Cell Survivor 

A former inmate breaks down the myths and realities of prision life

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It was my first night in the U.S. Penitentiary at Lompoc, Calif. Christened “The New Rock” back in the 1930s after the closure of the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz, only the baddest of the bad were sent here. Kidnappers, murderers, thieves, gangsters and mafia men by the dozen have called this concrete structure “home.” I was assigned to Cell Block L, and in less than an hour, was offered a hit of heroin and a syringe of methamphetamine. I also learned that an alcohol brewery was producing 5 gallons of homemade wine inside my new cellmate’s locker. After a lengthy explanation that I was a recovering addict and not a snitch or sex offender, my refusal to get high was accepted and my new life began.

The next morning, cell doors slid open and I stood on the second tier of a three-tier structure. Below and above were the rows of cells the privileged few call home. Spanning between the second floors are six speaker-less TVs welded in metal cages to stand as babysitters to 180 convicts. The men emerge, don their radios, and tune in to the TV’s FM broadcasts. Home sweet home.

Becoming a prisoner for the first time is a traumatic event. The foreign sights, smells, sounds and feelings left me physically ill. Emotionally, I felt some degree of fear, anger, depression, sadness, remorse, guilt and an overall sense of hopelessness. Combined with being thrown in cages alongside people who have reputations for being the devil’s spawn, the experience was nothing less than a nightmare. All around me, inmates commonly were faced with divorce, abandonment by friends, impounded cars, children in custody of state agencies, loss of personal possessions and financial chaos.

I begin to observe a more disturbing reality. The United States is an Equal Opportunity Incarcerator. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Russians, islanders, Cubans, Iraqis and Asians, no one segment of humanity is immune from our prisons. Paraplegic inmates in wheelchairs roll down hallways, blind inmates weave through the crowd, 80-year-old men shuffle along and mumble incoherently, deaf inmates and other mute inmates communicate as best they can as we traipse into a massive dining area for breakfast.

Then there are my keepers. A famous orator once stated, “To witness the dregs of society, go to your local prison … and watch the changing of the guard.” Guards posture like proud mules, braying to “Tuck in your shirts! Remove your glasses! Keep your f—king hands out of your pockets!” When you look in their direction, you give a thousand-yard stare over their shoulder to acknowledge listening, but avoid looking in their eyes, lest you accidentally challenge them. It’s a man thing.

And then the unmistakable sounds of fists pounding on flesh cracks the air. I turn around and size up the situation: two convicts, same skin color, and no knives. It’s a sixth sense you develop to evaluate the seriousness of the event. Had there been three inmates, that’s a riot or a gang hit; different skin colors, that’s a racial issue; knives or weapons, that’s a planned hit. Since it’s one-on-one, obviously some disrespect has occurred and the two convicts are handling it in the acceptable caveman fashion.

An officer “hits the deuces”—a button on his hand-held radio—which summons a hundred guards like ants to a picnic. The brawl is in the hallway so the dining room doors are locked, lest more inmates decide the fighters are getting the short-end of the flashlights and try to join in the melee. The disruption is quickly suppressed and normal activity resumes. After all that blood and violence, I just couldn’t wait to eat.

I am one of 14 million Americans each year who experience being arrested and convicted, and one of the 2.5 million incarcerated in prison. At age 20, I was a late bloomer. I started my illustrious criminal career in Phoenix. After a fight with my future wife, I earned a probation violation and a one-year sentence in the jail of Joe Arpaio, the Toughest Sheriff in America, in “Tent City,” Maricopa County, Ariz. After being released, I took a two-year sabbatical from crime and returned to the northern part of the state and, eventually, continued my undergraduate studies in anti-social immorality. I was arrested for possessing marijuana; that act alone bought me a five-year stint in the Arizona Department of Corrections. After release, I interned for an additional year as a parole violator and, during a battle with an addiction to methamphetamine, was arrested for passing counterfeit treasury notes and pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm. That crime earned me 46 months in federal prison, where I’ve gone on to complete my Ph.D. in misbehavioral science. I’ve been incarcerated nine of the past 13 years. However, I have been offered a new lease on life, and in so doing, expose you to the myths and realities of prison life.

After arrest and during incarceration, you learn that to survive there are hundreds of rules to follow, not jailhouse rules, but population rules. The rules don’t differ greatly from laws on the street, with one exception: Your life depends on abiding by them. In an environment where man is reduced to his animal core, violence, tribal communities, and basic laws of survival reign supreme. According to the standards of our society, the rules are callous, brutal and uncivilized. However, these unwritten rules have been enacted by millions of men and women—from different cultures—in order to peacefully coexist.

Some people who have never experienced imprisonment believe these rules to be “politically incorrect.” Those naive opinions don’t dictate if or when a piece of metal is shoved through your kidney in retribution for disrespecting a common rule. Therefore, you have no choice in living by any other set of rules.

