What's it like to be incarcerated in a US prison?

I could not stop reading this series of posts from a 99chan forum regular who returns after a 2 year prison sentence until I'd finished every last word. Terrifying, dehumanizing stuff. But is it real, or fiction? The "chans" aren't exactly where one goes for fact-checked documentaries. (via @mala)


  1. Sorry Xeni, but I’m calling BS on most of this guy’s story. I worked in prisons in Indiana and Tennessee. High max all the way down to low security annex. Unless Michigan prisons are somehow able to slip into the cmb cold spot, this guy is a really horrible liar.

    First, the notion that inmates experience some sort of Shawshank Redemption awakening once they get released is silly. Not only are today’s state and federal inmates in tune with the world via television, most also have highly-supervised access to the internet. For this guy to express wonderment about the ipad and Justin Beiber is just ridiculous.

    You earn solitary. Most of the time inmates check themselves into solitary because they run up debts they can’t pay, or they’ve snitched on inmates to the staff.

    If he was lonely, it was his own fault. State prisons have very generous visitation times simply because it keeps inmates subdued and semi-happy.

    If he was into drugs, that explains his solitary time. He was likely getting them from staff. If he got fat it’s because he didn’t take advantage of the work out facilities that state prisons are required to have and offer.

    I have a hard time understanding how in one sentence he says that prison stinks (it smells like a college dorm, or any other place that a large group of people live in relative closeness) but then complains that the inmates do nothing but clean. Anyway, I’m by no means defending the shape of the nation’s prison system. I guess I’m just used to soft-core inmates getting out and trying to make their experience sound more damaging than it really was.

    We fail in a lot of ways when it comes to prison rehabilitation.

    1. “We fail in a lot of ways when it comes to prison rehabilitation.”

      one way we fail is when we blame the prisoners themselves for not accepting the arbitrary rules and discipline we try to impose on them

      1. I’m not entirely sure what you mean. What “arbitrary rules” are you referring to? If anything, prisons have plenty of rules that are known to staff and inmates alike. Most inmates go the jailhouse lawyer routine and end up knowing the rules better than the staff.

        1. by arbitrary, i mean the “unrestrained and autocratic in the use of authority” by the prison system over the prisoners

          things like “highly-supervised access to the internet” and solitary confinement, to mention two things that the “soft-core” inmates experience

          humans react in myriad ways to attempts to dehumanize prisoners through arbitrary measures that start with incarceration and end with our collective dismissal of their complaints

          your experience is yours sir. my experience is with prisoners who have had both ‘soft-core’ and ‘hard-core’ encounters inside of prison. i don’t believe we’re arguing over the fact that prisons aren’t pleasant places. we’re merely arguing about how unpleasant they really are

          1. I think what we’re probably arguing about is gullibility. I have had well over 10 years of experience inside of actual prisons. Not just a prison, but several spanning different states. To believe the story this person on the internet has told, one would have to be grossly inexperienced with state or federal level prison systems.

            If what this guy said is true, you would have heard of it without him having to post it on the internet. It would have been the subject massive federal investigations, besides countless talk shows and fodder for MSNBC’s weekend programming.

            In short, this guy is lying. No doubt about it.

  2. “One guy wraped a t-shirt around the kid’s neck and lifted him off the ground from behind, and the other starts stabbing his gut. After a few stabs, he starts trying to get his fingers inside and he just pulls all this meat out. I thought he was going to pull out his intestines like you’d see in a horror movie, but instead, he just pulls out fist after fist of this yellow jelly shit, and then big hunks of meat like raw mince. Screw’s arrived and tasered everyone. Even the kid. He was on his side, right in front of my cell, and every jolt from the taser made the big hole in his stomach smoke.”

    So, yeah, I think this is going to keep my on the straight and narrow for the duration of my life.

  3. back in the day, i used to work with people who just got out of prison and were trying to fit back into society. a lot of what OP is writing about rings true to my ears, in kind if not in degree. mind you i have no direct experience with prison, other than visiting inmates, but the prisoner’s experiences that i listened to were universally dehumanizing.

    1. Yeah that part didn’t ring true either. If he was pulling “yellow jelly” stuff from his stomach, that would be fat. If he was that fat, the guy behind him couldn’t have cold lifted him up unless he was super strong, and if he was that strong, why did he need other inmates to help him kill the guy?

