Last Tuesday, I passed along tips for “true crime” writing with prison settings. These came courtesy of a former Texas state prison guard, now a member of the Southwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. Because he has received threats against his family (and now never leaves home unarmed) I identify him only by the initials SB.
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Last week’s post discussed differences between state and federal prison systems and prison housing, including those 50-bed dormitory-style accommodations for what are termed “general population” prisoners.
Now that you (or your character) are inside the walls, what will you/he/she need to know to survive the system?
“The three things you don’t do as an offender,” SB told his audience of mystery writers: “first, don’t touch anything that’s not yours; second, don’t snitch; and third, you don’t ever let it be known that you ever hurt a child, especially girls.”
The sanctity of children to prisoners may appear puzzling, given that the rape and murder of adults are virtually taken for granted in prison, but, as SB explained, “everybody has family,” and offered an anecdote to illustrate the point:
An inmate who had killed three little girls was “mistakenly classified” as a general population prisoner, instead of being sent to a unit reserved for sex offenders. Within three days, he was missing. Not in his bed, not in the dormitory, apparently vanished into thin air.
A year later, when the prison’s sewer system was being excavated because of a plumbing problem, “his jawbone was found in the sewer. His body was cut up and flushed down the toilet piece by piece.” Considering that the dismembering was accomplished largely with homemade weapons, it was an enormous job, and one that required massive cooperation between prisoners.
But was the child murderer’s inclusion in a general population prison group truly a clerical error, or was there more active involvement by those charged with guarding the inmates from each other?
It goes back to the issue of corruption among prison guards, also mentioned last week. Although the guard who left a prison minister alone outside the cell of a death row inmate, described in last week’s post, lost his job, and although SB believes prison guards are generally corrupt, “they (aren’t) prosecuted because they don’t want the public to know what scumbags they have (as guards),” he said.
And although he cited workers who allow prisoners relatively open access to contraband, or who extract sexual favors from inmates, both male and female, the term “guards” is misleading.
Unarmed except for batons and a heavy duty mace-type spray known as Cop Stop, which leaves a telltale orange residue, “(guards) don’t manage inmates,” SB said. “They (inmates) allow us to manage them.”
With an approximate 70+ percent recidivism rate, prison “isn’t about rehabilitation. It’s about warehousing.” In the event of a riot, cell blocks are generally locked down until the inmates are starved into submission.
How about prison gangs? Can a prisoner turn to them for protection against fellow inmates?
“The gangs are about commerce,” SB said, the movement of cash, cell phones, drugs and other contraband within a prison. And yes, they're even more violent than you've heard. “You used to think the Aryan Brotherhood was the most violent," SB said. "Compared to the (Hispanic) Tango Blast and the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood are girl scouts.”
But that’s not something you want to say inside the walls.
(Want more true crime information for your story settings? At this site, see “Writings with prison settings, part I,” September 27, 2016; “What happens at a crime scene,” May 27, 2013, and “What happens at a crime scene, II, June 10, 2016; “Bringing crime fiction into the 21st century,” August 4, 2014; and “The need to belong: drinking the Kool-Aid,” April 7, 2015.)