Extortion Targets in Prison

By · Friday, November 7th, 2008

I received a letter from a reader who asked whether other prisoners had ever extorted me in prison. The answer is no, I have never succumbed to extortion. That does not mean prisoners have not tried.

I spent the first 16 years of my sentence inside higher security prisons. When I was locked inside the walls of a United States Penitentiary, I understood the dangerous environment. With a lengthy sentence to serve, I knew that I would have to stand on my own. I could not expect prison staff members to protect me from all the chaos around. Survival meant that I had to develop strength in my spirit, in my fitness level, and in my mind. I had to choose my activities and my associates with calculation. Nothing about surviving prison is by chance, I knew. I had to make choices every day, and those choices determined how I would emerge.

For the first decade I focused exclusively on building a strong physique and working toward my education. That meant discipline. I worked daily with a brutal weight training routine and ensured that I kept in tip-top shape. A strong presence, I reasoned, would suggest to predators that there were easier marks in the penitentiary. Also, I avoided interactions with trouble makers. I did not engage in table games or play any organized sports. I stayed low key, focusing on my independent study projects and on exercise. Since I was respectful to every other prisoner and since I did not interfere with others in any way, I worked my way around the penitentiary without have any troubles.

After completing my education, I began to engage in projects that raised my profile. I started to develop more contacts outside of prison boundaries by writing. In time, I began to open opportunities to publish. Those efforts were part of my long-term plan to emerge from prison with a position of strength. I felt hopeful that I could walk out of prison with a career in place and a network of support that would assist my efforts to succeed.

A gang member once approached me with an extortion effort. He understood that I had a higher profile and he thought that he might score some points in his gang if he could pressure me. Yet when the young gang banger made his approach, I had more than 13 years of prison behind me; he was new to the prison and striving to lift his status. Although he thought my demeanor suggested that I would be an easy mark, the young extortionist learned that I was well liked and respected in the prison. Gangs are political organization, and I had good relationships with gang leaders. When I described the effort at extortion, the problem was quashed immediately.

People are extorted in prison when they are perceived as being weak. I prepared myself to project strength, and those efforts have served me well. Also, once I cultivated a reputation as a prison writer, other prisoners admired the efforts I made to initiate prison reforms.

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