      This guy is a professional bs’er. But that’s not to say prisons are a rosy place. I don’t think I made that clear in my last response. It’s just that they aren’t like how this guy described them at all. I don’t know, maybe he was just trying to scare-straight his friends from that message board. Who knows?

      1. The trouble with fiction is that it needs to be probable. Fact has no such obligation.

        I don’t think we can call BS on this one just because we know the victim had some fat in his body and the aggressor would have had to have been “really strong.” It’s possible.

        However in my experience from a few bio-class dissections, I’ve found that living fat tissue isn’t actually yellow. That’s a byproduct of the preservation process. It’s actually whitish (and bloody).

        1. No, I’m calling bs based on the entirety of this guys story. That particular detail is but one of the greater whole.

          1. How relevant is the factual or fictional nature of the story to the story itself? I’m not trying to be cute, just curious. Maybe it’s a compelling story because fundamentally what the OP is talking about is not prison as such, but about how to be human in what is usually a mean and inhuman world — whether inside or outside prison.

          2. In context, he isn’t presenting his story in the manner you have described. So, in my opinion, it comes down to what is true and what is not.

          3. You are correct that he is presenting his story as fact. I guess I wonder (and this is due entirely to my training as a lit scholar) whether his intention is relevant to our consumption of his story? At the most basic level, can we even verify whether the OP exists? This story is already presented second-hand on a Team Liquid forum and not 99chan where it purportedly first appeared. So “he” might not even be the “he” we think “he” is. Coincidentally, the ‘About’ page on ericragle.net reads in its entirety: “I exist because you imagine I do.”

          4. I think it’s possible that the experience in one privatized prison in Michigan might be very different from the experiences you had in your various, but still not the exact same, prisons.

          5. It’s possible, but from my understanding, private prisons are subject to more intense regulatory oversight.

          6. Yeah, after reading the MeFi thread about it, I’m inclined to believe your opinion on it. The closing argument for me, beyond the murder rates, was really silly, but it was the “pram” and “mince” thing. There’s no f’ing way that three or four years abroad would cause “ground beef” to become “mince” in your language. Especially after two years spent having the everloving crap scared out of you and trying to act like a tough guy 24/7. So this story is riveting but, in my opinion, fake.

          7. The BBC will occasionally quote someone from Oklahoma saying something like, “I was feeling peckish, so I was chuffed to see this open near the council estate.”

      2. In the case of the murder he witnessed, the attackers were trying to kill this person, not have a schoolyard fight. If I were trying to kill someone with whatever’s available in a prison, I would for sure get the biggest guy I could to hold him while I stabbed him. What’s less believable is that the wounds he described would kill someone.

        I agree with Skidds #35 that the high rate of murders is the least believable part of this story.

        I’m sure most prisoners don’t have some epiphany in prison or once released, but this writer seems like a particularly reflective person, whether he’s writing fact or fiction.

  4. Oh Xeni, all the *chans are full of so much BS it’s hilarious.
    Sure some of it’s exciting and interesting and fantastic, but anon really has no reason to tell the truth.
    Best to talk to verified flesh people when you want the truth, right?

    Also, tl;dr.

  5. I once worked with a fellow who went to prison for 2 years. Kingston Pent in Ontario Canada. (this is one of our “Max” prisons up here). He would talk of “the rules”. No whistling, it’s for the birds, and they are free. Once someone, called him a goof, and in prison, that meant you were a snitch. So we NEVER used the words at work, “goof”, “goofing around”, “Goofy”.

  6. I’m a fat thin man, ~150 lbs. THere’s plenty of yellow jelly to be plucked from my belly.

    Actually I have to dissect mice as part of my job (at OP’s school!) and when I first read that gruesome part I thought of the lower colon of the mice I dissected yesterday – yellow and translucent, distended rectum chunks would give every impression of being a yellow jelly.

    But fat’s probably more likely.

  7. I would either read the book, “So You’re Going To Prison” or this great article by White Trash Manifesto author Jim Goad (PDF Link):

    While they may paint a somewhat rosey picture life behind bars, I suspect the writer of the featured item has watched too many movies or is unfortunate enough to be in an old, overlooked prison.

  8. I don’t know, or particularly care, whether or not it was truth. Hell, I have a hard time trusting anything I don’t experience first hand for myself, no matter the source. I couldn’t stop reading this, either way. That’s enough for me.

