Jailhouse Crock | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Jailhouse Crock

Prisoner J. Incandenza debunks eight things you think you know about prisons

As I type, there are more than two million people behind bars in the United States. One of every four black men between the ages of 20 and 30 is incarcerated. Millions more people are on probation or parole. In fact, 1 of every 32 Americans is currently caught up in the criminal justice system. In the District of Columbia, one in every three adult men is under some kind of penal supervision. Despite our vast numbers, we are, except for an occasional cartoon in the New Yorker, largely ignored and completely voiceless. We exist in the popular culture mostly as the punchline of a joke.

I say "we" because I am one of the incarcerated millions, a prisoner in what has become this country's endless War on Drugs.

Despite having spent many years in prison, though, it would be presumptuous of me to claim to speak for everyone who is locked up. I am not really representative of the average convict. For one, I am white where the norm is black or brown. I am also middle-aged where most are young, educated where most have never finished high school, and a federal prisoner where most are being held by the states. Nevertheless, I have at one time or another been held in nine federal facilities ranging from Lewisburg Penitentiary to the camp where I am now and every sort of place in between. In addition, I have firsthand knowledge of a handful of county jails thanks entirely to the feds' miserly attitude toward bail. (County jails are the worst, by the way nowhere else even compares to their capacity to inflict misery. Guys celebrate the day they get transferred to a pen.) And from what I've seen in all of these stops, prison is prison and convicts are convicts.

I'd like to tell you that I'm innocent, a victim of circumstance being unjustly held by a vengeful and misguided system. I'd like to, but I can't, because I'm guilty as charged, perhaps even guiltier, maybe even guilty as sin. Everybody used to think it was cool when I got all those A's in Chemistry, but then &

I won't go there. Instead, I'll just say that not too many people in jail claim to be innocent anymore. The standard line is more like, "Sure, I did it, but this sentence isn't fair."

Maybe you didn't know that. Maybe there's a lot you don't know about convicts and prison. Maybe you think you know what it's like in here, but you're just plain wrong. Allow me, then, since I'm monopolizing the only typewriter in the law library that still works, to help separate you from some widely held misconceptions.


Some shrewd PR guy in some prosecutor's office somewhere must have come up with this one. It really doesn't work that way. Fifteen of my last 30 years have been spent in prison, the last 10 in a row. This is the result of two arrests, one in the late '70s and another on Groundhog Day, 1993. I am the norm, not the exception. Don't believe all that stuff about second chances. Today it's one strike and you're out.

This is especially true of drug guys. All the places I've been have been full of kids doing decades or more for a few hundred dollars' worth of dope. The kid who bunks next to me well, he's not a kid anymore is halfway through a 15-year sentence he caught from a D.C. judge for $600 worth. The judge even apologized when he handed out the sentence. It was the guidelines, he said there was nothing he could do.


Though I am usually willing to swap jokes and jibes with just about anyone, this one is getting worn out for me. Mention prison and the next thing you are likely to hear is some wisecrack about anal penetration. Both David Letterman and Jay Leno seem to be contractually obligated to mention it at least once a month. As soon as someone's friends find out he's going to prison, he can be assured of receiving soap on a rope as a going-away present, along with instructions that should he ever drop it, the way to retrieve it is to kick it into the corner of the shower and pick it up with his back against the wall.

I've come to accept that, as with fart jokes and bathroom humor in general, there must be something inherently funny about anal penetration. I also understand that we have brought a large part of this upon ourselves. I was at Lewisburg, for instance, when an outside construction crew came in to work on the roof and convicts lined the fence in the yard to wolf-whistle at the ones wearing shorts. But enough is enough already.

The truth is that sexual orientation is not a matter of convenience, and the amount of sodomy in here is not more than you are likely to find in a big-city nightclub, less if you include the disco era. As far as rape is concerned, in 15 years behind bars, I've yet to see one. As in any sizable population, there is a sufficiently large gay segment: There are plenty of volunteers, and prison administrators usually accommodate their needs. In one prison where I was a resident, the psychology department made women's underwear available to those who were so inclined. I'm talking about federal prisons again men's federal prisons. I have no idea what happens in women's prisons, though I like to imagine it sometimes which brings us to the point of what sex in prison is really all about.

To quote Woody Allen, "Sex is like bridge: If you don't have a good partner, you need a good hand." Euphemistically referred to as "polishing the knob," "buffing the bishop," "roughing up the suspect," "haciendo pueta," or "dropping the kids off at the pool," onanism is common indeed. The medical department even recommends it as a prophylactic against prostate problems. Most prisons today are built with individual shower stalls as opposed to the type of shower rooms you may remember from gym class. (Lewisburg still has shower rooms, but it is considered bad form there to shower nude. The custom is to shower wearing boxer shorts.) These shower stalls are virtual masturbatoria, and you would be well advised to scrub one out before using it, especially if you find a page from the Victoria's Secret catalog stuck to the wall inside. There is even, among certain strangely twisted (and usually younger) convicts, a market for prosthetic devices known as "fifis." I will say no more.

