Days ago I was asked by my sister in Christ, “What is prison really like?” But based on our limited time, I wasn’t able to fully answer her question. And this is a question that many people want to know. Considering how shows like Lockup (MSNBC) and Locked Up Abroad (NATGEO) portray the violent nature of various county jails and prisons, it’s difficult for people who’ve never been incarcerated or imprisoned (at least for an extended period of time) to determine whether reality really matches up with jails and prisons as portrayed in weekly TV series and movies. In short: Yes, but the degree of violence varies from prison to prison, and TV tends to focus heavily on the most violent places to increase its viewer ratings.
Think about it: from the marketing standpoint of stirring up viewer interest, would it be more lucrative for a weekly TV prison series to air a short clip (to the masses) of its next episode depicting extreme prisoner violence or a clip of mild prisoner violence and prisoners rehabilitating themselves? While the latter may personally appeal to you (so you say), the viewer results of the former make better financial sense to most, if not all, program producers. The Reality TV narrative and all of its drama, as sad as it is, rules the day. Plain and simple: modern drama taps into the feral nature of most of us. Regrettably, even I am sometimes more inclined to watch the social car crash than to change the channel.
My family’s carceral background and my personal experiences endow me with first- and second-hand knowledge of what prison is really like. Prior to coming to prison, my longest carceral stint was 60 days (two-thirds of a 90-day county jail sentence) for driving on suspended license–obviously more than once. In my early 20’s, I did part of my time in jail and part in work release. For the most part, Yakima County Jail was easy time.
But I did almost get jumped by a few Mexicans after I threatened to beat up one of their buddies for directing sexual comments toward me at night. His buddies jumped from their beds, and I reacted quickly and snatched a cribbage peg board from an elderly man’s shelf and threatened to use it against whoever came at me. No one did and I told the guard, who was making his nightly rounds, to remove me from the pod or the matter would escalate to violence.
My immediate older brother and two youngest brothers also did jail and prison time. In fact, my youngest brother, Lionel, did three years at this very prison in the 90’s. And my other younger brother, Nambi, has faced his third strike (life in prison) at least three times. He just pled to a two-year deal to avoid facing trial for his third strike. He’ll be out in months. They both were involved in numerous prison fights. Nambi is the more quick-tempered and pugilistic of the two.
But the most combative of all my brothers who did time is Jason, weighing in at 280-plus pounds, bigger-boned (Somoan-like), a raging temper like Mike Tyson, strong as an ox, and as swift-punching as a bear. My jaw still has problems setting flush because of a sucker punch he landed on me from behind when we were kids. And I evened the score, albeit unintentionally, during an altercation where, in defending our younger brother (Lionel) from him, he punched me and nearly knocked me into the air, my glasses and hat sailed off like kites, and I caught myself, grounded my feet, and twisted like a superhero toy, and returned an all-or-nothing haymaker that split his ear open and rattled him to his core. A truce was inevitable and I sincerely apologized.
We’ve never fought since. In fact, we spoke weeks ago and–as any protective older brother–he encouraged me to remain positive and said he loved me. We get along perfectly.
But in federal prisons, he fought 14 times–13 decisive wins and 1 draw (he and his assailant were slipping on spilled cafeteria food). Lionel was there during the fight. In jail, he slammed a man and broke his arm backwards. He fended off a shiv (make-shift prison knife) attack, punching his assailant to the ground. He locked himself and his cellmate in their cell and pummeled his 350-pound bench-pressing cellmate, who taunted Jason, believing he was a gentle bull. Another man faced a similar result when he ridiculed Jason while they worked at the same job on the streets. Law enforcement approached Jason with guns drawn because they were sure that he used a metal bar to shatter the huge man’s jaw. Witnesses corroborated Jason’s account: that he ducked the man’s punch and landed his own squarely on the man’s chin.
Personally, I’ve witnessed jaw-dropping brutality in jail and prison. I’ve seen numerous fights in jail, and a prison Chow Hall stabbing just feet away. I knew both the assailant and victim. I’ve also seen multiple guys jump one guy, the victim in a pool of blood. I’ve seen guys punch themselves out, resume the brawl, and repeat. They were so tired that when a single correctional officer (C/O) arrived and instructed them to get down on the ground, they seemed relieved. Past back-to-back multi-person fights have placed this prison on full lockdown (confined to cells except for showers every other day) for weeks on end.
Interestingly, this prison is the same one that Ashton Kutcher played a prisoner in for the movie “The Butterfly Effect.” Some real WSRU prisoners played roles in the movie, and I knew a number of them.
But over the years, violence here has died down significantly. There are still fights, but prison staff crack down on them swiftly and harshly. For example, there was a 4-man fight on 4/21/18, and another today (4/22/18). Each prompted temporary lockdowns, but regular prison movements have resumed. And here, the prison Big Yard is the only place where prisoners are still racially segregated.
Other Washington prisons are worse–more violent, segregated, etc. This is what prisons are really like. So I advise: STAY AWAY!!
Jacob J. Gamet