This post is the third in an eight part series of questions asked to and answered by Jacob Ind, who is currently serving LWOP in Colorado. Jacob was incarcerated at 15 and is now 30 years old.
You’ve described a prisoner indoctrination process for new inmates that seems like a catch-22 situation where the “Fish” will be tested and is forced to fight (which will get him in trouble) or be victimized by the various groups inside. You’ve been in the prison system for nearly 15 years now and it sounds like you are able to sidestep associating with gangs and elements that are sure to get you into trouble. How long must a person be inside, or what has to happen for a prisoner to finally get to the point where he can be left alone to do his own thing?
Prison is a sick world. It is truly a case of the inmates running the asylum. In Colorado, the guards have quite a bit of control. Inmate rule is not absolute, but this is only compared with other prison systems. Not matter what, the guards only have the power that the inmates cede to them and individual inmates live or die at the whim of their peers. For instance, if all the inmates went on a work strike, and guards had to cook the food, clean the units, do the laundry, and do all the maintenance; the prison system would grind to a halt and would become bankrupt quickly. The system knows this so there is a constant back and forth when it comes to privileges and freedoms. Because of that, inmates have a great deal of control over who lives in their unit. If a snitch or a child molester moves in and the other inmates don’t like it, he will be forced to move. He’ll either make the cops move him (guards have been known to refuse to move someone who goes to them seeking protection, unless he makes his situation worse by snitching, and send them back in harm’s way), or he will leave on a stretcher. Since there is no protective custody in Colorado, people who are in that boat get bounced around from unit to unit; facility to facility, getting terrorized wherever they go. It is a miserable existence for them.
This reality makes it important to not violate the social rules of prison. There are levels of inmates and, just like in school, the higher levels pick on the lower levels. Rats, sex offenders, and “Check-Ins” (those who run to the cops for a protective move) are on the bottom rung. They are forced to pay “rent” (protection money), are robbed, beaten by new guys trying to impress people, can get raped with impunity, and are treated badly.
The run above them are “Nacks”. Basically, they are viewed as potential rats or Check-Ins. In this class are those who won’t fight or who allow others to “disrespect” them without retaliating with violence. People who refuse to break minor rules, like pass magazines in Ad-Seg, are also put on “Nack Status”. Nacks are wholly without protection for the most part. Some people are labeled Nacks because they don’t fit in but if they stand their ground, somebody will usually help them out. But those who refuse to fight or who flaunt the prison “ethic” are free to prey upon. Predators will try to intimidate them into turning into homosexuals, charge them rent, or scam them for their money. Refusal to pay up will result in an attempt to Check-In the nack, which is typically successful. Nacks also have no protection against slander. If someone thinks somebody has snitched on them, the Nack is the first suspect and likely to be attacked without proof. Basically, a Nack is a sheep among wolves.
The top rung of the prison social ladder is the Convict. He is the prisoner who doesn’t snitch, would rather go out on a stretcher than Check In, isn’t afraid to fight, and lives within the “Convict Code”. Within the Convict class are those who mind their business, gang members, predators and everything in between. Being a Convict comes with its privileges and responsibilities. A Convict is usually free from predatorial attack. Aside from the fact that a Convict is proven to stand his ground and predators are cowards, looking for easy prey, even if the Convict is the worst fighter on earth, others will keep him from getting jumped, robbed, or raped (or retaliate severely if it does happen) – as long as he continues to stand his ground. It also requires “proof” before a Convict is accused of being a snitch (such as court files). Rules like that are enforced with brutality. However, Convicts are also expected to participate in any demonstrations against the system, race riots, or keeping their fellow Convict of the same race from being jumped.
All new guys to the system are eventually tested to see what rung on the social ladder they belong on. Usually, even “fish” (new guys) who seem to be Nacks will be taken under wing and schooled, given a fair chance to prove themselves as Convicts. It is a crucial time because it is very unforgiving. Checking-In or snitching is never forgiven and will follow the guy for life (as will homosexuality). A guy may back down from a fight once or twice during this time if (and only if) he makes up for it by fighting whoever he backed down from – and even that is not guaranteed.
For young kids entering the system, they have to make critical decisions, life changing decisions, very quickly and which they are completely unqualified to make. Kids are notorious for making bad decisions and not looking at the long run. What they see is a class of people treated like crap (Nacks and the snitch class) and the “cool” guys coaxing him in. The fear of not being a victim becomes far more important than deciding what kind of Convict is the best to become for his future. The “coolest” guys are the violent gang members and they suck in the many kids who are just trying to fit in. Sometimes the more mellow Convicts get ahold of kids and steer them on the right path. But no matter what, the kid will be challenged and have to fight.
After a new guy in the system fights once or twice, he will be left alone as long as he carries himself correctly. If he projects weakness, he will invite attacks from bullies, but if he projects too much of a tough guy attitude he will be challenged by people trying to make a name for themselves or expected to participate in terrorizing the lower rungs of inmate society. Either extreme will cause far more problems than necessary. But even those who maintain a happy medium of confidence, but not aggressiveness will have to prove themselves every so often. In my experience, the lowest amount of problems one can expect and remain above prey status is one fight a year. There’s always going to be an asshole along the way which does something which requires a fight by Convict standards, especially when somebody is new to a facility. That’s just the nature of the wolf pack and make no mistake about it, those who run Convict society are vicious animals.
For most kids entering adult prison, it takes a while to find their niche (just like it does in the free world). We tend to have flirted with trying to be the cool guys and trying to be left alone but it takes years of experience and hard knocks to find ourselves and our place. Some never do and some, unfortunately find their place is at the top of the ladder. We weren’t equipped with skills to navigate this tumultuous sea and there aren’t any people there to prepare us for what to expect. We are thrown into the deep end to sink or swim with the sharks.