Welcome To Prison!

The front view of a prison cell block with 400 cells.
| July 11, 2020
Categories: Op-Eds

“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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  1. Chuck Cochran

    I didn’t work in Corrections, but I was the head RN on a Forensic Psych Unit for a number of years. You learn there are two types of people , those that just want to do their time and get back to their life, and those that need the door locked and the key thrown away. The latter are so screwed up, they’ll never be able to function in society. You’vd some that try to fake their Mental Health problems, and some that give you a better understanding of why some mammals cull their young. They’re not right in the head, and they’ll never be right in the head, no matter how much medication is pumped into them.
    .my son’s a CO, and is moving up in the ranks, but even he’ll say there are days he’s ready to take the pay cut and start as a jailer on the Sheriff’s Department to get his foot in the door.

  2. FL-Dad

    Typically, Corrections is not at the top of anybody’s list of glamorous careers. In North Carolina, where I worked in a “Close Custody” (mix of medium and high security prisoners) prior to joining the Army, Corrections Officer was (possibly still is?) the first rung on the “Welfare to Workfare” program. As a result, we did get a lot of people who were in it just for the money. At that time, overtime was paid in cash, with weekends being double, and holidays triple pay. As a brand new CO, one could make about $5K per month. After leaving the Army, I checked out what the pay was like– overtime was now “paid” in comp-time. I walked out because I can’t pay my bills with comp-time.

    During my short time as a CO, I saw and heard of COs being walked out in cuffs for getting romantically involved with prisoners. As I worked in a male-only facility, it was always the female COs falling for the mindgames the prisoners played on them. As was mentioned in the article, you NEVER EVER take anything offered or “gifted” from prisoners. This is the first step in being corrupted and blackmailed/extorted. You also never GIVE them anything, especially information about you, your family, fellow COs, or anyone close to you. I was routinely asked where I lived; I always responded “none of your business” because it wasn’t. Don’t even tell them what kind of car you drive, because they have friends on the outside who can pick your car out in the prison parking lot, take down your license plate and get your home address from that. There is a great book on this called “Games Criminals Play: How You Can Profit by Knowing Them” which was highly suggested reading when I was on the job.

    The author of the article is spot-on about not being a Corrections Officer. Where I worked, my “team” worked a Secure Housing Unit (SHU) of three pods that held 48 prisoners each (24 prisoners on each level of a two-story pod). One a “good” shift, we had one CO in the control room, and two Officers on the floor. Usually, it was one in the control room, and one on the floor. We had no weapons; just OC Pepper Spray. We had radios, one would work, one would transmit but not receive, and one would receive but not transmit. After line-up (roll call) we would literally run to the SHU to try to get the radio that both transmitted AND received. It was bad having a radio that didn’t transmit when you needed help. You just hoped someone else was paying attention and would come help you. Either way, the prisoners saw how vulnerable you were. As one of the shift captains said, “if they want to kill you, they will kill you.” But he was a good leader and also said “if your buddy is in there getting his ass beat, you better be in there too, getting your ass beat.” Trust amongst the COs was critical.

  3. Core

    If you served in the military, and have maintained your fitness you will fare well in jail until the DA drops your charges or your trial runs its course. Most criminals are career wife beaters, druggies, and drunks. The career organised criminals are the most capable: they will not mess with you unless you become a threat. The hardest part about sitting in jail waiting for the DA to drop charges due to self defence, is not harming other inmates as they discuss how they beat their girlfriends and wives and all the cowardly shit criminals brag about. Honestly listening to them brag about their crimes is the worst part.

  4. James

    From my 22 years in CDCR (now retired) I learned to keep an eye on the inmates – and a closer eye on the staff.

  5. Monte

    Good article, I did 28.5 years in SHU, and all levels 1-4, now honorably retired. I never thought anyone would have any interest whatsoever in this topic. Well done, I’m trying to forget that place and chapter in my life. Phuck the admin, politicians and the system. I miss my teammates, straight people will never get it.

  6. El Terrible'

    G. Gordon Liddy, who spent time in prison due to his involvement in Watergate, used to say that corrections officers were the dumbest people he’d ever met in his life. It is only anecdotal, but Mr. Davis’s writing and story telling skills delegitimize this generalization. Mr. Davis should write a book, prison stories sell, as disturbing and troubling as they are. I watched a documentary from the late 1990s about inmates in the Alabama State Pententiary, and how they basically recruited and coerced dudes to be their butt boys, and it haunts me even now. One aspect of the ongoing BLM-Antifa-Democrat Party Marxist Revolution against America is the release of criminals onto our streets. This is a common tactic of the Marxists over the last hundred years. Castro did it. Lenin did it. In the Bible it says that men who have rejected the sovereignty of Christ are under the control of Satan. American’s, who increasingly turn their back on God, need to know that Evil incarnate exists in the world and in the hearts of men.

    • James Davis

      I appreciate your kind words, sir. There certainly are some epically stupid people in our prisons (on both sides). But also some brilliant folks! Fear not, a book is in the works!

  7. Glock22

    This was a SOBERING reminder to all of us…
    Thank you Mr. Davis.

  8. Cadeyrn

    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.

  9. Jim Davis

    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.

  10. Cadeyrn

    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?


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