Those people unfortunate enough to have been incarcerated are all too aware of the harsh realities of life “on the inside.” Thanks to America’s fascination with prison as a solution for all anti-social behavior, as well as draconian sentences and the avarice of the private prison industry, more and more people are receiving an unwanted taste of imprisonment, which has created a niche market for prison survival self-help books.
The mass media, driven by the prosecutions of high-profile white-collar defendants, has also helped form a market for prison survival guides not only for those facing incarceration for the first time but also for people wanting a voyeuristic taste of a potentially violent environment where human interaction is stripped of its familiar social niceties. TV shows such as “Orange is the New Black” have exposed many Americans to a sanitized version of life behind bars, and for whose who want to know more, dozens of prison self-help manuals are available on Amazon.com.
Prison survival guides typically include a list of prison slang, common sense precautions to avoid scams and games, information about gangs and the day-to-day prison routine, and details concerning the disciplinary and grievance processes. Other topics range from prison food to the availability of education and vocational programs.
Prison Legal News does not endorse any particular prison survival guide but we recognize they can be useful so long as the author writes from his own experiences and perspective. While conditions in penal facilities can change from moment-to-moment depending on the personalities of the employees and the prisoners, there is no denying that knowledge of what worked or didn’t work at other institutions can be helpful for people who are headed to prison for the first time.
Also available are prison survival guides for specific categories of prisoners, including white-collar criminals, federal prisoners and LGBTQ offenders. For example, one specialized guide, Surviving Prison in California, provides advice for transgender women locked up in California’s state prison system.
One of the more detailed books is Federal Prison: A Comprehensive Survival Guide, written by former federal prisoner Jonathan Richards. He details the nuts-and-bolts of what people can expect in the Bureau of Prisons, from surrendering, being assigned a cell or room, obtaining prison employment, surviving prison food, requesting medical treatment and navigating the day-to-day conflicts that occur when dealing with people you wouldn’t normally choose to live with. It’s not a cheap book, retailing at $197, which includes access to the author’s website. There are many other prison survival guides that cost much less.
One book, Survival in Solitary, is published by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker non-profit organization that works on criminal justice reform. AFSC will send a copy to any prisoner who requests one.
While Prison Legal News does not sell survival guides (since most PLN readers are already in prison and presumably surviving), we do offer a book titled Protecting Your Health and Safety for $10, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which addresses issues related to medical care, communicable diseases and abuse by prison staff, and how to seek legal remedies (see page 69). Further, while much more than just a survival guide, PLN contributing writer Christopher Zoukis is in the process of publishing the Federal Prison Handbook, which contains a wealth of information for people headed to or already in the federal prison system.
Why the fascination with this genre of prison survival literature, even among non-prisoners? Some people may find it interesting due to the lurid and dangerous aspects of prison life that are inherent to incarceration, while others may want to take a look inside a world that is otherwise off-limits to them. Indeed, the secretive, non-transparent nature of prison lends itself to a certain curiosity. Others may find a book about prison life to be a distraction from their own lives.
As one Amazon reviewer who read a prison survival guide put it, reading about the daily lives of prisoners helped him cope with the harassment he dealt with at work, and also helped him to not only perceive other people differently but also to give more thought to how he wanted to be perceived. He said the book helped him understand the importance of mutual respect in interactions with other people. Finally, he realized that, like most prisoners, he just wanted to get through his day and return home to his family as soon as possible.
One positive aspect of prison survival guides is that they allow prisoners with literary skills to market their writing to a larger audience, based upon their empirical experiences while incarcerated. Several prisoners, upon their release, have managed to establish successful consulting businesses focused on prison survival information and counseling services, particularly for white-collar criminals.
Some of the most recent self-help books written by prisoners include Prison Survival Guide: Words of Wisdom and Encouragement from an Inmate, by Pennsylvania prisoner Russel Ferguson, published on August 16, 2016; After the Gavel by Rodney Doggett, published on July 30, 2016; and Inmate to Convict: A Guide to Prison Survival and the Art of Penitentiary Warfare, by Brian W. Anderson, published in April 2016.
Sources: www.slate.com, http://observer.com, http://prisonoffenders.com, www.amazon.com
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