I have often times been amazed and deeply touched by inmates’ incredible gifts of survival. Surviving in the harsh, unpredictable and often unfair environment of the US prison demands of you to be strong, determined, innovative and, most importantly, keep focusing on the positive. Keep focusing on the goal: Your freedom. Your life. Your future.
Air vents, ”fishing”, hustling, ”stingers”, art, literature, strength, communication and sharing are only a few techniques of survival in prison I’ve come across so far.
Here’s a collection of extracts and passages from letters and texts written by inmates in the US. It will hopefully also expose some of the difficult living conditions in US prisons today.
”Stingers”: A short story of boiling water
”In prison for those who can’t afford a ”hot pot” inmates use something called ”stingers” or ”Hot shots”. It is basically a homemade device to heat water, so one can cook his food or drink hot coffee or tea. It’s made of a finger nail clipper, wire and two paperclips or pieces of soda can. ”Hot shots” are considered contraband so if you get caught with one it means a disciplinary case (I’ve only been caught once).
Well, you stick this device into the cup or bowl of water and the other end into the wall or plug and in 40 seconds or a minute you will have real hot boiling water…”
”Fishing”: Transportation on the inside
”Then if we need to get something to or from one another we do what we call ”fishing”. We make a line out of a bunch of threads spun into string. On the end of that string we can use different things as a weight as long it fits under the door. So if I need an envelope and stamp from my neighbor I’ll throw my line out under the door and he will do the same and either of us will ”fish” in the other line then we’ll tie a big envelope to the line and pull it back and forth with whatever we need inside the big envelope.”
Hustle: A way to get what one needs
”I’m able to draw and then hustle to get enough stamps together and send them out to companies on the street for a magazine subscription (just an example). Or when I need anything like hygiene, writing materials or food, I just can trade with the stamps.”
”What I meant by ”hustling” is like ‘bartering’ and ‘trade’. Or I draw and sell. Nothing illegal. If it wasn’t for my God given talent in art I would be screwed. One way or another I’ve hustled for everything I own.”
Air vents: The way we play chess
”To give you an idea, just imagine being in a house with several rooms and every room is occupied by one person. You can’t see or touch them, so you just yell to each other from room to room. For me I live in an eight man pod, myself and seven others. The whole front of my cell is steel mesh, so you can clearly see and hear through the front of my cell. Instead of bars it is steel front with a bunch of holes, so when ever speaking to someone I just speak a little louder than normal.
Also, I can talk through my air vent to my neighbor below me and everyone under myself sharing the same air vent. We can’t see each other but we can hear each other clearly.
We also play chess this way, cool, huh?”
Literature, art and poetry: A way to escape the walls
”I must first build on myself before I can build on anyone else. That’s why its very important for me to gather as much support and buzz from my artwork and literature as possible so that I can separate myself from the other 2.1 million men locked up and mentally swallowed by this darkened abyss.”
”I love to read. Reading helps take me away from my reality. Ironically, I enjoy reading books that tend to be other people’s reality.”
”Drawing and writing are my therapy. I let my feelings bleed through my pen onto paper.”
Strength: Yoga and exercise the key of survival
” ‘Yoga’, you say, well, of course, I’m very familiar. I studied it for years alone in my cell. People came by sometimes and took me for crazy or weird, here it is: I am a black man, heavily tattooed, with gold teeth practicing yoga and breathing techniques. I’m pretty used to it now when one comes across me they think ”big bad wolf”, but that’s far from the truth…”
”How do I handle the harsh and cold environment? And how do I keep from going crazy?Well, I do work out A LOT throughout the day. And every day is another day in the struggle to stay alive, this is prison so there’s almost always something going on that will remind you to stay ready for one thing or another. Being prepared plays a big part in me keeping my sanity because being prepared is about looking ahead. What can make you lose it is looking back too much.”
”You asked how do I stay sane without any real human contact? I believe we all have an inner strength that we don’t realize we have until a situation calls on us to find and use it. I’ve got mine and you’ve got yours too.”
Communication: Words of the outside world
“What keeps me sane is “this”. Right here. Being able to write and vent and communicate with someone beyond these walls. Beyond the country. Beyond the ocean that separates us. Being able to find a connection in which to communicate despite the distance in our worlds. We are able to find a common ground with each other and that makes me feel human.”
Sharing: Experience, necessities and care
”When I came to Death Row I had nothing but the clothes on my back and a couple of pieces of soap given to me by the officials. The next day I was sent bags of food, hygiene and writing materials from people I had never seen before in my life. I started sending it back because usually there are attachments that go along with taking things. All of the stuff was sent back to me with notes. One note said:
Say Brother, it’s from the heart, this is how its done here. The only thing I ask is that when someone else comes and doesn’t have anything you do the same for them.
See, that alone gave me a sure enough different view. Then a guy was next door to me, who had an execution date but I didn’t know (because I was new) and he gave me some food. I didn’t have a commissary card yet and I told him I would pay when my card came. They moved him and he said to me:
I’ll get it from you when I see you again.
A couple of weeks later he was executed.”
The inmates in this blog post
The inmates are anonymous and the paragraphs have been typed and edited by me. The inmates in this text have all accepted their words to be spread. They are incarcerated in different states of the USA. A few of them are death row inmates, but most of them are general population inmates. Some are innocent of their crimes, some are wrongfully convicted and others are guilty as charged.
Yet they all have one thing in common:
They survive because of their innovative strategies.