How to Win Guards and Influence Inmates
(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
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
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
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