Mitch Album once wrote a book about people he would like to meet in heaven. Here are some of the types of people I’ve met in prison. You may have met some or all of them on the streets because they are no different except for the circumstances.
The first person is almost a stereotypical persona, the Jail House Lawyer. Now everyone who has ever encountered the criminal justice system may want to see either their defense attorney or the Prosecutor behind bars, but I’m not talking about professional lawyers. The Jail House Lawyer has no formal education in the law. They have learned their craft by working on their own appeals. They spend long hours in the prison law library researching legal precedence. Dedicated to winning their freedom they will go to almost any length to exploit any perceived loophole in the law.
Jail House Lawyers are a close-knit group and pass around any trick that seems to work, such as specific case law, particularly effective verbiage or legal reasoning. They also trade what few law books and legal writer’s guides that are owned personally. However, by and large they must rely on the incomplete, outdated, and difficult to use law library resources as they duel with the prosecutors and Attorney General.
Many of these Jail House Lawyers have gone into business for themselves by selling their services to other inmates. They are confident that your case has merit and would be glad to pursue your case for you for a fee. Many inmates are indigent or nearly so with families that are unable to afford professional legal services. To these the Jail House Lawyers may be the only alternative. With the low education and IQ level of many inmates, conducting their own legal defense is beyond their ability.
Typically, the Jail House Lawyer will require you to pay up front by having your people put money in his trust account. They don’t work for Zum-Zum’s and Wam-Wam’s. In prison there is no guarantee that you will be in the same housing unit let alone facility from one day to the next, so there is a great risk in using their services.
There is also a matter of trust. You must bare your criminal soul to another inmate. You must give them access to your legal documents and hope they don’t end up hanging from the fences for everyone to see.
Wherever there are lawyers there are politicians, and in prison these are called Block Representatives. Each housing Unit elects a “White” and “Non-White” Block Rep to serve a six- month term on the Warden’s Forum. The Warden’s Forum is a mechanism by which inmates may have some limited input into prison life.
The Warden’s Forum is comprised of various subcommittees which meet to discuss issues such as chow hall food, commissary, Prisoner Benefit Fund fundraisers, and health care. A representative staff member is appointed to meet with the subcommittee to respond to the issues presented. The Warden then responds to the items that are reported out of each subcommittee.
What looks good on paper may not function so well in reality. Wardens tend to be autocratic and many items of business that would appear to be legitimate are denied on specious grounds. The Warden’s favorite word is ‘No’ citing security, policy, or perniciousness. From the inmate’s perspective when the Warden says ‘No’ it is because the Block Rep didn’t do his job. He didn’t explain or defend their position properly. There are neither Republicans or Democrats in prison only Libertarians. There is always someone who thinks he can do a better job than the Block Rep currently in office.
Voting for Block Rep is often a popularity contest, and what they say about politicians in the real world is also true in prison: “Those most qualified for the job are too smart to run for office.” The reality of the situation is that those Block Reps that raise the most fuss or fight the biggest battles are frequently branded as trouble makers by the administration and rode off the compound. Being a Block Rep can be a thankless job that only earns you a certificate of participation for your file.
Another person I’ve met in prison is the Rap Star. They provide their own soundtrack wherever they go. With or without accompaniment they are continuously rapping lyrics out loud. Sometimes it is a whole song, sometimes just a phrase. They may be living in their own little world, but they like to share it with everyone.
Don’t get me wrong, some of these Rap Stars could be legitimate musicians, with incredibly gifted voices, and possess musical talent and the soul of a poet. It is unfortunate that the majority of these wanna be rap stars do not. One detractor of the Rap Star put it this way: “I’m not going to know what to do in the bathroom when I get home because there won’t be someone in the next stall rapping.”
Someone who is frequently found in association with the Rap Star is the Foley Artist. The Foley Artist provides the beat by banging on any surface that resonates, such as table tops and desks. They also provide the laugh track to any conversation. They laugh out loud just like a studio audience. Boisterous at all times they do not have an indoor voice and can be heard clearly across a crowded room or the yard.
Foley Artists can also be crude and obscene in their language, making catcalls after females either live or on TV. They are marked by a distinct lack of social grace, having been raised on the streets. Roused by sex and violence, in large numbers they become a mob.
Someone else I’ve met in prison is the Hustler. Their goal is to become a millionaire. They have no starting capital, no outside support, and no formal education. Some Hustlers have long term plans and identify under-served markets which they can exploit. Others are just chasing a dream hoping that whatever they do will make money.
