Serving a Prison Sentence Without a Gang

By · Thursday, December 4th, 2008

Prison environments frighten those who have never been exposed to confinement before. Television shows and popular myths influence perceptions. New prisoners have heard stories about  prison gangs, prison rape and brutal guards. In reality, the worst part of prison is the unknown.

When I began serving my sentence in 1987, I didn’t know anything about confinement. I didn’t know the difference between jail and prison, and I certainly didn’t know anything about security levels. I began serving my term inside a high-security penitentiary. That was a volatile environment, as I’ve described in books I’ve written and articles available on Most new prisoners, however, serve their time inside less volatile prisons.

Despite the environment, I was able to serve my sentence inside the high-security penitentiary and inside lower-security prisons without a single physical altercation. Some prisoners are not so fortunate. Yet I would estimate that more often than not, prisoners can serve their time without violence. The choices a prisoner makes will have the most influence on his adjustment pattern.

In my case, I thought the essential choice was to work toward clearly defined goals. As a consequence of the goals I wanted to pursue, I knew that I had to minimize my exposure to situations that could disrupt my progress. To that end, I was courteous and respectful to other prisoners, though I was careful to minimize contact. I chose not to watch television with a group, not to play team sports, not to engage in any table games. I did not use drugs or drink, and I did not gamble. I gave the prison gangs a wide berth. Those decisions kept me away from a lot of activities that have the possibility of erupting in violence.

Despite the long sentence I was serving, I was willing to focus on how I would emerge from prison. That meant I had to accept a lot of solitude. In fact, I searched for niches within the penitentiary that would give me space alone. For example, I found a work assignment in an office. While I was working in that office, I was separated from the general population. I worked as many hours as possible there; when my duties were complete, I focused on my school work. Besides the office job, I volunteered to work as a suicide-watch companion. That job allowed me to spend several hours each day in the infirmary. For several years, the only time that I was in the general population of the prison was in the early morning, and I used that time to exercise alone.

By staying to myself and focusing on my goals, I felt as if I were in the penitentiary, but not of the penitentiary. I created a niche that allowed me to study and work toward goals without disruption or interference. Anyone who made the level of commitment could adjust in the same way. Most prisoners, however, struggle with confinement. When they adjust inappropriately by forming alliances with others, they sometimes invite disruptions and problems.

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2 Responses to “Serving a Prison Sentence Without a Gang”

  1. Jacqueline Hart says:

    March 12,2009

    Mr. Santos:
    In your article title “Serving a Prison Sentence Without a Gang” you indicate that you chose not to watch television with a group, not to participate in a team sport, nor did you choose to engage in any table games. You focused on this time to figure out how you would emerge from prison.

    My questions to you are:
    1. You have commented that family ties are important for an inmates behavior as well as release, yet wouldn’t friendship within a penitentiary be important as well? Wouldn’t it help them with the time spent inside prison?

    2. Being without a gang, were you more likely to be bullied?

    3. Although you said you did not engage in social activities, in your book, Life Behind Bars in America, you seem to have many relationships in which you are helping others successfully live out their sentence, therefore wouldn’t that be considered engaging in social events?

    I am the oldest of two younger brothers who have currently spent time in prisons. They were only 16 at the time but tried as adults. One spent time in a camp while the other spent time in Folsom. He said that he “had to be apart of a gang in order to protect himself.” This also extended his time but made it possible for him to not be bullied. He is not a big guy and sometimes i wonder if he is lying about that in order to sound cool or if he truly needed that protection as an 18 year old who was sent to Folsom State Prison. I’m looking forward to your reply and if there is anything i should know please inform me of your knowledge. They have been release as of 9/11 2008. I have alot more questions to ask you but i will do write to you at another time.
    Thank you for taking the time to read this.
    Jacqueline Hart

  2. Dear Jacqueline:

    I appreciate this opportunity to respond to your questions. Let me begin by saying that I was sorry to have read that your own brothers had to struggle through this system. I know such stress can be difficult on a family, and my prayers are with you that their release continues to meet with success.

    When I write about prison adjustments, I write about the strategies that have enabled me to grow through more than 21 years experience of living in prison. Like your brothers, I was young when I was locked inside the walls of a penitentiary. In my mind, the best adjustment approach was to focus on developing skills and values that would help me emerge successfully. Every step I took, and every relationship I had, was made in that context. I did not want to become a part of the prison, and so my adjustment was uncommon.
    I chose to serve my time alone because I felt that would be the most likely way to reach my goals. Rather than run with others, I sought niches within the penitentiary that would allow me to focus on my goals. The jobs I chose had a huge influence on my ability to focus, as they kept me out of the mix.

    When I interacted with others, those relationships were premised on my being able to add value to the lives of others; in turn, those relationships helped shield me from conflict. My adjustment was strategic, with every step calculated to advance toward goals I set.

    I’m certain that your brothers appreciate the support you extend to them. My sisters were a factor in my adjustment, as were my parents. I wanted to redeem the bad decisions of my early 20s. I wish your brothers and your family happiness and peace.