What Prison Is Really Like, According To Former Inmates And Guards

List Rules

Vote up the insights that give you a better understanding of prison life.

Prison fascinates us and fills us with fear, so it's no wonder it's been the subject of countless television series and films. But do any of those properties actually get close to what it's really like in prison?

Users on Reddit have shared their stories of life on the inside, whether as inmates or guards, and we've included a selection of these below. These aren't the stories of the wildest things they experienced behind bars, just what day-to-day life was like for them. Vote up the anecdotes that open your eyes to the reality of incarceration.


  • 1
    1,610 VOTES

    There Is A Lot Of Singing

    From Redditor FinesserJuugsly:

    …there is a lot of singing, almost like you're in a musical most days. It's crazy how expressive people get when they are locked down (max security had some real talent).

  • 2
    1,325 VOTES

    Less Fighting Than They Expected

    From Redditor silencebreaker86:

    I had a buddy who was in for about 3 years for marriage fraud. He said there is a lot less fighting than he thought.

    Turns out people just want to do their time and leave, fighting adds time to your sentence so they generally avoid it. He was in low security though, initially, moved to medium after a fight (ironic), so maybe it's worse in prisons with more lifers.

    From Redditor Olivaras:

    My coworker used to be a prison guard, in a high security prison with many life sentence inmates. He said that those were the quietest and most polite.

    You don't get much entertainment in prison, losing whatever little bit you've got (a phone call once a week or a visit once a month) over some stupid and meaningless fight is not what they want. Besides, being nice and polite got them some perks, like they could work while there, in the kitchen, the laundry room, or even a workshop. In this particular one they made wooden bird houses.

    Get in a fight and you lose it, back to the cell for God knows how long.

    From Redditor xJill_Valentine

    …I work in a maximum security prison, most of the lifers have accepted and realized this is their life now and they’re going to make the most of it. They don’t draw attention to themselves, they don’t want to make a long bid harder on themselves, they’ve accepted that that’s their home now. As you said, the only… [ones] that cause us and other offenders grief are the youngsters newly incarcerated that haven’t figured out prison politics or how to do their time…

  • 3
    1,426 VOTES

    Dangerous People Become Normalized

    From Redditor vRaptr2:

    Horrible, terrible people become normalized when you spend years with them. I’ve caught myself many times thinking “he’s a pretty good guy” about inmates only to later find out what they did. One of the “good guys” was in for stabbing his 3-year-old daughter to death… Divorce going bad, nobody gets the child sort of thing.

    The worst part for me is even after knowing what they did, still treating them too kindly. Basic things like genuinely asking how they’re doing, being polite and respectful. Then the thought of their victim pops up in my head and I picture myself there, as the crime is happening, and snapping back to how I’m currently interacting with them like nothing is wrong. As though what the victim went through doesn’t matter to anyone anymore. Almost like I’m betraying them. It does not feel great.

    From Redditor f4ction:

    Yes, I found the worst part was treating people like actual human beings after finding out what they were in for. I actively avoided hearing it (to the point of telling the people I was on shift with that I didn't want to hear or I'd go for a patrol while they talked sh*t)…

    From Redditor RestillHabb:

    I teach in prisons and have experienced this. It was extremely stupid of me to look up one of my previous students on the public database. Child molester. I'm glad I won't have them in my class again because I don't want to fight these feelings of treating them with kindness, as I would normally, with knowing that they took advantage of a child.

  • 4
    883 VOTES

    It Smells

    From Redditor ScarletlaMort:

    My job requires me to visit two area prisons occasionally. I think it's interesting that you mentioned the smell - I can't stand it. You are right in that it's not a bathroom or sweat smell. I don't get dog poop, but I am constantly rubbing my nose and trying to breathe through my mouth when I'm in there. The smell is smothering.

    From Redditor drbye:

    I have had to work in a prison on a couple occasions. It depended on the cell block, but some of them smelled so bad, just… bad. It's just a tiny bit of poop, stale sweat, gym sock, B.O. and whatnot, mixed into one lovely aroma.

    From Redditor tonkatoydog:

    Unflushed piss is awful, way worse than sh*t or puke. You get a handful of new inmates going through withdrawals on the same range and I guarantee you it’s the smell of unflushed piss punching you in the nose.

    From Redditor ItsMyWeirderAccount:

    The toilets flush LOUD. Everyone's bored, tired, irritable, and half the new guys are on meth or other withdrawals, lots of sleeping. You take a sh*t, you better flush it. You take a piss, you better not wake anyone up at the wrong hour. The BO and dog sh*t smell far outweigh the piss smell, IME. They would only turn the showers on for a short time when most people were sleeping (the only period of the day you're not woken up constantly). 

    Soap bars were not available during one of my stays. Some incident IDK. Probably just didn't order any. So the only hair/skin product available was small individual packets of liquid soap. About 1 every 2 days. You'd get in trouble both for asking for soap and a shower and for not showering. For further reference there's a Vice story “This Is Who Sells Those Crappy Shampoo Packets AOC Found in Migrant Detention.” A tweet from AOC contains "It says “shampoo,” but she told me that this is all they give women to wash their entire body. Nothing else." And I laughed as she described this human rights abuse, because in the picture that is most definitely a bigger packet of shampoo than the stuff I got.