In order to fully understand the environment, I had to determine the issues that were besieging me every step of the way. I discovered there were three types of problems or issues that occurred inside prisons. The first were racial issues, next came personal issues and, third, institutional issues.

A racial issue is, quite simply, any problem involving two different races. A racial issue is the most dangerous of all problems, as the entire prison population becomes involved in its resolution. For example, if two blacks beat up or stab a Hispanic, that is a racial issue and is dealt with on a racial level. It will result in a race riot. If the attack was allowed by the Hispanic’s hierarchy, that was a planned hit and was preapproved. It’s understood that each race takes out its own trash to avoid racial riots. If a child molester or rapist arrives in the population or is exposed through the media, members of his race is responsible for removing him from the general population. No self-respecting father—regardless of nationality—will allow a predator to exist among the inmates.

A personal issue is any problem between two prisoners of the same race. The resolution of personal issues can range anywhere from an apology, to a beating, or even death.

An institutional issue is arguably the least serious of an inmate’s problems, as the punishment for breaking a rule is resolved in a civilized manner or through a disciplinary system. The inmate’s life is not in jeopardy if he violates an institutional rule, unless he commits a capital offense.

I soon discovered that the No. 1 rule of prison is respect. It was amazing how deadly, yet polite, prison can be. If a person bumps into you, expect an immediate “Excuse me.” If you bump into someone, you are required to apologize, else a personal issue is born. Conversations are never interrupted. Rude behavior is not acceptable. No burping or blowing your nose in the dining area is allowed. Good personal hygiene is a must and is enforced by every racial group, with few exceptions. Respecting yourself and others around you will afford you the same treatment in return. Table manners are required, and if you don’t know any, you will be taught. It’s just not healthy to argue with a 300-pound, tattoo-clad tablemate.

There are two words every convict immediately learns to remove from his vocabulary: “Punk” and “Bitch.” However cute or funny they sound rolling off the lips of a favorite comic or movie star, calling someone your homosexual slave is an instant declaration of war and invitation to a fight, your beating or your own murder. These two terms are not used in the same way as they are in the free world. It can be elementary school name-calling on a deadly level.

As I lived in prison, one fact became clear. Each convict must be prepared to show his arrest sheets, paperwork, or documents to prove what his crime was. If they happen to be a confidential informant, child molester, or rapist, they will be found out, physically hurt, and removed from the population. God help inmates if the jail refuses to issue these papers or restricts possession of them. Many innocent men are suspected of being a snitch or of sex crimes and are unable to prove to the prison population that they are not. This leaves a person with numerous contusions about the face and they survive only if they are lucky. Because there are so many confidential informants and sex offenders, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) does not allow Pre-Sentence Reports to be in a convict’s possession. Inmates throughout the BOP suffer boot-parties on an alarming scale because of this “trick bag.” Luckily for me, I stand rather tall and don’t “look” like a sex offender (whatever they look like) and have not been bothered.

As I walked across prison yards, I soon learned that any fast movements or sudden shifts in body language indicates a disturbance, usually a fight or stabbing. Therefore, no fast movements or horseplay is allowed and inmates of my own race will correct me if I get out of hand. Which brings me to the next rule.

The No. 2 rule of prison is you must become a racist. Racism is not supremacy. Racism in prisons and jails across America is not a problem—it is a solution. If a convict publicly supports a supremacist ideology, inmates of his own race will correct his opinion to avoid a racial conflict. Survival in prison depends on, first, knowing the difference between a racist and a supremacist; second, accepting that you are from a specific race of people; and third, being proud of your lineage.

When humans are locked behind concrete walls they digress into separatist tribes. I had to choose the tribe that resembled me physically, not philosophically. Acceptance is crucial. If I looked white, I must be white. If I looked Mandarin, I must be Mandarin. I was raised to be nonjudgmental but have had to reserve that philosophy for another time. If I appeared to deviate in loyalty to my race, or if I showed any weakness and didn’t discard my street beliefs, I would be doomed to a prison term of horrible brutality, not only from my resembled tribe, but also by the race I rejected. In prison there is no fence sitting. If I disagreed with this, I would have been abruptly dealt with.

The separation of races is for safety. When tension is high behind locked gates, I couldn’t depend on the boys in blue to come and rescue me if something went awry. The only men I could rely on for safety was my chosen tribe. If a racial riot erupts and my position is not clear in the minds of those around me, one of the first casualties would be me. My group’s protection during a conflict was my best chance of surviving it. Being in the middle of three race riots, the importance of this ideology could not have been more clearly proven.

When street life mixes with prison life, an incarcerated person will have problems. I watched several interracial family members visit with an inmate who claimed to be from a particular country. He lied to fit in. After the visitors left the institution, the inmate was beaten senseless by his chosen tribe, which leads to the third rule.

