Does Anyone In Prison Respect Nonviolent, Goal-oriented Prisoners?

By · Sunday, November 16th, 2008

My focus has never been on earning respect in prison. I strive to prepare for the life I want to lead upon release, and I do not allow anything to interfere with my progress.

In books I’ve written about prison, and articles published at, I’ve described how a different set of values pervades higher security prisons. The values differ from law-abiding society, where people respect those who strive to educate themselves, contribute to society, and live in socially acceptable ways. In higher security prisons, individuals concern themselves more with developing power on a primal level inside the penitentiary. Those types of prisons are like failure factories that seethe with hostility.

As a consequence of my work, some have asked how it was that I earned respect from violent, predatory prisoners. After all, I do not have a history of violence, and the goals I pursued differed in significant ways from most of my fellow prisoners. The truth was, I was not so sure that other prisoners respected me. Frankly, I never showed much concern or sought approval from other prisoners.

I was courteous and respectful to everyone around me, yet I purposely sought to minimize my contact or interactions with all the chaos of the penitentiary. That may seem absurd to some, as I have lived in prisons for more than 21 years. Yet I always found it possible to avoid activities and interactions that could expose me to problems.

My strategy was to find employment or volunteer opportunities that kept me away from the violence. At the crack of dawn, or in the early morning when doors opened, I was on the weight pile exercising to keep in top physical shape. I worked as an administrative clerk for many years. That job kept me in an office with a typewriter that was far removed from the general population. While other prisoners were rioting over trivial issues, I was absorbed with schoolwork or writing projects. When the office closed for the evening, I packed up my books to report for volunteer duties as a suicide-watch companion; that job kept me in the infirmary for the evenings.  By the time I reported to my room, the doors were about to be locked for the evening.

By keeping busy working toward my goals, avoiding television rooms, table games, drinking, contraband, gangs, gambling, and anything else that interfered with my progress, I was able to reach the goals I set. After I had more seniority, I built relationships with other prisoners. As a consequence of my working toward prison reform, I found others who would share their experiences with me so that I could write about them. Still, I don’t know whether other prisoners have ever respected me.

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