  9. Why is everything spelled British style? “Flavours” where an American would say “flavors” — “criticise” instead of “criticize,” and so on.

    I thought, though it seemed weird, that maybe somebody was proofreading the posts and “correcting” them to Brit-style. But it’s more than the spelling. A mother pushing a “pram”? A “public holiday” instead of just “holiday”? The guards watching from behind “Perspex”?

    It all rings false, in spite of the overall truthiness.

    1. About Perspex. It’s a brand name, like Jell-O or Kleenex. They plaster the name all over the non-stick paper its packaged in, so someone with a familiarity would probably use the term.
      I worked as a glazier in Florida, and we used it occasionally, so our use of the brand name Plexiglas changed to Perspex over time.

      1. “Manufactured in the United Kingdom, Perspex® has been the household name for plastic since 1934…” (at http://www.perspex.co.uk/profile).

        Even if some Americans are familiar with Perspex, it’s anything but a household name here. But I’ll grant you that one. It still doesn’t explain why the whole piece is filled with British spellings and turns of phrase.

        That’s the giveaway that tells me it’s a fake.

        My guess: it’s somebody — not from the US — who wants to sell a movie or TV show about life in US prisons, and who’s hoping the post will go viral. Getting on Boing Boing could be a nice boost for that.

        1. I’m with you on this one. What got me the most, oddly, was when he referenced the “2nd series of The Wire.” In America, we would call that a “season,” not a “series.”

  10. I didn’t notice anything odd about his spelling or terminology. Probably because its the same spelling and terminology I use when I write (with the exception of pram, but then I lived in NZ for a year, not Australia like he claims, and I don’t think I ever heard it used.)

    Even before I lived abroad, people would consistently disbelieve that I was from the US despite having been born and raised here. A year abroad just reinforced those tendencies.

    This guy sounds fairly literate, its perfectly possible he just read a lot of brit. lit.

    Not that the story adds up, just that his spelling and word choice is the stupidest possible reason to call foul on this.

    1. No, you know what’s really stupid? You flaming me for making a reasonable point.

      The guy in the thread is answering questions from an apparent Brit who talks about renting “flats” — and then he responds in the same dialect.

      He uses a lot of inside prison slang (which I’ll bet he got straight from the Urban Dictionary), but keeps lapsing into Brit-speak — not just the words, but the spelling.

      The way people talk and write says a lot about hem.

      Maybe he’s the kind of pretentious person who speaks in a way that makes people “disbelieve that [he’s] from the US.” Or maybe, like certain posters here, he’s just a gormless feck.

      1. What hell are you even talking about? I was flaming you? How!? I didn’t respond to you, or even mention you. and yet you basically call me a pretentious prick and a gormless feck? What the hell is your problem?

        I was simply pointing out that if your going to call BS on this story, there are plenty of good reasons to do it instead of resorting to his writing style.

  11. This story sounds relatively real with only a few inconsistencies, and I believe he probably did time and it probably was horrible. I also think that his sources are prison rumors – making sense why it would be so dramatic. I know there’s a lot of one race crime (black on black, white on white, etc.) in prison, and I know that the exercise part is true for most people (though it sounds like he got fat despite that). I also know that 33 murders in two years is probably 1-2% of all the deaths in a prison, and that local jails have more homicides.

    Aside from that, he’s too (for lack of a better word) whiny. He went to prison on a light sentence for an armed robbery. He’s done drugs, he’s broken the law before, and in jail he got worse about the drugs. No wonder people dropped him like a bad habit, he deserves to have been dropped. Now he’s saying “what have I done to be so lonely” and it’s just lame.

    I also don’t understand how people are drawing “OMG American prisons are horrible!” from this. Prisoners are kept in a horrible place, and the prisoners make it worse on each other. They keep the place clean, making the only unsanitary portions their own doing. They get an allowance of some sort despite being a prisoner. They have a store to buy things from. I’m not sure what else people expect, and everyone anti-US jails never seems to have a solution.

  12. Incidentally, the OPs explanation for his spelling, etc. is as follows:

    “I instinctively add a u to a few words from having written a lot with a UK English spell checker and I never suffix ‘-iser’ with a ‘z’.

    Of course there are holes in some things. I won’t answer everything. I probably exagerate things a little to – but if you want factual and unbiased reporting you should try CNN and not [sic].”

