Why the Friendships You Make in Prison Should Stay Behind Bars
In federal prison, you form friendships with gang members, violent men, and a whole slew of drug dealers and users of every variety. What happens after that is sensitive.
Illustrations by Matt Rota
I did 21 years behind the wall, and kept my sanity largely by hanging out with my homeboys on the yard. They had my back at a moment's notice, protecting me from an otherwise-vicious environment and making the sentence feel like less of an eternity. But everything changes when you get out.
When you come home, maintaining friendships with prison buddies gets complicated real quick, especially since associating with another felon can trigger a probation violation and send you back. You have to stop interacting with criminals, which sounds simple enough, but isn't so easy when these people were once your family.
For example, a former buddy from the inside reached out to me over social media once we both got out. He told me that he'd started hustling again and asked for advice about whether to run or turn himself in on a new charge he faced. I quickly ended the conversation—I was fresh out and this dude was asking me to do some criminal consulting? Not a chance.
No two experiences with incarceration are the same, though, so I asked a few other felons to share their stories about maintaining prison friendships on the outside. Here's what they said.
I can't associate with them hard these days because I know better. I got a wife and I got kids and I work 80 hours a week.
Sentenced for Distributing Crack Cocaine
Released from FCI Fort Dix, New Jersey in 2005
Prison is not the best place to make friends. To start, you're meeting them under negative circumstances. If you build a bond with a person in prison, you have to realize that you don't know anything about how they act on the street. You don't know if they have a drug problem, if they're grimy to their family; you don't know any of their history when it comes to interacting with other people [outside prison]. I've seen dudes come in who were physically addicted to drugs, but a year later you wouldn't even know that they ever had a drug problem. And when they get out they're right back on drugs again.
I know of a specific incident that happened with two guys who became friends when they were incarcerated—one got out early while the other was still in, and the freed man would send his friend money, books, and look out for him. It was his homie, and he told the dude he'd be alright when he got out. Two years later, the guy in prison came home. His buddy helped him get on his feet, but the guy had bigger expectations about what his friend was going to do for him. It became an issue between the two, and the guy that just came home ended up killing his buddy who was looking out for him. This is an extreme example, but you have to be careful.
That said, I got cool with one guy who got out a couple of months after me. I was already set up, and, as time went on, I saw him really living up to the things he said he was going to do. Any skepticism that I had was lost because I saw that he felt just like me: going back to a life of crime was not an option.
Sentenced for Meth Conspiracy
Released from FCI Forrest City, Arkansas in 2014
For the most part, the friends you make in prison become your brothers—you got their back and they got your back 100 percent. But you also have the homeboys who you have to be friends or associates with [just to stay safe], and these are people you don't want to deal with on a regular basis. These guys always want to fight, take something from someone, borrow something and never pay it back, or try to take advantage of your kindness. I stayed to myself most of the time anyway, because your homeboys can be your worst enemy. I just worked out and was like, "Hey, how you all doing?" when I saw them. I would stay busy just to avoid them. Because if you're with them when something goes down, you're there too. You're with them. You perform or get hit.
90 percent of my homeboys I wouldn't associate with on the outside because of their mindset when it comes to continued criminal activity. I made a choice to make a change and do right because I've already seen what doing wrong costs me. As soon as I got out, these guys hit me up and the first thing out of their mouths was like, "Hey man, I got this for you, I got that for you, are you ready?" And I was like, "Hell no. You can keep that. I don't want to hear anything about that." They would tell me stuff like, "I'm just doing this for now, I gotta come up." But I was like fuck no.
Technically, you're not supposed to talk to ex-cons, but I still have guys I talk to. I don't know what some of them are into because I don't associate with them hard, but if they call me or hit me up on Facebook, I tell them what's up. I can't [really] associate with them hard because I know better. I got a wife and I got kids and I work 80 hours a week. I don't have time to get out there and hang with the homeboys. I'd rather be at my son's basketball game or at a job making $200 for a couple of hours. My mindset is work and family now—and that's it.
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Sentenced for Mail, Wire, and Securities Fraud
Released from FPC Taft, California, in 2009
In federal prison, I was a loner. My closest friends were drug offenders. Guys who served lengthy sentences or mandatory minimums. Guys who didn't bitch or complain. They served their time. I'm not saying white-collar offenders complain a lot, but the ones in my dorm did, and I tried to ignore that. They tended to look down on other prisoners who weren't as educated as them. Some people in prison want to watch TV all day, complain all day, play cards all day. My friends had to have some type of goals, some type of link to the life they wanted to live when they got home. This meant people interested in developing new skills, communicating with family, and not causing trouble or looking down on other inmates.
After I got out, one of my associates from prison called me. "I'm home," he said. "It's great, but I'm struggling. My PO's [parole officer is] breathing down my neck. I know you're in LA. I'm in LA, we should meet up."
This was a guy I was cool with in prison, someone I might have walked the track with or stood in line at the chow hall with sharing stories. I met his wife and kids in visitation. He was a good guy, but not someone I should be associating with on the outside. He's not someone who I felt would never commit another crime. I wasn't convinced that he was committed to living lawfully.
It was hard for me, but I didn't mince words. He said he wanted to meet up with me so we could talk, and I said no. When he asked why not, I said, "I'm on federal probation. I'm very transparent with my PO. There's no upside to us getting together. We are not going to do business together. There's no way that I can possibly help you or you help me. There's no reason for us to disclose on our probation form that we met to connect."
The reward of spending some time together and catching up is not worth the risk of getting a violation and derailing everything I was building. You might have friendships in prison, but once you cross those doors they should fully cease unless there is a seriously compelling reason you should continue to engage with one another.
*Inmate names and some identifying details have been changed to protect them from reprisal. Language has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Visit Matt Rota's website to view more of his art.