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In the Margins

How to Protect Yourself from Violence in Prison

Whenever you go to the prison yard, there's always a chance you won't make it back. I would know: I spent ten years inside and learned how to weaponise everything from magazines to cigarette filters.
Photo via Flickr user sean hobson

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Prison is dangerous. If this surprises you, congratulations on being the most sheltered person alive! Depictions of incarceration often sensationalize it, but there is unmistakable bloodshed in prison air. The tension is palpable.

Whenever you go to the yard, there's always a chance you won't make it back.


The obvious explanation for violence in prison is the character of its inhabitants. Having neglected their end of Rousseau's Social Contract and ignored the Golden Rule, these are men we've decided must be segregated from society. But what is to be done with them while they are on ice, so to speak? The official goal of rehabilitation doesn't quite square with the punitive reality. The inmates at New York State maximum security prisons, like the four big houses I served seven years inside, are mostly men with violent pasts. I ate many a meal with a murderer sitting on either side of me. Most were "framed" (according to them), some said they were justified, but none appeared especially repentant. At least not after a while.

I felt my own contrition slip away until only the pain I caused my family remained. Feeling degraded, hungry, and cold eroded my initial sense of deserving my sentence of two years each for five robbery convictions. It was finally knocked out of me completely when a guard beat me with my own boot while I was frisked. That was because I had given it to him with my right hand rather than my left, though the hack took the shoe I passed without comment—he didn't want me to expect the punishment. The hard part was separating the law from its enforcers. Besides, I always knew right from wrong, and compromised my very identity by pretending otherwise.

Related: The Pains I've Endured Inside Police Vans and Prison Buses


While the guards can make life miserable for an inmate, actual death isn't meted out by New York State's Department of Corrections (DOC). The Empire State's electric chair hasn't been used since 1963, although the cops let me sit in it as a reward for keeping my mouth shut on one occasion when I clerked for a set of prison staff who managed the wing for the mentally ill. They were good at their jobs, patient and humane, because each of them had a child with difficulties like the inmates in their charge, minus the felonies. But their unusual capacity to see prisoners as people made them vulnerable to inmates' agendas and less than popular with their peers. A full investigation was launched when one cop's radio was stolen, with my employers as the targets, and I was called in for interrogation. Although I was offered many enticements to talk, I valued their treatment of me as a human more and returned the favor. The anonymity I was promised was as much of a joke as I suspected; my bosses immediately knew—and were grateful for my conduct.

After arriving at the jail complex on Riker's Island, New York City's hellhole of a floating detention facility, I saw many men with scarred faces.

They also nearly scared me to death on the day I sat in the electric chair by pulling the switch, which I did not know to be inoperative. I didn't die and should've guessed: ends from causes unnatural are rarely care of the state. Almost all incarcerated violence I saw was perpetrated by prisoners against other inmates; "green on green crime" was the moniker used in my state system, since our uniforms were a lovely shade between verdant and viridescent.


Immediately after arriving at the jail complex on Riker's Island, New York City's hellhole of a floating detention facility, I saw many men with scarred faces—some of them very young, already with ruined mugs. There were even names for the cuts: Ear to mouth was a "telephone slash," acquired for and while using previously-claimed phone. Cuts down the face (and preferably in a matching set) were "curtains," supposedly marking a snitch subsequently left to peek through drapery that never goes away. The worst were the keloid scars, fat lumps of worm caused by a slash with a "double-ox"—two razors close enough together to make healing unforgettable and mirrors unpopular.

Getting cut is ridiculously easy on Rikers Island, which was my home for the nine months it took for the State and my lawyer to agree on a number of years I'd serve as punishment for committing a spree of amateur robberies with a pocket knife. The New York Post dubbed me the "Apologetic Bandit" for my contrition at the scene of the crime, but the judge still gave me ten years and three months. For rehabilitation, of course.

I did not get cut. I got lucky.

"Blooding in" went out of fashion a few years before my arrest. That was ugly; adolescents who had just arrived looked for easy targets unable to take revenge and unlikely to be avenged by others. The way I heard it, the logic behind the custom's demise was a practical response to the fact that inmates were getting additional years for hurting other inmates. A generation back, jailhouse violence was almost exclusively punished by solitary confinement and informal corporal punishment—but after the crack epidemic and the resulting influx of prisoners, suddenly you were liable to be punished for breaking the rules with both solitary confinement (a.k.a. the "box") and further prosecution.