I can understand the animus a citizen might harbor toward someone who robbed his business or burglarized his home or raided his pension fund. I can even see how someone might feel better imagining that person suffering the worst kind of retribution, though I certainly would never wish such harm on anyone myself. But most of us aren't in here for such acts. The majority of us are what they refer to as "nonviolent drug offenders," the people who get locked up to protect you from yourselves. Our crimes were private transactions conducted between consenting adults. Collectively we are Mr. Happy, the guy you used to scramble to find so you could score a little something to take the edge off on a Saturday night, the guy you used to be so delighted to see that, even from in here, it's sometimes hard to figure out what we did that was so wrong especially since we are sure that since we've been gone, you've found someone new. Why would you want to wish anything so terrible on us'

Please, lighten up on the sodomy jokes.


This one really ticks me off. There is no such thing as a country-club prison. I can only assume that whoever coined this has either never been to a country club, or never been to a prison. I have spent time in both. Trust me when I tell you that there is no similarity. Can you imagine a country club where 130 snoring, stinking, farting guys sleep stacked on bunk beds arranged not even two feet apart in a tiny little dormitory, and then stand in line in the morning to use one of six toilets, which are only rarely in working order at the same time'

And that picture someone took when all the Watergate guys were getting locked up, the one that seems to show a golf course at the Allenwood Federal Prison Camp' That was taken at a clever angle to make it appear that the golf course was part of the prison. There has never been a golf course at a federal prison. If you don't believe me, call the Bureau of Prisons. They love answering questions like that.

Consistent with this idea that the feds run country clubs is the delusion that this country operates the best, most humane prisons in the world. Even on the inside you can hear convicts opine that they feel blessed to be incarcerated in the good old U.S. of A. instead of some other place, at which point they invariably mention some Third World backwater. While I have no doubt that conditions in Suriname or Burma or Burkina Faso do not compare favorably with here in America, how come you never hear anyone mention Italy, where serving the kind of food American prisoners eat would be considered uncivilized' Or France, where the thought of dinner without wine is unthinkable' Or Sweden or the Netherlands, where years of forced celibacy would be deemed a violation of a prisoner's basic human rights' Among the nations that Americans like to compare themselves to, only here, and I guess Japan, is removal from society alone believed to be such inadequate punishment that additional punitive measures are required.

American prisons are, for the most part, overcrowded, dirty and dangerous places. Having always been a federal prisoner, I cannot speak with authority about conditions in state prisons, though people tell me that they are, in the main, abysmal. Nor have I spent more than a little time in county lock-ups I would have spent none if that stuff the Eighth Amendment says about bond was more than just words on paper so I have never experienced a horror show like the old Salem Jail in Massachusetts, where the policy was to house six men in 23-hour lock-down in a two-man cell that contained neither running water nor modern facilities, only a chamber pot in the form of a five-gallon bucket with a seat attached that was emptied twice a day. I've also been spared a stay at Holmesburg, the former state prison, which, after it was condemned, was used by the feds as a pre-trial holding facility. There, prisoners were commonly thrown into dank, dark dungeons where the only way to have light in your cell was to buy a length of electrical cord from another prisoner and figure out a way to tap into a live line, after which you had to buy a light bulb. I have, however, been a guest at the old Allegheny Jail, which the cognoscenti tell me ranked right up there with anything Central America or the Caribbean had to offer, complete with beatings and everything.

Speaking of the Third World, I once had the opportunity to ask an erudite Nigerian convict, who supported himself in prison by writing habeas corpus appeals and habeas corpus petitions (he averaged two to three a month at about $1,000 a pop), what prison conditions are like in his native land. Absolutely horrific, he assured me. He didn't believe that the average American could survive even a short stay. But, he went on, for the kind of money a convict spends to get by in an American prison, someone could probably bribe his way out of a Nigerian prison, or at the very least hire someone to do his time for him.

You tell me where you'd rather be.


This is the converse of a belief widely held in here: that everyone out there is gutless. This is not to suggest that prison is some kind of graduate seminar, except maybe of crime. (I worked in the prison garage for only a week before I learned how easy it is to pop the ignition switch out of a Ford.) Nor am I referring to what is commonly referred to as "street smarts," which I have found to be nothing more than a high level of paranoia combined with incredible baseness and selfishness and a willingness to do things that most people would consider beneath them. All of this aside, it has been my experience that IQ distribution pretty much mirrors the usual bell curve, even if we seem to get more than our fair share of guys who have been failed by the big-city school system.

