Former Prison Inmates Share What Hollywood Movies Get Wrong About Lockup
Sure, we never thought Hollywood was really accurate about prison, but what exactly do they continuously get wrong? We know very little about the ins and outs of prison life, having never been prisoners ourselves--but we got some interesting answers from those who can provide insight.
Here were some of those answers.
One Two Three
I work in the prison system. I'm a maintenance foreman. I oversee a work crew of a handful of offenders. So I spend a lot of time in a prison.
First, most prisons aren't maximum security. The cell life you generally see in newer movies isn't reality. Most prisons have what they call a dorm, which is more like what you see in movies from the 70s. Lots of bunks, very close together. Inmates have a tote with a combination lock permanently affixed to it for storing their commissary and personal effects. When they're away from their bunk, the tote goes on it. When they're in them, they go at their feet.
Second, inmates don't just wander freely all day if they're not on a work crew. They're limited to their dorm area, which includes a day room with small tables they can play cards on, watch TV, whatever. Chow, recreation, etc. are kept on strict schedules.
Rec is an hour, where they can play basketball, softball, play pool (yes, with sticks and real pool balls, and, also yes, we think it's a bad idea, although offenders generally don't f*ck with that stuff lest they lose it).
Chow is not three hot meals a day. It's one to three hots a day. Breakfast is sometimes hot, sometimes not. Lunch is almost never hot. It's always a sack with four pieces of bread, a piece of prison meat (bologna, salami, ham, or turkey), a dollop of peanut butter with jelly blended in already and a cookie.
Sidenote: Maintenance workers are supposed to get double meat, but usually it just ends up with us getting them two sacks. They usually double up their two sandwiches, eat the cookies and make toast with the extra bread to use for some commissary meal later. During holiday weekends, the Friday before, the offenders will get three hot meals. During the weekend, however, they will get cold meals all weekend.
It's really not so bad.
I spent a couple years in medium security prison and not once in my two years less a day sentence did I get propositioned for gay sex. I had my own private room, there wasn't a lock on the door (to my cell), and at no time did I have a conflict with a guard that I didn't deserve.
For the first six months I had to wear a uniform, then after than I was allowed to wear regular clothes. After a year I worked at the local cemetery, took the bus back and forth from work to the prison. Most days involved getting up at 6am, cleaning the common areas, then off to breakfast, classes, then lunch. Afternoons alternated between diving/swimming/trampoline/running/rowing practice and art/shop/mechanics programs.
Here's one thing that I think Hollywood always gets wrong about prisons ... the food. The food in prison was fantastic. I put on 20 lbs while I was there, and it wasn't all muscle. Breakfast was usually eggs and toast, bacon etc. Lunch was pizza or similar, and dinner would be lasagna type meals. By the time I left, I was sick of rice pudding but it was good rice pudding.
Over the two years, I spent about a total of ten days in solitary for various infractions, but even that wasn't a big deal. When they sent you to solitary you had to leave everything behind but the room was like a regular cell with a bed, windows, books. Basically it was a cell with a lock on the door that you were sent to think.
I'm sure it's completely different in the US but in Canada, honestly? My dorm at university was rougher / more troublesome.
Other Countries Definitely Do It Better
Quoting a friend who did 3 months for drunken car theft, "It was pretty chill."
Woke up at 6 in the morning. personal hygiene, then chill if you will in common area until 8.
If you sign up for work, you Spend 6 hours a day with a crew in the woods cutting down trees in future construction zones. The pay is more than decent.
If you do studies instead, you are compensated financially, if you pass classes, even more so.
Best case, you have done one mistake in your life, and you leave prison a better person than when you entered, and you should have a range of skills needed to enter the private sector.
It should definitely be said though, that i am Norwegian, and we have the money to spend on proper prisoner treatment.
I did 3 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and have been out just 3 months so far.
First off, people always confuse jail with prison. If you do less than 2 years you'll be in county or state jail. Also, because of the threat of "write ups" and the creation of transfer units, like Garza East and West, it's not nearly as violent as in the movies.
Foods good. Everyone is assigned a job. Unless you're really f*cking up or being a "crash test dummy" no one will really f*ck with you. Just mind your own business and don't get involved in the bullsh*t. People do learn respect generally, if not, it's only a matter of time.
Gangs are prevalent but they're generally more respectful. Though there really is no need to join. Now, once you leave the Transfer after two years, you'll go to a "real" unit. It's a bit more serious there but, all in all, the time in Transfer should have made you comfortable in prison already. There's more gayness though ("prison punks") which does take some getting used to.
Before 2004 and before Safe Prisons and Transfer Units, it was like the movies I hear. Though some units are still "Rock and Roll" it's a lot less. Most don't "check" solos (people who aren't riding) but the Rock and Roll units do still, so once you get there you'll have to fight one guy about your size. If you're trying to get down you have to fight two for your "cora check" (heart check if you're white, I'm Mexican).
I was lucky so I didn't have to do this though because I was only in minimum security units though, in my mind, I was completely ready. Like others have said it's mostly boring. Go to work, come back to the dorm, watch tv, work out, eat, shower, repeat. Just be aware, do what you gotta do, f*ck the TV, watch your mouth, mind your business, and you'll be alright.
If it's on the streets, it's in the facilities. Some drugs are more prevalent, though. Suboxone is a major issue because of it coming in tongue strips makes it super easy to smuggle in. Pot, meth, heroin, etc. are there, but in small amounts. My state has mostly banned smoking (one or two facilities still allow it), so tobacco is huge.
