Life In A Jail Cell: How To Greet Cellmates

Life in a Jail Cell

Walking into a prison housing unit for the first time is one of the most unsettling aspects of prison as new inmates are not only facing life in a prison cell but meeting a new cellmate, as most federal prisons include at least two prisoners per cell.

All the Receiving & Discharge (R&D) guards typically advise new prisoners about the housing unit they are assigned to and tell them to report to the unit officer for their bunk assignment. This often entails walking blindly down a pathway and asking around until the new arrival figures out where their housing unit is. If you can’t find your unit officer, try to find someone who looks like you and ask them for help. They should be able to send you in the right direction for where the guard is. If the guard isn’t there, they can provide some direction as you wait. These initial connections, especially if favorable, can greatly assist you as you get acclimated to prison society and structure.

Once inside, and after locating the unit officer, the prisoner will be pointed to the right cell. At this point, everyone is watching, trying to figure out who the new prisoner is and where they’re going to fit in.

If you have trouble locating your cell, it’s generally a good idea to speak with a prison guard and ask them for directions rather than a fellow prisoner. This will help alleviate any issues with someone trying to trick you. While an odd concern, this is something to keep in mind.

How to Greet Cellmates

Once the cell is located and the new arrival makes their way to it, they are advised to knock and greet their new cellmate(s). This is a very nerve-wracking experience but is typical and somewhat usual. The key here for the new arrival is to firmly introduce themselves and respectfully follow the suggestions and directions of the more-experienced cellmate(s). Being polite and courteous can go a long way, though this in no way should be an invitation to be walked over.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 7.09.54 PM

The typical greeting goes something like this: You will knock on the cell door, see someone pick up their head, and then enter. After greeting them, for example, “My name’s Chris. They told me to bunk in here,” ask what bunk is yours. The existing occupants will probably need an hour or two to clear off the bunk, and another hour or two to clear out the extra locker. From that point the existing occupants should be willing to help you get what you need (e.g., a mattress, coffee cup, coffee, and perhaps some food).

Before closing, it should be noted that some prisons are very segregated, especially at the medium- and high-security levels. If found in this situation, and it is clear you are not welcome in a particular cell, it’s politically appropriate to suggest someplace else would be better. This can be done by saying something along the lines of, “Is it going to be a problem me living in here?” If so, the prisoners already in the cell should help you find another cell or, more likely, locate the head prisoner for your race in the housing unit who then will resolve the issue.

If they aren’t willing to help, or if things look like they’re going downhill fast, it is acceptable to locate someone who looks like you and ask them who you should talk to or what you should do. They will probably refer you to the shot caller (the prisoner who effectively acts as the de facto leader for your race) in the unit.

It’s typical for existing cellmates to not want another person living in their cell, but it isn’t the end of the world either. In prisons where three people are stuck in a three-man cell, it’s common practice for the new arrival to find a less crowded cell within a week or so, but this isn’t a big issue. Receiving a new cellmate off of the bus is an aspect of prison life. No one really wants it, but everyone puts up with it.

Generally speaking, while an anxiety-provoking experience, greeting cellmates should not be a particularly troubling one. With some mutual courtesy and respect many problems can be avoided. However, if you’re told to leave the cell immediately, locate your race’s shot caller and ask for direction. He should be able to locate a suitable cell for you to move into.

If you can’t locate a shot caller then go and find someone who looks like you and ask for help. If push comes to shove, you can always refuse to lock into the cell at night or at count time. In this event you will be sent to the Special Housing Unit, but in all likelihood you will probably be assigned to a new cell once released in a week or so.

Note you’ll also receive an incident report for this action, but an incident report is better than a serious political problem with fellow prisoners.

If your cell is just not working out and you want to move but it’s not urgent, try to locate a suitable cell, confirm with the existing occupants that they are ok with you moving in, and then approach your correctional counselor about the move. She or he might want a signed cop-out form from the existing occupants or might just be willing to move you based on the verbal request. Sometimes counselors will make you wait a few days until authorizing a move. If the move is to the most preferable housing (e.g., a two-man cell), then she or he might refuse, citing a seniority rationale.

If you’re in prison for a sex offense or because you testified against others, keep this information close. If you are housed at a camp or a low-security prison, then this isn’t the biggest problem, but still don’t advertise it. It is better to try to deflect such questions than to lie since this information can sometimes be verified via the TRULINCS Electronic Law Library or online. The key here is to try to be honest (but not forthcoming), but to also not try to be something that you’re not.

If you are in for a sex offense, try to find regular guys to associate with, not what would be deemed creeps or haters. The middle path is often the best path in prison.

If you’re housed at a medium- or high-security federal prison and are confronted by a group of angry or intimidating prisoners, try to smooth over any issues if possible. If not, this will become a judgment call. If they are trying to “run you up top” (make you go to the hole for protective custody due to being a sex offender or an informant), you’ll need to decide if fighting is the right course of action or if going peacefully is better.

If, on the other hand, this is just typical gang or car nonsense, then making a stand might be a better answer. Sometimes prisoners want to test the mettle of new arrivals that are of their own race. In cases like these a bit of resistance can show them that you are a stand-up guy and there is no need for confrontation, but acceptance.

If you’re looking for more information or tips on greeting new cellmates, Contact us.