A while back, we wrote a post where former inmates shared what being incarcerated is really like. In the comments, even more people shared their own stories. Here are some of the most eye-opening ones:
Note: Some responses were pulled from this Reddit thread by u/Zenish1.
1. "There is NOBODY ON THE PLANET who is craftier than a person who is locked up. I learned so many tricks and tips that I find myself using to this day. Women were making tampons out of pads and making makeup out of the wildest things. There were so many impressive, smart, and just overall great people in my pod, and as much as it sucked to be in there, I wouldn’t take it back for a second because it definitely changed me for the better, and it made me a better person overall."
2. "I was in jail a few times. A lot of the people in there made some REALLY bad choices. Jail is easy if you're 'smart' and know how to talk to people. A lot of these people made dumb decisions, were gang members, or they're homeless, in which case they are most likely in for assault or theft."
"Fights do happen a lot. One time, I stole the butter knife from my plate and flushed it down the toilet for fun. Instant paranoia for everyone."
3. "The guards can decide an inmate can't have something whenever they feel like it. Even if it's something they've been getting and having all the time. I would bring my mother things I know for a fact she was allowed to have because I read the list a million times over. But after standing in line forever, you get to the window and give them the items. They will give back the things she all of a sudden isn't 'allowed' to have but could, like, a week before. All because they felt like it, and they also would take whatever they wanted. I was told more than once they would open what I gave her and take things."
"They took brand new no-name sneakers I got for her because I guess they wanted them more. I would get her a replacement pair, and they would take those, too. I got her a third pair, and she finally got them because it was a different guard."
4. "Jail sucks. My husband sent me books every few days. I was in jail for six months. ... If you’ve never been locked up, you don’t understand how long it actually feels like. Books were the only thing we had. I had read hundreds of books by the time I left; I had stacks in my cell from floor to ceiling, and I would rent them out to the women in my pod for things they made, like Jolly Rancher wrapper picture frames, drawings, soap sculptures, ramen, and Voodoo chips. But when I left, I ended up giving the women all of my books — you would have thought I gave them each $5,000 or something. "
"The library had maybe 1,000 books, so if you’re in there long enough, you go through them in no time; you end up reading things you don’t even wanna read. I was never a big reader before jail, but it’s one thing I’ve continued to do outside of those jail walls — that and using the coping skills I was forced to learn out of desperation. But if you ever need to get rid of books, go donate them to a county jail. They will get read and be appreciated by every single person who picks them up. I promise you. They will go to good use. To this day, I donate books to the county jail in New Orleans because I understand what it’s like. Also, not every person in jail is a 'bad' one. You learn real quick that even the smartest, nicest, and most promising people end up in bad situations that land them there. So, you learn to be real mindful and to never judge a book by its cover."
5. "My ex was in Rikers a few times and also upstate. If you’re lucky enough to get visitors, the guards inspect your anus before and after your visit. Imagine how dehumanizing that is. And pointless — the guards are the ones bringing the vast majority of drugs and weapons into the prison, not visitors. Phone calls and commissary are expensive because the companies the prison contracts with are price gougers. Inmates are often transferred to another prison with no notice, and the guards toss everything in your cell when they do: letters, photos, etc. You lose your agency completely in there — you have no control over anything."
"When inmates get out, they don’t know how to run their own lives. It’s a shame because most people serving time get out and have to live in society with us. You’d think we’d want them prepared to take on life’s challenges so they don’t offend again. But in America, prison is not rehabilitative, it’s punitive. Compare that to Norway where you live basically like you did outside, just sequestered. Recidivism rates are super low. In America, we have to contend with institutionalized racism. It sucks."
6. "My ex-fiancé is doing time in South Jersey, and he just told me how they just transferred him: confiscated literally everything he had or threw them out, and he has to start all over again from scratch. It's very unfortunate and sad. Inmates are still people; they shouldn't be treated otherwise."
7. "I spent over three years in custody. There was a lot of dramatic BS in there and a lot of creepy guards. But mostly, I made it fun where and when I could. I made a couple of friends and kept pretty close to them. The most shocking thing to me were the heavy sentences handed down to women for acts of self-defense. Many, many, many women are in on violent crimes with decades or entire lifetimes to serve when their 'victim' was really their abuser. And a lot of women in for nonviolent offenses were manipulated/coerced by a man in their life."
