15 Former Inmates Share the Ways Hollywood Gets Prison Wrong

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Anytime a place or experience you’re intimately familiar with gets depicted on the big (or small) screen, there are bound to be misconceptions, errors, and outright lies that make you roll your eyes. This applies to me pretty much anytime a fictional account of how publishing works finds its way onscreen.

With all of the shows that incorporate jail into their narratives and themes, there are plenty of opportunities to get things wrong, and according to these 15 former prisoners, they do – more often than not.

#15. They were all pretty nice.

“I was scared shitless going in and pleasantly surprised at how nice people were when once I was inside.

The worst part for me was waiting in the holding cell. Before you go to an actual cell with beds, tv, etc. you need to be arraigned before the judge.

I was arrested on a Thursday evening and it was a busy week so the judge didn’t have time to see me on Friday. I had to wait in the holding cell until Monday which was torture for me. Just a concrete room, concrete bench and a toilet at the end of the room. It’s impossible to get comfortable and I could only sleep for a few minutes at a time. I really can’t imagine being in solitary for an extended period of time.

Once I got assigned to a cell I was so happy. Most of my cell mates were in for stupid shit like drugs, child support, dui. They were all pretty nice.

A couple times during the weekend they had some really drunk people brought it which was pretty entertaining. I felt bad for one guy when he woke up to discover he was in jail for the first time in his life.”

#14. It’s boring.

“That it’s boring. I spent a weekend in jail. We had TV from 6am until 10pm, dish network so we had access to whatever, 3 meals a day we all traded around, coffee 3 times a day with cream and sugar packets and 1 hour from 7-8am to go to the library to get a book. It wasnt normal every day but Its not this horrible vision of what it would be like. Maybe I got lucky. There was 7 of us in the cell,6 of them knew each other and were on bunk beds then I came in and had to find room on the floor for my cot. The clothes and shoes didn’t fit so I went around in my socks and tied my orange jumpsuit around my hips with the arms and wore it that way,like everyone else was doing bc they’re under funded. The men were kept on the opposite side of the jail and you could hear them yowling and fighting all the time. I mean I wouldn’t do it again but I read an entire book in 2 days and I kind if miss the people I was in there with.”

#13. A mouse fart.

“Did 4 years in a federal penitentiary in British Columbia, Canada. I had my own single cell in a unit of only single cells. So quiet you could hear a mouse fart. Had my own 15inch flat screen TV, an N64 game console with 3 games(Zelda, wrestlemania 2000, and golden eye) a small CD player, my own shoes that I ordered from a catalogue and all my own cloths. No hoodies or button up shirts allowed. Food was garbage, especially during a lock down. The canteen provided most of my meals (kd, noodles, tuna, chicken, garlic coils, cheese, etc). Had the best job too, maintenance… Drove through the compound in a golf cart with a hilti drill in the back for drilling holes in walls for cork boards and cabinets. Made 69$ a week. The guards were chill and respectful and if you needed help with any paperwork they were always willing. Couldn’t ask for better scenery in the yard as we were surrounded by mountains on the north, south, and west and farmland in the east. School, library or gymnasium was always available all day up to 9pm. Other than the fact that I couldn’t leave to see my family it was easy time. We had pfv houses so you could have your family come in for a weekend and you could play house for a few days. Always sad when they leave though. I was lucky, just did what I had to and left everyone to their own time. Made some good friends.”

#12. Soul crushing.

“Most people here are saying is not as bad as TV makes it out to be. But my experience was that it was the most soul crushing thing I’ve ever been through and I wasn’t even in jail very long. Everything is dirty, like it feels disgusting to the touch. Walls have a greasy feeling all the time because nothing is cleaned. There’s nothing to do but wait and watch TV or read. You’re surrounded by people but lonely all the time. There’s never any privacy of any kind. Sure it’s not as violent as TV makes it, but anything that could make you feel human is gone from your life.”

#11. The right price.

“My good friend just got out of prison. He was in for 6 years he said that it depends on the prison, some are really laid back and some of them are super tense and violent. Also, they can get anything in there for the right price.”

#10.  Violent and rapey.

