Inmate vs. Convict or The Prison(er) Mentality by Justin A.

What is an “inmate”? What is a “convict”? Throughout my writings I’ve used both terms interchangeably, but they are in fact very different. Here in prison call 10 different men an “inmate” and you are likely to get 10 varied responses ranging from outright anger and aggression to complimentary thanks. The same can be said about calling 10 others “convicts”. The culture of prison, or what today’s returning guest writer calls the prison(er) mentality, influences response.

I am at a minimum security prison also known as level 1 in Ohio. I have the hindsight of having experienced levels 2 and 3, much higher security levels. There prison(er) mentality is much more hardened than here in minimum and the culture is very different. Terms like inmate and convict are serious affairs.

If you walk the path of rehabilitation and change then you automatically place yourself in conflict with the prevailing prison(er) mentality. While this is true, does it mean that YOU can’t change that very prison culture through your actions by influencing one person at a time? Should one even care about such a thing? Does it matter?

Those here who interact with the staff are watched with a critical eye by their peers. For some, should I speak to a guard or other staffer I am automatically frowned upon. For observing others, it all has to do with the context in which such an interaction occurred.

Seldom discussed is how staff choose to perceive us incarcerated souls. You could call this staff(er) culture. This interaction has great influence in how WE choose to perceive THEM. Today’s writer discusses this.

Inmate or convict? You decide.


Inmate vs Convict
or The Prison(er) Mentality
By Justin A.

So, what is the difference between an inmate and a convict? It sounds like there should be a punch line to a joke in here somewhere. I have been called both an inmate and a convict during my four years already. At any time, both terms can be endearing or meant as a compliment–or the latter.

Titles, in prison, as in every other situation in life outside these fences are common. Some are meant to be derogatory, some are of status. As an example, most people have heard the phrase “young man/young woman”. Maybe it’s a Midwest thing, but in my travels across this country as a professional driver I’ve heard it a lot. Something in my past has interpreted “young man” as a diminutive remark. Now, I know it’s not meant that way most times – ask yourself this: Would you want to be called “old man/old woman”? Being called an inmate may create the same feelings of animosity or inadequacy. I don’t care what the officers or staff call me. I, obviously, am an inmate, a convict, an incarcerated person. The staff members are here to remind me of that fact. Some may use this to their advantage or our disadvantage. One can always see how someone views you from a level of authority by what they call you. An example is: “Inmate A.”, “Mister A.”, “Ab” (which is my last name shortened to just one syllable), or my full last name with no prefix/pronoun.

Funny story about that:
During my time at the reception center there was an individual with a “difficult to pronounce for ignorant Americans” last name from an African country. Now, some of us don’t have an ear for other languages – others just refuse to try. This officer was the latter.
Officer (calling out to my cell neighbor for a pass):
“Inmate Umbooj-uh…Maboat, Oomboojie,” he said. “Oh hell, Inmate Alphabet (cell number) get up for medical!”
Inmate in another cell: “It’s pronounced ‘SMITH’ you illiterate fuck!” Laughter ensued; we were reprimanded.
That right there is being an inmate. I do have to admit, it was humorous at the time.

“Culture trumps strategy every time.” (Thank you Pacific Institute for your Mental Technology.) I don’t make waves. I had the strategy when I came to prison to lay low and avoid conflict. Some may have heard the saying “keep your head down and your neck on a swivel” or some similar iteration. I’m a type “A” personality. Quiet is really not my thing, of course, neither is prison.

Now instead of keeping my head down and staying quiet, I talk, teach classes and try to help those who struggle. This move has earned me the non-purjorative term “convict” from others. I don’t let the prison(er) mentality dictate what I do any more.

The prison(er) mentality is not always wrong! How about “nothing in life is free.” Too true. If I do something for someone they expect to  pay me – what? What happened to good deeds? The prison(er) mentality or culture, is that you never owe someone and that everyone has an angle. That is absolutely untrue. The only expectation I have for anyone I do something kind for is to accept it graciously. I don’t want payment. An inmate sees that everything costs something, unless they just take it. They don’t want to be given anything. Or, worse, yet, the other inmate may see that nothing is meant to be accountable and they feel entitled. These are the worst, in my humble opinion. A convict knows how to pay it forward; a good deed for a good deed, without feeling an indiscriminate need to (not) owe someone. That person is less likely to steal, to stab in the back, or take advantage of another. There’s obviously many layers to this, so to say all convicts are ready for the outside world would be too much wishful thinking.

