BY ANDREW MCKENNA & WARREN LIPKA The first thing you learn on your first day of prison is fuck the dude that told you to “walk up to the biggest guy on the yard and punch him as hard as you can in the face.” That poser has never done any type of time past county drunk tank bullshit, or 30 days for public masturbation. A time and place exists to display the don’t-fuck-with-me vibe but to punch the biggest guy in the yard in the head on day one of your stay at the big house is extremely ill-advised for two reasons. First, it’s likely he will pummel you into a bloody dish towel and then publicly rape your anus as you’re crumpled face down, holding on for dear life with labored breathing from your compound fractured ribs. And second, your peers will watch all of this, shaking their heads, and laugh days later as you’re walking gingerly to noon chow.
So instead of fighting the minute the bars clang shut, try this: Keep your mouth shut, eyes forward and observe without making significant eye contact with others. Andrew made the eye-contact mistake during our first week. Sick with the flu, he woke up around 2:30 A.M. or so to throw up again, and as he jumped off his top bunk, he sprained his ankle and hobbled to the bathroom, mouth full of vomit. To his right was a row of probable 15 sinks. A tall African American gentleman was washing his penis and testicles in the sink — full lather. In his dazed state, eyes a little crusty from the flu and from crying earlier, he stopped, not sure if he was hallucinating. He made eye-contact with the gentleman as he applied a second lather or perhaps moisturizer, and their eyes locked. There was a ugly vibe. He ran to the toilet and threw up as quickly as he could thinking that him washing his substantial junk a pre-game for the impending hazing new guy ritual, and he had to get out of there.
Chances are you’ve already done a little county jail time and learned some basics, such as don’t get into debt with gambling, drugs, inmate “stores” where they stock commissary items and front you a Snickers or a bag of Lays so long as you pay them back double the next time you go to commissary, usually the following week. Store debts add up quickly. Another key thing is to get a sense of who’s who. In most cases, if you’re white, you will typically be limited to hanging out with whites because deep rooted racism is prevalent — no, rampant — in prison. Typically several white gangs, such as the Aryan Brotherhood or Dirty Whiteboys exist and live in the same housing units and typically get along. Each gang has a CEO or Director of Operations known as a “Shot-Caller.” It’s best, if you can, to ingratiate yourself somewhat with the Shot-Callers, but just don’t overdo it because you don’t want a Shot-Caller to think that you’ve got a little too much sugar in your tank. Unless that is your play. Either way, just be yourself and don’t do anything grimy. Stay off the radar.
Also, don’t try to inject yourself into the T.V. area and make introductions until you can show your paperwork. Your paperwork in most cases will be your Presentence Report (PSR) which was produced by a probation officer and used by the court for sentencing considerations, used by the Federal Bureau of Prison (BOP) to determine your security classification and facility assignment, and finally and most importantly, used by your fellow inmates to determine if you’re a pervert, a cho-mo, and/or a rapo, and if so, how many pounds of shit should they cram into your face and up each of your perverted nostrils. Oh, they also check your PSR for evidence that you’re a snitch, but this is really just for show because the majority of federal inmates have snitched on others in an effort to get reduced sentences.
When you hit the compound you will be assigned to a freshman pod full of new arrivals and inmates who have lost their bunk for whatever reason, usually just getting out of the Special Housing Unit (SHU). This is the famed “hole” everyone learns about thanks to movies like The Shawshank Redemption. It is the jail inside the prison, 23 hour lock-down, but Receiving and Discharge (R&D) will issue you the clothes/uniform you are required to wear in most common places (Library, Chow Hall, and Medical) until 5pm. Most of the people in prison have never worked anything more than a corner boy hustle and you will see small acts of rebellion in trying to establish identity. For example, a 55 year old OG (Original Gangster) with his pants below his ass. On the opposite side of this rebellion is a bastardization of respect. Again, because most of the men in prison have only had a short term experience with the professional working world, they over ascribe importance to maintaining a crisp appearance. They will pay extra for things exclusively pressed at the laundry room. Or they will have articles of clothing stitched into a hoody just to demonstrate how exclusive they are, to demonstrate how un-like they are compared to everyone else.
There will be no introductions, no instructions. There will be no grand tour of the institution. You might see your counselor, you may not. You mean nothing to them. They’re morning turd is more important than you. Yes, you’ve gotten yourself into a situation where a healthy satisfying morning turd is more important than a human life.
