What I Learnt From Living Undercover In The US Prison System

The secret, dangerous world of prisons has always intrigued me, especially in the US. So at the risk of my own death, I went in for myself.
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What is it like to go to jail in the USA? Is it really a case of fight or fuck? Life behind bars is always presented as a combination of clichés in films and television shows, clichés that clearly have lasting appeal. Homosexuality is rife. Rape is brutal and indiscriminate. Drug use is prevalent. The guards corrupt. The system indifferent. All this is taken as gospel.

No wonder going to jail comes high on the fear index. So why volunteer to explore this American inferno as an undercover detainee? Just like schools and hospitals, jails are standardized for everybody. You break the law, get nicked and maybe do some time. Jails have existed for hundreds of years. Detention, removing an individual from society and cutting them off from natural freedom, is a common penalty. But it’s a secret, dangerous world and that’s what intrigued me. Journalists and investigators hardly ever have access to these facilities. And with good reason. These dark places are where the state abuses its own citizens, and the state is sensitive about the general public knowing this.

So, with the consent and connivance of the relevant authority, I went undercover to see what life is really like for the 2.3 million Americans on lockdown in the land of the free. My general purpose was to see how prisoners are kept and experience the conditions in which they live. This was not done as an outsider but as an insider, an inmate, a felon, a misdemeanant, a resident and a prisoner. Louis Theroux eat your heart out.

First and foremost, going undercover in jail (or any high risk scenario) is not done on a James Bond ego trip. Undercover work is perilous. You need to be balanced, resourceful, manipulative, assertive. You have to plan and double plan, think and doublethink. The cover story must be simple (and plausible) because you are gambling with your own mortality and exposing yourself to dangers that ordinary people do not encounter in everyday life. Jail is a continuing series of close calls in which violence is narrowly avoided. You have to accept that you are just a pawn in life. And stick to the cover story because you might end up dead if you don’t.

Why the USA? Because nowhere else would have me and because it will be the same in the UK soon, that’s why. Despite an overcrowded $80 billion dollar bureaucracy that confuses inhumanity with punishment, the USA still believes that it can show the world when it comes to cons and crime. And UK politicians increasingly talk of moving towards the American model – making it only a matter of time before British lags are given orange jumpsuits and housed in smoke free “super-jails.” Incarceration is big business these days. It makes handsome profits for the corporations that own jails.


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Working undercover I witnessed, and experienced, much of life as a lesser species in the American prison industrial complex. Recidivists with mental health problems, not best served by jail, driven mad by the living death of solitary confinement. Zebra striped members of the chain gang burying dead babies and anonymous crack whores in the Arizona desert. Lifers making beer tap handles in Kansas; county jails in Nebraska serving as debtors’ prisons in all but name; senile cons and race baiting in North Dakota. Physical violence. Indifferent guards. Brutalized inmates. The lingering air of inhuman punishment. The list of sorrows and human tragedies goes on and on.

Why are so many Americans behind bars? Experts point to a number of factors. Harsher mandatory sentences, the decades-long war on drugs, high violent crime rates, a politicized criminal justice system, and lack of a social safety net. Recidivism rates also have a significant impact on incarceration numbers. Over 50% of prisoners in the USA will be back in jail within three years of their release.

What did I learn, coming and going, in and out of these vile jails? It’s written on the walls. The current system of crime and punishment does not work. It has evolved little from its Victorian origins and is trapped in a dysfunctional cycle of incarceration, conviction and overcrowding. The curious thing is that no one counts the cost.

The experience is numbing. Out of custody, back in society, I soon discovered that people really don’t care about the subject matter. They do not know, nor wish to hear about, overcrowded facilities, crazy statistics, the school to prison pipeline, the criminalization of a generation; privatized prisons, the role of big business exploiting the vast underclass of prisoners, the disproportionate numbers of ethnic minorities in custody, women giving birth in leg irons, the rapidly ageing prison population or the sad convict eyes that haunt you to death. People don’t care about scum doing time behind bars. They like to see prisoners getting punished. And make crass jokes about rape. We joke about it because it scares us shitless.

Read more like this at Alexander's blog Male Trailing Spouse

Buy the book Convict Land: Undercover in America's Jails here.