Welcome To Prison!

“I’d rather be tried by twelve than carried by six.” These are words often uttered by proponents of using a firearm (or other weapon) for self-defense. I’m certainly a strong self-defense advocate, carrying a firearm every day. However, my concerns are less on the physical aspects of defending myself, but more so on the aftermath. In particular, the legal system and the possibility of time spent in prison.

Any time that we have to use physical force, we can be assured of dealing with law enforcement, and potentially, the court system. Any time that we become involved in the court system, we are in jeopardy of facing legal consequences. Regardless of how in the right we were, or how much we believe in our cause, that jeopardy still exists.

I have looked at case files of inmates who defended themselves, and more than once, I could not believe that the man in front of me was in prison for having defended himself in a way that was apparently completely legal. And yet, here he was — in prison.

What’s it Like in Prison?

For those who believe going to prison is better than being dead, let me introduce you to the prison system. For nearly 29 years, I worked in a state correctional system, having served in two of the largest (and most violent) prisons in my state. This is a very general, crash course, and by no means all-encompassing.

A view of the prison, gun towers can be seen.
A view of the prison, gun towers can be seen.

First, you’re likely to sit for about a year in a county prison awaiting trial after your arrest. “But I’m innocent!” you protest. Well…yeah. The System is filled with innocent people. Remember the Shawshank Redemption? “Everybody in here is innocent, haven’t you heard?” That movie has so many truths in comparison to how things really run, it’s scary! It is a masterfully told story that rings true in so many ways and is one of the times that Hollywood actually hit the nail on the head.

So you go to trial. Again, the Shawshank comes into play. ”What are you in for?” your cellie asks. You pause thoughtfully for a moment, before replying, “Lawyer fucked me!”

Prison Accommodations

You find yourself on a cell block, not knowing anyone. Everything is noisy in prison. At times, you can barely hear yourself think. Yelling and screaming are the order of the day in many cases. You have nothing aside from the new inmate uniform that is two sizes too large for you and a few basic items. Everyone is a stranger and no one is very friendly. Except for that one guy who offered to loan you some items from the commissary. Here’s a tip: do not accept anything from anyone for any reason. Because you will owe more than what you’ve been given. Much more.

Inside of a prison cell. 6x12 feet, complete with sink and toilet. Often, two Inmates were housed in this area.
Inside of a cell. 6×12 feet, complete with sink and toilet. Often, two Inmates were housed in this area.
An inmate dining hall, attached to the end of a cell block.
An inmate dining hall, attached to the end of a cell block.
prison exercise yard
The main exercise yard, complete with a baseball diamond, football field, track, and weight piles (which were nicknamed “Muscle Beach”).

The prison where I worked had cell blocks that were 200 yards long and had close to 400 cells per unit. The number of inmates could be as high as 750 per cell block. Often, four officers and one sergeant ran such a housing unit. That’s not many staff for so many inmates; five against 750. The total prison population there was approximately 4,000.

We referred to the prison as “The Fort.” It was surrounded by a 35-foot tall wall and nine gun towers. Approximately 750 corrections officers were employed there, with staff totaling about 1,400. The prison had a dispensary and infirmary, a chapel, field house, auditorium, commissary, wastewater treatment plant, mental health unit, restricted housing units (RHU, or “The Hole”), and drug treatment programs.

Prison gun tower
The gun tower that overlooked “Muscle Beach.”

There was a CERT Team (Corrections Emergency Response Team, or “SWAT”), A Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT, an in-house fire department), Hostage Negotiation Team (HNT), Hostage Rescue Team (HRT), and
Tactical Rifle Specialists (Snipers). I was a sniper and also belonged to CERT and FERT. Inmates could learn trades, including plumbing, electrical, HVAC, electronics, woodworking, and others. There was a school where they could earn a GED and take college courses.

Basically, everything that you’d find in a small town could be found in the prison. It was largely self-sufficient, although serious medical issues such as wounds had to be treated at an outside hospital. And there were many wounds.

