What Is It Like to Be a Geek in Prison?

Geek inmates, identifiable by their books.

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This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Mark Conway, former inmate, data scientist at RS Analytics:

What is it like to be a geek in prison? Well, as my first cellmate used to say about me: “He kind of strange, but he cool.” He got life for shooting a snitch in the head, and he was the one to greet me when I took that long walk across the floor, and yes there was laughter and snickering.

The first assumption that other inmates make is that an older white guy is a pedophile, so the first order of business is showing them your paperwork. Even then, they didn’t believe me until I got sent to the camp a few weeks later. Then a doctor decided that camp was “vacation” for me, and I was recalled back inside the fence. So, when I returned from camp, there was my old cellie waiting for me.

The so-called geeks hung out at the prison library, and real cons were loathe to step foot in the place, even though their behavior was ignorant. This attitude stems from their school days when any signs of intelligence were perceived as being part of the “system.”

But geeks have real value in prison because if you can read, write, type, or research (especially legal work), then you can possibly help them. So it was a good idea to be cool with me because I helped a lot of people with their motions and communications with the courts. And as long as you showed respect for their life on the streets, then you usually got the same respect in return.

Generally, the way prison works is that when you first get there, you sit back and observe. For example, don’t sit in the wrong chair, and move when someone politely asks you to give up the seat. Any signs of hostility will be countered with hostility. Keep it moving, and keep it friendly. Be wary of people who approach you, and let it happen naturally.

As Michael Douglas said in the sequel to Wall Street, “Prison is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Given my crime, I always thought about Robert DeNiro’s character in Cape Fear when he got out of prison and approached Nick Nolte in his car: “You gonna learn about loss.” Exactly right. Loss of freedom, loss of friends, etc.

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