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Inside Story
What Prison is Really Like
R.G.
headshot

Ever since my mom died when I was 10, I’d been living in group homes and wishing I was with my sister. When I was 17, I finally moved in with her. But times soon got hard and I started selling drugs to help support us.

I was living two lives. In the daytime I went to school, passing all my classes. At night I was outside, in the middle of trouble. The two lives were complete opposites, which made it impossible for anyone to notice that I was going down the drug dealing path, or to stop me.

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I wasn’t too worried about being caught, either, because the stories I heard about prison made it seem like nothing.

Jail Seemed Like a Joke

Growing up with just my mom and my sister, I hung out with other boys and their older brothers, probably because I was looking for a father figure. From them, I learned things that I didn’t feel comfortable talking to my mother about, like sports and girls and the streets.

When the subject of prison came up, I was always confused. My mother told me how bad prison was and described the terrible things that happen there. But guys on my block made it seem like a joke. Since they’d been to prison and my mother hadn’t, I believed them.

In group homes I kept hearing the same stories about prison: “When I was in so-and-so facility I was getting visits every day and just chilling doing nothing.” Or, “When I was there I was running the whole jail and doing whatever I wanted.”

Also, the kids in my group home would get arrested and come back a couple of days later. They made it seem like it was cool to get arrested, because more people will respect you if you do. I figured that the law and its officers weren’t serious.

Over time, I became less fearful of breaking the law. Not that I wanted to commit crimes, but I didn’t believe the consequences would be serious. Because of my attitude, it was only a matter of time before I got arrested.


After about a year of dealing drugs, I got arrested for possession of a controlled substance. Since it was my first time, the judge sent me home the next day. I lost more respect for the system and figured I could get away with anything.

I would soon regret my naïve thinking.

Protecting My Rep

Just a few months later, while on the block with a friend, we got robbed by a couple of dudes. Since word got around my whole project, I felt I had to retaliate. I found out where one of them lived and decided it was my only chance.

It was late at night. The street he lived on was deserted except for a few people. I got close, he noticed me and started running, I pulled out a gun. I shot him once in the leg.

Then people started looking out their windows and I left. Two months later I got arrested and was sent to Riker’s Island, facing attempted murder and assault charges.


While on the Island I was upset with myself, especially when I found out that my girlfriend was pregnant. That made my situation complicated, because I needed to keep my future daughter’s well-being in mind when deciding whether to take my case to trial.

After six months I pled guilty to attempted murder and got sentenced to seven years in prison. I figured I’d be out by the time my daughter turned 5, whereas if I took my case to trial and lost, I might still be locked up until she was a teenager.

By then, I’d found out that everything I’d heard about prison wasn’t true and that it would be worse when I moved “up north,” where I’d be surrounded by adults.

23 Hours in a Cell

image by Ashay Francis

When I first got “up north,” I was weary, surprised, afraid and tense. Nothing looked familiar. I didn’t see a castle-like building usually pictured in stories about prison on TV. The jail just looked like 30 two-story project buildings in a deserted part of upstate New York. I realized then I’d be miles away from society.

In the building, the corrections officers (CO’s) took our clothes, cut our hair, gave us uniforms and sent us to our cells. The first thing the CO said was that everything we heard about prison wasn’t true and this wasn’t a game. He was right.

My so-called friends never told me that that my cell would be 9’ x 6’ and I’d stay locked in the cell for no less than 18 hours, and many times 23 hours. Also, that my bed would be as hard as the floor and I wouldn’t have hot water in my cell.

Or that the food I’d eat would be unrecognizable and I’d take showers only every other day. And that I’d have to be in school or work, every day, earning 56 cents an hour at most, though most people get only 15 to 30 cents an hour.

$10 Phone Calls

I don’t recall being told that I could be as far as 10 hours from home and that my girlfriend would have to drive 20 hours in one weekend so I could see my daughter for a couple of hours. I don’t remember hearing that I’d have to call home collect and one phone call is as much as $10.

I soon found out that recreation means going to the library or a fenced in yard with not much to do but exercise or talk to one another. I also had to watch my surroundings because I never knew when a fight or stabbing would happen.

Now, three years later, as I sit in my cell and think back on the stories I heard, I laugh at myself for believing them. I wonder, “If I had heard all of this, would I be writing this story right now?”

Repetitive Days

One thing I’ve learned is that, in prison, days become repetitious. The only thing that changes is the names of the prisoners who were beaten up or stabbed, or the guards who were attacked.

I’ve also run into a lot of people who were in group homes with me when we were younger. Sometimes, with nothing better to do, we come up with conspiracy theories on how we got here, only to realize it was our fault. Older men in our neighborhood also helped us get here, though, because they decided not to let us know the truth about prison.
The hardest times in here are when I’m in my cell. That’s when I really realize what I did and understand that I’m stuck here. The isolation of being locked up is the worst punishment. A lot of people go crazy because of it. To avoid thinking constantly about my situation, I listen to music and read all day.


A lot of people here in prison consider this place their end. They believe that, with a record, they won’t be able to become anything positive in life. I don’t see it that way. I use my time here to plan my future thoroughly so I can become someone positive once I get out. I’m young and will only be in my early 20s when I go home, so I still have a chance to reach my full potential.

I’ve learned a lot and run into some positive people, mostly lifers who do things like help prisoners better ourselves, like teach black history or run an AIDS education and prevention class.

Many of the people who run these classes will never go home, but they help those who will. They keep me positive. I respect them, because even though they’re in a hopeless situation, they don’t show it.

It’s also helped that my girlfriend moved upstate to Albany, where she attends college. Now I can see her and my daughter more often.

My one place of refuge is the prison rec yard, where I get fresh air and leave my suffocating cell. I get a chance to clear my head, to contemplate my past moves and plan my future moves.

I Had to Live the Consequences

Being here I’ve become a better, more responsible person. Looking back, I see that I was irresponsible, immature and rarely had respect for others. Now I am becoming more mature. I plan to go to school when I get out. I want to study a profession where this felony conviction won’t affect me getting a job.

Sometimes I look back and wonder, “What got me here? If I went home after school instead of selling drugs, where would I be now? If my family knew I was dealing, could they have stopped me?” I doubt it. I think I had to live the consequences to believe them. I just hope other young men in my situation can get out before they reach that point.

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(FCYU-2005-09-10)