How to Survive Prison

by RupertTaylor

Being in prison is totally unlike life on the outside so it’s best to be prepared for being incarcerated; some well-heeled criminals even hire prison coaches

Nobody behind bars wants to be there. Prison is a very unpleasant place. Ex-cons complain about the noise: prisoners yelling at each other; prisoners yelling at no one; metal doors banging closed; bells and buzzers; and, what one former inmate described as “the deafening noise of hatred.” There’s the boredom; long, long hours to fill with nothing to do. The smell, sometimes described as a mixture of dirty socks and Lysol, is frequently mentioned. It’s an environment that’s completely alien to regular folk.

Violence is a Constant Problem

There are lots of people behind bars who see assault as a cure to most of life’s frustrations

Prisons are violent places. In Canada, the likelihood of an inmate dying from a non-natural cause is eight times higher than in the population as a whole. Suicides, murders, and accidents happen more frequently in prisons than outside. Beatings are commonplace.

The Office of the Correctional Investigator keeps an eye on conditions inside Canada’s prisons. For years, the Office has expressed its concern about the safety of inmates. The 2005-06 Annual Report was no exception: “The overall level of violence in penitentiaries remains unacceptably high.”

Writing for Mother Jones (May 2013) James Ridgeway and Jean Casella note that being incarcerated should not include “being raped by fellow prisoners or staff, beaten by guards for the slightest provocation, driven mad by long-term solitary confinement, or killed off by medical neglect. These are the fates of thousands of prisoners every year…”

Prisoner Sexual Assault

Newcomers are rightly terrified of being raped in prison

Here’s Jamie Fellner writing for The Daily Beast (September 2013): “The most recent national survey of inmates by the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that in 2011-12, an estimated four percent of federal and state inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual abuse within the past 12 months…”

Others say the incidence of prison rape is way higher. Researchers at the University of South   Dakota surveyed seven Midwestern prisons and found that “21 percent of the inmates had experienced at least one episode of pressured or forced sexual contact since incarcerated…” The researchers add the caveat that the occurrence of prison rape is “one of the most illusive statistics in the criminal justice field.”

In prison lingo “Punks” are people who become the “girlfriend” of another inmate as a form of protection; those in the know so this is never a good strategy. Punks are despised and become the slaves of their “owners” who might sell them to another inmate or gamble them away in a card game.

Former prisoners offer advice in online forums on how to avoid being a victim of sexual assault. The most important rule is to never show weakness or vulnerability. Crying will almost certainly make someone a target.

Working out is also highly recommended; physically fit inmates are better able to defend themselves and deter assaults before they happen.

In the U.S. the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, is supposed to have brought an end to the traumatizing and humiliation of prison sexual assaults. However, Jamie Fellner says “It’s still horrifyingly common.”

Coaching for Incarceration

For first-time inmates the prison environment can be a terrible shock, so some white-collar crooks with money are turning to prison coaches to prepare them for their new lives

A few days before he began serving his 150-year sentence for fraud Bernard Madoff (right) sought the services of a prison coach. Herb Hoelter told Associated Press how he helped Madoff get ready for life inside the Butner prison complex in North   Carolina.

Hoelter, who has never been incarcerated, said he told Madoff he would not be a target for other inmates and should be safe from violence. He said Madoff was not afraid about spending the rest of his life behind bars.

Writing in The New York Post Douglas Montero had a different view. He quotes “a source who has a relative locked up with the 71-year-old Madoff” as saying, “Some of the guys were talking about smacking him around a little, just to get the notoriety of it.”

And so it was that in March 2010, The Telegraph reported that “Madoff, 71, suffered a broken nose, fractured ribs, and cuts to his head and face after he was reportedly attacked last December by a prisoner who believed Madoff owed him money.”

Prison overcrowding leads to tension and tension leads to violence
Prison overcrowding leads to tension and tension leads to violence

Preparation the Key to Survival

Steven Oberfest trains his clients to be ready for the rough stuff

Oberfest has some experience to draw on as he spent time in a federal prison in Pennsylvania.

Oberfest told Rich Schapiro of The New York Daily News (July 2009) that his white-collar clients “have never been in a fight in their lives - they don’t know what violence is, and now they’re entering a world where anything can happen.”

Oberfest charges his clients $200 an hour for advice on how to survive inside prison. There are rules on prison etiquette that the unwary had better learn fast: “If you’re confused about something, you can’t go to a correction officer and ask him what’s happening because the other inmates will think you’re a snitch.” Snitches are among the most loathed of all inmates and come in for the worst abuse.

But, according to Oberfest the most important skill to learn is self-defence. As a mixed martial arts expert he teaches his clients “how to instantly drop an attacker.”

If someone is able to humiliate the new inmate on his first day, “that just opens the door for everybody not to respect you. The most important thing is mutual respect.”

Others say that if a fight seems inevitable be the first to swing a punch. If you lose and get bloodied do not yell for help from the guards, this will mark you as a snitch.

Another rule is do not discuss your crime, especially if it’s sexual and double especially if it involved children. Such a revelation will guarantee being beaten up or killed. Do not ask other inmates about their crimes.

Steven Oberfest Puts a Client Through His Prison Preparation

Self Improvement is Important

Sitting in your cell bemoaning your fate is a sure way to make your sentence pass slowly

Those who have survived a long stretch behind bars say a good strategy is to use the time positively by learning a new language or even working on getting a university degree.

Michael Santos served a 25-year sentence for trafficking cocaine. He writes (Business Insider, September 2013) “The key to avoiding monotony was to work toward clearly identified goals. As long as I knew the goals that I wanted to achieve, I could always move forward, knowing precisely what I would have to do the next day.”

Santos earned a university degree while inside. He also said it was important to work on his mental and physical fitness.

But, improving personal education requires discipline and intelligence, a couple of qualities often missing in the average inmate.

For the average person, going to prison will be a very difficult experience but it’s best to be aware of what lies ahead rather than get a horrible surprise when it happens.


“Prison Coach: Bernard Madoff Was not Afraid of Jail Sentence.” Associated Press, July 15, 2009.

“Bernie in Thugs’ Sites.” Douglas Montero, New York Post, July 20, 2009.

“Bernard Madoff Beaten up in Prison.” Tom Leonard, The Telegraph, March 18, 2010.

“America’s 10 Worst Prisons.” James Ridgeway and Jean Casella, Mother Jones, May 6, 2013.

“Shanks for the Advice: White-collar Crooks Learn Jail Survival from Ex-con.” Rich Shapiro, New York Daily News, July 19, 2009.

“Stop Prison Rape Now.” Jamie Fellner, The Daily Beast, September 4, 2013.

“No Escape.” Human Rights Watch, 2010.

“Sexual Coercion Rates in Seven Midwestern Prison Facilities for Men.” Cindy and David Struckman-Johnson, University of South Dakota at Vermillion, December 2000.

“How I Got Through 25 Years in Federal Prison.” Michael Santos, Business Insider, September 7, 2013.


Updated: 11/18/2013, RupertTaylor
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jptanabe on 11/19/2013

The thought of going to prison is utterly terrifying. I can't imagine using physical violence to defend myself. But I agree that sitting around feeling sorry for myself wouldn't help.

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