Prisoner explains what its really like in prison

Forget Hollywood, A Prisoner Shares What Life is Really Like in Prison

MONROE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, Wash. State — You’ve been in county jail, or County, for the past year. While the thought of being sent to a sprawling, mysterious and dangerous prison terrified you, this place is wearing on your sanity. You’re locked in your cell close to 20 hours a day, you’re always hungry and the guards are unapologetic assholes. The guys who’ve been to the joint before claim they’re much more respectful at your final destination.

“They have to be,” a toothless, tattooed dope fiend explained last week over a cup of lukewarm instant coffee. “Otherwise, they get their heads busted like anyone else.”

You’re here for a crime you committed out of desperation, to make ends meet, because in the free world the struggle was real. In some ways life has become easier since those cold metal bracelets were slapped around your wrists. No bills. No rent. The food may be tasteless and never filling, but at least it’s free.

Most of the time, however, you’d rather be sleeping in a dumpster than on the one-inch, plastic mattress that sits atop your metal bunk in the brick cage where you lay awake at night wondering if you’ll get raped or stabbed once you get to prison.

You’ve seen enough Hollywood movies to know crazy shit goes down on the inside. You’ve played so many scenarios out in your mind that your heart hasn’t stopped racing since you received your sentence and were informed you’d be leaving on the next chain-bus (one of those metal enclosed buses like you’ve seen on the big screen, filled with big guards who carry big guns, only without the possibility of escape as Hollywood producers dream up from the comfort of their overpriced couches).

Photo by Evgeniy Alyoshin

Keep Your Head Up, If You Can

The day comes around. You’re wide awake despite having hardly slept last night. The guys in your pod slap you on the back and tell you to keep your head up. 

One offers this gem: “Listen man, when you get here, you need to walk up to the biggest, baddest guy in the Chow Hall, throw yourself in his arms, and call him ‘Daddy.'” 

Everyone laughs, and so do you, even though your stomach is doing cartwheels.

The prison guards wait in the receiving area holding chains and your new wardrobe: Baggy, orange jumpsuits. These guards are bigger than the guards back in County. Their indifferent expressions suggest they’re here to pick up a load of trash destined for the dump. They watch you and a line of others undress. Then they toss you your suits and rubber sandals. 

The shackles are placed under the cloth — unforgiving metal on bare skin. You’re warned not to wedge any material under them. It hurts like hell on your bony ankles. A chain is tied around your waist. Then you’re handcuffed to the chain before being marched in a line with the others toward the bus one of the older guys refers to with a smile as “The Grey Goose.”

Lots of Laughter, but Nothing’s Funny Here

The ride takes a few hours, during which those around you seem to be in competition to see whose life-stories describe the worst person on the bus.

“I beat the shit out my baby-momma when I caught that bitch going through my phone!” one brags.

“I made my victim get on his knees before I blew his head off. He started crying and it only pissed me off more,” another chimes in.

“I went home with this fat chick, and when she fell asleep, I pissed in her Chanel purse and stole her car,” another recounts without a hint of remorse.

Each account fills the vehicle with sociopathic laughter. But there’s nothing funny here.

The receiving prison is located in the middle of the woods and surrounded by layers of razor-wire-covered fences and intimidating gun-towers. Guards with assault rifles wave the bus through the open gate. That’s when your heart starts skipping full beats.

All you can think is, “This is a mistake. I don’t belong here.”

“Bring me the boy!”

You’re directed onto a cell block where deep, guttural voices chant, “Bring me the boy!” Others whistle and catcall. You clutch your bedroll to your chest even though you know they’re only joking. For now.

The intake process takes a couple hours. They ask questions like, “Do you feel like hurting yourself?” and “Do you need protective custody (PC)?” to which you respond, “No,” while wondering if you were being honest with yourself.

You learned in County that convicts and guards — or “cops” as the cons call them — refer to the general population as “mainline.” Your new cell is tiny. Open bars prevent any semblance of privacy. You’ll only be here a few weeks, though, while Classification decides into which “mother institution” you’ll be filtered. Your cellmate — or “cellie” — provides some insight into your future.

“The best place to end up is camp. They take you out every day to work in the woods, cutting down trees, and you get to fight fires in the summer. You have to have under four years left on your sentence, though, so you won’t go there,” he remarks. “If you go to Medium, it’s not too bad — not too much politics and violence — but if you go to closed-custody, boy-howdy! You’ll have to join a Car.”

A “Car,” you later learn, is the term for a prison gang. They call it that because you’re all “riding” together, and whoever is calling the shots has “the keys.”

Your cellie says, “I did four years in closed-custody about 10 years ago. Rapes, stabbings and riots went down on the regular. That’s why you join a car. You’ll go to Medium, anyway. Only lifers and the real bad boys go to Closed.”

The Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington state, which is where the author, Michael J. Moore, currently is housed. Photo by Bruce Englehardt

That night he peeks through the bars. Then cuts two lines of a crystalline powder on the metal desk at the end of your bunk. He tells you one is for you, and you’re thinking, If I don’t do it, will he think I’m a rat?

