The term used for new inmates is “fish.” The length of time one is considered a fish varies. It depends on the individual and how quickly they integrate into prison culture. It also depends to a great extent on who is passing judgement. An old timer doing life might judge another’s level of integration harsher than someone doing two or five years.
It used to be really easy to pick out the fish because of the number on the back of their uniform. A few years ago, the Quartermaster stopped painting numbers on the backs of shirts and pant legs as a cost saving move. Uniform pants, shirts, coats, and athletic shorts are reissued over and over. By not painting numbers they also don’t have to cover them up.
In the eight years I was in prison the ID number count went up 200,000 numbers and was about to exceed 1,000,000. Each number represents a new felon being enrolled in the MDOC system, even those who don’t actually serve time in prison. My lifer level II bunkie had a 200,000 number from the late 1970s and a friend who came to prison around the year 2000 had a mid-600,000 number. Clearly the number assignment is accelerating. Lots of fish.
A saying about those who hadn’t served a year in prison yet is that “they’re still sh*#ing Burger King.” A reference to the amount of time it takes to completely flush meat from the colon. Not a pleasant thought but I heard it over and over. Another case of the philosophy, “If you say something often enough it must be true.”
Now there is a steep learning curve for those coming to prison for the first time. Prison isn’t like the free world and it takes longer for some to figure that out. The basic principle of prison is that someone else makes all the major decisions for you. This concept if very difficult for control freaks to grasp. The rules of the MDOC are printed in black and white in the form of a Prisoner Handbook. While this establishes the expectations of the administration there isn’t a guide for how to interact with other inmates in reality.
When a person first comes to prison they literally arrive with just the clothes on their back and then those are taken away. They gave me a tooth brush and a tiny tube of toothpaste that wouldn’t last a week. I had to write a kite to the Chaplin to get a Bible. If I hadn’t arrived with a check from the county jail for deposit into my inmate trust account I would have been unable to go to the commissary for weeks. Fish have nothing, no personal clothing like sweats or athletic shoes, no radio, MP3 player or TV, no food or coffee. The Protestant church in prisons that I was incarcerated in had a “love box” where inmates could donate hygiene items like toothpaste, deodorant, or soap specifically to help the new arrivals and the indigent.
Besides having nothing, fish don’t know the rhyme or rhythm of prison. Where and when to go for callouts. What time is count. They have a lot of work to do to establish a daily routine. Routine is the key to making your time in prison both productive and pass quicker. It takes time to get a job or school assignment. Depending on your classification and the waiting list it could be weeks to months or even years before you are called.
I was a tutor and it took about a year both times I was on the waiting list. To be a unit porter I started work in less than a month. The lower qualification jobs have a higher turnover rate. Both because of the transient nature of prison and guys being terminated for various reasons.
Fish make mistakes. Either they are too zealous to make a name for themselves by resisting authority or they are too eager to please. There is a lot to learn trying to fit in. There is an uneasy path between cooperation, capitulation and defiance to either the jailers or the inmates
Determining who you can trust and who you need to keep an eye on is an important lesson. It can be very expensive when you chose poorly. Personal agendas, gang affiliation and debts can affect a person and make them act in unpredictable ways. I had several bunkies steal from me to pay their debts. They were fairly normal and we got along fine but under pressure their behavior changed and they did something I could not anticipate.
You need to have a healthy paranoia, develop a sixth sense of danger to keep you out of trouble. Fish are thrown into a sink or swim situation and find themselves in over their heads, which is ironic. They need to learn to feel the energy in the room and sense the mood of the crowd. Being new they haven’t had the chance to tap into the gossip network to find out who’s who and what’s what.
What a fish needs is a mentor. Someone who is willing to take the time to educate them. I was fortunate to have a couple of bunkies that helped me through the process. They introduced me to others that I could hang out with. Being able to surround yourself with people you can get along with is very important. There is safety in numbers and it really helps with the loneliness and isolation of being in prison.