Courtesy of Brad Simpson

“Now Entering the Jungle”

By Brad “Lou” Simpson

I have only had a few overwhelming experiences in my life. Looking back, I can count them all on one hand. The first time, I was young and I saw my first real pet (a dog) killed, run over by a truck while I was waiting for the school bus. The second time, I was still young and it was the summer I was assaulted by some weirdo at my grandmother’s work. Both times, I was too young to understand. The fourth time, I participated in the murder I’m currently doing time for. The fifth time, I found out that my brother had died.

Yes, if you noticed, I skipped number three. It’s the one I want to talk about. It was January 2000, the first time I hit a prison facility. I’m talking about the first day I ever spent in prison. It was a receiving or intake center. Even though it’s 15 years later, I can still remember all the details. It was extremely overwhelming and demoralizing.

As soon as you come through the door, your ‘property’ from your time spent in jail is put on the table. Some frustrated D.O.C. officer tears into it, telling you what you can and can’t have. While he’s talking, your things are going into the fucking trash! Personal photos and mail are no exception. You’re given a few seconds to pluck about five phots and a few letters, then – swoosh – the rest is swept right into the trash. What you’re allowed to keep is tossed into a mesh ‘laundry bag’ and you’re sent off to the next stop. Without missing a beat, you’re rushed into another room. Another office makes the whole group (of about 15) strip naked. All your clothes go into a cart (trash) and you’re moved one at a time past the officer. He hands you some shower shoes, soap, a towel, and on set of clothes. The clothes include a white t-shirt, a pair of boxers, one pair of socks and an orange jumpsuit. Lastly, one pair of shoes, no laces. You step into the shower room with the group. Basically, it’s a big room with eight showerheads on three walls. Some of the previous group are lagging behind, so it’s at least two men per showerhead. For the shy ones, it’s not an easy time. After you get out of the shower and get dressed, you’re fingerprinted, they shave your facial hair, and take your mug shot. Next, there’s a quick interview to make sure nobody has any problems with you. You’re poked and prodded all day long, locked into holding cells (which are giant rooms with concrete ‘benches’ along the walls and a toilet in the back corner). The pace and volume of these new experiences threaten to fry your emotions and about halfway through the day I just detached. Like an out-of-body experience, but not quite.

I could see everything happening and I understood it. I responded when necessary, but it was like I was on auto-pilot, like a zombie. I felt the needles and all the other stuff, but they didn’t register until later in the evening. By then, I was physically sore and emotionally raw. I can understand why some people cry their first night in prison. It’s a release, a cleansing. But I skipped that part and passed out from pure exhaustion.

For the first week, it’s one big assault of mental health visits, then back to your cell. I.Q. tests, then back to your cell. Interviews with counselors, then back to your cell. Also, on the first day they do an HIV test. You’re told if medical calls you back, it’s for a follow-up on that or any other tests they’ve run. No callback equals you being clean and healthy. So, every time an officer calls over your cell intercom, a fresh wave of fear stabs through you, thinking it may be medical. You recount and rack your brain for every one-night stand and weekend of stupidity.

About 40% of the inmates are new to prison, 30% are parole violators back to finish their last sentence. The last 30% are repeat offenders on their second or third sentence. Out of the last 60%, I’d say maybe three in five are on the prowl or organized, looking for fresh gang recruits or sexual gains or monetary advantages. Rarely, you encounter an older ‘con’ who has a long sentence and is looking to invest. Investing means they ‘pull you under their wing.’ They keep you safe in the early days, driving the predators away and teaching you how to survive in prison. Once you’re out, maybe you’ll be successful. The hope is you’ll repay the investment in visitors, money, pen pals, and shit that makes time go faster and easier. They’re about one in fifteen.

Simply put: due to the volume of inmates D.O.C. has to intake, they treat you like cattle to keep up with demand. For those enterprising and predatory inmates, this is a perfect opportunity to spot what they’re interested in without being observed themselves. They’ve been through it before, so it’s not a shock. So, when a new inmate is stressed out, they tend to fall back on their natural character as a defense mechanism.

Some are passive. Sexual predators and extortionists exploit this type. If you have money, the gangs may protect you, but it’ll cost you. This isn’t extortion, it’s protection. The extortionists will set you up by loaning you things or selling you stuff “just until you get on your feet.” But if your money gets complicated (and this happens more than you’d expect), now you owe them. And you can’t pay, so you get threatened with your debt being sold to a predator or a physical assault. No matter what happens, you usually get ‘taxed.’ Anything of value is taken and there might be interest if they don’t get enough to make them happy. Basically, it’s not good to be a passive person in the prison system.

Most people are assertive. Most predators won’t bother with this gut because the type is less flexible. The extortionists will still try to trick him into getting too far into debt before he realizes the situation. Mostly, only gang-related guys will try this because their numbers can be used. Gangs may be interested in this guy. If he’s searching for meaning or direction, they can give him that. Also, aggression can be taught, so he’s a target for a gang to recruit.

