11 Unwritten Rules of Prison | Noah Bergland

unwritten prison rules

Prison is full of rules. Unfortunately, the written rules will only keep you from conflict with the staff. If you 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 highly enforced.

However, even at the lower levels, down to a camp, which is minimum security, nobody likes a jailhouse rat. Jaffy 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, but it had to be an inmate. 

Over time something didn’t feel right with the new guy, the way he talked and observed his surroundings. And after a while, we started to catch on.

It got so bad that even the cops started to call him Lieutenant Jaffy. Then, one day, a guy who didn’t want to be on the compound showed up. 

He walked into our unit and said, “I’m leaving this camp today; who do you want me to mess up?” Immediately, three guys in unison said, “Jaffy!”

The new guy said, “Let’s Go!”

They escorted him directly to his room. When this stranger approached him, Jaffy was sitting there, playing cards with his roommates.

His look of confusion was priceless just before that first punch was thrown. After that, the cops came, took both of them away, and we never saw them again. 

Once Jaffy was gone and all the blood was cleaned up, we found out the full extent of his snitching, and I don’t think anyone felt terrible for how things played out for him.

That day, even at the lowest security prison, “Snitches ended up getting stitches.”

Unwritten Rule #2, Mind your own business.

The Unwritten Rules of Prison | Noah Bergland

Stay out of the business of others unless they have included you. You will hear phrases like, “Keep your eyes on the road, stay in your lane, put the blinders up, and do your time.”

Don’t eavesdrop or gossip. It’s called ear hustling 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. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but 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.” Then, if they have a sense of humor, they might look at you and ask, “You like me or something,” or if they don’t, “What the fuck are you looking at?”

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 cross a line, and that’s unwritten rule #2.

Unwritten Rule #3, Don’t disrupt the order of the TV or weight room.

The Unwritten Rules of Prison | Noah Bergland

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, state, city, 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 then they leave you their spot.

You could pay money to get a TV spot faster, but be careful who you buy it from because prison is full of shady individuals. Also, if you’re buying a chair from someone who is leaving prison, make sure it’s legit because you might not be the only person they sold it to, which will create some major conflict.

Once you have a spot, I don’t recommend changing the TV unless you are sure nobody is watching it. It is good to wait for shows and movies to end before you try to change the channel, 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 claimed these spots. So 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, but don’t be shocked if someone shows up a month later, claiming they’ve been coming at this time for years.

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. But, 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. 

The inmate population is generally not the most responsible people, but it’s a must to stay on top of your obligations. Whether you gamble, smoke, drink, or hit 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. 

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 in front of anyone, even if you are permitted by another inmate, because the people behind them may not feel the same way.

Unwritten Rule #6, Knock before you enter.

The Unwritten Rules of Prison | Noah Bergland

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 something personal is going on: taking a poop or something sexual, and the last thing you want to do is walk into that.

Unwritten Rule #7, Practice good hygiene.

The Unwritten Rules of Prison | Noah Bergland

The saying in prison is, we are all grown men, and we shouldn’t have to tell each other to take a shower, but sometimes we do. So, for example, I had to tell one of my cellmates that he either had to start taking showers every day or find another bunk.

He found another bunk the next day.

If you don’t regularly wash after work or after a workout and wash your hands after using the restroom, 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.

The Unwritten Rules of Prison | Noah Bergland

Another leading reason for an altercation in prison is moving somebody’s stuff. This goes for food items, magazines, books, artwork, or laundry. 

If you didn’t put it there, leave it alone. Because messing with other inmates’ stuff will cause you problems throughout your prison stay.

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. This means being aware when entering your room if someone is sleeping; for example, don’t walk in and immediately turn on the light without looking around.

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 penitentiaries to the camps, the repercussions become less severe. Still, it’s always a good idea to ask someone before you move in out of respect. 

When you first get to a facility, you are assigned a bunk number, and usually, you cannot control this move. Once established somewhere, find a bunk you want to move into, and ask the bunkmate, an individual already living there, before requesting the move. 

If the bunk is entirely open, with nobody in either bed, 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 to stop cross contaminations. So unless you want urine and fecal matter in your room and everyone to laugh at you, use the right broom and mop.

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!)

The Unwritten Rules of Prison | Noah Bergland

  • It is common practice to fight with your steel toes on because it’s believed to give you a competitive advantage. 
  • Some inmates will only sleep on a top bunk because it is harder for someone to jump or assault them than if they were sleeping on a lower bunk.
  • Stick to your race. The penitentiaries and mediums are highly segregated, and everybody is divided into groups or gangs. Your race and home state determine which group or gang you belong to; Crypts, Bloods, Southsiders, Latin Kings, Dirty White Boys, etc.
  • 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. If something or someone pops off, they are ready to get involved (fight) on short notice.
  • Also, people leave one leg out of their pants leg when sitting on the toilet; they are always ready to defend themselves. Hence the phrase “Getting caught with your pants down.”
  • No naps. You can’t defend yourself while you are sleeping. You might ask yourself, why are people attacking you? Everybody is affiliated with a group or gang at higher-level institutions, and just because you didn’t do something to piss off another gang doesn’t mean one of your homeboys didn’t.

Related Posts:

Racism… In and Out of Prison | Noah Bergland

Prison Terminology Dictionary | Noah Bergland


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1 year ago

Thanks for posting this. You add me ideas about life in prison. Great article, indeed!

1 year ago
Reply to  JailAid

Thank you for reading! And taking to time to try to understand what life in prison is like.

7 months ago

You are welcome, Brigette! I am happy to find your article.

1 year ago

This article is amazing. It may be an eye-opener to everybody, especially those who do not understand prisoners. Life will be more peaceful if we understand each other. This is because we do not have the same battle in life.

1 year ago
Reply to  GlobalTel

We agree! Being open-minded to try and understand others makes such a difference.

7 months ago

Definitely! I am happy that we have the same thought.