This is part 3 of Jeff’s chronological story of his time.
You learn a lot from your bunkies (or “cellies”) about how to get by in prison. Not all of what your are told works. One of my bunkies was on his third prison sentence and had served in both federal and state prisons of different security levels at various times in his life. He taught me the most important lesson I’ve learned. You are instructed not to borrow anything or give anything of value from other inmates (I wrote about this in my second installment). Of course, borrowing, giving, and receiving items of value occurs all the time. It is so prevalent that I don’t think the guards could stop it. Sometimes the guards inadvertently take part in it. For example, some jobs that inmates are assigned will have access to rubber bands or paper clips. These are contraband. Yet, a rubber band or paper clip can be very helpful for storing food (like a bag of chips) or for, well, attaching paper together. One of the more ironic pieces of contraband that guards unwittingly partake in distributing is scotch tape. The mail room will seal your mail with scotch tape, which inmates are not allowed to have. Tape has quite a bit of value, mainly for attaching pictures to your locker.
So, you have this black market in various sundries, and trade occurs with people who are in a place for some transgression. You learn a lot about other inmates through this system, the same people with whom you will be doing your time. My first bunkie was a nice guy who would lend out cigarettes to the new inmates. He went into this arrangement without any expectation of anything in return. However, he would not tell the new inmate this, so after a few weeks, he would go back to that inmate and ask if he could spare a cigarette. He could tell by the response whether the guy was someone to be trusted. Some guys would not give him one. Others would gladly give him one. Still others would repay the cigarette without even being asked, a few giving him more than the one cigarette they had received.
I don’t think that the first and last types are qualities you learn. They reveal who you are. The second may to a degree be something you can learn, repay in kind what you owe. So, this helped me learn about myself and others around me. I try to repay more than I owe, that is, give something greater value in return. I think I just want to show my appreciation for the help offered me that I wanted to give back more than I received. Because of this, and because my first bunkie had been in for a while (they know everybody), I got a good reputation as a guy who can be trusted pretty quickly. I’m glad that I had that quality. Some guys will deny a return item, even when these items cost as little as a quarter, like a cigarette or a candy bar. This is the best investment you can make in prison, and this was the best lesson I learned in prison. Find out quickly whom you can trust.
On the outside, you can spend thousands of dollars to learn about whom to trust. You may make an investment in someone’s business, or help out a friend in a pinch. My brother is a banker, and he said if he could learn about which people would respond like this, he says the bank could save a lot of money from bad loans. Instead, people (and bankers) spend thousands of dollars and sometimes get excuses back. Budget is tight, or business just didn’t work out. Sorry, I have to buy a car, etc.
I made a similar comparison in a dating book I wrote (don’t look for it, it was never published). I believed that if you wanted to find out the true nature of a person, watch them when they drive. People tend to reveal their true nature while driving. I believe that because most often they are anonymous. They can cut people off, yell at them, curse, speed, and other selfish acts in the car. Lots of women would say that it is unfair to judge a guy that way (it was the guys who were mainly the jerks, but not always) and the argument was that they may drive like selfish jerks, but they treat their girlfriends differently. Eventually, they won’t. It’s their nature. If they are inherently selfish, they may hide it for a while, but it will come out.
Since I can’t dive a care while in prison, I have found a few other ways to learn about people’s character. A huge rule in most prisons is absolutely no cutting in line. However, at a prison camp this rule is not enforced by the inmates (the guards will sometimes enforce it, but they are not effective or consistent). At other higher security prisons you can get a beating for cutting in line. (I have heard that you can get a beating for reaching across the table for salt, but I’m thinking that is not is an exception rather than a regular occurrence). Because fighting is the fastest way to go to a higher security level, no one will get into a fight here. So, the punishment for breaking the rules (at least the inmates punishment) is removed, and many inmates cut in line. It’s just like my driving test for selfishness. If a guy will give other inmates the decency to respect the line, then how much more will they be trustworthy in bigger things. Not very much. Guys will say, that’s overreacting. After all, the food is terrible, and so it just saves a few minutes (we have to eat in 15 minutes). But, it’s the principal that matters, and it speaks volumes.
Which takes me to the next installment. The little things matter, everywhere, but much more so in prison.