Today was my second meeting with the psychotherapist. Instead of continuing with the evaluation, he introduced me to one of his former clients who was released from prison eight years ago for possession of child pornography. The therapist thought it would be helpful to talk to someone who’s been in my situation who could answer any questions I have about prison. It turned out to be very informative—albeit scary—and not quite the breeze my court-appointed counselor had described.
Tom was in his mid-50s and sported a beard and mustache. His protruding belly prevented the last button of his leather vest from buttoning. This, in addition to his rosy cheeks, gave him the appearance of a biker Santa.
“Prison is harsh and unjust,” he said as we sat down.
Before his incarceration, Tom was a high-level federal employee. The nightmare began when he went to his superior and threatened to go public with incriminating evidence against the department. A few days later, his office was searched, his computer seized, and he was charged with possession of child pornography. He was sentenced to four years in prison—one year for each image he allegedly possessed. Neither he nor his lawyer ever saw the evidence. He appealed his case as high as the supreme court on the grounds that the sentence was unjustifiably harsh and for the lack of physical evidence. The appeal was turned down.
“When you first get there, it doesn’t matter where it is, they’re gonna put you in the Shoe.” The SHU stands for Solitary Housing Unit, and it’s where inmates go when they misbehave. It’s also where they put newly arrived inmates as a sort of initiation. While in solitary confinement, inmates are allowed out only one hour per day and are constantly monitored with closed-circuit television cameras. The cells are usually windowless, the walls made of poured concrete which may be soundproofed, and the furniture is metal. Meals are handed to you through a “chuck hole” in the door.
“You’ll be in there for three, maybe five days,” Tom said. “And during that time, they’ll verbally assault you, strip you naked, harass and humiliate you. They won’t physically abuse you, but they’ll scare you bad enough to make you think that they can.”
As Tom described it, prison is a lot like high school—a very rough high school. He explained that the faster you learn the language and group dynamics, the safer and better off you are. For example, each ethnic group has their own microwave oven, and you don’t want to be caught using those that belong to the blacks or Hispanics. The same applies to the television sets.
Despite security, drugs and gangs are commonplace. The gangs will attempt to persuade you into joining them under the guise of protection, and drugs are smuggled into prison via bodily orifices.
“The best advice I can give you is don’t ever let yourself be alone. Always be near other people, and blend in.”
The most heinous crime, in the minds of most inmates, are those related to child pornography or child abuse. Drug dealers, rapists, and murderers would all agree they’re better than any pedophile. “If anyone asks what you’re in for, the best thing to do is tell them your case is ongoing, and your attorney has advised you not to speak to anyone.”
Tom’s first job when he arrived in prison was folding laundry. He would fold up to 1,500 sets of uniforms for four hours a day. Food service is considered the worst job. Inmates sometimes hand back their food trays with shit on them or they’ll piss in their cups. The better jobs pay up to $.35 an hour, and the money goes into your commissary account.
The commissary is a like a general store for prison. Once a week, inmates are allowed to purchase whatever items they’d like: candy bars, magazines, toiletries, socks, stamps, Ramen Noodles, shoes, televisions, etc. Some of the more clever inmates hoard stuff in their cell lockers as a sort of makeshift store and sell their goods for a profit, the advantage being that they’re open 24-hours.
Many prisoners stock up on pre-packaged food from the commissary, because the prison food is as awful as you’d imagine it to be—maybe worst. Meals are prepared by the inmates themselves and usually consist of carbs, fatty meats, greasy cabbage, and lots of chicken—usually undercooked.
Inmates are allotted four hours with visitors. Before and after you see your visitor, you must strip down, have your clothes shaken out, and submit to an oral and anal cavity search. While visiting, you can’t lean in towards the other person or whisper. All visits are monitored and video recorded.
The most frightening thing about prison is the constant threat of sexual assault.
“Never go into the showers alone.” During his incarceration, Tom described three instances when he was almost raped while alone in the restroom.
In 2001, Human Rights Watch published a report that estimated 140,000 inmates had been raped while incarcerated in the United States. Another report in 2003 estimated the number of rape victims to be around 43,800. The truth is that no estimate is accurate because many victims refuse to speak out for fear of retaliation and humiliation. What is known, however, is that young men are five times more likely to be attacked in prison, and victims are ten times more likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease.
“You’re gonna get hit on a lot when you’re in prison,” Tom said lowering his voice. “Especially because you’re young and attractive.” He warned that if I did choose to have sex, I should do it with someone who can protect me, because “when word gets out, there are gonna be plenty of others wanting your services, and some of them aren’t going to be tender lovers.”
Two months before his release from prison, his wife of 13 years decided she didn’t want to be associated with a sex offender and filed for divorce. When I asked how his experience in prison changed him, he told me the most difficult thing is learning to trust again.
His final advice: Nobody is your friend. Blend in and find ways to fill your time. It’s hard for awhile, but once you get used to it, you’ll find that it’s true what they say:
You don’t do the time. The time does you.