As recently as the 1970s, I've been told, even if you killed your cellmate, you were likely to be dealt with only by prison authorities. By the 80s, however, conviction for a "jail body" got you roughly half the time you'd get for murdering someone in the wider world.

There's a certain knack to slashing someone with a cigarette filter.

Even during my time inside, the cops openly joked that convicts who killed other convicts deserved time off for good behavior. And inmates and officers both generally prefer corporal punishment to adding more years to sentences. Most guards who are experienced enough to compare results seemed to think that inmates best learn to not cause future paperwork and clean-ups via an old-fashioned beatdown. Thanks to the departed preference for "hands on" justice (and its enforcement), I met middle-aged men who had killed three or four times in their youth and would still see the free world one day—as long as they didn't smoke and ate right.

The current regime, however, treats crimes committed in prison identically to those in freedom. I didn't mind this state of affairs, even if the old-time tough guys talked of the end of prison having a law of its own, like outlaws mourning the passing of the Wild West. However, breaking precedent by applying the laws of the land to prisons has either caused or at least coincided with a drop in violence. As Slate has reported, "Murder has been declining in correctional facilities for decades—just like the murder rate in the free population, but more dramatically. In 1980, the homicide rate in state prisons was 54 inmates per 100,000. The homicide rate for the general population in 1980 was 10.2 per 100,000)."


But don't let those statistics fool you into believing prison is safe. Just walking among men fated to die behind the wall cheapens your life.

They're already dead and would love for you to join them.

Gambling, drugs, and chumps—I was told by many an old convict that avoiding these three things would keep me safe. Debts from the poker table and credit from drug dealers often end in violence; if the debtor has any hope of paying, he will be beaten just enough to scare him into prioritizing it, but not enough to send him to protective custody. However, if it is clear that the debts acquired have no hope of being repaid, the sum is "paid in blood." The losses have to be written off, but the lender saves face by ruining the borrower's. Deadliest is the vehemence of assaults over affairs of the heart: Jealousy is magnified in the limited, loveless incarcerated world. The affection of another human becomes worth dying for.

As much as I love the New Yorker, one day I will tell David Remnick, its editor, that his weekly is printed on stock too light to deflect knives made of brass, plastic, or wood—though it will stop aluminum.

Razors for cutting are the preserve of county jails and medium-security compounds. In maxes, it's icepicks for "ventilation," "guns" for "shooting,""shivs" for shanking and "ratchets" for "airing out." Prisoners have always invented their own uses for words; these are all descriptions of stabbing someone with a homemade knife. Without even intending to go all the way, poking a victim's torso can take him "off the count"—which is to say end his life. A man I knew was murdered over a debt of two packs of Newports because his assailant didn't know anatomy, and managed to puncture both lungs from behind. Neither party was over 25.


Simple precautions can help you reach your thirties, like knowing when to wear armor.

Whenever self-defense was necessary, I had no shortage of the materials. Metal detectors guard the doors to every prison yard, leaving newspaper as the easiest way to protect yourself. Many layers of the weak paper can be strapped to the torso tight enough to fit under a shirt. Magazines were preferable: I subscribed to nine in prison, and some were better than others. As much as I love the New Yorker, one day I will tell David Remnick, its editor, that his weekly is printed on stock too light to deflect knives made of brass, plastic, or wood—though it will stop aluminum.

Using weapons that can pass through a metal detector is for amateurs; the real steel is already in the yard. Only several layers of National Geographic have a chance of saving you from an experienced "shooter's" "gun," sharpened on concrete and hidden deep in the earth. Cops search the yard with handheld metal detectors only to uncover strategically concealed arms, not even protected from rust with oil and plastic bags. These seasonal searches come up with the dummies meant to be found—old shanks with no edge. Harvesting the useless props lets prison guards show results without digging deep enough to find the real thing. (In my experience, it takes at least eight inches of soil to shield steel from the detectors.)

Should you find yourself at the wrong end of a shank, deservedly or not, there is no shame in making a run for anything that will even the odds. In the myths of gentlemen gangsters, noble convicts brought two guns, ensuring the shootout was between equally-matched parties. In ten years, I never saw such chivalry, though plenty of men never came in from the yard.


They were mostly stabbed in the back.

