“Is prison scary?” That’s a question people ask me all the time. And no, it’s really not. Or at least, in women’s prison it’s not scary in the ways you’d expect. For the most part, it’s just really, really bizarre.
I did a little under two years in New York State prisons after getting arrested for heroin possession in 2010. Although my life before my arrest contained all the typical kinds of weirdness that are part and parcel of being an active addict – SWAT raids, boyfriends who hallucinate SWAT raids, boyfriends who hallucinate bears, boyfriends who hallucinate bats, boyfriends whose bat hallucinations caused me to hallucinate bats – prison was a whole different kind of weird.
My first permanent housing assignment once I was transferred from county jail to state prison was in unit L2 at Albion Correctional Facility in upstate New York. In that unit, I was housed next to someone who punched another girl for invading her dreams. That bears repeating: for invading her dreams.
Not long after I’d been housed on L2, a dispute broke out on the neighboring unit and someone saw fit to solve the problem by taking a dump on another person’s bed. Although I thought the bed-shitter must have had some serious mental health issues, I later learned the incident was not unprecedented and may not have actually reflected so much on the questionable mental health of the perpetrator as it did on the questionable mores of prison life.
Some of the other bizarre mores and norms in prison life relate to sexuality. In women’s prisons, there’s a saying: “Gay for the stay, straight at the gate.” Everybody, you see, has a prison girlfriend. Unlike in fictional prison depictions, there is not a Big Bertha who will make you her bitch. Relationships are voluntary and you can’t get tricked into becoming someone’s girlfriend by accepting a pack of cigarettes left on your bed. That’s a myth.
The prevalence of same-sex relationships – among people who were straight on the outside and who will go back to boyfriends or husbands upon their release – endows otherwise normal interactions with extra meaning. It’s not quite the same as living in a community that is primarily composed of lesbians; it’s more like living in a community of inept lesbians. That is, normally straight women who are “gay for the stay” tend to hit on you in awkward and vague ways. So it’s not always clear when someone is hitting on you – at least not until you understand the rules of the game.
On the outside, if another woman stares at you for too long, you might think they just have a staring problem – or maybe they have a problem with you. If another woman stares at you for too long in prison, there’s a good chance she’s checking you out. (Unless you’ve slept with her woman, in which case she is probably plotting revenge.)
On the outside, if a woman gives you a granola bar, she is just being nice. On the inside, if a women gives you a granola bar, she’s hitting on you.
On the outside, if a woman talks about a boyfriend, it generally means she is not a lesbian. In prison, it means no such thing. In fact, sometimes boyfriends can be part of the pick-up line. A potential girlfriend may seem more attractive if she has someone on the outside sending her money and packages. Also, the presence of a boyfriend makes it clear that this is just “gay for the stay,” which is important to some women who want to maintain some illusion of straight-ness.
Of course, sexuality is just one example of the way in which prison norms seem strange at first. There are all sorts of colloquialisms, etiquette, and social conventions that are unique to prison and seem incredibly bizarre when you’d first introduced to them. Overall, I’d be far more inclined to use the word “bizarre” to describe prisons than I would the word “scary.”
However, although prison was more bizarre than scary, I have to admit that I lived in constant fear – but not of the things you typically envision as being prison problems. I was not generally worried about getting raped by other inmates (although that was briefly a concern, it certainly was not a standard state of affairs – it was just a result of one especially deranged inmate with a crush and a prison strap-on). I was not particularly worried about getting beaten up. I wasn’t worried about becoming someone’s “bitch.” I was scared of going to solitary.
See, in many states – New York included – you can go to solitary for some pretty trivial stuff. Some reasons for being put in solitary confinement include having too many stamps, helping other inmates with legal paperwork, and being “out of place” or not where you’re supposed to be. People tend to think of solitary as being a punishment that’s only used for the worst of the worst, but in fact it’s used indiscriminately and, in New York State, four out of five people in solitary confinement are there for non-violent rules violations.
What is really terrifying about it, though, is that you can go to solitary for things that are completely not your fault. If you get punched and don’t hit back, you will still go to SHU if a C.O. finds out. Thus, in the example above with the dream invasion, the girl who got punched went to solitary because the C.O. saw a black and blue which was considered an indication that she’d been in a fight. It didn’t matter who did or didn’t hit whom.
You can accidentally be out of place and end up in solitary. You can simply be suspected of something and end up in solitary. Somebody can put in the wrong paperwork and you can accidentally end up in solitary (and that actually happened to me). Solitary doesn’t necessarily sound as bad as it actually is, and the constant fear of it is a cloud hanging over you like the shadow of Mordor. That was terrifying.
So, is prison scary? I would say no. It wasn’t scary in any of the ways people think or expect when they ask if prison is scary. And, if it makes any sense, I was constantly scared, but it wasn’t scary.