Prison isn’t meant to be a picnic — we get it. But still, something seems to happen to human beings when you put them into a cage. It creates a whole new kind of sub-society with rules that amount to the law of the jungle on steroids. Instead of right and wrong, you end up with wrong and horrifying.
Many inmates and prison guards can’t go on the record talking about prison conditions — it stands to reason. If it’s already a scary situation — full of dangerous and violent people — talking about it publicly can put you at even more risk. Many of the voices remain anonymous, with only a few cases where names and faces are known.
We checked out everything from online discussions to Reddit groups, records, reports, and more to find the kind of stories that give us a glimpse into the realities of prison life. It’s not for the faint of heart!
15 Jack Powers
The story of Jack Powers is both horrifying and tragic. He entered the prison system at a maximum-security federal prison in Atlanta. That was back in 1990. He ended up there after a botched bank robbery. Up to that point in his life, he’d never been known to show any signs of, or spoken of, mental illness or anxiety. While he was in prison, he witnessed a murder committed by members of the Aryan Brotherhood. Jack tried to help the victim and testified against the murderers in court. He went into protective custody and was transferred to another prison, but the Brotherhood managed to get death threats to him nonetheless. He began to suffer from anxiety attacks and insomnia and was diagnosed with PTSD. Instead of treatment, he was transferred a second time, and officials told him he’d be back in the general population. In a panic, he tried to escape. He was then sent to ADX-Florence in Colorado, a Supermax prison. Unfortunately for him, it was full of members of the Aryan Brotherhood, who soon made his life a living hell once again. He started hurting himself and was transferred to a mental health unit temporarily, and then sent back to the ADX, where they took away his medication. By 2012, he had amputated his own fingers, his genital organs, his earlobes, and even cut an Achilles tendon after being in solitary for about a decade. According to prison officials, they are only following the rules in not allowing him his medication.
14 Human Waste
Supermax prisons are based on isolating prisoners 23 hours a day. In 2012, a bunch of current and former inmates at the ADX-Florence Supermax in Colorado filed a class action lawsuit against the Bureau of Prisons. Their statement of claim said, in part, “years of isolation, with no direct, unrestrained contact with other human beings" leave some ADX inmates with "a fundamental loss of even basic social skills and adaptive behaviors.” It’s hard to argue with that premise when you hear story after story that all add up to the same thing. It’s difficult to imagine how dark a place you have to be in where things like swallowing razor blades and decorating your cell with human waste or just throwing it around is fairly common. When you are locked in a box the size of a parking space basically for the rest of your life, you just stop caring about anything, it seems.
13 Women’s Prison Confidential
Without getting into too much detail, we can report that the inmates at prisons for women in the United States use a great deal of imagination and invention in creating items that they use to pass the time and enjoy each other’s company — or not. Plastic disposal shavers, and even Jolly Rancher candies, melted in the microwave and remolded into certain shapes they find useful. One of the prison guards who talked about some of the unusual experiences of her stint at a women’s facility wondered whether the inmates could be as creative straightening their lives out on the outside. She recalled encountering more s*xual misconduct among inmates there than in 26 years spent working in men’s prisons. Looks like Orange is the New Black has got it right.
12 Slept Through It
The first night in jail has to be the most terrifying. A woman recalls being jailed for just four days in minimum security, but was traumatized nonetheless. On her very first night, she was given a bunk that was next to a pregnant girl and an older woman. She was exhausted and fell asleep almost immediately, only to be woken up some time later to the two of them fighting and screaming at each other. During the scuffling, a cup of boiling water was poured on one of them. Guards came and everyone was questioned. The new girl was terrified and the guards didn’t believe her story about sleeping until the older woman backed it up. Although it ended up okay, the possibility of being railroaded into either falsely accusing someone or punishment because of refusing to do so was very real.
11 DIY Knives
Lewisburg Penitentiary is a high-security federal prison for men in Pennsylvania. It has a reputation for violence among inmates who are often crammed two into cells designed for one at the often overcrowded facility. Louis Ferrante, a former inmate, regaled an interviewer with a number of stories about goings on at the prison. He said there was a metal shop in the prison where inmates could work if they’d demonstrated appropriate behavior. But what was made in the shop was anything but appropriate, according to Ferrante. He says the most common item they crafted were knives. Ferrante claims that the double homicide that occurred in 1998 in the prison involved homemade machetes from the metal works shop.
10 Stay Away From Joe
We’ve all seen prison movies where inmates are ambushed and killed suddenly by another inmate. It turns out to be true. According to a former inmate at a prison in northern England, he had been assigned a cellmate by the name of Joe. He had only been incarcerated for two days when another inmate took him aside one day to warn him to stay away from Joe. Something bad is about to happen to Joe and it would be better for you if you made yourself scarce. But, the inmate wanted to warn Joe instead, even though he knew it could get him in trouble himself. He tried to reason with Joe, but Joe didn’t want to go to the guards with the story because of the repercussions. What he did instead was arm himself with a can of tuna in a sock. Although he was stabbed, he ultimately fought them off.
9 Desensitized To The Supermax
Suicide is a shocking and terrible event in normal society. In prison, it’s so common, it becomes just another violent and bizarre note to an otherwise violent and bizarre way of life. There are many stories that come from inmates in prisons all over the United States. One former inmate tells the tale of eating lunch one day when he noticed another inmate leaning farther and farther over the railing of the third story gallery — deliberately so far that he fell over and down to the floor. He convulsed for a few moments while those eating lunch just stared. Then, they just went back to eating. Another former inmate at a different prison talks about waking up to blood dripping from the bunk above after a suicide attempt. A guard at a county prison says that one day, while walking along the cell blocks at ground level, an attempted suicide went awry when an inmate crashed to the ground after making a noose that was too long. The other inmates laughed.