“I know this has been said already but it’s nowhere near as violent or rapey as TV makes it seem. I’ve done about 3 months on remand and during that time I didn’t feel threatened or afraid to leave my cell at all. At one time I was the only guy in my wing that wasn’t in a certain (or any) gang and admittedly during this time I was punched on two separate occasions but I understand that this was because senior gang members were pressuring the younger guys to give me a hard time to get me to move to a different unit so they could get another one of their buddies in my cell. But on both occasions I just held my own, and told them to fuck off, and they did and then came and apologized afterwards. And on the day that I knew I was getting bail the senior dudes that had orchestrated it came and explained the situation to me, congratulated me for sticking it out, and gave me a cigarette lol”

#9. It’s own politics.

“That we go around stomping in the heads of rapists/diddlers and child abusers.

Sure, that DOES happen, but so does a lot of other stuff. And that other stuff is more common. Like checking said diddler/abuser into PC (protective custody). You’re much more likely to see a snitch (whether street or institutional) get his head caved in before you would a sexual offender.

Jail/prison has its own politics and you really need to know them. Not saying you need to be a part of it, but you have to be aware of it.

Also, an*l rape. Yes it happens, but not as much as you may think and it’s not even close to funny.”

#8. No one spoke much.

“I did about four days in one of those open floor jails – like a drunk tank but it’s a whole building with staff and cots and stuff. The deal was basically go to real jail and get sentenced, or stfu and detox in this cot. I chose the latter.

Tv tends to show people vying for position of alpha in the open space, and there’s always that one ‘tatted up man/lady who glares and everyone knows to stay away from.

I did not experience that. No one spoke much, except when it was time to pick the next VHS movie, and everyone was easy going on the selection. Food was shit though. Barely edible. But everyone was chill. Boring af though.”

#7. It all runs smoothly.

“This was in denmark.
That people are tough and prey on you. Its not like that at all.
Most are friendly. When i first came in i had no clothes, no food or anything. Every single guy in the unit offered me food, and said that i should just tell them if i needed anything. We played cards, watched television, worked out, made food and just wanted the time to pass as easy as possible.
Also, you dont argue with the guards unless you’re an idiot. They will always have the last word, so just dont.
Everyday is the same, and thats the way people like it.
Ofcourse there are some fights, and fucked up people, but as long as the majority are nice and quiet people, they wont get the upperhand and it all runs smoothly.
I was surprised myself.”

#6. Friendly interactions.

“I went to jail for a few days when I was 20 and the biggest surprise to me was just how friendly everyone was. This was Cook County Jail in Chicago so it was a pretty large jail full of hardened criminals, but not once did I feel in fear for my safety. I feel like trouble comes only if you go looking for it, like those movies where you have to establish your dominance.

I remember one interaction with these two dudes that were friends that got arrested together for stealing a moped when they were high, trying to figure me out while we were being booked. One of them says to me, “Hey man why your jeans so tight?” I was still wearing the clothes I was arrested in so I had on a pair of Levi’s 511s and a grey Ben Sherman hoodie. I said, “I don’t know, I just like the way they fit.” He looked me up and down and said, “Alright, man, you do you. Don’t know how you do it tho, I gotta have room to breathe, haha!” His buddy then asked me about my tattoo. I have a ladder on the back of my forearm that I did myself and I told the truth and I did it when I was drunk and just thought it would be a good place for a ladder.” They both started laughing and told me I was weird dude.

I had a bunch of really friendly interactions with other people too and got a lot of help with some jail life pro tips from them too. It might not be like that all over, but that was my experience.”

#5. Actually.

“Inmates in cells together get along pretty well actually.”

#4. That it’s a scary place.

“That it’s a scary place. At first it’s overwhelming but not really scary. Most people in there are just waiting to get out or sentenced. Lots just want peace and quiet. You can tell when a person who’s never been in jail come in. They are usually loud and act tough (which they aren’t) Some cry, that’s even worse. Just take your 3 hots and a cot and shut up. If the guards ask you to do something, do it. You don’t want to be extracted from the cell or be in solitary. It’s pretty much eat, sleep, watch tv, and cards. A lot of the people in jail aren’t really that bad. Just made a mistake.”

#3. Friendly cellmates.

“Former CO here…Rape and allegations of rape are taken super seriously. No, we don’t turn a blind eye, if I saw it or thought it was happening I called it in. Consensual sex acts happen fairly regularly (which TV/movies portray alright), although those are against the rules we’d make sure to jingle our keys when doing rounds to give those doing those things to stop for a minute or two. We knew the cellies who were more than likely getting a little too “friendly”, but those guys never caused problems.