  13. All of you jackasses that are citing British spellings as some kind of evidence of fabrication apparently didn’t read the entire thing:

    “Mom and Dad fronted the cash for me to study overseas, hoping I’d get to Europe and actually learn enough German / French for me to come back the next semester and finish my degree. I ended up traveling with a bunch of Australians and decided to fuck off college and head to Sydney. Mom and Dad threatened to stop funding what was becoming basically an all expenses paid drug binge unless I re-enrolled, and I convinced them to pay for me to go to the University of Sydney – which is just this spectacular campus right in the heart of the city, only half an hour from some of the most beautiful beaches you’ll ever see in your life. I stayed for 3 years and actually manged to piece together a degree.”

  14. He was in for 18 months, supposedly there were 33 murders. That would amount to about one murder every 17 days. Are there solid stats on this kind of thing? It seems unbelievable that would be allowed to happen.

    1. The murder rate in US prisons is 4 per 100,000 prisoners, lower than the overall murder rate in the US.

  15. What I found surprising was how [lousy|lazy] the Metafilter crowd is at web research — namely, their attempts to quantify Michigan prison deaths. Took about 3 minutes to find this.

    Executive summary: In 2009, for Michigan prisoners there were 18 reported assaults ‘resulting in death or serious physical injury,’ 1 accidental death, 160 deaths from natural causes, and 6 suicides. (There were also 85 drug overdoses, but the report doesn’t indicate how many, if any, were fatal, or if fatal O/Ds might also be counted in other categories. Also, these counts are based on ‘critical incident reports’ anf not ‘critical incidents’ — that is, one report could incorporate multiple incidents — but short of an out-and-out attempt to deceive the legislature, I find it hard to imagine a circumstance where, for instance, multiple assaults resulting in death would be folded into a single incident report.)

    There’s certainly nothing here to change the general MeFi consensus of this being fiction — just a way to argue the point without coming across as such prats…

  16. Having spent two years in a moderate security prison, the majority of this post sounds like complete BS to me. Granted, there are some differences from prison to prison and state to state but I don’t imagine there are any drastic differences outside of the differences between minimum, moderate and maximum security.

    The initial top ten list had enough glaring BS in it that I didn’t even bother to read the rest, but here are my thoughts based on that list:

    If the prison smells like shit, it’s because that’s how the population wants it. The prisoners do their own cleaning, there’s no such thing as a prison janitor. One thing prisoners definitely don’t tolerate are slobs.

    He is right about prison rape being highly exaggerated. As it was explained to me shortly after I went in, there’s so many willing pieces of ass that if you get raped, you either did something extremely stupid or else you’re just claiming it was rape to save face. The racial disparity would likely depend on the state. Around here, there were very few race related problems and there was no problem interacting with people of other races.

    At one point, I thought I was becoming extremely racist but then I sat down and examined the situation and realized that it wasn’t blacks I hated, it was people from St. Louis. The whites were just as bad as the blacks. (And I’m sure there are perfectly good people from St. Louis but they’re obviously not in prison.)

    The gym equipment may vary from state to state but there was plenty of gym equipment in the three different prisons I spent time in, including a wide variety of weights and various cardio machines, including exercise bikes and treadmills. There was also a track for walking/jogging, a baseball field and another field for soccer & flag football. And even if there *wasn’t* any exercise equipment, you’d have to be pretty fucking rich to get fat in prison. They don’t exactly serve 5 course meals. With a relatively minimal amount of exercise (although more than I was getting before, granted) I lost approximately 50lbs, most of which was in the first 6 months.

    Again, I suppose solitary might vary from state to state but my experiences there were completely different from his purported experiences. First of all, prisons are way overbooked. There is no “solitary” unless you’re extremely lucky or are in serious trouble. You’ll spend most of your lockdown time with a cellmate. I had the same bedding that I had in my regular cell, they came by twice a week with a book cart and allowed you to trade out your previous book. While it wasn’t in your control, there sure as well were lights and you were allowed to having pen & paper and postal supplies. And nobody ever went into lockdown for anything other than disciplinary reasons. (I spent 30 days locked up for a fight.)

    The availability of drugs varies from prison to prison. In the three prisons I was in, there was decent access to drugs in two of the facilities. In the first one, drugs came in via the work crews that went out to clean up the highway. In the second, they came in via one of the heads of the drug rehab program, who got busted shortly before I got out.