8 Sit Alone
Now, you might be in the pokey for a couple of weeks because you couldn’t pay a fine (at least, that’s your story, and you’re sticking to it,) but the dude next to you might be a serial killer who’s only there because he’s in transit, on the way to some maximum-security prison. A former inmate at a short-term facility says he was watching the news on TV at a prison while awaiting trial. A story came on the news about a young man who had stabbed two kids. The inmate soon realized to his horror the killer was sitting next to him. On another occasion, a prisoner called into a radio show to tell the story about the time he and a few others were allowed to watch a movie. It was a horror flick, and in one scene, the insane killer crept up behind a girl and slit her throat with a knife. A dude next to him said casually, “That’s not what it looks like.”
7 Just Say No
Sadly, a lot of people end up in prison over drug issues one way or another, and the first few days are awful for addicts going into withdrawal. Here’s something you’ll wish you never knew: a county prison guard reports that meth addicts will swarm any new inmate who is also a meth addict. The reason? The chemicals in meth are said to ooze out of their sores. A Reddit user who works in a prison hospital relates how his department had an inmate under watch. He’d been caught swallowing a balloon of heroin and they were waiting for him to pass it. He did, but he retrieved the balloon, and then ate it again. He did this three times before giving up.
6 We’d Never Be A Prison Guard
We can’t imagine what it takes to go into a prison everyday to work. There are plenty of horror stories all over the Internet, from all over the United States. One guard talks about how one prisoner, who was HIV positive, would carefully make bows and arrows out of newspaper that he would soak it in toilet water and then dry it to a hardened state. Then, he’d put his own blood on the tips of the arrows and fire them at the guards. Another bit a guard in the leg and actually took out a chunk of skin. Even worse, the inmate’s dental hygiene was so poor that the wound got infected and the guard’s lower leg had to be removed.
5 Abdominal Pains
Sex offenders are often mistreated by other inmates in prison. The John B. Connally Unit is a maximum-security prison that houses about 2,500 male inmates in Karnes County, Texas. The prison has a crazy history which includes being shut down in part by the state because of shortages of both staff and water. A prison guard at the facility recalls the time he took an inmate to the hospital. The inmate had been complaining about abdominal pains and was convincing enough to warrant a visit to emergency. The inmate was a convicted child molester. The problem? A jar of peanut butter that had been inserted where none had ever been before.
Despite the restricted freedoms, locked doors, and rules, it seems like prison is the place to be for illicit substances. A former nurse at a prison in Tennessee talks about the time she and her colleagues noticed that the drug tests for a couple of inmates kept turning up positive for opiates. The situation continued for about a month, and no one could figure out where the drugs were coming from. Then, the nurse noticed an inmate licking crayon drawing he’d supposedly received in the mail from his kid. Something clicked and the nurse had the crayon drawing tested. Sure enough, the drawing was laced with drugs. The inmates’ wives had been grinding pills and combining the powder with food coloring to make a substance that looked like paint or crayon on paper. The fake drawings were never really examined too closely, and passed mail inspection.
3 Body Parts
Among all the creepy stories, this one may just be the creepiest. The CO of a small, medium-security prison told an interviewer that his most memorable inmate had to be the dude who cut out his own kneecap to use as an ashtray. The same inmate also cut a small piece of skin and flesh from his hip area. Somehow, he got it past censors and mailed it to the state corrections commissioner. In a letter, he vowed that he would get out of prison, even if it meant mailing himself out piece by piece. The state commissioner apparently shared his macabre sense of humor. He also knew the rules, which consider that even if an inmate’s pinky or tip of the nose or anything at all extends outside the boundaries of the prison, it's considered an attempted escape. The commissioner added a few years to the inmate’s sentence for the technical escape.
2 Solitary Confinement For Two
Disciplinary segregation is just the bureaucratic way of saying solitary confinement. Menard Correctional Center in Randolph County, Illinois, houses a population of about 3,000 high-medium-security and maximum-security inmates. Founded in 1878, it also has a troubled history punctuated by violent incidents, murders, weapons incidents, and the like. In November 2014, the prison population at Menard reached the point where solitary confinement meant two to a cell — a cell that measured 4'8" by 10'8". It contained two bunks, a sink, shelf, and toilet. If one inmate stood, the other had to sit. The thing about solitary, the prisoners are often sent there for committing violent acts. Put a couple of them together, and what could go wrong? Bernard Simmons and David Sesson shared a cell when an argument started up almost immediately between the two of them. There was no way to hail a guard except to pound on the door and hope someone heard it above the cacophony of the cell block. Sesson, the larger man, choked Simmons to death. It all happened in less than six hours.
1 Hamster Boy
Many of these startling revelations are gross and/or violent. This one is just plain weird. A prison guard relates the story of working in a juvenile facility for young male offenders. The bad kids are allowed reading materials in their rooms, and one had collected newspapers. Apparently, the young inmates are allowed a certain amount of leeway, because it was a while before the guards noticed anything unusual about the inmate and his love of newspapers. That was until one day, they realized he was shredding it up to turn it into bedding and turn his cell into a human-sized hamster cage. The guard reported that the cell actually reeked like a hamster cage when they opened the door, and when they went to extract the inmate, he was rolled up underneath his bunk, hamster-like.
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