Rocks are available in any prison yard that hasn't been asphalted over, and can be a lifesaver. The weight plates composing the dumbbells in the yard are welded together, so those who can swing them are already formidable; there aren't any lighter than 30 pounds. Mario, my first cellmate, was strong enough to wield one. Massive, fat, and fiendishly strong, he wasn't the easiest cellmate to live with. On top of being over 300 pounds, he was the son of a "made man," and played the Guinea Gangster character to the hilt (and as well as anyone in the movies). Mario chomped stogies and ate his pasta with "gravy," but he forgot that old men can still give orders.

One night, Mario never came in from the yard.

It was two Irishmen who cost him half his tongue. They were doing a favor for the bosses of the Italian court—or prison-yard club—whom Mario had insulted. The acreage of the yard was claimed like the telephones—other tenants were the Asian, Brooklyn, and both Latin King and Blood courts. There was only a small patch of neutral in the middle, for the guys who couldn't join any courts because of their loose lips or bad cases. (The child molesters and snitches didn't enjoy the yard all that much, period.) Joining a court meant it had your back, but you also implicitly volunteered for its army. As a member of the Irish court, during one high-tension period I not only taped some fine photojournalism to my torso, but was also issued a scalpel from the armory. After a while nothing happened; one guy cut himself and I peeled off an issue to read about the Himalayas.


A man who was very lightly stabbed broke his eyeglasses apart and used the arms as a set of picks to reduce his enemy to a pin cushion.

My cellmate spent all of a week getting to know the goombas before announcing that as the son of a mafia capo-regime, he would head up the Italian court as its captain. They disagreed. Mario spat on the court in outrage. The symbolic violation could only be cured with blood. My first bunkie was stabbed through his cheek during my first month in the place. Bleeding in torrents, he managed to dig up a rock and hunt for his assailants. The sheer amount of blood caused the cops to notice and catch him before he succeeded, but his effort was impressive. Knowing where the rocks were was only one of the lessons I learned from the incident.

Mario wouldn't finger anybody, but snitches gave up the story. The two Irishmen who did the deed were taken to a hearing where they were supposed to be found guilty of violating the facility rules prohibiting face-stabbing in preparation for an indictment for assault in the first degree—if the district attorney couldn't manage attempted murder. Things didn't get that far. Mario couldn't speak while his tongue healed, but he could write. The whole prison knew the five words he spelled out: "NEVER SEEN THESE IRISH COCKSUCKERS."

That was my second lesson: how to not just stay alive, but live justly.

Man's ingenuity can weaponize anything. Years later, I witnessed a grueling 20-minute duel play out under the cops' noses. A man who was very lightly stabbed broke his eyeglasses apart and used the arms as a set of picks to reduce his enemy to a pin cushion. You can beat a man to death with a rolled-up magazine, as European soccer hooligans know full well. Convicts separated by cages fight using degradation; urinating into your sock and smacking it with precision (rather than force) against the grate offers a dozen chances to spray your target. (Of course, your enemy also has a bladder and a sock of his own.) Of all the tussles I saw, it was the kick fights to which handcuffed enemies are reduced that were most violent. The loser is the one who loses balance.

The neatest trick I saw is one I've never managed myself. There's a certain knack to slashing someone with a cigarette filter. Guys have demonstrated the technique in every prison yard I've been in: Simply uncase half of the fibers, set them alight, and once they burn for a few seconds, drop the butt on the ground and stamp it flat. It makes a small black edge that is hard, sharp, and jagged. I never time it right, either failing to flatten an undercooked butt or melting the whole thing. Should you wish to learn, YouTube has a guide, albeit one that suggests using a contraband knife to cut the filter open—limiting its utility for those behind bars.

Of course, I didn't have to trust my life solely to magazine armor or makeshift blades. I defended myself with a rapier wit—though I never dared say rapier out loud in prison, considering the loathing heaped on sex offenders. Over the course of my sentence, I spent a combined year in the box, and that's where I got my best writing in. The DOC found me transparent, wobbly, and short excuses for a writing implement; I used to use up one "flexipen" a week. By carefully wrapping it down from the nub with magazine pages, I at least had something to write with that was firm, of appropriate length, and no longer translucent. But every time my cell was searched, the cops disassembled my quills, and for good reason: My modifications allowed me to do much more than write with a flexipen.

I had weaponized it.

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