I can only speak to low-to-medium security California prisons, but here’s what I know.
Firstly, unless you’ve got a sentence of 10 years or more, you’re probably going to end up in a Level I or II prison, like I did. First you’ll go to Reception, which has inmates of all different security levels, but it’s highly regulated in Reception, and you’re in your cell 23 hours a day, so you’re not likely to have the opportunity to get into too much trouble, especially if you’re new and don’t have some sort of problem already with somebody you meet there.
Once you get out of reception and are “endorsed” to a particular prison, you’ll get transferred there. For many, this will probably be a level II joint (meaning the majority of inmates there are probably in for drug crimes and for middle-class larceny).
Some might get endorsed directly to a “Ranch” (a level I facility); if not, you’ll probably have an opportunity to go to one once your ‘points’ go down a bit (during Classification, which is one of the things that they’re doing to you while you’re stuck in Reception, you find out how many points you have, based on a variety of factors including the number of years you have to serve, the nature of your crime, your priors, whether you’ve been to prison before, whether you have any violence in your background, gang affiliation, etc.).
The thing to remember is, at a level I or II prison, you’re probably not going to encounter anything like prison rape or serious riots where people are getting stabbed left and right. To give you an idea of the level of seriousness we’re talking about here, at most level I facilities, you can just walk away from the prison if you want to (of course, if you do that you’ll never set foot on another level I yard) and a level II is just the next more serious yard; so it’s not too hardcore.
That being said, people do get beat up, or occasionally stabbed. Usually this is for one of a couple of reasons: 1. An argument over a punk (homosexual inmate). 2. Drug or gambling debts. 3. Blatantly and repeatedly breaking the ‘rules’ of your group (mostly race-based) such that a bunch of them, or just one who has been ‘assigned’ to do it, kick the shit out of you and force you to ‘roll it up’ (either to PC — Protective Custody — or to another dorm/yard/cell).
Sometimes if you take your ass-whupping with equanimity, and promise to change your wicked ways, you can stay on the yard, and even earn a bit of respect in the process. Once you go PC, you’re basically that way forever, no matter what prison you go to from then on. Word has a way of getting around, and inmates take an active interest in researching your “jacket”. If you’re in for something like child molestation, you might as well just go directly to PC.
The rules vary among different groups. For white, non-gang affiliated inmates, they’re basically: 1. Don’t snitch. 2. You can have a certain amount of association with other races, but you shouldn’t a) get into debt to a member of another race; b) go to them for help of any kind before asking your own race; c) side with a member of another race against a member of your own race; d) get involved in, including just open your mouth about, some internal issue that another race is having that has nothing to do with you or your race — just let them deal with it and don’t offer your opinion. If the member of the other race is black, then there is also: e) don’t “eat after” them, which means accept any sort of non-sealed food item from them; f) don’t “smoke after” them (you can give a black the second half of your smoke, but you can’t take the second half of his… this rule, by extension, becomes “don’t ‘snipe hunt’ — that is, pick up cigarette butts from the ground — because you don’t know what race has smoked them); g) don’t play cards or board games with them unless it’s some sort of ‘tournament’ that involves everybody and has been agreed upon by the spokespeople for the various races. 3. Association / interaction with guards should be kept to a minimum (this, in some prisons / among some groups leads to other rules such as ‘don’t approach a guard to speak to him unless you have another inmate with you (to allay suspicion that you might be giving the guard information)). There’s also, to a greater or lesser degree, usually some sort of 4. You have to work out at least somewhat, so your race isn’t made up of all the weaklings on the yard (you’re generally excused from this one if you have some sort of disability or are over 50) and 5. Shower every day / keep your area neat.
These rules have some flexibility, depending on the particular prison, etc. There are some exceptions; for example, from what I’ve seen you can claim “Christian” if you want, and sit at a table with other Christians of various races, and eat after them or whatever… but then most other inmates will avoid you, treating your group as if it’s its own ‘race’… and they’ll be watching to see how sincere you are about it, if they suspect that you’re just doing that to get out of having to follow the rules, you’re going to have a problem. And no backsliding, either… once you go that route, you can’t just change your mind later.
Also, sometimes you can get around the rules, if you have something that other people want. I was always a clerk in prison, and clerks have access to all sorts of stuff that others don’t: for instance, when I was the Watch Commander’s clerk, I could ‘lose’ a write-up if it were important enough (you were going to lose your visitation rights just before a conjugal visit, for instance). And at other clerk positions, there was always some other ‘perq’ that I could translate into, “No, I’m not going to work out, I’m reading. Next time you need that [whatever], come talk to me, until then leave me alone.” (Or whatever.)
Beyond that, if you avoid prison politics as much as possible, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem. Be respectful to everyone in the way you speak to them, and don’t be an idiot, and you should be fine.
(By the way, please do not infer from this that I in any way endorse or support the sort of racist rules and politics that go on in prison. I didn’t make the rules, but not following them isn’t much of an option there.)
– Joshua Englehart