How to Go to Jail

The surprisingly robust genre of prison survival guides.

Prison survival guides cover topics like how to spend money at the commissary, how to get along with your cellmate, and how to navigate the black market.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by John Mcallister/Thinkstock.

If you’ve never been to prison, you have no idea what prison is like. No matter how many episodes of Orange Is the New Black you’ve binge-watched, the experience of life behind bars is basically unfathomable to those of us who have only ever known freedom. So when first-time offenders find themselves locked up, they enter the system not knowing what to expect, how to behave, or how to keep themselves safe.

Last week, The Marshall Project published a pair of extraordinary 20-minute videos about what inmates must do in order to avoid becoming victims of sexual abuse. The videos, which were produced through a federal grant under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, will be shown in institutions across New York state and feature incredibly detailed advice from inmates, some of whom have been sexually assaulted, about how to protect oneself from predators while incarcerated.

“You might find a pack of cigarettes or a candy bar or something on your bed—don’t eat it,” one inmate says. “Take it off your bed, put it in front of your cell and just leave it as it is. Because if you take that, that can be a debt that you can’t pay back. It might cost you $1,000 … and if you can’t pay back the debt, then they’ll want other things.”

Another inmate weighs in on shower protocol: “A predator will use the shower as an opportunity to get close; don’t let him,” he says. “Never have a conversation with an inmate in an adjacent shower and do not accept T-shirts, boxers, shower slippers, or soap items from another inmate; those are sure signs of a predator that’s getting too close.”

To watch these videos, which were directed by prison rape survivor T.J. Parsell, is to gain a visceral appreciation of how intensely stressful and confusing it must be for newcomers to navigate prison life. Parsell, however, is not the first person to address this reality. It turns out that prison survival guides aimed at nervous, naive new inmates constitute a fairly robust genre.

Most of these guides are written by ex-convicts, and they are marketed as unflinchingly candid and specific in a way that’s only possible because they’re based on personal experiences. One short guide, available as a $4 e-book, offers advice on how to spend money at the commissary (“if you have a little extra money left over, purchase your tennis shoes, sweat suits and shorts, that way you can live a little comfortable”), how to get along with your cellmate (“Remember, you will have to share a bathroom sized space with this man who can either become someone that could ease the time OR become your WORST NIGHTMARE!!!”), and how to avoid confrontations (“DO NOT REPEAT any gossip”). Another book promises to make readers “stronger going in than most new inmates” and to show them “what its going to take… what to know… and of course, what to forget.” A third is advertised as giving “insight into the mindset of hardened prison survival masters” on how to “avoid any unnecessary pain and anguish while incarcerated.”

The most elaborate prison manual is Federal Prison: A Comprehensive Survival Guide, written by former federal inmate Jonathan Richards, and it has circulated widely enough to be reviewed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. In it, Richards walks readers through the experience of arriving at prison, eating in the mess hall, getting assigned a job, receiving visits from family members, integrating into existing groups of friends, and receiving medical care. According to the website where Richards sells his book for the low, low price of $197, the 420-page volume includes lessons on “how to watch TV as a new inmate without triggering a confrontation,” “how to navigate the black market,” and how to “save big on prison phone calls.”

Perhaps the most interesting example of a prison guide is “Survival in Solitary,” published by a Quaker organization called American Friends Service Committee and distributed to inmates for free through the mail. The book was first published in 1999, and it consists mostly of letters and testimonials written by inmates who have spent time in solitary confinement in facilities all across the country.

“It’s very practical: if someone owns your body, how do you stay healthy?” the manual’s editor, Bonnie Kerness, told me. “Some of it is about staying street-oriented—reading the newspaper. Some of it is creating a program for yourself. I worked with one man who spent 22 years in isolation and he would get up and he would listen to National Public Radio for an hour, and he would work out for an hour, and then he would write letters, and then he would clean his cage. He had a day that he planned.”

Kerness says she sends the manual to anyone who writes to her organization asking for one. Until recently she had no trouble getting the materials into people’s hands, but recently, she says she has started receiving pushback from some facilities.

“People inside write to us—and then what it seems like is they pass it around and somebody will get the address and write to us requesting it,” Kerness said. “One person sent me a list of about 40 women who wanted it, so I’ve been sending them in, maybe two or three a week so as not to draw too much attention.”

Interestingly, Amazon reviews for some of the volumes described here reveal that prison survival guides aren’t just for the incarcerated: They also seem to appeal to outsiders who are curious about a a world they hope never to inhabit. “Although I don’t expect to be in prison any time soon I picked this book up and didn’t put it down until I had read every word,” one reviewer writes, about A. Pisano’s Prison Guide. “I’ve always been fond of survival manuals of the type that recommend eating cattail roots and making tea out of bark, but this guide is something completely different,” writes another, about Federal Prison: A Comprehensive Survival Guide.

Whether reading these books just for fun amounts to voyeurism, or reflects a desire to build empathy for a population whose lives are lived entirely out of sight, probably depends on the reader. Regardless, they are fascinating and unusual documents that promise to expand our understanding of incarceration as it is experienced by real people.