"There was also no protective custody for women in the state I served in, so you might accidentally sit next to a 'baby case' if you didn't have someone looking out for you. In there, associating with people like that was akin to being one, and the retribution that could bring was one of my biggest fears in there. The only option in that situation is to be ready to fight them if you encounter them again; otherwise, it's looked at as sympathy toward them. Overall, it was an absolutely awful and traumatic experience that I have no desire to repeat."
8. "I was incarcerated in women's facilities frequently when I was younger (feels like another life). For the most part, women were decent to each other and tried to be supportive. It was boring, and we played a lot of cards, but there wasn't much drama or conflict."
"The 'everything is for sale' didn't apply to most places I've been in — women helped each other out, and in situations where I was the baby of the group, other people made sure to look out for me out of kindness, asking nothing in return."
9. "There is a huge difference between jail and even prisons. I spent seven years in a max security, which is way different from medium security facilities. How much time you have determines which kind of facility you go to. With that said, it's not like the movies. Stay away from gambling, drugs, and gangs — you're pretty much left alone. Don't be stupid; you see something going down, turn around and walk away. Nobody likes witnesses, and if you're ever, and I mean ever, asked by a correctional officer as to what happened, you have no idea, and you didn't see anything."
"The food sucks, but it didn't really hit me until I was close to coming home — then it all tasted like sand paper. Yes, you do have to stand up for yourself, but the biggest myth is to find the biggest guy and hit him; that's so stupid. It just means you'll probably get beat up by the biggest guy, and people will know you're a moron. In a max, most of the people just want to do their time and be left alone. It's the young gang bangers trying to prove themselves who are the problems, but unless you're in a rival gang, it's usually nothing to worry about. Not many want to go to the box, so when you stand up for yourself and are willing to prove it, they'll move on to easier targets. Oh, I forgot about friendly extortion — those pretending to be your friends and suck you dry of everything you have. They'll spend all their money on cigarettes and try and bum coffee every morning."
10. "I dated a dude who went to prison a couple times. He said as long as you didn't gamble or get wrapped up in gang crap, it was just really, really boring. He taught himself ancient Greek."
11. "I hated prison! And while I was miserable there, I still found things to joke about, I still laughed, and I still helped people whenever I could. That's just the kind of person I am. There were days when my heart was crying on the inside, but I still got up and went to the day room to hang out. I went to rec to work out sometimes four times a day. I did aerobics. I loved it, and it helped me feel better about myself. On the outside, I seemed happy, but on the inside, I was hurting. I've never been as miserable as I was in prison. But humans are survivors. You do what you gotta do to get through it."
"You can sit in your cell depressed or you can make the best of a bad situation. I chose to be happy and make the best of the situation. I now know that I'm a strong person to have been able to stay positive on the outside and not let others see me crumbling on the inside. I was able to make others laugh and be happy just as I do at home. I look at it as a learning experience. It's a life that most people will never understand. But it's part of my life that makes me who I am today."
12. "In prison, you can choose to find trouble if you want, or you can choose to learn something/teach something or waste the time away doing nothing. Even without ideal choices, you still have choices to make that affect your life. It ain’t over. You get to start over from zero. Who’s gonna win? You or life?"
13. "If you don’t have commissary money, it’s gonna be a long ride. The food sucks. It’s not like the movie Fight Club unless you let yourself get drawn into drama."
14. "I can only speak for the state I was incarcerated in (and this varies a TON), but regardless of what you did, once you made it to medium custody or lower, nobody ever really got messed with or hurt. I never once feared for my life, and 99% of the time, I never feared for my health for the eight years I did."
"People allow themselves to become victims of things like extortion or bullying daily, though. Sometimes, it turns into fights, usually not. Prison is basically high school."
15. "My husband went to Turbeville prison for a year. There's some stuff he's yet to tell me; that place is a mess. When I visited him, his head was shaved, he wore an ugly orange jumpsuit, and he lost weight. He told me there were bugs in the grits, the AC didn't work that summer, they slept on concrete, and they let him withdraw cold turkey off of his Zoloft antidepressant, and he had seizures in his cell. Just awful. Thank God his mama was able to put so much money on his commissary or there would've been no food or phone calls for him, which is expensive AF."
