Prison is full of rules. The written rules will only keep you out of conflict with the staff. If you really want to make it through your sentence, the most important rules to know are The Unwritten Rules of Prison. Mess up on the unwritten rules and the consequences can be fatal. Everything in prison is about respect and when an inmate feels disrespected, there’s no telling what they’re capable of doing.
Unwritten Rule #1, Don’t Snitch
Even if you cooperated on your case, once you get to prison, don’t snitch. The old saying, “Snitches get stitches,” generally only applies to the mediums and penitentiaries (higher-level institutions), where politics (inmate rules) are extremely enforced.
However, even at the lower levels all the way down to a camp, which is minimum security, nobody likes a jailhouse rat.
Taffy was a guy I was in with at Yankton Federal Prison Camp. We called him “Lieutenant” because he might as well have been wearing an officer’s uniform. Soon after he arrived, inmates kept getting in trouble and nobody could figure out where the information was coming from. Over time something didn’t feel right with the new guy, the way he talked and observed his surroundings. After a while, though, we started to catch on.
It got so that even the cops started to call him Lieutenant Taffy. One day a guy showed up, who didn’t want to be on the compound. He walked into our unit and said, “I’m leaving this camp, today, who do you guys want me to fuck up?” Immediately, three guys in unison said, “Taffy!”
They escorted him directly to his room. Taffy was sitting there, playing cards with his roommates when this complete stranger approached him.
Evidently, his look of confusion was priceless just before that first punch was thrown. The cops came, took both of them away, and we never saw them again. Once Taffy was gone and all the blood was cleaned up, we found out the true extent of his snitching and I don’t think anyone felt bad for how things played out for him.
Even at the camp, “Snitches get stitches.”
Unwritten Rule #2, Mind your own business.
Stay out of the business of others unless they have included you. So stay in your lane, put the blinders up, and do your time. And don’t eavesdrop and gossip. It’s called ear hustle in prison and it’s when you hear what others are talking about and make yourself part of it or pass the information on.
Nobody likes an ear hustler. Inmates might snap off or ask aggressively if they were talking to you. They might pretend to roll up a car window or say, “Hold on one second, our phone is being tapped.”
Don’t include yourself in others’ conversations unless you are asked. It may seem like you’re being helpful if you overhear a conversation and you jump in to answer their question. But in prison, you just cross a line, and that’s unwritten rule #2.
Unwritten Rule #3, Don’t disrupt the order of the TV or weight room.
There is a structure in both the TV and the weight rooms. Don’t go against the grain on this one. The TV room is divided into sections, invisible lines are drawn on the floor, so many chairs go into each row – divided by race, states, cities, or a combination – and if an unwelcomed chair is added, everybody knows immediately.
In the TV room, everybody has assigned spots, and you get these spots by waiting for someone to leave (get out of prison) with whom you have built a relationship, and they leave you their spot. You could pay money to get a TV spot faster, but be careful who you are buying it from.
Do some research and make sure it’s actually theirs. It could be a scam, not common, but in prison anything is possible.
Once you have a spot, don’t change the TV unless you are absolutely sure that nobody is watching it. It is good to wait for shows and movies to end before you try to change it, this takes some patience, but it will keep you out of conflict.
If you can’t get a TV spot when you first get to an institution, most have day rooms or TVs around the compound, such as at the gym or recreation yard, where they are open to first-come, first-serve. But be careful because those TVs might be organized as well.
The weight room has workout time slots throughout the day, and certain people have laid claim to these spots. Do not just go to the weight room and expect to use whatever bench or weights are free, chances are somebody is coming to their slot momentarily.
Getting a workout spot is an act of patience and observation. Pay attention and you’ll find slow parts of the day and after scouting for a while it’s much safer to assume nobody is using that time slot.
In both the TV and weight room, people will come and tell you, “That’s my spot,” and it’s up to you whether you want to fight for it or not. Hands down, nationwide, the most conflict in prison occurs in these two rooms!
Unwritten Rule #4, Pay your bills.
There are only two things that an inmate has in prison: his money and his word. If those two things aren’t in line, the person probably isn’t worth much, avoid them and let someone else teach them a life lesson. By that I mean, if you get burned, let someone else beat the crap out of him.
The inmate population is generally not made up of the most responsible people, but it’s a must to stay on top of your obligations. Whether you gamble, smoke, drink, or hit up the storeman (inmate who resells commissary) for junk food on the weekend, you need to pay your bills because eventually the debt will be paid through violence or by the people you run with. Yes, when you leave a debt, your friend(s), gang, or homeboys pick up the bill or someone from this list will give permission to catch you alone and beat the crap out of you.