My guess is that the idea that everyone in prison is stupid is based on the line of thinking that goes: They got caught, ergo they must be stupid because, as everyone knows, there are some things that one just cannot do. I suggest, however, that the way the world is really set up is that in all but a few cases, you can literally do any damn thing you want to do really, anything that you can think of.

Of course, you may have to deal with the consequences. I say "may" because TV cop shows aside, people do get away with things once in a while. I believe it was Machiavelli who observed it is not the severity of the punishment that deters one from pursuing a particular course of action, but rather the certainty of being caught.

I think we all can agree that Machiavelli was no dolt.


Oops, I'm sorry. That one is true. Clichs often achieve that status by being so undeniably true. OK, not all of the guards. Maybe there are 2 or 3 percent who aren't.

The question I have never been able to answer to my satisfaction is whether working in prison turns people into officious petty dictators, or even Ivans the Terrible, or whether people with those traits are the ones attracted to prison work in the first place. Most of the guards we see here are ex- (or failed) military who arrive with their bad haircuts and their affected, tortured syntax and love of acronyms to double-dip on their government pensions and strut around like aspiring Pattons, shouting orders in what is known as "command voice." I'd be willing to wager that, given the choice between tossing a few back at the corner pub with either a group of convicts or a group of prison guards, most of you who looked into it would opt for the convicts.


Well, if bare survival is the goal, that might possibly be true. But over the course of a 10-year bit (about average for a small- to mid-level dope dealer) anyone who hoped to treat himself to a few luxury items like a pair of sneakers and a sweatshirt, or an occasional toothsome snack, or vitamins to fight off the ravages of beriberi and scurvy to which he would surely succumb should he stick to chow-hall fare, or a radio so he could watch TV the televisions here don't have speakers; the audio portion is broadcast over an FM frequency or shampoo, or dental floss, or coffee, or a phone call home, or stamps to mail a letter, or even aspirin or cold pills, which are mainly available through the prison commissary & if a person wanted any of those things, then that person would have a problem. It's a problem that will soon be getting worse, because the Bureau of Prisons has recently announced its intention to begin charging convicts a nominal fee for sick-call visits if a $4 fee for someone who makes $5 a month can truly be called nominal. (We all have jobs in prison, but it's like the old Soviet system under communism: We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.)

For the fortunate portion of the prison population for whom crime did, in fact, pay, the $200-400 a month required in order to do time in a manner that approaches comfort does not represent a serious burden. In large part, however, the old adage is true, at least to the extent that the sort of person who is more accustomed to scores than to paychecks is not the sort of person to put a little something away for a rainy day. Which leads us to &


By removing us from the pressures and the temptations of the money economy, prison supposedly affords convicts the opportunity and inclination to reflect on our evil ways and do penance. Hence the name "penitentiary." This was the idea that incited Quakers to invent prisons in the first place (sort of), and to establish what was called the "Pennsylvania System."

Given that most convicts hit the door under pressure to earn, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that, at any given time, about 80 percent of the prison population is on a 24/7 hustle. Some hustles are even tacitly encouraged. Sanitation, for instance, is a high-priority item with all prison administrators. New arrivals are commonly told that their areas have to be cleaned every day, regardless of how that is accomplished. In a higher-security joint, enterprising types take this as authorization to seize all the mops, buckets and other cleaning supplies and establish a monopoly on cleaning that hardly anyone is inclined to break. After all, the crowd who needs to hustle and the crowd who needs, for reasons largely associated with perceived status, to have their cells professionally cleaned, are symbiotic groups, and two bucks a week is a cheap way to feel like a Mafia don. Laundry service is similarly tolerated by staff, who have come to accept that maximum usage of the limited laundry facilities in woefully overcrowded prisons is best achieved by people who are motivated by profit.

Along these lines, a convict who is willing to pay can hire another convict to perform his assigned job. The cost of this is, naturally, many times what the prison pays. No one would really work for that. All of this contributes to what is known as "the orderly running of the institution," and there isn't anyone on either side of the bars who would argue that turning a blind eye to certain indiscretions is anything but sound management policy.

Most hustles, however, are not so benignly regarded. Stealing, for instance, is frowned upon by everyone, though the sanctions imposed by the convict population are so much worse than anything the administration is allowed to employ that this is not as much of a problem as you might expect. Such is not the case with gambling, which is ubiquitous.

