If you’ve never been to prison, you have no idea what prison is like. No matter how many episodes of Orange Is the New Black you’ve binge-watched, the experience of life behind bars is basically unfathomable to those of us who have only ever known freedom. So when first-time offenders find themselves locked up, they enter the system not knowing what to expect, how to behave, or how to keep themselves safe.
Last week, The Marshall Project published a pair of extraordinary 20-minute videos about what inmates must do in order to avoid becoming victims of sexual abuse. The videos, which were produced through a federal grant under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, will be shown in institutions across New York state and feature incredibly detailed advice from inmates, some of whom have been sexually assaulted, about how to protect oneself from predators while incarcerated.
“You might find a pack of cigarettes or a candy bar or something on your bed—don’t eat it,” one inmate says. “Take it off your bed, put it in front of your cell and just leave it as it is. Because if you take that, that can be a debt that you can’t pay back. It might cost you $1,000 … and if you can’t pay back the debt, then they’ll want other things.”
Another inmate weighs in on shower protocol: “A predator will use the shower as an opportunity to get close; don’t let him,” he says. “Never have a conversation with an inmate in an adjacent shower and do not accept T-shirts, boxers, shower slippers, or soap items from another inmate; those are sure signs of a predator that’s getting too close.”
To watch these videos, which were directed by prison rape survivor T.J. Parsell, is to gain a visceral appreciation of how intensely stressful and confusing it must be for newcomers to navigate prison life. Parsell, however, is not the first person to address this reality. It turns out that prison survival guides aimed at nervous, naive new inmates constitute a fairly robust genre.
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