Prison and Plotting

Prison changes a man.

1 Building C Side Courtesy of the Folsom Prison Museum

1 Building C Side
Courtesy of the Folsom Prison Museum

I actually heard a hardened prison gang member say that once. The man was feared in gang circles and ran one of the biggest gang, weapons and drug rackets in Folsom Prison in the 1980’s. New inmates, “fish” as they were called, had to check in with his underlings and pay for the gang’s protection, if they wanted to remain “on the mainline.” If you crossed the gang, this man would be the one to order a “hit” and take you out. Brutal times and brutal men.

courtesy of

courtesy of

So, imagine when this monster of a human being wants to drop out of the gang life because he’s fallen in love with his cell-mate. The macho gang image does not include a fondness for other men in the recruitment brochure. His declaration of love took the gang’s leadership flatfooted. Anyone else would have been met with a shank in the neck. An ultimatum from the gang leadership to the wayward lover was issued instructing him to kill his cell-mate to get back in the good graces of the gang.

The gang banger couldn’t do it and “locked-up,” requesting protective custody. A twisted Romeo and Juliet tale, perhaps. But, he told me he couldn’t kill his lover, because, “Prison changes a man.”

I’ve written a couple of stories featuring the stark and complex culture of the prison within the plot. There is a false perception among the general public about what actually happens behind prison walls. Popular media gives the impression that each and every inmate is locked behind some sterile glass enclosure like Hannibal Lecter. In reality, thousands of inmates are housed in open dormitories and converted gymnasiums, supervised by a few unarmed Correctional Officers. A hundred to one is not unusual.

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courtesy of

I wrote a scene in a screenplay, in which an inmate in a minimum security facility, pulls the screen out of a window and sneaks away at night to do bad things. The reviewer didn’t believe it would be so easy to walk away from the facility. It’s a prison. But, reality is that minimum security facilities are at nearly every California prison and house lower risk inmates, who can escape from the facility by simply walking away. No fences, no armed guards and minimal levels of staff to watch over these men. So, in my story, I had to craft some elaborate escape plot involving fabricated keys and tunnels, because that was more believable.

courtesy of

courtesy of

Prison offers a rich plotting environment where prisoners weigh the risk and reward of the manipulation of family members to smuggle drugs, money, information and cell phones to their family members on the inside. It happens. Mothers smuggling heroin tucked away in their baby’s diapers. Imagine the desperation driving that act. Now there’s a story.



Imagine being the mother of a prisoner serving time for a sex crime when the Aryan Brotherhood was “cleaning” the yard of sex offenders. She’d gotten a letter from her son fearing that he was the next one to get stabbed because he had an “R-Suffix” on his jacket. She believed her son was forced to wear a distinctive jacket with an R stamped on the back, to identify him as a target for the gang. The jacket her son referred to was slang for his prison record. The R was a custody designation restricting assignments because of his sexual offenses.

Let’s not forget the men and women who work inside.  They are exposed to a toxic environment and it takes a huge toll on their lives, families and those they work with.

So, when you get stuck plotting your story, go to prison. There are limitless stories locked behind the walls.


  1. What a fascinating post, James. I wonder what the experience in a female prison is? Maybe I’ll get the courage up to go check it out some day for some plot ideas. Thanks for planting the seed.

    1. Women’s prisons are really different. I’ve set up a few drug programs in the four women’s prions in the state and it was a real eye opener. The staff in the prison really have to know how to verbally engage with the women. The women I met, at least in the drug programs had a common theme of abuse, a high number out of the foster care system and caught up in the cycle of drugs-sex-crime. Go check one out if you have a chance…

  2. It’s interesting that what is true is not always credible. An interesting way to meld expectations with your experience. I’ve often thought to retire in prison if this writing thing doesn’t work out…

    1. As for the retirement plan, prison does offer free healthcare.

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