Prison Culture: Are You a Convict or an Inmate?

By · Sunday, December 7th, 2008

In the prison system, a difference exists between a convict and an inmate. Each word has its own connotation in prison culture. The words describe the manner in which a prisoner adjusts within the system of confinement. In minimum-security camps the terms don’t carry much weight. Yet in higher-security prisons, where the stricter boundaries prevail of prison culture, an individual may construe one term an insult and the other a mark of high praise. The differences in implication may surprise some.

In the parlance of the penitentiary, we generally understand an inmate as one who becomes a little bit too closely aligned with the institution and its rules. Inmates are quick to engage in conversation with staff members. It seems as if inmates suffer a bit from the Stockholm Syndrome, where they identify more with their captors than with others who share their captivity.

While I was confined in one penitentiary, for example, violence erupted with regularity. Alarm messages from control center went out to each guard’s radio. Upon hearing of the disturbance, the officers deserted their assigned posts to run as a pack toward the altercation. Those of us in prison saw the guards running from one area of the massive penitentiary to another several times each day.

Convicts and inmates would differ in their thoughts as they watched packs of guards running in the same direction. A common convict expression went along the lines of “please let them find a dead body.” While an inmate once confided to me, on the other hand, that he felt torn because he wanted to run with the guards to lend a hand.

Being a model inmate does not necessarily imply that he deliberately informs or “rats” on other prisoners to save himself. Yet inmates are known to “dry snitch” on activities rather than confront problems directly.

For example, inmates who don’t like another prisoner for one reason or another may send an anonymous note to staff members that describe misconduct or contraband hustles of the rival. Inmates who toady up to staff may inadvertently describe how hard they work while letting it slip that other prisoners on the detail don’t work hard enough.

The inmate strives to advance his standing by engaging in small talk with staff members. Inmates inquire about the staff member’s home life, chat about sports, show photographs of family members from home. The inmates are, in the eyes of administrators, the element they can count on within the penitentiary. Inmates don’t make waves and they help maintain order.

Convicts differ from inmates. Convicts may abide by the rules, but only because they want to avoid additional aggravations or frustrations. Yet if he believes breaking a rule would be in his interest, he will make his choice and live with the consequences. A convict would never cooperate with a staff member in some kind of diabolical deal to spare himself. Convicts have an air of defiance. He may suppress that defiance, though he feels it coursing through his veins.

A convict would never engage in small talk with a staff member. Convicts do not ask how the staff member passed his weekend, does not ask whether the staff member caught the game on television. A convict believes in the clear separation between those who walk around with rings of clattering keys, and those locked inside the boundaries. Convicts do not share food or photographs with staff members; they understand that staff members represent the institution. It is staff members who rifle through the property of prisoners. It is staff members who order the prisoners to strip naked for a body search. It is staff members who lock prisoners in segregation and cut off access to their family.

Upon reading these distinctions between the inmate and the convict, those who live outside the twisted world of the penitentiary may find themselves surprised as to which is a term of respect and which is a term of derision.

Administrators look upon those within prison boundaries as criminals. To some extent, staff members believe prisoners unworthy of the common humanity we all share. Prisoners are numbers to be counted and managed, as if inventory in a warehouse, or animals in a menagerie, incapable of redemption, not deserving of trust.

Staff members expect the inmate to whine, to tattle, to shift blame and play the victim. Inmates feel certain that others may belong in prison, yet in their personal situations, injustice prevailed. Although staff members may exploit the weakness in the inmate’s utter lack of character, neither bonds of genuine respect nor respect exist.

The convict may not receive the perks that inmates take for granted from staff members, yet the convict may earn respect. Provided the convict is not engaged in or suspected of wrongdoing, staff members will refrain from petty harassment or patronizing conversations. Staff members and convicts alike understand that a clear line exists. Provided no problems erupt, both parties stay on their side and strive to minimize interference with the customs or beliefs of the others.

After my more than 21 years of continuous imprisonment, some ask whether I identify as a convict or an inmate. The answer, for me, is neither. I am not beholden to any group within these boundaries that separate me. I am a man, a being of dignity and honor. I am an American, a citizen with allegiance to my wife and family. I reject both labels of convict and inmate, as I continue this odyssey, this long and arduous journey home. I describe more of that journey in My Literary Escape From Punishment.

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3 Responses to “Prison Culture: Are You a Convict or an Inmate?”

  1. Paul Maier says:

    Mr. Santos:
    In you article entitled “Are you a convict or an inmate” you indicate that a convict has an air of defiance and would never cooperate with staff just to spare himself. It seems as thought the convict is more aggresive and not nearly as cooperative as an inmate. My question to you is, Have convicts commit more violent crimes that led to their incarceration where as inmates may have commited a less serious crime to become incarcerated? Also, would a convict be more likely to re-ofend once released from prison rather than an inmate?
    Not relating to the article, I have always wondered whether it is a necessary to join somesort of gang in order to survive in prison. If somebody like myself who has no prior record or gang affiliation somehow found themselves sent to prison, would I have to join a certain group in order to avoid harrasment or even death by other inmates? It has always puzzled me.
    I want to thank you for you time in helping me understand the corrections system. I am currently reading your book and find it very exciting to read. Thank you again
    -Paul Maier

  2. Hi Paul, Thanks for writing.
    I’ve mailed your comments/questions to Michael and will post his reply to you as soon as I receive it back.
    Carole Santos

  3. Carole Santos says:

    Hi Paul,

    Michael responded to your questions here:

    Best wishes,
    Carole Santos