Some people are aggressive. If he’s sexually aggressive, he’ll fit in with the predators, the whole ‘birds of a feather’ routine. If he’s physically aggressive, the predators stay clear. As do the extortionists. These guys are too unpredictable and pose too much of a risk. Gangs loves these guys, though. They can claim them as members, wind them up and let them terrorize. Gangs operate on two main principles: reputation and confirmation. If a gang is reputed to be unpredictable and violent, most will walk lightly around them. If they have a good, many aggressive people on hand, when someone crosses them, they point in one direction. If he’s smart, he’ll go far in the gang. If he’s not, he’s more of a hammer to be used.

So, without being aware of it, the new inmates are not only being assessed by D.O.C., but also by the other inmates. I’ve been taken to intake facilities six times in three different states. I’ve seen every play out more than once and I’m not proud to admit it, but I’ve knowingly played an angle or two. You would think D.O.C. would try and stop this, but in my opinion, they allow for this to happen for a few simple reasons. Hardened criminals mean bigger budgets and statistics for recidivism. The victims are collateral damage to the bottom line and most of them come back. It’s also easier to ‘flip’ inmates that get ‘jammed up’ with gangs. They’re busy deciding what level of ‘treatment’ and how much ‘security’ you need to be more manageable.

Once it’s been a couple of weeks and D.O.C. is done taking blood, dissecting minds and criminal histories, the stress level goes down. It’s time to breathe a little easier. The shock wears off and it’s time to make a choice. Depending on how you presented yourself to those who were watching while at your most vulnerable, there are some options to consider. A quick look around shows everyone is slowly moving into little groups of like-minded characters. If you’re new to prison, you may believe you are choosing the group you’re in, but it doesn’t really work that way. In the case of predators, they isolate the weak from the main group. They’ll generally do it with a smile and seemingly good-natured attitude. Once realization sets in, it’s too late. Most of the guys caught in this trap are passive, so they usually change their character to fit the situation instead of changing the situation.

Next, you have those guys who aren’t afraid to assert themselves and draw the line in the sand. They’ll start to form cluster of three dudes or so. Occasionally, you encounter the loaner and that’s a mistake. Most of them learn to regret that choice once they reach a ‘real prison.’ The little clusters of dudes almost always circle around a cluster of repeat offenders and parole violators. This is mainly by design. They think we chose to hang-out with their more experienced cluster, but it’s really just an illusion.

Social networking in prison makes time go easier and faster, so the more people you know and who you know, the easier it is to find what you want, to help your time expire quicker. It’s not so important early on, but as time goes, gangs will do a thorough investigation into your characters to see if they can use you and for any skills you have. They want you to fit into their group and not be more trouble than you’re worth.

No matter if you’re passive, aggressive, or in between, you have to decide how you want your prison ‘bit’ to go. It may sound silly, but it’s serious. Think, if you like to eat, prison food isn’t the best, so the commissary is king. I’ve known a lot of people who make the mistake of going to a ‘store-box’ while they’re waiting for loved ones to send money. But people ‘on the streets’ have shit to do and anything can suddenly happen. Money may be slow to come or never show up. If you’ve store-boxed items and don’t pay by date X, things get dicey. Most ‘stores’ will give you added interest and extra time, but if it isn’t right by the second deadline, then you have real problems.

In prison, you are a brand. Your reputation and actions represent the brand’s image. Since a person’s word is his all-encompassing credit card, if you put your word to something, it better get done. “Honor” is a big deal in prison. Prison can be harsh and violent if you have nobody, but you have to balance socializing with the level of involvement you want to have in your prison life. The more you get into it, the easier it is to take a wrong turn. A short prison bit can easily turn into a long one. I took a short four-year sentence with three years parole and I added twenty years of prison and five of parole. No matter what you’re into on the streets, you can find a variation in prison. And simply put, you either become a predator that can navigate prison life or you bleat like a sheep.

A lot of things in prison are subtle. The watchful eyes make criminals better at crime. If we want to get away with breaking the law/rules then we have to learn to plan better and be more observant. Learn how to control more of variables that most of us didn’t pay attention to before prison.

Any criminal education you want to get is available in prison. Some learn by choice, some by force, and some by accident. Prey make prison interesting. People with lower moral values and a lot of extra time will usually search for trouble. Since everything is so subtle, it could be difficult spotting trouble if you don’t know what to look for. For instance, if you see two or three people sitting in the dayroom at a table, talking, looking around, they are probably up to something. These vultures are probably watching who is coming, going, which inmates make the best targets. Any weakness in your character, routine, or social circle is capitalized on.

Most criminals won’t change. Not can’t; won’t. It’s hard to learn a new, more productive way of life. Given a choice, most inmates will choose to stay where they are. It’s made super easy to stay this way and super hard to change. How many successful ex-cons do you know? It’s a gamble to be a criminal, but it’s a better living while you’re getting away it. Being an ex-con limits job opportunities. That’s why a lot of ex-felons open small businesses. They can set wages, hours, and they don’t have some supervisor breathing down their necks. Maybe if prisons weren’t full of free time and if I would’ve had a successful ex-con as a mentor, maybe my path through prison would’ve been shorter and more productive.