By Christopher Zoukis
Prison commentator George Hook recently published an article at PrisonEducation.com entitled “How Should An Inmate Deal With Troublemakers.” The article suggests that the prisoner should first try to understand the conflict (analysis), then seek input from knowledgeable persons (either plainly intelligent, or those who have relevant experience), try to resolve the matter (via a meaningful discussion), and, if a resolution is not possible, to practice a doctrine of avoidance from the troublemakers (stay away from them). I’d like to share my personal observations on the process and a code which I’ve lived by for the past seven years, during which I’ve been incarcerated.
Within reason, I offer respect where it is due and avoidance where it is not. This means that I try to respect everyone — inmates and guards — from the start. I feel that everyone deserves a fair shot at acceptance. Ideally, I will adjust my behavior to how the person treats me or others that I know. In the best case scenario, the person will act like a decent human being and I can become friendly with them, or at least not hostile. This is true whether or not the person is a prisoner or a guard. (Note: If the person is a guard, I usually don’t try to become friends with them, but simply try to avoid an antagonistic relationship. In prison it is usually a bad idea to actually become friends with the guards since it makes one look like an informant, a potentially dangerous designation, whether true or not.) As I write this, I’m thinking of a decent staff educator here at FCI Petersburg who has always treated me, and others, with dignity and respect. As such, I’ll greet him whenever I’m in the Education Department, but I certainly won’t go behind closed doors to hang out with him, like the would-be informants might.
But there are also times when troublemakers make it so that friendship or even civility is not possible. A case in point would be a fellow prisoner making a disrespectful comment, or a guard going out of their way to be difficult. In such cases, I try to practice avoidance of the offending party. After all, if it’s an inmate, and the matter is pressed, a fight will most likely ensue (a result that no one wants, but sometimes has to be accepted, even if it carries unfortunate consequences). If the offending party is a guard, engaging them in an argument is only going to result in an incident report or some other form of retaliation. Thus, it’s always a come to naught situation when becoming hostile with a guard in person (although in writing, it can be a different story).
Prison is a culture unto itself. Some have told me that it mimics the urban street culture. I wouldn’t know. But what I do know is that in prison there are two groups who can potentially cause significant problems: prisoners and guards. Either group can be just as damaging, and the results just as damning too. By always offering respect to those who deserve it — or who haven’t yet proven themselves to either deserve or not deserve it — and to practice a doctrine of avoidance when the person (whether prisoner or guard) proves they don’t deserve respect, much trouble can be avoided.
In reality, the issue of prison “respect” is not about physical power or social influence; it is about how one carries oneself. When persons act in a way that deserves respect, give it to them. When persons act in a way that deserves ridicule and chastisement, simply avoid them. Sooner or later the seeds which they’ve sowed will have to be reaped, and when they are, hopefully by someone else, you’ll be long gone.