There aren’t many things that are universal in American prisons. Every facility has their own way of doing things. Operations and inmate interactions depend on things like the facility’s security level and the housing set-up. Unfortunately, the one thing that you will find in every prison is violence. But inmates don’t usually fight with each other just for fun. There is a reason behind the violence – and it can be anything from settling a dispute to climbing the prison political ladder. However a prison fight is part of the culture.
There is a social hierarchy in prisons. Fights can break out between inmates in different social groups over any perceived slight or wrongdoing. Things can get violent over something as small as sitting in the wrong chair in the TV room. Ironically, violence is also a way of keeping the peace among the different groups.
One volunteer on the A&E show 60 Days In noticed that when they were behind bars, violence was necessary. “It’s instilling fear. It’s something along the lines of a political party, and violence is almost like the campaign platform they run upon. It keeps everything in check if anyone steps out of line.”
What if you lose a prison fight?
In prison, a prison fight can earn you respect. This can happen no matter if you win or lose, but you have to follow the prison’s fighting rules. There are two different types of rules in prison – the facility’s rule book and the inmate code. A lot depends on the different races, gangs, and skin colors.
Inmate justice can be “swift and brutal,” explains one former inmate at USP Beaumont.
“I’m from Texas and when I got to USP Beaumont, the shot-caller told me I’m on the launching pad,” said prison vet, Kevin Smith. “That means that the first guy that shows up dirty from Texas, I get.”
Smith continues to say that a guy showed up a few days later who was dirty – he had snitched on someone.
“I saw the paperwork and we were drinking. I ran up in his cell while my homeboy held the door and I hit that snitch with three shots to the head and he fell down like a b–ch. I stomped him a couple times for good measure and told him to check in. Then I sat back down in the dayroom like nothing happened and continued drinking.”
If you lose a fight, your fate is determined by how bad you lost. If you tap out too early, you will be considered weak.
“Once you get your fight on, after a guy drops or he’s bloody, he doesn’t get stomped out,” said Smith. “They pretty much pick him up and ask the guy that just got dropped if he wants to continue and he generally does, giving up too quickly means you lose face. But if he gets dropped again then it’s over.”
How often do fights break out in prisons?
The answer to this question depends on the facility. I was in a women’s facility in rural Missouri, so violence was actually quite rare. Occasionally, you would see a couple of women start slapping each other. Maybe one would even try to land a punch. But, during my four years, I only saw with my own eyes a handful of fights that I could count on one hand.
If fights did go down, it was usually in a more “private” area like the bathroom or inside an inmate’s room. Rarely did a prison fight break out in a common area with cameras or where the guards could see what was going down.
Some male prisons are so violent that the fights start the moment you set foot on camp. In the Texas prison system, the rule for when you first walk in is “fight, f*ck, or bust a 60.” The first two are pretty obvious, and the third is slang for paying someone for protection.
Fighting when you first arrive in a facility is referred to as a “heart check.” The other inmates want to know you are willing to fight because you are literally at war in some facilities.
“When you’re in a constant state of war, you want to make sure your fighters will fight,” says Smith.
If you have an issue with a specific inmate, there is usually no talking or arguing in the men’s prisons. Most inmates will tell you to “lace up or catch a square.” This means that you put your boots and gloves on, and head to the bathroom for a fight.
It doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong. In a prison fight, the only thing that matters is who wins.
What to do if someone tries to pick a prison fight
In prison, when someone picks a fight, the only response is to fight back. If you don’t, you will be a punk, and that is not the reputation you want. If you aren’t willing to defend yourself, you will be taken advantage of during your entire time behind bars.
Most of the time, the injuries are minor. And, if the prison guards see the fight, they will take both inmates to the hole. It doesn’t matter who started it or if you fought back. If you touch another inmate, you are going to the hole. So, you might as well make it worth your while.
How to protect yourself in a prison fight?
Stay calm: Try to maintain your composure and stay focused on the situation. Panicking can cloud your judgment and make it difficult to react effectively.
Keep your distance in a prison fight
If possible, maintain distance between yourself and your attacker. This can give you more time to assess the situation and react to any incoming attacks.
Adopt a defensive stance
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and one foot slightly in front of the other. Keep your hands up in front of your face to protect your head and chin.
Protect your vital areas
Be mindful of your head, neck, and torso, as these are the most vulnerable parts of your body. Try to keep them protected as much as possible.
Use your environment
Look for objects or barriers you can use to shield yourself or create distance between you and your attacker.
Look for an escape route
Always try to find a way to escape the situation. The goal is not to win the fight, but to get away from the danger.
Defend yourself the attacker
If you can’t avoid the fight and must defend yourself, try to use your body’s natural weapons (e.g., fists, elbows, knees, and feet) to target your attacker’s vulnerable areas (e.g., eyes, nose, throat, and groin).
Don’t be afraid to yell
Making noise can help draw attention to the situation and potentially scare off your attacker. Yelling can also help you maintain control of your breathing and stay focused.
Get help from the prison authorities
As soon as you can, contact the police or someone you trust to report the incident and seek assistance.