Unwritten Rule #5, Wait your turn.
Waiting in line is a regular part of inmate life: showers, chow, commissary, and medical. Make sure you wait for your turn. Don’t cut or jump in front of anyone, even if you are given permission by another inmate, because the people behind him/her may not feel the same way.
Unwritten Rule #6, Knock before you enter.
In other inmates’ cells or cubes always knock before going in. Inmates hate when someone who doesn’t live with them walks in without knocking.
And if the window is covered, stay clear. A covered window means that something personal is going on: taking a poop, or something sexual. The last thing you want to do is walk into that.
Unwritten Rule #7, Practice good hygiene.
The saying in prison is, we are all grown men, so you would think we wouldn’t have to tell each other to get in the water and wash daily…but sometimes we do. I told one of my cellmates in Milan either he had to start taking care of himself, so I don’t have to smell him or find another bunk. He found another bunk the next day.
It’s one thing I will not put up with. If you don’t regularly wash after work or after a workout and wash your hands after using the restroom, then be prepared to be confronted within the first couple of days in prison.
Unwritten Rule #8, If you didn’t put it there, don’t touch it.
Another leading reason for an altercation in prison is moving somebody’s stuff. This goes for food items, magazines, and books, artwork, laundry…anything. If you didn’t put it there, leave it alone. This will cause you frustration at different times throughout your prison stay, but it’s always better than getting in a fight over something so simple.
You have to pick your battles in prison, and it’s usually just easier to find another washer or place to sit.
Unwritten Rule #9, Don’t disrupt someone’s nap.
If you are at a facility where it is safe to take naps, such as low-security prisons and prison camps, make sure you don’t wake someone up from one. This means being aware when entering your room in case someone is sleeping in it. Don’t turn on the light or turn up the volume if someone is sleeping.
Unwritten Rule #10, Don’t move into someone’s bunk without permission.
People like to pick who they live with, and as you go down through the different security levels, from the penitentiary to the camp, the repercussions become less severe, but out of respect, it’s always a good idea to ask someone before you just move in.
When you first get to a facility, you are assigned a bunk number, and usually, you cannot control this move. But once you get established somewhere, and find a bunk you want to move into, ask the individual that is already living there before requesting the move. If the bunk is completely open, then ask the others in the room if they mind if you move in. Somebody might have plans for the bunk, and if you disrupt that, trouble can start.
Unwritten Rule #11, Don’t use the bathroom broom or mop to clean your room or cell.
In the mop closet on each floor, there is a broom and mop reserved for the bathroom in order to stop cross contaminations. So unless you want urine and fecal matter in your room, use the right broom and mop. Everybody who sees you do this may not say anything to you, but embarrassingly, everybody will hear about it.
Additional Rules for Medium Security and Penitentiary (High Security) Prisons (I started at a low and went to a camp, so never fully experienced these extremes!)
- Stick to your own race. The penitentiaries and mediums are extremely segregated and everybody is divided into groups or gangs. Your race and home state determine which group or gang you belong to. There are Crypts, Bloods, Southsiders, Latin Kings, Dirty White Boys, and more. Pick a side and prepare for war because from what I hear it’s a war zone.
- Knock when you leave the dinner table; this is a practice that stems from the old days when there was no talking permitted in the chow hall, or the officers would beat the crap out of you if you spoke. The practice carried on after those days were over as it was a way for inmates to say have a good day, and it’s still practiced at some higher security locations.
- When people start at Pens or Mediums, they bring their boots to the shower in case something or someone pops off, and you have to be ready to get involved (fight) on short notice.
- It is common practice to fight with your steel toes on because it’s believed to give you a competitive advantage.
- Also, people leave one leg out of their pants leg when sitting on the toilet in case they are jumped by another inmate or group of inmates and they need to defend themselves. If you want to beat the crap out of someone in prison, the common practice is to catch them off guard. In prison, there is no such thing as a sucker punch or unfair fight so you don’t want to get caught with your pants down.
- Some inmates will only sleep on a top bunk because it is harder for someone to jump or assault them as opposed to being on a lower bunk where you are more susceptible to an attack.
- No naps. You can’t defend yourself while you are sleeping. You might ask yourself, why are people attacking you? At the higher-level institutions, everybody is affiliated with a group or gang and just because you didn’t do something to piss off another gang doesn’t mean one of your homeboys didn’t.
A prison is a cruel place but like any place where people are together, it has its own culture. Part of that culture is both the written and the unwritten rules. Follow them or not at your own risk.