The third rule of prison is if you fight, you fight to survive—not for sport. Prison is brutal. There are beatings, stabbings, poisonings and murders throughout institutions in the United States. It is a consequence of the environment. If I am confronted in a jail setting, there is no time to discuss why I’m being attacked or any other reasons behind the assault. If it is obvious my opponent wants to fight, I take him by surprise and fight to survive. There are no rules such as, “You can’t sucker punch,” or “Let’s take this to an out-of-the-way place and settle it like men.” All of that gibberish is a distraction, a waste of time, and will only get me hurt. It is not a boxing match and there is no referee to determine the winner. The winner is he who stands at the end of the battle. A few lumps on my head and a paint job on my eyes is far better than what could happen if I didn’t immediately fight—a boot party from my own people. The rule is to get down, get dirty and get done. Fights happen a lot, however, there are circumstances that always lead up to them, such as violating the next three rules.

The fourth, fifth and sixth rules of prison are: stay away from drugs, don’t gamble and don’t borrow or loan anything. There are more drugs in prison, and they are more accessible, than on the streets. They are delivered straight to your cell. Even with the best efforts of teams of guards, scores of FBI agents and a broken criminal-justice system, the illicit drug trade is stronger than ever inside the micro-world of prisons. With billion dollar budgets, even the government can’t bend or break the will of 1,500 inmates who desire to get drunk, high or otherwise intoxicated.

Drugs in prison are more expensive. A gram of heroin or speed on the street costs about $100. In prison it sells for over $1,000. Having a drug habit without a job is an invitation to an execution for not paying a drug debt. Over 60 percent of all issues in prison are drug related. The drug user is scammed with low quality, cut drugs. Dealing with professional con men and convicts, the drugs will not weigh what is expected and the quality will be poor, putting the user in a position to defend himself against an obvious slight.

The drug user endangers his family outside. Doing street-to-street transactions to pay for a habit leaves the user’s family open to unscrupulous people collecting drug money. Who will protect the family if the bill is not paid? Who will protect the user if the family doesn’t pay? Who will protect the family if the drug dealer wants more money?

The drug user endangers himself. Exposure to incurable diseases is a reality that is ignored by thousands of inmates every day. Almost all prison drugs are smuggled into the institutions by way of vagina, rectum or mouth. These paths leave the intravenous drug user exposed to infectious, horribly painful diseases such as HIV, AIDS, hepatitis A, B, C, D, and now hepatitis E. Contracting the hepatitis virus often progresses to cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. If the user has the disease for an extended period of time, the result is liver failure and death.

The drug user endangers more of his freedom. Internal possession laws have been enacted and are enforced in some institutions. Federal laws are in effect that could put the user behind bars for an extended amount of time, as much as 20 additional years.

The side betting and gambling that occurs in prison has the same chance of being controlled as the illegal flow of drugs does. If there is anything two men can gamble on, they will gamble. Gambling leaves one of the inmates open to getting ripped off, in debt, or in danger of being assaulted. Living in a fish tank with a bunch of sharks, I expected no less. I avoided gambling my entire time in prison.

Borrowing or loaning personal items leaves one open to becoming a victim. It’s called a “Trick Bag.” You never know what might develop. Across America inmates thrive behind bars by supplying commissary items through “inmate stores.” If you borrow a candy bar, you typically owe the store two candy bars. Getting credit in jail is a bad position to be in. Many fights and stabbings occur because of nonpayment of store bills. With any items of value, whether stamps, paper or pens, men will always barter, trade and sell them.

An important rule that one learns is not to become pals with the prison staff. I showed them the respect they afforded me but I had to beware: The prison population had eyes, ears, paranoid minds … and knives. If anyone thought I was having lengthy discussions with staff, I would be in danger from all the races. My solution to this problem—because I had times where I needed to speak to staff—was to have another convict present during any discussions.

I learned another lesson. After a man was beaten with combination locks I asked why. “He was a jailhouse thief ... on the same level as child molesters and rapists.” Don’t steal from anyone in jail. It’s always nice to learn these little details.

You’re going to be raped in prison!” Despite the best efforts of Hollywood writers promoting the belief that every convicted male falls victim to a deviant, raging bull-queer, the reality is that homosexuality in male prisons is virtually nonexistent. Are there homosexuals in prison? Yes. In some prisons homosexuals are not tolerated; in others, they are allowed to walk the prison yards only by the grace of the population. A man I’ll call Danny has been locked up for over 22 years for a kidnapping and murder. He is an openly gay male (his words). Even Danny refuses to engage in any form of copulation due to the physical reprisals that will befall him. He is allowed to live among others only because he refuses to participate in his lifestyle. It is his rule for survival. On the other extreme, there was a pre-operative transvestite named Susie. Susie had long, flowing hair, tattooed eyebrows. When she/he walked across a prison compound, even the heads of hardened criminals turned—until they realized what Susie was. Susie had no scruples and didn’t care about her/his safety. Susie pulled several inmates from the closet. She/he was allowed to exist only until fights erupted over her/him.