A prisoner can change the prisoner mentality of another; why can’t our culture create a better version of itself? I think it can. We all are subjected to a form of this as we do our time through programming and from the different levels within our prison system. Level 3, 2, 1, then home, or close to that. Those are designed to not only house different levels of correctional needs but to also get inmates back to a closeness to normalcy upon release. The steps towards change.

From what I’ve seen through the media there is a large sweep of prison(er) mentality sweeping our nation right now. The whole “don’t talk to or trust the po-lice!” makes me sick. Here, in prison, they’re considered glorified babysitters. Well, if you didn’t require a sitter you wouldn’t be here, right?! End rant. Going to the “cops” here is frowned upon. You are labeled a “cop” or “snitch”. That’s a tough thing to shake here. Again, that is the prison(er) mentality. I talk to staff on a daily basis because I have to. It’s my job as the staff tailor. I also watch what I say, how I say it, and who hears me! If I’m seen talking to an officer at home or on the street it isn’t frowned upon as much. Be honest, who here in my current situation/location has had many good experiences with the police? That’s what has bred this culture’s resentment.

Corrections in Ohio emphasizes “rehabilitation” and has made steps (read: leaps and bounds) towards fixing the enormous separation between staff and inmates. One example I see as a positive is that sergeants are really no longer a thing. Now they are called Correctional Counselors. Same pay, same white shirt uniform and gold badges, same handcuffs; but less snap in the correction. Us inmates aren’t the only one’s stuck in this prison(er) mentality.

What happens when a person gets stuck in this prison(er) mentality? As if it were some sort of comfort zone, they refuse to move on!

As stated earlier, I have been locked up for 4 years now. I’m not comfortable here nor do I care to be. I don’t feel as I’d have issue getting back into society, but I also fear that I don’t know that for sure,. My mindfulness to the possibility of becoming institutionalized helps, I hope.

People who’ve been released talk about a similar experience: going into a store for the first time after their release. A friend of mine who did less than a year in prison said he got “stuck” while trying to buy underwear and socks from Walmart. I say I won’t be like that, but will I? Furthermore, will my wife and other family understand me if I am? My expectation for myself is to dive right back into work upon release. I have far too much to accomplish to sit and wait for opportunity, or wait to see if I really did become institutionalized. I joke that at least once my wife will yell “standing count!” around the middle of the afternoon just to screw with me. Maybe I’m just an inmate.

I have the time necessary to reflect on all this. I only want to spend it making a difference. Being the convict that I am, I cannot assume that I cannot help my society, my culture (at present). The prison(er) mentality around me wll be impacted by me, positively or otherwise. It also impacts me just as much. I only have a small amount of say-so as to who is around me. This time I have left can help or harm my own mentality.

For one, I am very hopeful that I will get a judicial release in a few years. I haven’t pinned all my hopes on this, but I am really desirous of going home early. Will my mentality change between now and when I’m eligible? I know what I did was wrong and I know I’ve hurt people; will the current prison(er) mentality change my perception or my plans before I am able to realize them? I certainly hope not!

At this level 1 facility I see a large number of “old numbers” and “short timers”. It’s fairly self-explanatory as to what they are. It also shows how much of a hodge-podge of personalities make up this culture. I’ve been called (an) “Old School” along with convict. Are these terms synonymous? I have eight more years to do, in total. How much can I improve during this time (or until a judicial is granted if my judge feels I have served my time)? I don’t just mean to improve myself. I also am striving to better my surroundings. I am a part of the prison(er) mentality.

Q: What is a convict?
A: An incarcerated person who stands up for other convicts and follows the golden rule, without disrupting the status quo.

Q: What is an inmate?
A: An incarcerated person who is only looking out for himself, with complete disregard for others or rules.

Q: Am I an inmate or a convict?
A: I am an incarcerated person who is not defined by his time or his crime, who strives for change within himself. I have been impatient. I have been selfish. I have been a victimizer, a bully, a bad husband and a worse father. Knowing that now has produced a wake-up call and a necessity for change. I am a convict, unfortunately. I want for rehabilitation but I follow the prison(er) mentality, if only just a little bit.

I am not, nor will I ever be a victim because of this.

Thank you for all your time in reading this. May it enlighten and enthrall, educate and enthuse. Lettersfromchristopher has given me an outlet that would have never been taken if I weren’t invited.

“Success is measured by moving from one failure to the next without losing enthusiasm.” —Winston Churchill—

Read Justin’s other essay Nowhere To Go But Up   


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