Former Inmates Are Holding Nothing Back About What It's Really Like In Jail

For those who have never been incarcerated, it's hard to know what going to jail or prison is REALLY like. Sure, we've all seen movies set behind bars, but are they accurate? Or just Hollywood's version of things?

Person in handcuffs with hands clasped in front
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As it turns out, Quora has a large community of men and women who have experienced it firsthand, and post about it in spaces like Prison Talk. Below are some of their most illuminating submissions which tell the true story about what it's like to do time:

1."I served 18 years straight. I'd say somewhere around the seven or eight-year mark, my view of the situation changed. It was no longer prison; it was just my life. Nothing ever changed. Every day was the same. You get into a never-changing routine, and before you know it, five years go by. Then 10, then 15. The real world becomes a fantasy. Something you see on TV, or pictures in a magazine, but it's no longer real. One day, you look in the mirror, and your hair is receding, and it's turning gray. In your mind, you're socially stunted and in a lot of ways childlike, but you're old. I went in at 18 and came out a 37-year-old man who didn't know how to do anything. I'd never used a cellphone or computer. I'd never driven a car or filed my taxes. The world was too big, too loud, too fast."

"My second day out my sister took me to Walmart, and I had a panic attack and had to go outside and sit in the car by myself. I could make a tattoo gun out of an electric razor, boil water with an extension cord, and sit for months on end by myself in a room with a sink, concrete bunk, and metal toilet without breaking a sweat. But I couldn't hold a job, operate any electronics without help, or go to Walmart without freaking out. I didn't know how to cook, or how to pay a bill. I sat home by myself for months, afraid to go anywhere or talk to people. A big part of me wanted to be back in prison where things made sense, where I thrived.

I've been out for over five years now, and while I've learned to do a lot of things, it's still not easy. I dream a lot of being in prison. Where it's easy. No responsibility. And believe it or not, less stress and anxiety. I've been in institutions my whole life, since I was a little kid. Foster homes, group homes, treatment centers, juvenile detentions. It's what I know. It's where I'm comfortable. I don't know if that will ever change."

Ant, Quora

2."I spent eight months in county jail prior to going to prison, and I thought I knew what to expect, but the first day in prison was one of the worst days of my life. The trip was excruciating. Fully shackled for more than nine hours and chained to another woman. We were black-boxed, which caused the handcuffs to painfully dig into our wrists. No toilet breaks, and after a few hours, you feel like your bladder is going to explode and you cannot do anything but hope not to pee yourself, which would make the situation even more miserable. After nine hours sitting on hard seats, everything hurts: your back and neck muscles, shackles burning your wrists and ankles. A couple of girls got carsick and threw up all over themselves. Someone else peed on herself. It was pure hell. Once we finally arrived, we were processed and treated like a bunch of cattle. It was intimidating, scary, and overwhelming."

Susan Smith, Quora

3."Without exception, the food is terrible. Mush that has been boiled all day and slopped without a care onto a tray. If you get lucky and it's cake night, it is guaranteed that some of the hot course mush will have dribbled into your cake...which isn't even really cake but just bread that's cut into pieces instead of slices. They claim we'd get 1,800 calories a day, but I'll be damned if that math is right. If you don't have money for commissary (or the lockdown prevents you from making store), you are hungry. Bottom line."

"The kitchen in prison (I've only ever seen one, so maybe others are different) consisted of giant metal vats that stayed stirring themselves all day. The cooks would open bag after bag of whatever and dump it into those vats to be boiled. Once in a blue moon you would get some chicken or something that had to be actually COOKED...and that was the worst because you never knew if it was going to make you sick or not. Some nights you could hear the retching echoing throughout the building, and you'd be PRAYING that your piece was sound...pretty disgusting."

Jack Phillips, Quora

A jail lunch tray with a sandwich, apple, cookies, and packaged condiments
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4."It’s always noisy, 24/7."

"Your body cavities will be searched.

The other inmates will try to steal everything you have.

Guards may treat you in a gross manner: 'The best part of you ran down your mother’s leg.'

Communication with loved ones is greatly reduced.

No matter what is cooked, the food tastes the same every day.

Your habits — sugar, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine — go unsatisfied.

You won’t be able to choose your favorite TV show.

You will walk through the prison unit in a single file, looking straight ahead.

You will hear metal gates/doors slamming and clanking inside the building.

If you work in the field, you will be on your feet in the sun all day long. The guards watching you will be nearby and irritated by the heat, but sitting on their horses.

Many units have no AC.

The commode has no seat; you will sit on metal and share the cell with another.

Many units have 'tanks' where the men live together; some overcrowded units have their inmates living in tents — in Texas, this can be life-threatening.

Some inmates are armed with 'shanks,' homemade knives.

You will never have enough money to buy the little goodies you desire at the commissary."

Ted Olsen, Quora

5."There are times you can busy yourself with the chores of the day and kind of forget or put things off, but for the most part, for me, it was brutal and devastating. I watched my late teens, 20s, and 30s vanish as I struggled to survive inside. I have seen more violence than the vast majority of the planet, and it was my day-to-day life. The stress can be overwhelming at times, and other times, it is just plain excruciatingly boring. I hope no one has to experience what I went through for over 25 years. It wiped me out, defeated me time and again, crushed my spirit and the will to live over and over again, and I still am not certain how I made it."