Crime and Violence Inside a Prison

As I mentioned, violence is a daily facet of prison life. Inside the Fort, we responded to every sort of crime that police responded to, except traffic accidents. Domestic disputes, rapes, murders, arsons, assaults, robberies…you name it, it happened in that place.

Stabbings and slashings happen regularly, as do beatings. I’ve been to crime scenes where there was blood splattered all over the walls and floor, sometimes in thick puddles. I’ve seen people bleed out from stab wounds, gasping for breath as they died. Witnessed bodies hanging in cells from suicides.

I’ve known true evil, the likes of which can’t be portrayed in any movie. People who truly enjoyed harming others more than anything in the world. It was a collection point for these types of monsters. Serial killers, hitmen, even cannibals. All mixed in with other crimes such as forgers who wrote bad checks and guys locked up for DUI. It was a giant mixing bowl in that respect; 4,000 inmates whose crimes ranged from writing bad checks up to those who hunted, killed, and ate other humans.

The results of a prison lockdown. Inmates would throw tons of garbage out of their cells.
The results of a lockdown. Inmates would throw tons of garbage out of their cells.

If you end up as an inmate in prison, it is very likely that someone will proposition you for sex. Yes, homosexuality in prison is really as rampant as people on the outside hear about. And worse. It is a vicious cycle that causes endless problems on the inside, often leading to domestic disputes among lovers.

Thieves are dealt with harshly on the inside, as thievery is a cardinal sin amongst inmates. Violent retribution is swift.

Gangs rule the drug and prostitution rings and are responsible for much of the violence in correctional facilities. Beware of joining a gang; they typically do not allow members of the gang to exit without violence. Do not expect any mercy from these guys.

Prison Weapons

Over the years, I’ve seen a myriad of improvised weapons. The creativity displayed by inmates has been staggering, in that seemingly harmless objects can be turned into deadly weapons. A padlock placed into a sock (lock-in-a-sock) is turned into a mace. Break the head off of a toothbrush and sharpen the end of the handle on the concrete floor or wall and you have a little shank. Break the metal handle off of a 5-gallon bucket and sharpen it on concrete, wrap the handle in some tape, and you’ve got a shank that will deliver a nasty puncture. Newspaper that is wetted and shaped into a spear will dry and harden, and can inflict nasty punctures. Cling wrap can be heated with a match, and as it melts, can be shaped into a pointy knife and then hardened as it cools. A ballpoint pen can be turned into a small dart gun, the shaft of the pen being sharpened and launched using the spring of the pen. The list goes on endlessly.

What’s it Like for Corrections Officers?

Much of the time was spent in sheer boredom, a mind-numbing state that made you want to scream from the monotony of it all. This was punctuated by those aforementioned moments of terror.

It was our job to go into that place, basically agreeing to be a hostage for the shift, and attempt to keep the peace. In the early days, there were fights and stabbings pretty much every day. I wasn’t there a month before I found myself involved in my first stabbing in which the inmate standing next to me was attacked and stabbed. Then the stabber tried to get me with the knife. I’d done nothing to warrant being attacked other than wearing the uniform that I did. It would not be the last time that someone tried to kill me.

Let’s kill two birds with one stone while I’m at it. If you are considering a career in Corrections, I don’t recommend it. At all. Not even a little bit!

Why? It has just about the highest divorce rate of any profession known to man. The average life expectancy of a corrections employee is just 57 years of age. That’s about 20 years less than an average citizen! The suicide rate is through the roof, and I’ve lost count of the number of my coworkers who have killed themselves. It most definitely numbers several dozen over the years.

Many of my coworkers have been stabbed and beaten. One was murdered on duty not far from a post where I worked for years, he was a good friend of mine. I’ve been in more fights than I can count and needed to go to the hospital a number of times for treatment from those fights. One thing is for certain: whether you are an inmate or staff member, you will be tested — psychologically and physically.

