How to Win Guards and Influence Inmates

Stephen Danforth

(Editor's Note: This article by Mr. Danforth may be seen as illustrating one of the skills helpful in surviving in the prison environment — a wry sense of humor.  If there is any interest in reading more about the world of prisons, we recommend the book by Ted Conover, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, Random House, New York, reviewed in this issue.  It gives the viewpoint and experience of the guards.)

Anyone who has ever spent time incarcerated can confirm the importance of just getting along with others in this confined, and typically pressure-filled and tense environment.  The purpose of this essay is to impart to the reader, who is presumed to be about to embark on the great adventure of prison life, a few important pointers toward this goal.

Upon reflection, however, it occurs to this writer that the key to a safe, uneventful, unharassed, and relatively unthreatening stay in this proverbial place of perdition, and to avoiding major inconvenience, is not truly to be found by following affirmative directives or suggestions.  Instead, the key to these goals lies in adhering to certain simple and sound injunctions against foolish and foolhardy words and deeds.  To help the reader find this key, the writer has distilled his extensive corrections experience into a succinct set of such injunctions, in a 'Don't ...' format, that exemplify various core concepts of common sense.

Therefore, without further preface, here are some important 'don'ts' for the reader to observe in conducting his imprisoned lifestyle:

- Don't address the intake sergeant as "butt-breath", or "dogface", regardless of his oppressive halitosis or his dubious parentage.  Such bons mots are likely to cause him to place you where he — and very nearly everyone else — will have considerable difficulty hearing your snappy repartee.

- Don't try to pet the guard dog, whose name is "Ripper".  Ripper has a thing about inmate hands.  He's in therapy, but it's too early for him to be trusted alone with one.

- Don't misspell "ejumacayshun" when writing your kite to the Ejumacayshun Director, informing him that you "don't need no stinkin ejumacayshun".  The Ejumacayshun Director likes to hear from independent-minded inmates with a lotta airyudishun.

- Don't apply for any hobbycraft permits requiring use of large drills, electric power-hammers, saws for metal, or files.  Your next hobby will involve pencils and lots of empty wall space in your Segregation cell, and will keep you busy for years.

- Don't offer to develop a chemical dependency as an accommodation to chemical dependency therapists.  The offer will be deemed to be denial of your problem.

- Don't write letters to the editor of the prison newspaper decrying quarter-per-hour wages as slave labor, and urging a dictatorship of the proletariat.  Who are you trying to kid; we never had it so good.  Oh — hello, warden.  I didn't see you standing there....

- Don't grope your visiting girlfriend unless she has indicated in advance that she would find an intrusive body cavity search to be an exciting experience.  You would hate to find this out when she sends her Dear John letter to you enclosing a picture of her with her new boyfriend, the prison guard.

- Don't suggest to the inmate cooks any creative, alternative applications for over-toasted waffles, or compliment them about their thoughtful aging of tossed salad ingredients.  Believe me, you couldn't take any more creativity.

- Don't offer a ham sandwich to your neighbor, the devout Muslim, unless you want to be able to relate to the Salman Rushdie experience.

- Don't volunteer to the head of the local Chicano gang to sit at one of their chow hall tables in the interest of introducing them to a little culture.  They will reciprocate with an introduction to Mexican partying, a cultural event of their own, and you will get to be the guest piñata.

- Don't wish the Aryans on your tier a Happy Hanukkah.  They will reciprocate by sending their caroling committee around to wish you a Merry Kristallnacht.

- Don't accept any invitations to a "blanket party" to be held in your honor.  They won't give you any Tupperware; and the party will not improve your looks.

- Don't mention to the inmate in the next shower stall that you believe in turning the other cheek, or say anything to him about taking anything like a man.  He may decide to take you up on it.

- Don't ask canteen workers if they stock the extra-large size bottle of baby oil, unless you wish to hear some unsolicited offers to help you put it to uses you hadn't planned.

- Don't place any special orders for books about the art of lock-picking, cliff scaling, or escape artistry.  Your urge to broaden your horizons will not be appreciated.

- Don't consume any prescriptions that you saw the foreign physician write for you from right to left.  You could wind up talking backwards.

- Don't complain about your inexplicable current bout with constipation while being strip-searched following a visit.  Your former girlfriend's new boyfriend, the guard, may undertake to help you resolve your problem.  But hey — you will be in the biffy in a jiffy.

- Don't smile when passing the pull-happy dentist in the hallway.  He will ask a passing guard for your name.

- Don't ask the prison librarian to buy a subscription to Forbidden Fetish Monthly.  He may start dressing oddly.

- Don't request that the visiting Christian folksingers play "Sympathy for the Devil", unless you feel the need for an impromptu exorcism.

- Don't ask sex offender education program staff for any 'how-to' "pointers".  They have no sense of humor.

- Don't suggest to the Recreation Lieutenant that pole vaulting, or hang-gliding equipment would be useful additions to the prison's recreational collection.  In declining, he may assist you into a particularly difficult Yoga position; you may have more difficulty getting out of that position by yourself.

- Don't insult the current batter in any softball game on the yard, or say anything derogatory about any horseshoe player within pitching range.  Teeth are good; concussions are bad.

- Don't expose any portion of your frontal anatomy to the taser-equipped, lesbian guard as she makes her cell-rounds, in the hope that she will be inspired to change her sexual orientation.  She will use that equipment in a reciprocal attempt to inspire you to change yours.

- Don't file a federal prisoners' rights lawsuit to insist on your inalienable right under your freshly-founded religion to 'Surf 'n' Turf' every Friday for supper.  The state will respond with the alternative ritual of the bread-and-water communion.

- Don't tell your prospective, arch-feminist, supervised release agent that you're tired of halfway houses, and then ask her if she does not know any all-the-way houses instead.  She will remind you that 'halfway house' stands for halfway back to prison, and then she will grant your request.

- Don't refuse your transfer to your least favorite Minnesota prison — until you have checked the accommodations at available alternatives such as Scorched Scorpions Correctional Facility, Plutonium City, Arizona, or Sultry Slime Sloughs Correctional Facility, Gator Glades, Florida.

- Don't approach the First Turnkey to tell him in earnest that you're not having fun anymore, and to ask him if you can please go home now.  He will laugh all the way home about that one.

By now the reader will have seen that the basics of successful prison life are most succinctly summed up in negatives.  Perhaps this fact is yet another reason why prison is often referred to as a negative experience.  There are other reasons, of course, why prisoners don't cheerfully urge each other to "Have a nice day!"  But those reasons are beyond the scope of this introductory advice.

Yet the fact remains, if you'd prefer not to have your incarceration experience become more negative, it would be a good idea to adhere to the negatives listed above.

With this admonition finished, the reader is wished a rehabilitative and restorative prison stay, and is reminded to pick up his complimentary ticket home on the first available flying pig.

And, for the rest of you out there, just reading this for diversion, well, to quote the classic postcard line, "'Wish you were here!"  But hey, don't worry.  At the rate your legislators are criminalizing everything, your turn will come.

[Back to Volume 11, Number 1]  [Other Articles by this Author]

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