You may get a handbook that addresses administrative issues regarding policies on how to get substandard medical care but don’t spend too much time flipping through it. You will have about seven to fourteen days of peace until you get assigned a job. All of the choice do-nothing jobs will already be claimed and unless you do something about it. You will be assigned either landscape detail or chow hall detail. Landscape detail is brutal in the summer because you are out there every morning at 7:30 am mowing the institution grounds in full uniform. The khaki uniform is 100% polyester. The only air circulation is the heat escaping around your neck, wrists, and ankles or your own putrid farts caused by your body’s reaction to prison’s Third World-caliber diet, and to boot, you will be surrounded by a bunch of country asses who are all about pushing that mower. On my first day of landscaping detail, I tucked myself in between two pieces of wood on a shelf and slept while the CO gave the crew a primer on the basics of weed whacking the sidewalks. In prison, there is no such thing as a good night’s sleep. You will always be tired. Always. But over time, you will develop horse-like powers such as the ability to sleep while standing.
If you do not wish to spend your days doing farm work for $5.14 dollars a month, you’ll need get in good with someone that has the ear of the CO in charge of work assignments. Certain wardens like to promote the illusion that during the work day everyone has a job on the compound. That simply is not the case. A large percentage of inmates have check-in jobs that they paid for with commissary. But you may need the job. There are plenty of inmates with no support that have to do what they have always done, make the best of their situation and hustle and grind. If they hustle, they get money, they get commissary, they get a nice fresh exclusive hoodie. Some hustle and bet on sports, running tickets and watching the line scores under the TV’s with mouth agape.
Others will hustle by making food to sell to fellow inmates. There is a kind of grudging respect and admiration you will cultivate when you see the amount of creative energy put into making wraps out of salt, rice, and spam. For instance, there was a pear-shaped sociopath down the hall from us who used to scam Medicare recipients out of their checks over the phone. He was the main pusher of cheese cakes made out of non-dairy creamer. I think he cut the powder with lemon juice he got from the chow hall to produce a cheese like slice containing 25 grams of trans fat in every bite. He was getting about a dollar for each slice. He would crank out five “cakes” a day, double that on the weekends, and add any birthdays in a workweek and he was bringing in the street equivalent of $200, all the while shortening his customers’ lifespans by at least a decade. He was like Phillip Morris. When our cellie found out how much trans fat was in the cheesecakes, he threatened to kill him. Most of the hustlers that I patronized regularly were those who had porn to rent, herb to smoke, or wine to drink.
Prison wine has a special place in our heart. It is the great social lubricant. Ignoring the possibility of contracting bacterial meningitis, drinking prison wine is harmless. Most of the time people laugh more, talk more, eat more, and generally let their guards down to people they either are extremely suspicious of or who they downright hate. But the procurement of the grainy vaguely screwdriver/mimosa tasting drink may entail high risk behavior. There is always a possibility of something going sideways but we look back at our prison drunkenness fondly as an effective way to let some steam off in a highly distressing situation. Except for the night that a few guys we’d become friendly with in our unit invited us to attend a night of drinking, food, and conversation. A special meal was prepared that in and of itself was a testament to the effort put into prepping for these events. Stolen vegetables from the chow hall is a staple in any illicit prison meal. Room temperature air sealed beef stew that most dogs wouldn’t touch is another. It’s the kind of feast that defies your notion of what tastes good. Anything is a hot two ounce load from Jesus H. Christ compared to the chow hall slop.
For this special meal our host was Willy, the best tattoo artist on the compound. He was into some sort of check cashing scheme and ended up burning down a post office. Then there was Long, his cellie. They were both from Savannah so they decided to cell together. Then two nice guys from down the hall joined us. Bright was a gangbanger from Chicago weighing in at 260lbs. A true gangster that would drink too much and brag about all the “bodies” he buried. He was in the crack game. Once we became friends you could walk up and slap him in the middle of his huge barrel chest. He’d tell me he was going to kill my crazy honky cracker ass and we would laugh hysterically. Bright brought Josh, some simple backcountry kid from North Carolina that was in for a drug charge. It would later come out that Josh was fucking some old pedophile three times his age late at night but that’s neither here nor there. Bright would eventually rape a pedophile for reasons directly connected to the over-consumption of alcohol, actually after a night eerily like the one we are describing, but that night we were drinking and eating and laughing. Looking back it may have been an indicator that Josh was playing for the other team when he whipped out his sizable pink and white dong and helicoptered it for all the room to see. Or maybe it appeared bigger because there was five of us in one 100 square foot room. By this point we each had downed about two plastic water bottles of sock wine (the sock is used as a filter), which is roughly the equivalent of a half a fifth, and were quite drunk. Thankfully everyone thought Josh was harmless. Sure, there were the CO’s we had to duck now and then but it was a nice break from the bleakness to kick back with a tall cup of sock wine and forget where you are for one hot minute.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Andrew McKenna, author of Sheer Madness: From Federal Prosecutor to Federal Prisoner was cellmates with Warren C. Lipka from 2009 to 2012 at FCI Petersburg.