Prison sucks, don’t break the law.

JUST WOKE UP EDIT: Woke up to a not so good inbox. I want to clarify, any sexual activity we witnessed was required to be reported due to PREA and it’s arguably one of the most serious topics both when you’re in the academy and on the job. The jingling keys thing is a little redundant, they know we’re coming generally by signaling each other in different ways (light flashes, yelling, banging on the cell door x number of times, etc.). For those saying that the consensual stuff isn’t ever really consensual…you’re mistaken. I’ve had numerous cellies absolutely distraught when their “partner” and them get separated and sent to segregation because they got caught doing sexual activities. That job is ultimately about safety and security, keeping the peace if you will. I’ll admit, this is kind of a messy topic to explain but I’m more than willing to answer any questions you guys may have.”

#2. Exaggerations.

“Got out in May after a year in county for some stupid shit; I apologized, felt remorseful, am now moving on with my life and loving every bit of freedom I can get.

It’s not so much misconceptions, but exaggerations. Yes, there is violence, yes people get beat up and sometimes murdered, both by inmates and CO’s. It happens rarely enough to mention, but frequently enough so that it makes its way into movies/TV shows.

There is an exaggeration about how everyone who is in jail and prison are stupid lowlifes who deserve whatever they have coming to them. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There are all kinds of people, and from what I saw, not all stupid or lowlifes. Inside, I met a software engineer. A teacher with a master’s in psychology. A materials/science engineer. Luxury car exporter. Business owners. People who have more intellect than most.

Yes, they may be accused of committing a crime, some owe up to it, some fight it (some for far too long, but that’s another story for another time) but nobody I met inside had been accused of committing a crime so heinous that they deserved years in prison for (there are a few that had already been convicted for previous crimes, did time, and are just repeat offenders because of the lifestyle they live) some petty little thing, or something the prosecution didn’t have key evidence for, mostly he said/they said type stuff. The big misconception people who haven’t been through the system don’t understand is how broken that system actually is.

Aside from other things, jail life is either a reality check for some people, like the ones I mentioned above, and an escape from reality for others. During my year inside we had this red-bander (someone who has done prison time) who came back 4 TIMES during my stay. His excuse was always the same; that he didn’t tell his parole officer that he quit one of his jobs (to be fair this guy always held more than 1 job to stay afloat, and by afloat I mean being able to pay for insurance and gas for the car he lives in). When we asked him why he just doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do once he’s out, he breaks down and starts crying. Life is a lot harder when you don’t have a support system for you when you get out, I’ve come to realize if you don’t have one, you are fucked and doomed to stay inside the system’s grasp. He says the first time he told his P.O. that he quit a job and had 1 more as back up, they came and got him from the friend’s house he said he was crashing at. Did 90 days. Second time, he had 3 jobs (THREE!) and quit one, was “too busy” to let his P.O. know he still had his other 2. Did 2 weeks. Third time, stayed on a 48 hour hold because his car died and couldn’t make it to one of his jobs on time, so his boss told him not to show up that day. Police came for him after his boss contacted his P.O. Last time, He just said fuck it and turned himself in because he didn’t have enough money for food and his current two jobs weren’t paying enough and his car was sucking him dry from repair costs and that he didn’t want to report to his insurance because his premiums would go up. Figured he could get a meal and a warm bed and clean clothes, instead of being put on a overnight hold he ASKED his P.O. to put him on a 90 day violation because he needed a break from life.”

#1. A loud buzzing noise.

“So I haven’t done time as an inmate, but I have worked as a Corrections Officer for the last 8 years.

One of the biggest things that bugs me about the portrayal of CO’s in TV and movies is that we are either all corrupt and/or incompetent. If that’s not the case, then we are almost always portrayed as being absolute assholes who are verbally or physically abusive. In reality, most of us are pretty laid back (just like most inmates are in all honesty). Obviously this experiences vary widely on the type of facility and where it is located, but overall it’s just a bunch of guys on both sides of the bars trying to kill time and move on with their lives.

Oh, and not every single goddamn door you walk through in a correctional facility makes a loud buzzing noise. I mean some do, but not every single one.”

Time to hire some of these people as consultants, I think!