Still, you respectfully decline. He shrugs, snorts both and then does push-ups until morning. The push-ups are important. 

Someone’s assaulted while eating in the Chow Hall during at least half the meals in the receiving prison. These are the people who used to ride in Cars, but made mistakes for which they were “crossed out.” Your cellie tells you because they’ve been “taken off mainline,” they’re permanently “green lit.” That if an active member sees them anywhere, the member is required to “take off” on them. Failure to do so will result in the said member being crossed out and green lit as well. Your imagination knows exactly what those terms mean.

You found out today you’re going to closed-custody. You’ll leave next week for the state Penitentiary, which you’ve heard horror stories about since you were too young to imagine living there someday. 


It’s more than a century old, and one of the county’s most notorious prisons, having had famous songs and books written about the violence said to take place within its concrete walls. You’re aware you should be more afraid than ever, but you’ve been having trouble feeling anything for weeks.

Our New World Order

The Penitentiary is its own world. The people here are so far detached from reality you might as well be living in The Twilight Zone. Everybody is perpetually pissed off — even when they joke, it’s never lighthearted. You’ve been here a few months and already narrowly avoided being caught in two race riots. One involved 12 people, the other more than 50.

The day you arrived, you were told which Car you belonged with. A young member walked you around the yard and instructed you to remove your shirt so he could see what kind of tattoos you had. Then he told you the rules:

“Workouts are mandatory. We do 45 minutes of cardio five days a week. It has to be done together — as a group — so nobody can cheat, and it has to be done before you make phone calls or do anything else. Don’t use drugs or drink, and don’t be loud before 10 a.m. or after 10 p.m.

“No sleeping during the day, and don’t ever fight anyone in the Car without getting permission from the key-holder — unless they call you a punk, bitch, snitch or rape-o. If someone calls you any of those things, take off on them then and there, because if you don’t, you’ll be considered whatever you were called, and we’ll have to put a green light on you.

“Any time your cell door is open, make sure your shoes are on. If you’re caught with your door open and shoes off, you’ll be in trouble. Mind your own business, don’t get into debt with anyone, and don’t disrespect people. Don’t let one of our members fight someone from another Car one-on-one. If it happens, we’ll jump in. 

“We have to see your sentencing paperwork, so we know you’re not a rapist or child molester, and don’t ever say someone’s a snitch unless you have paperwork to prove it. If you have the paperwork, they’ll get crossed out. If you don’t, you will. 

“Eventually you’ll have a mission – we all do. That means we’ll send you to take off on someone. Don’t refuse, or whatever was supposed to happen to him will happen to you. In fact, don’t refuse anything the key-holder tells you to do. The most important rule, though, is don’t ever tell these rules to anyone. Especially people on the outside.

“So now that you know our politics, do you want to ride with us?”

You later learned you were his mission. Had you answered, “No,” he would have assaulted you on the spot. 

The Color Guard: Racial Prison Politics

There’s more. Everything in the Penitentiary is segregated by race. The phones. The showers. The day room. Even parts of the yard are off limits to people who don’t look like you. You’re required to take off on anyone who steps into your Car’s area who doesn’t belong there.

All the Cars sell drugs. They also all have rules against using them, yet just about everybody is perpetually high out of their minds on meth, heroin or weed. Some guys use fruit and sugar to make pruno (prison wine). Everyone knows which guards are smuggling substances into the facility, and how much they’re being paid to do so. This is a profitable racket, as illicit substances sell for 10 times their street value in the Penitentiary.

The guards know, too, but they don’t speak up. The town this institution is placed in is an old-school prison community. Guards wear Department of Corrections (DOC) belt-buckles. Some have been in their families for years. They live by a code similar to that of the convicts, and therefore don’t snitch each other out. They divert attention from each other by pretending to believe contraband is coming in through visits.

Every now and then someone sparks up a relationship — physical or otherwise — with a female guard. This is a slippery slope, as it can never be just about intimacy. There are rules at play here, and it’s now his responsibility to either sweet-talk or blackmail her into bringing in drugs and cell phones. Failure to do this could get someone crossed out.

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Cell phones are much rarer than documentaries have led you to believe. They’re around, but only one in every couple hundred people might have one. They’re almost exclusively for business related to drug-smuggling, as personal calls could link back to individuals, and “bring heat” on their Cars. At five or six times their street value, however, the guards bringing them in are eating well.

The grievance system exists to air out complaints about guards, policies or departments within the prison power structure. However, filling one out, or even filing a lawsuit against the DOC earns you the label of “snitch.” That gets you crossed out. If you have an issue with a guard, you’re expected to treat him or her no differently than you would another prisoner.

Your Car has enemies. It’s another Car of the same race. “Them” and “you” have been at war since one of them cut your Car’s former key-holder’s throat in his bed 17 years ago over the profit-split in an extortion-ring. Your current key-holder once showed you stab-wounds on his abdomen — testimony to this never-ending rivalry. 

“It’s on-site anytime you see one of those bitches,” he said, “That means you gotta at the very least take off on him. If you ever come into contact with one and you don’t do anything, you’ll be crossed out. That’s why we tattoo-check everyone who shows up. To make sure it’s not one of them trying to slip something in our backs.”