Practicing homosexuality while in prison is a disruptive behavior that results in fights and killings. It leaves in its wake victims and victimizers; therefore, the populace makes rules for and against its existence. Each prison yard has its individual code.

Heterosexual male convicts and female convicts don’t copulate—in any way—with the same sex. Period. When men are deprived of the touch of a woman, they become mono-sexual and resign themselves to a solitary lifestyle. After years without female companionship, many men are reluctant to approach any woman and are emphatic about staying completely away from them. Some men feel that having women working in prisons is cruel and unusual punishment, while others have expressed “... thoughts of raping women,” images that never before entered their minds were it not for the deprivation of a healthy sexual relationship and the specific charms of a female.

Women who have endured incarceration have said in interviews that more than 90 percent of them participate in homosexual activities. “Gay for the stay” is one convict’s perception. The women consider themselves bisexual and, when they leave prison, return to their husbands and boyfriends. As another woman stated, “What happens in prison, stays in prison. ...”

Heterosexual female convicts are faced with trying circumstances. They are often extorted for sexual favors by male guards. Many end up pregnant and are shipped off to other institutions. If the male staff member is identified, he is usually relocated to a different facility. Today there are laws in place that prohibit and criminalize this behavior, but victimization continues.

For sexual gratification, heterosexual women must also resort to a mono-sexual lifestyle. The prison showers are common areas for these solitary acts. Privacy is virtually impossible, so modesty seems not to be an issue. Thirsting for the charms of a man, some women resort to manufacturing their own sexual aids. Michelle, from the BOP’s women’s facility in Dublin, Calif., states, “We made sex toys from rubber gloves and stuffed them with socks to [masturbate] with … Homosexuals [women] improved the toy by [sewing] it to a bra and used it as a strap-on with each other.” (I had to pause the interview to get a clear mental picture.) Cris, another woman from Dublin, states, “... Girls took bars of soap, molded them to resemble a penis and slipped a latex glove over them.” The consequence for getting caught in any sexual act is being transferred to Tent City Durango Jail in Arizona.

As for prison rape, I’ve traveled in and out of minimum-, medium- and maximum-security prisons for nine years and not one rape occurred on those compounds. That is not to say it doesn’t take place, just not as frequently as some have professed and others had hoped.

If a prison rape by a known sexual predator does occur, prison officials are held accountable for allowing the incident to take place. Prisons have been forced to classify each inmate according to their crimes and separate the sexual predators, sex offenders and their ilk from a population of incarcerated fathers, else the predator is found with numerous knives sticking from his body. On the other hand, sex-play and sexual harassment runs rampant throughout every jail system as a test of machismo, character and strength. There isn’t usually a physical touching, just a barrage of insults and vulgarities exchanged as the new “fish” is either accepted in his jailhouse pod, dorm or prison clique, or rejected. If a touching does occur and the man being touched doesn’t object, that’s homosexuality. If he does object, that’s a fight, and the man establishes a level of respect for his reaction.

The worst attribute of prison is the prison staff. The staff is a lifeline, a connection to all things important. They have total control over mail, phones and visitations with loved ones. Having that unique position, especially if the staff is uneducated or untrained, can be a horrific experience for any convict. Power trips and confusion are common personality defects of staff. Some prisons suffer from staff infections—a condition where the captors victimize the population entrusted to their care. They find excuses for mistreatment and then justify it with blanket statements to inmates, such as, “... if you don’t like what’s going on, don’t come to jail.” However clever this comment sounds, it fails to address any problems, adding to their captives’ misery.

There is a popular myth that jail and prison is free to inmates. What is the price of freedom? Nothing in jail is free.

Culture shock. Dealing with people from other races, nationalities and religions has been the most difficult challenge to endure. Some foreigners have been raised in cardboard houses with dirt floors with no inside plumbing. They know nothing of personal hygiene, of regular bathing, of brushing teeth, or of other habits that I’ve grown to accept as normal.

Prisons today have changed dramatically from those of the past. A U.S. penitentiary is still the most dangerous of them all. Most men have no hope. They are permanently separated from families, from life, and have nothing to live for. Ill-treatment and unfair sentences are alarmingly common. With an attitude of “locking prisoners up and throwing away the key,” one begins to question the real motives behind lengthy incarcerations. Are we actually promoting crime by being unjust and handing out these life sentences for property or financial crimes? Who profits from it? Who are the real losers? More than 90 percent of the incarcerated men and women will one day return to be our co-workers and our children’s neighbors. Seeing the system from the belly of the beast, one can only hope for better alternatives to America’s human warehouses.

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About The Author

John Bowers

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