Wednesday, July 22, 2009

He's--or She's--In The Jailhouse Now

Behind Bars, Surviving Prison by Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards (365.6 ROS Main)

Reviewed by Nancy

Why read this book? Well, here's how it happened to me (reading the book, not going to jail). I was straightening the library. This book was out of place. By the time I got to the shelf where the book belongs, I had decided it looked like it might be interesting reading. This happens to me frequently, resulting in an eclectic reading mix.
This book opens with tons of statistics. Here's one to try on: One in thirty-two Americans is under the control of the criminal justice system. This figure reflects individuals who are incarcerated, on parole and on probation. Think about that the next time you’re in a crowd.
I am very happy to report that I have never been in jail, nor am I planning to go there, so my reading of this book was more in an informational vein than a preparatory one. Gee, what an eye-opener.
The authors begin at the very beginning, advising on what to expect if you are arrested. It is important to remember that even if you are an upright and law-abiding citizen, you might sometime be so unlucky as to be arrested by mistake. It happens. And if it happens, you want to know how to behave in the slammer. Not me, you say. Never happen.
But think about it. What if you were arrested due to mistaken identity? You spend one night in the tank, and you could come out a completely different person, suddenly craving illegal drugs and fighting the urge to write bad checks, just because you fell under the influence of the wrong crowd in there.
That scenario should motivate you to have a look at this book, just in case.
So, this book tells you what to expect if you are arrested: what is involved in the booking process, who to talk to (nobody), who not to talk to (almost everybody), when you will get your phone call (eventually), and what to expect from your lawyer (bills, bills, bills).
The primary nugget I garnered from this section of the book was this: KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT, especially if you are guilty. And remember, all jail phones are bugged.
The book goes on to describe the state and federal prison systems, how prisoners are transported, what to expect from prison fare, how to deal with the other inmates, how to behave with the guards, and how to stay healthy. This includes a reminder to stay away from the blood when other inmates are stabbed.
Also, the authors take you through a typical day as an inmate. You walk from place to place in groups and get counted a lot, even when you are sleeping.
For me, the scariest sentence in the book was on page 124: “In every cellblock (typically 500 prisoners) there are a couple dozen seething paranoids and violent sociopaths who've armed themselves with deadly weapons.”
What are the weapons? “An experienced convict can make a weapon out of nearly anything.” Shanks (homemade knives) can be made from toothbrushes and razor blades, broken glass and tape, or any metal that can be sharpened. Also mentioned are newspapers rolled tight and hardened with toothpaste, pillowcases filled with soda cans, and dental floss (think garrote).
The most startling bit of information related to work in prison. Convicts work at prison industries which may include making license plates, mail bags, office furniture, clothing, shoes, and electronic parts. They might work in the prison kitchen, mop floors, do maintenance work, or keep up the grounds. All of this seems to be pretty much what you might expect. Here's the surprise. Prisoners also work as telemarketers for banks, airlines, hotels, state lotteries, etc. Whut? Banks? Telemarketers? We are certainly living in a mixed up world, aren't we?
If you’re a woman things are a little different. You’re not quite as likely to be murdered in prison. Isn’t that great news?
Ross and Richards also provide information regarding educational opportunities for the incarcerated and suggested prison reading lists, including a list of well-known authors who spent time behind bars themselves.
One final bit of advice from this tome: If you become so frustrated with prison life that you decide to kill yourself, don't mess it up. If you do attempt suicide and bungle the job, you will end up either in a psychiatric unit, or solitary and the guards will be unhappy with you for making trouble.


  1. My one arrest was not a classic case. It happened in the early sixties. I bought a small British car from a friend who ran a foreign car dealership. He stuck a drive-out tag in the back window, and I headed to the office. I worked for a PR agency and was account executive for the mayor of Nashville. I was stopped by a cop for having no license. The paper one had fallen off the window. He checked it and found it wasn't filled out. Off we went to police headquarters for driving without a license. As I was being led to the booking desk, the chief walked up, saw me and broke out laughing. He was one of my contacts. He told the cop he would take care of it. He told me to get the heck out of there and show up in court. I did.

  2. Whew! Obviously cultivating police friendships and contacts is a vital part of this process or else you could have spent some time in the pokey. I don't know if the book covers this vital aspect of staying out of jail but I'll ask Nancy!