    Again, maybe it’s a state-to-state difference but the cost of cigarettes never went up more than it did in “the real world” since they were sold in the regular canteen, legally. The only contraband that was “on the market” were things stolen from the cafeteria, primarily milk. There wasn’t much of a black market at all, except in regards to things that were formerly allowed in the prison but had since been banned. Porn magazines and non-prison-issued clothing are the two standouts.

    As far as losing everyone you ever loved, to an extent, that’s true, but it’s going to depend on the individual. I didn’t get many visits at the prison I spent most of my time at because it was several hours away from my family and a lot of trouble for them to come. My mom came as often as she could, though. When I got transferred to the prison in my dad’s city, he visited every week, often twice. My mom was still an hour and a half away but came every three weeks or so. They also made sure I always had as much money as I needed on my books. As far as friends, some wrote once or twice, some didn’t write at all. The two friends who did make a point to stay in touch fairly regularly are the two people to whom I am now extremely loyal.

    As for loneliness, it’s definitely a factor but prison is what you make of it. There were guys with whom I would consider just as much my friends as I would have people on the outside. There were people I worked out with, played games with and just sat around talking shit with. There were times when I cried myself to sleep, wanting to go home, as well. I never saw any evidence of prison guards trying to initiate problems between people, though. All that would do is make more work for themselves.

    The death shit is absolutely complete bullshit, as has already been demonstrated. I saw several fights, was in one myself (a guy broke into my storage locker (funny how easy it is to pick a Masterlock combination lock) and I had to either stand up for myself or be a target from then on out) but they were far from a common occurrence and rarely escalated into anything serious.

    As for getting out, it can definitely be an issue and some people can never adjust properly but those people either had completely fucked up lives before getting in trouble or else have been in for a hell of a lot longer than 2 years. But there’s one glaring mistake in his #1 item that proves that the entire thing is a crock of shit. He states that he’s on parole but had nowhere to stay, so he had to get a motel room. There is absolutely no prison that will release you until you’ve provided an approved address to the parole board.

    The one thing I tell people when they ask me what prison is like is that it’s absolutely nothing like you see on TV. Maybe if you’re in a maximum security prison in California, NY or Texas, it’ll be semi-accurate, but for the most part, TV prisons, like everything else on TV, are a fabrication. Hell, I never even saw any bars until my last few months when I got a job cleaning the infirmary. They had bars on the shower doors. (Oh, hey, there’s a major myth. Two of the three prisons I was at had “private” one man showers. The third had a communal shower room but people generally took turns and there were rarely ever more than two people in the shower, several units apart.)

    As I said before, prison is what you make of it. Most people just fuck off and waste their time. Other people genuinely change their lives for the better. As for me, my life wasn’t too messed up before I got in trouble and my crime was relatively minor. Had a cop just knocked on my door and told me to stop, that probably would have been the end of my stupidity. But every once in awhile, I’ll actually get nostalgic for prison. Especially when I look over my reading list and see that I read exactly 100 books in 2006. But much like when I start missing my ex-girlfriends, I stop and force myself to remember all of the shitty things and that wipes away any desire I might have to go back.

  17. What no one has mentioned yet that I feel I should, as a 7-year 4channer and proud /b/tard. If my memory serves me correctly, two or three years ago someone came on /b/ and revealed he was going to prison that day or the next day, and was begging for help about how he could avoid being eaten alive in prison.

    I haven’t read the link, I always assume everything on /b/ is false, but I just wanted to point out that it could be the same guy. If nothing else, it could be someone who bode his time to make a spinoff thread years later.

    Regardless, I always find it hilarious and amazing when the “big boys” pick up on 4chan bullshit. It almost makes selling my soul for some Funions and a bottle of jalapeño lube worth it.

  18. I truly want to believe it – it makes for an interesting read – but a bit of digging makes me think it’s got to be BS. If you do a Google search for just about any unique-ish phrase in the story, how come nothing turns up at all from before the teamliquid post?

    Also I don’t know if there is anything to it, but there is this:
    Someone reposted it in another forum 20 minutes after the one on teamliquid. Could be down to a difference in the location of the servers, but if they are in the same timezone then doesn’t 20 minutes from post to repost seem a little quick? Esp. when you include reading time.

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