New Family Matters

Phone calls and emails are overpriced. A visit would require your friends and family members making a six-hour drive, so most of them often seem to have forgotten you exist. Your Car is your family now, and you’ve become fully entrenched in its politics.

You spend your days at the pull-up bars in the yard, shirtless, gossiping about other members. You’re all searching for skeletons in each other’s closets — reasons to cross each other out.

This keeps you paranoid and looking over your shoulder, even around your own people. One wrong move, and it’ll be the person closest to you who takes you out. You’ll never know it’s coming. That’s the point. 

Photo by Carles Rabada

Stab Culture Meets Rape Culture

One thing you don’t worry about is being raped, even though a few short years ago this was common in prison. But the younger generation grew up and started stabbing the old-timers who perpetuated that culture. Any homosexual activity is now grounds for being taken off mainline.

When the day comes for you to do your mission, the target is your cellie. Somebody has shown paperwork stating he was charged with exposing himself in public as a teen. It doesn’t matter that he was drunk, urinating on a fence. This is considered a sex crime, and he has to go. The two of you have become close, so he trusts you.

Another member puts him through a grueling cardiovascular workout on the yard, while you read signs bolted to the fence stating you can be shot and killed for fighting here. Then, once he’s good and tired, you walk up behind him and do your job.

You like the guy, but you fuck him up real good. If you don’t, another member will have to jump in and help, and it will be worse for him. This is a show of force, meant to discourage any opposition to the Car.

Once you’re done, you both lay face down, handcuffed in the grass, fighting and coughing up pepper-spray. He looks into your eyes — betrayed and hurt — and though you want to apologize, you can’t because it would only get you crossed out as well. Instead, you tell him he’s a bitch. You then look away.

Photo by Tuyen Vo

Rioting in the Holidays

You should have only been in closed-custody for one year, but every infraction you incurred for your Car earned you another year. The last conflict you were in was a riot. It was on Christmas Day. When you came out of “The Hole,” you were given the keys to your Car in one of the living units. This was ultimate power. Had you desired, you could have had a cop stabbed.

A year later, you were eligible for Medium, but now you’re back in the receiving prison, pending transfer. There’s an Enemy here. Every time you look at him, you burn with contempt. You know you’re supposed to take off on him, but you also know it will get you sent back to closed-custody for another year.

He’s been eyeing you. You’re thinking he might try to stab you when you’re not looking, so you decide one day to just do it before he does. 

Then, he approaches you on the yard with his hands up and says, “Listen man, I just want to get to my mother institution and get settled in. How about this: I didn’t see you, and you didn’t see me.”

You nod and shake his hand, trying to remember what it is about him you hate.

Where Paranoia is Well Founded

In Medium, you’re paranoid. Every time someone in your Car asks if you want to work out, you think they’re plotting on you. Then, one day, your new key-holder pulls you aside and says, “Listen, everyone who comes from over there is always looking over their shoulders. You don’t have to do that here. I’m not gonna take you out unless you do something real bad.”

He doesn’t like how they run the Car in closed-custody. He tells you to stop obsessing over prison politics.

“You have a real opportunity here to do something positive. Get involved in school or something. Better yourself,” he coaches, “Leave all that other stuff behind, man. If you wanna stay out of trouble and make a positive change, I’ll support you in that. I got your back.”

Michael J. Moore
Author and TNS contributor Michael J. Moore

Guards or Dealers

In state prison, educational and religious services were infiltrated by the Cars. They all got corrupted. You attended services and watched preachers stand solemnly while gang-meetings commenced so loudly that sermons couldn’t be delivered.

In Medium, these programs thrive. Prisoners are taking college courses, getting serious about their spirituality, working full-time jobs and participating in self-help programs.

It took about a couple years in Medium for you to let go of the indoctrination you picked up in the Penitentiary and to fully embrace reform. In fact, you can’t quite pinpoint when it happened, but one day you realized you changed.

The DOC structure — from the guards to the warden — had nothing to do with it. They didn’t support or encourage you. They have no interest in your success. The guards here are no different than the ones in closed-custody. They smuggle in drugs and phones.

Mostly though, they openly hate you. Most of the positive programming here was introduced by prisoner-led organizations, and most of the people who get involved with them and then get out don’t return to prison.

You’ll be released soon as well. You can’t stomach the thought of coming back, so you’ve taken the advice of your key-holder. You’ve used your time in Medium to trade in prison politics for spirituality, education and relationship building. But you still reflect on your time as a convict.

When you’re able to get lost in thought, you always wonder why the Department of Corrections is so indifferent towards reforms yet so supportive of prisoners being their own worst enemies.

Michael J. Moore is a writer and journalist.  He's received awards for his work and been highlighted on television. He's written for various anthologies, journals, newspapers (including HuffPost) and magazines, and has been adapted for theater. His full bio is here.

Michael J. Moore is a writer and journalist.  He's received awards for his work and been highlighted on television. He's written for various anthologies, journals, newspapers (including HuffPost) and magazines, and has been adapted for theater. His full bio is here.

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