Friendships in Prison. Are They Possible? by Stephen Newman

It was suggested by lostinthelight that I write about friendships in prison. As I began to brainstorm on the topic, an interesting dichotomy became clear. A major goal in rehabilitating prisoners is to make them more pro-social. The theory is, once we’re released back into society, we’ll be better equipped to relate to others, communicate effectively, trust others, and create a support network of friends and family we can rely on. To help instill these ideals into our minds, case managers and clinicians throughout Idaho’s prisons teach social skills like listening, empathy, apologizing, and expressing interest in someone. They also teach us how to overcome issues that have hindered our ability to maintain friendships — things like anger, selfishness, fear, and so on.

Oddly, though, all of the rules within prison expressly discourage any type of friendship among inmates.

One huge deterrent: the rules against sharing. Let’s say you and your friend wanted to celebrate Easter together. You had some shredded beef and tortillas in your locker, so you thought, “I’ll make some soft tacos, and I think he has some candy, so we can have tacos and candy for Easter.” If two people are caught sharing food in this manner, they can be disciplined quite heavily — to the point where it could cause the parole board to not give a person a parole date. The same holds true for this scenario: Let’s say that your friend has an awful cold and is up all night coughing. You have a bag full of cough drops. If you give your friend a cough drop, you can get into serious trouble. It’s always assumed by staff that if you give something to someone, they must have given you something in return, aka bartering.

in another example — for six years, I lived in the same housing unit at ICC (the prison in Boise). I became very good friends with an inmate there. He and I had both been successful businessmen before being arrested, and we had lots in common. For years we shared stories, we grew close. Then, one day, I was moved several hours north to Orofino. I have been prohibited from communicating with him in any way, and to this day I can’t even find out if he’s still in prison. Asking my family to look him up could violate a rule. Inmates also are not allowed to write each other letters (inmate-to-inmate correspondence, it’s called, and it’s a big no-no).

Once an inmate is released on parole, one of his parole conditions becomes: “no contact with felons.” If he attempted to write a letter to his friend who is in prison, he, himself, could be sent back to prison for a parole violation. And if both inmates were released from prison, they also wouldn’t be allowed to communicate.

There’s a diagnostic test called the LSI. This is supposed to predict the likelihood that an inmate will commit another crime, once released. The test is facilitated by a Case Manager, and the score is reported to the parole board prior to one’s parole hearing. According to the LSI, the lower the score, the less likely one is to reoffend. One of the questions on the LSI is: “Do you have any friends in prison?” If an inmate answers “yes,” it will add points to his LSI score (under the category of “poor social influences”) and make it less likely he will get released on parole.

So while it is very possible (and relatively easy) to make friends in prison, it is discouraged at every possible step. You could wake up tomorrow and notice your friend is gone, moved to another facility without warning. It happens all the time. You’ll see a bare mattress on a bunk, with no sheets or blankets, no TV on the shelf, nothing hanging on the hooks. “What happened to Mike?” you might ask. “I dunno, they put him on transport,” his cellmates might reply. Or, “I think they moved him out of state.” There is no definitive answer, only that he is gone and you’ll most likely never see him again.

Since it is nearly impossible to maintain a friendship, it makes little sense for inmates to even try. Why open up to someone, why get emotionally attached to a friend? The friendship won’t last. It can’t last. It will just devastate you when they leave or when you leave. Because o this, inmates often learn to think of everyone as merely an acquaintance or even just a tool. Because a genuine friendship is impossible to harbor, many of us learn to be even more manipulative. To use people to get what we want now, because tomorrow may be too late. It becomes less about giving, more about getting. It is often said that prison teaches you how to be a better criminal, and in many ways, that couldn’t be more true.

Lostinthelight wanted to hear more about the bizarre nature of a forced prison friendship. I always like to say, imagine if you’re at home, on your couch watching TV, and a complete stranger comes wheeling their stuff into your house, on a cart, and starts putting their clothes into your closet. “Sup,” they say to you, as they sit next to you on the couch and start looking through their magazines. You know they’re going to be with you for at least a few months, perhaps years. Maybe they are clean, honest, and respectful. Or maybe they have the worst breath you’ve ever smelled, and they have loud and obnoxious friends that they invite over each night to tattoo each other in front of you (making you promise not to tell). You’re stuck with who you’re stuck with. You may not get along with your roommate. However, there are 500 guys at this prison, you’re likely going to find something in common with a few of them. There is a guy in here who used to be a financial planner. He works at the school with me, and we are acquaintances. There’s a guy who was a realtor. And there’s a truck driver I get along with, as we share lots of stories about our past travel adventures.

Lostinthelight: I’ll answer your specific questions in a future blog.

Stephen Newman
DOC #90843


5 replies »

  1. Thanks so much, Stephen. Really insightful and exactly what I was wondering about. Your perspective really highlights the absurdities and contradictions of prison. I suppose trying to square the circle of rehab and punishment means there are just a lot of bizarre approaches. Many thanks for taking on my suggestion! I’ll send you a proper message soon.


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