep your word in all that you do. No matter what you engage in, if you say you will do something, do it. If you say you will pay a debt by a certain date and in a certain manner, do just that. Don’t change the terms, don’t renege, don’t try to get over. If you say you will keep your word, you better keep it. Violate this rule just one time, and your indiscretion will forever be noted and logged in the psyche of the Grapevine until the day you leave This World. If convicts have nothing, they always have their word.
And that’s my word to you.
*If you enjoyed this post, please like and share with your friends. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing for you! Also, if you know of other blogs written by inmates, please let me know because I enjoy reading what other guys write. Frankly, it helps keep me sane.
**Special thanks to fine artist Lorraine Robson for use of “Pecking Order” image. You can learn more about her and her artwork here.