Joey V., Quora

6."This might seem strange, but pay attention — do not point. No pointing with your fingers. Don't point at the sky, the ground, the guy getting killed over yonder, the inmate escaping over the kill fence...don't point ever. The reason is simple: That probably innocent gesture of yours can and will be taken so out of context by everyone inside the walls; all of them will be certain you are pointing at, thus talking about and discussing, that inmate. And you will swiftly get your comeuppance, if you will, for that terrible misdeed."

Allen Peck, Quora

Inmates playing basketball in a prison yard with others watching
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

7."You can't sleep. Lack of heat or air makes it so uncomfortable in both winter and summer. You can't have peace due to constant noise and lights. You can't think straight because of loud, disrespectful idiots. You can't get access to halfway decent meals, so you can't maintain a healthy weight. You can't manage your emotions, so you shut them off and essentially die while you're there, so you don't have to feel the loss of humanity while you're there."

Ashley Shaw, Quora

8."Believe it or not, many inmates are just like you and don’t want to fight. During my last incarceration, I made it without fighting once. Granted, it was only a year, but I still made it without fighting. Let me be clear, though. Not fighting is not the same as being willing to fight. I was well aware that if called out, I must fight. If I didn’t, then I would be considered weak and ostracized by almost everyone."

J.R. Johnson, Quora

9."It's very hard to do time in prison — ESPECIALLY if you are a first-timer. You have to worry about guards and your fellow inmates, learn the routine (and the penalties if you don't), and deal with the fact that the 'you' is gone. Staff doesn't consider you human, and inmates always have a game going. The strong prey on the weak and ignorant. Then there is just the time itself. How long are you in for? Three? Five? 10? 20? It's hard, but sit back and really THINK about that amount of time. The entire world, in general, can turn upside down in just a few years — I've known people who've never seen a (legal) cellphone. Your kids grow up, your spouse might well move on, and people die. Prison sucks, but in some ways, it's like being stuck in time. Inside, nothing major changes from day to day — but the world moves on without you. I don't see how lifers do it, to be honest."

Joaquin LeChen, Quora

Prisoner speaks over phone behind a reflective glass with another individual on the other
South_agency / Getty Images

10."To some people, it's probably pretty hard. Being away from everything you know and love. For me, being out is harder than being in. I have days where I crave the inside. It's easier than living out here as a second-class citizen. I have been out of lock-up for seven years and have yet to find a job that I can perform and make a living off of. I cannot find decent housing for myself, and if it weren't for my Dad and my son, I would be on the streets committing crimes just to eat. So, how hard is it really to do time in prison? That's a cakewalk compared to living in society as a convicted felon. This is how I see it anyway. Not everybody will have the same opinion."

Rhonda Heyman, Quora

11."Some prison no-nos, in no particular order:"

"Don't borrow anything you can't pay back on your next trip to the store/commissary.

Related to the above, don't create debt you can't pay. If you don't pay in money, you'll pay in blood — or worse.

Still related, don't gamble unless you can pay.

Don't cheat at cards, someone is gonna notice, and you'll be sorry.

Don't disrespect other inmates, especially don't emasculate another inmate if you're a guy.

Don't be dirty. Wash your hands, brush your teeth, shower, and keep your cell clean.

Related to the above, when you brush your teeth, don't spit in the sink, spit in the toilet.

Don't steal from another inmate ever.

Better yet, don't even touch something that isn't yours.

You can sit on someone's bunk if invited — but don't sit on their pillow.

Don't snitch. In fact, keep your interactions with the correctional officers and prison staff within earshot of other inmates whenever possible.

Mind your own business. Don't see anything and don't know anything.

Don't forget to keep your back to a wall, or watch it if you can't.

Don't brag about your case or your appeal or your imminent release.

Don't pry into other's business or cases. Listen, but limit asking unless they seek your input.

Don't talk about anyone else's business or cases to anyone else.

Don't hit a CO. They'll hit you back, all 12+ of them, repeatedly. And you'll likely 'fall' a few times on your way to the hole.

Don't back-to-back your phone calls. Hit your limit? Get to the back of the queue.

Don't back down from a fight, or accept disrespect — you'll be the resident punching bag from that day forward."

Gene Livingston, Quora

12."A lot of it has to do with the individual. The one who goes to prison and accepts that they are in prison will do better. They get into a prison routine. They stay busy and focused on things that have to do with their life in prison. This helps the time go by faster. Those who go to prison and are constantly thinking about the free world, who constantly complain about prison rules, etc., will make their time harder. Just about every prisoner talks about how bad the food is or stupid prison rules, but most do not do it all the time. The quicker you accept the fact of where you are at, the better it will be."

Vernie Seidel, Quora

Person sitting outdoors, shielding eyes from sunlight, in a contemplative pose
Tatiana Maksimova / Getty Images

13."It is absolutely the most extreme of both ends of the spectrum. It is the easiest, least stressful, least demanding, lowest achievement level, nothing to do, mindless waste of time ever. However, at the very same time, it is the most stressful, dangerous, demanding, difficult, hard, complicated, and skill-demanding thing you may ever do."

"How can it be both? It’s all easy when things are going well. It’s good when the yard is calm, when things are going as they are routinely done. Nothing changes; every day is the same.

It is the hardest when things go sideways, when there is inmate strife, or you cross an uncrossable line. Nowhere is safe, calm, or convenient. You might need protection just to hit the head. Mealtime can be very dangerous. Ask an inmate from an upper-level joint. It’s all good right up to when it’s not. Then it is ugly, scary, and chaotic.

Prison is not a fun place to be. It’s a boring, unstructured place to waste half a lifetime, or it’s a dangerous hellhole where you are just trying to survive the next few minutes."

Terry Arth, Quora