Joanne Broder Sumerson Ph.D.

Research Notes

The Non-Hollywood Perspective of Prison

Nine lessons learned from working with real inmates.

Posted Oct 27, 2017

Prison-centric movies and television shows can be fascinating and entertaining. They emulate biographies or create fictitious characters and situations about the dark and mysterious world of corrections. However, there is a side to jail life that never seems to get captured on the big screen; as if correctional staff and former inmates are not invited to collaborate in the script writing roundtable.

If you can live through prison, you can truly live through anything. Inmates, corrections officers, “civilians” (non-correctional jail staff), all have their own experiences on how they lived through it. Prison is a dreary place filled with people with excessive amounts of time to think about surviving and beating the system. It is essential to survive the system. If you do not survive, your life does not end; it becomes unfathomably miserable in every way. 

I was fortunate enough to launch my career as a prison counselor. Despite leaving the world of corrections, prison was the ultimate real-world boot camp that served as a foundation for my career. Here are nine lessons learned that no reality show will ever capture.

1.  People need to be loved

Five seconds of eye contact can tell you whether a person has love in their lives.  Do you see emptiness, tenderness, hardness, or tenderness hiding behind hardness? Lack of love leads to bad choices, toxic relationships, and self-destructive habits. A little unconditional love goes a long way, which can anchor them to the long-term consequences.

2.  Never say, “That will never happen to me”

It only took a few Monday morning intakes to learn that most inmates are surprised and shocked to be there. They did not plan to wake up on a Monday morning withdrawing, detoxing, or beaten up in a cell without any recollection of how they got there. Nobody puts “serve a prison sentence” on their bucket list of intended achievements. Thus, anything can happen to anybody.

3.  Nothing screams desperation like, “Do you know who I am?”

My standard answer was “an inmate.” If you must ask, the answer is obviously "no," we neither know nor care about your real identity; especially since you tried to pull that card. Nobody wants to help someone who thinks they are more superior to those around them. Additionally, if they do not know you, they certainly do not want to hear your drama.

4.  Take a timeout

Prison is the land of forced self-reflection. Without time for self-reflection, one bad decision can have a domino effect. There is a difference between a mistake and the start of a fast trip into a downward spiral. A mistake might result from a bad decision that could have been resolved by looking inward to learn to make better choices. Apathy takes it from a bad decision to a bad life.

5.  Accept what you can and cannot control

Successful inmates create lives for themselves behind bars. They make friends, find ways to fill their time, and understand how to survive the system. They find pockets of joy while they are locked up. Yes, there is a lot of angst, sadness, anger, and misery in prison, but there is also a lot of humor and acceptance because they know they are not going anywhere and try to make the best of a bad situation.

6.   Ask the right questions

The best teachers on the art of asking questions are seasoned inmates who know how to use words to distract versus share the truth.  A well-phrased question will get the intended information. Vague questions might get a dramatic story, but not necessarily clear information. "Why are you here?" and "What are your charges?" are two questions with the same objective. Question one will get you a rambling story about the incident and the second question will get the specific list of charges, which is the desired information.

7.   Look up, down, left, and right

The world contains people who purposely try to hurt others. You never know if someone is lurking around the corner; whether it is in a prison or anywhere else.  When you are the first person entering a new situation, the guideline is to look up, down, left, and right. Why? You might as well be walking around blindfolded if you do not completely understand your physical environment. 

8.  Be your own lifesaver

Let’s say you looked up, down, left, and right and you walked into a situation where there was a crowd of people attempting to assault you. What would you do? How would you get yourself out of the situation? Thanks to the abundance of hostage and riot classes, I have a personal strategy that I have used for incidents outside of prison.

9.   “If I don’t take it, someone else will”

This came directly from the mouth of a convicted thief. I will never forget the day I interviewed someone in the Booking area who got caught stealing a child’s unlocked bicycle. In his drunken stupor, he voluntarily offered that since the bike was unattended, if he didn’t steal it someone else would. Enough said.

I am blessed for the world-class prison reality experience that served as the foundation for my career. I appreciate these lessons stayed with me for 20 years.  I hope Hollywood will learn to capture this in some way, so people will not feel like they need the full experience.

Joanne Broder Sumerson
Source: Joanne Broder Sumerson

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