VICE is looking inside America's prison system in the week leading up to our Special Report with President Obama for HBO. Tune in Sunday, Sept. 27 at 9pm EST to see his historic first-ever presidential visit to a federal prison.
As told to B. David Zarley
I've done stints in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility and Chester County Prison in southeastern Pennsylvania, and I can tell you that prison fucking sucks. Montgomery County is dirty as fuck—I've been in holding cells in Philadelphia—seriously, Philadelphia—that were less filthy. You stay in big 16-inmate cells called huts. It is a shit show in there, fights every night. Basically every day in Montgomery was a concern; I only did ten days (for one of my trips) and it felt like fucking years. I was watching over my shoulder every day. There were fights in my cell every single night, people getting beat up in the day room. We got yard time, people would get beat the fuck up out there with socks full of soap, like stereotypical jail shit.
You can't avoid race in jail. Montgomery is very, very black. It catches parts of Philly, cities like Norristown, some of the toughest places in Pennsylvania. Dudes from Germantown. Luckily, because I used to live in Philly, know some of the same people these guys know, and am not a racist asshole, I was able to get away with being white. But they target the white people or the Latinos, and the Latinos group up and target the white people. On the outside, whitey is the man; on the inside, whitey's the bitch.
Chester County was like the opposite situation: way more white; cleaner, individual, movie-style cells and blocks so that you were a bit safer. Race stuff aside, the inmates in both jails had a kind of understanding that we were pretty much equal—we all came in in cuffs, we were all gonna leave in cuffs.
And we were all bored as fuck.
Inside, you need a time sink. Something to do. The free time and boredom means that lots of games get played and gambled on. I was in isolation for a lot of my time in Chester, and I was lucky enough to get my hands on a book or a deck of cards.
But in Montgomery we spent our time playing simple card games—casino, spades, hearts, rummy, and regular blackjack—and other, more physical games like two bounce, four bounce, handball-tennis, tennis, and basketball.
Basketball, tennis, and handball are pretty self-explanatory: you play them like you do on the outside during yard time. The other games are more prison specific. You can play them even in lockdown, and don't require much equipment. They travel from facility to facility, state to federal, carried along with the inmates as they move. It's a part of prison culture.
Handball-tennis was big in Montgomery. Inside the huts there is a low dividing wall. You get two guys on either side—one playing the front, the other the back—and a tennis ball, then you just play a game of tennis without rackets. We actually had some COs play handball-tennis with us in Montgomery, until a rookie got jumped one day.
Two bounce and four bounce are simple games that can offer a lot of chances for gambling. Basically, you'd set up a trashcan or bucket or something about 20 feet away, with the goal being to get whatever you were throwing in within two (or four, or whatever) bounces.
You know those roll-on deodorant tubes? We broke one of them open and took the ball. We had to sacrifice a deodorant stick to play (not a small sacrifice on the inside) but that ball is hard plastic and those little fuckers bounce. We've used the elastic from our underwear to make something like a rubber band ball; one time we were even bouncing fucking textbooks across the floor to play.
Seriously. The inside is fucking boring.
So you've got the target, and guys get lined up to play; usually you set a number of points, like 10. If you're the first guy to the point total, that's it, you win. Then everyone else is playing to determine who is last. That guy will have to adhere to the big bet, like some coffee or deserts or push-ups. You also get prop bets on the side: let's say the winner has already won, and you and I are just sort of in the middle of the pack. I can look at you and be like "I bet you I get one point higher than you. I'll bet you a honey bun." Then we do it, straight up. Whether we win or lose overall, we still have our bet.
The thing to realize about the gambling is that on the inside, everything has value. If you have money, you can gamble money. Or you can gamble food or beverages from the vending machines. Honey buns and fucking Coca-Cola are primetime items. Coffee? Coffee is fucking money. If you have coffee when the commissary is out? Man, you can run a whole fucking block off of coffee. And if you were somehow able to smuggle in cigarettes? You're King Shit and you could gamble whatever the hell you want.
Otherwise, gambling is done with push-ups. Let's say you and I played a game, and I bet you 50 push-ups. You either play "as of now" or "on demand." As of now means that if you lose, you drop and give me 50. On demand means that the whole time we are incarcerated together, I can demand any number of push-ups as long as it does not exceed the total number of 50.
You're talking to the COs? I say, "Yo, five push-ups," and you've got to do 'em. If you don't, there's repercussions. Usually those repercussions are violent, but we won't get into that side of it.
What you've got to understand about gambling on the inside is that this is less incarceration than business management school. Because that's truly what jail is—it's all about who has what, who wants what, and who has what for sale.
Inmates are people, and we play games for the same reasons people on the outside do: to kill time, to add some excitement, to stroke gambling joneses. And to build community and make friends.
The games are a total icebreaker. You make friends like that, you win trays of food, you get respect. You play with your friends. The more you play in the hut, the more the hut is gonna look out for you.
That was an issue we ran into—some dude fucked with our hut, and our whole hut got up in arms, like we are gonna fuck this dude up. Yeah, we fuck with each other, but this dude is an outsider, and he fucked with us. So the whole hut wanted to get involved. You don't fuck with your own kind; you're all in there together.
You're in the hut, you've got a game playing, and everyone ends up getting involved. And the people that don't get involved … well, they are the ones that aren't going to last.