5 Frequently Asked Questions About Prison Life

"A man's reach should exceed his grasp else what's a heaven for?"

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp else what’s a heaven for?”

Over the past forty years, many professional and non-professional people have asked me a variety of questions about prison life and issues. Now in the aftermath of the “great escape” that recently occurred in New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility, many of these same questions and others have been popping up on CNN, HLN and various morning talk shows. Unfortunately, many of the individuals who have been called on to respond to the questions haven’t been a hundred percent accurate in their responses. In this blog post and several to follow, I’d like to address these and other frequently asked questions about prisons and prison life. I would also like to answer any questions you, my readers, may have. I invite you to leave your question(s) in the comment box at the end of this post. Thanks.

5 Frequently Asked Questions About Prison Life

1) Q: It was reported right after the recent prison escape at the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York that the two escapees had had a sexual relationship with a female employee in the prison. Does this sort of thing go on frequently?

A: It’s not rampant, but it does happen from time to time. Most male prisoners are heterosexuals and, thus, are naturally attracted to women; it’s only natural for a healthy, heterosexual man who is being deprived of having a “normal” heterosexual relationship to seek it from a willing woman, no mattter that there are rules against it. Men are not in prison for being choir boys, and having sex with a female employee is not a crime, it’s just against the rules. There’s a price to pay when you get caught, but for many men who have a lot of time to do, it’s worth the price. It should be noted too that the penalty you pay if you’re caught is far, far worse than the penalty a man pays when he is caught having sex with another man in prison.

2) Q: Is homosexuality condoned in prison?

A: Yes, as long as it’s consensual. A new policy came out last week defining prison rape, and in the definition of rape, there is a clause that reads, “…unless it is consensual…” In every prison in Pennsylvania, there are many known homosexuals living in a cell with “their man.” So, yes, it’s condoned, or at least tolerated. The penalty for getting caught is usually 30 days in the hole and then the individuals are released back into the population, “free” to double with another man again. In contrast, the standard penalty for a man who is caught having sex with a woman is 90 days in the hole, an automatic transfer, and an ‘H’ code, which means the man is now a high security risk, and is to be watched closely.

3) Q: What are the honor blocks like and who gets to live on them?

A: The honor blocks in Pennsylvania’s prisons provide a few amenities that the regular cell blocks don’t provide. This includes an ice machine and usually a weight lifting machine. In addition, prisoners on the honor blocks are allowed to stay out in the day room a little longer in the evenings to play cards or watch television, whereas the rest of the prison is locked down at 8:45 every evening. Honor block prisoners may also come out of their cells right after certain counts are made, whereas the prisoners in the other housing units must remain locked down for usually an hour longer. The other advantages honor block prisoners have are psychological in nature. Many guards and staff members consider honor block prisoners to be “model prisoners,” and they are more often than not treated with a little more respect and consideration. There are long-term prisoners (e.g., lifers) living on these blocks as well as short-term prisoners. The honor block is an incentive-based program, so when an honor block prisoner receives what they call a Class I misconduct and is found guilty of that misconduct, he is removed from the honor block. So rarely do these prisoners cause any major problems, as they don’t want to lose the few amenities they have there.

I should add that in Pennsylvania’s prisons, the administration has very strict guidelines on who can live on these honor blocks. The two prisoners who are recently escaped from the honor block inside New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility would have never been on an honor block in a Pennsylvania prison. In Pennsylvania, if a prisoner has any history of escaping, as the two New York escapees had, even if these escapes occurred as a juvenile, his custody level automatically includes an ‘H’ code, which means, “high security,” which means the prisoner’s every move is scrutinized.

4) Q: Do child molesters and other sex offenders really have a more difficult time surviving in prison than other prisoners?

A: They used to. In the old prisons, these offenders were raped and beaten regularly, and many were, and still are placed in what they call protective custody, or administrative segregation. In the ’85 riot at Western Penitentiary, the first thing the prisoners did when they got a hold of the guards’ keys was to unlock the administrative segregation’s protective custody cells. The sex offenders and child molesters who were in these cells were raped and beaten throughout the night.

Prison rapes occur much less frequently today because the new prisons they’ve built are designed so that the guards can see just about everything that goes on in the housing units (they’re no longer called cell blocks because the designs have changed.) Now there are cameras on every housing unit that constantly record and identify who is going into any given cell. However, child molesters still get roughed up, spit on and pointed out in crowds, and every once in a while they get brutalized physically.

5) Q: Why does the recidivism rate continue to be so high?

A: There are multiple reasons for this. In PA prisons, the most promising progress, in terms of lowering recidivism, were removed beginnings in the late 80s. There are no longer vocational training programs where a man can earn certification as a welder, a plumber, an electronics technician, or an auto mechanic. They also removed most in-house four-year college programs. The research that was conducted on the efficacy of these programs on lowering recidivism was very positive. Yet, they are gone. Another factor has to do with the lack of any effective counseling and cognitive development programs. A large number of men come to prison with faulty thinking skills and lots of anger; when they leave prison, their thinking hasn’t changed and they’re more angry than they were when they first came to prison. So there’s all that, and then there’s the societal components, which can be summed up in four words–a lack of opportunity. They return to the same dysfunctional environments they came from, they have no money, little to no job skills, and in most cases, even less hope. So what do you expect they’re going to do?

Patrick Middleton

Patrick Middleton is a prisoner, author, and professional editor. Patrick is the author of Introduction to Experimental Psychology, 2nd edition (instructor’s manual and test battery and Research Methods, 3rd edition, (instructor’s manual and test battery); Healing Our Imprisoned Minds, a successful self-help book that is about to come out in a second edition; a memoir, Incorrigible; and the just released literary novel, Eureka Man. Patrick holds a Ph.D degree from the university of Pittsburg. He was an adjunct faculty member at both the University of Pittsburg (1983-1989) and Villanova University (2007-2010) for graduate and undergraduate students. He has been incarcerated in Pennsylvania since 1975.

If you have any question about prisons or prison life, you can post it in the comment box below and Patrick will answer it in a future post.

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