Truth be told, nobody is getting very high, though. Drugs are still a lot harder to come by, so the prices are very high, and money is very limited. A single Suboxone strip will get split into six or more. A standard cigarette will get broken down into four or five smokes.
Drugs get smuggled in through any way you can think of. COs bringing it is the biggest culprit, to be honest. Visitors will smuggle it in. People will fill tennis balls and throw them over the fences at pre-arranged times and places. People will leave packages hidden outside for outside work crews to grab, for them select or other inmates.
The money is handled in a lot of ways. The barter system is popular. Trading commissary items is the most common. Outside people can handle some cash transactions, or put money on commissary for a deal. Prepaid cash cards are common as well. All the offenders need is the number and transfers can be made by third parties on the outside.
So I was never in prison but my major centered around it and talked to a lot of people. Idk about short term people, but I spoke with lifers a few times. They talked about monotony and after a while it just becomes life.
The craziest part was the disconnect. Like one guy I spoke to said he used to live on this one block in north Philly. It had been leveled and is now a field. His best friend lived 3 blocks away. I knew exactly which house he was talking about because my friend lives in the one next door. But the way he spoke about it was crazy because... almost none is the same. Maybe because it's a city. Maybe because gentrification. But he had been in prison since he was 17. He's 67 now. If he WAS ever released, I doubt he'd know where he was even if you dropped him right in front of where his house used to be.
My favorite uncle was in and out with a bit of frequency (he was a good dude, but made some stupid choices), and he seemed to...almost sort of like it? He said he spent most of his time playing cards for ramen noodle packs. For him, that would've been a good time. He mostly just wanted people to like him.
Once you figure out that you're going to be fine then you just get used to the place. You understand how it works. I started going to juvie when I was 13. You just start going in there thinking "I wonder who's here".
I can somewhat relate. Most people just think inmates are scum of society. Honestly I have a harder time being free because people do not have the respect or loyalty.
That Came From Where?!
2 year survivor of a women's prison. The thing that tv leaves out about women's prison is how many items have actually been in someone's vagina. Can't smoke? Cigarettes and lighter in vagina. Drug addict? Vagina drugs. Loan sharking and don't want your cash taken by the COs? Vagina money! The list goes on and on.
Ahh, the prison purse.
Ahh. Nature's pocket.
Two Types Of People
"There are two types of people in jail - those who leave and never come back, and those who spend the rest of their life coming back."
It's a huge affect that has to do with financial instabilities.
See, when you're out on the street, you have nothing. You go to prison, and you have free food, housing, etc.
So what do the financially unstable (especially homeless, as I've heard) do?
Starve on the streets or get free housing, food, etc?
I'm all for good prisons but it's certainly interesting. I wish there was some sort of financial support for when you leave prison.
A Real Life Look Inside
I know someone in this subreddit will know what I'm talking about when I say that you have to go and watch the after prison show by Joe Guerrero.
His YouTube channel sort of grew pretty rapidly and he has been looking for inmates that were released to help. He finds this guy Danny who was locked up in federal prison for 40 years. He was put in solitary confinement for like almost 10 years his mental health was down and there's actually a video of a real life cell extraction. I would most definitely rather go to a prison in a third world country than a federal Max security prison here in the states, and you will see why if you watch that video.
I just thought of another thing Hollywood gets wrong. When prisoners get visitation. Again my experience was not actual "prison" but jail so that may be the difference.
A buddy of mine who still works there said now it's all done by video. The prisoner is in a room with a web cam and the visitor is in a completely separate room in the sheriffs office (outside the jail even). They can talk and see each other but it's just video. He said the video was some sh*tty 90s looking VHS quality too. Guess the county couldn't justify HD cameras for the prisoners.
A Different Clientele
That prison is terrifying and full of hardened, psychotic criminals...
It's actually mostly the high functioning developmentally disabled, the mentally ill, (schizophrenia, PTSD,) and old men without health insurance or social security that needed shelter and medical attention.
It's more like... Depressing.
I did an extremely short stint in Maine for DUI. What struck me was just how casual and downright friendly the COs were. Granted, Maine, so it was a facility under capacity and not exactly full of hardened criminals - mostly just dumb fucks like I was who pulled some stupid stunt and were just waiting to get back to their lives afterwards.
My dad knows someone who did time in a British prison for white collar stuff. He said it was boring.
Apparently nobody cares about white collar criminals and he was basically left alone for his entire sentence. You only got trouble if you deliberately went looking for it, there was the odd violence, broken up quickly by the staff.
It's not like white collar types were being constantly beaten up and having their stuff taken.
I work in a prison. It all depends on the state you're in; they are all very different from each other. A lot of inmates are scared, gangs are a pain in the ass, and most (all?) struggle to accept responsibility for why they are there and to regulate their emotions. Some are funny af and tell great stories.
Not All Prisoners
A lot of misunderstanding stems from either ignorance or malice.
Ignorance because there are people who truly believe that the prison system in the US is set up in such a way that people can be [easily] rehabilitated. Some others believe that the jobs provided are worth the money.
The malice part is that people will normally jump to the "They f*cked up, they deserve it, their fault." which isn't...entirely wrong, but misses the point. There are some really messed up people out there who do pretty deplorable things but, I believe, half of the prison population in the US is purely based on drug crimes alone. Maybe this is just me being naive, but you know...we don't know what most of these people were going through.
There are some people who absolutely, unequivocally deserve to have their rights stripped from them because of some sh*t they've done. I would be hard pressed to be convinced that most of the prison population falls into that category.