Behind Bars: Surviving Prison

How to survive jail

Yes, you are a good person. But a relative or friend may not be so law-abiding. And stuff happens. Here is what to do if you are ever arrested (mostly what not to do) and what you can expect if put behind bars. Written by two professors of criminology; one was a former correctional officer, and the other served eleven years in federal custody, including maximum security. They know what they are talking about, and they dispense their straight dope with surprising clarity and uncommon elegance and wit. (One chapter is called “You’ve Got Jail!”). They’ve written a guidebook to a distant country and its alien customs and ways; may you never arrive there. You get street-smarts from inmates and wise counsel from the Man. I rank my books by how dog-eared they are; this one had nearly every page marked and underlined. This is one of the books you want to read before you need it.

Image: Twenty20/@CreativeGuy

-- KK 05/14/18


The first thing you need to remember [if arrested] is keep your mouth shut and do not discuss your arrest or case with anyone, police or fellow inmates.

Jailhouse holding tanks are usually bugged with hidden microphones and video cameras. This technology is only incidentally for your protection. Its primary function is to provide the judicial system with an opportunity to gather more incriminating evidence.


Whomever you call, never discuss your case on the phone. Any admission of guilt will be used against you in court. Let us repeat: Any admission of guilt will be used against you in court.

The same warning applies to mail, both sent or received, which will be opened and copied by jail staff. Remember, you have no privacy in jail, and every word you say, phone call you make, or letter you write, can be used in court to make a case against you or drum up additional indictments against you or others.


In general, with few exceptions, attorneys want their money up front, in advance, or they leave you to throw yourself on the mercy of the court. The reasons are simple enough. If you are found guilty and sent to prison, you will be in no mood to pay your legal bill. Also, many of their clients are crooks who are not overly inclined toward scrupulous bill-paying in the first place. These facts lawyers know only too well, so they will exert great pressure on you to pay up front before your case is decided. You must resist their demands for large sums of money and only pay the attorney a portion of what they ask.

Defense attorneys are like stockbrokers: They collect their fees and commissions on the amount of business they do, no matter whether their customers win or lose. As officers of the court, their first allegiance is to the legal system, even at the expense of their clients. Most lawyers who practice in criminal courts make a good living losing most of their cases, a fact that they rarely share with their clients.


You may think the 14th Amendment guarantees you due process, meaning bail, attorney, and a trial by peers. Unfortunately, after being locked up in the county jail, you discover that bail may be denied, lawyers are expensive, and few defendants ever get a trial. The fact is, most people plead guilty to a lesser or reduced charge simply because they get tired of being locked up in jail, their legal defense funds run out, and they fear the possible consequences of losing a trial.

These are the cold, hard equations of crime and punishment. Most cases never go to trial. The attorney persuades the defendant (often after the lawyer has bled the patient dry of money for pre-trial hearings) not to go to trial, arguing that if they lose -- and they probably will -- they will be sentenced to the full extent of the law.

Yes, you have a Constitutional right to a fair trial, but if you exercise that right and lose the case, the prosecution most likely will demand severe sentencing penalties, in return for your having made them take the case to trial.


Another possibility, rarely understood by first-time defendants, but well known to those with lengthier police records, is that once you plead guilty, which becomes public record and part of your police criminal justice dossier, you are more likely to be rearrested, and are easier to convict.


The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) is thought by convicts to operate a better system than most states. The prisons are cleaner, with more desirable food, and the prison staff is better educated, trained, and paid. It is fair to say that most prisoners would prefer to do federal time, day for day, as compared to state time.

That said, federal prisoners are usually allowed fewer material possessions than state convicts. Individuals serving time in state prisons may have their own televisions, collections of books, music, clothes, and posters or pictures hung on their cell walls. Federal prison cells are more austere. These prisoners are restricted to only basic items, such as five books, toiletries, and a few changes of institutional clothes, no television. All of these possessions must be able to fit in one small locker.


You will find that every cellblock has "jailhouse lawyers" who will give you more truth than your attorney ever dared to share. (In case you were wondering, jailhouse lawyers are looked down upon by prison administrators, because they can file legal briefs for themselves and fellow inmates; it's not unusual for cons well versed in the law to find themselves transferred frequently.)

(This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2005 — editors)

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