I’ve already mentioned my friend who was killed in the line of duty, beaten to death in an inmate exercise yard that had no other staff assigned to it and no cameras to oversee what was happening. He was out there alone, with no backup. You know who was interviewed to investigate his death by management? The inmates who were out there in the yard with him. Know what they said? That the officer tripped and fell. And that is what management believed; he fell, and that is how he was beaten to death.

Many of my coworkers were raging alcoholics. Some turned to drug use. Sex on both sides of the fence was rampant. People in an unbelievably stressful environment attempt to cope in many different ways, and unfortunately, most of those coping mechanisms are unhealthy.

A friend of mine (who has also since passed away) was a combat veteran of the US Army Rangers in Viet Nam. He was highly decorated and was wounded in combat. He told me that working in the prison was, cumulatively, far more stressful than combat in Viet Nam. I want the reader to ponder that for a time. I certainly have, and have meditated on it over the years. Now I knew this man for many years, and he was as solid as they come. Trustworthy, caring, and the type of guy you wanted to have with you when the fertilizer hit the oscillating unit.

In the midst of all of this, you go home each day and try to pretend that you are still normal. But you have left normal so far in the rearview mirror that you’re certain you will never again meet up with it. How could I go home and, when my family asked how my day was, describe a scene where I watched an inmate cut off his own testicles with a razor knife and then run down the cell block with blood pouring from his groin? Or the day that I watched an inmate mix peanut butter with feces, make small figurines with this concoction, and then eat it? Then there was the day that my friend and fellow officer was beaten and stabbed horribly, and I saw him wheeled off a cell block on a gurney. He had blood pouring from his mouth, nose, and ears. We thought he might die, but after several hundred stitches, he managed to recover.

These are things that will not win you points at the dinner table if you choose to expound upon them with beloved family members. Normal people cannot grasp such events (events which, incidentally, did happen). And so, when asked how the day went, I often would hint that it was a hectic one. Or I might shake my head. Occasionally, I wouldn’t say anything, except for the tears that would roll from my eyes because I just couldn’t put any of it into words.

Are you thinking about entering Corrections? Don’t do it. Just stop it.

The main corridor of SCI was one-quarter of a mile long.
The main corridor of the prison was one-quarter of a mile long.

Seriously, You Don’t Want to Go to Prison

Personally, after 29 years of this joyous environment, I’d really rather not live there. I’ve had enough. Think long and hard before you use any sort of force, and if at all possible, avoid using force!

Would I rather be tried by twelve than carried by six? Yeah. Most people don’t want to die. But I’ll tell you what…think very carefully about the amount of force you use. If you can get away without using any, do that.

In no way, shape, or form do you want to go to prison. It is worse than you can possibly imagine.

Jim Davis: Read more of his articles.

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Jim Davis

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities.


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4 thoughts on “Welcome To Prison!

  • July 23, 2020 at 10:56 pm
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    This was a SOBERING reminder to all of us…
    Thank you Mr. Davis.

    Reply
  • July 15, 2020 at 7:32 pm
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    Huh. Someone at work today commented that the local city won’t allow criminals to remain in the local lockup for more than 3 hours due to fears of Covid and dismissed hundreds of warrants for “minor” offenses like when his girlfriend was robbed at gunpoint. All five of the suspects were arrested, all five dismissed. He noted that they still plan on forcing his son to school for 8 hours a day six weeks from now. He wondered how criminals deserve better treatment than his son.

    I had no answer because there is none.

    Reply
  • July 13, 2020 at 5:09 pm
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    Inmates have been released on parole in my state for a long time. Over the past few years, they have been releasing violent sex offenders, including pedophiles. If you knew the behind the scenes story, you would be horrified. The system is in the criminals’ favor.

    Reply
  • July 11, 2020 at 3:50 pm
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    And now the political class deems it expedient to release prisoners simply because they can. So they let out thousands of prisoners on an unsuspecting population. Comments?

    Reply

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