In prison, most Hustlers are involved in illicit activity. Morals are distinctly lacking in those seeking easy money. They work hard to avoid working a regular job. Hustles may involve stolen food from the chow hall. Black market goods are big business and generally involve organized groups rather than individuals to move large quantities of goods including: sugar, orange juice, meat, cheese, peanut butter, drink mix, onions, peppers and spices. Lax security and staff willing to turn a blind eye make it possible. Just about anything from the chow hall is available for sale on the yard, except for potatoes which nobody wants.
Bulk quantities are broken down for sale in smaller amounts such as kool-aid shots, or what can be quickly consumed. For items such as sugar and orange juice the bulk quantities are necessary to create ‘spud juice.’ Spud juice is prison alcohol and contrary to its name rarely contains potatoes.
Pricing is directly related to the risk factor. Items like drink mix and peanut butter have equivalent items on the commissary list and by repackaging can be held safely, therefor the cost will be relatively low. Items like sugar and orange juice are converted into a high demand high risk product that requires time to produce and carries a significant penalty if caught in your possession, therefor the cost will be higher.
Other hustles may be of a legal or quasi-legal nature such as selling coffee shots or cutting hair. Coffee is a must have for many inmates and when your supply runs out you look for someone selling coffee shots. Coffee is an item available on the commissary, so the coffee hustler must purchase his supply and turns a profit by selling it one cup at a time for more than the bag cost to purchase.
While there is a barbershop on the compound, many inmates prefer to use a freelance barber or hair braider. This entrepreneur uses their talent to make money by providing a service. Generally, a decent haircut in the barbershop you are going to have to pay the barber anyway, so the quasi-legal practice of cutting hair in the unit or on the yard is widely practiced, even if it is against policy and depending on the facility may or may not be enforced.
In prison many people undergo some form of religious conversion. Jail house religion is a hot topic for debate. While it may be a life changing experience for some, for others it may only be a cultural experience that is quickly forgotten when they go home. One thing is for certain, on every compound you will run across a Preacher. I’m not referring to the chaplain or an inmate who is an ordained minister. I’m referring to a religious zealot. Someone who loudly proclaims their beliefs. Preachers can be Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Moorish Science, or Nation of Islam. They hold firmly to their religious beliefs and will debate any and all comers.
Preachers may or may not be active in the leadership or body of their religious affiliation. Sometimes their beliefs have brought them into conflict with other believers and they may be ostracized from the group. They are unique individuals clearly identified by their manor of speech and willingness to speak boldly about their faith.
The Bible says that no man can judge the heart, only God can, so I can say nothing about their motivation. Many speak of going into ministry when they get out, even when they have a history of being in and out of prison repeatedly. Some are thought of as hypocrites because their words and lifestyle don’t align or because of their criminal conviction. Prison Preachers are not well thought of by the general population and are often singled out for abuse. While earnest in their attempts at proselytizing they can do more harm than good on behalf or representing their religion.
Someone else I’ve net in prison is the Graphic Artist. This person was probably a graffiti artist on the streets and generally has some true artistic talent. Their skills are generally expressed in one of three ways, they are either into tattoos, painting, or greeting cards.
Those Graphic Artists that want to pursue tattooing in prison are taking up a high risk, high reward occupation. To be caught tattooing is a major ticket and will send you to the hole. However, it is very profitable and is in high demand. Prison tattoos for many inmates are a rite of passage or symbols of gang affiliation. For some they are addictive as the turn their whole bodies into works of art. Tattooing requires equipment that is not legal to possess including needles and body ink. Electric beard trimmers are often stolen to be turned into tattoo guns. Body ink must be manufactured and subsequently varies widely in quality. Prison tattoos can be distinguished from street tattoos because the ink color often fades quickly. Many people with prison tattoos talk about getting them touched up when they get out.
The problem with permanent art is that there can be no room for mistakes. Tattooing must be conducted in secrecy and is frequently performed in short bursts of activity between officer rounds in the housing unit. Large projects may take weeks to complete. More than one person is walking around in prison with incomplete tattoos because they got caught or rode out before it was done.
Without all the accouterments of a tattoo parlor it is easy for a design to be poorly placed or sized, words can be misspelled or designs look like they are drawn by a kindergartner. What looked good on paper may not look so good on skin. Very few people think about what a tattoo will look like on their body 20 or 40 years from now.
Then there is the whole issue of disease. Hepatitis, HIV, MERSA and other diseases can be spread easily through shared needles or open wounds. Hygiene and medical supplies that are available are not adequate to safely minimize the risk of infection, yet there are always inmates willing to take the risk.
