Plain ‘ol Prison Survival

Prison Bacteria for Dummies with Excrement Assault Guide_Where Excuses Go to DiePrison Survival Literature: where’s the chapter on being hustled?

“Two men enter – one man leaves!”
It’s all you need to know, right?
Okay technically, sometimes, sure.

My cellmate wanted to order a copy of Put ‘Em Down, Take ‘Em Out! Knife Fighting Techniques From Folsom Prison, but I was able to talk him out of it. Good thing, too, because the publisher’s catalog through which the order would’ve been placed belonged to me, and it was high contraband. Back then I was in possession of several such catalogs, which offered titles on everything from document falsification to improvised explosives; from contingency cannibalism (my favorite) to how to dispose of a dead body. I got the sense I’d exceeded the natural encyclopedia of criminal knowledge around me as a result, and that was nothing short of cross-eyed fabulous.

Each catalog entry was accompanied by a book-jacket photo and lengthy summary. Where Excuses Go to Die’s chapter, “High Weirdness by Mail,” describes how reading snippets of these out loud to certain trusted inmates caused laughter so physically enfeebling that only a death rattle was left in the human body’s big bag of tricks.

It seems crazy to recall being rendered sightless by tears of joy in the company of murderers, shot-callers, and stonehearted life-termers. But these “moments of genuine whimsy,” as I refer to ‘em in Where Excuses Go to Die, were what my own prison survival was made of. Sure, I’d read the titles and descriptions in a funny voice, but I allowed the absurdity of it all to do the heavy lifting. We didn’t actually need to possess the instructions for do-it-yourself blowguns; picturing blowgun wars in the chow hall was priceless enough. We’d really lose it when some badass piped up to correct, clarify, or corroborate. Such sessions turned tall tales into skyscrapers.

Put ‘Em Down_Take ‘Em OutTo me, Put ‘Em DownTake ‘Em Out! definitely counts as a prison survival book, despite its sensationalized premise and author Don Pentecost’s intended civilian audience. The man struck gold with that godless title, and all these years later, it’s hard to find even a worn copy for less than $80. Reviewers seem to take the book pretty seriously too, which, as you may expect, I find impossible. In my world, Put ‘Em Down will always represent learning — early on — that nobody behind bars will watch your back like a guy you can make cry with laughter. And that’s just plain ‘ol prison survival.

There are, however, author/entrepreneur/former inmates who will disagree with me.

In the last few years, a bumper crop of prison survival literature has flooded the marketplace both online and off, finding shelf space in the homes of drunks, hackers, civil disobedients, and, of course, criminal defendants. Some of the books and websites are pretty slick; some are marketed far more effectively than others. The majority contain a couple of useful tips, several obvious answers, and mostly tough guy filler. People like me see ‘em as books written for suckers. (Rest assured I’m not offending anyone by saying that, since ex-felons and even the convicts putting ‘em out there speak the same language I do, and our secret handshake is “suckers.”)

APOCALYPSE HOOSEGOW--By Chato--Where Excuses Go to DieNevertheless, the prison survival genre is growing, and if you want to learn more about it, Leon Neyfakh’s “How to Go to Jail” is a fun place to start. The Slate author begins with a grim, if humble, $4 e-brochure, perhaps created out of someone’s need to share a message. But fraidy-cat embezzlers facing federal custody might prefer to shell out $197 instead for an exhaustively calculated top shelf option, promoted in a bizarre “but wait, there’s more!” sales pitch. In it, obscured by satellite dish sunglasses and a low baseball cap, the book’s author talks while scary images of “prison life” crossfade over his shoulder. Dominated by photos of none other than the L.A. County Men’s Central Jail, and California State Penitentiaries, the visuals have nothing to do with the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It’s like a P90-X ad targeting failed counterfeiters and tax-cheats.

But as Neyfakh’s article points out, some of the titles alone will appeal to handcuff-tickled fans of Orange Is the New Black and other custody voyeurs. And the alarmist, up-sell selections are almost as rich with unintentional humor as Put ‘Em Down, Take ‘Em Out! (But I know they’ll never, ever be that good.)

Either way, no prison survival book’s “insider” intel, no self-defense manual, and no FAQ can mask unearned knowledge; each can only warp a first-termer’s expectations. You won’t pick up an advantage by reading this stuff: you’ll paint a target on your back. Why? ‘Cause if you didn’t learn something by experience, the fellas will smell it on you at the Inmate Reception Center.

That said, I do support the purchasing of literature, including (as you can imagine), books about prison. In fact, you’ll have to pick up a copy of Where Excuses Go to Die to learn what became of my contraband catalogs once their hiding place got offered up by a squealer as a bargaining chip. Let’s just say their confiscation kicked off my personal interest in prison survival literature.