"People trade those ramen squares and Honey Buns like they're gold. He came home and was still making those 'setups.' God forbid he were to ever have to go back to prison — he said it's that bad. Also, you pretty much HAVE to fight when you get there unless you know someone, which thankfully, he did. That person ended up protecting him from some fights. So, it's to be expected; you will be picked on, and people will try to steal your food and commissary."
16. "You have to be ready to seriously hurt another person over something petty. Like, 'Hey, I just caught you going through my basket. You took my ink pen without asking permission first. Now, I have to try to beat you to death. If I don't try to kill you for that, everyone is going to think I'm weak, and every penny I spend on commissary is going to be stolen.'"
17. "In my country, it's disgusting. And you don't get free food. Everything inside is paid: tattoos, haircuts, etc. Dirty AF. Police force abuse. Overpopulation. When I say overpopulation, I mean 100 prisoners in a 20-person cell. No air conditioners. Only police officers can have that. Imagine being inside with 90-plus inmates with no cool air. Yeah, just like hell."
18. "I was in the joint for nine months, and yes, the food sucks, except the last one I had before I left. Don't get involved with gangs. Do productive stuff. I personally tutored people who were younger and didn't have GEDs. Kept me out of trouble. Think of it as a sleepaway camp for pieces of sh*t."
"If you gamble, pay your debts and don't fight!!! Can't tell you how many people who earned more time for fighting ON CAMERA! Take that to the restroom. Wouldn't wish that situation on my worst enemy."
19. "You don't want to owe anyone, but it's not really a problem unless you're buying drugs or gambling. If people see you're struggling, they will help you out. Food, clothes, coffee, etc. With the rare exception of some, it's a community, and people look out for each other. I did six years, and my best friend did 18 years. We both came from the same area and got out within half a year of each other. Ninety-nine percent of the people you meet up with in prison, you might be cool with while you're inside, but out in the real world, you'll want nothing to do with them. There are also the super rare friendships that will last you the rest of your days."
"Most officers just want to do their eight hours and go home. There are also, without fail, officers who feel it's their mission in life to ruin your day. Regardless of how you are behaving, what you were charged with, they will try to mess up your day. These are the officers whose shift you simply stay in your cell/cube for — read a book, take a shower, or take a nap. Snitches get stitches is very real. I've seen some serious things: murders, assaults, and robberies. But if anyone ever asked, I didn't see a damn thing — I was listening to the radio with my eyes closed while laying on my bunk. No amount of questions or threats could change that, because they were the cops, there for 1/3 of the day. You had to stay there 24/7. If someone did something to another con, and they were in the wrong, it was handled by the other cons without going to the officers. Maybe they paid for the wrong monetarily, maybe they got beat to hell. Occasionally, they got cut or stabbed up for a serious reason. It sounds really rough, but if you're a regular person with common sense and the ability to communicate effectively, you'll be fine in there. If your problem is impulse control issues (probably why you're in there to begin with), you're going to get into situations."
20. "I have been to jail once. The cops took all I had: my DNA, my shoelaces, everything. The guy I was in with for the night said one thing and one thing only: 'Hey bro, it might get hot overnight.' It got warm as hell in those cells overnight. Like, OMG, it was not only uncomfortably warm, but they give you pathetically worthless pillows. I tell you now, sleeping in a jail is uncomfortable. You wake up with a sore neck, a headache, and a new hatred for the system. That day in court was hard. I got off scot-free — I was attacked in my home after all. But I won the fight, and that's all that matters. I won, so I had to go to jail."
"What I learned that day was the court system does not care if you are innocent — you will be treated the same: guiltily. You will be thrown in with actual criminals. You will be treated with contempt even after your release. It hurts; it hurts to be treated that way. ... Being treated by society at large as a worthless criminal hurt worse than my arm being almost torn off; it's an emotional pain few can realize the scope of — one that transcends physical pain. It's something that lingers with you in the back of your mind."
What do you think of these stories? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Note: Some responses have been edited for length and/or clarity.