Many a bookmaker has arrived in prison already feeling unfairly persecuted in light of the state's lottery, the church's bingo games, the volunteer fire department's Monte Carlo night and the NCAA Tournament pool that was hanging on the wall of the police station where he was taken after he was arrested. He then finds himself in prison, immediately solicited to place bets or buy squares in pools for football games, basketball games, NASCAR races and the Daily Number. This is in addition to the card games, crap games, pool games and big-time action on the intramural softball, basketball and soccer leagues.

The first advice a newly arrived convict usually receives is to mind his own business, always pay his bills on time, and never get involved with gambling, dope or punks. The first piece of advice he usually ignores is the part about gambling. In the higher-security institutions, more convicts PC (check into protective custody) over gambling debts than for any other reason.

Speaking of dope, there is plenty in prison, which begs the question: If they can't keep drugs out of a penitentiary with 30-foot walls, eight gun towers and a full-time security staff of 500, how do they expect to keep them from crossing the Mexican border' But that is a different matter.

In most prisons, one can obtain the full array of intoxicants available on the street corner. In maximum-security joints, tastes run toward heroin, exorbitantly priced reefer (about $40/gram), and jailhouse wine made from either orange or tomato juice or, for the connoisseur, a very fine grape juice vintage aged 21 days in a plastic trash bag that most convicts say tastes almost as good as anything that can be had in a bottle with a twist-off cap. One security level lower, at a medium, you'll find less heroin and wine but more reefer. A minimum-security facility is about the same. Coke and hallucinogens are rare everywhere: There's no sense getting too wound up with nowhere to go. At a camp where it is easiest to get things from the street there is, paradoxically, practically nothing to be had except for some occasional vodka, the drink of choice because of its mild smell. Convicts get transferred to camps, after all, for behaving themselves.

Besides the dope biz, other hustles you will be sure to find everywhere include extortion, prostitution, selling chow-hall food (your own and otherwise), making and selling greeting cards and other hobby-craft items (including fifis), selling loosies (single cigarettes), operating a 2-for-1 store with commissary items (take 1 now, pay for 2 later), doing legal work really anything you can think of and then some.

In here it is still all about the Benjamins, and we don't have much time for rehabilitating or reflecting.


It is a constant refrain among the John Ashcrofts and Donald Rumsfelds of the world that this or that person, or group of people, needs to be sent a message, usually in the form of some draconian punishment or other barely civilized act. Every week on the evening news you are likely to see some politician advocating the bastinado or drawing and quartering to send a message to jaywalkers or mopes.

Hello out there. No one in here is listening. Do you really think that with the time and effort one must devote to a career in crime, not to mention staying out half the night carousing and sleeping till mid-afternoon, that any of us actually has time to watch the news or read the paper, let alone the Congressional Record or the Federal Register' To us, these messages are nothing but spam, junk mail to be trashed unopened, a flashing light on the answering machine that we will ignore. As a result, few of us will ever learn the penalty for anything until we get caught, at which point the message is useless unless, of course, the message really is a wink and a nod in the direction of you, the voter, to let you know that the government is going to continue to do its best to use its power and resources to punish the people who do things that you don't want them to do; so please continue to vote for me and, by all means, don't think that this pat on the back is only a diversion to hide a grab for your wallet. But that is too cynical for even a criminal like me to believe.

Also implicit in the power of these messages is a misunderstanding of exactly what goes on in here. A criminal-defense lawyer who had defended hundreds of clients once told me that no one who goes to prison is ever the same again. I didn't believe him, of course. Convicts never believe anything anybody tells them. We are archetypal show-me guys. It turns out that he was right, and I'm not talking about an increased tendency to dress in dark colors, wear sunglasses at inappropriate times, or believe that Vegas and Sinatra and Wayne Newton are really, really cool. Prison leaves an indelible mark on the soul. The results, however, are not what I believe the people who advocate it most are hoping for.

So what are all these millions of people doing in prison besides lounging around on your dime' I've already told you that we're not rehabilitating, whatever that means. Everybody's main activity, even more than hustling, is scheming.

It makes perfect sense if you think about it. Take a large group of people who are largely motivated by money and remove them from the economy during their prime earning years the longer you do this, the more it increases their anxiety. Then, stigmatize them with a label that makes the possibility of a secure future via traditional means unlikely. Finally, when you set them free, place them under the thumb of a supervision system designed to hassle them. What do you expect to happen' This is so obvious to me that I can't see how anyone could believe that we are doing anything else in here but hatching schemes.

The message we get by the time we're paying attention is: You're really screwed, so you'd better figure out what you're going to do about it.

Soon a lot more people will be getting that message. The feds are so happy about how the drug thing is working out that they are in the process of upping the ante for everyone. Just this year they doubled, and in some cases quadrupled, the sentencing guidelines for a bunch of white-collar offenses. I'll leave the light on for you.

Comments (0)

Add a comment