“The Unwritten Rules of Prison–Part 1”, by Michael Arce, Jr.

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In prison there are two sets of rules that we convicts should abide by and follow.  The first set of rules are the administration’s rules, and the second set are the “unwritten rules.”  If you ask me, the latter set of rules are paramount, and they supersede the first set – ALWAYS.

Once one reaches prison and gets acclimated to prison life, laws, and bylaws, you realize that most things you must adhere to go without saying.  Otherwise, there’s a steep price to pay.  Most of these rules are plain common sense and courtesy.  As we all know, however, common sense isn’t too common.

All of the unwritten rules revolve around two core values:  respect and principle.   We must be mindful that what might seem insignificant or unimportant to you, to the point where you are able to brush it off, might mean everything to the next individual.  Despite most of us having very much the same values, morals, and principles, there are prioritization differences.  For example – as far as respect goes, none of us wants to be disrespected in any way, shape, or form.  However, because our mindsets are individually different, when faced with the same scenario, we each may interpret and act upon it in totally opposite ways.  Where one person might be tolerant of verbal disrespect, and may be able to brush it off (unless there is physical disrespect), I might not be able to ignore verbal disrespect.  I will most likely address the situation the way I know best – with violence.  Everyone’s triggers (what sets them off) vary with each situation and individual they are dealing with.  In order to avoid problems, one should abide by the unwritten rules when dealing with friends or foes alike.

Before I get into what we call the 5 G’s, (contained in part 2 of this article set), I will share the most important examples of unwritten rules that come to mind:

  • Do not stare into someone else’s cell. It can be perceived as disrespectful.  The individual inside the cell might look at it thinking you are scheming and plotting against him or his cellmate.  He may also fear that you are looking into the cell searching for something to steal.  Why else would you be staring into someone else’s cell?  Don’t do it.
  • Nothing is free. Everything comes at a cost of some sort.  Do not take handouts from anyone.  There is an adage that corresponds precisely with this rule that goes as follows:  “If it seems too good to be true, it’s because it most likely it is.”  Don’t take anything from anyone.
  • Never hear, see, or know anything that involves you. Whether you saw it, heard it, or know of it, YOU DON’T, YOU DIDN’T, AND YOU SHOULDN’T.
  • Never argue unless you’re willing to fight. Because most arguments can easily escalate into a physical altercation, if you’re not willing to fight for what you feel is right, avoid arguments as a whole.
  • Never touch what doesn’t belong to you. Most of us, because we have very little, are possessive of the things we do have.  We also may add sentimental value to certain things.  That’s why we do not like others to touch our stuff.  That is a sign of disrespect.  We do not touch what doesn’t belong to us.
  • Only wake someone up out of their sleep for an emergency or if they have a visit. Because while we are sleeping it is the only time we really are at peace.  We do not want to be bothered while asleep.  We should then show the same respect to others while they sleep.
  • Do not speak over someone’s food. It is very disrespectful and unsanitary given all the germs that the human mouth has.  Speaking over someone’s food isn’t prudent.
  • No masturbating while your cellmate is in residence (sleeping or not). Let’s all be honest with ourselves.  Given that none of us have female partners in here to be able to do what we are naturally designed to do (have sex and reproduce), it’s inevitable that we are going to get the urge to release ourselves.  However, that is something that is to be done on our own time when our cellmate isn’t present in the cell.  Mostly out of respect for them and ourselves.
  • Don’t go into debt. You might not like what you’re told to give in return.  This rule is in unison with the rule number two, listed previously.  It is highly recommended that you don’t borrow anything from anyone.  They might want to add “jail taxes” to whatever you borrowed.  Or, being that they might feel like they have the upper hand on you since you needed them and owe them, you might even be asked for sexual favors in return.  To avoid that, stay out of debt at all cost.  This includes gambling debts.
  • Pay careful attention to personal space. Find your own and stay out of others.  We prisoners have very little to begin with.  The little bit we do have, even if it’s personal space, we treasure and protect it at all cost, and by any means necessary.  It is then smart for us to be mindful of others personal space, and to stay within the limits of our own.
  • Respect someone’s telephone time. No yelling, talking loud, or playing around someone when they’re using the phone.  Most likely they’re talking to a lawyer, friend, or family member.  We only get fifteen minutes per phone call.  During those fifteen minutes we are either going to get good or bad news.  Either way, when on the phone, we want to focus on the call and the individual on the other end of the line without interruptions or distractions.
  • Don’t vocalize vague threats. Say what you mean and mean what you say.  Someone is always willing to put you and your words to the test.

These are just a few rules I can think of that are considered “unwritten rules”; things that should go without saying.  Looking from the outside in, it might seem like we are constantly walking on eggshells.  And quite honestly, most times we are.  But the difference in following these unwritten rules or lack thereof can be life or death.

There are also some rules that we call the “5 G’s”… These refer to things and people that you need to avoid.  Stay tuned for “Unwritten Rules, Part 2,” to be published soon, and I will reveal these 5 things that inmates must avoid to stay safe in this dangerous environment!


EDITOR’S NOTE:  My wife and I, and ministry partner, Dave Godshall, visit with Mike and write letters back and forth.  He is an intelligent and articulate young man, on a journey of growth and discovering his positive side.  He likes to write and would greatly welcome your letter or card.  You can write him by addressing a plain white envelope with the following:  Michael Arce Jr. KR 9642, State Correctional Institute Coal Twp., 1 Kelly Drive, Coal Township, PA 17866.

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