Photo via Flickr user mariacasa
I’ve got an announcement: I’m finishing up a survival guide for how to survive in prison to be published as an as-real book. This book is for any man or woman in search of the answers before they even know the questions. Most people don’t plan on going to jail, but when you do get sent up clink-clink creek without a paddle, it’s important to be informed, just in case. Prior preparation prevents poor performance.
First off, it’s essential that you learn the art of “fronting” in prison. I remember early on in my first bid I read Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full and some young white-kid character gets thrown in jail and an OG OT (old-timer) advises this kid to “use de mouf,” or something along those lines, which basically means talk a big game and act like you run shit. You will be able to get respect if you appear confident. Even an ugly motherfuzzy can survive if he’s got a mean mouth game.
Jail culture is also all about physical appearances. Lots of dudes spend hours every day grooming or hitting the weights. It’s just human nature to give a guy who’s clearly in good shape a little more respect, and an ugly, unkempt bum will have a serious disadvantage from the jump. At least wash your ass and brush your teeth.
Don’t think appearance matters? I once saw an old man get killed in prison for having bad breath.
He was Puerto Rican, but we called him Miyagi 'cause he had a very Asian look and resembled Pat Morita. Unfortunately, his mouth was completely decayed and smelled like sweltering garbage. He was the type of dude who would stink up a whole dorm with his breath when he went to sleep, even if he brushed his teeth. Poor guy had some serious halitosis. We were in a bullshit box in the Bronx for work-release violators; quarters were tight, and none of us appreciated the funk emanating from Miagi’s mouth.
Now, I had been upstate at two different prisons with a young Dominican with a serious case of Idontgiveafuckitis named Frankie, who was there with me, too. He was a pretty good kid, but a live wire. He is a perfect example of a young, nonviolent drug-dealer getting thrown in prison and then becoming violent inside the walls and catching a new bid.
Frankie used to always bark on Miagi heading to chow in the morning. I know Miagi brushed his teeth sometimes, but it honestly did no good—he was just one of those guys with the cloud of shitty funk circling his head and attacking anyone within five feet. Frankie’s normal shit-talking consisted of calling Miagi a Viking, or picking on him with the fire-truck-siren noises insinuating he had the hot breath, and it needed to be put out. This went on for a couple weeks, and this 60-year old man didn’t want to hear this young punk spouting off anymore. Miagi told Frankie to “shut the fuck up.” Frankie was in a bad mood so he clocked the old man in the mouth a tad too hard.
Normally a punch to the face wouldn’t do this much damage, and it wasn’t even like Frankie was built, but Miagi’s mouth just caved in—his cheek even tore as Frankie's fist hit it, like it was made of paper instead of skin and flesh. Miagi got lifted off his feet and flew back, knocking his head into a metal bunk bed. There was blood everywhere. And he went into something that kinda looked like he was having a seizure, flopping around like a fish, with his eyes rolled back. Me and my man Kev just stared stunned like, What the fuck? Did this 22-year old really just punch this 60-year-old so hard it killed him?
Miagi came to, was put on a stretcher, and went to the hospital. Frankie was shipped to a more secure SHU (Special Housing Unit) at Sing Sing. I went back to work release a couple weeks later, and soon after that I ran into Miagi in the lobby of the jail. He had stitches from the corner of his mouth going up his cheek, and he looked frail. He was already talking about suing the state for allowing him to get knocked out by a young punk and subsequently receiving poor medical attention. He had been unable to get in contact with his family. He might have been a little bit dazed.
I was blown away the next day when I learned that Miagi died. His brain had been bleeding. Now Frankie was looking at a manslaughter charge. I followed the case online for a while, and it turn out he copped out to assault in the second degree after two years of sitting in prison finishing his sentence for dealing drugs. I bet he never thought he’d be doing four years for getting too hot and punching a guy—not to mention having the death of a human being on his conscience for all eternity. I don’t see positive things in Frankie’s future, which is sad, 'cause when I met him in ’07, he was 20 years old and a bright kid who got caught selling drugs, but really wasn’t that big of a scumbag. He found love in prison too—I saw him hold another man’s penis for an extended period of time with a big smile on his face. Also, he introduced me to the word bicho. It’s all he used to say. Now it’s all I say. I’d say there’s a 99 percent chance he’s in Greenhaven now. Greenhaven is a max-security prison and not a nice spot. The only decent thing about it is that it’s closer to NYC, so drugs are cheaper there than they are upstate.
The moral of the story is that if you smell, you could end up dead. More likely you will just be harassed. I’ve seen guys with bad cases of eczema really get fucked with, which is unfortunate ‘cause they can’t do much about it, but when you’re basically eating on top of someone and their skin is flaking everywhere, it’s fucking disgusting. When you get locked up, try to take care of your personal hygiene and carry yourself with confidence. It’s a fine balance of appearing to not give a fuck, and appearing to also give a fuck. You must give a fuck about the right things, and completely disregard the nonsense with an attitude that will garner respect. STAY TUNED!
Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here.
Previously: RockBottom Heads Toward Bottom