The painter is the truest form of Artist. There are even art shows in which drawings and paintings can be exhibited for cash prizes and sale to the public. Additionally, they will take commissioned projects from inmates who want a photograph of their loved ones turned into a portrait. The painter can legally sell their works and transfer ownership so the only risk is that of the art critic.
The Graphic Artist that specializes in greeting cards can have a good little hustle. For a modest investment in art supplies they can feed themselves by selling a card a day for $1 in food. Everyone has a Hallmark holiday or family occasion that needs to be commemorated.
These are poor examples of what a prison greeting card might look like. By no stretch of the imagination would I consider myself an artist. I could never make a living at drawing, but I know a number of guys who do.
These artists ply their trade in the day room and on the yard, displaying their works in a cash and carry business. Most will take commissioned works to customize a card with names, colors, and special designs. The quality and variety of cards varies greatly from artist to artist. But with all greeting cards “it is the thought that counts.”
Another person that I’ve net in prison is the Dramatic Actor, always playing the tough guy. They portray themselves to be “Dirty Harry”, a mob boss, or a gangster. Their favorite saying is “coming to prison is no time to get scared.” Violence is their solution to every problem they encounter. Possessing only a limited vocabulary and no coping skills, they are angered easily and rapidly escalate to fighting. Intimidation works for them frequently when the person they have confronted has better sense than to engage them.
The Dramatic Actor plays the role of the stereotypical inmate. They refuse to cooperate with staff on principle. They have the “us” versus “them” mentality. They will ridicule those who do cooperate and seek to punish those inmates who they perceive are enforcing the rules or won’t look the other way. An example of this is when the Dramatic Actor comes to the chow hall and demands that the line server put an extra serving or cookie on his tray. If the line server complies and gets caught it will cost him his job. On the other hand, he will face verbal abuse- threats and possibly even physical abuse on the yard later if he doesn’t comply. For some working in the kitchen is not an option simply because they have no desire to be beat up over a cookie or a hot dog.
These Dramatic Actors typically don’t perform in private, only in public. One-on-one they may actually be congenial, but when they are in front of their homeboys they always act tough.
I can’t help but go back to their favorite saying about coming to prison is no time to get scared, because that is what many of them are. They find safety in numbers by joining a gang. By acting tough many are hoping they can bluff their way through any situations that arise.
Another actor that I’ve encountered is the Comedian. Rather than violence, the Comedian seeks to defuse the situation with humor or attack with sarcasm. The Comedian is more intellectual than the Dramatic Actor, however it is still just an act. Rarely do you ever see the real person, just the persona.
The Comedian always has a joke or funny story to tell, but for some reason I’ve encountered very few that make puns. This may be related to the lower overall level of education and command of the subtler aspects of the English language. There are two types of Comedians- those that use self-deprecating humor and act like the clown and those that are insult comics wielding humor like a weapon.
The Clown will use humor as a way of making themselves less threatening. They try to lighten up the mood of any situation with a humorous insight, observation, or speculation. They want people to laugh with them and if necessary at them to avoid conflict. The Clown tends to be more of a loner or hangs out with a small group of like-minded individuals, just trying to go home.
The Insult Comic has a dark side. They see the negative in everything or anyone. Their vocabulary can be caustic and foul. Their subject matter is generally not suited for mixed audiences. To them humor is an instrument of war, as cruel as a knife or club, every blow is a low blow and every cut draws blood. They tend to hang out with the Dramatic Actors and are just another member of the gang.
The last type of person I’ve met in prison is the Invisible Man. The ghost who just passes’ through unnoticed. They are anonymous, quiet as a church mouse and seek to stay out of the way. Nobody knows their name, let alone who they are. They don’t make friends and have few associates in prison. They keep a low profile and have no interest in leaving their mark. Being incarcerated is not a badge of honor but rather a deep shame that can’t end soon enough.
The Invisible Man may have been the exact opposite out in the world. A successful business man, a family man, outgoing and carefree. However, they have been profoundly affected by the criminal justice system. For some this is only a temporary condition, while for others they will be changed for the rest of their lives. For most prison is like a nightmare and when they wake up it will be just a bad memory that fades. For a few it will haunt them for years to come.
There are certainly other types of people in prison, but by now you’ve noticed the trend. Not everyone is who they portray themselves to be. Prison is a microcosm of the free world. The only difference is that these people have been caught and convicted, while for others it is only a matter of time.